Whatever | September 2009

Whatever | Festivals and work/life balance
Why blanket media coverage of Glastonbury has puréed its spirit

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Thanks to extensive coverage in all BBC-hating national newspapers – ie. all national newspapers – we know that the Corporation dispatched “almost as many” reporters, presenters, producers, technicians and support staff to cover this year’s Glastonbury festival as it did last summer’s Beijing Olympics: about 400. Sky News described it as a “sun-soaked event” (counter to the newspapers’ preferred caricature of a “mud bath”), as if to underline the mealy-mouthed assertion that this was a massive “junket”; Matthew Elliott of the purple-faced TaxPayers’ Alliance announced, “All 407 staff can’t be there doing proper work.” Well, sorry, but I think providing three days of output across three channels and red-button interactive services as the festival’s worldwide broadcast partner probably counts as proper work, even when it’s sunny and Dizzee Rascal’s doing Bonkers. And I bet the toilets and mobile reception were better in Beijing.

The question mark hangs not over whether 400-plus BBC employees were working, but whether what they were working on is any longer worth the almighty faff. I find myself in a relatively decent position to judge: a moderate veteran after half a dozen working Glastonburys between 1989 and 1995, I had retired from the annual pilgrimage with no inclination to return. Then, after a rash, sherry-influenced decision at Christmas, I agreed to return, older and wiser and ready to be dismayed by how, hey, corporate and sanitised it had become. I camped for five days without the aid of a backstage wristband or freebie ticket. And guess what? It was just as vast, unfettered and bamboozling as before, the cumulative effect quite unlike either the family holiday or wartime conscription of modern shorthand. Having happily kept up in the intervening 14 years by watching Glastonbury on telly, I was struck by the vast sensory chasm which – more than ever – exists between the event itself and the way it comes across on BBC4, or Sky News, or in a pullout souvenir in the Observer. More Glastonbury coverage does not mean better Glastonbury coverage.

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The armchair music festival season now begins in early June with the Isle Of Wight – broadcast partner ITV2; hosts Fearne Cotton, Rufus Hound; Absolute Radio “set up camp [no they don’t] … to bring listeners around the UK exclusive live performances, interviews and backstage news and gossip.” Come September, the home festivalgoer will have “experienced” T In The Park (BBC3, Edith Bowman; Radio 1; Radio Scotland), Reading/Leeds (BBC3, Edith Bowman, Zane Lowe; Radio 1), V Festival (4Music; Absolute), Bestival (C4; 4Music; Radio 1), Latitude (Radio 2, Stuart Maconie, Dermot O’Leary, Claudia Winkleman, Janice Long; Radio 4; 6 Music), Cambridge Folk Festival (Radio 2) and T4 On The Beach (C4, Steve Jones, Miquita Oliver). Although “Glasto” – as even Andrew Marr now calls it – continues to occupy a regal place on the calendar, it too gets puréed into indeterminate, flag-and-kagoule mush by all this relentlessly upbeat, uncritical, blanket reportage of anything that steps onto a stage, or into a puddle. Festival season is to a certain type of thirtysomething, jeans-wearing, Ting Tings-loving presenter, what pantomime season is to dwarfs. For the rest of us, it’s a surefire way of growing bored of live music. I texted civilisation during Neil Young’s set on the Pyramid Stage and ascertained that he was “boring” on TV; in situ, on a warm evening in Avon, he was mesmerising.

The sad fact is, Glastonbury and the other major pasture-based gigs are now part of the arts furniture, slotted in between Glyndebourne, Hay, Edinburgh, Cannes, the Proms, even the non-horsey bits of Ascot: all subject to their own set of visual and written clichés. A glance through the Telegraph’s online “picture gallery” from Glastonbury is dominated by fragrant young ladies and apple-faced kids in the mud, despite the fact that it only rained once and the ground was bone dry by Saturday. I particularly liked, “Two girls walk through the site with blow-up airbeds.” Pictorially, Glastonbury is the new A-Level results for newspapers like the Telegraph with no real interest in the music or the vibe.

ACGlasto89In 1992, the NME made music press history by turning its Glastonbury coverage round by – gasp! – the Wednesday after the festival, rather than waiting a full week to call in all the copy. Why hurry? Nobody expected to read about it the moment they got home in those pre-enlightenment days. Nowadays, Q magazine comes out daily, onsite. And yet, if it didn’t, the festival would go on. When Michael Jackson died, reporters were desperate to tell the world that a grief-stricken hush had fallen across Worthy Farm. It hadn’t. We were a bit surprised, and then got on with eating a burrito and joining the queue for the Orange phone-recharging chillout tent.

In short, I shall treat all coverage of Ascot with extreme suspicion from now on.

Published in Word magazine, September 2009

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It’s not the end of the world

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First: it looks like I’m getting two weeks off! So, this week’s Telly Addict, although not a review of the year, acts as an end-of-the-year, end-of-the-world edition. Under review are BBC Sports Personality of the Year, BBC1; the finale of Season Three of Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic (no spoilers); The British Comedy Awards, C4; Richard E Grant’s Hotel Secrets, Sky Atlantic; Inside Claridge’s, BBC2; and Little Crackers, Sky1.

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Secondly, I was also asked to promote The Great British Bake Off as my favourite TV show of 2012 (incorrectly billed as “the best TV programme of 2012″ in their more provocative headline). You can watch my little three-minute film here. Props to the Guardian website people for, once again, flagging this up on the main page. It’s reassuring to see that the commenters below the line have been instantaneous with their comfort and joy.

I watched this once. The presenters heads are completely up their own arses and it’s about the most tedious, poncy, self opinionated, piece of shit I have ever had the misfortune to view. Baking should be fun, with these arseholes it becomes a ritualised chore. More utter bilge from the increasingly bilge-producing BBC.

 

The middle-class fetishisation of food at a time of austerity – just what a PSB provider should be doing! What next … four celebrities in a big house with all the heating and electricity on talking about how warm and cosy they are?

 

FFS. We used to have telly like Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, Malcom Muggeridge, Face to Face, Not Only …But Also... Now we have endless cookery crap and people taking DNA tests live on air. Seriously- God help this country. It ain’t the Royals fault, either.

 

Corn syrup for undernourished brains.

 

Utter trash. Pointless competitions make for cheap nasty television. The smug presenters and contestants are horrible.

No names, obviously, as that would be playing into their evil hands. (I like the concept of “self opinionated” though.) So it’s “Goodwill to all men!” to those miserable fuckers, and “Merry Christmas!” to the rest of you. Thanks for viewing this year – in increasing numbers, so I’m told, since we moved to Tuesday mornings. Here’s to another year of me sitting at a slight angle and trying not to wear the same shirt two weeks’ running.

Double history

On Thursday 30 October, 2008, just five prehistoric days before America elected its first black president, BBC’s Question Time came live from Washington DC, something of a coup and a justifiable use of the licence fee. “Welcome to our normal viewers,” snuffled David Dimbleby from behind his standard-issue Corporation poppy. “But also to people around the world, who are going to be watching this on BBC World News – great to have you with us.”

A great advert for the Beeb. The panel was impressive: Elizabeth Edwards, Obama adviser and wife of Senator John Edwards; Christopher Nixon Cox, John McCain exec and grandson of Richard Nixon; Simon Schama, fidgety expat historian; Pulitzer-winning Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune for civil-rights ballast; and leopardskin-jacketed Republican strategist Cheri Jakobus (“it’s a lovely name,” cooed Dimbleby). A lively discourse ensued for the next hour. Unfortunately, on this particular night in history, Question Time was in the wrong place at the wrong time and heatedly debating the wrong two men.

The two men who made Question Time look woefully off the scent that Thursday night, four years ago, were not a great advert for the BBC. Dimbleby’s “normal viewers” were less interested in the US Presidential race on 30 October than they were in “Sachsgate”, a little local difficulty involving Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross that had reached the point of national seizure on that very day.

Four years on, and the BBC is going through another, worse crisis, also zealously fanned by a right-wing, axe-grinding press but one whose story extends well beyond the walls of Television Centre (or, in the case of Sachsgate, Broadcasting House). Meanwhile, America decides once again. In November 2008, the electorate made history when Barack Obama took battleground states Pennsylvania and Ohio, rewarding those of us who’d stayed up for the Portillo Moment; in that moment, the “retard cowboy fella”, as Sachsgate co-architect Brand had labelled George W. Bush in September as Hollywood-hungry host of the MTV Video Music Awards, was all but forgotten. Never mind that Bush would still be in office for 70 more days; his epoch was so over. Oliver Stone rush-released biopic W., in which Bush is seen in a dream sequence waiting to catch a ball in an empty stadium. Meanwhile, a quarter of a million Obama supporters filled Grant Park in Chicago to roar their approval.

Despite sweaty pre-election Democrat palms about the Bradley Effect (after the black candidate for California governor in 1982 who was ahead in the polls but denied in the booths), Americans who claimed they would vote for a black man did just that. A change came not just to America: Jesse Jackson, another previously unsuccessful black Democratic candidate, cried tears that were mopped all around the world.

This time round, with Obama fighting for his political life in the face of malleable private-equity action figure Mitt Romney – and the real face of post-Tea Party Republicanism Paul Ryan – the US Presidential race is said to be neck-and-neck, with the usual “swing states” holding all the cards – Ohio, again, Florida, again etc. In 2008, I stayed up for Ohio, as I was at the CNN Election Night Party in Central London, surrounded by other politicos, and one or two select celebrities. (You may read my account of that night here.) Weirdly, the party ended at 3am, before the election had been called, which I felt was a massive swiz. I watched them call it from a friend’s sofa, on my own. I shan’t be staying up into the early hours this time, as, uniquely, I am four years older, and I need my sleep. History, or not, will be made without me.

Being the first black American President to be re-elected for a second term does not have the same epic ring of history to it. But that’s surely what the sensible are hoping for? In four years, he’s managed to frighten those on the right with his universal healthcare plan and support for abortion rights and gay marriage, while disappointing those on the left with his failure to do much about anything else, including blowing up Guantanamo Bay. That this policy deadlock is largely down to the intransigence of a Republican House makes no difference to those who demand action. Obama killed bin Laden, personally, of course, a fact that counterintuitively endears him to the head-on-a-spike right, and confuses the left. (I witnessed a fairly heated debate between two comedians on Twitter the other day – Mitch Benn and Andrew O’Neill – about whether or not Obama was a “war criminal”, and whether or not voting for him at all was some kind of betrayal of left-wing values.)

But the real issue of this election, the most expensive and vicious ever, is surely Voter-ID. If you’re not abreast of this issue – and it’s been all over The Daily Show – it’s the way in which an apparently “non-partisan” group, True The Vote (“by citizens, for citizens”) has been pushing for legislature in various states to attach photo ID to one’s right to walk into a polling booth, which not only puts those without a driving licence at an immediate disadvantage (ie. the old, the poor, the unemployed – Democrat voters, maybe?), but also puts the disadvantaged at a further disadvantage, with households containing many occupants (the poor, again? students? immigrants?), targeted as potential voter-fraud cases. Read all about it in this superb, clear New Yorker article from a couple of weeks ago. For me, this is the 2012 Election in essence: dirty tricks by the Republicans.

Commentators – including, well, me, in Word magazine – said that the “real star” of the 2008 Election was David Axelrod. As Obama’s right-hand strategist, not only did he help create the “change” umbrella, he masterminded the first ever internet donor base, mostly under-30s, who contributed small amounts and formed a – gulp! – socialist utopia of engaged young Americans, each with a genuine stake in their chosen leader. Whether this truly recast the way US politics is done remains to be seen, but when, in 2008, Paxman was called upon to gauge the opinion of Dizzee Rascal (“I don’t think he could have done it without hip-hop”), Marshall McLuhan loomed large.

In a rare case of hype being matched by hope, Obama’s victory was regarded as a poultice for all global ills, from the economy to Iraq. He was even credited with boosting Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, which – hypothetically, as it transpired – earmarked Grant Park as a venue for the archery. (Chicago was knocked out in the first round.) The 2008 Beijing Olympics had provided welcome uplift that summer, with choreographed spectacle from the director of Chinese epics Hero and The House Of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou, whose opening and closing ceremonies seemed designed to remind the world that America is not the only superpower – and that the Chinese Communist Party has a knack of inspiring mass synchronisation.

London’s very own Olympics did it their way this summer, and proved that ideas were as important as money and multitudes. Mitt Romney chose our capital for his first official stop-off in what the Huffington Post described as “a three-nation tour carefully crafted to highlight his diplomatic strengths and personal Olympic experience”. He delivered a world-class gaffe when he criticised his hosts for not being “ready.” (I might have said the same thing at the time, but I’m not a diplomat, and I live in London.) Had we got our first glimpse of the next President of the United States? I hope not.

In 2008, the year in which Professor Brian Cox became famous on television for his ability to explain the Large Hadron Collider to the dim, we found ourselves living on a planet where things could only get better, and many of us put our hope in a black man (or “a black”, as Tory Pauline Neville-Jones rather colonially called him on the post-election Question Time, back in Britain). Can we have him back, please?

For some reason, I’m not allowed to vote. In this, I am not alone, thanks to True The Vote, which may well have clinched it for Romney, a man whose Mormonism might ordinarily disqualify him from being a good ol’ Republican nominee, if not for the fact that his competition – Santorum, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Bachmann – were so lacking in Presidential authority. I sincerely hope that, as I sleep tonight, the swing states swing the right way. I Tweeted a handy link to the New Yorker voter-ID story earlier, and an American expat took umbrage with me for typing, “If the US Election goes the wrong way, at least you’ll be able to say you know why”; he/she responded, “Define ‘wrong way’. Surely whatever we voters choose is the correct way.” Idealism in action. Naturally, if you are a Republican, or more crucially the kind of prevaricating floating voter that actually decides Elections, Romney might be the “right way.” If so, I wish you good luck in that county if he wins. But I warn you not to be poor. I warn you not to be old. And I warn you not to be a multi-millionaire.

A word about our sponsors

Well, it wasn’t mean to be this way. I Tweeted this morning in reaction to seeing the great Mo Farah clowning in a new Virgin Media ad in my newspaper beside Usain Bolt in stick-on Richard Branson beards. I felt, instinctively, without thinking very hard about it, that it was a shame that an athlete so beloved and lauded for his amazing achievements on the track at the Olympics should be seen mucking about in an advert for broadband inside of a fortnight after the Games ended.

It’s not easy to convey complex feelings in under 140 characters, but I had a crack at it, and, judging by the deluge of antipathy it generated, I can now confidently conclude that I did a bad job of conveying my feelings. I’m going to try here, where it’s safe and warm, and I can ramble, which I’m better at.

The facts first: the Farah/Bolt print ad is a new campaign, launched across a number of national newspapers at the weekend. Virgin Media has signed up the Somali-born long distance runner in an open-ended deal estimated to be worth £500,000. The campaign has been created by BBH. Jeff Dodds, executive director of brand and marketing communications at Virgin Media, said: “After delivering a stellar performance in the Olympic Games, Mo has found a special place in all of our hearts and is a fully fledged national hero. We’re absolutely delighted to be working with him. Virgin Media is all about delivering brilliant entertainment, and nobody has got the nation cheering at their TVs more than Mo over the last couple of weeks.”

Nobody’s arguing with that. I have almost no interest in watching athletics, as you know, but even I found myself drawn to the living room to watch Farah win the 5000m. You’d have needed a hard heart not to be drawn into the drama. He seems like a nice chap, too. Indeed, it’s the unifying and, yes, iconic power of Farah crossing that finishing line that’s worth preserving. To me, on a visceral level, the sight of him mucking about with a stick-on beard, so soon after his magnificent victory threatens to subtract from it.

Now, in saying this, I do not deny Mo Farah £500,000. As many people were quick to point out, indignantly, he’s got a family, and twins on the way, and he can now support them in a manner that surely befits the love felt for him around GB. But I never meant to criticise him for taking money from a sponsor. All sportspeople do it, seemingly at every level. And, as others pointed out, Farah’s window of opportunity closes very quickly. I’m sure it does. Virgin were very clever to sign him up after signing Bolt. They’ve now got two runners on their books, who, together, are surely worth more than they would be individually.

Unlike, say, Premiership football, which pays out large sums for most of the year to the biggest players at its biggest clubs, athletics is not a big-earning job, even though training is continuous between the big international meets, so the athletes must struggle to keep their dream alive. With this in mind, you’d have to be quite the idealist to suggest that Farah shouldn’t do whatever his sponsors ask him to. He seems like a laugh. He does that Mo-bot thing. I’m sure he’s totally fine with putting on a daft beard.

Dignity is subjective. Some people would do anything. Others would rather die than draw attention to themselves. Athletes compete in public, but this does not make them entertainers. I always feel sorry for them when a microphone is shoved in their face moments after finishing an event or game. It’s hard enough to articulate how you feel about winning or losing at the best of times, but when you are puffed out and rushing with conflicted emotions, it must be awful. But it’s part of the game.

I am an idealist. And it gets me into deep water. I seriously do not think Mo Farah should have told Jeff Dodds at Virgin Media, “Stick the false beard up your arse, contract or no contract!” It’s just a bit of fun, and if you take Virgin’s money, especially that much, then I’m afraid you work for them. I’m assuming Farah’s got a very good agent. I hope so.

To cite a really remote personal example: in the mid-90s, when I was the editor of Q magazine, Stuart Maconie and I had our photograph taken by ITV publicity to promote our film review show The Movie Club. We arrived at the photo studio to find racks of humorous, movie-related costumes. I took umbrage and had what must be one of five tantrums I have ever had in my professional life, refusing to wear any of the stupid wigs or costumes. I explained that I was, by day, the editor of a magazine, a job with a certain amount of responsibility, and that being photographed looking a dick would work against that. We found a compromise, and used some props, and it was all fine. But what I was trying to preserve was my dignity, I guess. Typically, only one shot from the session was ever used anywhere, in black and white. This is it.

Dignity fluctuates according to circumstance. People become more protective of their dignity as they get older. Now, I think you will agree, a magazine editor having to put on a hat for a promotional photo shoot for which he will not be paid extra, and a world-class, Olympic gold-medalist having to put on a beard for a print ad for which he will be paid handsomely are worlds apart. But I was closet to being a nobody in the mid-90s; if anybody “owned” me it was Emap, who paid my salary for editing Q, and my duty was to them. Rightly or wrongly, but with the best intentions, I think the nation feels a certain “ownership” not of Mo Farah, but of the shared experience of those two unforgettable Saturday-night track victories. Jeff Dodds is right: the nation does have a special place in its collective heart for Mo Farah. My love of Mo Farah manifests itself in an idealistic wish that he could earn money, plenty more than he needs, by appearing in adverts that are in some way connected to his achievement.

Hey, I have no love for the corporate hegemony of the likes of Nike or Adidas, but at least sportspeople who appear in their adverts are selling sports equipment. Virgin Media are no more evil than any large company or brand, but the link to the “speed” of their broadband is tenuous, and as such, is not about Farah’s athletic achievement. So he has to wear a beard for a joke about Richard Branson. Just like Usain Bolt did. I just wish he’d been able to wait for – I don’t know – a couple more weeks? Maybe the public’s window of opportunity to savour the moment also closes. I’m discussing this with myself now, in many more than 140 characters.

Don’t be an idealist, kids. It makes you feel sad on a near daily basis, when things don’t go according to your insane plan. If I was in charge, I’d make sure that all sport, amateur and professional, was properly funded and rewarded, so that stars like Farah wouldn’t need to take the corporate shilling. Fortunately, I am not in charge. And the world is run by private companies, who call the shots.

I like the idea of the Olympics being a truly egalitarian contest. May the best man or woman win, and reap the applause. Mo Farah was the fastest at running 5000m. Imagine if, instead of part funding sport through the National Lottery, which remains a tax on those who can least afford it, we funded it by collecting fair taxes from everybody, including corporations and the super rich? This mad system could then be adopted by other nations and the Olympics would belong to all of us, and not to Samsung and McDonald’s and Visa. And athletes could get bonuses, from this publicly-funded pot, for each medal they win, and use that to support their families, and further their careers.

I also made a satirical remark about how we could make the rich Premiership footballers share some of their earnings with the impoverished athletes – I even mentioned my own idealism to underline the joke – and you wouldn’t believe how many people took offence and started to defend Premiership footballers against my despicable plan. It was a joke about socialism, which will never work, right?

Kill me now.

Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 2

Day five Pt 2

Phew. Anyway, I’m in a local Caffe Nero, as I couldn’t face the commute to King’s Cross. (Hence: no commute soundtrack today, sorry.) As you can see, I’m wearing my “From The Midlands With Love” t-shirt, as it feels like a summer day, and because I am from the Midlands with love. This is a rare garment in my current wardrobe, as it has words on it. (I’ve long since stopped wearing “band” t-shirts, and in fact, rarely wear t-shirts any more, in a deluded bid for maturity. Maybe I would wear t-shirts if I was a “festival dad” but I don’t have that parental excuse!) The slogan refers to Miles Hunt and The Wonder Stuff’s ongoing, civic seven-inch covers project which you can read about here (and see some videos). I like the t-shirt.

Hmmmm … this just in. My sitcom Mr Blue Sky has not been recommissioned for a third series by Radio 4. I am a little shell-shocked by this bad news. Not that a third series was ever in the bag, but I foolishly allowed myself to become a little bit confident that there was more life in the show. (I had dared to dream; never a practical way to live your life.) They have given us many reasons why, which I won’t go into, but I’m sad not to be writing the stories I had planned for Harvey Easter and his family, which I thought were rather promising. We’ll still push for it on TV, of course, but I feel too winded to contemplate the practicalities of that right now.

Working in TV and radio, and the media in general, is not for the faint-hearted. You win some, you lose some, and you cannot allow the losses to get you down. (We won when Radio 4 were kind enough to commission Mr Blue Sky in the first place, and to support it through two series and ten episodes, so I’m calling that a result.) You get knocked down, you get back up again. You pitch something else, to someone else, and keep banging on doors. Hey! Gates starts on Sky Living next Tuesday. Maybe it will be well received and we’ll get a second series of that. Maybe this script I’m writing right now will be commissioned. Maybe the meeting I had in the Groucho will develop into a project. I will say it’s been a tough summer for work, what with Word closing down as well, although that was as much a loss for British culture as it was for my accountant, and must be kept in perspective. I am putting on a stoic, determined expression. Do you want to see it?

Well, the beauty of working near your house is that you can go home for your lunch, rather than cart it around with you, as I normally do. I rather skilfully remixed the last portion of this week’s chilli with the first portion of my latest soup. A thrilling mash-up, it picked me up a bit when I needed it. I am now back in a coffee shop, but a different one, where I am nowhere near a window but very near a wall-hanging of something Italianate and esoteric. (I resent the dominance of Caffe Nero in my working life, as they charge extra for soya milk, which is a scandal, but they do offer wi-fi, which clinches it every time, and their loyalty card is – I think – the most generous of all the chains.) I am trying to look melancholy in this pic, but I’m not very good at it. I have a beautiful smile, ordinarily, which is key to my athletic prowess, but I haven’t been using it in these diary pics, as who wants to sit and smile at their laptop in public?

Incidentally, my “commute” is today a very short bus ride, so I only had chance to listen to a couple of songs. Here they are, in case you’re interested:

CEREMONY Hysteria (single version)
WE ARE AUGUSTINES Juarez (album version)
ZEBRA AND SNAKE Money In Heaven (Kashi Remix)
DEAD FLAMINGOES Habit
MR FOGG Stay Out Of The Sun [partial, as I arrived at my destination]

These songs, by reasonably arcane artists, come from an ongoing playlist I imaginatively call 2012 New Singles!, which I build up every time I’ve emptied my pigeonhole at 6 Music. I like to keep up with the new music, and these selections have been quality-stamped and filtered out of the general swamp of newness.

Incidentally, I’m back on 6 Music next Saturday, August 18, and then again on Saturday September 1. Just two floating Saturdays in Jon Holmes’ 10am-1pm slot, but it’s been good fun the last two times. I have no idea what’s happening with that slot in the long term, so don’t ask me.

I might let the diary go now. It’s been a blast, as ever. Sorry so much of it has been me ranting, and the rest of it me not being able to specify what I’m actually working on, but I think my writer’s block has been alleviated a bit. I have certainly written some script this week. Finding out that another project has just bitten the dust is always potentially harmful to one’s concentration, but even after the Mr Blue Sky bombshell, I’ve been able to at least cut loads of stuff out of the latest draft of The Script That I Cannot Yet Name for the broadcaster I cannot yet name.

Actually, I had to cut the aforementioned “font joke”, so I may as well copyright it here. “I used Arial Bold – I wanted to make a clean start.” Don’t you dare nick that. I have witnesses.

I fully intend to drink a cold beer this evening to commiserate with myself about the end of the road for Mr Blue Sky, a project that was very dear to me, and I shall be toasting all those who helped make the two series we made for Radio 4 such a joy from one end to the other, including both critics and Tweeters who were so positive about it. In the meantime, I’ve just had a call from my old pal Simon Day (who was, of course, in Mr Blue Sky) about something else that may or may not be nearing the pipeline, so fingers crossed, and enjoy the remaining days of the Olympics. You all have beautiful smiles.

Telly Addict returns next Friday. I shall be mainly reviewing Celebrity Masterchef, The History Of Art In Three Colours and The Great British Bake-Off.

Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 1

Day five Pt 1

I am mentally exhausted after last night, and need to get this out of my system. I did watch the famous runner Usain Bolt easily win the 200m, and I loved the fact that Jamaica won silver and bronze, too. Nice grouping. I was, however, part-impressed, part-horrified that the BBC made a short film about the burning issue of whether the dominance of black athletes in running is about genetics or eugenics. This film took in slavery, Hitler and Darwin, and was intended as a talking point. However, I think John Inverdale handled the ensuing studio discussion – with grumpy Michael Johnson (who made a doc for C4 on the same subject), noncommital Colin Jackson and diplomatic Denise Lewis – really badly, almost as if it was his mission to get a black person to say, “Yes, all black people are alike.”

Was this really the time to have this thorny discussion, BBC? In the build-up to the much-hyped 200m final? It would be churlish to ignore the visibility of black athletes in these events (only one white finalist, a Frenchman), but the debate about genetics versus environment, nature versus nurture, is way too complex to bat around in a studio in a couple of minutes. Johnson seemed to become more and more entrenched behind “nurture” in the face of Inverdale’s evangelism for “nature”, and I must admit I came down on Johnson’s side, for all his over-seriousness. Meanwhile, Lewis wisely threw in climate as a factor. Africa, the West Indies, these are hot countries, and warmth has an effect on muscle; also, it’s self-pollinating – when a country becomes known for certain sports, there is a culture in that country for that sport to be taken up.

As I say, not a quickie for filling time in the studio. Never mind the science; it’s always a potentially reductive argument to say that certain traits are specific to black people, or white people, or indeed to men or women. Black people had to play the minstrel or the butler for decades before civil rights evened up the playing field. If most of the best soul singers are black it’s not necessarily because of genetics, but it could be argued that it’s deeply rooted in the blues and the experiences of slavery. From that starting point, it’s surely the culture of soulful expression that breeds further soulful expression. (How many great soul singers learned to sing in church? That’s not genetic. That’s environmental and social.)

Let’s move on to sexism. This is much easier to treat as a black and white subject than black and white, as the genders are much more clearly defined. At the end of his interview with Olympic gold medal-winning boxer Nicola Adams – women’s boxing’s first ever – Gary Lineker complimented her on her “beautiful smile.” It was his sign-off to the interview, and I’m sure, in the split-second heat of the moment, his brain told him it was a perfectly legitimate thing to say. He lightheartedly congratulated her for not crying like so many other medal winners, male and female, and applauded her for smiling – that’s the context. “You’ve got a beautiful smile,” he said, as a compliment, perhaps unaware that he was not judging a beauty contest. Hey, she has got a nice smile. But she was not being interviewed about her smile, rather, about her amazing prowess in a sport this is only now finally achieving parity within a traditionally male-dominated sport. As such, at such a sensitive moment in the history of women’s liberation, “You’ve got a beautiful smile” made me squirm in my sofa.

Would he have said this to a male athlete? I think not. Would Gaby Logan have said it to a male athlete? Or a female athlete? I think not. It came across as patronising, passive-aggressive and … to use an old-fashioned term … sexist.

Even by writing the word “sexist” down, I realise I sound like a fossil from another century. But casual sexism – the sharp end of which is the abuse and oppression of women, domestic, religious and institutional – has not been eradicated, any more than racism has, or homophobia, or xenophobia, despite great strides in the West and elsewhere.

These were the issues we worried a lot about in the 80s, although by the 90s it had become fashionable to be sexist again. I never bought it. The values I built up over the course of the 1980s have stayed with me. I do not apologise for that.

I Tweeted about Lineker’s sexist remark, and found myself having to debate the matter with people coming at me from all directions. I did my best to reply to the replies that merited a reply, and in many cases found myself in parallel dialogues with all sorts of people I have never met. Many simply concurred. That gave me strength that the fight against sexism is not totally forgotten. The majority of challenges came from men, unsurprisingly. This, in precis, is how the counter-argument ran:

Nicola Adams has got a beautiful smile.

I never said she hadn’t. If I sat at home and commented, “She’s got a beautiful smile,” that would be a perfectly valid observation to make; a subjective one, but valid. I wouldn’t say it to her, necessarily, unless its intention was absolutely understood and we knew each other well. Meanwhile, if I was a powerful, well-paid, well-known male BBC anchorman interviewing Nicola Adam for an important post-win live broadcast on a sports programme about her sporting achievement, I would never comment upon a physical attribute that had nothing to do with that achievement. She does not box with her smile. (Someone said that Clare Balding has commented on Chris Hoy’s thighs; firstly, I bet she didn’t do it to his face; and secondly, his thighs are absolutely intrinsic to his sporting achievement, so you could justify it in any case. We’re allowed to appreciate the physical appearance and attributes of others; this is not about thoughtcrime, it’s about how we express ourselves and what we say out loud.)

Context is key. Women’s boxing is an Olympic sport for the first time in 2012. That’s historic. Nicola Adams is GB’s first medal-winning female Olympic boxer, and the first Olympic gold medalist in the sport ever. She is historic. She is a powerful sportsperson, and, you might argue, an even more powerful sportswoman. Boxing federations have fought hard (ha ha) against women’s boxing being regarded as equal to men’s. I don’t even like boxing, but if men are allowed to punch each other for sport, then so should women be. It strikes me as subtly patronising that women are allowed to box like men, but are still expected to fight shorter rounds (four rounds of two minutes, as opposed to three rounds of three minutes for men), but one assumes this might even out in time. Since you ask, yes, I also think it’s bizarre that women play fewer sets in tennis. Women had to fight to get equal prize money in tennis and were quite prepared to play five sets in order to achieve that at Wimbledon, but the tennis federation left it at three sets. Hey, don’t want Wimbledon to go on too long, do we? Get the women’s matches out of the way quickly and bring on the men. (Anybody doubt that the Williams sisters could go five sets? Or beat the men?)

I’m not much of an expert on sport, as you know, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but women’s football matches are played to 90 minutes, right? (Another victory for women at the Games.) And so it should be. Women should surely be allowed to do the decathlon, too. Institutionalised sexism is all around us, never mind in sport – equal pay, anyone? – so it’s not missing the issue to get upset about a boorish remark made by a male TV presenter to a female athlete. (It was as if this woman in front of him was so powerful, he felt some subconscious urge to attempt to reduce her to a lovely smile.)

I’ve had some vexing responses to my arguments on Twitter, too. One person told me that I am “part of the problem” and that “the media” are too quick to brand someone sexist or racist. (This smacks of the Daily Mail‘s feverish fantasy about “the PC Brigade”.) I’ve also basically been accused of being a killjoy and a sourpuss and been advised to celebrate the fact that a man has complimented a lady. (One Tweeter, female, said, “It is a terrific smile: there has been a fair bit of smile coverage over the Games. Try it yourself!” – which is the reverse-equivalent of a builder on some scaffolding shouting out to a fetching lady, “Cheer up, love!”)

Well, I’m old enough not to worry about being regarded as a grump, or a fossil, and I’m afraid I’m sticking to my guns. The “isms” must be policed, by all of us, wherever they are found. Just as apartheid, segregation and ghettoisation are the logical conclusion of unchecked casual racism, casual sexism points us back at Victorian times when men smoked cigars in the drawing room and talked about politics while the ladies sat around sewing. But had beautiful smiles!

Writer’s blog: Thursday

Day four

I forgot to publish my commuting soundtrack yesterday. It actually accounts for the commute in and out:

50 CENT In Da Club
WILSON SIMONAL Não Vem Que Não Tem (Nem Vem Que Não) [not 100% sure of the details but it’s from the City Of God Remixed album]
SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES Switch
SONIC YOUTH Catholic Block
SPARKS No.1 Song In Heaven
THE VERVE Love Is Noise
YEASAYER Ambling Alp
SPEAR OF DESTINY Never Take Me Alive
THE WOODENTOPS Well Well Well
POP WILL EAT ITSELF Get The Girl! Kill The Baddies!
PLAN B No Good
YOUNG DISCIPLES Apparently Nothin’
WU-TANG CLAN Intro (Shaolin Finger Jab/Chamber Music)
YEAH YEAH YEAHS Heads Will Roll
WU-TANG CLAN Bells Of War
SONIC YOUTH Against Fascism
TALKING HEADS This Must Be The Place
SANTOGOLD L.E.S. Artistes
PSYCHEDELIC FURS Into You Like A Train
TING TINGS Great DJ
SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES Red Light [lots of Siouxsie yesterday)
THE TWILIGHT SAD The Room
TALKING HEADS Born Under Punches
SUGAR JC Auto
TV ON THE RADIO Wolf Like Me

Phew. Made two hot, crowded Tube journeys in inappropriate long trousers a whole lot easier.

Incidentally, I was wearing long trousers on a short trousers day because I had a meeting in the middle of the day yesterday at the Groucho Club. As usual, I am unwilling to reveal which media luminary I was meeting there, as it was the first time we’d met and it may one day evolve into a “project”, which I must not jinx; suffice to say, I very rarely cross the threshold of this or any other private members-only Soho media watering hole, and such, it’s always a tiny thrill.

I have never been a member of any club that charges a large amount of money for me to be a member of it, even if the club would have me as a member. (The gym is the closest I’ve ever come, and I haven’t been a member of one of them for four years.) I’ve been in the Groucho as a guest on a number of occasions down the years, and had some media fun in there, but I once met a powerful media figure there while I was off the booze and the media figure was so disgusted that I wouldn’t take an alcoholic drink I genuinely fear the evening cut off a whole avenue of work for me in the future. It appears to be a social club, but it is in fact a series of meetings, even after hours. I spent a happy evening watching a World Cup game in the upstairs bar with genial Inbetweeners co-creator/writer Iain Morris in 2010. And after a big 6 Music/Radio 2 Christmas bash when such things were allowed, Rowland Rivron got about 20 of us in as his guests and would not let anybody pay for anything. That felt like a definitive Groucho Club experience, with the definitive Groucho Club host.

Anyway, I had two coffees and it was a very promising meeting indeed. You wouldn’t want to go in there in shorts, even on a hot day, although I expect Keith Allen has been in there with his top off during his pomp.

Now, I deleted my mentions of Tom Daley’s Twitter troll from Twitter yesterday, as by even mentioning this damaged individual on his favourite forum risks glorifying his actions further. As you can see, I even smudged out his @Twittername in the grab I made. (Anyone who has cared to follow this obnoxious story will know that he’s @Rileyy_69 – which seems safe to mention within the unsearchable sancity of this blog entry – but I sincerely urge you not to visit his feed.) He seems to have been released by Dorset police after his malicious Tweets to Daley, although I understand a whole litany of previously offensive Tweets, some of them overtly racist, are still to be investigated. But if he’s under caution at all, he really ought not to be broadcasting on Twitter. And yet, he is, and full of himself. He’s obviously proud of being “famous” and “a legend”, and of putting on over 30,000 new followers since he entered Daley’s radar, and he’s in fact back to insulting Daley, albeit not using the diver’s @Twittername this time. So he has learned something.

I know I appear morbidly fascinated by the story, but it’s not about him as an individual – he’s only 17, lives alone in a bedsit, and was said in a Daily Mail report (which contained an interview with his despairing, hand-washing dad) to have a form of ADHD that he is not being medicated for. (The Mail piece also had an erection about the fact that he’s “on benefits”, but that’s irrelevant.) I’m not sure why Twitter haven’t suspended his account – all of his original offending Tweets are still up, and the racist ones before those. They were quick to suspend the account of Guy Adams of the Independent. Maybe if Rileyy-69 had insulted a corporation he’d have been in more trouble.

Anyway, to happier matters. I was so taken with the new Radio Times office – much more agreeably air-conditioned than the shed in White City, and laid out with geometric efficiency unlike the old jumble, such that it might be mistaken for the Washington Post – that I chose to come back here today, rather than trek to the Library. I still have vouchers for the coffee bar, too, which clinched it.

Maybe the stars are aligned for me today: just saw a Tweet from the British Library saying that it’s closed due to a fire alarm. Thank you, random swirl of the universe.

Oh no! Came home early (in order to make a soup with the chicken stock I made yesterday, of which more presently) and found the new New Yorker on the mat. Disaster! I’m still two whole issues in the red. These two, if you’re following the saga:

The new one looks terrific, with a piece on the Olympics so far (Medals and Marketing by Ben McGrath) which promises to be wise and analytical; a profile of Imran Khan (Sporting Chance by Steve Coll, a man you can trust on geopolitics); and a piece by lively TV critic Emily Nussbaum (who seems to have replaced lively TV critic Nancy Franklin) on Big Brother‘s 14th “season” on CBS. I’ve already read David Denby on The Bourne Legacy, as I always read The Current Cinema first, because it’s only ever two digestible pages long. It’s my treat. How I’m going to resist tearing into the meat and potatoes of this new issue before I’ve finished the previous two, I do not know. “First World Problems”, eh?

I hate the Twitter hashtag #FirstWorldProblems. It’s intended as a knowing admission of bourgeois hand-wringing for those with missionary guilt and is applied to the end of a mundane gripe. Fine. If you must. What it isn’t for is to apply to someone else’s Tweet, as a touché. Someone, now blocked, did this to me when I Tweeted about not being able to decide which biscotti recipe to try off the internet. I’ll be the judge of whether this is a #FirstWorldProblem, thanks. And I judge that it is not, as I do not recognise the First, Second and Third World rubric. It’s an outdated Cold War precept, and for me, has the nasty tang of colonialism, to designate an implicitly noble and authentic part of the world as “third”, where problems are more, like, real, man. We all understand the disparity between rich and poor nations, fully industrialised and rural economies and all points in between, but it’s not as simple as a league table. To even point out a #FirstWorldProblem is a #FirstWorldLuxury, so stop it. Good, glad to get that off my chest.

The soup, since you ask, is another jazz recipe which I made up as I went along: the gorgeous chicken stock (made from a carcass and some onion and celery) was added to a pan in which some spring onion, more celery, courgette and previously blanched green cabbage had already been softened in oil. I ground up some cumin and coriander seeds, too, and threw in one and a half chillies, as is my wont. It smells bloody lovely, simmering away there on a hot evening, while a Perroni speed-chills in the freezer. For me, this soup is all about stretching a chicken that has already provided two meals into at least two more, and uses up some of the less glamorous vegetables before they pass their peak. Clearly, it would work with vegetable stock.

Someone suggested on Twitter than I start a food blog. Would that I had the time. I don’t even have time to do this. I started it to help with my writer’s block and I’ll see it through to tomorrow, Friday, but it was intended to help me write this – pardon my language – fucking script, and not replace it! (The fucking script is moving in the right direction, which is: three steps forward and two steps back. That’s winning.)

I predict an evening of eating, drinking and watching either another foreign film on DVD in the kitchen, or some token Olympic action when the famous person Usain Bolt runs in something important.