Friday, 29 October 2010

Thriller writer Stephen Leather's masterclass

Thriller writer Stephen Leather has a score of books to his name and his sales have topped the 2 million mark. I read his breakthrough novel The Chinaman a while ago and saw at once he was a master of his craft. But the genre isn’t my particular cup of tea.
I’ve come to praise his generosity to aspiring writers - the popularity of his novels can speak for themselves.
If I hadn’t met Steve thirty years or so ago when he was still a financial reporter – and bumped into him a handful of times since – I would never had cause to seek out his website www.stephenleather.com
I would have been the poorer. For someone such as myself who is fascinated by the process of writing, I would have missed out on a first-rate insight into how a successful author goes about his business.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

I don’t get The X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing

I don’t get The X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing. It is a fault in my DNA. I must lack the gene that feeds on manufactured hysteria. As a consequence I’m beginning to feel like a stranger in my own country when I turn to the gossip pages in the popular press and online.
They are crammed full of stories – often sob stories – about people from the shows who I will have never heard of - apart from Cheryl Cole and Ann Widdecombe.
The X Factor has achieved television audiences that have topped 15 million and Strictly 10 million. There is a dearth of television entertainment that appeals across the generations and good luck to any show that brings families together.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Proposition 19 - the world is watching how California votes on drug reform next Tuesday

Next Tuesday California votes on Proposition 19 whether to allow people “21 years old or older to possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana for personal use.” Being many thousands of miles away I wouldn’t presume to encourage Californians in either direction.
The pros and cons are outlined in this link. In any case the latest polls show support for a ‘Yes’ vote is slipping, while even if it were passed possession would remain a crime under Federal law.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

10 things you already know about Christmas Day

1. Nobody should be alone the whole of Christmas Day. Where it is within your power to visit or better still invite such a person to your lunch, you should do so.
2. You will receive at least one present which although well meant will reveal how little the giver really knows about you.
3. Youngsters are an essential part for setting the Christmas mood, until they reach two when they become a nuisance. Their noise grows geometrically with increasing numbers.
4. An expensive toy will be rendered useless by the end of the day.
5. Lunch will be at least an hour behind schedule by which time you’ll wish you hadn’t scoffed so many nibbles.
6. There is unlikely to be more than an hour’s worth of decent television.
7. Some family resentment that has been bottled up all year will raise to the surface.
8. You will decline your guests’ offer to help wash up and then feel bitter you have been left with the chore.
9. At some point you’ll be reminded that the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the Nativity and despair that its message has been lost when you watch the TV news.
10. You will resolve to do things differently next year.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Movies don't need to be long to be good

I haven’t seen a mainstream movie for a long time, which wouldn’t benefit from being trimmed by ten to twenty minutes or so. Perhaps it's something to do with seat prices – maybe movie makers think audiences will feel short-changed if they don’t get around two-hours and more for their pounds and dollars.
I read somewhere that the economics of book publishing favours the writing of doorstep-thick novels. The same seems to be happening to movies.
Of course some films will drag whatever their length – like Angelina Jolie’s Salt (100 minutes) and Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz’s Knight and Day (109 minutes).
This thought was brought home to me when catching up with the excellent Mexican gang movie Sin Nombre on DVD the other night. It said all it had to say in a taut 96 minutes.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Scrap GMT - and give Britain more daylight

From Norway and Sweden in the north to Italy and Spain in the south, Central European Time rules. This is Greenwich Mean Time plus 2 hours in the summer months and GMT plus 1 hour over the winter. It works for them and could for us in the UK, as it did in the war years.
We’ll get an extra hour in bed on the morning of Sunday October 31st – our clocks will have gone back an hour to GMT at 2am – but for the rest of the winter we’ll suffer increasingly shorter days.
This is what the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has to say on the issue of reform in a press release under the headline Clocks go back and road accidents rise. “In the long term, RoSPA would like to see a change in the law so that evenings are lighter all year round. This could prevent around 450 deaths and serious injuries on Britain's roads each year.”
Labour ducked making a decision - the Coalition should have more backbone.
For the energy saving, international trading, and tourist industry advantages I refer you to my post of May 13th. There I focussed on the bliss of longer summer evenings that would be our lot if we embraced double summer time.
Intending no disrespect to Scotland’s farmers who understandably don’t fancy working many winter hours in the dark at the start of their day, the Scottish Parliament could exercise its independence and legislate its own time standards.
This would leave the rest of us to benefit from a change whose time is long overdue.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Cliff Richard's Move It - an appreciation

In the history of popular music there can be few milestones as undisputed as the fact that Move It by Cliff Richard and the Drifters was the first authentic home-grown British rock and roll record.
As John Lennon said, “before Cliff and the Shadows (as the band were soon to become) there was nothing.” Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates is secure in second place and thereafter perhaps some Billy Fury material.
There were a few earlier British artists challenging US domination like Tommy Steele and particularly Lonnie Donegan but their songs originated in America.
Move It was written by Drifters’ guitarist Ian Samwell on the top of a double-decker bus on his way to rehearsals. It took off in August 1958; I was thirteen.
The song launched Cliff as the British Elvis but just five singles later came Living Doll and the boy next door replaced the moody, lip-curling teenager.
Many decades later Sir Cliff Richard, a monument to clean living, is still making music. But for me Cliff – devout Christian and friend of Tony Blair – will always be the surly rocker I saw at the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road fifty years ago at my first live gig.
Cliff’s Move It still sounds good today but he would never have got away with the wonky teeth.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

George Osborne's Spending Review - death by a thousand cuts

You wouldn’t let George Osborne near a Samaritans’ switchboard. The man doesn’t do caring. There was no “I feel your grief” from the Chancellor as he unveiled nearly 500,000 job cuts in his Spending Review today. The pace he delivered his killer-blows bordered on the glib.
His opposite number Alan Johnson struck the more appropriate tone even though the massive deficit Osborne attacked was of New Labour’s making and its policy only differs on the timing and not the extent of the cuts.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Of geeks and earthworms - in praise of knowledge

I used to like to think I knew a little about a lot. As a reader of this blog you might agree.
But I take no credit arriving at this point after living 65 years, some 40 of which spent as a national newspaper journalist.
To be an instant expert is a key attribute for any self-respecting reporter. If he or she wrote only on their specialism, they wouldn’t last a day in the newsroom. This isn’t an excuse for amateurism – the practise of journalism is a democratic one. There is no place to hide. If you’re no good your own words will be used in evidence against you.
You can see over on the right hand side of this page the many topics I have entertained in the short life of this blog. I stand by every word but I’m the first to admit that none exhibits any great knowledge above the general.
I’m coming to the conclusion that I may have missed out on the pleasure of knowing a lot about a little. In other words the joy of being a complete geek, a bore, an expert – what you will – on at least one subject.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The best of Wayne Rooney's brains are in his feet....

The best of Wayne Rooney’s brains are in his feet. The Manchester United player’s smartest moves were teaming up with Coleen and allowing manager Sir Alex Ferguson to develop his talent to super soccer stardom. Foolishly he has strained both relationships.
Hopefully his marriage has survived kiss-and-tell revelations in the Sunday tabloids. Healing the rift with Ferguson might prove a taller order, even if Rooney achieves a return to the form that dropped off so spectacularly at the World Cup and since.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Goldilocks and the UK economy - the cuts have to be just right

A nationwide epidemic of finger-crossing is set to break out across Britain next week, as workers fear for the security of their jobs.
On Wednesday we learn just how savagely the Tory-LibDem coalition government intends taking an axe to the nation’s public service sector, as it gets to grips with the £149 billion deficit inherited from New Labour.
The knock-on damage to private business will be considerable – directly for those companies that supply the public sector and indirectly for those like retailers who suffer when shoppers tighten purse strings.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Why twenty-seven is a woman's ideal age

From a male perspective I suggest that 27 is the ideal age for a woman. She retains the vibrancy and beauty of her youth but with just enough experience to add insight into the ways of the world though not so much to dull her optimism.
Anna Karina – the Danish born film actress who was a muse of new wave movie director Jean-Luc Godard – was 27 when she made Anna, a French television musical in 1967.
The joie de vivre expressed in one of her songs in the show Roller Girl written by Serge Gainsbourg exemplifies what I mean.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Curry house blues are out of tune with today's diners

My last half-dozen visits to different curry restaurants across London have been distinctly underwhelming. My February 11th post In praise of curry reflected my life-long love affair with the Subcontinent’s national dish. So it pains me to say so.
I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. I don’t mourn the passing of flock wallpaper and Bombay duck (actually a small dried fish). But change – if that is what’s going on - shouldn’t start to erode what made curry houses so successful in the first place.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Andrew Marr gets it wrong in anti-blogging rant

Andrew Marr gave the blogging fraternity both barrels - and two fingers - when he addressed the Cheltenham Literature Festival this week.
“A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting,” he said.
“The so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night,” he, well, ranted.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Karen Owen's F**k List - the view from London

The rumpus sparked by Duke University graduate Karen Owen’s 42-page PowerPoint mock thesis in which she details 13 booze-driven one-night-stands – names, photos, penis sizes, performance etc – with campus star athletes, seems to make too much allowance that she is a woman.
If An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics had been written by a man and subsequently minutiae about the sex lives of 13 woman students had leaked across the internet, TV bulletins, and newspapers, the reaction to date would have been much more critical.
Men may boast about their conquests to their locker room buddies but there is no comparison to the way the privacy of Karen Owen’s “hook ups” has been shattered internationally.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Jimi Hendrix - his star still shines

I remember the shock and grief. I was crossing Old Compton Street in London’s Soho – it was already dark and raining – when I saw a newspaper placard that said Jimi Hendrix was dead. Forty years ago last month. He was just 27.
This afternoon I attended a gathering – seminar is too pompous – entitled Hendrix in London: yesterday and tomorrow. The venue was the Covent Garden Odeon – previously it had been the Saville Theatre owned by Beatles manager Brian Epstein where Jimi had played.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Gunga Din - an appreciation on National Poetry Day

Today being National Poetry Day has prompted me to look back across the years and conclude that Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din moves me more than any verse I have ever read.
I posted here on May 4th that John Keats' Ode to Autumn is my favourite poem and that remains the case. But ever since my first acquaintance with Gunga Din in my early twenties, I’ve never been able to read it all the way through without welling up.
My delayed introduction to Kipling was due to my dismissal of the man as a standard bearer for the British Empire. He was, but in my ignorant opinion I thought he was little else.
Later I was to discover his chilling condemnation of the First World War in which he lost his beloved son. In his poem My Boy Jack he wrote, “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Norman Wisdom - a little man with a big heart


This video clip from Trouble in Store illustrates Norman Wisdom's clowning talent at its peak.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Gauguin at the Tate Modern - a must-see exhibition

Until my visit to the Paul Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern in London yesterday, I had always considered the painter a bit of a lightweight, whose reputation never matched French Impressionist contemporaries. An also-ran behind Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Manet. Something of a disreputable joke – the former stockbroker who deserted his family for the young flesh of Tahiti. But the exhibition Gauguin: Maker of Myth, which runs until January 16th, swiftly dispels any such notion and places the man at the forefront of the development of Modern Art. His influence is seen clearest in the work of Picasso and Matisse but he touched many others, Munch included.
Gauguin’s unique style whether painting the Breton countryside or Tahitian beauties evolved early – vivid colour, flat perspective, symbolism, ethnic art, inspiration from the sacred and mundane – and above all the ‘strangeness’ of his vision.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

From Norman Wisdom to Wilson Keppel and Betty

Sir Norman Wisdom’s death at the age of 95, yesterday evening, reminded me of the four names I had collected in an autograph book, lost more than 50 years ago. It had a red cover and its pages were various pastel shades.
There was Wisdom himself in pride of place. My mother and my seven or eight year old self had waited at the stage door of the London Palladium to collect the slapstick king’s autograph. His straight man Jerry Desmonde also went in the book on the same occasion.
I wish I could recall what prompted this expedition – when it came to knockabout I’m sure my taste was for the Three Stooges – and still is.
I had a schoolboy crush on child film star Mandy Miller. Once again conducted by my mother to an autograph signing, she’s there too.
The final name was that of Gordon Pirie. I had been having lunch in a greasy spoon with my father when we spotted the long distance runner dining. Perhaps I’d even seen him race – my father was an athletics fan and had taken me to meetings at White City.
I’ve surfed the internet to find a suitable video clip to accompany this post starting with Wisdom and then exploring British music hall via Max Wall before settling on sand dance variety act Wilson Keppel and Betty because it makes me smile. Sorry Norman, R.I.P.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Ryder Cup - a spoilsport's view of Europe's victory

Europe’s win over the USA in the Ryder Cup golf contest at Celtic Manor has left me for the most part unmoved. Golf is a particularly Monty Python sport in concept – chasing, as it does, small balls into only slightly larger holes with long sticks. Given the often tasteless clothes all that is needed are silly walks for the comparison to be complete.
For reasons I can’t fathom, I don’t feel the same antipathy towards snooker. Perhaps it’s a matter of size.
Golf might be fun to play with friends but to grow into a billion dollar spectator sport, the world has come to a strange point in its history.
There are, however, some aspects of the Ryder Cup, which warrant closer examination for the positive messages it communicates.
The tournament drips money in terms of sponsors, ticket admissions, and television audiences. But at its heart matches are played for pride and not prize money.
There are other sporting events contested on the same basis but few can count on drawing participants from the cream of their sport – therefore its richest players - and get them to eagerly compete for nothing.
The selection of pan-European teams to participate in the Ryder Cup – it was extended beyond Britain and Ireland in 1979 – was a significant milestone in opening up UK sport. Since then soccer with its large numbers of foreign players and managers has further reduced sporting xenophobia.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Reflections on a tragic death in Belsize Park

I am compelled to write about a tragic death at the top of my road in the early hours of Thursday morning. Any other subject would seem trivial by comparison.
A woman student from Singapore was a hit-and-run victim. Police believe she was dragged for many metres under the wheels of a lorry. Her body was found close to Belsize Park tube station in north-west London where I live.
The circumstances of her death are particularly heart-rending. She was just 20 and it was her birthday. Her name has yet to be revealed but her family have been informed.
Neighbours and local shopkeepers have spoken to me of nothing else today. Floral tributes have been laid by the side of the road.
I learnt of the tragedy from yesterday afternoon’s edition of the Evening Standard newspaper. Perhaps it was the proximity to my home but I have thought of little else since.
There is the fragility of life that can be so suddenly and violently snuffed out. There is the unfairness, which makes it so difficult to believe in a loving Creator.
One individual has taken away the life of another. But the lorry driver might not even know of the catastrophe that has been wrought.
There is the woman’s family a world away. They must have felt the unease all parents experience when their children venture from home and beyond their ability to protect. Being her birthday perhaps they had spoken in the hours before her life was taken. More than one life would have been destroyed yesterday.

It was later announced the victim was medical student Mingwei Tan, who was just about to begin her third year at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. My thoughts are with her family.