Friday, 16 August 2013

Smile - It's Friday

I always try to be nice to strangers.

Cretinous though they often are in return, it's good to know you've done all you can to brighten the mundanity of an exchange at the coffee counter, or the trauma of collecting a parcel with one of those sodding red cards.

Why not fight the system with a little smile?

It sure beats the approach of the gentleman outside the co-op yesterday, hurling abuse at anyone who passed him by. According to him I'm a "f***ing little blonde p**k", and let me tell you - as a man who's getting bigger and balder every day, and who's not as sharp as he once was -frankly, I'll take it.

But a smile back would have done.

People are generally so miserable these days that they respond to a smile with a look of horror. Try smiling at someone in the street today and see what you get. When you bother to preface a shop transaction with a "hello" nowadays, the cashier will either go red and sink down behind the till while they consider their response, or retort with "Oh! Aren't you cheerful?!", as if you've got some sort of social problem. You happy weirdo freak.

To be honest, I'm generally not that cheerful inside. I'm just as pissed off at having received "We called while you were out" as everyone else. But I do try to amuse myself.

Don't get me wrong, I can't bear those people who are perennially cheerful either, those from the "Vesperal Salutations, Bar Keep - a pint of your finest ale" school of over the top bonhomie. The kind of people who love Monday mornings because they can ask about your weekend before you've taken off your coat. Nor do I endorse the approach of the over-enthusiastic, corporately trained boy in Rymans who practically offered me dinner with my plastic document wallets on Tuesday. Have a nice day yourself.

There's a half way.

And look, he whispers - if you need a reason to be nice to strangers, here it is. Every day since I moved to Exeter, the cost of my breakfast has been going down, down, down. Bothering to actually speak to the lady behind the counter has so far earned me 15 extra sachets of brown sauce, 6 extra rashers of bacon, a daily upgrade from a medium to a large Americano, and 22 unwarranted stamps on my loyalty card.

No wonder I'm smiling...

(Of course, I may be racking up some terrible sexual debt, in which case, smile no more.)

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Direct Feedback

Dear NHS Direct,

I've just spent the past 35 minutes trying to input symptoms of a chest and back pain I developed this evening. I've been repeatedly sent back to previous questions and told that my answers were invalid. One such example was my gender (the usual two options were given - I picked the most appropriate); another was my date of birth, which I usually get right.

Suffice to say, I've now given up because I've been round in circles three times and have still come nowhere near to receiving a diagnosis. Either this service is completely incompatible with the iPhone I'm using - or it's more miraculous than I could ever have expected:

The pain has long since gone.

By the way, my postcode seemed to be of particular fascination. I was asked for it three times. Clearly that was a fault; nonetheless, when in pain, it's very frustrating to have to spend time answering questions for data monitoring purposes. Perhaps you'd consider making this the final question rather than the first (although I appreciate, for a variety of reasons, not all your patients will make it that far).

I won't think twice about using NHS Direct again.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Cliche Rolls On

With the rest of the nation glued to the X-Factor this weekend, I thought I’d finally give in… and watch Countryfile.

God it was awful. I'd expected not to like Julia Bradbury – poor woman, she annoyed me once on Steve Wright in the Afternoon fifteen years ago - but she turned out to be the least of my worries. Actually she was really good; what any other Countryfile presenter would surely describe as “a rose among thorns”… Because other than Julia, that’s how they all talk.

Within half an hour I’d counted 38 cliches – thirty eight!

From leopards (or in this case lighthouses) that ‘never change their spots’, to swimming pools that were apparently once ‘hives of activity’; it was so distracting. It was as if they were doing it for a bet.

I doubt they were. Cliches are actually quite hard to (if I may disprove my own point briefly) ‘trot out’ when you’re thinking hard about what you’re saying. They tend to spring to mind (bugger) by accident, convenient little analogies for what you actually mean that slip out (ah!) when you care little about how you say things.

Basically, clichés are a mark of carelessness.

And yet, on television and radio, we hear them all the time. God knows, it’s not just Countryfile, bless it. Cliches have spread like a cancer (I’m doing it deliberately now) which is not just killing creative expression, but beginning to throttle all original thought itself.

I hate them so much that I keep a record of the clichés I hear on TV and radio. The most ridiculous in recent weeks include:

-          “He now has another world title under his belt…”

-          “New life is being breathed into old land by farmers…”

-          “Council cuts are now starting to bite…”

-          “It’s the end of the road for our Airport…”

-          “A holiday maker has kicked up a real stink in the pool…”

-          “Businesses have been helping to get the town back on its feet”

-          “Our reporter has been picking through the debris” (what, literally?)

-          “There’s been wall to wall sunshine outside”

-          “Plans for a new cemetery have been given the green light”

(and on something as complex and individual as the Savile story)…

-          “Newsnight’s correspondent… says she was left scratching her head after the plug was suddenly pulled.”

Dear GOD!

Understandably, they’re most prolific in News. By their very nature of the task in hand, journalists must be a reductive breed. They take the many facts of a story, often thousands of them, and (ready for another?) boil them down (hehe!) to those which are most relevant to their telling of that story.

Done skilfully as many do, the result is an original, easily understood account of what has actually happened; it’s a marvel. Done carelessly, you end up with a stream of ridiculous metaphors that cloud the issue and blow you off course to another part of the forest entirely.

Hence, when you pick up your local paper, every new plan is unveiled (even though there’s no cloth), and every simple adjustment to a budget somehow involves wielding an axe…

I’m not suggesting it’s forgivable. But I’m sure that’s why it happens in News.

In programmes, I’m afraid there’s no reason why we should ever end up with a cliché. Programme making shouldn’t ever be a reductive process – it should be creative. We should be making things up. We should be dreaming up new, inventive ways to do and say new things. We shouldn’t be talking in riddles unless we’ve designed them ourselves.

And the real problem with clichés is that they self-perpetuate. You can’t really blame young broadcasters for failing to spot they’re even doing it; they’re so used to hearing clichés, and using them, they’ve not only come to accept them, they’ve even started to expect them. As a respected broadcaster and friend once said to me, “if you don’t talk like that, they think you’re no f***ing good”.

Maybe X-Factor mentality is why Countryfile gets away with clichés – or maybe Countryfile clichés are why we watch the X-Factor. As I say, it’s all self-perpetuating. Either way, don’t fall foul of the mighty cliché which is slipping under the wire and taking us all by storm.    

It’ll be the final nail in the coffin if you do – and, believe me, it looks likely that it’ll soon start to bite.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

A Fate Much Worse

If you enjoyed the tale of Tap Water Man the other week, here’s another one for the bank.

Twice in the last two months it’s been my misfortune to be on a train in the immediate aftermath of a suicide. First time around there was plenty of warning. Our train spent a suspiciously long time waiting at Newton Abbot station, just ahead of the main road bridge towards which all eyes on the platform were turned.

"Ladies and Gentlemen… we apologise for the delay to this service”, came the call. “There’s somebody on the bridge up ahead… and it looks like they’re about to throw themselves off.”

Refreshingly honest, if alarming.

But more alarming was the spontaneous cheer that came from at least two of the tables in my carriage – all normal looking people, and not at all the kind you’d expect to be egging on a suicide candidate as if he were in goal…

Then came the tears. One woman stood up and shrieked in front of her crowd, and made an exit to the vestibule that was worthy of the bust of Olivier.

Others in the carriage were quick to make this their tragedy, too. Friends and partners were actually called, not texted, to let them know the terrible situation their loved one was suffering – oh, and that they needn’t rush to collect them from the station.

"Just to keep you posted, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are awaiting news from up ahead, where a man is about to jump from the bridge in front of the… we think… oh… he just has… Ladies and Gentlemen, the man has now jumped.”

Another cheer. Another one!

Elizabeth Taylor sprung into action, and delivered a sermon.

"How dare you!” she demanded. “I can’t believe how insensitive you’re being… towards me. Can’t you see that I’m upset”…

Astounding narcissism.

Today’s suicide should have been less dramatic for the people on my train – a man had been hit, but it was the train in front of ours which had done the deed – and yet…

There would be a long delay because, as our Train Manager tactfully put it, these matters “can take a while to… deal with”.

"My plane!” shrieked a woman. (I couldn’t decide whether she was due to catch one sometime soon, or attempting a Zelda-like command to launch some kind of rescue jet from her handbag. If it was the latter, it didn’t work.

"It’s okay” barked a woman in the male voice of Judith Furse. “We’ll march to the Guard’s office and demand a fleet of taxis to meet us”. Good idea! Most cab companies these days keep 160 spare cars and drivers for exactly this scenario. Let’s ring double-two double-two double-two…

The Train Manager explained that we’d need to return to the previous station.

"I suppose that means the buffet won’t be opening?” asked the fat man opposite me, in all sincerity. Dear God.

As we glided into the station, plane woman was behind me in the vestibule. She shook her hand at me in a gesture to hurry up and open the door.

"We’re still moving, madam – and the door is still locked”.

"But I’m short of time!”

Do you know, I’m full of nothing but admiration for the men and women of our railways who have to deal with situations like this most days. I don’t know how they do it. It’s one thing to watch somebody end their life in front of your machine, perhaps even play an uncontrollable part in their demise. But at least there’s good counselling for that. There’s surely nothing that can prepare you for dealing with the self-absorbed, senseless cretins who remain alive inside your train.

If it had been up to me, there would have been a few more deaths on the railway today…

Friday, 12 October 2012


"We expect the world, and end up disappointed when all we get is a delicious birthday cake."

So said I in my last outpouring.

I thought I'd share a beautiful example of just how disappointing modern life can be down here on Earth - especially when expectations are somewhere up there with the fairies...

A young gentleman - early 20s, wax not gel - has just returned to his seat a few places from mine on the train.

"That woman should be sacked" he barked to his friend, gesturing to the buffet car from whence he came.

"She said they don't do tap water..."

If I were him, I'd take back my birth certificate and ask for a refund.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Goodbye Radio

It’ll soon be curtains for our friend, the radio.

So reckons a respected music industry man who spoke at the recent International Radio Festival, amidst a shower of rotten eggs and tomatoes.

I won’t bother to name him; he's since been taken to the dungeon and won't be speaking again. But the five strengths which have kept radio alive, for its listeners and sponsors, were all now to be bettered, socially and commercially, by other ‘things’ – he said:

1)      Its ubiquity...
The smartphone vastly outnumbers the radio set, and “If you ask any teenager today, what would you rather have…” – well, you needn’t bother to ask;

2)      Its ability to form tastes...
Gone are the days when we listen to the radio to decide which songs are worth listening to. Spotify and the like have developed software that, far from just pumping out songs you might like, analyses the songs you love to listen to and comes up with some guaranteed winners for your playlist;

3)      The shared experience of radio...
Well, what’s Facebook if not a way of communing – and apparently we now only care about doing that with people we know;

4)      Access to an audience...
Twitter. Lady Gaga gets better access to her fans via social media than she does from any radio interview. Why should she [or they] need it? Don’t forget, potential new fans will learn about her through Spotify;  

5)      Opportunity to promote brands...
Advertisers now expect the kind of strategic, targeted exposure that online promotion offers as standard; so cancel that arbitrary 30 second ad, would you.

Poor old radio.

You’ll be expecting me – a radio lover from birth, and someone who owes his living to Marconi’s medium – to join the lynch mob.

I won’t. The man makes some good points. 

But it does rest upon some big assumptions: chiefly, that we are all content to live without a soul. It assumes that we’re no longer prepared to accept life as a realistic range of highs and lows – in which we hear the good songs as well as our all time favourites, in which the yellow Wine Gums make the red ones taste better – but instead wish for our lives to be spent in a constant state of euphoria. And it assumes the ‘things’ that help us to achieve and maintain this euphoria should be purely functional, each of them just a means of making sure we never have to endure anything that’s any less than ideal.

And... the way things are now, if we draw a trajectory from the way our values have become in 2012... these are perfectly fair assumptions to make about the values we’ll hold in the future.

So yes, I’m afraid he’s right.

The internet has done for our lives what private motoring did for travel in the 1960s. The other night I revisited a charming old film of John Betjeman conjuring poetry on a steam train journey across Somerset to Burnham-on-Sea. It was 1963, and it was obvious that Britain’s rural railways were about to die. Everything about the journey mattered; the villages we passed, the ways of life we saw, the people we met.

We took it all in. We cared.

The private car took away the hardship of journeys like that, and in doing so it stripped them of the wonder and mystique that often made them worthwhile. It repositioned our expectations of travel so that we no longer marvelled at the journey, but came to regard it as a necessary hurdle between life and adventure. Travelling became functional, not delightful. It was no longer valued as a privilege, but assumed as a right.

The roads are now exactly as Betjeman had predicted; a soulless means to an end. I don’t see anybody writing poetry about the M5. And as a result even those ‘ends’ are not what they once were. As Betjeman ran along the front at Burnham-on-Sea, he leapt for joy and spoke of “air like wine”. It’s more like White Lightning today.

Of course, few would argue that the car wasn’t a massive boon for us socially. It was! But it did have a social cost, too. It devalued something that had been important in our lives, and quite fundamental too. Likewise the internet, the mobile phone, the social networks… for all the enrichment they’ve brought, for all they’ve enabled (the very fact you’re reading this now)… they’ve each contributed to a society which is now really struggling to balance its all-time-high expectations with any sense of value.

Back to radio. Just look at those perceived ‘strengths’ above and ask yourself, what do we actually value nowadays? We’ve been completely spoilt. Instead of counting our favourite songs we now count the duffers. Nowadays we expect the world and end up disappointed when all we get is a delicious birthday cake. We’re measuring life on a scale of discontent. It’s no wonder we riot.

Maybe radio will be the next Burnham-on-Sea; once utopian, now usurped. Maybe we’re already there.

But radio’s failure won’t be because Spotify and the social networks can ‘do’ what it ‘does’ and better. If radio dies, it’ll be because society has lost its sense of the metaphysical. It’ll be because we’ve forgotten the pleasure of surprise, of hearing somebody remote saying something that chimes with our own lives. It’ll be because we’ve given up on things we can’t measure and control. It’ll be because we’ve forgotten what it is to laugh when we’re least expecting to. It’ll be because we’ve forgotten we’re human after all…

If radio dies it’ll be because we no longer have the soul that radio was made to feed. It probably walked out during a bad song.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

"Should I Buy A Train, David?"

I had an email at the weekend from a friend of mine, asking for advice. In essence, the question was “Should I buy a train?”

It’s probably not a question you’ve asked yourself, I suspect. But I’m delighted this young chap – an active volunteer at a few heritage railways – has found himself thinking it over.
I’m also delighted that I’m now apparently old and wise enough to be asked for advice about these specialist dilemmas. On the one hand he’s spotted someone who, in owning an old bus, can provide a few cautionary tales about the implications of such a rash and bizarre purchase.

He’s probably also spotted that I’d also be the last person to say it’s a bad idea...

It’s strange that I'm capable of making such a rash and bizarre decisions myself. In daily life I tend to be relentlessly sensible in everything I do – from agonising over cheap street parking, to calculating which special offers give me the most ham per pence in the supermarket. In weight, not slices.

And yet in December 2009 I bought a bus; an old bus that wasn’t running, and which hadn’t run properly since before I was born. But because of my interest in such things, because it was the bus I’d always wanted to own, there was really no question I wouldn’t buy it when the opportunity arose.

And there you have it. It’s the age old battle between head and heart. As I said in my reply, it’s never a ‘sensible’ move to buy something like this. It’ll always be a liability in terms of finance, time and energy; you’ll never get your investment back in the same form. But it will be repaid in other ways.

That’s probably hard for people who don’t see the appeal to understand. I guess that’s the thing about having an interest. It means you connect emotionally with a thing or a topic in a way which, to those who aren’t interested, seems completely irrational. The heart leads the head in pursuit of something which it finds uniquely interesting. And long may that continue.

Most people today don’t have a deep interest in anything much. There’s so much competing for our fleeting affection that it’s hard to imagine why anyone should develop passions of their own. As a society we look to the media and social networks to be told what we enjoy. We look for a virtual collective experience which is understood by those around us, rather than something we can focus on personally. How else would tonight’s instalment of ITV1’s “Superstar”, utter cobblers, a talent show for the talentless, have gained an audience of millions?

If more people spent their nights worrying about whether or not they should buy a train, the world would be a more soulful place. That’s another good reason why my friend shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

If you’re blessed with an interest, you’re one of the lucky few; you have a responsibility to indulge it, and if you can, pass it on.

Just don’t bankrupt yourself in the meantime.