Saturday, January 29, 2011

The forgotten Waugh

Michael Henderson, one of modern journalism's great curmudgeons, is at his irritable best in this week's Spectator, ranting at the illiterati who work in Waterstone's these days.

What first stirred his rage was an anonymous staff recommendation in the Piccadilly store for Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which the reviewer had called "her most evocative novel".

"Exceptional ignorance," Hendo says and charges off to find a salesperson at whom he brandishes the transgendered card. "Doesn't that strike you as odd?" he asks. "There's a rather embarrassing mistake." The shop assistant looks blank and says that he has never read Brideshead.

"But you must have heard of Evelyn Waugh," Henderson continues. "He was a great writer and it is a he. You work in a bookshop. You should know such things."

Irritated, Hendo stomps round a selection of other London Waterstone's stores, collecting evidence that the staff who write their recommendations are idiots. He found lots of poor spelling, worse grammar and, in a woeful misunderstanding of the date of the Peloponnesian War, a volume of Thucydides that is described as "an overview and analysis of the early 20th century".

Henderson laments Waterstone's no longer employing people with degrees in English Literature. I suppose one advantage of the recession and the rocketing graduate unemployment is that he may soon find plenty of those again stacking shelves in bookshops.

Abu Derby

I'm in Abu Dhabi for a few days to cover the first English club rugby match to be played outside England. London Wasps v Harlequins at the seven-star Emirates Palace, tomorrow night in front of half a dozen bored camels and a crowd of up to 5,000.

They're playing on a turf pitch that looks lush and  immaculate, a far cry from the bog that these two London teams played on when they met at the Twickenham Stoop three weeks ago. Genuine Colombian grass, I was told by a photographer. I think he was talking about the pitch, maybe he was offering me something. He did have a funny squint.

Perhaps the Wasps management were on the Colombian stuff when they came up with the idea of moving the match out here. It's a bold venture to take a sport out of its natural habitat. Football hasn't yet had the courage to move a competitive fixture out of the UK, for all the talk a few years ago of a "39th game" being played in Singapore and such places.

You risk annoying your season ticket-holders for a start, although the NFL seemingly put fan loyalty behind money with little difficulty when they decided to stage an annual league match in London. And in American football you only get eight home games a season.

But tomorrow's match is only an LV Cup game, little more than a competition for development sides, shoved in between the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations. I wonder how many of the Wasps season ticket-holders who are griping would have bothered to go to Adams Park this weekend. Wasps say that 200 of them have made the flight at Lord knows what expense, while those who haven't travelled will get a refund.

I appear to be the only British reporter out here, although others may fly in for the game tonight. To justify the expense, the paper wanted 1,000 words on the venture yesterday, which is all well and good and, you know, sort of my job, but it did mean that I missed the chance to see Daniel Barenboim, the maestro pianist and conductor, performing with the Berliner Staatskapelle last night.

The Wasps fans, an uncultured bunch, were oblivious that Barenboim was playing in their hotel auditorium. They were more concerned with whether Serge Betsen would be playing rugby tomorrow.

Told earlier in the day that the concert (Mozart piano concerto, played by Barenboim, and Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony) was sold out, I did my usual trick when I have a big writing assignment and too much time in which to get it done: I titted around on the internet.

Eventually, with an hour and a half to go to the concert (but still three hours before my deadline), I went for a stroll in the hope that I might get inspiration and bumped into a woman selling a spare ticket.

£50, probably a snip for Barenboim. Certainly the cheapest thing that I could find to buy in the hotel, where even the buffet lunch cost more than that.

I was so tempted but I hadn't even started writing my piece. 1,000 words in an hour and a half is doable when you have done the research, but it would have been pushing it and I could have churned out bilge.

My colleague Simon Barnes, when asked what he does when he can't find the inspiration to write a great piece, likes to reply: "Simple, I write a bad one." Which is a nice line, but he can probably afford to write a bad piece more often than someone making their way like I am.

So conscience prevailed. I returned to my laptop and wrote a semi-decent 1,000 words. The subs didn't mess around with it, anyway, which is normally a good sign. But I was kicking myself.

And then blessed providence smiled on me. I discovered that Barenboim was doing a second concert, of Tchaikovsky's fourth, at 11am this morning for schoolchildren. My days of passing for 18 being long gone, I trotted down to the hotel prepared to nab a child from the swimming pool if it meant that I could get a ticket as their guardian. Although now I think about it, I could have got more than just a ticket for child-snatching.

No need for it, though. A kind teacher had a few spares and was happy to let me have one free of charge. I offered cash but she refused. The tickets had been given free to her school and she was glad that a seat wasn't going to waste. It was so nice in this country that seem so wealth-obsessed to see such generosity. The concert was good, too. But rather too many children.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Shades of Andy Gray

Julian Assange must be kicking himself that he didn't break the news on WikiLeaks first that a middle-aged former footballer from Glasgow is a bit of a sexist. It fits into the same "does the Pope shit in the woods" camp as all those telegrams revealing that diplomats can be a bit bitchy about other countries.

I'm generalising, of course. Not all fiftysomething Glaswegian ex-sportsmen have unenlightened views on equality. Some are too pissed to say anything coherent.

What was so wrong about the Andy Gray/Richard Keys double act (now taking bookings for the touring production of Life on Mars on Ice) was not the patronising assumption that a woman who has passed all her refereeing exams and had already been a linesman in a men's Premier League match without crisis (Sunderland v Blackpool in December) might not know the offside rule.

It was the suggestion that the offside rule is difficult to understand. It may take up 200 words of the rule book, but the basic principle is pretty straightforward. There is no hidden mystery.

What is hard is applying the rule - ie, being able to look at three points of play at once (where two attackers are and where the last defender is in relation to them), which one might assume a multitasking woman could do more easily than a man - and having the courage to back your judgment, especially in the face of half a dozen snarling louts, plus the mob in the stands, who think you are blind.

Not to mention the idiots like Gray and Keys in the studio who then use super slow-motion to expose you. Why any man or woman would want to be in that position is beyond me.

Of course, Massey made these neanderthals look even more stupid by showing superb judgment and courage in deciding not to rule Liverpool's opening goal offside.

The Wolves supporters and players may have questioned her ability then, but TV supported her professionalism. It was not her knowledge of the rule, but her application of it that counted.

Anyway, the offside rule as it stands is stupid, in my opinion. Too often, a fine attacking move is stopped by a very marginal decision.

Even when the linesman is correct, the defence usually has more than enough time to respond to an attacking move that begins with an offside pass. I'd personally change the rule so that you are only offside if you are five yards or so in front of the last defender.

Then again, I'd also amend the rules of football to legalise hacking and tripping, which was one of the sticking points that led to the split from rugby in 1863.

The sooner defences are allowed to mow down attackers and get away with it, the sooner we lose the sight of players diving over imaginary boots to try and con the referees into giving them a free kick.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Spin doctor kept diary shocker

Well would you believe it? The Mail on the Sunday has the scoop - and has dedicated almost 30 paragraphs to it - that Andy Coulson kept a diary while he was David Cameron's press secretary.

This story fits into the same "no shit" category as the "Football manager says his team can win on Saturday" stories that somehow get page-leads every day of the week.

Surely it would be a better story if Coulson, who stood down last week because of an investigation into "phone hacking" while he was a tabloid editor, had not kept one and had suddenly realised that his memory was a bit ropey.

Suppose Coulson had started in the job with all sorts of good intentions, like the rest of us on January 1, and just found that he never got round to it? This would be a far better story...

"Former journalist with access to lots of gossip forgets to write any of it down"

By Philippa Page

Andy Coulson was frantically ringing round all his contacts in the Conservative Party last night asking if anyone could remember what Nick said to Dave when they were trying to form a coalition.

The former Downing Street spin doctor is trawling through emails and blogs desperate to find some snippets of gossip that he can use to pad out his forthcoming memoirs after suddenly realising on resigning his post that he had forgotten to keep a diary.

"Bugger, bugger, bugger," Coulson told this paper when contacted. "I kept meaning to find a quiet evening to go back and update the blank pages but just never found the time. Before I knew it, I was three years behind and frankly I struggle to remember what happened last week.

"If I just make it all up, will anyone notice? Surely that's what Alastair Campbell did and he got a million quid for his diary."

He was also hoping that Eric Pickles had forgotten to delete the past three years of voicemails on his mobile phone. "Eric's always got good stories, he won't mind if I nick some of them," Coulson said.

Among the events of the past three years that Coulson wishes he had jotted down some thoughts on at the time is the entire general election campaign in 2010. "We won, didn't we?" he asked. "Oh no, hang on..."

When pressed on whether he could name any turning points in the campaign, he referred to the three party leaders appearing on "that TV programme where they stood behind lecterns and said they agreed with Nick ... was it called The Weakest Link?" and said that he was sure that someone called Mrs Duffy played an important role in making Gordon Brown look stupid.

"Was she the woman who put the cat in the bin?" he asked. "I'm sure Guido blogged something about her. I'll just rewrite what he said."

Asked to discuss the private conversations he had with David Cameron about policy, Coulson said: "Huskies. And Hoodies. I think we like both of them. And, er, there was something about inheritance tax. Oh I wish I'd bothered to write it down."

A substantial part of the book will detail the tempestuous relationship Coulson had with Steve Hilton, Cameron's strategist. At the moment the chapter reads: "Why Hilton is a cock: No 1...."

"I'll ask some of the research department boys how to pad that out," Coulson said.

Publishing sources said that if he could scrape together enough legally-defensible titbits to form a book, it would cause the same kind of controversy as diaries published by Dale Winton or Bungle from Rainbow.

Tea-bagging the Chancellor

Labour's change of Shadow Chancellor last week led to a few smutty jokes about Ed Miliband losing the use of his Johnson and jiggling his Balls, but the best puerile comment came from an unexpected source.

Hallelujah for the Financial Times sub-editor, perhaps a frustated Carry On script-writer, who latched on to a comment by George Osborne about the tenacity of Ed Balls and puffed it as a pull-quote. According to the FT, "Osborne expects Balls to be down his throat 24 hours a day".

Well, no one can blame an old public school boy for hankering after a few pleasures, but surely he has an economy to sort out.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Speaking banal of the dead

One of my bugbears about modern journalism is how editors feel the need to personalise stories about murdered women or children (but very rarely men) by using their first name in headlines. Even my own paper follows this convention, which to me always seems disrespectful to the dead and their families.

The tragic death of Joanna Yeates over Christmas has been covered with an array of headlines featuring "Joanna" or "Jo". I'm asuming she liked to be known as Jo, although suspect it would not have made any difference, Jo being a nice short word to puff in 72 point on the front page and flog some extra papers off a sensationalised claim.

Nothing, though, has been written about this desperately sad story that is more offensive than this drivel churned out by Liz Jones in the Daily Mail over the weekend.

Under the yucky headline "Is lovely Jo just becoming another thumbnail on the police website?", the banal Jones woman follows Yeates's final steps, primarily whingeing about irrelevancies and demonstrating her own hideous slavishness to consumerism.

Who cares that the food served in the last pub Yeates ate in is a bit crap or that they can't spell Laurent Perrier? Would it really have made her death more bearable if her last night out had been a bit more swanky, as Jones suggests? How on earth does this woman know what Yeates was feeling as she bought her pizza or neared her home?

Is it really a travesty that cars aren't slowing as they pass the place where the body was found, or that someone left flowers but didn't write on the card?

Worse of all is her dreadful conclusion, suggesting that the killer avoided the Clifton Suspension Bridge because he didn't want to pay the 50p toll and then giving us a very boring anecdote about how the traffic hooted at Jones because she didn't have enough change for the bridge herself.

Ghastly woman.

Every time I feel depressed that I am going nowhere in my career, I need to be grateful that I don't work for the Daily Mail and that I don't write such self-absorbed toss as Liz Jones.

And then I look at the sales figures for the Mail compared with The Times and feel depressed again.

Going round the clock

In the unlikely event that you are reading Questing Vole as I type, you have only a few minutes to get over to this website and see something historic happening.

At just after 5.15pm today, the national debt in Great Britain will tick over to £1 trillion. It has been increasing at the rate of £7,000 every second and the interest paid on it last year amounted to more than £42 billion.

A rather sobering thought whenever we hear people moan about the odd million being trimmed off council spending here and there. How on earth do we get out of this mess?

Thought for the day

I find Sunday morning church like watching cricket matches played in Australia: I like the experience but it is always on at the wrong time. Whenever I can stir myself, I have a good time. Mostly I prefer my bed more.

Disgraceful, but I do try to redeem myself with a once-a-month evensong. Last night, after a beautiful service at All Saints in Blackheath, I was buttonholed by the vicar who tried to persuade me to come along to a 10.30am one Sunday.

"Ah, um, but it clashes with the Archers omnibus," I stuttered, expecting to be sent straight to hell for preferring a radio soap opera to holy communion, but the priest's response was charming.

"Yes, but you can't get me on the iPlayer," he said.

A fellow congregant then suggested that I bring a small radio to listen to The Archers during the service. It's things like that which make me like the Church of England. It is religion for the masses, not the Masses.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Miliband talks tough on strike action, possibly

Words of wisdom from Ross on Unenlightened Commentary:
"I don't want to be too harsh on Ed Miliband because I think we've got a lot in common. I'm never going to be Prime Minister either."
The Labour Party leader's appearance on the Andrew Marr show this morning reminded me of a story I was once told by Tom Graveney, the former England and Worcestershire batsman of the match in which he made his 100th first-class hundred. Graveney had got to 96 when the bowler, knowing of the landmark, sent down the gentlest of leg-side long-hops, expecting Graveney to smack it to the boundary.

But the batsman missed, so the bowler, being a sporting sort, sent another easier-to-hit ball down at Graveney and was duly the first to congratulate him when he reached his hundred.

Marr's interview tactic is similar, softer even than David Frost ("Good morning minister, and what did you have for breakfast?"), whom he replaced, and there are some who think that he goes easier on Labour politicians, although it could also be argued that the gentler they are treated, the more likely they might be to let their true feelings out.

Anyway, Miliband did get a soft run this morning and still came across as an over-earnest sixth former but he has hardly come up with any policy to be quizzed on in his four months in the job and bashing him for the policies of the last Government would just be dull.

What was interesting, though, were the strong terms in which he condemned the planned transport and public sector strikes due to coincide with the royal wedding on April 29.

They weren't weasel-words or prevarication, he said that he was "appalled" at the idea and that strikes were a sign of failure on the unions' part as much as on the employers'. I hope we'll see him walking with the police if there are any protests on wedding day.

Of course, having won the leadership only with union support, Miliband has to make it clear he is not under their thumb, but it is also true that Miliband can argue for the sort of change in the unions that David Cameron would find harder to achieve.

If Miliband is to take his party back towards the centre and reassure people that Labour is on their side (and I can't believe that most people agree with the militant unions), he has to take them on.

This needs to be about more than words. He should make it clear that he will not accept funding from unions that hold strikes nor invite them to social or political party occasions. The day that Ed Miliband tells Bob Crow to grow up and stop being such a selfish pillock would be the day when he becomes a credible alternative PM.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The idea that an Arizona nutjob was incited to plug a hole in his congresswoman because Sarah Palin produced a map with crosshairs on it is simplistic and ridiculous, but almost as ridiculous is the fact that both parties have now got their lisping dung-shovellers (also known as researchers) trawling the net to find further examples of excessive military messaging by political campaigns.

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Would you believe it, but the Democrats produced a map in 2004 showing the states that they were targeting in the general election and they used what looks like archery targets. So were they suggesting that their supporters take potshots at the Republican candidates there but only using bows and arrows? How quaint and how appropriate for a party that wants to rob from the rich to give to the poor.

A case could be made that Palin's target poster is more aggressive, more active than the Democrats. The crosshairs show the act of shooting from the point of view of the shooter; the bull's-eye shows it from the view of the shot. I say that both are irrelevant.

Look, Republicans like guns. That is not news. Sometimes they even shoot their friends in the face with one, as Dick Cheney did while out duck-hunting a few years ago (something for which, it was claimed last year, he has still not apologised). It's all harmless, they might say, and understandable that some will use military metaphors or symbols in their campaigning.

But generally almost all Republicans, especially, one trusts, those running for public office, do not advocate using firearms as the way to make a debating point. And their supporters do understand that if a crosshair is painted over a state it is not a call to arms.

Jared Loughner, who is registered as an independent voter in Arizona rather than a Republican and who did not vote in the November mid-terms, appears to have been a mentally unhinged, loner with a history of drug use and a hatred of society. Textbook dickhead, in other words.

But the fact that he shot a Democratic congresswoman does not make the Republicans accessories to his actions, no matter how supportive they are of the second amendment or how polemical their campaigning imagery. To recoin a phrase, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh do not kill people; dickheads kill people.

Similarly, it really is quite lame of the Republicans to try to defend themselves by digging up examples of the Democrats using military metaphors. Who cares? You almost feel that some Republicans want one of their own to be gunned down by a man in a Che Guevara T-shirt so they can prove that fruitloops come from the Left as well.

In their responses to the tragedy yesterday, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin showed why one of them is suited to national politics and why one is second-grade. The Palin 2012 campaign had its chance to make her look presidential and instead she appeared petty, while Obama, even if some found his tears insincere and his words too scripted, caught the right mood.

It is a time for sympathy, regret and being part of a community, not for playing the victim or shouting "we'll they're just as bad as us".

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Charity drive for Queensland

Normally at this stage of an England cricket tour, I would be writing a piece about how desperately boring it is that a thrilling series of Test matches should be followed by one unmemorable one-day match after another, but some good may yet come from the two Twenty20 matches and seven 50-over games.

England's players have agreed to donate part of their match fees from this morning's match to the Queensland flood relief and after the game players from both sides went into the crowd to press the flesh and pass the donations bucket. With 40,000 spectators, it is hoped that a fair bit was raised.

Charity is to continue. Kevin Pietersen has said he will auction his Ashes shirt and bat for the flood relief effort, while Shane Warne and Darren Gough are arranging a match between "legends" to raise more money. New South Wales cricket team has agreed to donate the gate receipts from their match with Queensland the day before England play Australia in Brisbane on January 29.

It is easy to forget that natural disasters hurt developed countries just as much as third world countries. People rightly give money when there are floods in Bangladesh or hurricanes in the Caribbean, but the disruption to life and the cost of remedying it in Queensland after these floods - which have covered an area the size of France and Germany - is just as great, probably greater. Those who have a quality of life miss it more when it is taken away.

It is heartwarming that in the aftermath of the Ashes victory and a few days after the multimillion-dollar auction for the Indian Premier League, cricketers and cricket fans can dig deep to help our fellow humans in need.

Friday, January 07, 2011

OK, we can celebrate now

Blimey, we won the Ashes. Never in doubt, of course, not even after the Perth defeat. Rather swamped with tasks for the paper on this whole Ashes-winning malarkey, but will jot some thoughts down later.

Just leave you with this quote from Duncan Fletcher, the former England coach: "In the next few years, England will need to beat better sides than Australia."

Possibly the most damning verdict on the strength of Australia. And he is right: there are bigger fish to fry and while this win is jolly nice, it is not quite the same as the win in 2005, when England had to beat some of the all-time greats of the game.

Australia are so weak at the moment that an England second XI, certainly our second-string bowlers, could have the better of them. An England Reserves of Carberry, Adams (or Lyth or, even better, Trescothick), Bopara, Hildreth, Morgan, Davies, Rashid, Broad, Finn, Onions, Panesar/Shahzad would be pretty impressive.

India, the world's No 1 side, come to England this summer. Beat them, Sri Lanka and South Africa and then we can start swanking about as if we rule the roost.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Death List 2011

Well that was a miserable start to the new year. The writers of The Archers, the Radio 4 soap opera, marked the show's 60th anniversary this evening by killing off nice, bumbling Nigel Pargetter, the village toff. At least, I think they have deaded him. The episode ended with him falling off the roof of Lower Loxley, his stately home, having climbed up there in a Force 8 gale to unhitch a Happy New Year banner that was tied to the chimneys.

It is possible that Nigel is not dead - we shall find out at 7pm tomorrow - and will instead spend the next few months or years (depending on how much the actor needs the money and how good he is at begging the editor) in a coma in Felperham General Hospital. Much like Ariel Sharon, in fact.

Which brings me to the Death List for 2011, which for the fifth year in a row has the former Israeli Prime Minister named as one of the 50 celebrities most likely to shuffle off during the next 12 months.

I have been fascinated by the Death List since I discovered it ten years ago. The list was first drawn up in 1987 by a bunch of students in a pub at Warwick University, who were surprised to hear the news of the death of Cary Grant and thought they would see if they could predict which other famous people would pass away that year. Only one of their original list - bizarrely, the Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia - obliged them. Since the internet came along, the Death List has grown from a private gag to a global death-hunt.

Each year, they select a list of 50 people whose death will be noted by the mass media and see how many don't make it to New Year's Eve. It may sound macabre, but it is also a sort of tribute to the accomplishments of the people on the list, some of whom we may have thought died years ago.

You can only have 25 people from the previous year's list, which shows the faith they have placed in Sharon finally slipping out of his coma. Looking through their lists, it seems to be an in-joke that Clive Dunn, who played Corporal Jones in Dad's Army and is still only 89, has to be included each year.

2010 was a poor year for the list. Only nine of their 50 died (Michael Foot, Norman Wisdom, Simon Maccorkindale, Laurent Fignon, Dino de Laurentiis, JD Salinger, Dennis Hopper, Blake Edwards and Cyril Smith), the fewest since 1998 and some way shy of the record of 14.

So this year they have gone for some new faces. Intriguingly, last year's No 1 pick, the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi, has been dropped altogether. He may have been given only three months to live when released from prison in 2009, but the Death List panel have clearly decided not to fall for that again.

Among the names who have not appeared on the list before are Gerry Rafferty, who was treated for kidney failure two months ago, Aretha Franklin, who has pancreatic cancer, and Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor who is now 93.

Surprisingly, no one thought it worth putting Nigel Pargetter on the list too.