Monday, 31 May 2010

How to make the most of your day out to St Paul's

Entry to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren’s and many would say faith’s masterpiece, is free to worshippers. Sightseers to the London church, however, currently can pay up to £12.50 ($18.20) a head.
As the cathedral’s website explains: “St Paul's receives no funding from the Crown, Church or the State. We therefore rely on the income generated by tourism to allow the building to continue to function as a centre for Christian worship, as well as to cover general maintenance and repair work.”
The famous landmark – it remains a miracle that it survived Nazi bombing raids on London – is a must-see on any visit to London. The ticket price makes it good sense to allow plenty of time to enjoy all that the church offers.
Fortunately there are other places of interest in easy walking distance – the Tate Modern art museum and the recently expanded Museum of London - where entry is free although visitors are encouraged to make voluntary donations. It means you can plan a whole day out without breaking the bank.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Question Time row - a sad return to discredited politics

The Coalition government refused to put up a Cabinet member for the BBC’s flagship political show Question Time last night, because the Corporation wouldn't withdraw its invitation to Alastair Campbell, Labour’s on-off spinmaster.
Only the BBC comes out of the furore well for standing up to the same sort of bullying that Campbell dealt out when his lot were in office. I thought the government had pledged to scrap the bad, old ways.

Mario Lanza - an appreciation

Channel-hopping last night I came across a Mario Lanza documentary on BBC4. I have come late to opera even in the form of the neatly packaged snippets provided by Lanza’s Hollywood movies.
The programme was a revelation. Boy, could that man sing and in his prime had the looks and charm to match.
Like Elvis, his golden voice never deserted - despite the poor care he took of the rest of himself - until his tragically early death.
I hadn’t realised just how popular Lanza was in his day. Public taste has coarsened so much in the 50 years or so since then. It is impossible to think that his equal today (if such a thing were possible) would be a major movie star.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Free money if you can solve my urban mystery

It happened again today; what for me has become the great urban mystery. Where were they going? Where had they come from? How had they met? Who, you ask? – the young man pushing his bicycle along the pavement as he talks to the girl walking beside him.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Sarah Ferguson - down but not out

Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, has been forgiven by her ex-husband Prince Andrew for attempting to use his name to raise £500,000 ($721,000) according to today’s Daily Mirror newspaper.
At the weekend she was exposed in a classic tabloid sting offering an undercover News of the World reporter posing as an Indian businessman access to Prince Andrew. He has an official position as a special representative for international trade and investment for the British government. According to the Duchess, the Prince holds the key to untold riches, well, deals.
Here is a clear case of whatever the subterfuge, there is a public interest issue supporting the exposure.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

CVs - 10 basic mistakes to avoid

There is plenty of good advice around about the do’s and don’ts of creating first-rate CVs and resumes. The task is easier if you are applying for a specific job and can tailor your standard backgrounder accordingly. It’s not so straightforward if you are chasing employment on spec (speculation). As a department head for a British national newspaper, I was the target for many CVs and resumes from job hunters hoping to find a vacancy on my team. I was continually surprised by some of the basic mistakes I encountered. The following 10 things to avoid are relevant for all job applications whether for actual vacancies but particularly those on spec.

1. Before pressing ‘send’ make certain you are addressing your email to the right person. Do some detective work first. Phone your target company and try and establish just whom the right person is to send your email.

2. They are unlikely to read it if they are on holiday or off sick. If you can ascertain whether they are in the office.

3. Try and send your email around lunchtime. At the start and the end of the day hardworking executives are looking for any excuse to delete emails. You might be lucky and catch them when they are having a sandwich at their desk and are less pressured.

4. Do a trial run with a friend or relative to make sure your email system is functioning properly. There is nothing more irritating than being sent an attachment that hasn’t attached.

5. A silly email address isn’t cute. What might have once amused your college friends is going to turn off your prospective boss.

6. Read a good number of the excellent EzineArticles on how to create effective CVs and resumes – and the accompanying letter. My advice is keep it short and sweet. Try and stand out from crowd. If you went round South America on a donkey then say so.

7. Use your spellcheck. Incorrect spelling is sloppy and will sink your boat before it sets sail.

8. The same is true for bad grammar. Look out for those regular trip-ups - its and it’s; your and you’re.

9. Companies are fussy about titles. If you were an intern at The Acme Company, say so and not call it the Acme company.

10. Finally take rejection gracefully. Ask for career advice if you can in your reply. You might be told to try later in the year or even be given an inside tip as to who is hiring. Good luck.

Monday, 24 May 2010

When I wore beads

When I wore beads and a bell in the Sixties, it was on holiday and only briefly. The objective was to raise a laugh from my companions. But perhaps there is something buried in my soul that still owes something to genuine hippies of the time.
Walking across Primrose Hill yesterday - the park in north-west London (see my 20th May post) – on the hottest day of the year, the sun-basking crowds were having such a good time it seemed that the age of Aquarius might have arrived for a few hours, at least. Certainly there was a desire by the young to bare their flesh, as they let the sunshine in.
With picnicking family groups, healthy looking young men frisbeeing and pretty girls chatting, Primrose Hill did seem to be transmitting, yes, Good Vibrations. No drugs, not even any booze I could see, no loud music; people were enjoying each others company on a hot Sunday afternoon in a London park.
But there was something else; some distant chord had been struck which I just couldn’t put a name to. There was an energy for peaceful purposes, which asked to tapped into that would have value beyond the sun’s setting.
It was then that an almost forgotten expression, a phrase, a T-shirt slogan, little heeded, derided but none the less true, called out across decades – Make Love, Not War.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Immigration policy requires an open debate

There were at least two elephants in the room in the recent General Election. None of the parties were prepared to spell out in any sort of detail the size and targets of the public spending cuts the country faces, because of New Labour's massive national debt legacy.
The other forbidden subject was immigration – the issue at the top of many voters’ concerns. This is why Gordon Brown’s remarks after his confrontation with Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy were so explosive.
A life-long Labour voter, she asked him: "…but all these eastern European what are coming in, where are they flocking from?" Still wearing his radio mike, Brown was recorded describing Duffy as "just a sort of bigoted woman" as he drove away.
The exchange was a stake in the heart for Labour’s electoral prospects, because it exposed the fudge at the centre of its immigration policy.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Primrose Hill - an appreciation

As much as I welcome the arrival of something like warm weather, I feel jealous that I’m going to have to share my nearest green space lovely Primrose Hill with many more of my fellow-Londoners.
While there is a mixture of housing, the area is most readily associated with expensive homes. Consequently Primrose Hill, in the northwest of the capital, often finds its way into the media as the home of celebrities.
But the London park itself is a free amenity enjoyed by all. Since my retirement I have climbed the hill – it’s about a 15 minutes walk from my home – at least two or three times a week.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

3D or not 3D, I have a suggestion

Avatar director James Cameron said recently that 3D was the future of cinema and the technology would quickly become standard not only for the medium but all forms of broadcast entertainment too.
Taking the opposite view Francis Ford Coppola, director of the The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, is reported to have said, "I don't see why a movie is better in 3D. I personally do not want to watch a movie with glasses. It's tiresome."
I assume that Coppola would be of the same opinion even when advances in 3D make the wearing of glasses unnecessary. I would agree.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Gossip - don't cha just love it?

I like gossip – showbiz, political, personal, whatever – as much as the next person. However, it is well to never forget the tittle-tattle is probably wrong in at least one aspect, perhaps in total.
There’s fun to be had by applying one’s intelligence in distinguishing the fire from the smoke and assessing why the real story may have been distorted. Purveyors of gossip often have their own agendas.
When I was a working financial journalist the satirical magazine Private Eye was required reading. It appeared to have the inside track on many media and City reports. My one caveat was that in any of its stories where I knew some of the background, there would be at least one fundamental error. This didn’t make the gossip completely inaccurate but it was cause for caution. The point where the truth wobbled often ended up as crucial to the outcome of any particular story.
Since launching my blog (by the way this is my 100th post) I was in danger of forgetting this lesson as I spread my own surfing net.
Online Hollywood columnist Perez Hilton, for example, became a regular read. Bitchy equals amusing especially when you are not familiar with most of the targets.
The question of accuracy only entered the equation after he lambasted Lily Allen last week claiming her tears were booze-induced when she was in Hamburg watching Fulham lose narrowly in a European cup final.
It is well known the Allen family are big fans of the soccer club. Lily was at the game with her grandfather and her upset was plainly genuine.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Pin-up queen Pamela Green - an appreciation

Pamela Green was the first adult female I saw naked. From what I remember there was little of the come-hither about the woman recognised as Britain’s first nude pin-up.
These were the days before A4 men’s magazines held sway. With her beauty and allure Pamela seemed to dwarf the postcards and the pocket-sized magazine in which she posed.
As photographed by George Harrison Marks on the cards and in Kamera magazine (she makes a fleeting appearance in Michael Powell’s disturbing movie Peeping Tom), Pamela exuded a sex appeal that was both exciting and threatening at the same time.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Accent on the ridiculous in 21st century Britain

I’ve illustrated this post with a short clip from Russell Crowe’s new movie Robin Hood, because the Aussie actor hasn't taken kindly to suggestions that he has given Nottingham’s hero of legend an Irish accent.
Sorry Russell but there is an Irish inflection on a couple of words in the clip and that is enough to register on sensitive British ears.
When a foreigner speaks English we Brits can’t tell American from Canadian accents; Australian from New Zealand; not one Scandinavian country from another; or what part of Eastern Europe the plumber or the barmaid was born in.
But we are attuned to the many regional accents to be found in Britain – including Ireland north and south. This is because for centuries a particular accent denoted class and therefore power - who to kick and who to fear.
Regional variations made it more difficult but by the content of language and the manner it was spoken, it’s been pretty easy to tell the miner from the banker, the farmer from the vicar from behind a curtain.
Breeding still counts but society is more stratified by money these days. The manager of a posh West End restaurant will be reassured to hear a public school accent when taking a telephone booking. But he or she cannot afford to be sniffy if the voice at the other end of the line has, for example, a cockney accent (more Ray Winstone than Dick Van Dyke).
Given they make their own restaurant bookings, it could be a City or property wheeler-dealer or a millionaire soccer celebrity – or a supermodel or a soap star. Money talks and it has many accents.
But a public school one – and the education and the life-long contacts it implies - is still a considerable head start. Britain’s new coalition government,for example, is teeming with the product of public schools and Oxbridge.
This may prove to be an Achilles Heel for the Conservative-LibDem alliance. If the coming public spending squeeze is as tough as some fear, it will not play well if government ‘toffs’ are seen axing jobs.
Contenders for the Labour Party leadership brothers David and Ed Miliband were educated at comprehensive schools.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Time to change Britain's clocks

If it was good enough for Winston Churchill then it’s good enough for me.
No, not coalition government (although I hope the new Tory-LibDem alliance works as efficiently as the great man’s wartime cabinet) but that other 1939-45 initiative – double summer time. To make the most of daylight to aid the war effort, the UK was placed on GMT + 2 hours in the summer and GMT + 1 hour in the winter.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Lightweights triumph in UK General Election

It used to be said that you were getting old once policemen seemed to look young. I have long thought that politicians were a more appropriate comparison given how elderly our leaders were in the 1950s and 1960s.
Tony Blair was the first prime minister in my lifetime older than myself. Ever since his appointment in 1997, the gap seems to have been getting bigger. Thank goodness Ken Clarke and Vince Cable are in the new Cabinet – they got their bus passes before me.
There is, however, no guarantee that with age comes either wisdom or virtue.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Third Man - movie magic that never dies

As an escape from the political shenanigans that are moving towards a Conservative-LibDem deal, I’ve been watching The Third Man again.
The movie is about as perfect as a film noir can be. Directed by Carol Reed in 1949 and starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, its mastery continues to grip not as a quaint antique but better than anything from today’s crop.
Set in a Vienna still ravaged by the Second World War, Reed, his stars, Graham Greene’s script and Anton Karas’s zither music create a world of shadows, steeped in cynicism, and where any humour is of the darkest hue.
A minute into the video clip of movie guru Roger Ebert’s glowing assessment of The Third Man comes what is one of the most famous pieces of conversation in film history. Orson Welles contributed to the short speech about Italy, Switzerland, and the cuckoo clock.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Bobby Moore - once met, never forgotten

Inevitably as the World Cup in South Africa approaches, some UK soccer commentators have been writing wistfully about England’s 1966 victory in the competition.
The most we can hope for from the current crop is that Wayne Rooney can remain injury-free and the country reaches the latter stages of the contest. Few believe that whoever is captain – probably John Terry – it will be able to repeat the triumph of the team led by Bobby Moore.
I watched the England v. Germany final in a summerhouse in Minehead, Somerset among student friends. But his lifting the Jules Rimet trophy aloft isn’t the Bobby Moore recollection I want to tell you about.

Friday, 7 May 2010

General Election defeat - Labour's blessing in disguise

Any comments by me about who will be running the country in a week’s time will be sheer crystal ball gazing.
My guess is that the Tories under David Cameron will have formed a minority Government. The LibDems, while declining to save the discredited Labour government – even though Prime Minister Gordon Brown was prepared to stand down – Nick Clegg’s lot will have rejected Cameron’s offer of a formal coalition.
I shalln’t bother to support these suggestions, because I recognise they may be way off-beam such is the bewildering conclusion of Thursday’s General Election.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Childhood memories - touch

This is the fifth in a five-part occasional series focused on my memories of childhood – more specifically what each of my senses recalls from more than 60 years ago when I was around five years old. I’ve excluded the highly personal (such as the feel of my father’s unshaven cheek) and concentrated on instances of the sense that might strike a chord with readers.

1. Either the summers were hotter back then or else the roads, however unlikely, were more poorly repaired. I well remember the tackiness on shoe soles after spending a hot afternoon bursting tar bubbles in the road outside of our home.

2. I’m not a climate change doubter but I was never as badly sunburnt as I was on a seaside holiday. The pain and the peeling skin were vivid reminders to limit my exposure to the sun’s rays ever since.

3. Jelly (jello) was a staple dessert. It was as much fun to prod and balance on the tongue as it was to swallow.

4. A pair of ears was an obstacle for a T-shirt or sweater to be painfully overcome whenever being dressed or undressed by my mother.

5. Perhaps it’s too much information but I think I can remember one instance of bed-wetting.

6. I was a gifted Plasticine sausage maker. They could be rolled into shoelaces until they broke.

7. A pony/donkey ride at funfair/seaside was a strange experience as the animals’ skin chafed short-trousered legs as you were bounced around.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Countdown on Gordon Brown's career?

With less than 24 hours to go before polls open for the General Election, there are still no clues to the outcome. Speculation on the result - let alone the horse-trading that might follow with coalition negotiations between the parties – is therefore pointless.
So I’m heading this post with an amusing anti-Tory video. The thought of a Conservative-led administration with the bunch of lightweights on the Shadow cabinet coming to power is disturbing.
But looking back over New Labour’s period in office since 1997 fills me with gloom at the missed opportunities.
Money has been spent on health and education but it has not been invested well. Soaring house prices, cheap immigrant labour, and the regulation-lite banking sector have distorted the economy. The man who was going to end boom and bust for all time has bequeathed taxpayers a mountain of debt.
To Labour’s shame it backed the illegal invasion of Iraq and then failed to protect the lives of our brave troops with the proper equipment. Our schoolchildren were made the guinea pigs of ill-considered education ‘reforms’. After condemning Tory sleaze, Labour allowed corruption to foster in the shape of the MPs expenses scandal.
Any one of these should make voters consider whether Labour has had its chance and been found wanting. I expect one way or another Gordon Brown will have to quit No.10 Downing Street even if Labour clings to office.
It will take years before a proper assessment can be made on the man’s contribution to British political life. I expect his psychological make-up will be the subject of more-than-usual scrutiny.
However, I think some early judgements can be made. Brown is paying the price for dodging an early election; to its cost the Party should have dumped him a year ago; and a feisty Rochdale pensioner will go into the history books as Duffy the Vampire Slayer.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

My favourite poem - Ode to Autumn

It would be an impossible task for me to select a favourite book, film, play, painting, sculpture, song, opera, or ballet. The choice is too great. But ever since I was first obliged to read John Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’ at school, it has remained my best-loved poem.
There is the beauty of the words themselves as Keats paints a picture of the developing season in the mind of the reader, which engages all the senses. The three stanzas - ripeness, harvest, and the preparation for winter - are perfectly structured.
But what sets the poem apart for me is the poet’s observation that though the songs of spring are gone forever, autumn has its own music. It struck a chord with me as a schoolboy and has a even greater resonance now that I’m that closer to the abyss.
The sadness is Keats’s life was snuffed out so early he never had the chance to experience the insight of his own words.
Here is the poem.

Ode to Autumn by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Good night, Vienna*

It is with deep regret that I announce the death of my imagination. To my surprise rather than being the last faculty of mine to go as the years’ tally mounts, it has been the first.
I estimate my published journalism adds up to well over one million words in national newspapers and magazines in a career that kicked off in the late Sixties. This is a back of an envelope calculation.
It is a much easier task to add up the publication of my literary output – in chronological order - poetry, plans for a Time Out rival, a television chat show format, a novel, several TV comedy series, a stage play, a screenplay for a psychological thriller, another novel, and two years ago a short story collection. Zilch, nothing, a fat zero.