Writer’s blog: Wednesday

Day three

Each day I walk to the local shop to get the paper. I like this walk. I pick up the obvious paper, as it is my paper, and I spend a while gazing at the other papers, which are helpfully arranged so that I can see their covers. It’s always an enlightening way of taking the temperature of this great nation of ours, with the Mail frothing about something that signifies that rationing has sadly ended, the Express literally talking about the weather, the Sun and the Mirror and the Star shouting about a minor indiscretion among the celebrity class, the Independent doggedly restating its independence by highlighting an uncool issue, and so on. Not these past two weeks: every cover story has been the same.

It’s odd to see the whole gamut of daily newspapers covering literally the same basic story, every day. Big pictures of smiling or grimacing athletes abound, assorted puns on keywords like “gold”, “medal”, “Hoy” etc. Is this really the united nation it gives every appearance of being? If so, what’s going to happen after Sunday? Who will we cheer? What will we do with our cape-sized Union flags? What will we watch on the telly? What will the newspapers write about? What will the commentators commentate on? How will we maintain this unification of optimism in the face of cold, hard reality? It could be quite a comedown.

Anyway, GOLD!!!!!!!!!!

As you can see, I won an Olympic gold medal today. It was a chocolate one, but I sort of won it, as I didn’t pay for it. I found it in the “welcome pack” at my new office. It isn’t strictly my office, it’s the new office of Radio Times, where I go to work once a week, as I have done for many years. (Just as, when I was a kid, Thursday was the day my Nan came round, Wednesday is the day I go round to Radio Times.) This used to mean going to a building owned by the BBC, when the BBC owned BBC Magazines, but the BBC had to sell BBC Magazines, along with some of its buildings, when the Murdoch government negotiated the Licence Fee to stay the same until 2016. Radio Times is now published by Immediate Media, who had to move us from the BBC building to a new one, which is in Hammersmith.

Although I quite rightly fear change, it’s not a bad space. They don’t seem to have finished the ceiling – unless it’s a tribute to the film Brazil – but there’s a cafeteria that seems competitively priced and there was also a £10 voucher in my “welcome pack”, of which I spent £4 on posh coffee and the kind of muffin I would never ordinarily buy to celebrate the move. It was free, like my gold medal, which I ate at my desk before even setting up my email account. Priorities.

I was delighted to be commissioned by Radio Times editor Ben to write an account of my life as an Olympics widower: looking after the shop while the rest of the country is glued to the Games. I am happy to be that steward. (And always happy to write something for what we in the Film Unit call “the rest of the magazine.” You can read it next week. They’ll probably put in online, too.) Wow, I ate that muffin next to no time. It’s almost as if it is mainly made of air.

Note to self: don’t buy muffins.

Another evening in the adjoining room while the Olympics played out in earshot. I sense that for Team GB, the Games are sort of over. They’ve certainly peaked. I’m no expert, but I think “we” failed to win any sort of medal today. No golds, at any rate. This is the downside to achieving so much more than anyone realistically expected. You have to readjust to real life afterwards, where there is no podium for you to “podium” on, no medals to “medal”, no similar nouns to “noun” into a verb.

Anyway, I watched another Michael Haneke film on DVD from my big box of foreign-language DVDs: The Piano Teacher. (You don’t know this, as I wasn’t writing a diary last week, but I plucked Haneke’s Code Unknown from the box and thoroughly enjoyed that, hence the yen for some more.) It’s a brilliant but disturbing experience. Isabelle Huppert is, as every awards committe on the planet seemed to spot at the time, superb in it. Brave and subtle and, hey, she can even play the piano really well. It was, I’m guessing, a very different experience to the one on offer in the living room, which seemed to be all about BMX bikes, then hurdling. (I had planned to break off from Haneke to watch Usain Bolt in a final of something at 20.55, but I had misread the RT supplement – it’s on tomorrow at 20.55. This is just as well; you can’t break off from Haneke.)

Oh, and I announced on Twitter, pointlessly, that I was about to watch The Piano Teacher and one joker responded, “dirty old man.” Yes, because what better film to watch if you are a dirty old man? I’m not sure I can think of a less arousing film. Unless you are turned on by Schubert and razor blades.


Writer’s blog: Tuesday

Day Two

Seemed to hit a stampede of Olympics people on my Tube journey up to King’s Cross this morning, but I think there may be some kind of road race on in Central London, so it’s to be expected. Frankly, if you commute in London, inhuman mobile squalor is the norm.

Soundtrack to my commute:
THE ORB Toxygene (7″ Edit)
KASABIAN Where Did All The Love Go?
TOM WAITS Swordfishtrombones
BATTLE Tendency
ADELE Hometown Glory
FOALS Spanish Sahara
KAREN O & THE KIDS Igloo [partial, as I arrived at the British Library here]

Because the Library’s opening hours have changed during the Games, I accidentally arrived half an hour early this morning and was forced – forced, I tell you – to have a coffee. I knew the Costa in St Pancras Station would be rammed, and the Starbucks (my least favourite of the chains) over the road from the Library has recently been cleverly redesigned so that there’s almost nowhere to sit (good work, everyone), and in any case, the queue was literally out of the door. My only hope without a long walk was the Costa that’s nestled beneath the Premier Inn. I used to frequent this one before I had a Costa loyalty swipe-card and didn’t care that, as a franchise, it didn’t have the technology to top up or take points as payment. So I stopped using it. Funnily enough, they now accept the cards, so I’m 10p closer to a free coffee which I will probably never achieve as Costa don’t have wi-fi, and for a professional writer without an office, this is no good to me. Bet you’re glad I decided to write a daily diary this week.

Here’s news: I watched the whole of the 400m final on the Olympics last night, including the preamble/build-up, and a bit of the debrief, during which John Inverdale almost generalised about black people being better at running, and Michael Johnson took serious-faced issue. (He’s always got a serious face, though, hasn’t he?) It’s a minefield. Ironically, the runners in the 400m final included two very white Belgians, so it was not the time or the place for that dangerous argument. In a Season One episode of Friday Night Lights, the assistant coach made a flippant remark to the press about his black players being natural running backs, implying that they are really good at running fast, like “junkyard dogs”, I think he said. The black players walked out. He was almost sacked. As I say, minefield. Especially when Team GB is so thrillingly mixed up, ethnically: whatever anthropological/geographical point you wish to make, the modern world makes it futile to generalise. It’s like saying men are better at reading maps. It simply can’t be true.

A bit of scandal erupted just before I went to bed (well, it probably erupted way earlier than that, but I was nowhere near a computer): Morrissey had posted an on-tour blog entry on the True To You website, the offending passage of which can – and should – be read in full here. (When I say “should”, you could just ignore him. He is, after all, an attention-seeker with an innate ability to push the right buttons in order be noticed; I am merely adding to his desired chatter by furthering the story’s lifespan.) This time, he’s reacted negatively to British Olympic fervour, wilfully misinterpreted “patriotism” as “jingoism”, and likened the flag-waving quasi-nationalist mood to that of “the spirit of 1939 Germany”. He does not use the N-word, by the way, although it is implied by the year.

I Tweeted before bed that people should read the statement in full before they start calling Morrissey names, rather than pick up soundbites through inevitably skewed news media coverage. Some aimed flack at me as if I were defending him. I wasn’t. I agree with some of what he says, disagree with the way he said some of it, but defend to the death his right to be a dick in public. Events in 1939 in Germany did happen, and we should not be afraid of mentioning that, or the name of the party that Hitler led. But it’s always risky business to compare anything less ethno-genocidal to that infamous period. I doubt that the current “jingoism” going on at Olympic Park and in living rooms up and down the land will result in David Cameron annexing any countries or rounding up any ethnic groups (as much as, in his dreams, he might like to – well, round up the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed, at the very least). Mind you, nor does Moz think that.

I caught up with the reaction this morning, and much of it was antagonistic. It seemed important to some detractors to object not only to what he said, but to how good or not he is at singing. (Typical of this: “Morrissey remains a pillock who hasn’t been musically relevant since The Smiths split.”) It’s a pity he feels the need to dress up what might be taken as valid points – such as the one about the way a population is controlled by promotion of brands, including the Royals and the Beckhams – with bald shock tactics, but hey, who’d notice otherwise? (Having, in the past, written things that have enraged, I know how bruising it is to mess with a consensus, but I operate on a very modest scale to Morrissey and his thousands of devoted disciples, and I seriously do not set out to shock.)

Incidentally, I don’t think the news media is that bothered about the story. It was on Sky News, and their website (note: helpful use of word “Nazi” – in quote marks – in the headline), but it’s nowhere to be seen on the BBC News site, nor in my morning paper. Maybe it will stay that way.

Had a massive rethink about the script that I wrote yesterday, and I’m about to tear it up and start again. Wish me luck.

So, many hours have passed since the last paragraph. I really did it. I really did tear up much of what I wrote yesterday. This is partly because I’d written 15 pages and hadn’t got anywhere near the halfway point in the story. So major surgery was required. I hacked it back to the first scene, and went off in a different direction. It really helped to clear my block. Again, I have no idea if it’s “any good”, what I’ve been writing since about 11am (four hours with a couple of screen-breaks to read the new Sight & Sound), but I’m certainly getting on top of the story beats this time. I realise all of this would be a lot more interesting if you knew what I was writing, and for which channel, but you know the rules. I think I wrote a good joke about a font, and it’s not every day you can do that.

Packed lunch: same chilli as yesterday. No complaints from me. I brought two of the homemade almond/dried fruit/espresso biscotti I made on Sunday, which have come out rather well, but they are exclusively for dunking in a coffee, and I am denying money to the Peyton & Byrne cafe in the Library at this particular junction by drinking their free tapwater. The biscotti can, in this instance, come home with me and be dunked in a non-machine-made coffee in front of the telly. I made 28 individual biscuits, and intend to eat no more than two a day. I’m disciplined like that. I would have made a good monk.

Talking of which, I realised today that I am too much of an idealist. I’m afraid I found myself genuinely shocked by reports that the Church of England is selling its £1.9m stake in News Corp, as a protest against its lack of contrition over phone-hacking. The Church? Shares? In News Corp? A helpful man on Twitter called Paul Harrison furnished me with the info that the Church of England costs £1bn per annum to run, of which three quarters is covered by fundraising and donations, with the shortfall plugged by the stock market. This still shocks me a bit. I must have really thought that churches were funded via the collection plate. What a quaint, unspoiled, John Major-like picture of England I must cling to!

That’s a little picture to remind me of Edinburgh. I always miss the Edinburgh Fringe when I’m not there, and I’m not there, while a large percentage of the people I follow on Twitter are. I’m happy to say that I shall be working at the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival – or MGEITF as all the cool delegates are calling it – which happens between August 23-25. This coincides with the Fringe, so even though I will be hosting screenings and Q&As during the day (with the stellar likes of Charlie Brooker, Steven Moffat, Victoria Wood, Frank Spotnitz, Simon Bird and Robert Popper), I should be able to see at least a handful of shows in the evenings. I expect these will be shows by my friends, as I won’t have time to experiment. I am sad that I’ll be working when Richard Herring’s Edinburgh Podcast show is on, as I’m sure he’d be enthusiastic about having me on as a special guest!

Oh, I was quoted on Channel 4 News about the Morrissey sedition. Not the programme, the website, but it was an honour anyway, as they are the best news programme. You can read the report here. (Thanks to Anna for asking and catching me at a good moment.) Incidentally, I was asked to be on the Today programme this morning, but I had to say no, as my head’s mashed enough as it is with this script without having to get up early and think hard enough about war films to sound erudite and informed on a programme as important as Today. (I turn down a lot of chances to be on things, you know. I’m not quite the egomaniac you think I am.)

I packed up at 5.30 at the Library, happy with my progress, in that I’m at about the same point in word-length as I was yesterday, but much closer to where I need to be with the story.

My Olympics displacement this evening came courtesy of a very early screening for Beasts Of The Southern Wild, a lowish-budget American directorial debut set on the coast of Louisiana that’s best described as a lyrical subsistence fable from the edge of urban living, starring two non-actors, one of them six, the other a baker from New Orleans. My interest was piqued by David Denby’s rave review in the New Yorker. You can read it in full, if you wish, but personally I’m going to hold back. Why would you want to read a review of a film that’s not out until October? I will say this though: it’s utterly unique, magical, surprising and captivating. I’m saying this now, too: it’s surely an Oscar contender for 2013.

More golds won while I was looking the other way (although Twitter is like a constant commentary, so I don’t feel too out of the loop). If we’re not careful, we’re going to get used to all this winning. We may have to buy back some of our playing fields in order to let future Team GB Olympians play sport on them. You know, the ones both Tory and Labour governments sold off. Bloody disgrace.

Give ’em enough Pope

In order to “beat the Olympics” (you can’t beat the Olympics), we recorded this week’s Telly Addict a day early at the Guardian, where wondrous things were being prepared in an adjacent studio of which I cannot yet speak (keep your eye on the Guardian website when the Games begin), and it’s up early, too. In any case, my aim was to avoid the Olympics, which means an eye cast over last week’s Bank Of Dave on C4; Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions, also on C4; the return of The Borgias to Sky Atlantic; and another indulgent moment from Mid Morning Matters With Alan Partridge, also on Sky Atlantic. I may just have a look at the opening ceremony and review that next week, as London 2012 is essentially a television event for most of us.

Faster, wryer, longer

So, as the Olympics draw ever closer and London falls under martial law, I set aside my burning animosity towards the Games for this week’s Telly Addict and review the four documentaries that comprised Faster, Higher, Stronger * on BBC2; also, the pre-dissed The Newsroom from Aaron Sorkin on Sky Atlantic; and the return to BBC1 of the English Wallander, which I had never seen before this, and of course, fell for pretty comprehensively, despite it not being wholly Swedish.

* To declare an interest, BBC Bristol’s Francis Welch, who made the third film about the 1500m, once made a documentary which I fronted, for BBC4, about Life On Mars. Not that there’s any conflict here, as I didn’t specifically refer to his 1500m film anyway. As an aside, he wrote an interesting BBC blog about the making of his programme, which is here.

The biggest prize in sport

+++++++++++++++++++++++Moan alert!++++++++++++++++++++++

Yes, the 2012 London Olympics are almost upon us. If you’re unlucky enough to live in London, your giveaway evening newspaper has been providing a thrilling day-by-day countdown which I think may have begun on 7/7 in 2005, the glorious day after the capital won the Olympic bid. I’m no fan of the London Evening Standard – which is given away free to grumpy commuters each night and, as such, is by definition worthless, although it can claim to be less unloved than the morning Metro – as you have to machete your way through so much propaganda in order to get to the actual local news, but it’s been especially impenetrable this year, with the Mayoral elections, the Jubilee, Heathrow and now the Games. It’s difficult to know where the editorial ends and the advertorial begins.

But hey, such blurring of truth and profit is very much in the spirit of the Games. I didn’t vote for the Olympics. Ordinary Londoners were never asked if we wanted the biggest sideshow in sport held here, and part-funded by our council tax. We were promised regeneration of some of the East End and Docklands. We were promised a fabulous upswing in commerce and opportunity (“Every sector of the economy will benefit from the staging of the Olympic Games”, went the bid). We were promised a second Westfield shopping centre. We were promised millions of tourists descending up our already full and already filthy city. Some of these dreams may yet come true – there’s a brand new Westfield now in Stratford, whose car parks have already been closed for the duration of the games – but estimates about how many people are coming here on holiday were hugely optimistic, as many non-Olympic “vacationers” have been understandably put off, either by the threat of crowding, or just being blown up.

Let’s contextualise my disinterest in the Games. As a punter I’m really not that bothered about athletics. Sport in general is not something that gets me going. You know I dabble with football, and I ended up watching that tennis match at last year’s Wimbledon that went on and on and on out of peer pressure, but as a rule, as a spectator, I prefer artistic rather than physical endeavour. That’s just my personal choice. I have nothing against sport, or sportspeople. I care about my health and used to love going to the gym when I could afford it. Better to do sport, whether it’s a kickabout in the park or the fully-fledged sacrifice of training for the Olympics, than sit around doing nothing. What I have against these Olympics is that, as a Londoner, I get all of the aggravation and none of the benefit.

It’s not just that the Tube and buses are going to be overcrowded, although that’s pretty annoying when your job involves a lot of travelling about in London, and, I expect, even more annoying if you have a nine-to-five job that can’t realistically be “done from home”. London’s bus drivers are threatening to strike for a bonus payment, as their jobs are going to be extra stressful between July 27 and August 12, and August 29 and September 9. But passengers can’t strike. We’re stuck with it. (I think anyone whose job is going to be made harder by the Olympics should be entitled to a bonus.)

What I really object to is the relentless bombardment of corporate sponsorship. It seems tragic to me that sporting endeavour has to be privately funded. If we lived in the benign Communist utopia of my fevered dreams (and I haven’t worked out all the details yet), sport would be state-sponsored for the health of the nation and the pride of representing your country. So would the Arts. The minute you hand over the Games to advertising “partners”, and these “partners” are then able to literally dictate which credit card you use to apply for tickets, and which fizzy drinks you drink in the stadia, and which burgers you eat, then the sport comes a poor second to profit. And when even the top sports stars must flog their spandexed arses in TV ads in order to keep fit – Usain Bolt clowning for Richard Branson a typically undignified example; Victoria Pendleton getting her actual kit off for men’s magazines for more subtly commericial returns (FHM: “Victoria has the sort of legs that could, should you inadvertently find yourself in a sexual embrace with the woman, kill you”) – it’s a sad world indeed.

As a user of the already creaking London Transport network, I have for some time been assailed on all sides by adverts telling me not to travel in London during the Olympics and the Paralympics; to stay at home; to choose an alternative route; to avoid certain lines and stations; to fuck off. Even worse, there are ads everywhere put up by Procter & Gamble, the American multinational petrochemical giant, whose $82.6 billion turnover for 2011 is helping to fund a big chunk of the Olympics. P&G, as they’d prefer us to call them, want volunteers in London to help clean the place up, using P&G cleaning brands like Flash and Febreze. That’s right, the company that makes Flash wants us to give up our own time to clean the city before the tourists arrive. If they’re so keen on cleaning, why don’t they pay out-of-work Londoners the minimum wage to clean the streets? Just a thought.

On the subject of cost, the Guardian came up with some figures back in April. Originally slated to cost about £2.4bn, Olympic costs had already jumped to £9.3bn by 2007. The total kept rising. The House of Commons’ public accounts committee revealed costs were heading for around £11bn. Then Sky Sports worked out that, including public transport upgrade costs, the final score was closer to £24bn. By continually revising the budget upwards, the Olympic Delivery Authority have been able to say that the whole thing will finally come in under budget. But it’s all based on made up numbers. Big numbers that are constantly being moved about.

The Olympic village was supposed to be financed by Australian developer Lend Lease, but private investors scarpered when the economy imploded in 2008, leaving it to the government ie. us. In August 2011 they sold the village at a taxpayer loss of £275m to the Qatari ruling family’s property firm. (Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt called this “a fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a legacy from London’s Games”. He’s not still Culture Secretary, is he? Really?)

As for security, after initially estimating the need for 10,000 police officers, they’ve since had to tap the military for 13,500 reserves at a time when a) the country is still fighting a war, and b) military personnel are being cut along with every other corner of the public sector. We’ve got ships situated in the Thames, Eurofighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on top of tower blocks. The cost of security has increased from £282m to £553m. There are less than 13,500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. (Londoners get the security bill, by the way. I’m not leaving a tip.)

I guess there’s never a good time to hold the Olympics, but London definitely drew the short straw holding them at such a time of economic woe. (April’s Guardian Comment Is Free article about “celebration capitalism”, from which I’ve drawn most of these figures, is here.)

Every huge international sporting event is an advert for something. And the London Olympics just seem worse because they’re on my doorstep and I’m having my face rubbed in them. Even if you’re excited about the sport – and I understand there will be some sport somewhere in the middle of all this branding and synergy – it’s hard to argue with the assessment that it’s a public-private partnership that needs some serious counselling.

For the record, these are the private companies who are funding the Games.

Worldwide partners:
Acer Inc.
Dow Chemical Company
General Electric
Omega SA
Panasonic Corporation
Procter & Gamble
Official partners:
British Airways (thanks for despoiling The Clash’s London Calling in your TV advert, as if Scouting For Girls didn’t do enough damage to it at the Olympics homecoming gig four years ago)
BT Group
EDF Energy
Lloyds TSB
Official supporters:
Cisco Systems
Thomas Cook Group
United Parcel Service
Official suppliers and providers:
Boston Consulting Group
CBS Outdoor
Crystal CG
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
London Heathrow Airport
Heineken International
Holiday Inn
John Lewis
McCann Erickson
Mondo Worldwide
General Mills
Nielsen Company
Rapiscan Systems
Rio Tinto Group
Thames Water
Westfield Group

Have I missed anybody?