Thursday, 30 August 2012

The prince and the paper

Personally, I'm slightly less interested in nude pics of Prince Harry than I would be in, say, knowing the Swahili word for 'crispbread'. The decision by The Sun to publish them, though, is extremely interesting.
Neil Wallis, the former managing editor of the News of the World, said he would have published the snaps a year ago - but not now. Not since the Leveson Inquiry started querying the ethics of the national press.
The next day there is Harry, in all his naughty glory, decorating the pages of the News of the World's former stablemate. Someone at Wapping took a different view from Wallis.
So is this a matter for Leveson? Has The Sun stepped out of line?
Frankly, I find it hard to see much of an ethical dimension here.
Those papers that chose not to publish the Harry pics may have taken a good decision on taste grounds. Or they may have feared – rightly or wrongly, reasonably or unreasonably – upsetting the royal family.
The Sun’s decision to publish was a commercial one. Ethics, or morals, don’t come into it.
Complaints that The Sun broke a Press Complaints Commission instruction by publishing should be balanced by a question whether the PCC should be wasting its time and risking its authority on such trivia.
There is nothing either moral or immoral about nudity in itself, whether the nude in question is a royal or just some bloke down the pub.
If the right royal Jack-the-Lad sees fit to get his kit off at a party - in effect, a public place - that's his own business. But he can hardly claim invasion of privacy if someone snaps him at it.
And, to be fair, I've seen no suggestion that Harry himself is particularly upset.
If he really is the sort of chap he seems to be, his reaction is probably a combination of mild embarrassment and greater amusement. Which would seem about right.
Louise Mensch, who has been a robust member of Leveson's committee, was more worried about attempts to suppress the pictures than by their publication.
"We cannot have a situation where our press is so scared of the Leveson Inquiry that they refuse to print things that are in the public interest," she said.
Which is exactly right.
Except that it's hard to see how publication of these particular photos was in any way "in the public interest".
Here, yet again, is that old confusion between what's in the public interest and what's of interest to the public.
Mensch, incidentally, is much the most interesting of current Conservative MPs. She will be missed when she goes off to spend more time with her husband, Peter.
He, bizarrely, is the manager of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band who have happily long since outgrown their earliest claim to notoriety. Which was getting their kit off.
The Chilis have gone on to make some excellent music and some less excellent, though still more interesting than anything Prince Harry's done yet or seems likely to do.
Still, there are clearly plenty of people interested - even if only in passing - in seeing the dashing prince's formerly private parts.
And The Sun has never let taste get in the way of giving the people what they want. It makes a change for the unclothed celeb to be (a) a genuine celebrity, even if only by accident of birth, and (b) male.
The justification offered by managing editor David Dinsmore was that "Hundreds of millions of people have seen these pictures over the internet and it seems perverse that they shouldn't be shown in the pages of our newspaper."
Well, hardly. If everyone's already seen them, why show them again?
In fact, it's all a bit of a storm in a teacup. But what an interesting teacup, and what an amusing storm.
IPSWICH Community Radio, otherwise known as ICR (105.7fm), is on the lookout for new premises and a new board.

If that sounds as if the station is in crisis, I’m assured by presenter Doug Coombes that there is “no great scandal to report”.

The station’s directors resigned en masse last week, though, being replaced by an interim board. And Nick Greenland, who was formerly paid to be the station co-ordinator and is carrying on in a voluntary capacity, says they are seeking new faces with marketing skills and local business contacts.

ICR first broadcast in 1989 from a caravan in Christchurch Park. Since launching on its current wavelength in August 2007 with a permanent FM licence, it has been one of the most vibrant community radio stations in the country.

My own involvement has been just one appearance on Coombes’s excellent Wednesday morning arts show, Lifelines, and a few on Graham Blackburn’s anarchic but always entertaining Naked Football Show, a kind of on-air Ipswich Town fanzine.

I can recommend the station, though, for its diversity and for the passion of its presenters, who are all volunteers.

Coombes said: “CSV Ipswich have been fantastic landlords, allowing us to live in the Clubhouse rent-free since 2003, but with financial pressures of their own they have decided they need more house-room for their other community projects and we have agreed to move out.

“The general feeling among members is that the challenge of finding a new home and funding could be a very positive new start.”

If you can help, contact Nick Greenland at

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The death of books - a virtual nightmare

VISITING other people in their homes, one of the first unspoken questions in my mind is usually: “What books do they have?” Rapidly followed, all too often, by: “Where are the books?”
In this reasonably affluent, reasonably educated society, a home without books is one of the mysteries of the world. To me, anyway.
Evidently, to most people a home without books – or at any rate with what I would consider pathetically few – is normal.
No wonder the publishing industry is in crisis.
More books are published now than ever before. More individual titles, that is. Total sales have been falling for years, though.
In the first quarter of 2012, fiction sales were down 18 per cent on the same period last year, a near-catastrophic rate of decline that cannot be sustained for long.
Of course, JK Rowling has had nothing new out so far this year – there was nothing from her last year either – and by March the EL James, Fifty Shades phenomenon had not yet launched.
But those monster successes merely underline the main point. There may be more titles than ever for book-buyers to choose from, but a small handful account for nearly all the books that are actually bought.
It’s a depressing thought that those few blockbusters are needed to keep their publishers going. Even more depressing that by stocking a few select titles among the groceries, the big supermarkets threaten the existence of specialist bookshops in the same way they have been putting other small shops out of business for decades.
A good bookshop is an Aladdin’s cave of delights – while a big supermarket is my personal prototype of Hell.
In my experience, one of the few better places one can go than into a bookshop is into a book.
Since I first “got” reading, at the relatively late age of seven, there’s hardly been a moment when I haven’t had at least one book on the go. These days it’s usually one fiction, one history and various volumes of poetry.
I spend more time reading than I do watching television, even including the sport which accounts for most of my viewing.
I realise this makes me rather unusual these days. As does my house, which has more books in every room – including the landing, the kitchen and the loo – than most people seem to have altogether.
For an anti-materialist, I’m an inveterate acquirer of books. But not exactly a hoarder – several rucksacks-full have to go to Oxfam each year to make room for the new acquisitions.
A possible solution to the space problem, which I’ve considered lately, is the e-reader.
There seem suddenly to be nearly as many of those as real books in the hands of other train and tube travellers. And I can certainly see the advantage of taking one thinner-than-paperback device on holiday rather than lugging around a suitcase full of printed novels.
E-book sales apparently rose 366 per cent last year. Amazon, the biggest online bookseller by far, reported this month that e-books now outstrip their sales of the printed variety.
Which might be good news for trees, and the fuel cost of shipping heavy books. And might ultimately give me more house-room.
It’s also easier to self-publish an e-book than a real book, which might lead to a further explosion yet in the number of unread titles available.
But there’s a bad-news side too to this rapid switch to digital – and not just for those of us who love the heft, smell and feel of books and consider them the best furnishing for a home.
It’s not just that the Kindle could be the last nail in the coffin of the bookshop, either – though that is an imminent tragedy.
I was discussing with a friend the other day the way we used to carry our Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd albums around at school in the 1970s.
It wasn’t just for show (though of course it was a way of showing how cool you were). By passing our favourites around, we were able to expand each others’ tastes.
The CD lessened the ‘cool’ factor – they are simply not such attractive, showy artefacts as old-style albums. The cover-less, non-portable download then destroyed it.
Of course, modern technology allows downloads – and tracks ‘ripped’ from CDs – to be “shared”. But the digital files themselves are ephemeral, not things to be owned, kept, passed around. They cannot be browsed on the shelves of shops, or friends’ homes.
The visibility and portability of books, or records, is part of their point.
The book on a shelf is part of your own past, to be delved into again, or simply part of the structure of your life.
The e-book, once read, will be gone, probably never to be revisited. Certainly – since you never “own” the file but merely have it “on licence” – not to be lent to friends.
If printed newspapers become a thing of the past, of course I’ll care. If proper journalism can survive, though, the move to an online existence won’t much matter. News is ephemeral anyway – and is easier to retrieve online than from old papers.
I don’t mourn the Encyclopedia Britannica, killed by the more useful internet.
But if all books go the same way, we’ll all be much poorer for their passing.


I COULD see a lot of sense in First getting the west coast main line rail franchise, whatever Richard Branson thought about Virgin losing it. The more lines are run by the same company, the easier it will be to re-nationalise them all when at last we get a real Labour government.
I don't think it's what the Tories had in mind. But I was surprised at the enthusiastic response I got from all around when I suggested it on Ipswich station the other day as we waited for a late-running train.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Legacy? It's just back to reality

SO what was all that about then? And what hangover can we now expect after waking up from the biggest wipeout of national consciousness in most of our lifetimes?
The end of the Olympics is a bit like walking out of a cinema blinking in the light. Disorientated to find it’s still daytime in the real world, buses still going past and people going about their ordinary business as if all our existences had never been under threat from space aliens at all.
For two weeks words like “omnium”, “ippon”, “repechage” and “countback” have entered all our dreams.
We have all become instant experts in the intricacies of taekwondo and the rules of handball.
People we had heard of barely if at all – people like Jo Rowsell, Max Whitlock, Jade Jones and Liam Phillips – have had us cheering, praying, crying.
People we can just about con ourselves into believing we have always known and loved – Ben Ainslie, Chris Hoy, Jess Ennis, Mo Farah – have become gods in our hearts.
And now it’s over. Time to go back to work. Back to our normal dull routine of soaps and football.
To find, soberingly, that back here in reality climate change is still a threat, Europe is still in crisis, the Tories are still in power and the bankers and industrialists still have the rest of the world over an oil-barrel.
We’ve all been at a party. A really good party. The kind that leaves you buzzing. For a while.
The kind of party that’s bound to leave you feeling a bit flat once the buzz wears off – which it will start to do disarmingly quickly.
The kind of party you wake from wondering how the world has changed. Only to discover, disappointedly, that it hasn’t.
From even before the moment, seven years ago, when London was awarded the Games, one word has been associated – optimistically or cynically – with these Olympics.
That word is “legacy”.
The athletes themselves have caught the bug.
In the moment of their greatest triumphs, many have spoken of encouraging youngsters to take up their various sports – as if that was what it was all about.
Which – let’s be honest – it isn’t.
The glory of a victory on the cycle track or in the pool is in its own moment, not in some mythical future.
If Vicky Pendleton really believes that her greatest achievement will be if some children get on their bikes next week because of her, she is demeaning herself. If they do – and let’s hope they will – it will be a welcome bonus, not her crowning glory.
The great success of the Charlton brothers, Bobby Moore, Nobby Stiles and co was achieved at Wembley Stadium in June 1966. The fact that it started me (and others of my generation) on a lifetime’s love of football, and to play it eagerly, though badly, was merely a by-product.
Vicky, and Jess, and Jade, and Mo will have inspired some kids, just as Nobby and Bobby did, but each success is more than wiped out by the sale of a school playing-field somewhere.
So let’s not kid ourselves that Britain will gain some great legacy from having staged the Olympics.
We’ve gained some pride, yes. From unexpected successes in the sporting arena – and even more unexpected success in organisation. But all that is temporary.
What will last are a collection of memories, many of them more than slightly surreal.
Did I really spend a lunchtime watching women try to kick each other in the head – and even cheering them on from my sofa?
Did I really get excited for a few moments each by dancing horses, girls twirling coloured ribbons, and grown blokes hurtling down a slope on kids’ BMX bikes?
Is it really humanly possible to hold your breath underwater while your legs go through a whole hip-hop routine above the surface, then fling another person out into the air – and all with perfect grace, timing and a Farrah Fawcett smile?
Was Nicola Adams’ grin after becoming the Olympics’ first female boxing gold medallist really even broader than her Yorkshire accent?
And did Ladbrokes really pay out on Brad Wiggins being named Sports Personality of the Year even before all those events took place, and four months before the vote?
Yes, indeed, it was a fabulous party.
Was it worth £9.2billion – approximately £1,400 for every man, woman and child in Britain?
Set against the cost of bailing out Northern Rock (£3bn, £30bn, £55bn or £100bn depending how you calculate it), or the tens of billions wasted on the Trident missile system, it looks like a bargain.

CRACKING Games though they were, and despite records galore in other arenas, surprisingly few were set in the athletics stadium.
Maybe that’s in part testimony to success in cleaning drugs out of the sport.
But the concentration on home successes allowed one world record to slip largely under the radar. Pity, because in a way it was the most historic moment of the whole Olympics.
When the US quartet of Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight and Carmelita Jeter ran the women’s 4x100m relay in 40.82 seconds, they smashed a mark that had stood for 27 years.
And wiped away the last reference in the world record books to the name East Germany.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Faces in the crowd show Britain's true class

IN one of those nothing-much-happening-in-the-pool moments the camera zooms in on a pretty girl in the crowd. As they do. But hang on. Isn’t that the same pretty girl we saw earlier at the hockey?
And at the rowing. And the equestrian event. And doing the Mexican (as opposed to the royal) wave at the tennis.
And look, there she is again, being hugged by hubby after a British triumph on the cycle track. And with Beth Tweddle at the gymnastics. And, of course, in the stadium for Mo Farah’s golden moment. Oh, and look, there she is out on a boat for the sailing in Weymouth Bay.
She must have been incredibly lucky in the Olympic tickets lottery.
Either that or she’s spent an awful lot of time queueing up for returns – and her perfect hair and perfect clothes don’t look as if she’s spent the night camped out on the pavement in the rain.
It is, of course, Kate Windsor (nee Middleton) whose undeniably photogenic visage keeps lighting up our screens. Sometimes in the company of hubby and/or bro-in-law, sometimes other members of the extended family.
And, of course, she lucked out big-time in the lottery, not of tickets but of life.
As did all the Windsor clan, for whom the Olympics have been one big family party. Right down to the Princess Royal hanging a silver gong round the neck of her own daughter. Who at least put some effort and training into earning her right to be there.
The Olympics have been a remarkable celebration of British success in the sporting arena.
The excitement round my sofa at the brilliant Ennis-Rutherford-Farah one-two-three on Saturday night was as great as in living-rooms up and down the land. And as for Brad Wiggins and Vicky Pendleton, they can pop round my place for dinner any time.
But the Games have also been a striking demonstration to the world that Britain’s antiquated class system is still as deeply ingrained as ever.
Did Kate and Wills have to queue up for soggy fish ’n chips in a polystyrene box?
Did Anne have to hide a bottle of the “wrong” cola under her coat at the shooting range?
Did Edward sit at the show-jumping wishing he’d got tickets for the gymnastics instead?
And as for David Cameron, hasn’t he got more important things to be getting on with than schmoozing at the handball, the rowing, the judo, the shooting, the cycling, the swimming, the athletics, the boxing and heaven knows what other games?
Then again, he’s probably better off out of the way there rather than trying to run the country.
And, let’s face it, he does have something to celebrate. His old school is doing rather well at the Games. As well as in banking, business, the media and… er… politics.
Sporting potential is not a qualifying factor for entrance to Eton. Yet the school (1,300 of the country’s most privileged pupils) sent three old-boys to the Games – hurdler Lawrence Clarke, rower Constantine Louloudis and eventer William Fox-Pitt.
The raw material is no better, but independent schools vastly out-perform the state system in producing top-quality athletes.
In public, at least, Cameron has decried that. But his actions in government have hardly served to address the public/private imbalance in education, or anything else.
Lord Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, is himself a former public-school and Oxbridge Olympian, having coxed the men’s eight to silver in Moscow in 1980. And he at least has the decency to be embarrassed at what he calls “one of the worst statistics in British sport”.
“It is wholly unacceptable,” he says, “that over 50 per cent of our medallists in Beijing came from the private sector. It tells you that 50 per cent of the medals came from seven per cent of the population.”
It is, of course, particularly stark in rowing and in equestrianism, where owning your own horse is a pre-requisite and where every member of the British team was privately educated.
And why I was particularly thrilled by the exploits of Wiggins (comprehensive in Kilburn), Farah (comprehensive in Hounslow), Jess Ennis (comprehensive in Sheffield) and Greg Rutherford (comprehensive in Milton Keynes). And of Pendleton, whose comprehensive in Letchworth I attended myself back in the days when it was a state grammar.
If Wiggins is indeed knighted – as would seem fitting after his Tour and time-trial triumphs – it will be an attempt by the establishment to co-opt him into its ranks.
His first reaction to the idea – that it wouldn’t sound right and “I’ll always be Brad” – was characteristically honest. And there is something sweetly anarchic about the suggested title of “Sir Wiggo”.
It would seem to fit the most down-to-earth, and one of the most likeable, of all our Games heroes.
You can take the boy out of the inner city. But you can’t take the inner city out of the boy.

Medalling with the language

ONE of the best things America has given us is its creative use (some, though not me, might say “mis-use”) of our language.
A feature of that is the tendency to use nouns as verbs - “ain’t a word that cain’t be verbed”.
We’ve got used to the verb “to medal” in connection with the Olympics. Now we have also acquired its synonym “to podium”.
US sports commentary has long used the bizarre construction “the winning-est coach”.
So can we now refer to Brad Wiggins as Britain’s “podiumming-est” Olympian?

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

'Ents' used to mean 'entertainments' (and was usually followed by 'secs')

IT’S a little hard to say quite what the Olympic opening ceremony was for or about, especially with Team GB’s track-and-field athletes away on camp in Portugal.
What it clearly had nothing to do with was sport. On the other hand, it was no doubt enjoyed by many for whom the sport will prove less memorable.
I’d like to tell you that I enjoyed it – or, alternatively, that I thought it was a load of old rubbish. But in all honesty I can do neither. I had better things to do with my time.
I was watching instead a charming, gentle documentary about Snowdonia on BBC2. Pictures of snow-speckled hillsides, mountain sheep being herded and sheared, dizzying close-ups of a mad mountaineer scaling sheer walls of a slate quarry. It was all, surely, more beautiful, and said more about Britain, than anything contrived for the Olympic panto.
Not to mention being a great deal more cheaply made. And probably having one of the smallest audiences any mainstream British TV channel has pulled in at prime time on a Friday night for decades.
I did, however, catch a snippet or two of the Olympic frolics on the news.
There was Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Brunel, declaiming a speech from Shakespeare’s Tempest (astonishingly badly for a professional actor). And if that meant anything to anyone, it wasn’t me.
Beyond that, I must rely for an assessment of the ceremony on the various comments of my online friends.
Among which, my favourite was: “Arctic Monkeys sing The Beatles to a ring of cycling moths. It’s what you’ve dreamt of all your life.”
Strangely, the same person summed up the next morning: “That’s the best opening I have ever seen, mostly because of the chaos and humour. No other country could have done it.
“The organisation too was impeccable – amazing for a country with a railway system like ours.”
Interesting, I think, that that positive, pro-British attitude comes from a Brit who started out as a Hungarian.
Perhaps more typical was my friend who complained: “So that was what we blew £27million on, was it? Perhaps, rather than getting sentimental over a mythological pretence of the NHS, we should have spent the money on the real NHS instead.”
That, I might say, is an expurgated version of Jeremy actually said.
Possibly more telling were his acerbic remarks as the whole pageant unscrolled. Such as this: “Just caught the traditional British Victorians worshipping the roots of an Ent near Hobbiton.”
Oh dear. Cod Victoriana meets Tolkien whimsy. It all sounds more would-be surreal than really surreal, a theme-park vision of a weary cliché Britain. Glad I wasn’t watching or I might’ve fwoed up.
An actor playing James Bond meeting the real Queen before stand-ins for both of them parachute into the stadium is either inspired madcappery or embarrassing nonsense. I don’t which, and I don’t think being there would have helped.
But, Jeremy, if it was all truly as awful as you say, why weren’t you watching that delightful Snowdonia documentary instead?


I’M not anti-American, though over the years a number of Americans have accused me of being. Like most Brits, I’ve absorbed American culture to the point of fascination.
I did, though, find myself nodding a lot as I read a blog post entitled “10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America”. Which is exactly how the writer, PostMasculine, said non-American readers would react.
PostMasculine is an unusually well-travelled American, whose blog has suddenly acquired a mass of new readers (including me). He has, in the lingo, “gone viral”.
Among the things he says most Americans don’t know are the following:
“Few people are impressed by us”. The exceptions, he believes, include the English. Which is obviously at least partly true.
“Few people hate us.” To which he adds:Most people in the world don’t really think about us or care about us.” Which is obviously the thing most Americans, themselves uncaring and ignorant about the rest of the world, find hardest to accept or understand.
“The quality of life for the average American is not that great.” Here he refers to the enormous inequalities in a society where most people are not actually rich – and to the fact that riches don’t actually buy life quality anyway.
“The rest of the world is not a slum.” True, of course. Though even I had to confront my prejudices when reading this: “My neighborhood in Colombia is nicer than the one I lived in in Boston.”
“We’re paranoid.” Hence Homeland Security, the irrational fear of the foreign, the exaggeration of threats of all kinds (except, oddly, those that really exist, such as climate change and armed fellow Americans). (I added the bit in brackets myself.)
“We are very unhealthy.” Two points there – both of which we in Britain should take special note of, because we seem intent on heading the same way.
One is the Americans’ awful diet – too much, too fatty, too laced with unpleasant chemicals. “Our food,” says PostMasculine simply, “is killing us”.
The other point is the US health-care system. Americans spend far more than people in any other country on a system which the World Health Organisation rates only the 37th best in the world, just behind Cuba, Malta and the United Arab Emirates.
As PostMasculine says: “Enjoy your Big Mac.”