Tuesday, July 31, 2012

...and the Gold, Silver and Bronze goes to: Twitter

Picture: LOCOG
London 2012 has become the Twitter Olympics. Careful scrutiny of the crowds attending events - where seats are filled, obviously - reveals an abundance of smartphones and iPads in employ as the information-hungry devour as much as they can of the 26 sports and 39 disciplines taking place over the 19-day games.

I doubt that it was intended that these Olympics would became so dominated by the social network, and if it was, I'm sure LOCOG would have manacled Twitter to a lucrative sponsorship deal.

In the first four days, however, it has probably been just as well: first there was the suggestion that Twitter overload or, at least mobile network overload, led to a slowdown of information reaching broadcasters covering the cycling road races. Hmm... I may know a little about this sort of thing and I find it hard to understand how a mass video upload of Lizzie Armitstead scurrying up Box Hill would have caused that sort of outage.

While all that was being digested rumours emerged that Apple had discussed with Twitter investing "hundreds of millions" in the service. The story first appeared in the New York Times, citing "people briefed on the matter," (code for "this is the closest we actually get to naming names), then the Wall Street Journal reported that, according to "a person familiar with the talks", discussions had taken place, but over a year ago, and that the talks weren't taking place now. OK - everyone as you were, nothing new to see here.

So just as one non-Twitter story was fizzling out, and we were returning our attention to the beach vollyeball, came accusations of heavy-handedness by Twitter for suspending the account of Guy Adams, a Los Angeles-based contributor to The Independent newspaper in the UK.

Along with a large number of Americans, Adams used his Twitter account to savage the coverage of Friday night's opening ceremony by NBC, the US national network with exclusive rights to broadcast London 2012. However, Twitter's ire was drawn by Adams' publication of the e-mail address of Gary Zenkel, the NBC executive in charge of the network's Olympics coverage.

Twitter have maintained that Adams had breached their privacy rules, but being a journalist, especially one writing for a national British newspaper, much froth has been generated.

In particular has been the charge of censorship by Twitter, a medium that has contributed more than its fair share in the democratisation of citizen journalism, not least of which during the events of the last year or two in the Middle East.

The crux of the critics' argument was the fact Zenkel's e-mail address was in the public domain - online - so in taking Adams' account offline smacked of over-zealousness at the very least. What gave the issue a distinctly darker tone is the fact that NBC have a commercial arrangement with Twitter for the duration of the Olympics.

It is, it must be said, too early to say whether this affair has taken Twitter across any particular rubicon, but it has, nonetheless, brought home the fact that the impact of this simple medium is immeasurable. And complex.

The media, though, love nothing more than a story about their own, especially when their own's freedom has been curtailed, and even more when some corporate monster is involved. "If what NBC is saying is true," Guy Adams is quoted in the Daily Telegraph saying, "it undermines everything that Twitter stands for and is an absolute disgrace and will aggravate many millions of its users. Their whole corporate ethos is that they never interfere with the flow of tweets. Something has gone very very wrong here."

Adams' account has since been reactivated, and the whole affair may yet turn out to be an 'oops' PR moment by Twitter, but it is something the service could do without as questions remain over its long-term viability and money-making capabilities.

It is, however, easy to forget just how powerful Twitter is: bulletin boards, chat rooms, Facebook and other online platforms may have given 'ordinary' individuals a voice that had hardly existed before (short of owning your own newspaper or becoming a broadcaster). By, essentially, turning SMS text messaging into a mouthpiece for anyone with anything to say, at the moment they want to say it, and regardless of what state of mind or alcoholic refreshment they find themselves in, Twitter armed a social media-literate generation with a gun of particularly lethal potential.

Professionally trained journalists will be extremely familiar with the laws of libel and slander, as well as breaches of copyright, privacy and a list of other conventions governed by the statute. Blogging and social media have continually pushed the boundaries of these codes. But Twitter has repeatedly pushed them the most.

Which brings us to the latest - and unlikely to be the last - piece of Twitter news: another 'troll' abusing both Twitter's relative anonymity and its relatively immediate access to celebrities, to criticise Tom Daley, following the British teenager's fourth place yesterday in the Olympic diving pairs.

The individual concerned - @Rileyy69 - had posted a message - including Daley's Twitter handle - telling the teenage diving prodigy that he'd let down his father, Rob, who died last year from brain cancer. Daley responded by posting: "After giving it my all...you get idiot's [sic] sending me this...", forcing a flurry of counter-trolling by other Twitter users - including the likes of former Arsenal striker Ian Wright - condemning @Rileyy69 in no uncertain terms.

The tweeter issued a grovelling apology: "I'm sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I'm just annoyed we didn't win I'm sorry tom accept my apology", though it should be pointed out, after he had continued to vent like a cranked up crystal meth addict.


Today Dorset police arrested a 17-year-old in connection with the case and on suspicion of making malicious comments. Daley, for his part is, according to Sir Clive Woodward, Team GB's Deputy Chef de Mission, taking the incident "in his stride".

Whoever @Rileyy69 is, this turd will be sweating: a precedent was set earlier this year when student Liam Stacey provoked revulsion with comments made on Twitter while Bolton Wanderers' Fabrice Muamba was suffering cardiac arrest during the FA Cup tie against Tottenham on March 17. As Police were inundated with complaints, Stacey was quickly traced and arrested, ending up being jailed for 56 days.

The sad fact is that despite the deeply unpleasant judgement applied by both @Rileyy69 and Stacey, we must resist the temptation to apply censorship to social media. The case of Guy Adams has exposed the dangers of social media organisations, in their inevitable necessity to generate profits to repay their investors' faith, applying muscle to destroy the very freedom they created in the first place.

Celebrities put themselves on Twitter in a way they have  have never before allowed themselves to be accessible. Whether they choose to read the replies, RTs and comments in quoted tweets about them is up to them and, no doubt their egos. Some seem to be perfectly comfortable with engaging the public in the sort of one-to-one dialogue that would have previously been screened by managers and PRs or metal fences, enforced by hired security at a stage door.



Pointlessly, Debretts - the self-appointed regulator of good manners - has published its guide to social media etiquette in a flimsy exercise to help those who actually give a damn about such behaviour. This is about as useful as publishing instructions on how to drive a car through Rome during rush hour. "Make it a general rule that you will never say anything online that you wouldn't be able to articulate directly, face to face," it says. OK, sensible. 

"Do not use the technology as a shield," it goes on "masking your true feelings and personality. So always write polite emails, and never send messages (on social networking sites, chatrooms, SMS etc.) that contain intemperate language or sentiments that you would never normally express in your everyday life," before reminding us "Don't be an online bully: threatening and haranguing people you can't see, who can't fight back."

All very sensible, you will say, but a voluntary code of conduct, all the same. Voluntary, of course, until you find a member of the local constabulary knocking on your door to invite you down to the station for a few questions...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

When I waked I cried to dream again


Sunday. Day 2. All that sniping and griping is now being zealously replaced by the earnest business of being the best in archery or swimming or netball or road cycling or any one of a thousand events which got underway yesterday in "London" (which, presumably to help geolocate confused Americans, covers just about every venue).

While the athletes who paraded around the Olympic Stadium on Friday night get down to the business they've trained years for, the world is still gaping with awe over Danny Boyle's simply breathtaking £27 million opening ceremony, quite possibly the finest celebration of Britain I've ever seen - an incredible montage of our humour, our history, our irony, our endeavour, our creativity, our quirkiness, our social fabric, our contribution, our joyful cynicism and our sense of order.

Beijing had been about power, about projecting the economic and military might of China, presenting its credentials, as if contained in the most elaborate investors' brochure ever produced before an IPO. And it was, to an extent, about the future. London's opening ceremony pageant - Isles of Wonder was unashamedly about the past and the present. It was what, frankly, we do best. We dwell on our past glories like no other nation, which is just as well seeing as heritage is one of the United Kingdom's most lucrative coin-turning operations.

There have been the critics who've said that it lacked any vision of hope, of the future, but not intentionally wishing to state the obvious, who knows what the future will bring? Best to live in the moment, which is what Boyle's incredible show managed - using the past to get to where Britain is today, a vibrant, culturally diverse, creatively rich and socially complex nation. It may have once been the foundry of the world, but let's not get too carried away with all that, it still has something to give the world, and if that doesn't count, then, as an island, it is perfectly happy pleasing itself.

Olympic opening ceremonies can be mind-draggingly dull affairs, a lot of nationalistic pomp and ceremony, followed by a lot of flag-waving and grand speeches citing the Olympic spirit. This was a three hour version of Peter Blake's cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a pop art collage comprised of several thousand moving parts, 40 sheep, geese, goats, cows, chickens, ducks and horses, Yellow Submarines and a ton of hugely enjoyable in-jokes. I'm sure a good proportion of the global audience would have missed the irony of John Lydon spitting out "God save the Queen!", or the unintentional in-joke that Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean is now the country's second biggest export item after Nissan cars.


Come to think of it, I can't imagine any other host city applying humour to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Most are rather po-faced about it, indulging in an evening of self-inflated pomposity. And then most other host cities don't have access to the most famous woman on the planet, HRH Queen Elizabeth, or the sheer nerve of inviting her to make her acting debut (how many monarchs - dead or alive - would you find yourself writing that line about?) in a James Bond sketch, combining two lucrative national identity properties in an hilarious deflation of the royal elevation. If it hasn't already, I'm sure it has already found itself alongside numerous Morecambe & Wise sketches (Glenda Jackson's Cleopatra, Angela Rippon's dancing, Shirley Bassey's big number...) as one to be replayed again and again and again.

For all of its multi-sensorial wonder, Danny Boyle applied his film maker's instinct to tell a simple story, albeit with a rich dialogue. If nothing else, it reflected his own canon in engrossing the audience, ensnaring the viewer with its invention, its stagecraft and its vision. By turns it charmed, made you chuckle and - without getting too Andy Murray about it - induce the odd moment of bloke-blub (eyes moist but a hearty chuckle - yes chaps, you know what I mean).

The tale of the Thames was a beautiful beginning, from its Gloucestershire source, through Battersea with the Floyd's pig floating over the power station, up to the stadium itself, blasting out the The Clash as it neared Stratford. The pastoral scenes giving way to the Industrial Revolution and a typically smug-looking Kenneth Brannagh (sorry, Sir Kenneth Brannagh) as Brunel (no, dumb colonials, he wasn't Abe Lincoln...) reading Caliban, the half-man, half-beast of The Tempest who declares "Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises..." as he's about to kill a colonialist ruler who stole.

And then the "political" bit - a tribute to the NHS, to the amazing work of Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the Welfare State. This, in case you weren't aware, was part of the "leftie, multi-cultural crap" soon-to-be-former Tory MP Aidan Burley (and currently the Conservative Member for the multi-cultural Cannock Chase in the Midlands) felt compelled to tell his Twitter followers, adding in a second (and, so it turns out, his penultimate) tweet, "The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen - more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?". Unsurprisingly, Tory whips couldn't close down his Twitter account fast enough. Twat.

It will probably come as no surprise, either, that music made the opening ceremony for me. The appearance of Mike Oldfield, performing Tubular Bells could have been so easily the equivalent of wheeling out Jasper Carrott to do his car insurance claims routine. But his grandiose, almost forty-year-old prog rock masterpiece has lost none of its loftiness and Oldfield, none of the precocious multi-instrumentalism that made the piece such a landmark when it first came out in 1973. And then we had Dame Evelyne Glennie, looking like a cross between Keith Moon and Gandalf, leading a 1000-strong pack of drummers in a pulsing beat to illustrate Britain's industrialisation and its economic evolution into global power.

Then we had The Arctic Monkeys, led by another example of precocious musical talent, Alex Turner, strutting their way through I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor and The Beatles' Come Together, Turner himself greased up like pre-Hamburg Lennon as Eddie Cochrane. And then, at the end, Britain's most eminent elder statesman of pop music, Sir Paul McCartney, cranking out Hey Jude. You can be cynical about this all you want, but the next time the Olympics come to Britain, Fab Four's membership will all be, sadly,  memories. And so what if the song got off to an odd start, with a backing track playing in. It's Macca. Legend.

The joy of the playlist during the slightly soppy girl-loses-phone-goes-on-Facebook-finds-bloke-reveals-WWW-inventor-in-home scene was like a Now That's What I Call British Music!. Snippets of The Who, The Specials, Eurythmics, The Kinks, Mud, New Order and Prodigy - a Brittanic jukebox that only scratched the surface of the music this one little island has given the world.


Like one of those tourist postcards you can buy in the gift shop at Westminster Abbey, there were the visual cues of London - the Pearly Kings and Queens and The Chelsea Pensioners, possibly the oldest participants in the entire event, still proudly marching in disciplined step, medals glinting in the Olympic Stadium's mesmerising lightshow. Don't know why, but that was a Murray Moment right there for me. Another was the forging and raising of the five burning Olympic rings, and the national anthem sung by deaf children, and Jerusalem and Abide With Me, and Eclipse as the fireworks erupted over East London.

Whatever happens next in the XXX Olympiad will, I'm afraid, be a mere runner up. The gold medal for audacity, spectacle and awesomeness has already been won. Along with, don't be surprised, a knighthood, eh Sir Danny?

Friday, July 27, 2012

All it needs is Muttley and I'll be happy

Where would Britain be without something to moan about, eh? We Brits will complain in winter that the snow's too cold, too wet, too white or that it hasn't turned up at all, and then moan about it snowing in spring.

Which is when we start to complain that summer has arrived early because there's a hosepipe ban in force barely weeks after the blizzards have all melted away. And when summer - that notional period of sunshine from the end of June to early September - is supposed to be in play, we'll moan about it feeling more like autumn.

You really can't please some people. And you certainly can't please us islanders.

It's been little surprise that a nailed-on opportunity for national glee like the London 2012 games, which open tonight, if you hadn't noticed, has been met by a barrage of Olympic-strength kvetching.

I think it began in 2003 when the bid preparation began and only intensified when 'Jolly' Jacques Rogge announced "Lon-don" as host city of the 30th Olympiad on July 6, 2005, and immediately set about block-booking the best hotel rooms in town.

We've had a go at the stadium, the Olympic Village, Stratford Tube station, security guards, David Beckham, the Team GB costumes, Zil lanes, ticket allocations - there's a long list more (just go to the Daily Mail website for the full catalogue).

I've got to admit, I've not been entirely innocent. I have cast aspersions on Heathrow Airport's ability to handle all the participants and tourists, and London's ability to transport them.

I have also thrown a cheeky shot at the seemingly excessive security measures which involves ground attack jet fighters, anti-aircraft missiles, helicopter-borne snipers and, I think, secretly trained javelin and discus throwers with instructions to down any rogue aircraft, or pigeons, seagulls and sparrows.

But for the most part I am immensely proud to see my home city and my home country, a nation that has given the world some of its greatest culture, putting on its best show in anyone's living memory.

It will be big, bold, brash and colourful - everything that London is.The music will be everything from The Beatles to The Chemical Brothers, which should be a laugh if played during dope testing sessions. And so what if it is being led by the preposterously comical Boris Johnson and Seb Coe, the former Olympic champion and now a politician so slick he makes David Cameron look positively sloppy.

If I may, however, I have two gripes that I must get off my chest. Actually, one I have to get off my stomach: I don't dismiss the need for events like the Olympics to attract sponsors.

In fact, without sponsors London 2012 would be staged at Haringey Dog Track, with the swimming events at the Wandsworth Common lido, and all other field events on the football pitches on Wanstead Flats.

What I do question is the role of companies like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Cadbury's and Heineken in supporting at least the first two clauses in the Olympic Charter, which are:


  1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
  2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.


Earlier this month, London-based cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra presented a piece on the BBC's Newsnight in which he called upon the International Olympic Committee to rethink its touting of companies like Coca-Cola and McDonalds - companies associated with obesity, whether they like it or not.

As someone who has succumbed to middle-aged spread, and then some, and who has battled with their weight for many years, I do find it absurd to see these corporations so prominently paraded on the world stage for sporting events.

Of course, you will otherwise not escape such brands from TV advertising or posters on bus shelters, but by cynically associating themselves with the Games to the extent they are seen as integral to both the Games' successful execution as well as the Olympic spirit, they are pushing the belief that their products are healthy.

I wouldn't surmise that Coke Zero - my soft drink beverage of choice, if anyone is throwing some sponsorship money around - or the occasional Big Mac is going to kill anyone. But, as an overweight person, I know how that cretinous adage "everything in moderation" just doesn't work.

Dr Malhotra's Newsnight piece noted that in the Borough of Newham, where the London 2012 Olympic Village is located, there has been a doubling of cases of diabetes over the last ten years. In parts of the developing world, where traditional diets are being replaced by the homogeneity of generic, commoditised global-brand junk food, similar growth rates of diabetes have been observed.

In Newham, but also Bangalore, Shenzen, Nairobi, wherever, the proliferation of fast food outlets has had a measurable impact on local health, as so-called 'lifestyle diseases' like diabetes, heart disease and cancer take a hold. 35 million of us will die each year as a result of these conditions.

You can read more about Dr. Malhotra's report here, but I couldn't agree with him more. "Of course the Olympic sponsors cannot be held accountable for Britain's poor health," he concludes, "but their connection with the Games sends a dreadful message. In the context of an obesity epidemic I find it obscene that the Olympics chooses to associate itself with fast food, sugary drinks, chocolate and alcohol."

As a fat person, then, am I just weak-willed? Am I just unable to control myself? Well, yes. Self-will is the only way to lose weight and maintain it, practising the very simple equation of 'calories in must be equal or less than calories out'.

I have my own reasons for being overweight, but the point of this argument is that placing a burger brand or a sugary drink in the context of healthy, sporting endeavour creates normality that is not matched by those who will be sucked in by these companies' advertising, which presents healthy-looking people consuming nutritious, satisfying meals and refreshing beverages, rather than the morbidly obese that over consume them, either because they can't help it, or regard such cheap and quick fare as normal to wolf down before ordering another.

Of course, the IOC and their sponsors strenuously deny any wrongdoing and have put up a typically sterling line of defence.The IOC said that it: "...only enters into partnerships with organisations that it believes work in accordance with the values of the Olympic Movement", holding "...a duty on behalf of all of the stakeholders in the Olympic Movement to consider this partnership very carefully, particularly where we enter partnerships on a long term basis."

Coca-Cola said that it had been an Olympic partner since 1928 and "...has an outstanding heritage in supporting the Olympic Movement, and promoting the Olympic Games and active, healthy lifestyles to billions of consumers, pointing out that it sponsors more than 250 physical activity and nutrition education programs in more than 100 countries, "...and is committed to sponsoring a program in every country where it operates by the end of 2015."

The company also pointed out the range of drinks that it offers - "the widest range of drinks... ever offered at an Olympic Games, including sparkling and still, low- and no-calorie choices, juices, smoothies and water."

Across the other sponsors, corporate reputation managers spun a similar story, one of contributing to a healthy, balanced diet and the promotion of active lifestyles, all of which I know can coexist with the occasional Mickey-Ds visit, or the odd night out drinking pints of the beer that reaches parts that other beers can't reach.

But should such brands be foisted on the impressionable, the young or merely the weak-willed? Like, obviously, me? I just don't think so.

So what was my other issue? I would like to see, just once and nothing more, Muttley - Dick Dastardly's sidekick in Wacky Races and Dastardly And Muttley In Their Flying Machines, pitch up at the winner's podium over the next three weeks and say: "Gimme, gimme, gimme! Medal!" Just the once.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Last Word

Apologies if this is an overshare, but I have just emerged from one of my preferred indulgences, marinating in the bath for an hour or so reading The Word.

This practice must, alas, now come to an end. This is not because someone is waiting to use the bathroom, nor have I developed a prune-like complexion, but because The Word - without doubt the best cover-to-cover magazine read of the last decade - has ceased to be. Tragedy.

Co-founded by Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, veterans of the music magazine industry (Smash Hits, Q, MOJO, et al) and sometime Whistle Test and Live Aid presenters, The Word set out to be more than just another monthly for those over-30s who still actually buy CDs.

"We want to marry the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly," Hepworth told The Observer prior to its launch in 2003. "Our target is men who know where their nearest bookshop is." As opposed to their local betting shop, one had to have assumed at the time.

The Word managed to be blokey, rather than laddish (there was plenty of that around with Loaded and FHM), knowing, rather than just knowledgeable, and literate, rather than literal. It catered for the urban Nick Hornby fan, someone who cared about the minutiae of owning an entire shelf of Robyn Hitchcock albums and had the appetite to read a seamlessly lengthy treatise on the same.

With Q - launched just as my first magazine, LM was struggling to get off the ground - Ellen and Hepworth successfully imported the irreverence of Smash Hits, shedding items such as the sock preferences of Morten Harket and the hair product advice from We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It, in favour of drawing attention to the emergent CD artists of the mid-80s. Ellen and Hepworth successfully created an adult brand in music and entertainment reading, catering for music-consuming and salaried 18-34-year-olds coveted by advertisers and record labels alike. With the later MOJO, a certain reverence was applied, providing a monthly landing for musos who would have, in their youth, devoured every last inch of newsprint in the NME and Melody Maker, who wanted the latest and the oldest, and harboured strong opinions about Bob Dylan, Hot Chip and Radiohead in equal measure.

The Word addressed a different reader. Older and wiser but not without a sense of the frivolous, he (and The Word reader was largely of the male of the species) had been identified early on as '50-Quid Bloke'. "He's the guy we've all seen in Borders or HMV on a Friday afternoon, possibly after a drink or two, tie slightly undone, buying two CDs, a DVD and maybe a book – 50 quid's worth," explained Hepworth, "and frantically computing how he's going to convince his partner that this is a really, really worthwhile investment". Yep, we've all been there.



Words were The Word's strength, a writer's magazine that blissfully didn't disappear up its own thesaurus. Its readership had mortgages, children, personal computers and a yearning for something digestibly readable that they could call their own, that understood them, and that they understood. Music was it's heart, but not the only organ in its frame. Still, it could be relied upon to serve up a new angle, even on such venerable fare as The Beatles, Frank Zappa or Hendrix, artists who have been biographied to death. The Word could still find something readable to write about them. My now steam-sodden final issue contains items as diverse as The Cure's Robert Smith, a surprisingly candid interview with 'The Beatles' kid sister', Cilla Black, and a piece on the role squatting (as in illegal house tenure) has had to play in the domestic arrangements of budding rock stars.

From another angle, The Word was a random eavesdrop on the pub conversations of many of its readers. While there is certainly a chunk of its demographic who spend the vast majority of their licensed hours discussing football, there is also a sizeable group who will engage each other on the sort of topics the magazine found pertinent.


"You told us about your interests and obsessions and they were much the same as ours," Ellen wrote in his final editorial. "Old singles, bits of Anchorman, Randy Newman, The New Yorker, lying on beaches with a cold beer reading toe-curling books about the Siege of Stalingrad".

Such interests weren't confined to print, with a key aspect of The Word being the online community - The Word Massive - taking the good natured pub debates to the magazine's discussion board, a forum for citizen journalism at its most intelligent.

But progressive as this might sound, technology may also have been the cause of The Word's demise. While 50-Quid Man was its initial target but in 2012, the man who, in 2003 was indeed shelling out five Darwins for physical media, is now spending the same amount on content for their Kindle and iPad.

Like all physical forms of media, a combination of free digital competition and shrinking advertising budgets, especially by music and entertainment brands, is placing more pressure on the once mighty magazine industry. At its close, The Word had a circulation of just 25,048, down 5% on the previous year. That would be OK if you can attract big bucks advertisers, but not if the brands of conspicuous consumption are choosing GQ to flog their wares.

Some argue that The Word could have survived with a different business model. 2003's 50-Quid Man could probably have stretched to 70 or even more, despite these lean times, and could have dipped his hand deeper into his pocket for a more economically sustainable subscription. And there are those who feel that an editorial approach like The Word's would have benefited from even greater digitisation.

One such exponent of this is my good friend Ashley Norris, editor of
The London Project, an iPad book celebrating London during this momentous year. "People bought The Word for two reasons," he wrote recently on The Wall social media marketing blog. "Firstly it appealed to magazine die-hards who love the feel, the design and the grammar of magazines. These people probably curse the day the web arrived and never got over the death of The Face."

Citing The Blizzard, the iPad football magazine, Norris argued that another editorial model is possible: "
There is minimal design and no images – it is all about the words. I guess that The Blizzard isn’t making enough money to sustain a traditional publishing team, and it probably never will, but with an editor, freelancers and a web team on board, it has the potential to one day make some serious money."

Though The Word produced an iPad version, reading compressed PDFs of the print version's layouts didn't necessarily work, especially when the reader still craves tactility, or at least a format that holds up well in the bath.

For a seasoned magazine producer as Hepworth, producing tablet versions of magazines has a simplicity value: "Monthly magazines agonise endlessly and, in many cases, pointlessly," he wrote in the May/June issue of InPublishing, recalling the preparation of The Word's iPad edition. "In the process of adapting the content for the tablet, I had to dispense with so much of the vocabulary, so much of the furniture of the magazine, so much of the complex interplay between words and pictures. The headline and standfirst style of the average monthly magazine simply doesn't work in the new format."

"Unless they decide to go the 'bells and whistles' enhanced tablet approach," added Hepworth, "the likelihood is that the tablet is going to force all magazines to get to the point more quickly and to forsake many of the more touchy-feely aspects of the editorial craft. Personally, I won’t miss it at all."

As with any colour magazine, The Word was laid out attractively, but laid out to accomodate the writing. It was, at times, like a writer's club with a print magazine as its outlet. It showcased some of the best writing talent in the expanded universe of British music and lifestyle journalism. Features weren't inflated by picture spreads featuring reality show non-celebs in their near-altogether, but allowed journalists generous space to stretch their legs in a piece.

It cared for you if you cared about Elvis Costello as much, more, or less than Elvis Presley. Moreover, it didn't make a judgement on where you stood on such matters, and certainly didn't go out of its way to try and bring you around to its own position.

The iPad hasn't taken over just yet. I'm sure there will be some accessory manufacturer who'll come up with a waterproof tablet case, but it will never fully replace the experience of turning the pages of a magazine, especially one with the slight creep of moisture on its southern edge.





Thursday, July 19, 2012

Yahoo’s next?

The Californian municipality of Sunnyvale might sound like it should be a bucolic, Norman Rockwell ideal of rural America, but in fact the closest thing it gets to daisy-strewn meadows are the perfectly manicured lawns of the technology giants headquartered in the community, which sits at the heart of Silicon Valley.

Covering 24 square miles of the south-west corner of the San Francisco Bay, it is the second largest city in the Valley, with more than 141,000 residents, with another 100,000 on top coming in each day to work there.

According to CNN Money, Sunnyvale is America's seventh best city to find affluent single people with 30% of its mariable population unmarried and an average annual household income of $110,276. It boasts two golf courses, 20 parks, 26 schools, 51 tennis courts and 315 restaurants, with 10 major hotels to put up visitors.

Terri Hatcher - onetime Lois Lane, former Bond girl and, most recently, kook single mother of Wisteria Lane – was born there, Apple co-founder Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak grew up there, and the fictional Cyberdine Systems of the Terminator films was based there.

For the most part, Sunnyvale resembles much of the Valley landscape: corporate campuses stretched out over land that, not so very long ago, were cherry orchards or farmed other produce, until the semiconductor came along. On its Bay shore, is the part military airbase Moffett Field. You can’t miss it as you storm (or crawl, depending on the time of day) past on the 101 freeway, as it contains a giant dirigible hangar, built in 1931 to house the US Navy’s new airship. Next door is a large Lockheed plant which makes missiles and God-knows-what. Somewhere within Moffett's perimeter NASA still develops rocket fuel, or something like that.

Early in 2001 I was apartment hunting in Sunnyvale. Driving around, I passed the shiny edifices of digital behemoths like Palm and AMD.

I was a technology tourist, gawping in much the way regular tourists 400 miles to the south in Los Angeles were passing the gates of the Hollywood dream factories. Eventually I came across the headquarters of Yahoo Inc.

11 years ago Yahoo were, arguably, as big in terms of the web and technology reputation, as anyone else in the Bay Area – Apple just down the Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road in Cupertino, Cisco in Milpitas, Intel in Santa Clara and Oracle up near San Francisco. In more ‘global’ terms, Yahoo held reputational parity with Microsoft or AOL, which had merged with Time Warner the year before to create a media powerhouse at the outset of the online boom. But it was the sight of the Yahoo offices which, more than any other nameplate I saw that Sunday morning which brought home to me the significance of moving to America to live in Silicon Valley.

Roll forward to 2012 and the technology landscape has changed dramatically. Apple is no longer just the cool company it was in 2001 but the world’s most profitable company. Yahoo, in 2001 and at the tail end of the Silicon Valley boom of the 1990s, was still regarded as a major online “destination”. It still is - with 700 million users worldwide and remains the fourth most popular website in America.

However, it has lost its lustre to other places on the web: 18 years after Jerry Yang and David Filo founded Yahoo, Facebook commands more than three times the amount of ‘eyeball’ time. A progressive decline in visitors to Yahoo has been reflected by a $5 billion decline in advertising revenue and a $15 stock price that is a far cry from the $118 it once reached during the digital boom time. As destinations go, Yahoo has been more Margate than Malibu.

Another major reason is Yahoo’s noisy neighbour, Google, based in the adjacent ‘city’ of Mountain View. In 2001, Google was just an emerging rival in the Internet search market, having been founded three years before by Stanford University graduates Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Today there is very little, it would seem, that Google doesn’t do, which is why 37-year-old Marissa Mayer is a prized acquisition, being poached from Google to become Yahoo’s new CEO.

Though she has just become the company’s third CEO in the space of a year (Scott Thompson left in May amid accusations of ‘creativity’ with his CV, while F-bomb dropping Carol Bartz departed noisily in September 2011), Mayer’s appointment has been seen as a good thing for Yahoo.

"A lot of people did not believe that Yahoo could get someone of the caliber of a Marissa Mayer," Standard and Poor's analyst Scott Kessler told Reuters, remarking on her pedigree. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, said, perhaps through gritted teeth: "Yahoo has made a good choice and I am personally very excited to see another woman become CEO of a technology company. Best wishes to Marissa and Yahoo!”

Much, already, has been made of the fact that Mayer is female (and pregnant), and that she joins an "elite" club of the likes of Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and IBM's Virginia Rometty. But the more interesting detail is in her background.

Mayer is a product developer and was Google’s ‘employee #20’, a credit that gives her considerable bragging rights, having been in at the ground floor of Google when it was still just a good idea, rather than the diverse leviathan it is today. Her engineering expertise - not to mention her public skills at being Google's 'Steve Jobs' - has also led to speculation that her focus will be on developing new online products, rather than just extending content services. Content has never been Yahoo’s weakness – it is still a very valuable web property, with a news service that continues to generate plenty of traffic.

Yahoo, today, lacks the more dynamic applications of Google and Facebook, appearing to be somewhat two-dimensional in comparison to the thought-through integration of Google’s Street View (which Mayer was responsible for), for example.

It is something that has not been lost on Mayer, who started work in her new job on Tuesday: “My first order of business is to meet with the senior leadership team and get a product road map," she said, on Monday evening, aiming to make Yahoo "even more innovative and inspiring in the future.”

Beyond that, she will have to reverse the company’s financial trend, especially in attracting advertisers currently spreading their money around the “multi-platform” players that have grown up around Yahoo. That means making Yahoo not only an interesting, passive destination, but one that is rich and compelling, and relevant to social media - and that means developing mobile applications.

Even in the current economy, innovation is still the name of the game in Silicon Valley. There is no shortage of venture capital money sloshing around to invest in start-ups that, like Instagram, can be sold for a fortune to a Facebook to add even more value to the “end-user experience”.

Yahoo’s engineers have – if they have been around long enough – witnessed a decade of their local neighbours going past them on the Internet’s financial freeway. Mayer needs to generate the belief, internally, that Yahoo can be an equal player again, and one of the brands that puts – not that just historically put – Sunnyvale on the map.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Moment of madness

In their forensic examination of last week's trial of John Terry, this weekend's British newspapers have all come to more or less the same conclusion: that the legal proceedings were "unedifying" owing to the - Shock! Horror! - remarkable revelation that professional footballers use "industrial" language towards each other.

For those of you still curious to know what sort of language we're talking about - and I must assume you are rubbish at word puzzles like Hangman if you have been unable to complete the asterisked tracts of copy in your daily newspaper - you can go online and download the full 15-page judgement from Howard Riddle, Senior District Judge (Chief Magistrate) of the Westminster Magistrates' Court in the case of Regina -v- John Terry.

Fitting for the absurdity of the case, the deliberation contains such inadvertently funny comments as: "It is obvious, and again not in dispute, that at the time that John Terry said “black c**t” and “f*****g knobhead” he was angry." I've never met Riddle and have no idea what he sounds like, but I can't help hearing in my head these phrases being delivered by Rowan Atkinson doing his famous schoolteacher monologue.

Anyway, not wishing to go over the Terry trial again, it is the word "knobhead" that draws my interest today. It may be a splendidly adolescent playground charge but - man alive! - does it fit whoever on Saturday night was responsible for turning off the PA system in London's Hyde Park at Hard Rock Calling, just as Bruce Springsteen was saying goodnight to the crowd.

Unlike most acts of terrorism, no-one has yet claimed personal responsibility for this act of mealy-mouthed officiousness. Therefore we'll just have to stick with calling him, her or them, "Knobhead". Hard Rock Calling's promoters, Live Nation, has said: "It was unfortunate that the three hour-plus performance by Bruce Springsteen was stopped right at the very end but the curfew is laid down by the authorities in the interest of the public's health and safety."

What on God's green could have made Springsteen being allowed to thank 76,000 fans, his band and Sir Paul McCartney, who joined The Boss on stage for a memorable finale, a few minutes over the uptight 10.30pm curfew a danger to the public's health and safety? The music had ended, and there was probably going to be more disturbance to local residents around Hyde Park from people just leaving the site for the next hour. Actually, living around there, you are probably disturbed by the noise of traffic every day than by five minutes of Bruce Springsteen calling everybody "awesome".

The reaction has been understandably furious, especially as all who attended have attested to have witnessed one of the great moments in rock music in recent years. Steve van Zandt, one of Springsteen's guitarists and the man who memorably played consiglieri Silvio Dante in The Sopranos (which, ironically, also ended abruptly), led the invective: "One of the great gigs ever in my opinion. But seriously, when did England become a police state?" he ranted on Twitter.

And he went on: "We break curfews in every country but only English cops needs to 'punish us' by not letting us leave until the entire crowd goes. Is there just too much fun in the world? We would have been off by 11 if we'd done one more. On a Saturday night! Who were we disturbing? The cops got nothing more important to do? How about they go catch some criminals instead of fucking with 80,000 people having a good time?"

Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais' goggly-eyed writing partner also took to Twitter to express his frustration: "Ashamed to be British right now. Springsteen and McCartney playing Twist & Shout in Hyde Park and council pulled the plug cos of curfew. WTF."

Applying customary diplomacy, as well as a cheeky plug for London 2012, Mayor Boris Johnson branded the muting as "...an excessively efficacious decision. You won't get that during the Olympics. If they'd have called me, my answer would have been for them to jam in the name of the Lord."

The identity of "Knobhead" is likely to be a combination of a Live Nation paranoid about never being granted a licence again by Westminster City Council, and the council itself, who conveniently tried to distance themselves from the killjoy moment.

"Concert organisers, not the council, ended last night's concert in Hyde Park," explained Westminster council's Leith Penny, adding that to comply with their licence, Live Nation were allowed to continue the concert until 10.30pm. "Licences are granted until certain times to protect residents in the area from noise late at night."

It is ironic that 50 years ago last Thursday, in a venue less than 25 minutes' walk away from the Hard Rock Calling stage, the Rolling Stones made their stage debut in a time when music was just finding its feet in breaking down the sort of cultural fascism that regarded pop music as subversive. Even if, today, bands like the Stones, as well as Springsteen and McCartney dance with the devil at 'corporate' gigs like Hard Rock Calling, has the country that spawned some of the greatest rock bands in history forgotten what it's like just let things go on a little longer? "Knobhead" really does cover it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Capital punishment

Before British politicians descend upon Cornwall later this month for their annual holiday-come-PR stunt ("We always take our holidays in Britain. It is super here!"), there are still several vexing issues still to deal with.

One, in particular, is congestion. No, not Ed Milliband's adenoids, but that bunged-up patch of West London that is Heathrow Airport.

Having lived outside Britain for the past 13 years I've come to regard Heathrow with a combination of necessity and progressive loathing. I have watched it become steadily broken, less of a convenient portal and more of a dystopian hell that can't cope with itself.

Heathrow, today, is somewhere between an exclusive members-only club you wait years to be accepted into, and an ultra-strict penal colony that only grants one parole each year as the gift of the benevolent local dictator. Moreover, it has clearly stopped being able to meet its basic purpose.

Heathrow is a miserable experience. And yet the airport proudly boasts that it is the world's busiest airport while maintaining that it is only working at "near-full capacity", a PR device to suggest things aren't quite that bad. Well, they are.

As, technically, a 'foreigner', arriving at Heathrow is a fraught affair. Almost always before your plane's wheels have touched tarmac, you are held in a seemingly endless 'holding pattern', spiralling at 10,000ft over Kent.

Once you've landed - and assuming there isn't a departing aircraft blocking your flight's designated arrival gate - you must then be subjected to the purgatorial nightmare of Border Control, itself rapidly becoming the greatest oxymoron since 'military intelligence'.

Leaving Heathrow is little better: in each terminal there are vast arrays of security inspection lines but, like supermarket checkouts on Christmas Eve, usually only a handful are staffed (and by belligerent characters barking orders about removing laptops and iPads from their cases, and to take off shoes in order for you to walk socked or barefoot through everyone else's podiatric detritus). When your flight eventually 'pushes back' from its gate, it then gets stuck in a queue of several aircraft, their engines burning a small hole in the ozone layer above Hounslow, to tear up the departure runway.

Heathrow is no longer a gateway to freedom. Or a gateway to anything, for that matter. Instead, it has become a byword for inconvenience: "I got totally Heathrowed the other day trying to get out of the supermarket car park. Everyone trying to leave by the one exit" or "Absolute chaos at Stamford Bridge on Saturday - only one turnstile open. 41,000 people trying to pass through it at once - a right Heathrow it was." You get the picture.



My most recent experience underpins this: my flight was due to leave Heathrow at 12.45pm; I, my fellow passengers and even the crew had made the effort to be sat down, buckled in and facing the right direction at the appointed time. Unfortunately, the plane remained on the ground with its chocks in place for a further twenty minutes. Once given permission to go, we then spent a further twenty minutes in an Airbus tailback on the taxiway. This is an airport operating somewhat beyond full capacity.

My eventual arrival in Paris, however, was somewhat different. The plane landed straight from its planned descent, with another plane touching down simultaneously on a parallel arrivals runway. Passport inspection was effortless and organised, even if the two surly gendarmes looked like we were interupting their otherwise soulless day, and with only a brief wait for baggage, I was on my way home.

This is replicated in other hubs around Europe - Frankfurt, Amsterdam-Schiphol (which has use of seven runways) - and in the United States, where airports like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Miami operate at high capacity but with multiple runways to support them.

Heathrow, on the other hand, clearly can't. Short of bulldozing half the borough of Hounslow, and half the borough of Hillingdon, it can't expand.
Talk of a third runway - which the Government agreed to drop going into the last general election, but is now creeping back into conversation - is still a Band-Aid for a wound requiring amputation.

Because a third runway isn't about alleviating the congestion, it's about being able to increase the traffic, that it would enable the addition of at least two more terminals. I'm sorry, but I thought the additional runway was to address existing congestion, not bring in even more planes and even more passengers.

The debate surrounding Heathrow is a lively one, even if British transport minister Justine Greening recently referred to it as a "pub discussion" amongst the airline operators. It's not, and it goes beyond the airlines, the airport operator, even the government, but to those who live under Heathrow's flight paths and, dare I say it, those who actually want to travel to and from London.

Heathrow opened 83 years ago as a small airfield near a Middlesex village. As World War 2 drew to a close, it developed into something bigger. 25 years ago, Heathrow was handling 31 million passengers each year. In 2011, 70 million people passed through it - more than the UK's population. Actually, "passed" through it sounds too gentle: "squeezed" sounds better. Each of those passengers represents a plane taking off and landing, on average, just over every minute of every day between 6am and 11pm.


Statistically, flying is one of the safest forms of transport, but surely no amount of technology, safeguards and good fortune can prevent the law of averages from causing a major accident? 

Not that long ago, a British Airways Boeing 777 crash landed just short of the Heathrow runway. The explanation given was that a build-up of ice in the flight from China had caused a blockage of fuel into the engines. By a minor miracle and, no doubt the heroism of the pilots, the plane's 'hard landing' could have been worse. 

With Heathrow on London's west side, in a country with a prevailing south-westerly wind, there is one plane every minute crossing a city of eight million residents and anything up 12 million coming in and out of it. It is, London's Mayor Boris Johnson has said, "an historical accident". "London is unlike any other capital in the world," he told the BBC earlier this year. "We ask our planes to fly in over the city and land in the western suburbs. Nobody else does it that way."

Occasionally Heathrow will resort to easterly operations, with planes flying in over Windsor Castle and taking off over London. Either way, with a desire to increase the number of flights coming into London - bringing more Chinese and Middle Eastern businessmen with them - any expansion of Heathrow must come with a commensurate increase in risks (or, as Johnson put it: "We should not aggravate that mistake"). It is claimed that the lack of direct flights coming from emerging markets is costing the British economy an estimated £1.2 billion every year.

So, that's been a long list of the complaints. What about the solutions and alternatives? This month, Heathrow has introduced a 'silver bullet' in the form of "mixed-mode" flying. In this way, both of the airport's runways are used for parallel take-offs and landings - as one takes off another is landing behind it, which is claimed will create 25% more capacity. It won't, however, address the fundamental problem that London needs at least another runway to cope with the expected growth of global aviation, especially coming out of the Far East. And as this week's Farnborough Air Show has demonstrated, there is no shortage of money in the aviation industry to buy more planes.

Of course I don't actually need to fly into London at all. The Eurostar is a fantastically quick service and relatively convenient to get to and from. Unfortunately, the airlines know this and have made their ticket prices very competitive to the extent that, on balance, flying is often cheaper. 

Heathrow isn't the only airport in London, either. London City is ideal if you're attending meetings in Central London, but lousy if you're destination is on the diametrically opposite quarter of the capital. Gatwick serves southern London, it's true, but that only has ONE runway, and can be as congested as Heathrow. Then there is Luton, Stanstead and even Oxford, all ridiculously prefixed "London-", in keeping with the Ryanair sense of geography (e.g. Beauvais, which it has labeled Paris-Vatry-Disney Airport, despite being 120km from Disneyland Paris and 90km to the Arc de Triomphe). Yes, I'm sure it is more convenient flying into Birmingham and then taking a train to London, but then why would I want to fly over London only to come back?

Justine Greening's pub debate essentially revolves around those who believe London - arguably still the world's financial capital and without doubt a city attracting new residents from all over the world, bringing business with them - needs a third runway at Heathrow to compete, against those who don't want any additional runways at all, lest they upset birds, newts and rare snails, and those who simply don't want more concrete and kerosene fumes blighting their back yard.

Adding runways to Stanstead and Gatwick may add some more capacity, but there will inevitably be powerful lobbies of residents of rural Essex, Sussex and Surrey respectively who'll oppose such expansion with the sort of vigour applied by the Home Guard in 1939.

The one credible alternative is 'Boris Island' - the idea sponsored by Mayor Johnson and architect Lord Norman Foster for the Thames Hub, the £20 billion, four-runway airport on reclaimed Thames Estuary land capable of handling 150 million passengers each year and integrated into a transportation infrastructure that would connect it by fast rail link rail and road to central London (in 30 minutes) and other parts of the UK.

Mapped on Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok Airport - another Foster + Partners project - the estuary airport would handle 24-hour flying operations without waking anyone up, moving 300,000 passengers each day. 

It is impressive. It is logical. But if the political - and environmental - objections now are anything to go by, it will take so long to get built, we'll all be travelling by Star Trek-style transporter beams instead. Environmentalists claim the Isle of Grain site on the Thames is home to various species of waterfowl, which the pilots' union, BALPA, has expressed concern about the risk from birdstrikes, not to mention the management of air traffic to other 'nearby' airports - including Brussels and Amsterdam.

Which brings us back to today's needs. Any new building in the south-east of England - whether an extra runway at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stanstead, or an expansion of small airports like the former Battle of Britain airfields at Biggin Hill and Manston, will take time and money. 

Global recession may have slowed down economic growth, but it is not slowing down the aviation industry and the movement of business from Asia, which means that when the economy picks up again, London could very easily be left behind...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Next time, just say "pardon?"

Perhaps if John Terry had come to any professional media advisor before Chelsea played QPR on October 23rd last year, we may have been spared nine months of aggravation and recrimination. Because one of the most important rules of engagement when being interviewed by a journalist is never repeat the question, especially if it is a negative one.

Alaska's leading housewife-come-presidential wannabe Sarah Palin made that mistake when American TV interviewer Katie Couric asked her - as a $700 billion fiscal stimulus package was being considered by US Congress - "If this doesn't pass, do you think there's a risk of another Great Depression?". In her reply, Palin said: "this has to pass or we're gonna find ourselves in another Great Depression", resulting in a slew of headlines all saying: PALIN PREDICTS ANOTHER GREAT DEPRESSION. Well at least she couldn't have seen that from her kitchen window.

Unlike Palin, no one - apart from John Terry and Anton Ferdinand - is fully sure what was or wasn't said between the two players in the heat of battle last October. 

Even in delivering the verdict that today acquitted Terry, Howard Riddle, chief magistrate of Westminster Magistrate's Court in London said he was in no doubt that the Chelsea captain had used the phrase - and apologies for the verbatim repetition - "fucking black cunt" to Ferdinand amongst a string of expletive-laden exchanges between the two players. No one - not even the lip readers who studied Sky Sports video evidence - could determine whether or not Terry had used the phrase in insult, or in sarcastic questioning of Ferdinand using it. 

So we end up drawing our own conclusion. The official court verdict contains more use of the F and the C than an entire series of The Thick Of It with Malcolm Tucker at full-on hairdryer. No doubt the Daily Mail will be experiencing underwear discomfort over the saltiness of conversations between supposed role models, but then I doubt anyone on the Mail's editorial staff will know how much such liberal application of ripe Anglo-Saxon epithets is as part and parcel of the game as shin pads and blonde girlfriends.

Questions, therefore, remain as to why a criminal prosecution was pushed for in the first place, especially as the QPR defender was initially reluctant to come forward and press charges. The public prosecution service, however, was in little doubt: "The very serious allegation at the heart of this case was one of racial abuse," said Alison Saunders, Chief Crown Prosecutor for London. "It was our view that this was not banter on the football pitch and that the allegation should be judged by a court". I'm sure footballers have said worse to each other.

However, the issue is clearly not over. Indeed, the real trouble may only be about to begin. In Terry not being guilty of a criminal offence, there will be a sizeable and vocal lobby in football saying that whatever he did say brought the game into disrepute. There are those clearly demanding their pound of flesh.

Some have argued that Terry shouldn't have just been stripped of the England captaincy over the affair, as he was in January, but that the FA should have banned him indefinitely from representing England under the premise that it made mockery of the FA's 'Respect' campaign.

This is utter nonsense. I have no truck for racism in any walk of life. But if Terry was a true racist would he have really played amongst black players at Chelsea and in the England team all this time?  And, in the grand scheme of things, if he did say what he is supposed to have said as an insult, was it a racist insult or an insult that drew reference to Ferdinand's colour?

While I agree that you shouldn't ever draw reference to anyone's colour, there is clearly a difference between a remark aimed at throwing a fellow professional off balance in a football match and a remark designed to provoke anger by offence, whether it be Ferdinand's bating of Terry, or Terry's apparent response to Ferdinand. Words are just words, and football, for that matter, is just theatre, even if Garth Crooks believes me to be a "dinosaur" for believing this to be "no more than two players engaged in a slanging match".

In an op-ed published tonight in The Guardian Crooks makes a good case that the FA's lack of mettle in addressing the issue early created polarity in the sport; furthermore, I agree fully that Terry simply shouldn't have used the words - even if repeating them.

But..."It is therefore possible," said Riddle in his deliberation, "that what [Terry] said was not intended as an insult, but rather as a challenge to what he believed had been said to him. In those circumstances, there being a doubt, the only verdict the court can record is one of not guilty."

That should be the end of it. Seeking further sanction against Terry will only perpetuate an issue that should now be drawn under.

Crooks, however, believes it shouldn't be over: "If the FA don't act on the undisputed facts, and find Terry guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, a lot of good people are saying to me that there's no point in getting involved in the game at a senior level."

Really? Are we going to suddenly see a mass depletion of players from the Premier League? The likes of Ashley Cole, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck walking out of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United for this? With some clubs playing with more black than white players - something no one really notices and, thankfully, gives a hoot about seeing as it is a totally irrelevant distinction - underlying and seemingly unspoken opinion would have to be pretty strong for a mass exit over this one issue. If anything, football has been one of the most positive environments in modern British society for the promotion of racial harmony, at least amongst the black community. It still has a lot of work to do in the Asian community.

No one wants a return to the banana-throwing, monkey-chanting 1970s and early '80s, and the sort of racism that is, depressingly, still to be seen and heard in Spain, Germany, Russia and other parts of south-eastern Europe. But I question very strongly the notion that for John Terry to go unpunished by the FA for a crime he has been acquitted of in a court of law should send a signal to black players that, in the supposition of Garth Crooks, "an entire generation of black players...feel the game has failed them."

I do agree, Garth, that they shouldn't stand for abuse. But in not taking the Terry-Ferdinand case further, given that a court has established that the evidence doesn't demonstrate an act of racism or even congenital racism by the Chelsea skipper, the sport can at least work on measures that will address institutional racism.

Terry, for the rest of his career, will get hounded by rival fans, as much for his affair with a fellow professional's girlfriend and his mother's own misdemeanor in a branch of Tesco as for what he did say - in one form or another - to Ferdinand. Ferdinand and his brother Rio will continue to get booed by Chelsea supporters.

It's pathetic, I know, but it's football. I'm not defending it, but there are also worse things said between fans in supposed jest (just ask Tottenham supporters) to get a rise out of them. There are also profoundly racist elements in football, just as they exist in any walk of life. Football needs to work constructively about eliminating all forms of prejudice, rather than focusing on a what was, indeed, just a slanging match.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Everybody's gotta be somewhere

In an episode of The Goon Show, the highly esteemed BBC radio comedy from the 1950s, Neddy Seagoon happens across the childlike dimwit Eccles in a coal cellar.

"What are you doing here?", asks Seagoon. Quick as a flash - and atypical of Spike Milligan's wit - Eccles replies: "Everybody's gotta be somewhere."

He had a point. There was a reason why an 18-year-old Elvis Presley walked into 706 Union Avenue in Memphis - Sun Records - one day in August 1953 and recorded My Happiness and That's When Your Heartaches Begin for his mother's birthday.

Likewise there was a reason Paul McCartney, aged 15, went along to the summer garden fĂȘte of St. Peter's Church in Woolton, Liverpool, in July 1957, where he was invited by John Lennon to play on stage with his band, The Quarrymen.

Another moment, and one that also changed the course of popular music, occurred on the morning of October 17, 1961 when teenagers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ran into each other on Platform 2 of Dartford railway station. Growing up around the corner from each other in Dartford, a London suburb on the Kent stretches of the Thames Estuary, they had been primary school classmates some years before. On the ensuing train journey to London, however, they discovered a shared love of American blues music.

This was the 'genesis moment' that lead to the formation of "The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band In The World". No idle boast that, but one with little contention. You can debate the relative merits of The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd, The Clash, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, U2 - take your pick of anyone else - but there is, arguably, no one else who has been able to encompass all that "rock and roll" entails, musically or in any other application.

At the time of their suburban railway encounter, Jagger and Richards were anything but rock'n'roll: the former was studying at the London School of Economics, the latter attending Sidcup College of Art, just down the road from Dartford. When Jagger invited Richards to join his fledgling R'n'B outfit, Little Boy Blue & The Blue Boys, the course of rock history was set. Over the coming months the pair became fixtures of the London music scene, eventually forming a new group with lead guitarist Brian Jones, a babe magnet from Cheltenham whom they'd met in the Bricklayer's Arms pub in Soho, along with keyboard player Ian Stewart and drummer Mick Avory (later to join The Kinks).

50 years ago tonight, on Thursday, July 12, 1962, the group - now named after Muddy Waters'
Rollin' Stone - were invited to fill in for British blues legend Alexis Korner at London's Marquee Club, then on Oxford Street, while Korner's Blues Incorporated were doing a radio show elsewhere. And thus The Rolling Stones came into being.


1962 was clearly a fertile time: The Beatles were in Hamburg honing their thing; a 17-year-old Eric Clapton bought his first electric guitar in Bell's Music of Tolworth, Surrey; other legends were in embryonic form, such as The Who's Pete Townshend and John Entwhistle putting together a trad jazz band called The Confederates.

In the London suburbs, something was happening. 
Pop's shackles had been loosened by Elvis and his provocative hip-swinging, but in 1962 Britain, it was the blues, R'n'B and soul music that was taking a hold of suburban teenagers.

Hair was getting dangerously collar-length, and the electric guitar was becoming as much a symbol of rebellion as the AK47 is a symbol of terror today.

Within a few months of their Marquee debut, the Rolling Stones had established themselves as the stars of the Crawdaddy Club, a Sunday afternoon blues residency at the Station Hotel in Richmond-upon-Thames. By January 1963 the band's 'classic' line-up was complete, with Charlie Watts joining from Blues Incorporated, and former RAF motor transport clerk Bill Wyman taking over on bass. It was to be a line-up that would go on to endure the rough-and-tumble of rock star brotherhood, losing Jones to misadventure in 1969, Wyman to boredom in 1992, and at various times, Jagger and Richards - The Glimmer Twins - to their own fraternal abrasion.






Half a century after their live debut, the Rolling Stones still represent their own piece of fabric, their own unique hereditary tartan, in the pantheon of popular music. Half a century on, they remain a powerful currency.


That mouth-and-tongue logo - as distinct as the golden arches of McDonald's, as representative of incorrectness as the Playboy bunny - is not only an iconic brand, but one which represents a combination of fantastic music and the debauchery of a true rock'n'roll lifestyle. It may have become somewhat faded as a fashion brand, but hey, people still wear Paco Rabane.

The Rolling Stones are an industry, carefully managed as any corporation, with annual company meetings taking place at the Amstel Hotel in Amsterdam (quite what should bring this of all bands to Amsterdam....), and a corporate marketing presence as active today as any other commercial venture, with pages on Facebook, Twitter, Pininterest, Tumblr and probably LinkedIn. Hardly a band contemplating retirement.

"There might be life in the old dog yet - we'll die gracefully, elegantly wasted," Richards has told the BBC this week, confirming that they may be preparing for a long-rumoured 50th anniversary tour. "There's things in the works - I think it's definitely happening. But when? I can't say yet."

The creative zenith of Exile On Main Street, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Some Girls may have long since past, but I doubt anyone really cares. A Stones concert today (I last saw them in 2007 on their excellent Bigger Bang tour) will still combine the jukebox predictability of standards their ticket-buying patrons expect to hear - Jumping' Jack Flash, Satisfaction, Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Woman - along with a few random selections from the 29 studio albums they've recorded since their eponymous debut LP (a collection of mostly blues covers). And, yes, they'll always let Keith sing one, if only to allow him to trot out his "It's great to be here! It's great to be anywhere!" gag, which has over recent years turned into a catchphrase much like Bruce Forsyth's "Nice to be here, to be here nice!".


The Stones don't even need to be considered fashionable: every time they've gone on tour in recent years - actually, in the last 30 years - they have prompted a flood of guff about whether they should just retire. I've long argued that bands should go on as long as they're enjoying themselves and their fans are enjoying themselves with it.

I've seen BB King play at the age of 83 and put on a storming show, so w
ith Jagger and Richards a year shy of their 70th birthdays (and who'd have thought you'd see that written about Keith...), Charlie Watts now 71 and their 'kid brother' Ron Wood carrying on like he wasn't 65, the Stones have got some way to go before they catch up with their musical heroes. And in any case, this band has long since passed the stage of looking embarrassing. They are, after all, the Rolling Stones.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The spinning beach ball that shrunk the world


There is a theory, I am happy to relay, raised by one of David Bowie’s biographers suggesting that the Dame’s periodic interest in matters extra-terrestrial (take your pick from Space Oddity, Starman and Ziggy Stardust in its entirety, Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes, Hello Spaceboy…) stems from the 1962 hit Telstar by The Tornados.

The Tornados were of their time, a bequiffed instrumental band featuring George Bellamy (father of Muse’s Matt) and put together by producer Joe Meek, the blueprint for music impresarios from Brian Epstein to Simon Cowell. Like fellow instrumentalists The Shadows, they were something of a backing band performing a heavily anglicised form of the US surf sound, a clean-cut twang unlikely to hitch up anyone’s petticoats in uproar as it sat alongside other anodyne pre-Beatles and Stones chart fodder like Acker Bilk’s Stranger On The Shore and Breaking Up Is Hard To Do by Neil Sedaka, both hits in the same year.


The Tornados' hit was inspired by the launch -  50 years ago today - of Telstar 1, the satellite that would herald the modern era of communications - international telephone calls, data transmission and even transcontinental television broadcasting.

Telstar's launch on July 10, 1962 was part of the 'can do' sentiment of the times. It was, let's not forget, only 17 years since the end of World War II. Much of the world was still emerging from the austerity global conflict had imposed upon it. America was, to non-Americans at least, a land of shiny opportunity, of gleaming white household appliances and housewives with gleaming white teeth, of large cars with rocket-like fins on them.

This was a time of unrelenting possibility. The space race was already in flight, and the previous year US President John F Kennedy had told Congress: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth".


The phrase "live by satellite" had yet to be invented. Telstar changed all that. Developed by NASA together with a team of scientists at Bell Labs - then part of American telecoms giant AT&T - Telstar enabled the first translantic transmission of phone calls along with one single black-and-white TV channel.

This may not seem much of a revolution now, with our thousands of TV channels coming at us via the Internet, but 50 years ago this was a breakthrough in communications as profound as Abraham Darby sparking the Industrial Revolution in a Shropshire village, 260 years before.

Think of the world events we've witnessed as a result of trans-continental satellite communications: Neil Armstrong fulfilling Kennedy's lunar dream, World Cups, Royal Weddings, both Gulf Wars kicking off, Nelson Mandela walking free, presidents being elected, the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters proving that space is still not a conquered frontier, Live Aid and Live 8 - this list goes on forever, and at risk of rewriting Billy Joel's
We Didn't Start The Fire, you can complete it yourself with your own moments of epoch creation.

I've walked past Telstar 1, suspended from the lobby ceiling of Bell Labs' facility in Murray Hill, a small New Jersey community not far from New York City. I was amazed to see that it was not much bigger than a beach ball, weighing just 170lbs (77kg) and looking like R2D2's head attached to another R2D2 head to create a sphere.

Once in orbit 30,000 miles above the Equator, Telstar achieved the right 'line-of-sight' between an earth station in Andover, Maine in the US and a relay station in Pleumeur-Bodou in France and another at the BBC's spooky facility on Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall, England. And so, the first live transatlantic television broadcast was made, leading to many more firsts before the satellite was decommissioned the following year after a short but significant orbit.

I do, of course, have a vested interest in celebrating Bell Labs' remarkable breakthrough, in that the research institution is now a part of Alcatel-Lucent, whom I work for today.

But I raise my hat for other reasons: we take technological breakthrough for granted today: the fact that the phone in your  pocket is more powerful than the computers that put Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon will inevitably get lost as you indulge another round of
Angry Birds. But 50 years ago, the transmission of a very grainy press conference by JFK from one side of the world to another should be regarded as a feat as remarkable as anything else in human endeavour.