If I could be anyone, I’d be..

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In honour of (and blatant advertising for) the rather lovely Talli Roland’s new novel Watching Willow Watts being launched today, I’m hopping on the “If I could be anyone..” bandwagon. In the story Willow attracts public attention by impersonating Marilyn Monroe, so today bloggers all over the Interweb are considering who they would be if they could be anyone at all.

So who would I be? Well, the honest answer is, probably that I’d just be me. I live what is, all things considered, a pretty charmed life. But that’s boringly well-balanced as well as boringly boring, so putting that to one side, who would I like to have a go at being, just as an alternative? I’d like to pretend that this was a tricky choice and that I considered a wide range of beautiful, intelligent and worthy people, but I so didn’t. There was only ever one choice.

River Song.

Alex Kingston as River Song

River Song is just brilliant. She’s got that hair. She’s intelligent. She’s foxy. She’s fearless and she gets to snog the Doctor. What’s not to love?

And ok, so River is currently in prison for murder, but she is not the sort to let that get her down, so I don’t think we should either. I do know, just for the record, that River Song is a fictional character, but actually that just gives me more reasons to love her (and to love Steven Moffat for inventing her). She’s a independent-minded action heroine, who isn’t size 0 or aged about 17, and she’s on mainstream British TV. Again, if you put aside the murdering, she’s a top class gold starred role model for little girls everywhere. Yay River Song!

Ooooh… you remember all that gubbins about three paragraphs ago about how I could only think of one possible choice, well I’ve thought of someone else. All of a sudden this game is hard. Ok, I’m going to have to award a runners-up prize.

In a very close 2nd place… Elizabeth I!

Miranda Richardson as Queenie

Now I don’t mean actual Queen Elizabeth I. She was forever having to worry about cousins plotting against her and Spaniards trying to invade. That all sounds a bit of a bother. I mean Queenie as played by Miranda Richardson in Blackadder series 2. The screwing up of her face if she thought she might not get her own way. The “Off with his head” in the tone of a sulky toddler. The occasional bursts of random flirtaciousness. I think I might pretty much be modelling my personality on Queenie. I find it very disheartening that I’m hardly ever allowed to have anyone executed.

So that’s who I’d be. And now I’m away to fret slightly about why I don’t idolise any real people. Why don’t you hop over here and see about downloading lovely Talli’s lovely book?

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What I did on my weekend mini-break

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After the unprecedented blogging success of my post about my holidays (it got three whole comments), I’ve decided to see if I can repeat the trick. Obviously, in the true spirit of sequels, this post will be not quite as interesting, and feel disappointingly lacking in originality.

So here we go – what I did on my weekend mini-break in London Town, ranked in reverse order of fun-itude! We saw 3 shows  and did 3 museums, so read on to find out which were charttoppers and which fell flat. Feel free to play some Top of the Pops style chart rundown background music in your head to get you in the mood.

 

6. Wicked – the Musical

This is the musical based on the Good and Wicked Witch characters from The Wizard of Oz. The basic idea is that the story is retold from the Wicked Witch’s point of view, and the show makes us consider who actually decides that one person is Good and another Wicked, and whether we might take a different view if we heard the other side of the story. It’s a clever and interesting idea, and the show had absolutely stellar reviews both on Broadway and the West End, so it might be a surprise to see this coming in in bottom place on my weekend chart. Unfortunately, for me (and much beloved accompanying husband),  it was just a bit meh. Very ballad heavy, lacking in memorable tunes (Defying Gravity excepted), and the stage set, whilst aesthetically impressive didn’t really contribute much to the performance. Add to that some pretty ropey diction from the performers, which undermined the impact of a lot of the songs, and the overall experience was never more than ok. Worth seeing if someone springs you a free (or very heavily discounted) ticket. We had £55 tickets, discounted to £30 and still felt like it wasn’t worth the money.

 

5. The Science Museum

A museum of highs and lows. Highs – being free, LaunchPad (the kid’s bit with lots of stuff to play with), the space gallery. Lows – the history of medicine galleries and the history of maths/computing gallery – both suffer from very dry, old-fashioned displays. The major low though seemed to be the lack of science. Lots of the museum is taken up with objects which are never really linked together into a story of scientific progress or endeavour. It’s just big rooms of stuff.  I also docked big points for them calling themselves the Science Museum and having a display about homeopathy that at no point mentions how there’s no reliable scientific evidence of anything beyond a placebo effect from homeopathic treatment. Just an asterix and a footnote saying “Of course, this is bollocks” would have sufficed. It’s the SCIENCE Museum, not the RANDOM THINGS SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE Museum. Tsk.

 

4. Tate Modern

Another mix of highs and lows. Highs – being free (sensing a theme at all??), and some individual works, particularly some of the Picassos, the Alberto Giacometti sculptures, a Jackson Pollack and a Kandinsky painting which was my personal favourite. Lows – the feeling that I must be a bit thick cos I don’t really understand most of the art. Yes, I see that you’ve cut out some red paper. I totally get that you’ve stuck it to the wall. Yup, you have stuck it to the wall in quite a nice pattern. I can read on the little explanation card that this can be seen as a comment on the nature of materials and disposability, but I’m not really feeling it. Now, I’m not going to just diss Modern Art. I completely accept that some people get something from these installations that I don’t. But I still don’t.

 

3. The Globe Theatre Tour & Exhibition

Lovely tour guide who was super-enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Beautiful theatre. Interesting exhibition, which felt just the right size for the information being communicated. (Science museum take note – no endless cabinets of loosely associated objects here). Would have liked a little bit more time to see some of the live demonstrations (sword-fighting, costume making etc) that were going on, but I can’t really blame the exhibition for us not allowing enough time.

 

2. We Will Rock You

The surprise hit of the weekend. We bought tickets to this because we wandered along to the late tickets booth in Leicester Square on Saturday morning and this was what they had. It’s the Ben Elton scripted musical based on the music of Queen. The basic premise is that 300 years in the future rock music has been banned in favour of computer generated homogenised pop. Our hero and heroine are two teenagers who go on a quest to rediscover the old music and reinvent rock. It’s a terrible premise. Every rational expectation is that this show should be awful, but somehow it’s kind of briliant. I think there are basically three reasons it works despite itself. Firstly, Ben Elton’s script embraces the lunacy of the premise, makes lots of jokes about it and then cheerfully steamrollers through. The sheer gusto is hard to resist. Secondly, the familiarity of the music gives an instant feeling of audience involvement and engagement. Thirdly, the performances and production values were generally excellent throughout, and this was in a performance where three of the main characters were being played by understudies. Fully expected to hate this. Didn’t. Pretty much loved it. It was sort of the opposite of Wicked which has a good idea, poorly executed. This was a terrible idea, somehow elevated into a really very good show.

 

1. Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre

The standout event of the weekend, and the reason for the whole trip. I’d never been to a play at the Globe before. If you haven’t either, then you really should. Standing tickets for the yard immediately in front of the stage are only a fiver. That’s cheaper than the cinema and you have the possibility of being hugged, jostled, and spat on by the actors. The Globe experience is unlike a modern indoor theatre. The audience are much more open to distractions from outside the play, and the actors have to be completely engaged with the audience and the wider environment to keep the audience within the story.

The play itself, Much Ado About Nothing, is one of my favourite plays (so much so that I’ve based on novel on it), and this was a brilliant production. The scene stealing characters in Much Ado are always Benedick and Beatrice – if you get those two characters right, you’ve generally got a pretty good production, and this production got them both bang on. I was particularly impressed with how well all the actors played the comedy in the play. Comedy in Shakespeare is tricky with modern audiences. There’s a lot of wordplay, much of which doesn’t quite survive the jump across 400 years of development of English. This production played both the language and the physical comedy beautifully.

 

So to conclude, I think I’ve decided, through the method of gallivanting around our rather brilliant capital for three days, that I really am a very word-oriented girl. I’m not really moved by music when I can’t hear the words (Wicked). I’m not that interested in physical objects if I don’t have a sense of their narrative (Science Museum). I don’t really respond to a lot of visual art until I’ve read the card that tells me what to think (Tate Modern). I do very much like a good communicative tour guide (Globe Exhibition), a song I know the words too (We Will Rock You), and a bit of 400 year old romantic wordplay (Much Ado About Nothing).

Come back later in the week (or you know, maybe the week after) when I shall be thinking more random thoughts about things. In fact, why not click on the lovely “Subscribe” link up at the top of the page and I believe you’ll get a rather charming little email notification whenever I actually get around to thinking something new.

Things that make me go Grrrrr… No. 1 David Starkey

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As promised yesterday (https://alisonmay.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/what-i-read-on-my-holidays/) here is my blog post in which I attempt to make a coherent intelligent link between David Starkey acting like a stupid person and Carol Vorderman reporting on the teaching of maths in school. Here we go.

David Starkey, like pretty much anyone else in the UK who is prepared to generate an opinion on short notice, has been pontificating about the causes of the recent riots and looting across English cities. For reasons, which we will come to, I don’t really want to generate him more noteriety by encouraging you to watch his appearance on Newsnight, but for other reasons, which are also coming, I don’t feel I can rant about his comments without letting you view my primary source material for yourselves, so here’s the iplayer link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b013h14z/Newsnight_12_08_2011/ The bit I’m talking about starts about 13 minutes in.

In his comments on the riots, Starkey opens by referencing Enoch Powell’s famous Rivers of Blood speech, and then comments that “the whites have become black”, before continuing to note that some black people (Starkey cites MP David Lammy) sound white.  After announcing that “the whites have become black”, Starkey goes onto claim that “a particular sort of violent nihilistic gangser culture has become the fashion.” This equating of “black” with “violent” and “nihilistic”, and whiteness with well-spoken respectability, has, not surprisingly, caused some controversy to ensue.

Starkey has form in this area. He has previously described himself as an “all-purpose media tart”, and courted press attention by, amongst other things, describing Scotland, Ireland and Wales as “feeble little” countries on BBC Question Time, and complaining vociferously (and to coincide with his own book being published) about the “feminising” of history. Controversy makes column inches and increases viewing figures, and David Starkey is frequently happy to oblige.

And that’s a problem, particularly with David Starkey, because he doesn’t appear on Newsnight or Question Time captioned as an “all-purpose media tart”, but rather as an “Historian.” That means that Starkey is playing the role of the academic to put across viewpoints which are deeply unacademic. Good academic historians are led by evidence. To draw conclusions evidence should be reliable, read in context and verifyable against other data or documents from the period in question. When pushed by other contributors to cite the evidence for his views in the Newsnight debate, Starkey falls back on a single text message. Really? One text? That’s all you’ve got?

One text message isn’t enough for a conclusion. Without a transcript of other texts sent by the same person in the same time period it’s not really enough to draw academic conclusions about that one person’s attitudes, style of language etc. It doesn’t get you close to the causes of a disparate event, involving hundreds of people across multiple cities. The galling thing is that Starkey knows that. He has a Phd in History. He has had a proper academic training in the handling of evidence. He is not, looking at his qualifications, a stupid man, but he appears to be a man prepared to say stupid things for attention.

A proper academic response to the riots, at this point in time, would probably start, “Well, it’s complicated..” and finish with something about “proper analysis of data from police, courts etc.” And that wouldn’t make particularly interesting television. It also wouldn’t make particularly pithy or headline grabbing public policy. It might, in the longer term, get us to a point where we understood a little bit about what actually happened last week, and what steps might be taken to minimise the risk, and effects, of a recurrence.

And that’s how I get to Carol Vordeman. (Stay with me here people – it will make sense.) The Conservative Party’s Carol Vordeman-led Maths Task Force, reported it’s conclusions earlier this month. The conclusions included suggestions such as making the study of Maths compulsory until age 18, and scrapping the Maths SAT test.

Now, I don’t want to be rude about Ms Vordeman. I have no reason to doubt her personal commitment to the improvement of standards of numeracy across the country. However, I do doubt the motivations of the Tory leadership in appointing her to lead their Maths Task Force. It seems to suggest that there was no-one available in the UK who has more relevant knowledge for this role than the lady who used to do the sums on Countdown. There are, we must logically conclude, no mathmaticians with a specialism in maths-education, no current or former teachers with ideas for reform and improvement in their specialist subject. It sounds unlikely, but why else would Vordeman have been appointed, other than that she was objectively the most qualified person for the job? It can’t possibly be because she is a media friendly face, recognisable to middle-England, and guaranteed a friendly spot on the Daybreak sofa to explain her Task Force’s reforms.

Together these two, not obviously related, news events worry me. Controversy is preferred to consideration; celebrity preferred to expertise. There isn’t a place in the news media or in political debate for those of us whose natural instinct is to think for a while before drawing conclusions. Media moves too quickly. Policies are required to be pithy, headline grabbing and immediate. Thoughtfulness is discouraged, and without thoughtfulness, I think, it’s impossible to achieve understanding. Without understanding a situation how can you draw conclusions, make decisions and plan for the future? Personally, I just don’t think you can.

Finally, just so you can check my sources, in a properly transparent “academic” way, here are some sites that relate to what I’ve written above:

Profile of David Starkey: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article4837679.ece

David Starkey on Question Time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXd5KiKWtVA

David Starkey on feminising history: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5077505/History-has-been-feminised-says-David-Starkey-as-he-launches-Henry-VIII-series.html

Carol Vordeman on maths in schools: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14437665

And also worth a read is Starkey’s fellow Newsnight guest, Dreda Say Mitchell’s take on the whole affair: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/david-starkey-ethnic-year-zero

And even more finally, I haven’t written a blog explicitly about the recent riots. Mainly that was because there seemed to be an awful lot of opinion already out there, and also because all I really had to say was, “Well, it’s complicated…” but here are a couple of the more considered views I’ve read on the matter:

Peter Oborne in the Telegraph: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100100708/the-moral-decay-of-our-society-is-as-bad-at-the-top-as-the-bottom/

Kevin Sampson in the Guardian (the only writer I’ve seen acknowledge that rioting can be kinda fun for the participants): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/10/liverpool-riots-mob-mayhem?INTCMP=SRCH

What I read on my holidays…

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Ok, so this is two weeks later than planned, but here it is, holiday related blogpost no.2 (if you missed number 1 it’s here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-T) – What I read on my holidays.

I read 11 books on holiday, which for a 16 night trip is a little slow, but it was a going-out-doing-stuff holiday rather than a sitting-by-the-pool holiday so that’s ok. It was still 3 books more than I packed, so involved scavenging from husband’s bookpile and wandering the streets looking for an English-language book shop (which is now pretty much a traditional part of all our holidays).

The books were, in no particular order:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Them by Jon Ronson

Funny Valentine by Amy Jenkins

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy

Mini Shopohlic by Sophie Kinsella

And I can’t even remember what the 11th book was. I know I bought it at the St Richard’s Hospice book shop, but I have no recollection of the title, author or content. Clearly, not one that made a big impression.

So out of the ten that impinged enough for me to recall them two weeks later, what do we think? I’m quite pleased with the mix. A bit of a preponderance of chicklit, but also one collection of short stories, one blokelit, one crime/psychological thriller, a couple of “grown-up” literary prize winners, and two non-fiction (or Real Books as much beloved husband terms them). No sci-fi or fantasy, but I’ve got a Jasper Fforde and a Neil Gaiman on my to-read pile, so I’ll excuse it.

That’s my first reccomendation then. Not a particular book, more an approach to books – read widely. A lot of readers I talk to get quite hung up on particular genres – “I don’t like crime” “I can’t stand romance” “I only read non-fiction. Made up stories are a waste of time”. And I do the same. I’m not a big crime reader. This is silly of me though. There are really only two meaningful genre categories – good books and bad books. Seek out the good books, regardless of genre or amount of blood on the cover. It’s totally cool to have personal preferences and favourites, but if you only read stuff you already know you’re going to like, you never get surprised, and being surprised by a story or a writer is one of the great pleasures of reading. So off you all go and read a book you’re not sure you’re going to like.

Wait. Wait. Come back. You can do the reading thing in a minute. Turns out, I haven’t finished. I have neither the time or the energy to review 10 books in full (only 10 – really bugging me now that I can’t remember no. 11), so I’m just going to give you the edited version.

Happily none of the books I read were terrible, but some were much much better than others, so here’s my top and bottom picks from the list.

The Top Three:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

This is a great holiday read. Easy to read, funny, fast-paced but doesn’t make you feel like your brain is atrophying while you’re reading it. What Manning has done is taken a classic romance plot – rich, powerful, older guy meets younger slightly lost woman and a whole indecent proposal thing ensues – and made it feel modern. Even more impressively she’s managed to make both characters sympathetic, so her slightly lost heroine never feels pathetic, and her older guy, whilst deeply manipulative and occasionally really unpleasant, is also vulnerable and surprisingly sexy. Probably my personal favourite read of the whole trip.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

A book to read with your jaw on the floor in incredulity whilst all your worst suspicions about the inner workings of the British media are confirmed and exceeded. A lot of writers and commentators currently do a really good job of satirising and unpicking the worst misrepresentations that crop up in the media. Charlie Brooker and Ben Goldacre both spring immediately to mind, but, for me, this book, with it’s level of detail and specific examples, is the one to read if you are at all concerned about the impact of bad media on society as a whole. I could write a whole blog just about this subject but instead I’ll say read this book or check out the author’s website: www.flatearthnews.net

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book won the Booker Prize in 2008 and whilst the Booker judges have a slightly patchy record at picking books that actually qualify as being readable, this is a corker. It’s a a first person narrative, written from the point of view of a Bangalore entrepreneur, who styles himself the White Tiger. He’s a fascinating lead character, full of humour and a good dollop of moral ambiguity, and there’s enough plot in there to make this a character study that also makes the grade as a page-turner.

And two that I didn’t like so much…

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Hannah started her career as a poet, before moving into crime fiction. I believe this was her first novel, and it’s not a stinker by any means. The story centres around a woman who comes home and realises that the baby in the crib is not her child. You spend most of the book not sure whether her baby really has been abducted, or whether the lead character is insane, or whether there’s another explanation entirely. The story is told in two different timeframes with two narrators and the two narratives converge at the end of the book. It’s structurally interesting. The plot idea is sound and the method of telling is potentially effective. Ultimately, I just wasn’t feeling it. I think for this story to really work you have to engage emotionally with the main character and you have to care about what’s happened to the baby, and the writer just didn’t quite do enough to get me there. Close, but no cigar.

Mini Shopoholic by Sophie Kinsella

This is the latest book in the mega-successful shopoholic series. In a way I can’t complain about it, because you know buying a book in a series like this that you’re going to get exactly what it says on the tin, but actually that’s the source of my first problem. You get exactly what it says on the tin, and nothing more. Even within a series of novels, it’s great to be wrong-footed occasionally. The incomparable Sir Terry of Pratchett has written 38 Discworld novels, with the 39th due later this year, and at their best (see Night Watch or Monstrous Regiment) they can still push the series into new directions. Mini Shopoholic doesn’t seem to have any such ambitions. It is just another shopoholic novel; there’s nothing to make it stand out and sing on it’s own merits. My second qualm follows on from that thought and is about the story itself . There doesn’t seem to be a quite enough plot to sustain a whole book. Luke is quite busy at work. Becki organises a party. Minnie is a bit naughty. That’s pretty much it. The most interesting development, the involvement of Luke’s mum in the story, feels like a preparation for a future book, rather than an intrinsic part of this one. Personally, I think that, even within a series, each novel has to stand up on it’s own as a standalone story, and I’m not quite convinced this one does.

So there you have the books I read on holiday. Some I’d heartily recommend (and for the record Half of a Yellow Sun and Them only narrowly missed out on places in the favourites list), and a couple I wasn’t so taken with. Feel free to comment if you’ve read any of the above, or if you have any book recommendations for me. My to read pile is almost down into single figures and I’m starting to get twitchy!

Come back tomorrow (well, you know, maybe not actually tomorrow…) when I will be attempting to draw a coherent argument about stuff that encompasses Carol Vorderman making recomendations for maths teachers and David Starkey thinking the white kids talk like the black kids. It’s going to be an absolute ball.

And I’ve just remembered book number 11 – Jojo Moyes’ The Peacock Emporium. Pretty good, but not up to the standard of my favourite Moyes’ novel which I reviewed here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-k  Oh, it’s a relief to have remembered though.

Goodbye.

What I learnt on my holidays

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For my holidays I went to Switzerland. And in good, back to school, spirit I have written something about it. Here are the things I learnt on my holidays.

1. Bears can climb trees.

I saw one do it. Here: http://www.baerenpark-bern.ch/index.php?id=info&L=0  I also learnt that it is a bit unnerving to just be having a gentle stroll along the river bank, glance to your side and think, “Oh. Bears.”

2. If you are having heart-shaped balloons at your wedding, you should look at them from the top, just to be sure they don’t look like boobies.

The wedding party we saw on our last day in Switzerland had failed to do this. They had nipple balloons. How we laughed.

3. Western Europeans are totally over the whole bomb scare thing. Australians still find them quite exciting.

At Gare du Nord station, waiting to board the Eurostar back to the good ol’ UK, we were rudely interrupted by an announcement instructing us to evacuate the area due to a security alert. We should do this, the announcement said, in line with instructions from the station staff. The 300 or so people in the waiting area glanced around for some station staff to instruct us, saw none, and went back to reading their books. About ten minutes later the same announcement repeated. This time, a few people stood up, clearly feeling that they at least ought to show willing. Some station staff appeared, milled around a bit, and made no attempt to evacuate us. The people who’d stood up, now feeling they had foolishly overreacted to the risk of being blown limb from limb, tried to look as though they’d wanted to stand up anyway. Really, honestly, they were just stretching their legs. They sat down again. We all went back to reading our books. Another ten minutes or so passed, and then a medium-sized bang was heard from another part of the station. Not a “the whole place has blown up, run for your lives” bang, but not a “Oh dear, Jean Claude’s dropped another plate” sort of bang either. A medium bang. A controlled explosion sort of bang, you might say. This, at last, got a reaction from the waiting hoard. Several people looked around. A few went, “Oooh.” We all went back to reading our books. Another ten minutes or so passed and we were allowed to board our train.

On the train, we were seated across the aisle from a group of Australians, who were “doing Europe.” They seemed very pleased with the whole incident, and talked enthusiastically about how they must email home and tell everyone how they had survived a real European bomb scare. So there you go, slight risk of terrorism is apparently considered part of the modern authentic European tourist experience. Oh dear.

4. Swiss trains really do run on time.

And the station clocks pause slightly at the top of the minute. The second hand goes all the way around in about 57 seconds, pauses slightly at the top of the hour, before the minute hand clicks on and the second hand resumes it’s journey. You can watch the clock. See the minute hand click around. You then just have time to say, “We should be going now,” before the train pulls away. It’s very impressive.

5. Switzerland really is excruciatingly expensive.

People told me this before we went. It’s one of the things everyone knows about Switerland. Mountains, chocolate, cuckoo clocks, Nazi gold, very expensive. Basically the Swiss are rich. Their GDP is around $67000 per capita. The UK’s is around $35000 per capita. So there’s an awful lot more money floating around. This is a bit of a pain from a tourist point of view. You  have two choices. Either you don’t eat and only do free activities. Or you absolutely cane your credit cards and decide to worry about it later. Hmmm… yeah… about that… *shuffles feet a bit* There might need to be a tiny bit of belt tightening round these parts over the next couple of months.

So that’s what I learnt on my holidays. Try to only overspend within numbers the human brain can count up to, and look out for bears.

Come back for tomorrow for “What I read on my holidays…”

Everybody’s talking about… tabloid phone hacking

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So, it turns out that some people who work for the News of the World have questionable moral standards. This should not be surprising to anyone by this point in time. Allegations of phone hacking first surfaced in 2005. The paper’s royal editor was jailed for this crime in 2007. In February 2010 the Culture Commitee found that it was “inconceivable” that senior executives at the paper weren’t aware that phone hacking was going on.

Questions still remain about how widespread these practices were, or are, across other newspapers and media. The somewhat muted early response to the story from other print tabloids might suggest that there are skeletons in closets well beyond the News of the World. The Information Commissioner’s report into journalists paying for “private” information cited the Mirror and the Mail as the leading offenders in that area. Confirmation from the Press Association in June 2011 that one of its journalists had been arrested in relation to phone hacking also gives a possible indication of a wider problem in the industry.

But the specific actions of specific papers, morally bankrupt though the increasingly appear to be, actually concern me less than the wider culpability of those who ought to be in a position do something about the mess.

Let’s start with the Press Complaints Commission. In 2009 the PCC looked at new allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, arising from a Guardian article about the problem. They found that there was no evidence of hacking. It was only today, nearly two years later, that the Commission finally acknowledged that they could no longer stand by that conclusion. Today’s statement also noted that the recent admission that Milly Dowler’s voicemail was hacked “undermined the assurances” given to the Commission by News International. Well, yes. But it also raises questions about the PCC’s investigation. Did it simply take the form of asking News International whether they did phone hacking, and nodding politely when the answer was slightly shifty “No sir. Course not sir. Didn’t do it. You can’t prove anything”?

That’s ok though. The PCC is a self-regulatory body for the print media, and there are always limitations to self-regulation in any industry. In this one the limitations of self-regulation have to be balanced against the value of a free press. And in the case of phone-hacking a criminal act has occured, so the primary investigatory responsibility, and power, lie not the with PCC, but with the police.  And here’s where it gets really shady. Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and now Chief Executive of News International, admitted in evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the Press & Privacy in 2003, that the News of the World had, on occasion, paid police officers for information. She later qualified this statement in a letter to the Inquiry.

The Met’s initial 2005 investigation into phone hacking led to the convictions of a private investigator and one News of the World journalist. No further action was deemed necessary by the police or the CPS. No evidence of hacking beyond the specific offences in the trial was presented by the CPS to any court. The matter was simply not treated as a priority. At best, that smacks of an attitude that perceives criminal acts by well-paid powerful organisations and individuals as of limited importance. Alternatively, it suggests a police force which is unwilling or incapable of thoroughly investigating powerful, and potentially unco-operative, companies. Even now new revelations about the depth of the wrongdoing at News International seem to come out in terms of “News International have revealed that…”, rather than “the police have discovered that…” It rather makes you wonder who is really in charge of the current investigation.

The police are still not the final line of defence. Ultimately, political pressure could have lit a fire under the police investigation or sanctioned a specific inquiry into phone hacking in the media. Until yesterday that didn’t look likely. Why not? It’s very easy to lay the blame squarely at David Cameron’s door. He employed one former News of the World editor, and still seems unable to accept that that may have been unwise. He is also close friends with Rebekah Brooks. The image of cronyism at the highest level in British politics remains strong, and Cameron should be held accountable for his judgements in who he hires and who he chooses to call a friend.

The problem goes deeper than that though. At present the Murdoch owned News International already control approximately 1/3 of the UK newspaper market. Murdoch also owns 39% of BSkyB and is in the process of attempting to purchase the remaining 61% to make the company wholly owned by News Corp. The political influence of the Murdoch papers is hard to quantify. Successive editors have claimed that they don’t decide election results, they simply follow the public mood very closely. My suspicion is that those editors don’t really believe that version, and, more importantly, politicians don’t believe it either. Since the 1980s Rupert Murdoch and his organisation have become untouchable by leading politicians. Courting those papers has come to be seen as a prerequisite for political success. Unfortunately, it now appears that those papers have been harbouring a contagion at their heart, and politicians are discovering that if you’re prepared to sleep with the enemy, you’re likely to get contaminated by their germs.

How the current controversy over phone hacking, and now paying police for information, pans out may well tell us something about the current state of News Corp’s influence in the UK. If they come out of the other side retaining their market share, luring back those advertisers who are currently distancing themselves from News of the World, and, most importantly, owning BSkyB outright, we will know, that for now at least, traditional bonds of power, influence and cronyism are still strong forces. If they don’t, if the takeover of BSkyB is ultimately blocked, if the News of the World suffers a long-term dip in readership and advertising revenue, then we will know that the sands have shifted, slightly but significantly, around us.

Perhaps, at that point, we might conclude that new media, online news, and social networks really are starting to undermine the accepted order. Misleading stories and misdirections in the mainstream press are becoming easier to challenge, when any Tom, Dick or Alison can write their own version and send it out into the world. With 140 characters as our weapon of choice, we might just all be headline writers now.

Festival season for the old at heart

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The UK’s summer festival season is starting to build up. Glastonbury kicks off today. T in the Park is two weeks later, followed by Reading and V in August. But that’s not the festival season I want to talk about. I want to talk about the one that kicks off in Hay, meanders round Cheltenham at various points in the year, depending on whether you prefer to have your boat floated by science, literature or jazz, and probably takes in a few RHS shows for good measure. I’m talking about the, much more refined, festival circuit of the middle-aged and middle-class.

I did the *proper* festivals, in a half-hearted sort of way, during my student years. I stood in muddy fields pretending to care about serious music, but my heart was never really in it. That should probably have presented an early clue to my deep inner lack of cool. I don’t really care about music. I like a good beat. I like a tune you can dance to. I even quite like a good lyric in passing. But none of those things  inspire any great passion. I have friends who get music, who buy music every week, who talk about new songs and new bands they’ve discovered. Those are the friends who look at me in horror when I tell them that I don’t really buy new music. I already own enough for the repeats not to come around often enough to be annoying. Why would I need more? So big music festivals were never my natural home, but back then I never would have guessed how totally and unsalvageably uncool I would ultimately turn out to be.

The real suspicions came the first year I attended an RHS Gardening Show. I told myself I wasn’t really going for me. I was taking my mum, and only going to keep her company. That was a lie. As soon as I walked into the special secluded world of order and pretiness that is an RHS Floral Marquee, I was captivated. Everything inside the marquee is perfect and scented and arranged beautifully. And there are plants to buy and catalogues to collect and read through later. It’s how the shopping will be in heaven. Since then I’ve been to the Malvern Spring Gardening show five times, Chelsea once, and Tatton Park twice. The gardening shows started my decline. 

Cheltenham Literature Festival probably sealed it. The first time I went I saw Lynne Truss, and nodded along with her slides of humourously misplaced apostrphes, follwed by Judi Dench. Dench was every inch the grand theatrical dame. She was interviewed on stage by her own biographer, and when she forgot a story, she simply commanded the biographer to tell it for her. Since that day “having my own biographer” has been my single greatest life ambition. I digress, and sadly I don’t yet have a minion to finish the blogging for me, so back to the point. My natural festival environment isn’t the Pyramid Stage, it’s a seat in a theatre or marquee with someone who has achieved a middle-level of fame talking about their book and then answering a few questions from the audience. And then, in between the talking, you can have wine. It’s really very civilised.

This year I’ve done the Hay Festival (talks on human evolution and poker), Cheltenham Science Festival (risk in the media, Fermat’s Last Theorem, and human extinction), Gardeners World Live (planting in containers and planning your borders) and Cheltenham Food Festival (no talks, but lots of hanging around the wine stalls saying “Can I just taste that one again?”) I think, added together, all that means that it’s time to face facts.

I am crashing headlong into middle age, and it sort of suits me. I like gardening. I like baking. I like staying in to read a good book. I like films with a proper story. I like TV programmes where you can hear the dialogue. I still like  a festival; I still like to sit on the grass with a cold drink. I’d just prefer to do it somewhere with nice food and toilets that no-one’s vomited in (or on).

So who’s with me? Who else is prepared to put their hand up to not being cool, and not really missing it? What are your nerdiest passions? And what’s your favourite summer festival?