Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Swimming outside the cage

When my father retired after some 30-plus years of service to the BBC, he, like many of his generation, provided continuity to the convention of remaining with the same employer "as man and boy". 

I doubt anyone would, could or should claim such servitude today. Sure, companies big and small throughout the world can and do boast admirably of lifelong employees, but it's clearly no longer the rule.

US statistics show that the average employee will work for between eight and ten employers throughout their working life. Redundancy, restructuring, ambition, migration and social mobility all play a part in the ever-lengthening resumes many or most have by the time they reach the mid-point of their careers. Quite which category I will now fall into is open to debate, but - at risk of shocking some people - I am this week bringing to a close a near-16-year association with my employer.

It sounds hackneyed to say you don't know where the years have gone, but it really doesn't seem all that long ago I left behind life as a freelance scribe to accept the corporate shilling, and hawk TV sets to unsuspecting audio-video magazines. My motives then were quite straight forward: I wanted to buy a house, and no bank would lend to an unsalaried oaf, no matter how lucrative his work was at the time.

There was no careerism about it. "Why not?", I believe was my somewhat sleepy reply to the job offer I received over the phone after a particularly gruelling nightshift. With that agreement I placed a foot on the first rung of a new career ladder, starting my own digestion through a corporate system that has placed me in various professional positions in a number of locations in an ever-ebbing landscape of internal political, commercial and structural transformation.

At the end of this week I'll be leaving the company (Philips) and, by the end of the month, the adopted country (the Netherlands), moving to Paris for a new role in a totally different line of business. The political, commercial and structural landscape will be the same, however. The job - largely - will be similar. I will have to quickly navigate my way through a labrynth of new org charts to identify who-is-who, while calibrating the political radar to track who might not be a big fan of who. It will be a little like learning to walk all over again: actually it will be like a juggler learning to juggle again after a medical procedure that went wrong and wiped clean his mind. It will all be just a little strange.

First of all, there will be the learning curve of new cultural behaviours. My first birthday in a Dutch office led to something of a social faux pas when I failed to bring in a birthday cake for my colleagues - "You mean you don't buy me cake?". In France, I suspect, the worst of these will be, apparently, having to double-kiss everyone in the office each morning before you've even taken off your coat. Not being the most gregarious individual in the world before either my first coffee or 11am, depending on which comes first, I suspect this may be the first test of the office cordialement. Then there will be the adjustment to no longer being a part of the furniture, but part-idiot savant, part-Victorian curiosity - poked, prodded and stared at by suspicious and unsure eyes.

Someone asked me the other day how I felt after completing my final press event for my employer of the last decade and a half: "Oddly relaxed", is how I replied. So far I haven't blubbed, and firmly expect that to remain the case. Actually, it feels more like a state of grace. Mission accomplished, whatever that mission might be.

I've packed a lot into the last 15 years and 50 weeks, professionally and personally. But in truth, the fact that it has flown by is a good thing. I don't have time to reflect and, as cold as it might seem, I don't want to wallow. It's time to open the shark cage and go swimming.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


I was just 13 years old when, 30 years ago today, Mark Chapman fatally shot John Lennon outside his New York apartment building. At the time, I knew of The Beatles, of course: I was familiar with their hits, though not yet the more interesting diversions of The White Album, Revolver and Abbey Road. I'd seen Help!, A Hard Day's Night and the animated Yellow Submarine. And I knew some of Lennon's solo material, like Imagine, Whatever Gets You Through The Night and (Just Like) Starting Over, which had been a radio hit in the months leading up to the release of Double Fantasy, just two weeks before his death.

Lennon's murder on Monday, December 8, 1980 clearly shocked the world, but it has taken me a lot longer to fully appreciate the cultural impact Lennon had had on that world. The Beatles weren't just another '60s pop band: they'd turned music on its head every bit as radically as Elvis Presley's arrival in 1955. Between 1963 and 1970 they led the charge of evolving the Top 40 from sacharine puppy love songs to bluesy wigouts, transforming themselves at the same time from mop-topped, besuited boys next door, to bearded, long-haired rock musicians. Incredible to think that just seven years separate Please Please Me and  Let It Be, albums which sound as if they'd been made by two different groups.

Lennon may - or may not - have been the chief architect of this transformation, but as arguably the most charismatic of the band, he certainly gave the band their edge. Look back at vintage footage of The Fabs on The Ed Sullivan Show or with Morecombe and Wise, and Lennon stands out as the gum-chewing rock'n'roller. He may have swapped his Quarrymen leather biker's jacket for a mohair suit, but he was still the teenage rebel.

For all the acknowledgement of McCartney's apparent "normality" and his ability to craft a perfect melody, for all the justified appreciation of George Harrison's musicianship and quiet creativity, and for all of Ringo Starr's often underappreciated rhythm and percussive colour - John Lennon was the Beatle with something to say. He was the gobby one, unafraid of courting controversy with a cheeky quip and a wry aside here, and a reference to being bigger than Jesus there.

Lennon represented what I've always felt are the most important qualities of a rock star: artistic talent, a questioning view on the world, and an edge. At the time of his murder, Lennon appeared to be mellowing. He'd learned to accept his fame and Beatle legacy and was moving comfortably into middle age as a devoted father. After five years' in semi-retirement, Double Fantasy was his comback album. While it didn't compare with any of his better known work as a solo artist or band member, it restored him, at the age of 40, to the top table of the rock firmament.

What caused Mark Chapman to murder Lennon at, perhaps, the musician's most settled and contented time of life may never been known. Like Lennon, Chapman had endured a challenging upbringing. Diagnosed with autism as a child, he developed suicidal tendenancies in young adulthood, along with fantasies about replicating Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days, as well as an unhealthy obsession with J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye (on the morning of the murder, Chapman bought a copy of the novel, inscribed "This is my statement" inside, and signed it "Holden Caulfield"). Amid this gathering storm, a switch flipped and Mark Chapman decided that John Lennon, that most vocal advocate of peace and love, must be killed.

Chillingly, Chapman was photographed just a few hours before the murder asking Lennon to sign a copy of Double Fantasy, believed to be the only Lennon or Beatles album the killer ever posessed. Chapman had approached Lennon and Yoko Ono as they left their apartment in The Dakota building on New York's Central Park West. They'd just taken part in the iconic Annie Leibovitz photoshoot for Rolling Stone, in which a nude Lennon curled up against a clothed Ono.

After spending most of the day working on new songs at The Record Plant studio, Lennon and Ono returned to The Dakota, shortly before 11pm. As Lennon followed Ono into the building's lobby, he caught sight of Chapman, just before the killer fired the fatal rounds of hollow-point ammunition from a .38 Special revolver he'd purchased for the occasion. Lennon was pronounced dead less than 30 minutes later.

Rock stars are meant to expire through their own volition: Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Moon, Bonham - you know the list. "Death by misadventure" is their prescribed demise, the result of some drug or alcohol-induced craziness, or sexual experimentation gone horribly wrong. Some, as Keith Richards famously (and defiantly) said, are never meant to exceed the age of 30.

Lennon did, and was well on his way to elder statesman status. In the 30 years since his death, it has been the subject of conjecture, conspiracy and outright cobblers. Daft theories abound that Chapman was a CIA assassin, and that despite his apparent diminished responsibility, was fully in charge of his faculties and took out Lennon for being a subversive influence on American society. Lennon was a charter member of the Awkward Squad, for sure, but even now it's hard to understand what made him a target for murder, irrational or rational.

Whatever or whoever Chapman was, he has taken a place in the infamous history of nobodies who became somebodies through some devilish act, alongside Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr (whose attempt on Ronald Reagan's life came just three months after Lennon's death) and Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian who plunged the world into four years of carnage in 1914. Thankfully, however, Chapman must be considered a footnote in John Lennon's 40-year life.

Lennon would have turned 70 in October. He might still have been making music; he might have turned to art, produced challenging documentaries about human rights, or become a riotously opinionated author or newspaper columnist.

In the 30 years since his death, the world has experienced profound change and events: the fall of communism; Thatcherism; two generations of Bush in the White House; the end of apartheid; two wars in and with Iraq; the continuing bloodshed and bloody-mindedness in the Middle East; 9/11; Obama; the rise of China as an economic power; the Internet. Imagine where John Lennon would have stood amid this all.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Blattered beyond belief

So now we know who will host the World Cup Finals in 2018. It won't be England. It won't be Spain and Portugal. It won't be the Netherlands and Belgium. It will be Russia.

Sepp Blatter has, like the Vatican chimney, issued forth the puff of white smoke that has identified which country will enjoy the lucrative host nation status, seven years and eight months from now.

The inevitable media inquest is already blaming the media itself. The BBC's decision to screen a Panorama investigation into alleged FIFA corruption, just four days before the vote, is bearing the brunt of this backlash. Even Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has helpfully chimed in that the British media was to blame (a kind of reverse of the famous headline IT'S THE SUN WOT WON IT). But I disagree.

Panorama's somewhat underwhelming exposé and the original Sunday Times scoop may well have coloured opinions within FIFA about England as a nation, but I don't think it made a blind bit of difference to the vote. FIFA had wanted to see a World Cup staged in Eastern Europe, as much as it chose Qatar - a nation smaller than the Falkland Islands - over the United States to host the competition in 2022.

If FIFA had simply come out and said that they wanted Russia to stage it, they could have saved us all the bother - and all the nudge-nudge, wink-winking about what's been going on behind closed and not-so closed doors in the run-up to the Zurich vote. 

Rightly or wrongly, the Sunday Times and the BBC have shone the spotlight on an institution which is, at best, out of touch with modern corporate transparency, and at worst, rotten to its core. Alleged bribery nothwithstanding, the World Cup voting process has been carried out with all the objectivity and probity of the Eurovision Song Contest, determined by hotel corridor politicking and schmoozing amid clouds of cigar smoke and the fumes of a glass of Remy Martin.

To learn, as we have done now, that England failed at the first round of voting makes a mockery of some of the early optimism and even positive indications coming from some of the voting members. England, we're told, had the best presentation, the best bid, and the personal involvement of Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron (whom, we were told at every opportunity, had shuttled between Zurich and Westminster for PMQs and back again. Bravo, Dave! You're clearly one of the people).

England's 2018 bid ticked - on paper at least - all the right boxes. It would have rewarded the world with the authentic football experience in the very country where it all began. Football would have come home: there's a reason the English Premier League is the most televised football league around the world; there's a reason the FA Cup is one of the most popular annual events around the world. It would have all been good. Even the Dutch and the Spanish - who were also bidding for 2018 - were saying that England should win it.

Sadly, England's fate was sealed long before Wills straightened his comb-over and made any awful jokes about his own "big event". We English pride our sense of fair play. We take pride in queuing and pour scorn on any Johnny Foreigner who disrespects our love of manners, decency and refined order. We dislike cheating and dishonesty. The World Cup is not just a sporting extravaganza, but an enormous enterprise for FIFA and host nation alike. And yet it's location is determined by a process akin to a chief constable "seeing what he can do" about the parking ticket of a fellow mason. 

And what of the winning bid? We should, I suppose, congratulate Russia. No, really. We know that it will be a shambles; the fan experience will be dreadful, the racist culture in Russian football will not be solved, the public transport will be a disaster, the hotels will be inadequate, the stadia will be badly built with Mafia money, the visa process will be inflexible, and the overall infrastructure a mess. But FIFA has got what it wanted - a World Cup in the east.

So why go through a bid process in the first place? Why not accept the bag of roubles and have done with the circus that rolled into Zurich this week? The probity of the FIFA voting process should be called into question. It obviously has nothing to do with integrity, national reputation or even the ability to present a viable proposition, but personal favours, personal interests and...well, who knows what else? It's clear the whole thing is as bent and crooked as a DVD sold at a street market. 

FIFA is not an administrative organisation, but a political gentlemen's club where networking and influence is currency. It is run with stunning arrogance by a leadership that considers proven acts of bribery worthy only of the equivalent of wrapped knuckles. Perhaps, on reflection, England shouldn't want to be awarded a World Cup as a result of the back-handers and two-faced deceit that went on.

This is the second World Cup disaster England has suffered this year; but whereas the England team's ejection from South Africa in June was rightfully blamed on poor performance, few could fault the impressive show put on by the England 2018 bid team to try and swing votes their way.  

The sad part is that England won't get an opportunity to bid again until the process begins for the 2030 World Cup. 66 years since the Jules Rimet trophy was last presented on English soil to the world champion of football. And that's an awful lot of hurt.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sort it out, you Muppets - Part II

Call me suspicious. Call me a conspiricist. Call me a cab. But something stinks in SW6. No sooner has Carlo Ancelotti charmed sports hacks into defusing speculation about his future at Chelsea Football Club, than Frank Arnesen, the shadowy 'Director of Sport' (er...what else does a football club do?) announces his resignation in order to "seek a new challenge".

According to Chelsea's currently overworked communications department, the Dane's exit at the end of the current season will be amicable and "no surprise" to the club's hierarchy. Admittedly, Arnesen probably feels his job is done, now the stated aim of getting at least one member of the club's academy into first team action has been achieved. The sight of Josh McEachran (17), Patrick Van Aanholt (20), Jeffrey Bruma (19) and Gael Kakuta (19) all turning out last week in the near-nasty 2-1 Champion's League win over Slovakian minnows MSK Zilina shows some progress. But, at risk of taking a cynical tone, this is not much of a return on the investment.

When Arnesen was poached from Spurs in 2005, he was quoted as saying: "Our target is to find an academy player and bring him through to the first team in two years' time." Clearly that was a stretch target. In the absence of any major 'marquee' signings over the last couple of seasons, Chelsea have - to their credit - given more prominence to the younger squad members this season. But a lengthening injury list - with the likes of Terry, Lampard, Benayoun and Alex undergoing treatment, Bosingwa making a slow recovery from his long-term absence, Carvalho sold to Real Madrid, Mancienne put out on permanent loan, and Michael Essien falling to a three-match suspension, there has been more necessity to pressing the cadets into service than just their individual development.

Although the official announcement of Arnesen's resignation was probably brought forward by The Sun  and others running the same  "EXCLUSIVE" on Saturday morning, the timing is nonetheless unfortunate. It came on the back of the PR bungle of Ray Wilkins' dismissal, three league defeats out of four matches, and preceeded Manchester United moving ahead of Chelsea on points in impressive style with their 7-1 hammering of Blackburn.

This weekend's away fixture to Newcastle United will pile even more pressure on an otherwise relaxed Ancelotti: a club losing two key backroom figures, league games and the top spot in quick succession, is one in desperate need of a morale boost. Whether that will come at Newcastle's expense remains to be seen. But as the Christmas season looms, and fixtures against Everton, Marseille, Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal and Bolton before the year's out, Ancelotti will need some festive spirit to keep Chelsea - which had been seemingly running away with the 2010-2011 Premier League title - even in a European place for next season.

Much, it has to be said, depends on one Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich. Players win games, and managers choose the players to win those games; but with so much of what happens in and around Chelsea dependent on, or influenced by, an owner with little or no tolerance for failure - or indeed anything he takes a dislike to - it's no surprise that Ancelotti is currently the bookies' second favourite manager to get sacked (the favourite, ironically, being West Ham's Avram Grant, another former Abramovich victim).

I couldn't comment on whether something is rotten in the state of Denmark. But something is definitely not right in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. A short walk up the Fulham Road from Fulham Broadway tube station will lead you to all the Shakespearian tragedy you could ever want to experience at a single football club.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sort it out, you Muppets

OK, so its been a month, or thereabouts, since I last committed prose to blog. Mea culpa. Sorry for tuning out. The truth is, I haven't been anywhere, much. Mostly keeping mind, body and soul together as my life starts to turn upside down, and then back up the other way again.

But what has brought me back to the bile-filled blogosphere today is, once more, The Beautiful Game™. Last week, the English sports press trilled in unison that England's abject failure to overturn France in a friendly (albeit with a 'B'-team) was the result of the England coach, Fabio Capello. PRAT IN THE HAT, screamed at least three back pages, clearly throwing originality out of the window in the face of screamingly accurate headline writing, and continuing the tradition of firing alliterative splash decks at the incumbent national team manager (with WALLY WITH THE BROLLY the magnificent arrow that dispatched the hapless Steve McClaren).

England manager-baiting has been a national pastime for time immemorial. It turned Bobby Robson's hair grey and Graham Taylor into a computer-generated vegetable (though time has been strangely benevolent to both their tenures in the Three Lions dugout).

The anger now aimed at Capello is, let's be honest, entirely justified. The FA hired him with stunning arrogance (in much the same way as they hired Sven Goran Erikkson) about Fabio being "...a winner. His record over the last two decades speaks for itself..." with nods to his club successes in Italy and Spain. As if that didn't convince us that The FA Is Right, they threw in a £6 million, four-and-a-half-year deal. Nice.

So, after one of the most embarrassing and humiliating English departures from an international competition, Capello remains in charge. The FA allegedly had the option to sack him after the 2010 World Cup debacle, but instead they - or perhaps their lawyers - chose not to. Fast-forward to a pointless, November friendly against a team who suffered an equally ignominious departure from South Africa, and we patently see no improvement, no team members going the extra yard to put themselves into the reckoning for a place come a competitive Euro qualifier, and the continuation of a coach looking on in apparent silence with the expression on his face, to quote TalkSport's Danny Kelly, "of a man straining on the toilet." I believe the phrase du jour is that "he doesn't have a Scooby".

From a rapidly emptying Wembley Stadium, where the boos from England fans can still be heard, we head across the western side of London to Stamford Bridge where another Italian coach with "an excellent pedigree", Carlo Ancelotti, is wondering what on Earth he's let himself in for.

Like his countryman, Ancelotti was hired on his record: "Carlo was the outstanding candidate for the job," Chelsea's official statement trumpeted. "He has proved over a long period his ability to build teams that challenged for, and have been successful in, major domestic and European competitions. He also had a highly successful playing career in those competitions and therefore brings unparalleled all round experience to the job."

That was in June 2009. Fast forward, ooh, 18 months, and most bookmakers have cut short their odds on Ancelotti being out of the Chelsea job by Christmas. According to The Sun, the Italian has "taken advice" from the League Manager's Association after claiming that he is no longer in control. This is following Chelsea's fourth defeat of the season and their Premier League lead being cut to just goal difference over Manchester United.

What may have tipped the scales for Ancelotti to wake up and smell the roses is the departure of Raymond Colin Wilkins - once the club's youngest captain, and latterly coach to Gianluca Vialli, Luis Felipe Scolari, Gus Hiddink and then Ancelotti. Ray Wilkins' summary dismissal the other week seems to have sent a shockwave through the club's hierarchy, coinciding with an apparent injury epidemic which has given even me the chance of turning out in a blue shirt.

With his right-hand man gone, and a new coach whom no-one had ever heard of, and who doesn't even have coaching badges, in place, Ancelotti is understandably feeling exposed to the fact that he doesn't manage Chelsea Football Club, or even the team. Ironic, given that only the other day Alex Ferguson was thundering away in dictatorial tones about being the sole man in charge. Ancelotti, however, may be coming to terms with the fact that the real reins of power at Chelsea lie way above him. 

Roman Abramovich is, of course, not even an executive at the club. To all intents and purposes, the Russian billionaire is merely an investor in the club. Chairman Bruce Buck and his board of acolytes actually run the place. The much-vaunted coach, however, seems to do nothing more than pick the team from whomever isn't on the treatment table, and make some sort of attempt to strategise tactics. Ancelotti should be used to this sort of football-by-politics. In Serie A and La Liga it's rife, and the managerial merry-go-round never stops turning.

So why should we be surprised about it in English football? Even more so, why should we be surprised about it at Chelsea? Ken Bates was no less a meddler, especially when it came to dispatching managers, but somehow he became depicted as a lovable, white-bearded rogue because he gave good copy in his programme notes. Abramovich, the apparent mute savant, keeps his thoughts to himself, and uses besuited henchmen to do his bidding. Wilkins, it is alleged, was informed by club managing director Ron Gourlay during the half-time interval of a reserve match that his services were no longer required, even though his contract was meant to last until the end of the season. Wilkins' role, it appeared, was partly that of interpreter to Ancelotti (who, unlike Capello, has improved his English tremendously in 18 months), and partly as a figurehead for players and fans alike owing to his lifelong association with the club. He's also a thoroughly nice bloke, good on TV and therefore good for club PR. My, how Chelsea could do with that now.

I'm sure many - if not most - reading this will know that Chelsea is my club. I've supported it and attended games since I was an eight-year-old.  I'm not some arriviste prawn sandwich muncher who has only been on board since there was plundered Russian gas money abroad. 

I've witnessed the highs of wins over Manchester United and Liverpool, and the lows of League Cup exits and the blink-and-you'll miss-it period of Winston Bogarde's overpaid time at the club. I've enjoyed the three League titles of the Abramovich era, the Cup Winners Cup wins, the trips to Wembley for successful FA Cup Finals and, believe it or not, even the emotional rollercoaster of that night in Moscow.  But I do, now, wonder whether the club's executive leadership have a Scooby themselves. 

The lack of high quality playing acquisitions to replace departing veterans; an apparent indifference towards managerial stability, growth and consistency; a failure to recognise that even a dressing room full of overpaid and overpampered spoiled brats is also a dressing room of highly trained athletes who need inspiration, motivation and leadership to do the job. 

Odd that this should apply to both England and Chelsea. Odd that both should have Italian managers. Odd that when you put footballing affairs in the hands of men in suits, the men in tracksuits lose focus.

Is there any wonder that the stands of Wembley and Stamford Bridge are more likely these days to reverberate to the call of "Sort it out, you Muppets!" than anything more positive. Sort it out, you Muppets.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hoard and lodging

Before my partner moved in, I was a champion hoarder. Every inch of storage space was consumed by the discarded and the decommissioned: junior school projects, my own magazine cuttings, concert programs, enough redundant electronics to restock Dixons, baseball caps, trade show passes, assorted pens, guitar parts, a veritable Russian doll of suitcases in every conceivable shape, size and configuration...the list, embarrassingly, goes on. It had to go.

Boxes that had moved from London to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to California, and California to Amsterdam before finding their final resting place in a now defunct former bathroom lay unopen, untouched, unbothered. Like that closing scene in an early X-Files episode, in which a potentially Earth-shattering dossier on alien abduction is unceremoniously buried in a cavernous government warehouse, stuff that had racked up more sea miles than Ellen Macarthur was doing nothing more than providing an extra layer of winter insulation.

Like a thrush bringing back increasing amounts of rubbish with which to line its abode, I'd become a hoarder, creating a human nest. I now discover that hoarding is on the list of recognised psychological disorders. Don't laugh, but hoarding impacts 4% of the population - folk who are unable to discard stuff, who can't stop acquiring it, make decisions about keeping it, or recognise its impact, especially on those who share the same living space. Scarier still, is that 'clinical hoarding' is an extreme of the condition, requiring counseling and medication, though presumably repeat prescriptions might not help the accrual of brown bottles.

In facing up to my own tendency to keep stuff long after it has exceeded its purpose or usefulness, I realise - without much need for an hour with Dr Freud - that my brand of hoarding is nothing more than emotional tethering. Sigmund and his tribe might say this symptomises unfulfilment or disillusionment, and maybe they'd be right. But at risk of applying Canute-like resistance to such couch trippery, I'd say that I was simply applying the addage of 'out of sight, out of mind': I moved in, found a home for a load of useless junk, and got on with my life without doing anything to jettison the material baggage that comes with not being more diligent about throwing crap out.

Even the most decluttered and simplified domestic goddess or god will acknowledge that most possessions carry emotional security. But there is a difference between a box of teenage love letters and having a drawer full of expired mobile phones which serve no purpose whatsoever. In my case, there were too many examples of possessions with no emotional or sentimental value at all. They had to go.

That process began a year ago, but there is still more to come, not just to reduce the clutter, but to embrace a simpler lifestyle. Call it cathartic, even call it a household colonic, but as I come to desire a cluuter-free domesticity, in a new dwelling without the nooks and crannies that swallow up the stuff you just don't need, it's time to reassess and revalue.

Some of it will disappear as fast as I can get it down the stairs and on to a better place (no, that won't mean landfill - I do have some environmental credentials to uphold you know); some will be the subject of personal turmoil and inner conflict; and some - I must warn the neighbours now - will be the source of heated argument (yes, Mr CD Collection, she's looking right at you...).

The truth is, tactile attachment not withstanding, much of the crap we line our homes with these days IS unnecessary. Soon, we will not need a collection of DVDs. That Apple TV box will become portal to the cloud that Blockbuster has disappeared into. Likewise, do I really need a thousand-plus CDs? You can hardly say that opening up a 12cm-square jewel case carries the same excitement us old heads used to derive from opening up that Hipgnosis-designed gatefold.

Yes, I did think that a wall of CDs indicated an erudite and groovy music fan, with eclectic taste and the odd surprise. But I'm not John Peel and, as impressive as his record collection was, with a house built into it, I'm sure that he rarely scratched the surface of most of it, albums by The Fall excepted. I'm now at peace with the notion of redigitised compressed music stored conveniently on a hard drive or a server somewhere; I'm even OK with sleeve notes accessible only by a mouse click (surpassing the frustrated fumbling of trying to extract a CD booklet from its jewel case).

Then, however, there are the books. Here I tread on sensitive soil, and with somewhat libricidal boots. There will be those, of a lofty and highbrow disposition, who consider books - the physical, bound encasement of the printed word - to hold intellectual sanctity; that to consider even giving up one book, which might at best provide toilet-side reading (where would the publishing industry be at Christmas without it?), would be to commit an act of terror on a par with the Nazi book-burning of 1933.

I admit to liking shelves laden with books and, unlike the digital music argument, I'm not yet ready to swap Waterstones 3-for-2 deals for an e-reader (well, maybe an iPad...). But I do think it's time that the read-once football biographies - replete with the now hardened sun tan lotion stains that date their single consumption - and other impulse buys need to wind up in the same proverbial skip as all the other clutter that really won't be needed in our clutter-free, spacious and open-plan next home. The one that won't scream "middle aged rock fan", "cod intellectual" or "unaware of the expression 'you can't take it with you when you're gone'".

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Living The American Dream

On the statue of John Lennon at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport there is the inscription: "Above us only sky". Beneath it, with almost blasphemous irreverence, some scallywag has added: "...and below us only Wolves and West Ham".

Local joves will have you believe this is the famous Scouse humour at work. Given the seemingly comical misfortunes of Liverpool Football Club you would have to give a royal 'hats off' to the wit behind the graffiti. What it masks, sadly, is just how pitiful 'the Mighty Reds' have become. And how much Liverpool fans are clinging on to their newest American saviour, John William Henry II.

With a name seemingly assigned by the Pilgrim Fathers themselves, John W Henry is the living embodiment of the American Dream: the son of Illinois farmers, he dropped out of college only to self-teach himself commodity brokerage, making millions in the process to end up buying himself a baseball team (the Boston Red Sox - a team so big, they don't even care about spelling). All somewhat clichéd, you might scoff.

However, owning large American "sports franchises" is somewhat old hat these days. So, when you've got a billion or two stuffed under the bed, the investment de la jour is to acquire an English Premier League football team. This was pretty much the same story as Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr who, until last Friday, were the previous owners of Liverpool.  Let's just hope Henry - now being hailed the new Mersey Messiah (following in the footsteps of Lennon, Kenny Dalglish, Cilla Black and "Dat Barry Grant from Brookie") - doesn't fall victim to the disillusionment that befell Tom Hicks' son, who allegedly sent a Liverpool fan an e-mail which poetically trilled: "Blow me, f**k face. Go to hell. I'm sick of you". Some people really miss the point about being in it to win it.

Henry has, without labouring the bleeding obvious, a huge task ahead: picking up one of the most famous properties in world football, he must invest to ensure the club's illustrious heritage can match the business environment of the modern era, when the likes of the Manchesters United and City, and their London rivals Chelsea, have the financial clout to keep them entrenched in the Top Four.

Let's keep some perspective, though: it wasn't that long ago Liverpool were ever-present in the upper reaches of the Premier League, even pushing Manchester United for the top spot at one point a couple of seasons back. They are, without any question, one of the most successful clubs in the history of association football, having earned an equal-record 18 league titles, seven FA Cups, seven League Cups and, of course a glittering tally on the European stage - five European Cups and three UEFA Cups, making them the most successful English club in European competition.

However, the collective Scouse moustache is justifiably adroop right now. The club is in the almost inconceivable position of third from bottom. On Sunday it travels across Stanley Park to re-engage Everton in one of the most enduring city derbies. Much is at stake. Defeat for Liverpool will almost certainly place Roy Hodgson's future in the Liverpool hot seat in serious doubt. This, I believe, would be grossly unfair, though, sadly, a fact of life that a manager is only as good as his last results...and Liverpool's have been abysmal.

In Hodgson, Liverpool has a very capable manager. By comparison with his predecessor, the emotionally volatile Rafa Benitez, Hodgson's honest, down-to-earth geniality and ability to do more with less, should see the club through the weeks to come and into a more respectable position by Christmas. That doesn't diminish the task, however, of picking up bruised and battered egos in the club, and bruised and battered egos amongst fans who deserve and expect better.

No club is big enough to be guaranteed Premier League status. Great names from the top flight past, like Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Portsmouth now languish in the lower levels. Liverpool deserve no less exemption from the same fate and nor should they expect it. And nor should we really bank on it. To be in such a dire position by mid-October augurs badly for any hope of Liverpool returning to European contention for next season. Moreover, Hodgson - with Henry's money - must revive a squad demoralised by the Benitez era and defocused by the unsightly High Court squabble this week over club ownership.

I grew up in an era when Liverpool dominated world football. Their exploits in Europe turned the club into international currency. As a Chelsea fan, though, I have little love lost for them: but unlike the bland corporate behemoth that Manchester United has become, Liverpool represents the dated, anachronistic glamour that football should still have. Simply put, Liverpool is a great football club from one of the great footballing cities. That doesn't give it a right to anything, but if you love your football, you want to see great competition amongst the great competitive clubs.

Anfield - for as long as it exists - is still one of the most magical grounds to visit, and to hear the Kop in full voice singing You'll Never Walk Alone is an anthemic experience every bit as good as a Wembley rendition of the National Anthem shortly before 3pm on Cup Final Saturday. Liverpool fans deserve better. And in John W Henry, they may just have found it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Farewell to the King

It was close to three in the morning. I was struggling to stay awake. Solomon Burke had been on stage at the Stravinsky Auditorium since just after midnight and showed little sign of giving up. Heading back to the hotel seemed like an admission of failure. 'King' Solomon Burke was still going strong.

Today, however, that came to an end. On a flight arriving at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, Burke fell ill and passed away. He was aged 70, and had created a reputation for being one of the great showmen in soul and rhythm and blues. Sadly, though, not a household name, despite being the first of the major R'n'B stars to be generated by the legendary Atlantic Records label in the '60s. And, yet, mention his seminal hit, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, and a wry smile of recognition will beam from anyone who has seen The Blues Brothers. Fans of The Wire might recall his cover of Van Morrison's Fast Train, or remember Cry To Me from Dirty Dancing. Some might even know that Otis Redding's Down In The Valley was written by Burke. In recent years he worked with the likes of Eric Clapton and had songs written for him by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits.

Born in Philadelphia in March 1940, Burke was unlike so many of his peers who had come from the South, like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. But drawing on the same mixture of gospel (he was also a preacher), blues, soul and, most significantly, country music, he became one of the most inventive artists of his generation. His most recent albums showed little sign of that spirit waning, especially his final album Hold On Tight, which contains thirteen songs written by the Dutch band De Dijk. This might seem random, even a little obscure, but it shows the love of music that Burke held literally until his dying day (he was flying into Amsterdam for a performance of the album at the city's legendary Paradiso). Prophetically, he recently told the Daily Telegraph: "As long as I have breath to do it I’ll sing, with God’s help.”

Despite being known for uptempo soul stompers, Burke was a truly progressive performer. His first hit was a country cover, Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms), a surprising choice for a soul act, but not considering his love of crossover. The scene in The Blues Brothers in which the band persuade Bob, of Bob's Country Bunker, that a soul revue band was exactly who they'd booked for the night (and would fit perfectly into their music policy of "both kinds - Country and Western"), could so easily have been borrowed from Burke himself: he is believed to have once fooled the Ku Klux Klan into believing he was a white singer. They booked him for one of their charming get-togethers. Not only did he survive, but it is said that he even took requests.

Seeing him for myself in 2007 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, with Burke - then 67 -  booming for the entire three hours from a throne, underlined my feeling that I was watching a true legend, a true showman. And totally larger than life. His colossal size was matched by his colossal reputation, helped by the fact that, by his own admission, he had some 21 children who had in turn produced 90 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren. Several of his offspring have appeared on stage with him, administering to his profusely sweating brow with a never-ending supply of towels, or helping to the stage.

“The thing I most enjoy is the people, the audience, just the thrill of being out there making personal contact and having the deeply spiritual experience of sharing music with so many grateful fans,” Burke has said. It's an ethic which, like many of his peer group, has carried through until the end.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Saying "Nuts!" To Health And Safety

News, today, that the former British Trade and Industry secretary, Lord David Young of Graffham, has published recommendations to challenge local council decisions made on health and safety grounds will be music to the ears of those who think that the compensation culture has gone too far.

It's not often I find myself siding with the Daily Mail (after all, I no longer live in Middle England, I don't drive a Jaguar, I don't play golf, and I'm not interested any new aspects of Princess Diana's "tragic" life), but in their championing of the lunacy of 'Health And Safety Britain' we share common ground.

Some posts back I noted how no-one today seems able to leave the front door in Britain without donning a high visibility vest (even police horses have to wear them now). Earlier this week, BBC Breakfast ran a piece about schoolchildren learning to ride scooters in a playground and, lo and behold, each one of the mites were wearing junior-sized high-viz vests as they whizzed about the yard. Surely half the fun of being a kid is crashing into each other? I'm sure it's in their job description.

Under Lord Young's proposals, councils who ban events and activities on health and safety grounds without any meritable reason could face large compensation claims of their own. Speaking to the Daily Mail  - who else? - Young said that, in preparing his proposals, he'd uncovered pretty extraordinary examples of health and safety-gone-mad, including a local council that banned a traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake race because it was raining, and a restaurant that refused to offer toothpicks for fear of people injuring themselves. Presumably knives, forks, spoons and other hazardous culinary instruments fell under the same ban.

The workings of the somewhat Orwellian Health and Safety Executive in the UK has, for some time, been the fleshiest of meats for the media to growl about the British 'nanny state' which seemed to emerge during the Blair/Brown government. Created by the Health And Safety At Work Act in 1974, the HSE was somewhat dormant for much of the 70s and 80s, quietly going about its business in advising industry on practical measures to prevent factory and farming accidents. Its purpose was the application of safe working practices "when reasonably practical". But then, somehow and suddenly, it acquired a remit to nanny the life out of having fun, to end risk and common sense out of the mitigation of that risk. Kids could no longer enjoy conker fights without having to wear protective goggles, and ice cream parlours stopped adding nut toppings to ice creams in case they fell on the floor, causing an underfoot hazard. Nuts indeed.

No-one will deny the common sense of applying regulations to prevent factory and building site deaths. Some H&S rules do make sense. In France, for example, it's illegal to drive a car without having high visibility vests on board for all occupants. This is profoundly sensible when you have to abandon your car on the shoulder of an autoroute. It's the other aspects of health and safety madness, and the compensation culture that has come with it, which have gone too far. When 'no win, no fee' lawyers are taking on cases as trivial as a paper cut (no evidence of this, but I'm sure someone's thought about it), it's clearly time to reign in the excesses and embrace a little more risk without being told you can't by the high and mighty.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Today's show is brought to you by the letter B - for boob

Run for your lives, people. For Hell has opened up and all its demonic residents running amok: cartoon popstrel Katy Perry has appeared on Sesame Street with Elmo in a low-cut dress (Perry, that is. Not Elmo).

Apparently, the sight of La Perry's décolletage as she performs Hot N Cold alongside the gangly red Muppet has sent the conservative American parental lobby mental, prompting a "barrage" of complaints (which usually means just a handful) which, in turn, forced producers to yank the clip from repeat screenings.

Commenting, the show's producers gave the following, somewhat non sequitur explanation: "Sesame Street has always been written on two levels, for the child and adult. We use parodies and celebrity segments to interest adults in the show because we know that a child learns best when co-viewing with a parent or care-giver."

It's always good to see broadcasters exercise such good judgement after they've recorded a programme, especially as, in this case, Perry is unlikely to have turned up on the Sesame Street set in the dress without someone first judging whether it was suitable for children. Clearly it was. (Ironic that Perry's paramour is Russell Brand, himself the subject of post-broadcast judgement in what inevitably became known as 'Sachsgate').

It's hard to know what is going to corrupt a child more: the sight of Perry's embonpoint squeezed into a yellow bustier dress, or a bunch of right-wing puritans frothing at the mouth over a childlike pop star performing a fun song with a puppet. For a start, children are usually pretty much accustomed to the chest area already; secondly, by Perry's standards, this was a tasteful outfit, and thirdly, it could have been worse: Lady Gaga.

Judge for yourself:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kicking The Tyres: The Risks Of Buying Retreads

What does a rock star do when he's run out of ideas? When writer's block or contractual obligations hinder creativity, your average legend falls back on the dreaded covers album, explained blandly as: "It's been something I've been wanting to do for ages, but never found the time." This is a statement hewn from the same block as "It's part of a musical trilogy I'm working on in D-minor, which is the saddest of all keys", which, all fans of 'ver Tap' will know, is Nigel Tufnel's pre-amble to announcing Lick My Love Pump.

Covers have been with us since Moses was in short trousers: who hasn't started out in a garage trying to navigate stubby fingers around someone else's chords? Even The Beatles were ripping off Chuck Berry when they began. Some bring something new - Otis Redding's cover of Satisfaction, or the totally different approach of Joe Cocker's A Little Help From My Friends. Then there are the novelties: Rolf Harris covering Stairway To Heaven was a clear nadir in a litany of atrocities, although David Lee Roth's California Girls comes close. Entire albums of cover versions, on the other hand, have more nefarious connotations.

No matter how much justice is done, covers albums are rarely a good thing. Most are exercises in laziness, others, outlets for vanity. This month we get two contrasting examples of the genre: Phil Collins' Going Back - a retread of soul classics - and Robert Plant's Band of Joy, a compilation of obscurities drawn not so much from the American Songbook, as brought down from a dusty attic and hand-written on parchment.

Taking pot-shots at Collins has been something of a media spectator sport over the last 30 years. I admit (puts reputation on the line here) to being something of an apologist for the bloke who rarely gets credit for being a unique drummer. Rather than a unique singer. Despite the wry giggle we had when he took You Can't Hurry Love to No.1 with its ironic video (multiple Phils wearing bum-freezer suits and Wayfarers), the prospect of a 60-year-old from Hounslow recreating the 40-year-old Motown sound for, apparently, his own indulgence is, as vanity projects go, dangerously close to pub band territory. Let's leave it there before I say something I'll regret.

The covers album, however, doesn't have to represent a complete abandonment of credibility: Robert Plant has, since his multi-Grammy-winning Raising Sand with Alison Krauss, and his brief return to Led Zeppellin, cemented himself as the elder statesman who can do no wrong (we'll forget Now And Zen...). In teaming up with a collective of Nashville musicians, Plant builds on Raising Sand with a rich, varied and intriguing trek through Americana. From blues (Lightnin' Hopkins' Central Two-O-Nine) to Appalachian folk, Plant immerses himself into a love of backwoods music which belies his West Bromwich origins and, disappointing for some, takes him even further away from the lucrative lure of a full Zep reunion.

One man's loving homage is another's rank laziness. Paul Weller lost serious cred with his knocked-out-in-an-hour-so-he-could-hit-the-coffee-shops-of-Amsterdam covers album Studio 150. Writer's block offers little real excuse.  Doffing a cap to heritage is, in Plant's case, it would appear, OK.

Eric Clapton has made it his stock-in-trade in recent years, returning repeatedly to the Robert Johnson/Delta Blues oeuvre in deference to doing anything new. But when you've reached your sixties as a fabulously wealthy rock star, there's probably not much point discussing retiring to a cottage by the sea. Plant and Clapton, to their credit, don't make any bones about doing what they do for artistic progression. It's about celebrating the music they love, while growing old with some degree of grace.

Which brings me to, arguably, one of the most innovative covers albums, from someone who never fails to immerse himself with such iconoclastic zeal each time he knocks on the studio door. Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back epitomises his relentless approach to Doing Things Differently Ans Awkwardly.

On his third album, he instructed his drummers (including Collins) to abandon cymbals, ridding his rhythm section of the punctuation of a crash after every phrase. In the process, Gabriel inadvertently helped create a You Tube gorilla phenomenon and a generation of bar room air drummers. On his fourth album, Gabriel applied more and more of the world music he has consistently championed, in his own work and in helping establish WOMAD, introducing Middle Eastern and Asian instrumentation and rhythmic influences to the 'western' notion of rock music.

Scratch My Back is, unashamedly, a covers album. Typically, it has the Gabriel twist: a collection of covers, performed orchestrally, of some of Gabriel's personal favourites - an eclectic mix spanning the likes of Arcade Fire, Paul Simon, Radiohead, Elbow, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Neil Young. The twist, in case you were still wondering, is that each of the covered artists will reciprocate with an equally different cover of one of Gabriel's canon (well, some of them - rumour has it that Radiohead got snippy about the reworking of Street Spirit). For all its novel approach, Scratch My Back and its eventual mirror, I'll Scratch Yours, is simply another way of avoiding writing anything new. But given Gabriel's legendary gestation of new material (10 years between his Us and Up albums), it might be overdoing it to expect the now sexagenarian Gabriel to repeat his relatively herculean effort in recording Us a mere six years after the hit-spawning So in 1986).

Gabriel has proven that, when bereft of any genuine originality, creativity doesn't have to be completely abandoned. Retreading the back catalogues of others can be a refreshing experience, especially when - as Gabriel has done - he removes any well-lit pathways to comfortable recognition. His painfully sparse version of Paul Simon's Boy In The Bubble, and his string-heavy interpretation of Heroes - it's chugging spine removed - are almost unnerving, challenging the listener by taking away all but the scantest traces of the familiarity bred by countless Top 40 radio plays.

But alas. Christmas is a-coming. And that means that, inevitably, record company press offices (not sure if they even still exist) will be drafting a new batch of press releases bearing the words "...his own, personal interpretation of classic songs...", a phrase which conjures all the dread and fear of an afternoon toasting marshmallows with Beelzebub himself. Which means, kids, when choosing this year's stocking fillers, you have choices. Real choices. Choose wisely.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Nine-Year Itch

Nine years ago today I woke up in my Californian apartment to strange news: at 6am I was up early to get ready for a trip to Amsterdam. I switched on CNN to see what was happening in the world, and was intrigued by reports of a plane - probably a light plane - hitting a building in New York. As I sat, eating my breakfast, I found myself being sucked into a story that would consume me for not only the following 12 hours, but would consume the world for the following decade.

I recall watching a ball of confusion roll itself tighter. Eyewitness accounts being relayed via television news anchors failed to clarify what kind of plane had hit what kind of building. In New York itself, however, the grim reality had already taken place. By the time I had woken up and switched on CNN, American Airlines Flight 11 had already crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower (at 8.46am EST), followed by United Airlines' Flight 175, crashing into the South Tower 17 minutes later.

Unsatisfied with CNN's lack of information on what was still being regarded as a "small plane" crashing into a building. I began to flip around the main networks, hoping the breakfast news shows of NBC, CBS and ABC could shed some light. Everyone was speculating, but in that first hour, the consensus seemed to be that it was probably still just a light plane, or one of the tourist sight-seeing flights that criss-cross Manhattan like flies. What was unfolding was a fog of war as thick as any peasouper that had ever been. The confusion fuelled the intensity of my interest in the story.

That remained the pattern for the rest of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. For more or less 12 hours straight, I remained glued to the TV, fixated by a tragedy of unprecedented brutality.

Somewhere in that first hour I received a call from my boss in New York, who worked in one of the towers of the Rockerfeller Center, saying that they had been ordered to immediately evacuate, and that henceforth I would become the point of contact for all calls coming into our North American corporate headquarters. Without any time to explain, that was it. Click. There was no chance of ringing back to have it clarified, either, as mobile phone networks in Manhattan had descended into meltdown.

The horrific possibility that the plane crash in New York was in fact two, and that both were airliners, was just becoming apparent on the news when, at 9.37am EST, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Within half-an-hour or so, rumours were circulating that a fourth plane was unaccounted for. United Flight 93.

Even though today we know the exact chronology of that morning, it still doesn't play out in real time in my mind. I've now seen the footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, and of the twin towers collapsing, so many times that I can't remember whether I watched it live or not. All I remember was, getting to around 6pm in the evening, having spent exactly half the day channel-surfing, and deciding it was time to get out of my pyjamas and get some fresh air. It was that kind of day. I had been flipping from channel to channel, hoping that each different TV station would carry better or more information than the previous. Time, frankly, became irrelevant. Every TV channel had suspended normal programming, and all were running 'zip strips' along the bottom of the screen to provide what information - if any - was known.

I got dressed, got into my car and drove north. I didn't have any real idea where I was going, I just needed to get out of the house and get some perspective on the day. As I drove up Highway 101 towards San Francisco, I was struck by two things: firstly, the Californian blue sky seemed strangely reminiscent of the sky in New York that had been so savagely penetrated earlier in the day by burning kerosene and falling steel. The second thing was how quiet it was. The San Francisco Bay Area is served by three large airports - San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose - and the daily soundtrack in the region is of planes flying overhead. But now - there was none. People were still going about their business, but there were fewer cars on the road, even though it was now what should have been the thick of the evening commute. Thinking about this silence, I drove to a spot in San Bruno overlooking San Francisco International Airport: it looked like a child's playset that had been abandoned for dinner - motionless planes seemed to be scattered all over the airport's taxiways, aprons and dispersal points, halted before they could reach the sky by the fact American airspace had been closed.

It was such a peaceful, placid scene: a complete contrast to the carnage on the streets of lower Manhattan and Washington, and in a Pennsylvania field. And the carnage that has since followed. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. On the London Underground. In Madrid.

9/11 changed the world in so many ways. For America, it represented something of a loss of innocence, that terror could be exported there. Travel, would never be the same again: the apparent freedom with which air travel in the US resembled getting on and off a bus would come to an end. The inconvenience, however, of having to go through increased airport security, will always be relative.

Nine years on, the events of the day seem no less brutal. The 3000 people who died that day, no less tragic than the tens of thousands who have since died in the 'war on terror'.  But to me, every time I look up into the azure sky on a sunny September morning, it's impossible for me not to think of that Tuesday morning in 2001.

Monday, August 30, 2010


© Royal Philips Electronics. All rights reserved.
Shamefully, this is my first new blog post for a month. This might sound like a confession ("Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four weeks since I last committed thought to the blogosphere."). But the blog drought isn't about to end. My only excuse is that other distractions have come along. Mea culpa.

Anyway, at the height of laziness, and the proactive prevention of an act of plagiarism so heinous, I give you a link to someone else's blog - one which caught my attention for being germane to my own lifestyle: can you be too connected?


Sunday, August 01, 2010

Slipping The Mickey

Towards the end of 2004 I was sitting in the offices of the Walt Disney Company in London, awaiting a job interview and thinking: "How ironic." For a company that had gone out of its way to cultivate an image of wholesomeness, I was staring at a lifesize cardboard cutout of Mr. Orange from Reservoir Dogs, a film largely known for a lot of blood, a lot of swearing and Michael Madsen cutting off a cop's ear to the soundtrack of Steeler's Wheel's Stuck In The Middle With You.

The year before, Disney had bought Miramax, Bob and Harvey Weinstein's fiercely independent film studio. Under Disney's ownership, Miramax would go on to release more from the Tarantino oeuvre, including the equally messy Pulp Fiction, as well as the likes of Trainspotting and From Dusk 'Till Dawn. Hardly in the realm of family values-based entertainment Disney built its name around.

Under its parent, Miramax maintained a high level of critically astute output, including The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Il Postino, Shakespeare in Love, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and No Country for Old Men. Now Disney is selling Miramax to a group of investors for $660 million, ending a period of uncertainty for the studio that began with it laying off staff and putting a stop to new production at the beginning of this year. What the new owners – who include includes Rob Lowe – will do with the studio remains to be seen.

For Disney, it's clear why they made this move: "Our current strategy," said Disney CEO Robert Iger, explaining the divestment, "is to focus on the development of great pictures under the Disney, Pixar and Marvel brands". In other words, movies that can be merchandised on children's clothing, Thermos flasks and lunch boxes.

The sad truth is that the economics of modern cinema caught up with Miramax. Contrary to belief, mainstream film production can no longer be subsidized by secondary sales of films on DVD and Blu-ray Disc or to TV networks. Last year, American consumers spent more money on cinema tickets than on watching movies at home. That might sound encouraging, but home entertainment has provided a valuable subsidy too the film industry, ever since VHS rentals first appeared in the late 1970s. Even with the prospect of online distribution replacing discs and tapes, the future is looking bleak for a breadth of film-making in the mainstream business.

Thus, Hollywood is increasingly relying on bankability, on blockbuster sequels and TV remakes, such as the execrable "big screen version" of The A-Team (Liam Neeson – what were you thinking…?). "Cinema," Francis Ford Coppola told a film festival last year, "is falling apart." Miramax may just be the first crack.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Has Apple gone from darling to demon?

I'm not sure what the statute is on a blog post's length, but for this one, I'll confess up front to making this a lengthy discourse on something that's troubling me: is everything OK with Apple?

Last month's launch of the iPhone 4 turned out to be a larger-than-usual seismic event in the Apple chronology. It came with foreshocks and aftershocks which continue to generate acres of newsprint - yes, that quaint old thing - examining and exfoliating Apple and its messianic CEO Steve Jobs.

Given that Apple's own epicentre, Cupertino, lies almost on top of the fault lines than run the length of California, it's ironic that the company has been the source of more tectonic activity in the consumer landscape than any other in the last 12 years or so. Few are as admired and revered amongst myriad industries as a shining example of How To Do It Right. However, the tsunami of think pieces and op-ed that has followed the iPhone 4’s arrival must have given even the most seasoned Apple PR reason to reach for the painkillers.

As with all Apple launches, the noise began long before anyone had parted cash for product: but more than normal, there was the somewhat heavy-handed hue-and-cry over the alleged 'theft' of a prototype. The hullaballoo was enriched further by murky tales surrounding the phone's Chinese manufacturer. Then, no sooner had the first handsets been snapped up by the customary snake of people outside Apple Stores than the first murmurings of disquiet emerged over the phone’s reception quality. All this led to the sound of Apple masticating on humble pie as Jobs admitted: "Of course we're human, of course we make mistakes”, followed by a giveaway of $1 rubber bumpers to fix the problem.

At the same, hastily convened press conference, a clearly flustered Jobs opined that: “We're not perfect. We know that, you know that.” The trouble is, many believe Apple IS perfect, or at least, has perfected the art of revolution to the extent that it positively mass produces game-changing products.

For the last two decades I’ve watched Apple with awe and amazement, not to mention a little pride. Like the Dylan fan who maintains he liked Bob before he went electric, I’ve seen Apple evolve from a vendor of nice but expensive professional computers for professional creatives, to the world’s largest technology company by value. When, as a journalist, I first sat before an Apple word processor 23 years ago, I had little idea that by the turn of the century I’d be buying into an Apple-shaped 'digital lifestyle'.

In buying an original iMac - my first ever personally purchased computer - I became hooked like a dime bag addict on the Apple proposition, becoming drawn into a world of seemingly endless creative possibility. It appeared to be pretty groovy in Apple's domain of digital self-expression.

That first 'Blueberry' iMac was a genuine revolution - forged by the brilliant design simplicity of a Londoner called Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs' geeky bravado. It not only laid the cornerstone of consumer technology for the following decade, but a core element of culture, too. Creative types bought up the funky blue icon in their thousands; Adland and Cool Central became peppered with its cheerful lines and near-perfect proportions. It dared to be shown off, not hidden away under a pile of blankets in the spare room.

Most importantly, it simply wasn't a computer. It was a "digital hub". And it made it OK to like technology. It brought an acceptance to technology ownership comparable with the renaissance we football fans went through in the mid-90s thanks to Nick Hornby and Britpop (Heysel and Hillsborough, you might recall, made admitting to being a football fan an acute form of social suicide). No sooner had football replaced property prices as the dinner party discussion du jour, than people were openly admitting to making iMovies without fear of a public stoning for being so uncool. Apple's digital hub had triggered a perfect, bloodless revolution.

Now, as Thomas Jefferson said, every generation needs a new revolution. Apple, clearly felt one revolution wasn't enough, however, and no sooner had it turned the letter 'i' into the prefix of the modern era, it tore up the rule book yet again with iTunes. Rarely had a software launch been delivered with such pizzazz and baby-boomer knowing. Compressing music into audio files was not new, and nor was turning a personal computer into a digital jukebox. But just as the iMac made the computer attractive and simple to own for mere mortals (rather than those with an advanced engineering PhD), iTunes made a subtle but significant difference to the idea of digital music management.

When iTunes launched in early 2001, I had just moved to Silicon Valley. I appreciated good quality hi-fi. I appreciated the difference speakers, cabling and amplifiers made to the enjoyment of music, but not, you understand, to the extremes of those heads who profess a love for the smell of vinyl in the morning. File sharing and early MP3 players like Diamond's Rio and Creative's Nomad, were, to my dinosaur mind, the preserve of the Tuesday lunchtime Science Club. I just didn't relate digital music to the musical experience I knew and loved, which began with opening a packaged disc, studiously pouring over the sleeve art and notes, and then putting needle to groove or CD to 'play'. iTunes made it more acceptable, novel and convenient and, well, fun.

Apple's next revolution came even sooner: the iPod’s launch in October 2001 was a muted affair. Coming just five weeks after 9/11, America was numb and the world still dazed. Really, you couldn't have picked a worse time to chirpily offer "1000 songs in your pocket". Naturally it generated the usual wave of excitement in the technology world, despite it being an audio product made by a computer company, and therefore not all that good. The despondency of the times, though, didn't make allowance for the Apple effect.

Got the iMac? Bought into the lifestyle? Then your experience won't feel complete without one. So I had to have one. Apple's narcotic brand appeal worked its wonders again. I had to have an iPod. Just as I had to have a Nano. And a new iMac to service them. And then another Nano with video. And a new MacBook. And an iPhone. And I will want an iPad (when it gets a video camera, note to Product Development Dept.). Oh, and don't forget all the accessories - the Bluetooth keyboards and mice, the docks and headphones, the power chargers and...finish the list yourselves.

"Cocaine," Robin Williams once brilliantly reflected, "is God's way of saying that you're making too much money." It's easy to draw the same opinion of the Apple junkie. Like coke, Apple products will give you an inflated sense of your own cool while blowing a hole the size of Lake Geneva in your bank balance. It’s also easy to regard Apple as a religion, with Steve Jobs some black turtleneck-clad Messiah. He's not.

There are those who dote on Jobs' every word, who queue for days outside San Francisco's Moscone Center to hear his keynote, and who line up through fair weather and foul to own the subject of his latest announcements. This doesn’t a religion make. Apple is just a very clever company. Driven by fanatical focus to delivering experiences from a relative handful of product lines and platforms, each conforming to a unique and singular view of what people want or aspire to owning.

Long before it became the giant it now is, Apple was frequently dismissed as an exclusive irrelevance, with their computer products struggling to break out of a market share of less than 5%. There were those who dismissed Apple, unwisely as it turned out, on the basis that it’s a PC world and get used to it. Now who’s laughing: Apple, now valued at $237 billion, has eclipsed Microsoft’s market cap and is second only to Exxon in America’s corporate league table.

Apple’s dominance of what you and I enjoy doing most – enjoying music and movies, taking pictures, surfing the net and engaging with our fellow human beings – is undeniable. And credit to them for doing so, for coming up with products so brilliant and so exciting that even opening the packaging of an iPhone or iPod is virtually an erotic experience.

There is also plenty of innovation left in the tank. Will the iPad and iBooks service do for publishing what the iPod and iTunes did to music? My view is 'yes'. Most major record companies were taking the Canute approach to online music until the iTunes model convinced them otherwise. The publishing industry has been doing the same. It all sounds very familiar…

So why should I worry that Apple might be losing it? After all, its handling of the iPhone 4 issue was a fiasco, but hardly a PR disaster, or “a BP” as it’s now known.

If anything, it’s added a degree of humanity to the company. Apple certainly isn’t losing its business, and despite his grumpy press conference on July 16, Steve Jobs certainly won’t be losing that much sleep. What lets Apple's reputation down is things like the secrecy around Jobs’ health issues. The PR diffusion may have maintained share price stability, but it struck a discordant note in Apple’s otherwise resplendent shine.

Apple is still, though, exceeding expectations. In the second quarter of 2010 it earned $3.25 billion profit from almost $16 billion in sales. It sold 8.4 million iPhones in the year to June, a 61% increase on the previous 12 months. And despite the ‘Attennagate' furore, it still sold well over two million iPhone 4s in its first month on the market. The iPad – Apple’s latest revolution - has already sold over 3.3 million pieces in its first three months on sale, and continues to be on back order with a promise of "weeks" before shipping to eager owners.

Such numbers are the making of sniping, envy and suspicion – just look what happened to Microsoft. And while my glasses may appear to have a rosey tint, one has to acknowledge that Apple's products simply ARE good. Its consumer loyalty has been justifiably earned by coming up with stuff that works better and looks better than anyone else's.

Recent events may suggest a blemish on the shine, and it may only be a matter of time before Apple's cocky swagger is knocked asunder by an issue more damaging than how to hold a phone. But for now, all the time it continues to create desirable consumer experiences like the iPhone and the iPad, Apple can still do no wrong.

As Jobs himself commented: "I look at this whole 'Antennagate' thing and say 'wow'. Apple's been around for 34 years. Haven't we earned the credibiity and trust from some of the press to give us a little bit of the benefit of the doubt?". He’s got a point.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Class Act

If there is any one company in Europe which creates more heat and steam than The Flying Scotsman at full pelt, it is Ryanair. Indeed, the Mamba-strength venom reserved for this airline seems to have been eclipsed recently only by that for BP.

So today Ryanair's reputation took another punch up the bracket when the airline's searingly obnoxious CEO Michael O'Leary apologised "unreservedly" to easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou for running ads depicting him as Pinocchio.

Ryanair compounded its attack on easyJet by fibbing about the British rival's timekeeping. When Sir Stelios protested, Ryanair ran more ads, suggesting the issue be settled by a bout of sumo wrestling and, classily, branding Stelios a "chicken."

Whether or not this was personally instigated, or personally executed by O'Leary is not known. What is known is that O'Leary consistently challenges the notion of corporate reputation management. Indeed, he has turned 'anti-reputation' into an art form - even prompting a book, Plane Speaking: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael O'Leary, to compile his indifference towards reputation.

All this flies in the face of modern corporate wisdom, especially the belief, expressed by American industrialist Warren Buffet that: "It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." Think of what has happened this year to Toyota and BP.

Ryanair, of course, cannot be compared to Toyota or BP: the only disaster, or perceived disaster, Ryanair can own up to is that their jumped-up CEO revels in controversy and, into the bargain, gets the attention he so obviously craves. And the business: in the year to June, Ryanair increased its profits by 204%, coining in an eye-popping Eur 319 million (even without charging a quid for an in-flight pee).

Back on the ground, Ryanair polarises opinion: it has plenty of detractors - indeed a huge community of websites, blogs and Twitter campaigns has emerged to vent about the airline. But for all those who consider them price-gouging crooks, there are those who are pretty pleased with an airline that will ship them from A-to-B on the cheap.

Well I say A-to-B, but B is rarely where you actually need to be: if you fly Ryanair to Brussels you actually land at Charleroi, which is closer to Paris than the Belgian capital. Eindhoven in the Netherlands is even positioned by Ryanair as convenient for Amsterdam. Trust me, it isn't. Which means that "Europe's Greenest airline", as Ryanair likes to call itself, really isn't. You still need a car or a bus to reach further away destinations or departure points. The difference is, it's your car and your carbon emissions, not the airline's, all of which looks good for the corporate sustainability rating of the airline.

It's true you get what you pay for with Ryanair. What's also true is that if you don't like them you know what you can do. And I'm sure Michael O'Leary has one or two suggestions...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Orange Appeal

Having lived outside of Britain for the last 11 years, I regularly get asked what I think has changed in my home country while I’ve been away. Apart from the proliferation of conversations in Polish, Russian and Korean, the biggest difference is that the country is now bright yellow.

Britain is so bright yellow now, it positively hums with fluorescence. This isn’t because of a jaundice pandemic, as far as I know, but the result of a Health & Safety culture that makes it virtually impossible to step into the open air without putting on a ‘high-visibility’ jacket first.

Nothing and no one is immune: what started out as a safety vest for road workers extends now to anyone who might be put in harm’s way by, well, anything. Bus drivers, cyclists, postal workers, factory employees, cleaners, gardeners, architects, ambulance crews, builders, miscellaneous council employees, railway workers, film crews, anyone at an airport, horse riders, policemen – even police horses – are all required to wear them, lest they come to harm going about their daily business.

The Dutch, of course, suffer from a related strain of this condition, in that they are required, by law, to wear bright orange at moments of national importance. Come April 30th - Koninginnedag (the former Dutch queen’s birthday) - the nation’s torsos and homesteads are adorned in orange to accompany the consumption of ocean-scale quantities of Heineken. Presumably this is to cushion the impact of the retinal damage caused by wearing such a vibrant hue.

For international football tournaments the custom is applied with even greater gusto. For the last few weeks, the Netherlands has been ablaze with orange. It has been worn with a ubiquity not seen since Chairman Mao declared green to be 'in' for the autumn collection of 1949. Everyone – and I mean everyone (or at least almost everyone) - has been wearing it in support of the national team’s progression through the World Cup.

Even the ever-present risk of the Dutch team imploding mid-way through the tournament doesn’t dampen any fervour for wearing the colour with pride. Ironically, during the 2008 European championships in Austria and Switzerland, the Swiss national railway ordered its workers to switch from orange reflective vests to yellow after clearly confused Dutch fans followed trackside engineers on to tracks like inebriated rats walking behind the Pied Piper.

You clearly have to hand it to the Dutch for their passion in following the Oranje, even if the Dutch themselves express a bashful anxiety when asked about the prospects of their team in the competition itself. Long before the first Jabulani had been kicked in anger on June 11, those in the know had been talking up the Netherlands as dark horses for the World Cup.

Many Dutch failed to give more than sporting chance to their heroes reaching the quarter-finals, let alone the final itself. But they did: Bert van Marwijk’s strategy of discipline and organisation mixed with some expressive wide football from the likes of Arjen “Wobbly” Robben, Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt and player-du jour Wesley Sneijder got them to only their third World Cup Final.

True, throughout the tournament the Nederlands Elftaal didn't play with any notable flair, but they deserved to reach their chance in the final. Up until Howard Webb blew his whistle to get the game under way, they'd played six and won six, scored 12 and conceded five. They had just gotten on with the job. They had won by the right margins and beat the teams they were supposed to beat. Capice, Fabio?

Furthermore, in Sneijder, the Dutch had a player who, fresh from winning Italian league and cup and Champions League medals, looked like a polished gem. Even Arjen Robben managed to stay on his feet for most of his matches, and to his credit, stayed upright in the final while under pressure from Puyol. Normally Robben runs an ever-present risk of buckling like a new-born springbok when faced with gusts of wind, comments about his receding hairline or goalkeepers looking at him ‘funny’. But not this time.

Sadly, though, despite their creditable progression through to the showpiece finale, and despite the fervent support back home, van Marwijk's side blew their opportunity to erase still-lingering bitterness about 1974 and 1978 with such negative tactics. For all the orange that poured through Amsterdam's streets like a glorious torrent of nationhood, it was a shame the team such fervency backed played in such a dull, stifling manner. At nine minutes into extra time it could have been nine minutes into the first half.

Did Spain deserve to win? Maybe. For too long they've been the team that never did, poor shadows at international level of one of the best leagues in world football. Their underlying class finally shone through at the right time, even if the Spanish played their part in ensuring we had to endure the dullest World Cup Final in living memory.

In the end... Well, in the end, we got a result, and nothing more. It was an anti-climax that did little justice to the home support. The pundits had predicted an exciting final. Even that bloody octopus shook a tentacle at the prospect of seeing something good. We didn't, but as the last can of Grolsch gets drained, and a dejected nation cycles home, they can take some credit for the way they get behind their national team. Even if it is a gesture as simple as putting on an orange T-shirt. Hup, Holland, Hup!!