Whatever | September 2008

Whatever | Festivals If blanket TV coverage of music festivals is to rival sport, where’s its equivalent of Alan Hansen? WhateverGlasto2008 Back in the studio after a lacklustre nil-nil draw in Group C between France and Romania, BBC pundit Alan Hansen looked set to bust out of his pressed white shirt as he declared, with a degree of overstatement, “That was the worst game I’ve ever seen in my life.” Harbour a grudging respect for him or hate him, his assessment must have chimed with the thoughts of many Euro 2008 viewers at home. Punditry in motion. As it happened, three weeks of goalmouth incident, questionable pronunciations of Xavi and jibes about the astrology-based decisions of the French coach later, the Euro 2008 final coincided with blanket TV coverage of another heavily sponsored outdoor summer spectacle, Glastonbury. While BBC1 showed the entertaining clash between Germany and Spain in one field, over on BBC3 it was the Fratellis, Kings of Leon and Buddy Guy in another. The constant refrain of those committed enough to attend major sporting events and/or music festivals is, “You had to be there.” But for the majority, television is our best chance of a ringside seat. Since I stopped going after Glastonbury ’95, I have been the target armchair festivalgoer as the Beeb’s coverage has expanded like cosmic insulation foam to fill all nooks of the digisphere. As with Wimbledon, you can even press the red button and select from a multi-screen menu which game, set or match you wish to view. In many ways – most of them logistical and hygienic – it really is better than being there. WhateverGlasto2008 However, this comparison between sport and live music on TV throws up a problem. As one gradually morphs into the other – slick, branded, omnipresent, relentlessly cross-promoted and with saturation point never too far around the next corner – the big difference between the two becomes ever more apparent. There is one crucial element missing from festival TV. I’m talking about its total dereliction of critical judgement. Imagine if, during this year’s fulsome Glastonbury coverage, Mark Radcliffe had swivelled round on his backstage hay bail and exclaimed to Jo Whiley, “Well, that was the worst set I’ve seen on the Pyramid Stage in my life.” It’s unthinkable. Alan Hansen can call the Polish defence “abysmal”; Radcliffe must describe Shakin’ Stevens as “a trooper.” This is not a criticism of Mark or Jo or any other presenter, whose job it is to talk everything up, in order to justify the vast sums invested in securing rights, setting up outside-broadcast shop in Pilton for a week and supplying content to BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC News, Radio 1, 5 Live, 6 Music, 1 Xtra, BBC online and BBCi. But I can vouch for the fact that, once a broadcaster is onsite, the tendency is simply to cheerlead. “The atmosphere is amazing!” “It’s shaping up to be a vintage Glastonbury!” “It’s not just about the music.” It’ll be the same for T In The Park, Reading and Leeds, Cambridge … TV and radio coverage is less like editorial, more like advertorial. The irony in all this round-the-clock, welly-wearing Pollyannaism is that music fans are no strangers to music criticism. Whether old enough to have been raised on the sturm und drang of the weekly music press or new enough to be fluent in the snap judgements of blog and Facebook, the type of person who will actually sit down to watch Glastonbury on TV (and there are 1.9 million in peak-time, down to a respectable 500,000 after 11pm) is exactly the type who would welcome at least a heated debate on the merits of Jay-Z, rather than to hear the party line parroted (ie. that he “won the crowd over”). WhateverGlasto2008 Sporting pundits are there to dissect a match; to marvel at the way Torres lifted Xavi’s pass over the keeper’s legs, but also to bemoan the ref’s decision not to book Silva after that surreptitious headbutt on Podolski. Why are we not grown up enough to hear the same degree of expert critique from football’s festival counterparts? In fairness, this won’t come from DJs like Jo or Zane or Fearne, ambassadors for the Corporation with future guest bookings to protect, but can a substrata of critics not be arranged in a studio to offer something a little more incisive? “The atmosphere seems oddly corporate and stilted this year.” “Is there a festival the Verve aren’t playing?” “Is Beth Ditto still at it?” Actually, a couple of years ago, Jo Whiley did break ranks and offer a unique glimpse of editorial. After the Alison Goldfrapp set, she said, “It just goes to show that you can be thin and still have cellulite.” Not even Hansen would be that incisive.

Published in Word magazine, September 2008

Whatever | November 2008

Whatever | VE Day with Vodafone
Can any anniversary, event or initiative go by unbranded?

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The carnival atmosphere on VE Day, 8 May 1945, was hastily improvised on a ration-hardened whim and spread by word of mouth. The ad hoc spirit was summed up when, lacking a public address system, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham put a radio on the window sill of his office so that the gathering crowds could hear Churchill’s speech. But the pianos, gramophones and trestle tables gamely manhandled into the middle of the street would not be enough for today’s civic cheerleaders.

It was Mark E Smith who famously listened to a Verve record in the early 90s and muttered, “God help us if there’s a war.” A generation later, one can’t help but echo his sentiments, but for different reasons. Should some new Reich threaten the security of Europe, Britain would stand no chance; not because of the unfit state of its indie conscripts, but because our priorities would now surely be with forming a steering group to put out to tender the contract for branding of the war and a series of sub-committees to forward-plan the Public Private Partnership-funded post-war celebrations, scheduled for Christmas, naturally.

What a shame we would never get to experience VE Day Party In The Park with “top bands, special guests and Fearne Cotton”, and blanket live coverage on BBC1, BBC3 and Radio 2. The flypast and firework display would remain an idealised, computer-generated mock-up in a media pack, as would the walk of champions, the satellite-linked giant screens in major cities, a living memorial created through contemporary dance, a special edition of Strictly Come Fighting and sponsored livery on banners, buses and wristbands: “V FOR VICTORY WITH V FOR VODAFONE.”

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Because no event, anniversary or initiative can pass unmarked, unnamed or unbranded in this autistic age we live in, whether it’s 9/11, 7/7, Liverpool 08, Love Music Hate Racism, Concert For Diana, Broken Britain, America Decides, The Big Food Fight, The Big Read, The Big Clean Up or National Take Your Dog To Work Day, all competing for our already foreshortened attention spans like unlicensed cab touts. Even the latest recession has been branded: the Credit Crunch. Does that mean giant foam rubber hands for anyone evicted or laid off?

The worst of it is London 2012, the year itself logo-stamped (“because now 2012 isn’t just four digits,” states the Royal Mint, imperially, advertising its Handover Ceremony £2 Coin from just £6.95). As we hurtle towards it with all the speed of an Integrated Environment and Sustainability Management System-audited JCB full of East End dirt, we’re expected to stay not just enthused but patriotically so, for four years, thanks to what has already been branded the Cultural Olympiad, divided into Ceremonies, Major Projects and, I quote, Inspire Mark Projects (whatever that means – and who’s Mark?). It’s not all fun and games.

Rarely do I see something on TV which makes me want to re-enact the legendary protest of lorry driver James Holmes of Waltham Abbey, who kicked in his £380 colour television set on 1 December, 1976 when the Sex Pistols swore at Bill Grundy. “I was so angry and disgusted with this filth that I took a swing with my boot,” Mr Holmes told the Mirror. My own boot hovered within inches of the flat-screen during the 2012 Olympic Handover Concert in the Mall, sponsored by Visa. Never mind 9/11 – the world changed forever in the three minutes it took “indie pop” three-piece Scouting For Girls to cover London Calling by the Clash.

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Before a 40,000-strong afternoon crowd of mostly tourists, this mostly harmless bunch, dressed for the garden, nonetheless crystallised our own proud nation’s addiction to event coordination. The theme of the gig was songs about sport and winning. We Are The Champions and Nobody Does It Better had been taken, so Scouting For Girls opted to turn the greatest rock song of the punk era into a mayoral, flag-waving credit-card singalong. London Calling was not dredged from Joe Strummer’s angry guts to commemorate a geographical decision by an international committee; it is a howl of pain about the impending apocalypse, as foreseen from angles as diverse as flood (“London is drowning”), famine (“the wheat is growing thin”), and accident (“a nuclear error”). This Chas & Dave-style rendition was extraordinary indeed. The haunting line about “the one with the yellowy eyes” became … and I can’t believe I am about to write this … “the one with the 19 gold eyes.” Yes. Because Team GB won 19 gold medals.

Get it? If not, a media pack will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, send extra Sustainability Management System-audited JCBs of dirt, because Joe Strummer is turning in his grave.

Published in Word magazine, November 2008

Whatever | June 2010

Whatever | The Great Volcano Inconvenience
God help us if there’s a war

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Wanda Jackson, the 74-year-old First Lady of Rockabilly, was stuck in Germany and couldn’t make an interview on my 6 Music show; the comedian Sarah Millican had to cancel an Edinburgh preview I had tickets for at a North London theatre pub because she was unable to fly back from the Melbourne Comedy Festival; and my asthma was slightly aggravated for a few days. Welcome to my Volcano Crisis.

It all started when, in the early hours of Wednesday April 14, Shetland Islanders detected the smell of rotten eggs in the air. By the next day, like an errant child, Britain was “grounded”, as the sulphuric cloud of volcanic ash caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland started pluming across Europe. The Great Volcano Inconvenience had begun, and nothing would ever be the same again …

Until the following Tuesday, when a BA flight from Vancouver touched down at Heathrow, the skies started to refill with metal birds and Sky started to fill with scintillating footage of ordinary people coming through arrivals halls looking a bit inconvenienced. Willie Walsh, union-intolerant CEO of British Airways admitted it would take “weeks” to resume normal service, but promised, “we will make every effort to get our people back home,” as if perhaps he really was airlifting refugees or troops, not running a £8.9bn business for profit.

During the Six Day Inconvenience, 95,000 flights were cancelled and an estimated 150,000 Britons trapped on holiday. I am not without sympathy for those who missed weddings, or lost money, or, in the case of the Kenyan flower farmers, had to sit and watch tonnes of roses bound for our Tesco Metros and BP Connects rotting under the Nairobi sun, but for the majority of us, it was lovely. Not a single plane In the sky for the best part of a week. As Stuart Jeffries hymned in the Guardian as he lay on the dewy grass at Kew amid magnolias and witch hazel, “The sky is filled with good news. One of the world’s busiest flight paths, that normally sullies much of west London with howling jet engines from 6am, is silent.”

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What prelapsarian paradise was this? On the Thursday, ITV suspended all adverts for the 90 minute duration of the first leaders’ election debate, merely adding to this surreal glimpse of a frankly more agreeable world. The word “chaos” reigned. Not actual chaos, just the word. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was stuck in New York. The Cribs, Delphic and Frightened Rabbit failed to make Coachella in California. Whitney Houston discovered that there is a lower ebb than appearing in the Bravo reality show Being Bobby Brown when she took the ferry from Holyhead in order to make a gig in Dublin. The Iron Man 2 world premiere was switched from the Westfield Shopping Centre in London to a presumably less rubbish Los Angeles. My friend Stuart Maconie, stuck in Venice, switched into travel writer mode and provided Twitter followers with a witty, illustrated commentary on his journey back to Mark Radcliffe by train, via Milan, Zurich and Paris (“Erstfeld station. The Didcot Parkway of the Alps”).

Come Saturday, when constant plane noise over my neck of London usually taints the summer’s first glass of rose on the patio, I’d stopped feeling guilty for enjoying the respite. A hyperventilating media and our glad-handing politicians had combined to turn the ash cloud into a new Dunkirk (“no-fly misery”), with Gordon Brown promising warships and the Daily Mail fortuitously selling World War II In Colour DVDs off the page. We Brits do not have a lot to be proud of these days, but we still have “pluck” and “resilience”, a myth reliably peddled in any self-started crisis. We certainly showed some world-class queuing with bags at Calais and Santander in our darkest hour.

WhateverVolcano22010

The clamour to present the Six Day Holiday Extension as some kind of duty-free 9/11 masked the real story: our perverted view of cheap and easy air travel as a basic human right. (Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one telegenically stranded celeb, was rare in admitting that the experience of having to endure five unplanned days in Mauritius had made him realise that flying is “a privilege”.) I’m not the planet’s most assiduous green but I have read a lot of books on environmental matters, including a couple of particularly terrifying ones on peak oil, and it doesn’t take a genius to foresee a foreseeable future where there’s not actually enough fuel to support our decadent devotion to economic growth and stag weekends in Prague.

The Six Day Chillout – quickly blamed on overreaction by the “health and safety” brigade – was an unprecedented and glorious glimpse of a post-Ryanair world. Like the “marooned” holidaymakers, it was all brought home for me in the words of Samson Lukoba, legal and ethical trading manager at Oserian, a vast floral factory perched on the shores Kenya’s Lake Naivasha: “The British, they want flowers every day, even just for their houses, not necessarily for special occasions.”

This was a special occasion. As if choreographed by James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory it so beautifully illustrated, April’s volcano – or “vilecano” as it was anthropomorphically christened by the silly old Mirror – showed us a world in which we must eat tiny bags of dry roasted peanuts and get deep vein thrombosis at home. And grow our own bloody flowers.

Published in Word magazine, June 2010

Andrew’s Columns

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There once was a magazine called The Word, although I always called it Word, as that it what it was originally called. Had I never written a single word for Word, I would have been its most ardent admirer (and subscriber), and would have lamented its passing with the same moistened eyes. As it happens, I did write for it, but I looked forward to the new issue arriving every month for 114 consecutive months between February 2003 and August 2012 not just to see how my words looked on the hallowed page, but to read all the other words by all the other smart and witty people on all the other pages.

Records show that I began writing a regular page column for Word at the very end of 2004, initially about TV and called Telly Addict. (Not a bad name.) In November 2006, that column’s brief was expanded to include … everything. It was renamed Whatever to reflect this. Whatever ran until the end of 2010, when it stopped. I was sad about this, but pulled myself together and carried on writing reviews and features for my favourite magazine until its final issue, including the third before last cover story, about the Stone Roses. (My only other cover story was Elbow, both pictured.)

As the magazine did not reprint its articles or reviews on the website (which instead predominantly acted as a water cooler for the Word massive), I find I am sitting on an awful lot of my own published writing that I remain very proud of. With the passing of the years, some of it even takes on a socio-historical sheen. So, without rhyme or reason – and mainly because I chanced up a random column from 2010 about the disruption to life as we know it caused by an Icelandic volcano while clearing out my email’s “sent” folder this morning – I thought it might be fun, if not necessarily an actual public service, to reproduce some of these columns here.

I hope you enjoy them, and that they bring back some fond memories of an era when you could publish magazines and a loyal knot of the discerning would buy them.

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An index of columns randomly posted so far:

June 2010 | Memories of the Great Volcano Inconvenience
November 2008 | The branding of everything
September 2008 | Unquestioning TV festival coverage
March 2007 | Health food packaged for idiots
June 2009 | The age of the overstatement
April 2009 | Choosing a daily newspaper
November 2010 | The death of the printed word
April 2010 | 3D or not 3D?
August 2008 | Barack Obama
January 2009 | Grey squirrels
July 2007 | Indie and the charts

Whatever #1

Here – elliptically illustrated by another nice photo I found from the good old days – is the first Whatever column I ever wrote for Word magazine. It’s about the craze for giveaway wallcharts that was, in October 2006 when I wrote it, sweeping Fleet Street. The specifics may be dated, but many of my worries at the time, and the protectionist warmth I felt for the printed word, seem entirely relevant, and depressingly prescient. I’m not going to reprint all my columns, by the way, but I thought, for old times’ sake, the first one would be OK.

WHATEVER by Andrew Collins [originally published in Word, issue dated December 2006]

Why are newspapers going to the wall?

Back in that faraway age we now call “the 90s”, the newspaper market was still divided along the following time-honoured lines: tabloids generated their revenue through copy sales, broadsheets through advertising. One traded in quantity, the other quality. One played bingo, the other didn’t.

But the times – and the Times – were a-changing. While circulation across the board had been in decline since the 80s, “pagination”, as they say in the print trade over a bun and a roll-up, was up. (Spinal injury units were backed up with paperboys disabled by the Sunday Times, up from 178 pages in 1984 to 362 in 1994. That’s a lot of unread articles about the lost tribes of the Amazon and Zandra Rhodes.)

It couldn’t go on like this. Hence, the great price war. In 1993, a master of the blunt instrument, Rupert Murdoch slashed the 25p cover price of the Sun to 20p (undercutting the Daily Mirror by 7p) and the Times down from 45p to 30p. When the Telegraph responded with a drop from 48p to 30p, the Times plummeted to 20p, and so it went.

Three years of this grubby huckstering only proved that editorial excellence is irrelevant; that most punters will take their news from the lowest bidder (the knockdown Times had doubled its circulation by 1997, the self-anointed TV Quick of Fleet Street). Meanwhile, aggregate newspaper circulation was only up by 0.4 per cent. In other words, for all the deckchair-rearrangement, tabloids and broadsheets were still basically chasing the same bunch of readers.

The Guardian, lest we forget, did not lower its price during the 93-97 conflict, and yet its circulation held steady, proving that some readers are more brand-loyal than others, even those to whom “brand” is a mucky word. Which is why, as a dogged loyalist – and occasional contributor – it pains me ideologically to see “my” paper reduced to giving away CDs and DVDs as free gifts. But since broadsheets went tabloid, creating one big no-man’s land in the newspaper war, there is no room for ideology.

I think we can all apocalyptically agree that these are the last days for traditional electronic software delivery formats. Thanks to their ubiquity in bagged-up national newspapers, silver discs are even more devalued than when AOL used to post them through your letterbox. And just in time, since we’ll all be downloading our music and films next week anyway. It’s the entertainment sector’s closing-down sale. Fact: if the Mirror are giving you Carry On Christmas for free, it’s either old stock or an incentive to buy further titles in a range of reissues, usually advertised off the page as part of the tie-in deal. There’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

If you can put up with the cardboard sleeve and the fact that you’ll never be able to find it again, The Wild Geese is indeed yours to keep for nothing. And if you don’t normally buy the Mail but did so exclusively to add this geriatric war movie to your collection, your custom has been successfully bought.

The irony of this “sampling” exercise (ie. grab for new readers) is that demographic bets are always hedged by the choice of film. Thus, the Independent preaches to the choir by offering its captive metropolitan trendies Roberto Rosselini’s Francesco giullare di Dio; the Sunday Times sums up its readership with Howards End (middle-class aspirational), and Ring Of Bright Water the Mail (would join Countryside Alliance if actually lived in countryside).

Like the arms race, the Great Silver Rush won’t stop until one of them blinks. In May, the Guardian switched tactic, inspired by the “roughage effect” of all those teach-yourself language CDs in rival rags. Its educational wallcharts – birds, sharks, fungi – proved promotional gold: new, dirt-cheap to produce, and no need to bag.

So what if the posters looked a bit murky and were educationally flawed, thanks to being bought in from a Danish company, The Scandinavian Fishing Yearbook. Birds Of Sea And Shore lacked a lapwing, one of our most common waders, pictured a Scandinavian eider and showed the speckled female Pochard rather than the more distinct adult male, with its beautiful chestnut brown head and pale back and flanks. (By the time of the Guardian’s second batch, a pathetic disclaimer was added: “This is a selection of species and not a definitive collection. It may include species that are not or no longer indigenous to Britain.”)

But we birders quibble over detail when cash registers are ringing. The Guardian was the only “quality daily” to increase circulation in May. The wallcharts worked their blu-tack magic, shifting 130,000 extra copies during birds-sharks-fungi week. Scenting money, the Independent did a blatant copycat set: British Trees, The Human Body, A Guide To The Weather – no, really – and a “life size” human skeleton (whose completion depended on you getting all five – clever!). The Mail was next to go to the wall.

Do these wallcharts say anything profound about us as a nation? That learning is the new rock and roll? No. Parents collect them for kids who’d actually rather cheat their GCSE coursework off the Internet. They are simply the spoils of war. But do as I do, and keep buying them, because the actual print apocalypse is being rehearsed in London right now, with two new “freesheets” locked in battle, forcing the Evening Standard to lower its price to … nothing. They can’t *give* it away.

Editorial excellence will count for nothing in a world where the newspapers themselves are the free gifts. Make a wallchart out of that.