Monday, 29 June 2015

Peer pressure



'So yeah, actually, mate... While it's quiet, I just wanted to check in with you. I know we're side by side every day – I mean, I spend more time with you than I do my own family. OK, I don't have any family, I'm an inanimate object – but you know how it is, it's busy, people are in and out all the time. We don't always get a proper chance to catch up.

What it is, is... Look, if it was up to me, there wouldn't be a problem, we've always been cool, you and me, yeah? It's just… is everything OK with you? Only some of the other seats have been talking and they just feel like, maybe, you're not really on top of your game lately. You're bringing the carriage down a little bit. You just seem a bit... off-colour. You're pale. You look tired. Are you sleeping OK? Also, sorry, but your whole kind of… head-rest area is just… I mean, what is that?

I'm sorry, I'm sorry. If I didn't care, I wouldn't say anything. But look, mate. We all know what it's like. We all have those days. Someone sprays Red Bull all over you. You're covered in crisp crumbs. And it's always cheese and onion, right? Right? Never salt and vinegar. God, I love salt and vinegar. Anyway, look. It's fried chicken bones, it's bad R&B through someone's phone speakers, it's a wet umbrella. It's dandruff and people's feet all over you every… single… day. It's hard, man, but we do it because we love it.

I know it's easy for me to say. I've got the window. I'm the window seat, everyone thinks it's so great being me. I see the blue sky. I feel the sun on my upholstery. But I've got stuff going on, just like everyone else. I've been pissed on on the 00.36. All these guys have.You just can't let it drag you down. You clean yourself up. You start again. We're a team. We're here to serve. You, me, the rest of the guys. We're carriage G. We're team G! We're G Force! High five! OK, no, forget that. We don't have arms. We're not those kind of seats.

I'm just saying, take a little time to look around you. See the kid with the tiger face paint, holding a balloon. The pregnant woman with the bunch of flowers. That old guy reading his book about the Second Punic War through a magnifying glass. These people need us. We're their stand-up guys. Their stand-up, sit-down guys. 

Sorry to be all heavy, but I'm just looking out for you. You're my brother. Are we cool? OK. I'm glad we've had this talk.'

Monday, 15 June 2015

Key Figures In British Engineering History Who May Or May Not Have Led A Secret Double Life. Part 1 In A Series Of 1

I was talking to my choir pal Simon at the end of our practice last Monday. I don't remember the exact route of the conversation, but we arrived at blogging – his many good reasons for not writing, my abject lack of them. He offered me some discipline, challenging me to write a post by the following Monday's practice, so here I am, too proud to fail him and sneaking in just ahead of deadline.

Naturally, I'm cheating a little. This post was conceived many months ago, when I was on a temporary secondment from London living and, for five days out of every seven, I would take a morning constitutional from my incoming train at Kings Cross to the offices of Soho, Covent Garden, Marble Arch and beyond.

I would pass through Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, and sometimes Marylebone, and I learnt that all these streets will force their stories on you, if you allow yourself to make eye contact with them.

From Kings Cross, passing through a small area of Dickensian theming, you will find yourself in Russell Square, where you will see the tiled green turret that serves as the only existing relic from London's time as a fairy-tale principality. 


Though the building of the Russell Hotel has engulfed the ancient structure, it's believed that a princess still lives inside, clinging on to an archaic lease agreement and intent on rescue. Her long, long hair is now quite grey, but she believes it still to have the necessary tensile strength for ropework, thanks to her assiduous application of V05 hot oil treatments (flown up to the windows by magpies who, I think everyone knows, will do anything for cash).

Cross the square and you pass the back door of the British Museum and its heavily secure employees' entrance where you may wonder, as I do, exactly how difficult it would be to gain access this way in order to pass yourself off as a member of staff, wrap yourself in toilet paper and hide in a sarcophagi to 'surprise' groups of nervy older ladies enjoying an improving guided tour.

And then in Bedford Square, you may see a blue plaque celebrating the birthplace of the engineer and charismatic swing-band leader Harry Ricardo.


Among many other achievements, Sir Harry designed the two-stroke engine, which, I think we can all agree, is at least twice as good as the one-stroke engine.

He also had a hand in the internal combustion engine. Not literally, I hope! Ouch!

It's really hard being this funny.

And he completed a further spectrum of crucial and groundbreaking work that I tried very hard to read about but kept getting distrac

His effortless command of a 20-piece musical ensemble is, of course, less well known. This is because I made it up. But surely, with a surname that's all Latin passion and a forename of raffish swagger, Harry Ricardo was born for more than just the careful formulas of physics.

By day, toiling at the coalface of a coalface, by night tearing up the ballrooms of Paris and Palermo, Harry engineered rhythms that people only recognised from their dreams, as he slashed through the air with his baton, like Zorro in slacks.

Leading a double life that John Le Carre would consider complicated, Harry Ricardo would feint and shimmy around the suspicions of his colleagues. Lengthy absences for touring and travel were blamed on vague suggestions of field research and an ongoing nervous condition. On two occasions, that 'field research' happened to be in Hollywood, where he was subjected to campaigns of outrageous flirtation by the young starlets of the day, many of whom called him 'Hank', which he hated. Harry never said anything, though, because he was still an engineer from Bloomsbury, and while his heart did indeed boom and swing with the band, it was studded with rivets from the finest in British engineering.

Once, memorably, Harry briskly pulled out his diagrams for the internal combustion engine from his briefcase only for a handwritten note from Zelda Fitzgerald to flutter out to the floor, in full view of his science brotherhood. Harry, his mind brighter than any diamond as big as the Ritz (where, incidentally, he played often), he managed to convince the chaps that Zelda Fitzgerald was an exotic florist on Gower Street where he liked to buy peonies for his mother on her birthday. 

When the business card of the concierge at the Beverly Hills Hotel was pulled absent-mindedly from a jacket pocket, it was blamed on a mix-up at his tailors.

People did notice that, for an English engineer, he had quite excellent suits. 

And they also remarked, behind his back, on his habit of turning any set of cogs or pipes into some kind of makeshift musical instrument. His mind was so brilliant, they said, that such eccentricities should be expected, and indulged.

Had his colleagues known that from Friday night to Sunday morning (and often for whole weeks inbetween), he was utterly enslaved to the rhythms of swing, they may have doubted his scientific rationale.

But they never did know.

Coming soon: Kenneth Williams, diarist, comic actor (plaque-honoured on Marchmont Street, London W1) and kayak specialist, who saw his dreams of glory at the 1952 Helskinki Olympics disappear down the river after a faux pas in front of selectors at a team-building boardgames night.


Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Selection Of Marketing Pitches I Put Together To Exploit The Otherwise Uneventful Month Of January, Which Were Inexplicably Never Greenlit

Because 'Dry January' is boring and doesn't even rhyme.

Although it is for charity.

So that's OK.

1) BakeAFlanuary
Pies have ridden a wave of nostalgia to renewed relevance. Tarts never really went away. Whatever happened to flans, with their versatility and their pleasingly tidy presentation and their flantastic gift to cookery page headline writers? When will they have their moment in the sun?* During BakeAFlanuary, that is when, with its print, TV, radio and online recipe push. Vital to get either Bake Off or Hemsley + Hemsley on board.
Who makes the money? Manufacturers of ready-made pastry casings.

2) Panuary
The number of people in this country learning to play the pan pipes has dropped by 67% in the last 10 years**. It's unclear just what's responsible for this worrying drop-off, but if the hip young pan-pipes player had made it into the final cut of Richard Linklater's School Of Rock, it's unlikely we'd be here. Through workshops, concerts and free taster sessions, let us keep this ancient, breathy musical tradition alive. It's crucial that an influential global star takes up the cause and features pan pipes in their next work. Targets: Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Kanye. Or One Direction to use them in the 'unplugged' mid-section of their next arena show, to demonstrate their 'real music' credentials.
Who makes the money? The craftsmen of the Andes.

3) BarbaraAnnuary
The various members of The Beach Boys spend a month fighting it out (ideally just with music, but with weapons if further television bait is needed) to decide which of them really has the right to own the touring name The Beach Boys and celebratorily rerelease the 1965 surf-pop classic. It's The Hunger Games in Hawaiian shirts.
Who makes the money? Hopefully not Mike Love.

4) Caravanuary
Let's bring this great British holidaying institution to a new generation. Scandi decor. Marimekko soft furnishings. Fairy lights. Exterior paint jobs. Festivals. Encourage families and friends to see how many people they can squeeze into their caravan toilet and upload a picture to social media. Introduce the hashtag #CaravanOfLove. Ellie Goulding to rerecord the Housemartins' song***. Advertising campaign to carry the closing slogan 'Caravan holidays: are you ready for the time of your life?' (This only works if you know the lyrics to the song. Could be problematic.)
Who makes the money? Paul Heaton. People who are desperate to sell their caravans.

5) FancyDanuary
Similar in concept to Movember, this enables men to express themselves more flamboyantly in terms of their physical appearance without fear of censure or ridicule, under the carapace of charitable endeavour. The wearing of head-to-toe velvet, paisley, long flowing scarfs, winkle pickers, cuban heels and sock garters is all legitimised for one month only.
Who makes the money: The charities. Vintage clothing shops. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

6) EatMoreBranuary
Remember bran? It was yesterday's quinoa. And where is it now? Consigned to the breakfast buffet in lower-mid-budget chain hotels, dribbling out of plastic containers where you turn a handle and expect a plastic egg filled with a toy to plop into your bowl. Instead it is just All-Bran and it doesn't even go in the bowl, it just goes all over the table and you wonder whether you should do anything about clearing it up and in the end you don't.
Who makes the money? The farmers. I think. Is it farmed? I am an intelligent, well-educated woman and the fact I don't know exactly where bran comes from clearly illustrates the need for action.

7) I'mYourManuary This can go one of two ways. It's either a personal crusade by me to prove to the world that this is indeed the world's greatest Wham! song. Closely followed by Edge Of Heaven and Everything She Wants. Or, more selflessly, a charity single featuring a) George and Andrew finally reuniting in order to cover Leonard Cohen's song of the same name, and b) Leonard, in turn, singing the Wham! stormer.
Who makes the money? George and Leonard. Sorry, Andrew. Great to have you back though!

8) JudithHannuary
An initiative to boost the number of women in science broadcasting, inspired by the first lady of Tomorrow's World. BBC4 can make one of their docudramas, with Anita Dobson as the present day Judith, and Jessica Raine to perm up as the younger character. David Tennant first choice for Michael Rodd. Simon Amstell in a breakthrough acting role as Howard Stableford. Mark Gatiss to write the script, naturally.
Who makes the money? Currently, the Royal Mint, but in the future, we'll be relying purely on a digital system of currency. Here's Judith to explain more.

9) BigInJapanuary
A month-long UK music industry showcase for all those disposable pop bands you thought went down the dumper (© Smash Hits) until you saw them on a reality show speaking candidly about their struggles with life out of the limelight from the comfort of their inexplicably well-appointed and large home set in lush, rolling grounds, with stables. How was this sumptuous faux-Tudor mansion afforded? By phenomenal success in the Far East. Can the likes of A1 regain the levels of adulation in this country that they found overseas - in just 31 days?
Who makes the money? Loads of people who, contrary to expectations, don't appear to need it.

10) Can'tScanuary
A month-long amnesty for frustrated poets who struggle with metre to submit their unfinished verses to publishers and receive honest and constructive feedback.
Who makes the money? Realistically, no one.

*Flans can contain milk, eggs, cream, fish or meat, and should never be left directly in the sun. Always keep refrigerated.
**Probably.
*** Urgh, I have just done a search on YouTube and PIXIE LOTT HAS ALREADY GOT IN FIRST. It is for the Matalan charity scarves thing though. Matalanuary?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Here Is The News

Hi everyone. Thanks for coming. Sit down, I've got something to tell you.

Right here is a fork in the road.

Head over here for And Dave Arch Played On, a dedicated blog all about Strictly Come Dancing written by me and my most Olympic friend, the mighty Kate from Mind Tidying.

Stay here for non-Strictly-related rambling, which I am resolved to post far more frequently in the coming months.

Over and out.

x

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Strictly Come Dancing, Week 1, Show 1: Let Claudia Be Claudia

Strictly is back. Blogging is back (well, for today). Brucie has been helped into a motorised golf cart and pointed towards the sunset. His BBC access pass has been deactivated, his dressing-room teasmade appropriated (prime suspect: John Humphreys).

So this points to a slicker, sharper Strictly Come Dancing, doesn't it?

Uh-oh.

Don't get me wrong, I'm nothing but relieved that Sir Bruce now gets to wear slippers full-time. It's just that I'm a fan of the show's particular old-fashioned charm, as well as its ability to get anything remotely cool ever so slightly wrong. Please don't let it become too... well... competent.

NO WORRIES ON THAT SCORE.

The new series opens with a reassuringly lame VT that spells out very clearly: 'BUSINESS AS USUAL. (OH, EXCEPT FOR JAMES JORDAN.) YOU'RE WELCOME.'

The judges (team sheet unchanged) take their seats by dancing their way across the set, which I enjoy. What would it be like, I wonder, if the X Factor judges similarly sang their way to their shiny desk. I hear Simon Cowell's flat, emotionless vocal style as somewhere between William Shatner and The Flying Lizards. In fact, let's imagine him 'singing', oh I don't know, maybe those Flying Lizards' most well-known hit, just to pluck something totally and utterly at random out of the part of my brain that is thinking really hard about his dead-eyed, imagination-free approach to the music industry.

Tess is wearing a jumpsuit, which I am emphatically pro. My Dress-Up Tess doll (£12.99 from the BBC shop, £10.99 from Argos, £1.99 come January) is always wearing trousers. Claudia has had what some celeb magazine will inevitably refer to as a makeunder. Less tan. Less eyeliner. Less hair over the face. Less Claudia. She looks pretty, but this better be her call, and not the result of some ludicrous BBC ruling that says fringes may not be worn longer than four inches during primetime  (also subsection 4(c)(iii) appendix (7): larky female sparkiness must be soberly contained). Let Claudia be Claudia.

(Having now watched Saturday's show, I see that Claudia has reverted to her more usual look, thus totally undermining the previous paragraph. THANKS CLAUDIA, I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS.)

First up are Caroline Flack and Pasha. Caroline is Ringer No 1 in this year's Bananarama of ringers (Pixie Lott no 2, Frankie Saturdays no 3). She serves Pasha's cha-cha choreography well, with just the right amount of subtle messing up to suggest 'Who, me? Ooh no, I'm not a dancer. Yes, I am remarkably good and assured, and, well, yes, since you mention it, I suppose I did study dance for some years, but it was nothing whatsoever like this.' Still, I like her, I like Pasha. He becomes the first pro choreographer to Deploy The Judges' Desk For The Making Of Sexy Shapes. He's gone too early with that, if you ask me. Save it for week 5 at the earliest, or Fern Britton On Borrowed Time, as I like to think of it.

Next up, Tim Wonnacott and Natalie Lowe. Natalie missed the 2013 series through injury. And she thought she was unlucky last year. Tim is sweet and trying hard, but his auction-themed cha-cha (such a natural pair-up, why has no one done it before?) makes me bite my hand. He's having a nice time, though, and enthusiastically trots around the floor led by Natalie in a way that reminds me of Training Dogs The Woodhouse Way. Afterwards, he stands in Claudia's 'area' with an arm clasped around each woman's waist like a man emerging triumphant from the conservatory at a suburban swingers' party. In his comments, Craig says Tim danced as though he was wearing a soiled nappy. I believe there is also a suburban party scene that would serve that situation.

Jake Wood and Jeanette are doing a soap-operatic tango, which begins with some fun intimations of domestic violence. It really is such a family-friendly show. Jake is strong and confident and doesn't make me have to avert my eyes through awkwardness. He was also once in Press Gang and went to college with my friend Speranza, all of which propels him into my 'like' pile.

Do you remember when Alesha Dixon was a judge and used to patronise the older female contestants? Tess does, because after Judi Murray's wobbly waltz, Tess tells her to 'walk those lovely legs upstairs'. WHAT, TESS? WHAT? Anton and Judi have employed some Scottish theming for their routine, but what with the tartan and Mull Of Kintyre and the Scots piper, it's so subtle you'd barely notice. Also, if you want to waltz to something dripping with Scotland, SUNSHINE OF LEITH, FOR GOODNESS' SAKE. During the Actual Dancing, Judi gets herself in a right old pickle, but Anton is as kind and constant to his older partner as ever. In this respect, he really is some sort of superhero emerging from the mist (rolling in from the hills my desire is always to be here oh mull of kintyre), with his cummerbund of power and his shield of Just For Men.

Let me lay my cards on the table and say that Scott Mills is not my kind of DJ. This is well-known among my friends and colleagues, one of whom secured me an on-air dedication from him on my 31st birthday. He quite admirably managed to get my job title and place of work wrong and play a terrible record afterwards. But despite this, I find myself liking him tonight. I like his no-fuss out-ness, with his boyfriend sitting next to his mum in the crowd. Of course, this shouldn't even merit comment, but it's pretty radical for Strictly. I am less keen on his cha-cha, and apparently so is he. His Dance Face is Someone Really Scared Trying To Be Really Brave, and the early-doors appearance-via-video-message of his Good Friend Robbie Williams suggests he's not thinking in terms of bloody well Blackpool. Len's comments are surprisingly hostile initially, but perhaps, like me, he has been forced to listen to too much daytime Radio 1 in the workplace and is wishing it was Marc Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie out there on the dance floor.

Last out this episode are Pixie Lott and Trent Newboy. Trent is the blond Duke Of Hazzard as played by Steve Buscemi. Pixie is the favourite to win, but not my favourite to win, even though she quite manipulatively tried to impress me by doing my favourite, the jive, in week one, and being quite good at it. Show me your rumba, Pixie, and we'll see how this is really going to shake down.

And that's your lot for programme one. It's a truncated first show - almost as though they know how long it takes me to write absolutely anything - and a somewhat underwhelming one. Are they saving the Tweet-grabbing big guns (like, erm, Gregg Wallace and Mark Wright) for the main Saturday-night ratings battle? Or are they just really bad at putting together a line-up? Make your own mind up, I'm exhausted.

No Saturday-night-show write-up from me this week, but I'll be back soon with my thoughts on the lack of a credible crush object for me in this year's cast. All the big issues! All the time!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Martin sees the peloton

Two things that young children find more exciting than the spectacle of the world's greatest cyclists passing by in a dizzying pageant of athleticism and colour:

1) A circling dragonfly.

2) High-fiving a police motorcyclist.

Fair enough. Both these things are excellent.

Still, there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who think it's worth standing around for two hours in the burning sun (12 noon, Cambridge) or pissing rain (3.30pm, London) for a fleeting 30 seconds of partially obscured joy, and those who do not.

There's a silence after the peloton goes by - a sense of expectation that some further spectacle may yet present itself, which you absolutely should not miss out on; that perhaps Froome, Kittel and Contador are just a gentle curtain-raiser for the real event - a grand prix of dogs riding children's tricycles, perhaps. Yet no dogs came. And as the crowd eventually dispersed in Cambridge, I heard one 70-something man turn to another and say, 'Well, there you go then, Martin. Was it worth it?'

This companion of Martin's, I felt, was a person committed to seeking out the disappointment of others and dragging it into the open with some measure of triumph, like a cat with a dead bird.

(It was all in his tone of voice. I am very sensitive to these things.)

But Martin – casquette on his grey head, peak pushed reverentially upwards, a believer, a hoper – simply said, 'Oh yes… Absolutely wonderful.'

Sunday, 1 September 2013

This is a test

Recently I was in Boots at Kings Cross station, buying the usual items of bathroom tedium on my way home from work. A women appeared beside me (not by magic – I'm pretty sure she just walked there from a different part of the shop) to be served by the adjacent cashier.

She was buying a pregnancy test.

Just that. Just a test. Just laid down right there on the counter, all alone. Not a universally unflattering palette of eyeshadow, grabbed in haste, alongside it. Not some corn plasters and a blood-sugar monitor with which to bury it at the bottom of a wire basket. Just a pregnancy test. Imagine! She didn't even want a bag. 'Would you like a bag?' was what the assistant asked her. 'No thanks,' is exactly what she said in response.

It's a long time since I studied any critical theory. Probably it could never be long enough. But this episode made me think about Barthes' Mythologies and Saussure and signs and signifiers. Luckily I wasn't thinking these things out loud, because I am really over-sibilant.

Maybe I haven't done enough pregnancy tests in my life to reduce them simply to piss and plastic. Maybe I haven't witnessed enough other people buying them. Because when I saw this small box lying on the counter, I didn't think, 'Oh, the circle of life turns one more notch. Just another everyday, £7.99 incidence of life-changing potentiality. Nothing to see.'

Instead I thought that my fellow customer must surely have slept with her infertile partner's brother following an argument and now nothing would ever be the same again. Or that the one-night stand with her boss at the end of the staff orienteering/orientation day had not been packed away with the cagoules and the clipboards after all. Or that the night when that large flying vessel landed in her back garden and the hatch opened and that creature she could not comprehend took her inside and led her to do things she didn't entirely comprehend either, but on the other hand didn't not enjoy, really did happen after all, it wasn't just the late-night brie talking.

And when she got home, she would almost certainly hide it in the laundry basket because everyone knows that's a really flawless hiding place, or possibly throw the empty box in the bathroom bin, where her boyfriend might find it and wonder which one of the four female housemates it belonged to.

You say pregnancy test. I say soap opera.

I blame soap operas.

Because it wasn't just the test. She was buying the test in a train station. The theatre of melodrama. (Or maybe that's Old Trafford.) Where people run alongside moving carriages to tell another that they love them. Where the lovehorn hurdle barriers and feint their way around guards to beg someone not to leave. Trains pull out of platforms to reveal passengers still standing there, wondering what they haven't just done. Where businessmen decide not to take their regular service to the suburbs, but instead pick a platform, any platform, and step right onto a train to Berwick or St Austell. I mean, this literally happens all the time, doesn't it? I've seen it with these two eyes. Only on the telly, mind you, but still.

Back in Boots, the cashier swiped the woman's loyalty card and said 'Are you using your points?'

Initially, I thought she said, 'Are you proving a point?' which somehow seemed slightly prescriptive, even for a pharmacist.*

*Sorry.