Merry Christmas From The Coalition

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Column: January 13, 2010

IN A breathtaking display of self-satire, Channel 4 has begun development on a new programme on mummification and is searching for a dying volunteer to undergo the process.

Apparently How To Look Good Naked isn’t enough. Now, it seems, we have to Look Good Dead, too.

Presumably, Gok Wan’s got his shovel and is marauding through cemeteries. “Ooo, you’ve lost weight. Looking hot, ghoulfriend”

The production company, Fulcrum TV, has found a scientist who believes he has uncovered the mysteries of Egyptian embalming and is advertising for somebody suffering from a terminal illness who would quite like to be wrapped in bandages and exhibited in a museum, like some sort of hellish Mr Bump.

I can imagine that would be quite a difficult conversation with loved ones. They would have to mourn one’s loss while standing behind a misbehaving school party and a couple of pensioners with a Thermos in the middle of the Ancient Egypt exhibition.

And they wouldn’t be able to put flowers on the grave. The best they could do would be to drop a couple of rubbers and a polystyrene pterodactyl glider from the shop at the entrance into the glass case.

Of course, payment could be a powerful incentive. How reassuring it would be to know one’s loved ones would have financial security after one’s death.

But, if any money were to change hands, it would be advisable to ask for it up front and not cash on delivery. One wouldn’t like any unpleasant scenes to unfold, such as this one . . .

PRODUCER: Mr Tibbs, I’m concerned that we are having this conversation.

TIBBS: Why’s that?

PRODUCER: Because I’m not doing it through a medium. It’s been five years now, man! The doctor only gave you six months.

TIBBS: I can’t help it. I’m in the pink of health.

PRODUCER: Are you? Are you really? No twinges?

TIBBS: I’m in remission!

PRODUCER: And I’m out of pocket. I’m supposed to be delivering this show to Channel 4. I can’t give them a live corpse. I’ve no alternative . . .

TIBBS: Erm, what’s that in your hand?

PRODUCER: This won’t hurt a bit . . .

TIBBS: I want my mummy!

PRODUCER: So do I.

Column: January 6, 2010

WE’RE rubbish, aren’t we? How do we manage to run out of salt in winter? It’s not as if the cold weather should come as a surprise. We haven’t just been singing “In The Mild Midwinter/Balmy winds were warm/Earth was nice and toasty/Time to mow the lawn” at carol concerts.

Whoever’s responsible is just like one of those dimwits who remark on the nights drawing in some time in October, as if it were a truly unexpected event, on a par with Cliff Richard knocking on one’s front door asking to borrow a cup of heroin because Ann Widdecombe’s run out – again.

We should have stocked up long ago and maintained those stocks. It wouldn’t have gone to waste. Nobody has ever complained that there’s too much grit on the roads during a cold snap.

Apart from anything else, salt is one thing it should be pretty much impossible for Liverpool to run out of, along with uncles who used to go to school with John Lennon. We’re right next door to Cheshire, which is almost entirely salt, apart from a sparse crust of WAGs and Mercedes. And we live on an island, surrounded by seawater.

Still, every snow cloud has a silver lining, and if it hadn’t have been for the basic inability to predict chilly weather in winter, I wouldn’t have had the journey of a lifetime – the three-hour bus journey from south Liverpool to the city centre. 

If you’re despairing about human nature and the me-first generation and are convinced we’re all going to hell in a tuk-tuk, then board a bus in the middle of a snowstorm. And you’ll at least have the satisfaction of being right.

There was only one seat available by the time I’d figured out that the principle of “first at the bus stop, first on the bus” is suspended during unpleasant weather. If I hadn’t been listening to the travel news and school closures on the radio, I might have been a little speedier. Still, I trudged up the sodden bus, through soaked copies of the Metro and McDonald’s cartons, to the single seat. It was next to the back row, across which was strung a group of young men.

These poor lost souls were in the grip of an identity crisis. They couldn’t decide whether to be ignorant or aggressive, and so these two natures clashed in a seemingly never-ending battle for supremacy. And, on several occasions, they joined forces in a sweary malevolent maelstrom.

I slunk into my seat. Seat is probably the wrong word. Sliver would be more exact.

The gentleman taking up the rest of the seat was clearly suffering from elephantiasis, if the position of his knees was anything to go by. They were spread at 10 to 2.

I couldn’t meet his eye, I’m sure he’s very self-conscious about the size of his, well, underpants, and so I settled down on my sliver, one buttock dangling in the aisle, the other precariously perched on the leather, my legs ramrod straight and my hand clinging onto the yellow post for dear life.

Then I was aware of being stared at. By a woman sitting in one of those pointless reverse seats. She was wearing a fur collar which was exactly the same shade of brown as her hair. The effect was that of Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. I had to look away, but there was nowhere to look.

And then the music started…

Hip-hop and R ‘n’ B is an acquired taste, especially when played through the tinny speaker of a phone belonging to an aggressive, ignorant idiot on the back seat of a bus. My despair was complete.

But, as I pointed out, every snow cloud… One of the yobs mentioned their school. And it was clear they were all on their way there. And I smiled.

And as they got off the bus, 10 minutes later, I wondered if I should have told them that theirs was one of the schools closed because of the bad weather.

 

Column, October 1, 2009

I wonder who invented car boot sales. Whoever it was should be given a prize. And that prize should be the opposite of the Nobel Prize, perhaps the Kick-In-The-Head Prize.

Because if anything was designed to demonstrate the basest and most ragged of what human nature has to offer, it is the car boot sale.

Before Sunday, I had always fancied that a top-notch way to dispose of some of the rubbish that had attached itself to me over the years, barnacle-like, would be to flog it off from the back of my car. Grateful punters would tussle good-naturedly with each other to get their mitts on my unwanted DVDs. A rosy-cheeked old lady would, perhaps, clasp my hand and praise the Lord that I had the dolly her sickly grandchild had been craving for months.

I was a naive idiot.

I turned up and was shown the way to my pitch. As I emptied my boot of its booty, I was suddenly aware of a presence behind me.

“How much for the computer monitor?”

“Erm, tenner?” I offered lamely.

“Give you a fiver for it.”

“All right,” I said. The man appraised me quizzically, handed over the cash and picked up the monitor. “Hang on a second, does this thing work?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I was almost sure of it. It had been 18 months since I’d last used it, but it worked then. Satisfied, my first customer walked off. But his quizzical look disturbed me.

No, he couldn’t have done? Surely he didn’t expect me to haggle. Must have been a one-off. Still, that was a fiver. Only a quid left and I’d be able to pay my entry fee.

Or would I? All around me the other traders were breaking out the trestle tables. Trestle tables? Nobody mentioned trestle tables. It’s a car boot sale, not a trestle table sale.

No, wait. The woman next to me didn’t have a trestle table. “Phew,” I thought. “I’m not going to look like a complete amateur.” Then she constructed a clothes rack, hung a billion shirts on it, then took out a trestle table, covered it with plush black cloth so as to show off her fine range of brown and grey men’s knitwear, and strapped on a bumbag full of change. “Ralph Lauren shirts, only £2,” she called out. Suddenly I felt like Church Street when Liverpool One opened.

I was snapped out of self-pity (“There’s no way her husband could have had that many brown and grey jumpers. She must have ram-raided Benetton”) by a customer, an actual customer.

“How much for the Bob the Builder toys?”

“£1.50 each, as they’re unopened and still in the packaging. Tell you what, a fiver for the four.”

“I’ll give you £4.”

I didn’t believe it. I’d already knocked myself down, I was beggared if I was going to haggle. This wasn’t a souk in Morocco. I didn’t have the finest silk and spices in the back of my Nissan. I was just flogging off old guff in a car park in Childwall. I decided a passive stance would at least make the customer feel a bit guilty. A small victory.

“Erm, OK.”

Then she appeared. My rosy-cheeked old lady. At last! Smiling, she picked up a dolly.

She held it, stroked its hair, examined its fine clothes. Then she looked up its skirt, wrinkled her nose, dropped it into the pile and walked off. I have no idea what she was looking for, but she clearly didn’t find it.

Disconsolate, I blew most of my profits on a hotdog.

Twenty-two quid I’d made by the end of the five-hour ordeal. But that had to be set against the irretrievable loss of my faith in human nature and my understanding that people will haggle over the price of a 30p girl’s dress.

I will never laugh at the losing side on The Apprentice again.

Column: December 16, 2009

My first regular column. Rather po-faced, I reckon…

 

SO YOU’RE watching the television, ITV1 because sometimes you want to slum it, or maybe you’ve got some sort of weird affliction which makes you unable to sleep until you’ve watched some rubbish with Robson Green in it.

Then, all of a sudden, Green starts eating a Muller Fruit Corner yoghurt. “Mmm,” he says, “You know what, feisty-yet-put-upon-character-played-by-Caroline-Quentin, I doubt ’d be the all-action vet I am today if I didn’t have a Muller Fruit Corner every day.”

Welcome to the future. The Department of Culture, Media and Velodromes is planning to allow product placement in British-made television programmes.

It’s our fault, of course. Advertisers aren’t getting the oomph they once got when the old ITV could show Tom O’Connor sitting on a bucket and pull in 76m viewers because the only competition was the fourth repeat of an episode of The Good Life on BBC1 and a Czechoslovakian cartoon on BBC2.

Add to that the fact that nobody watches the adverts any more – the curse of the Sky Plus box and the fast forward button – and you can see exactly why ITV1 is desperate to give the advertisers something, anything, to bolster the company’s plummeting revenues.

According to OFCOM, product placement could bring in £35m a year to commercial broadcasters.But the previous Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, late of this parish, was adamant that product placement had no place in British television. He said: “There are some lines that we should not cross –  one of which is that you can buy the space between the programmes on commercial channels, but not the space within them.”

Of course, Burnham’s now supping from the poison chalice over at the Department of Health, and his successor, Ben Bradshaw, is considerably more relaxed about product placement.

“There is no doubt that  commercial broadcasters are suffering in this challenging economic climate,” said Bradshaw.

“Programme-makers have argued that our current stance on product placement will put them at a competitive disadvantage against international rivals, particularly from the US”.

He may well have a point. I suppose we’ll know for sure if the next series of Ugly Betty is packed with references to Marmite and Jack Bauer disarms a  thermonuclear device in 24 using Vimto and a bag of Hula Hoops.

In any case, the Government has rushed into a consultation period, finishing on January 8. Whatever happens, product placement will be banned in children’s TV, and there would be restrictions on the promotion of alcohol, junk food and gambling.

It all sounds very harmless. We’re all grown-ups, aren’t we?

But the principle Burnham espoused before his elevation is a good one. There ought to be a clear distinction between editorial content and advertising.

This newspaper often prints features which have been paid for by advertisers. These features are clearly marked “Advertising Feature.” If we started to sneak endorsements of particular products into regular news stories because an advertiser had crossed our palm with silver, we would be betraying your trust.

And this isn’t just a matter of the occasional shot of a box of Oxo in the foreground. Brand managers would interfere in the production of specific programmes. They would insist that black-hatted Billy McEvil, the baddest bank manager in East Grinstead, would never eat their corn flakes. Perhaps, whisper it softly, he might eat the corn flakes of a competitor.

The solution is in ITV’s hands: produce programmes that people want to see, more Doc Martins, more TV Burps, more X-Factors, and the audience will come. If the audience comes, so will the advertisers. And so the question of compromising the trust between broadcaster and viewer need not arise.

And everybody will be happy. Especially Robson Green’s agent.

Column: December 23, 2009

Rage against the Rage Against The Machine rage

WHEN my rosy-cheeked greatgrandchildren ask me, “Great-grandad, what did you do in the Christmas Number One War of 2009,” I shall stand proud,  possibly leaning on a stick, and say, “Children, I was a conscientious objector.”

The loathing Simon Cowell provokes in some quarters is quite baffling. Of course, all right-minded people would happily give him a kicking for his part in Piers Morgan’s continued success, but his greatest sin appears to be that he does his job quite well.

Essentially, he finds out what the public wants, through a long and drawn-out televised process. And then he gives it to them. That’s a decent business plan in anybody’s book.

It so happens that what the public – the one-CD-a-year-buying-normal-public – actually wants is a bland ballad sung by a black diva or a white divvy. And this year Cowell has delivered that, with a song so unremarkable that it is impossible to remember its tune even while one is listening to iit.

This is normal practice for Cowell, which is why, from 2005 to 2008, the X-Factor winner’s record was the Christmas Number One, and why, if it hadn’t been for an internet campaign, it would have been this year‘s Yuletide chart-topper.

So there’s been a battle between two tribes, one of whom had no idea it was in a war, with the result that Cowell’s record is (appropriately, perhaps) number two, while a grumpy load of nonsense originally released in the 90s, with added swears, takes the top spot.

And the Rage Against The Machine song has hit number one entirely due to downloads. This seems a little unfair. Why should people who hate chart music have the same weighting as those who have endured the pre-Christmas queue in HMV – an ordeal so hellish the chain has to apply for special dispensation from the European Court of Human Rights – to buy a CD?

Plus, the swearing is really going to mess up the Christmas Top Of The Pops. And we only have one of those a year now, so that’s a big hit to take.

The Cowell-haters appear to be harking back to a golden age of Christmas Number Ones, an unsullied time when The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl shared a vat of mulled wine with Slade, and Cliff Richard set aside his hellraising ways to sing some nonsense about mistletoe.

But, as with every golden age, it didn’t exist. For every Do They Know It’s Christmas? and Bohemian Rhapsody, there was a Save Your Love by Renee and Renato, or a Mr Blobby.

And each one was just as ruthlessly marketed as any X-Factor single.

This po-faced intervention by a group of people who don’t believe the general public should be allowed to decide which song is the most popular changes nothing. People will buy bland rubbish if they want to, and why shouldn’t they?

And if people want rubbish, then Simon Cowell is well within his rights to provide it.

If the goal was to deprive Simon Cowell of sales, it was a pointless effort. The number of people persuaded to abandon the bland and cross over to Rage is tiny. In fact,specifically, it was Mrs Joanne Welsh, of Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, and that was only because she accidentally clicked on Rage Against The Machine instead of Rachel Stevens.

So Cowell has made his money. And if his latest act, this doe-eyed little Geordie, the anti-Jimmy Nail, fails again, I’m sure the Svengali as a Plan B for him. He can join Gareth Gates, Shayne Ward and the other one, you know, the Scottish one, as Cowell’s houseboy, throwing £50 notes on the fire on his behalf.

So when my greatgrandchildren gasp: “But, great-grandad, you didn’t stand up to the evil Cowell when you had a chance?” I shall say: “It was only pop. Get over yourself. Now hand me that jet-pack, I need to catch the shops on Mars.”

Column: June 11, 2009

I am archiving my old Liverpool Daily Post columns here. This is one from June 11, 2009, before I had my regular slot. I was obsessed with public transport even then…

TAXIS are cool. They just are. Planes are cool. Bad for the environment, but cool. Trains are definitely cool. But buses? Buses aren’t cool.

Let’s look at the evidence. Taxi! With Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufman! Taxi Driver! Robert flipping De Niro directed by Martin Scorsese! Luc Besson’s Taxi! With some French bloke!

And buses? Reg Varney. Blakey shouting “I ’ate you, Butler.” Olive.

But then I’m comfortable on buses. Taxis are too much pressure for me, they involve too much work. For a start, there’s the conversation anxiety.

Now I like a chinwag as much as the next man – probably more so if the next man is Bruce Forsyth; it must be a terrible effort for him towag a chin like that at his age – but taxi conversations are a test. And one which I usually fail.

I’m not the only person who has this trouble with basic human interaction with taxi drivers, but the problem is more acute for journalists.

One of the joys of being a journalist is that you are never more than 10 feet away from somebody who wants to punch your face in.

So when it gets to the bit where the driver asks me what I do for a living, I have a dilemma. Do I tell the truth and get 20 minutes on what’s wrong with newspapers, or do I tell a bare-faced lie and say I’m a quantity surveyor? Well, I’m a proud journalist, aren’t I? A hack in a hack, so to speak. So I do the lying thing.

The beauty about telling anybody that you’re a quantity surveyor is that it is completely neutral. Nobody has an opinion about quantity surveying.

The sentence “You know what the trouble with quantity surveying is?” has never been uttered, apart from just then. And then only if you’re one of those people whose lips move when they read.

Then there’s the pressure to put yourself at risk of death just to appear cool in the back of the taxi. Why is it that people eschew seatbelts in taxis, when they wouldn’t dream of leaving them off in the back seats of other cars?

Of course, the entire public transport system is very confused when it comes to belting up. Apart from the harnesses in taxis which nobody uses, there are no seatbelts on buses or trains.

The only form of public transport which insists on seatbelts is one in which they are essentially of no use.

The sole way I can imagine a seat belt would be of help in the event of a plane crash would be if one ripped it into strands and used them to tether a parachute made of 400 sick bags Sellotaped together. Although I suspect the pressures of time in the event of a plane crash would mitigate against the production of such a device.

I hope neither of us ever has to test this theory.

So, imagine, like Indiana Jones, one has not only got through the conversation with the taxi driver, but also managed not to be killed through seatbelt neglect, what is the final test, the big rolling boulder, if you will? That’s right. The tip.

I wonder if I’m the only person who gets out of a taxi before he needs to, just so he can give the driver a pound instead of 80p? I suspect I am not.

One is certainly not shelling out any more money. No. One is thinking “I’m walking a bit further than I need to for the sake of 20p,” so the taxi driver can pay for 40% of a Mars bar. Human nature being what it is, one pushes one’s luck by waiting for that little clock thing to get to the next to last light and then saying, “Here’s fine, mate.” And then one gets flung against the window as the driver screeches to a halt. Because he knows.

I should stick to buses.