The Selfie

The “selfie”, the production of a photographic self-portrait using a smart phone camera, has been a popular topic in the soi-disant news media for a little while.  I must admit to being amazed, following the hysterical Sunday Format on Radio 4 many years ago, that newspaper Lifestyle pages (where this topic has been a mainstay) seem to continue unchanged and without the slightest hint of irony – but it is so.  But, to return to my main theme, the recent announcement that the OED has made “selfie” their New Word of the Year has only added accelerant to the existing flames.

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while, may remember my very poor quality attempt to capture an image of myself on or near a Eurostar train, primarily to make my nephew jealous – an activity, which following his karate competition-winning exploits this last weekend, may be rather more dangerous than I had previously realised.  In general, I try to avoid any photographic evidence of my existence entering the public (or indeed a private) domain.  So far as I can recall, the nearest thing to a selfie on this blog are my plum-clad legs and white-socked feet (at which sight, I’m sure many a reader has swooned) – though there is, of course, the infamous “vlog” post for those not of a nervous disposition.

I do, in fact, have a few photos that might count as “selfies”.  These are normally taken on some high point, with the camera (these pre-date the smart phone) perched precariously on a trig point or cairn, with use of the timer enabling me to (mostly) appear within frame.  These shots are to prove to my mother (and anyone else interested) that I was really there.  Occasionally, another hiker can be persuaded to capture a small portion of my soul for posterity, but this is less fun than the DIY approach.

Other selfies have occasionally been needed to use as a thumbnail for Skype or other similar applications. My “picture” for Twitter is in fact a small jar of spice and another of fish (anchovies, if anyone is interested) – a choice which is explained in a much earlier post.  Such thumbnails are just taken “live” when required without any preparation or posing (except for the two jars which were posed with some care) – and, probably show both this total lack of preparation and the dread concentration need to line everything up while pushing the right button.  My last such thumbnail is probably a good 5 or more years old by now.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should make clear that this lack of desire for images of myself does not arise from some virtuous lack of vanity (as this blog, where all is vanitas, should readily prove) – perhaps quite the reverse.

Las week, the “man” suddenly decided that “he” needed a selfie of me to include as part of a proposal going out to a potential client.  I realise that this has been de rigeur for models and actors for some time, but I hadn’t realised it had spread to the life of the mere desk jockey.  I’m not sure what seeing a small, dodgy photo of me can add to a proposal (unless it were one of marriage) – especially if it were to be read at a meal time – and can only feel it is part of our society’s increasing obsession with images and the self.  Do serious business folk reject or accept proposals because the delivering team would involve someone with blue eyes, a side-parting or ginger hair?  I’m sure I’ve written before about the number of TV programmes which are a much shorter, punchier radio programme with some moving pictures unnecessarily tacked on.  In a similar vein, I always find myself railing against websites where a potentially interesting article requires me to watch a video – I’d far rather read some text (with the odd picture, if you insist) while I continue to listen uninterrupted to BBC 6Music, Radio 3 or a CD.  It would seem that I am a fan of using the simplest medium for any given message – perhaps an otherwise latest desire for efficiency finding an outlet? (This post was supposed to be a really short one – so much for efficiency!)

Anyway, I felt I had to comply with the request and so had to rifle through back-ups (backs-up?) of old hard drives to seek an image of myself not standing triumphant on hill or mount.  Perhaps readers would care to decide whether the proposal will have gained or lost from its inclusion…

Would you "buy" this face?

Would you “buy” this face?

A new vice

To act as a counter-balance to my normal life of simple purity and virtue, I am always on the look-out for a new vice I can add to my rather modest canon of hedonism.  Just over a week ago, I struck pay dirt.

It had been a tiring week and I nearly didn’t go out for a night of comedy at all – but I’m so glad I did.  Rather than the more traditional venue, this was held in a room above a slightly hippy, not-for-profit café in Southampton (in fact, the self-same café at which I took refreshment when I first visited Southampton to investigate it as a place to live).  I went to see Andrew O’Neill – who is a very entertaining comedian and rather different to most of his compatriots (both in dress and references to heavy metal) – but this was not the vice.

No, the vice related to the café.  As I was in a café, I eschewed the beer that might be considered a more traditional accompaniment to stand-up and went for my traditional café fare: a mug of hot chocolate (and a delicious slice of tiffin – well, unaccompanied beverages can be dangerous and need a slice of cake to keep them safe).   I was asked how I’d like my chocolate and so enquired as to the options, expecting perhaps marshmallows or whipped cream.  Nothing so prosaic, I was offered rum in my cocoa.  What a revelation, I can’t believe I’ve been drinking it without rum all these years.  It is perhaps fortunate that the flat has no rum though plenty of cocoa and milk – however, this state of affairs may not last long.  I thoroughly recommend any readers (of a legal age) to try a little rum with their nocturnal cocoa – I can’t yet speak as to whether the rum should be white or dark, but a little pleasurable experimentation should yield the answer.

AB

This year seems rather rich in anniversaries – or perhaps I’ve just noticed more of them – though I am still awaiting the JFK, Doctor Who and Benjamin Britten cross-over for which we are so obviously crying out.

Britten, of course, had a productive working relationship with W H Auden through much of the 1930s, so, it is perhaps not surprising that I encountered the pair of them twice over a (long) weekend.

The first encounter was at Turner Sims and covered rather a large number of my interests in a single gig.  We had Britten’s music, the Aurora Orchestra, Auden’s words and the films of the GPO Film Unit – all topped off by the wonderful voice of Samuel West.  I am far more likely to watch a TV documentary – regardless of subject matter – if Mr West is providing the voice over.  I’m not sure what it is about his voice – there’s nothing obviously showy, but it is truly one of the greats.  As a child of radio, I am a fan of a good voice – and that same weekend watching the final episodes of Fringe (a consistently entertaining, if barmy, series) reminded me of what a stunning voice Lance Reddick has (if I had such a voice, I’d be disappointed not to be ruling a significant portion of the earth’s surface).

Some of the films were splendidly dated with some of the most stilted “acting” you will ever see, but others were wonderfully fresh: a silhouette animation to sell Post Office savings was glorious (current advertisements couldn’t hold a candle to it – though may well be more successful at selling stuff).  It was a truly great night out – it even offered a special Britten centenary beer in the interval – but provided almost too much to take in at a single sitting.  It was also rather bittersweet as one film was about the coal industry (now virtually gone, but once a huge employer of men), another about electrification of the line to Portsmouth (with many references to the shipyards which had just received their death notice) and Night Mail (when the post was delivered by train).

The GPO was once a staggering organisation – it was heavily involved in the development of radio and made films which commissioned some of the country’s finest artists in the 1930s.  When I was a boy, it still ran the phone service and a bank.  Gradually, successive governments have whittled it away until the current incumbents recently ended 173 years of public service by flogging it off (for well below its market value) – what an ignominious end to organisation which has brought us so much.  Monolithic organisations have their issues (the lack of a second stone, for one), but I wonder if we have thrown rather too much of the baby out with the bath water and will live to regret it (as we have following so many badly organised privatisations over the years).

My second encounter with the Auden-Britten axis was at the cinema, in my second play beamed “live” from the National Theatre.  This was Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art – provisionally titled AB – dating from 2010 with the late, great Richard Griffiths playing Auden and Alex Jennings playing Britten.  The aspect ratio seemed a little odd, but the play and performance more than justified the recommendation that had sparked my attendance.  This is the third play Bennett has written for the National which I have seen, and if he chooses to write any more I shall try and see those too.

Southampton may not have quite the cultural scene of Cambridge – though may be rather better served for the DJ scene (and other young people’s music, much of which is an arcane mystery to an old codger like myself) – but there is still a lot going on locally and it’s a joy when I can be home less than 15 minutes after the (often metaphorical) curtain comes down.

Where are you from?

Today’s title is a question I was asked earlier in the week, but to which I found I lack a good or ready answer.  I know where I was born and where I was brought up – but I don’t really feel I am “from” either of those.  This lack of belonging to my place of birth can be explained by my forced departure before I was even six months old.  I’m less sure where my lack of belonging to the location of my childhood originates – perhaps just prolonged absence?

I could – and did – list various of the places I’ve lived over the years since my body (though not my mind) reached adulthood.  However, this does not seem a terribly good answer to a perfectly banal question.  I am clearly from the UK, but this only works as an answer if the question is posed by Johnny Foreigner, so am I somehow rootless beyond my basic nationality?

The (relatively) recent house move had already led me to ponder the nature of home and where it lies.  For quite some time, I continued to view Cambridge as “home” – and I can still catch myself thinking in that way even now.  Still, since the arrival of the new sofa (the old one being too large to make the move), Southampton has been fairly securely established as “home”: hat location is surprisingly unimportant, despite what Paul Young would have you believe.  However, Southampton is not alone in holding this honour.  Cambridge is still “home”, particularly when I am there or I see it on the screen.  After an absence of 25 years, a couple of trips back to Oxford over the summer have made it clear that the city of dreaming spires is also still “home” – I suppose I did live there for three years (well, nearly half of three years – during term time – to be strictly accurate) but its continuing claim on me is a little surprising.  More surprising still is that Edinburgh also qualifies as “home” despite the fact that I have never lived there (or even owned so much as a deck chair there, let alone a settee) and only visited the city sporadically for the last 6 or 7 years – but I am quite familiar with the bus routes (or at least some of them).

I’m struggling to find any obvious common link between my various “homes”, which presumably means I must blame affect (or go the way of Dr Freud and blame my mother and/or a childhood trauma).

Do others have the same issue responding to the question “where are you from”?  Or, is it just me?

Anyways, the originator of this question was much clearer about where she was from as she cut my hair.  She hailed from Middlesborough, or more accurately Great Ayton, and so my list-based answer of places inhabited was sufficient to spark lively conversation.  We chatted about the joys of a night out in the ‘Borough on the lash and the beauty of the Cleveland Hills with particular reference to Roseberry Topping (a hill rather than a dessert) and the simple pleasure to be gained from a beer and steak sandwich following its evening ascent.  So, despite my failure to properly answer the question and the subsequent soul-searching, the interrogative device served its purpose admirably.  I suspect there is a lesson here for me to learn…

Moving to the Hamptons

An aspiration, I believe, for many a New Yorker though my own move was not to Long Island (though I do remain resident on a much longer island).  Whilst Southampton shares a name (and given the etymology of said name, can be considered the original) with one of the Hamptons most desirable villages, I doubt the folk of the four boroughs are queuing to move here.

After three months as a resident, I can say that Southampton is no Cambridge – the architecture would (on the whole) be considered less attractive and despite a river I have yet to see a punt.  Some of the dodgy architecture can be blamed on the Luftwaffe, though I fear the British must take the blame for the re-building.  It does, however, have some history – it claims it was from here that Cnut failed to command the sea (wisely eschewing use of the Illearth stone) – and has a long naval tradition.

When I moved from Crouch End to Cambridge, I noted the increased obesity of the residents in my new domicile.    This effect was repeated with my most recent move.  I believe this is a class (or socio-economic effect); it is extraordinary that within a century obesity has gone from being a signifier of extreme wealth to one of near poverty.

It is also quite astonishingly green in many parts with a very generous provision of parks surrounding the city centre and the Common just to the north.  My new demesne lies within a Georgian crescent (well, demi-crescent) facing a small park and the main law courts (so, I still see plenty of police action).  Whilst the frontage and hall floor are original, the rest is more recently-built and so offers the high ceilings and tall windows of the past but modern levels of sound and heat insulation.  It lies betwixt the soi-disant Cultural Quarter and the Common and the older of the two universities – so little that I might want to visit is more than a mile or two away (including those vital pillars of a chap’s life: Waitrose, John Lewis, the main library and the railway station).

Talking of the universities, my new gym is associated with the johnny-come-lately uni (made famous as the seat of John Lloyd’s professor of ignorance in this latest series of the Museum of Curiosity).  This gains over previous gymnasia in its cheapness and proximity, but mostly in that it has both a tower and crenellations!  As the building seems less than a century old, I presume these are a decorative flourish and have never been used to repel an attack but do make a pleasant change from the retail “barns” which house so many modern fitness (and other) facilities.

The old university is comprised of modern buildings but in rather fine, tree-filled grounds.  It also house an excellent music facility in the Turner Sims and a decent theatre in the Nuffield.  I may talk more of these anon, but they do boast a very fine range of both ice cream and beer at very competitive prices!

Southampton provides a river and the sea at close hand, though I have yet to actually see the briny (however, I have seen some very large boats dominating the skyline – my first being the Queen Mary 2).  It lies within easy cycling distance of the New Forest: yet another trip I have yet to make.  What it also offers is very, direct good rail links to a surprisingly wide area of the UK – though Network Rail is contriving to make weekend or evening trips to London rather undesirable unless one wishes to invest an awful lot of time (and probably a bus journey) to return home.  As a result, I have visited Oxford, Salisbury and Chichester for weekend fun since my move – all take less time than going to London from Cambridge and by avoiding going via London are a surprisingly cheap option (even without booking months in advance).

More of Oxford and Chichester another time, but I shall mention Salisbury now.  I used to go there when but a lad, but the city now seemed very unfamiliar – even the cathedral.  However, I did find Reeves the Baker (fitted with somewhat different signage than in the 70s) and they still offered lardy cake.  Proust had his madeleine, for me the first mouthful of lardy cake and my temps perdu flooded back like soapy water to a badly-plumbed washing machine.  The city costs only pennies more to visit than the cost of visiting Cambridge by bus from Sawston – and takes less time to reach despite the substantially greater distance.

Perhaps Salisbury’s greatest asset (or at least one of the greats) is the Playhouse.  I have seen a truly excellent production of 1984 (which will soon drive me back to the book, which I last read when 12 – which might have been a tad precocious , or merely premature) and my first taste of Ibsen with Ghosts (the hammer-blow ending of which reminded me of Katya Kabanova – pretentious, moi?).  Even better, it is amazingly cheap for a matinée seat at a mere £15 and offers a decent interval refreshment.

So, all-in-all, the move is proving a success – though I do miss Cambridge – and my plan to see the UK by living in its various parts (so much better than being a mere tourist) proceeds apace.

Notes on (many) a scandal

Scandals do seem terribly important in the world – without them the media would have to fall back on celebrity trivia, the voluminous output of the world’s PR machine and speculation for even more of their “news” content than is already the case

The media have themselves been rather mired in scandal of late which has allowed politicians, an unsavoury group that the fourth estate is supposed to keep in check, to gain the upper hand.  I’m not sure this is terribly healthy in a democracy – I was under the impression that a free press was quite an important element of maintaining a nominally free society. I’m not at all clear what this new Royal Charter is supposed to achieve – other than as a piece of political mis-direction – as all the recent press naughtiness it is supposed to prevent already seems to be covered by existing (if unenforced) laws.  Perhaps the money and time might have been better invested in improving enforcement of existing statutes rather than creating new ones not to enforce.

The press and politicos regularly come very low in measures of public trust – probably somewhere around the estate agent and second-hand car salesman of popular stereotype.  Rather than doing anything which might improve their standing, their main response seems to be to try and degrade public faith in much more popular and better trusted organisations (I’m sure attacks on Judi Dench and Stephen Fry can’t be far off).  I guess this is on the same principle that if you want to appear thinner, rather than losing weight you could save yourself effort by just hanging around with much fatter people.

Frequent targets for such attempts at public degradation would seem to be the Police, the BBC, the NHS and schools.  All have the major disadvantage that they are large, highly visible organisations heavily beholden to government (so are limited in how much they can fight back) and which have been used as political footballs for a very long time.  Being large organisations they make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes, as all large organisations do – but rarely receive huge bailouts using public funds in response as, to take but one example, the banks did in the not so distant past.  In common with most large organisations, they are all pretty dreadful at dealing with mistakes after they have been discovered – we don’t have to look far to see large private corporations with very well-funded PR departments making similar or worse messes.  I will, however, admit to frank amazement at how few corporate sex scandals dating back to the 1970s or 80s have yet surfaced which would suggest that some damage limitation is working very effectively (or is it just the lack of a celebrity angle preventing traction in the media?).

Many of the errors made by the public entities I have mentioned relate to, or are exacerbated by, the organisation tending to close ranks to protect apparent (or, indeed, actual) wrong doers.  Given the record of almost continuous attacks by both government and the press on these organisations for at least the 30 years when I have been (in age terms at least) an adult, this tendency to defensiveness is not so very surprising.  I have lost count of the number of major revolutions our schools and hospitals have been subjected to over the last couple of decades – any country or company treated this way would have been utterly destroyed by such treatment, but somehow education and the NHS struggle on surprisingly well.

Clearly, large publicly funded organisation require oversight – and this is, I believe, a role our elected representatives are supposed to fulfil.  However, this role seems rather incompatible with a number of other interactions between the overseers and the overseen:

  • the tendency of our representatives to use them as guinea pigs for any pet theory being hatched in the fevered mind of a cabinet minister (or his – or very rarely her – inconceivably highly-paid and unelected “advisers”);
  • their convenient status as a diversion from inconvenient political realities when the “bread-and-circuses” of celebrity tittle-tattle seems in danger of failing to placate the plebeian hordes; and
  • their role as a convenient source of savings or spending (delete as appropriate) to attract the floating voter in a very small number of marginal constituencies to allow our representatives to return to the Westminster gravy train.

Perhaps we need an apolitical elected body for such oversight, which might also be able to train its gimlet stare on the politically elected and the press?  The omens are not good, recent(ish) elections for the rather nebulous role of police commissioner were fully hijacked by the existing political lobbies and largely ignored by a disenchanted electorate.  How does one make electing an auditor seem worthwhile whilst keeping those already in power (or with hopes of quickly returning thereto) well away from it?  (Audit is always a tough sell, the role being likened to those that go around after a battle to stab the wounded).  Clearly we do not want to end up with the US system which, on recent showing, seems even worse than our own.  I’m open to ideas – or failing that, does anyone have Mary Warnock’s contact details?  She has a good track record in tackling very thorny issues as I was recently reminded by Lisa Jardine on A Point of View (discussing, as it transpires, an important issue unable to gain any attention from a scandal and celebrity-obsessed press).

Targetted advertising

Our privacy is under threat as never before – or so we are told – either by governments spending our money to spy on us or by mega-corporations trying to flog us stuff we neither need nor want.  I think I would find this much more terrifying if either group had shown themselves to be even remotely competent in using the information they have managed to inveigle (or just plain steal) from us.

Governments seem incapable of delivering any IT system larger than a small Excel spreadsheet without the cost over-running by multiple billions and the system arriving so late that being merely obsolete is a pipe-dream.   As a result, I shall focus my attention on the mega-corporations which our governments see as a universal aunt to solve all societies ills and to which stock markets attach quite extraordinary values.

I am a member(?) of Facebook and occasionally post my thoughts upon its willing platform – mostly whilst on long train journeys (any TV execs reading: I could be the next Michael Portillo – though I may struggle to seem quite that smug).  In return for this “free” service, Facebook delivers to my incredulous eyes a series of adverts which it has chosen specially for me.  It would seem that I am in need of a high-value divorce, a bevy of single girls (in my area!) and a discrete catheter.  I don’t recall ever mentioning problems with the female sex – either an excess or a lack – or any infirmity related to my bladder.

Twitter is no better: it too offers me soi-disant “promoted tweets” as compensation for offering me the ability to infrequently post poor quality jokes.  Most of these, along with many of the offerings from Facebook, could only be of interest to a reader resident in the US – and I have made no secret of the fact that I am not a US resident to both social networks (it is one of the few pieces of “personal” information I have vouchsafed to them).

If this is really the best they can do, I must wonder at (a) the due diligence performed by those advertising using their services and (b) their current stock valuations.  I fear the leader of the empire may be in state of some undress.

I don’t see a lot of advertising on the television, as I tend to record programmes on commercial channels and then fast forward through the ads.  This both spares me the generally tedious efforts of the advertising industry and allows me to watch two hours of television in around 90 minutes – so much more time efficient!  However, when at the cinema, I am a captive audience and see most of my moving ads (as opposed to the more static bill-board) there.  Theatre and classical music remain largely ad-free (if you ignore the programme).  This seems to be missing a trick as you have actors and/or musicians available who could usefully indulge in a bit of selling while the audience hobble to their seats.

I rather miss Pearl and Dean, and do wonder if they are still together – or just another one of this country’s rising divorce statistics.  Once, in the ABC in East Grinstead in the mid 80s, I was the sole audience member for a film entitled Turk 182.  Prior to the film beginning, we had the usual Pearl and Dean ad reel – but the film had been fed into the projector the wrong way round and it ran backwards.  The famous P&D theme sounds pretty much the same in reverse – these is no hidden demonic message (in case any readers had been worrying).

Nowadays, most of my cinema time is spent at a Picturehouse and so I have made study of the ads which are felt appropriate for an art house cinema audience.    We would seem to be in the market for broadband, moderately to very expensive cars and vodka – there is always an ad for vodka (drinking and driving seems to be positively encouraged at the flicks).  We are also subjected to an ad by a firm called Prime Location which I find actively offensive and which has convinced me never to use their services: I presume it is paid for by a consortium of other estate agents to wreck their business.  The catalogue of ads seems entirely independent of the choice of film – but my own anecdotal evidence would suggest that the choice of film does affect the audience (and, indeed, the film trailers shown).

Frankly, advertising seems only to be targetted at me in the sense that any projectile cast into the air at less than 11.2 km/s is being targetted at “the ground”.  Both will encounter their target, but not due to any virtue imparted by their method of delivery.  There is an old saying that those that can do, and those that can’t teach.  I have heard this extended to administration if teaching is too tricky – one can only imagine that marketing is all-too-often a very long way down this chain of possible careers.