Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Burning a Million Quid

(or, "Why I Love Jura For Many More Reasons Than The KLF").  

This post is partly a way of me getting my thoughts straight about a trip that I've been meaning to take for about ten years.  It's partly inspired by the reminiscences in this post and also by the amazing trip that an acquaintance is making that you can see here.  

I've been a bit obsessed by the Isle of Jura off the West Coast of Scotland for about fifteen years since I read about how George Orwell (still my favourite writer) lived there whilst writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Never one to do things by half I travelled there as part of a trip to Islay and Colonsay in-between leaving University and starting work.  Anyone who is foolish enough to give me the chance or who was unfortunate to meet me on the training course I was on last week will know that I will drone on about how beautiful and amazing the Western Isles are for hours.  

Sadly when I went back in 2004 I was strictly analogue in my photography so only have paper copies of my photos - so will link to a few images from other people to show how beautiful this place is;

You can also read a bit more about the island a various trips there at Peter Edward's excellent blog, 'Writes of Way'.  

I love the fact that the island used to accommodate 3000 people and is now where less than 200 people call home.  

I love the fact that Orwell called it "extremely un-get-at-able".  

I love the fact that the island's bus service is also the Royal Mail delivery service.  

I love the fact that the three main mountains on the island, the Paps of Jura, are named for their supposed resemblance to a woman's breasts

I love the fact that the Gulf of Corryvreckan nearly took Orwell's life and is also supposed to be the inspiration for the whirlpool in Homer's Odyssey.  

I love the fact that the Gulf Stream strikes the southern base of the island making it temperate enough to support a tropical garden with orchids and palm trees

I love the whole place and when I left the island after an amazing four days back in 2004 I promised myself, "I'll be back".  Since then, well, life has got in the way but I've vowed that this year is the year that I will go.  It's a bit of trek to get there so needs some planning.  

My current plan is something like the following;

Thursday Night: Travel down to London (all will become clear shortly) and take the Caledonian Sleeper to Glasgow.  (I've obviously been influenced by my sleeper train action in America but there is a certain efficiency about travelling down to London to then go North, as odd as that sounds).  

Friday Morning: Either - bus to Kennacraig OR hire a car and drive.  I'm still in two minds about this - I like the idea of not having to worry about a car and driving in Glasgow always terrifies me (not surprisingly really given there is a motorway right through the city centre) but the coach is a right faff.  Then - ferry from Kennacraig to Port Askaig.  Then - mini-ferry from Port Askaig to Feolin.  Then - either walk/hitch or drive to Craighouse.  

I'm then planning to spend just under a week on the island, wild camping, walking and generally enjoying the fact that you can often turn a complete circle and see no sign of civilisation at all.  

A lot of the walks in this book look really enticing, including a trip down the totally uninhabited West coast.  A great account of a trip like this here.  

I'm a bit frustrated as it looks like the only official campsite on Jura is closed for refurbishment.  The message is a bit ambiguous so I need to check it out properly.  The alternatives are booking a couple of nights of accommodation in the hotel to get me settled or just wild camping throughout.  Need to do some more thinking about that.  

I'm also intending to scale at least one of the Paps of Jura - just need to hope for some good weather.  

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Reply to Mike Smithson on PoliticalBetting.com

People who know me know that two of my great passions are gambling (mainly horses) and politics so I'm naturally an avid reader of PoliticalBetting.com.  Despite being a LibDem the author and proprietor Mike Smithson is generally pretty astute and a smart reader of the political winds.  I'm also proud that be briefly helped support my alma mater, The University of York in its fundraising efforts.  

However, it has to be said in a post today Mike has called things totally wrong in his suggestion that paid-for political advertising should be introduced to the UK.  

Mike advances a number of arguments in favour of his basic position;

1) Engagement: "Surely if we want to encourage more people to be interested in the political process then the full range of communication tools should be available to those who are seeking our votes?"

2) Young Voters: "If there’s an issue, as there is, about involving the younger generations in the political process then the parties should be able to reach them by being able to advertise on the TV channels that they watch. It would make for very different General Election campaigns"

3) Distortion: "It completely distorts election campaigning leading to the theatricals of poster unveilings in order to create something visual for the TV bulletins"

He then lobs in a final throwaway line about the impact of money, "At the same time we need tougher political funding rules."

I'm going to look at each of these in turn - using the experience I had in America in the run up to the November elections to explain why I think Mike is totally and utterly misguided.  

I'll take 1 and 2 together.  Simple facts: we are watching less TV and young people are reducing their viewing by more than the total population.  Using the total viewing summary data from BARB and using the most recent data and the the earliest data available (2009 and 1992 respectively) for the last complete week in April (the week we're in at the moment) you can see that in w/e 26th April 1992 average daily reach (ie, how many people watched TV) was 81.8.  By w/e April 25th 2009, the average daily reach was 76.7%.  This is decline is likely to have accelerated even further since then with increasing broadband penetration.  Young people are watching even less TV: 'Younger People Are Watching Less TV'.  TV advertising is increasingly irrelevant as companies switch their spend to digital or experiential marketing.  I do this for a living so I know.  

Argument 3: Even if it wasn't increasingly irrelevant I love the false opposite of suggesting that allowing for TV advertising of political messages would reduce the amount of 'distortion' in politics.  Everyone knows how vicious the political advertising gets in America - I had a small experience  of this when I was driving through California back in October - you can read it here.  

Finally, and for me, the most compelling argument.  No-one, literally no-one (except Smithson), wants political TV advertising in the UK.  Frankly, almost no-one in the US with the exception of TV companies and big lobbyists want it there!  Every time I talked politics with people in the US I explained how the UK doesn't have TV advertising and the universal reaction was, "that would be great".  See here, here and here for some contemporary context.  

The huge spend in American elections is well know but this article really brought home for me: "A total of £31m ($49m) was spent by all parties in the last general election in the UK two years ago - making US spending 120 times as much, and 23 times as much per person".  This means that candidates are in thrall to the big donors and spend more time raising money rather than either governing or listening to their voters.  

The poisonous impact of big-money in US elections is horrific enough but it doesn't even drive up engagement or turnout!  "The average turnout for [UK] general elections between 1918 and 2010 is a respectable 73.3%".  In the US turnout over a similar time period hovers around mid to high fifties.  So a country with spend 23 times higher and with a direct election for a president (rather than kind-of proxy elections for a Prime Minister) is around 15ppt poorer at turning out to the polling station.  

Political TV advertising: irrelevant, unwanted and ineffective.  Just say no.  

Monday, 22 April 2013

Book Review: The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates by B S Johnson

I was at a gig the other week, seeing Eels at Rock City who are one of the first bands that I remember buying a record by.  I was reminiscing to my friend about the day that I still distinctly remember of going to buy the CD in Coulsdon (where I grew up) on the Monday after school - I had five one pound coins in my wallet and I know that I could get a further £5 from the cash machine outside the TSB next door to the Woolworths.  Two now defunct brand names you won't find on our high streets any more.  Thanks to my somewhat unusual method of keeping my CDs not in either alphabetical order nor chronological order of release (pace, High Fidelity) but in chronological order of purchase I know that this is the thirteenth album that I ever bought.  

Because I still love the physicality of CDs and vinyl almost as much as I love the printed word, and in a slightly-late and somewhat off-kilter tribute to Record Store Day I thought I'd do a book review of a novel that celebrates the physical form in a word of Kindles and downloads.  

The other reminiscence I've been indulging in a lot at the moment is, of course, for my trip to America.  Being back in the daily grind of WorkOne and WorkTwo (see the footnote here).  I think the best memories in some ways are for the travel rather than the arriving: in particular for the day I spent driving, flying and travelling by train in California.  

I'm currently reading and hugely enjoying a book that celebrates the physical form par-excellence, is a semi-autobiographical reminiscence and is set in Nottingham.  What's not to like!  B S Johnson wasn't ever a household name in his lifetime and certainly isn't now but appears to be having something of a renaissance  especially around this novel in particular.  

The novel's main conceit is that it can be read in any order through the chapters being entirely loose in the binding.  The first and last chapters are marked as such but the others can be shuffled and read in whatever order you desire.  

The power of the reminiscence and the fading or growing of memories and re-ordering of them in our minds is of course a hugely powerful force in the novel and is enhanced by the pseudo-random order of the chapters.  Some of the chapters are only a page long, others a couple of dozen.  The action centres around a football match in an unnamed Midlands city which is usually understood to be Nottingham and I enjoyed in particular trying to place some of the locations identified - or spotting how things have changed in the forty or so years since the novel's setting.  Johnson was a jobbing football journalist and so spent a lot of time bouncing around the country to different cities reporting on different games.  The merging of different cities and locations is one that has become familiar for me as the memories of my America trip start to fade a little: "But I know this city!  This green ticket-hall, the long office half-rounded at its ends, that ironic clerestory, brown glazed tiles, green below, the same, the decorative hammerbeams supporting nothing, above, of course!  I know this city!  How did I not realise when he said, Go and do City this week, that it was this city?".  The match and its reporting are mixed up with stories of Tony, the narrator's dead friend and includes flashbacks (or are they not flashbacks, I'm just reading it in the "wrong" order?) to their times together.  

(Incidentally, I like the way that 'City' = The football team from a particular city but 'city' = the conurbation itself.  I always laugh when people at work talk about football from the weekend and refer to 'City' or 'County' or 'United' and expect you know what they're talking about.  This is, of course, just an excuse to link to my favourite 'IT Crowd' episode of all time, "Are We Not Men", couple of good clips here if you've not got time for the full episode at the first link)

The non-linear narrative of The Unfortunates is all part of the experience of reading the novel but it does make for a challenging read - there are lots of moments when it isn't at all clear what is going on.  I'm naturally going to struggle to give clear page numbers or references to the quotes below, but give the book a go and you'll find them in time...

Jonathan Coe has written a very helpful introduction to the edition I have which includes the following passage: "So, what exactly was taking place on 'the inside of his skull' as Johnson went about the task of reporting his football match that Saturday afternoon?  Memories of Tony were unfolding, certainly, but not in a structured, linear way, and they were interrupted at random by the action on the pitch and his attempts to start writing his match report.  It was this randomness, this lack of structure in the way we remember things and receive imrpessions that Johnson wanted to record with absolute fidelity.  But randomness, he realised, is 'directly in conflict with the technological fact of the bound book: for the bound book imposes an order, a fixed page order, on the material'.  His solution, as always, was simple and radical: the pages of The Unfortunates should not be bound at all".  

"Always, at the start of each match, the excitement, often the only moment of excitement, that this might be the ONE match, the match in which someone betters Payne's ten goals, where Hughie Gallacher after being floored nods one in while sitting down, where the extraordinary happens, something that makes it stand out, the match one remembers and talks about for years afterwards, the rest of one's life.  The one moment, the one match.  A new beginning, is it?".  The inevitable bathos that follows this passage is no less crushing for its predictability: "But already I suspect the worst of these two sides, now as they kick off I doubt they can play well enough to make this a memorable match...".  I'm no football fan so don't know if this is an accurate representation of what it can feel like at the start of a game but I recognise the pain of anticipate as encapsulated in the John Cleese line in Clockwise, "I can cope with the despair, but it's the hope that kills me".  

"June rang on the Saturday, was it, or the Thursday before, no, quite late, we had already arranged to go, though what arrangements could we have needed to make, saying that there was no need for us to come down, on Sunday, for he had died that evening, had not recovered consciousness that morning from his sleep. but previously there has been the opposite of a relapse, three days when his mind has been virtually normal, for which she had been grateful, June, it had seemed like a miracle, though he still could not move, his mind had come back and they had talked very seriously about everything, for the first time had talked about death".  This is one of the very short chapters: that passage is the totality of that chapter.  

"Time!  It's after two!  I must get to the ground then, how my mind has taken off.  Now, how to get to the ground, yes, always take a taxi in a strange city, no, not that again, in any case I have not seen any taxis here, except at the station and that's a long way away, but I did see buses with boards up for the ground at the Council House square, yes, and I ought to be able to find my way back there, yes, down there, through this alley, or crack, as some would call it, a paved alleyway, wet, it must have rained while I was having lunch, slightly, or they have washed it down no, what irrelevant absurdities I find myself thinking, just, the pavement is wet, I must take appropriate care not to slip as I descend, past shoppers, still at it, this is their great day, of course, wives and daughters arm-in-arm after camiknickers, matching, no doubt, twinsets, similar gallivanting.  Radio shops, now no doubt called television shops, the half-dozen sets going, different programmes, show-jumping and swimming, those apologies for sport on television, while the only sport most people want to watch is soccer, the only real sport, the best, the pathetic ends they go to on Saturday afternoons to cover up the fact that they are not showing football".  Later in this chapter (one of the longer ones) we get to see some of the writing of the match report the narrator is filing - a further post-modern trope (writing about writing: metafiction) in this fascinating book.  

This isn't a comforting read; it's challenging in both form and content.  But it's one that I highly recommend giving a go.