Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The ZZZ list

I've been reading a very good book about the tabloids. It has this to say about the rise of celebrity journalism:

"In this context, a celebrity is nothing more than a person who is primarily known for being well-known... At the heart of this preoccupation with fame - this cult of celebrity - is the creation of instant celebrities through the launch of successful new television series, whose stars quickly became the flavour of the month in the tabloid press...

A former Guardian editor says 'the prominence given to television and entertainment personalities is perhaps the nearest thing to 'an opium of the people'. In this respect, popular television and the popular press feed off one another'. The cult of celebrity took over first the supermarket tabloids, then the British tabloids, finally making inroads into the establishment press...

A reporter who deserted the establishment press and jumped on the celebrity bandwagon at the outset of the phenomenon remembers how it all started: 'the celebrity worshipping syndrome spilled over from the US about fifteen, sixteen, maybe eighteen years ago, to Britain... It's now done in this perniciously personal style. They want to know who's getting fat, and who's freaky. And then who's on drugs and booze and whose life has crashed around them. And everybody now is confessing to have been on drugs and booze and that's worn out as impact. For Christ's sake, what do we do next? We've done their sexual stuff, we've done their drugs stuff, we've done their adultery, their diseases, we cannibalize them, we eat them up.'...

The last decade has seen the most exhaustive invasion of privacy in history, with the most intimate details of celebrities' personal lives flashed around the world... A reporter says 'I mean, when celebrities sell their wedding pictures for publication, as intimate an experience as you can have, and you sell it to a magazine, then you're strictly into a matter of commerce."

A fine portrait of the last few years, Heat, Kerry Katona, Jade Goody, hand-wringing from the Guardian and all. Only this is from Shock! Horror! The Tabloids in Action by S.J.Taylor, published in 1991, and the decade she's talking about is the 1980s.

Monday, September 29, 2008

You're not helping, Jim

Given the sheer number or words James Naughtie manages to cram in to his interviews on the Today programme, you'd think he might be able to pick them better, wouldn't you?

Here he is interviewing Sherry Jones, whose book The Jewel of Medina appears to have irritated some Islamists, Rushdie-style.

"You've written it as an artist, a writer - but you must be aware that you're also to some degree a crusader now, aren't you?"

A scaelextric set, still boxed, found in the attic

More oddities turned up whilst scrabbling around in the further reaches of hard drive looking for something completely different - here's a feature I wrote for a very peculiar cars'n'fashion magazine called Intersection in 2003. Good god. I've just checked, and it still appears to be in business. And Bradford and Bingley's gone down the pan. Recessions really don't make sense, do they?

They didn't pay me. This led to a full and frank exchange of opinions, and you may not be surprised to know I didn't write for them again.

I think it's worth re-visting merely for the fact that it's probably the only time the phrase "Brobdingnagian pairs of Hi-Tecs" has ever been used in the English language.

The bar of the Farnham Conservative Club is quiet tonight. The real action is going on upstairs, far above the pewter tankards, bitter lemon and talk of how it all went wrong after Maggie. Up here patterned carpeting gives way to threadbare tiles, chairs are strictly stackable and the function rooms bear the name of local councillors who have long since gone to that great town hall in the sky. And here, in the sweaty heat of a late July afternoon, nine grown men are getting ready to play.

The subs have been totted up and safely stashed away in their ice-cream container, the covers pulled back from the arena in the centre of the room, and the brief pleasantries and enquiries about the health of “the wife” got out of the way. Now these men have one thing, and one thing only on their minds: they are here to win. The first rule of Scalextric club is, you don’t talk about Scalextric club. The second rule of Scalextric club is, last person out please switch off the lights and leave the Mike Hawthorn room in the condition you would expect to find it.

Actually, the members of the Farnham Scalextric Association are quite happy to talk about their hobby: as far as they’re concerned, the more members, the merrier. “We don’t have any women or children in the group, but they’d be very welcome – we’re not at all exclusive,” says Rob Smith, a software consultant who can be found here most Wednesday evenings. “There are some very good girl racers, though. But really they’ve always been modelled as boy’s toys, and I suppose collecting is really a boy thing.”

So it is a testosterone-only affair tonight, as the competitors hunker down on the starting grid. The accepted stance is to hold your controller two-handed at crotch level: only those racing for the first time, of whom there are two tonight, practise the “ray-gun” grip favoured by little boys whose toys had to multi-task.

It’s the first heat of the second class of the evening: 60s Sport – though the four models on the double-width track all date from the early 70s. A Ferrari 330 and a Ford Mirage face off with a pair of Javelins, two of the more weird and wonderful inventions of then owners the Tri-ang toy company in the days before Scalextric were strictly modelled on existing vehicles. Mechanically, each of the four cars are identical. Each one is fitted with magnets which hold it to its groove in the track, a rare occurrence at the club’s meetings. “They put magnets on them so as they’ll sell better to kids, who get bored quickly if the car just flies off at the first corner,” explains Smith. “But Scalextric managed for thirty-odd years without magnets, and we often run them without, just to even the playing field. As long as you’ve got like against like, that’s the main thing.” To that end, tonight will feature a further eight rounds – Ninco F1, SRS2 LM, Hot Hatch, Ninco GTR, Spanish F1, LMP Open and GTO. By the time each of the nine men in the room have had a go in each class – each is assigned a “Slot Jockey” number, and they shuffle around the wall patiently keeping their place in the line – hours will have passed. More to the point, it will be nearly closing time.

“Gentlemen, start your engines,” intones a youngish chap with a ponytail in a Hong Kong Phooey T-shirt. “3-2-1 Go”.

And they are off, screaming round the circuit like four-inch long, plastic-moulded bats out of hell. The newcomers, who arrived without cars and have been kitted out from the club’s own extensive collection in a locked wall cupboard – are the first to spin from their slots and come to a halt on the black polythene. The old-timers, some of whom have been racing this gargantuan room-sized layout since it was clipped together a decade ago – manage one, sometimes even two laps. It seems to be rare for more than one car to make it to the finish line. “It’s crash and burn here – we don’t have a marshal to put you back on like some clubs do”, says Smith. Nevertheless, each time a car leaves its moorings, several Brobdingnagian pairs of Hi-Tecs delicately land in the gaps in the track in the scramble to salvage it before a pile-up occurs on the next lap.

The Farnham Scalextric Association is just one of a number of such clubs around the country, and indeed around the world: The National Slot Car Club (nscc.co.uk), on whose committee Smith sits, boasts more than twelve hundred members as far afield as New Zealand and India. Some of them have been racing since the Minimodels company unveiled its first range of electric slot-cars at the Harrogate Toy Fair in 1957, others joined much later in the day. Few have a collection as big as Smith’s.

An unassuming chap whose ginger beard is clipped as neatly as the lawn of his immaculate Surrey home, Smith has always been passionate about cars, both big and small. In his garage you will find a 1935 Bentley and an Aston Martin V8 Advantage, both of them in mint condition - “I was fortunate enough to be able to cash in my company BMW a few years ago, and it struck me that if I got a Golf for everday use, I could have the Aston Martin I always wanted.” But the real fleet can be found upstairs: one entire room of his immaculate house is devoted to his Scalextric collection, which numbers more than 1500 cars. Samples from every period of the toy’s 45-year history are stacked in glass-fronted display cabinets which reach from floor to ceiling, blocking all natural light from the room. A walk-in cupboard houses some box sets, examples of tracks from different periods (the materials used have changed three times, though a strict policy of backward compatibility and some nifty adapters mean you can quite happily race a 2003 C2392 Mercedes CLKDTM on a rubber track from the 1950s), and track-side furniture based on the real-life layout at Goodwood. Big plastic buckets contain tyres and engine parts salvaged from wrecked cars to be used in repair jobs, while a filing cabinet holds his collection of catalogues, dating back “some forty-odd years. Well actually, it’s forty-four.” A specially-bought PC in the corner is hooked up to an electronic test-bed which he uses to tune his motors, while a significant part of his loft is taken up by his collection of boxed sets, ranging from a legendary 1967 James Bond Aston Martin set, complete with ejector seat and original artwork by Michael Turner, to a GT Pursuit set which only arrived in Toys’R’Us a few days ago, promptly to be snapped up by Smith. “It happens quite often that Hornby produce special sets for the big retailers which are not publicised, and someone will give me a call and say ‘did you know about this?’, and I’m straight down there to pick one up.”

The collection is stored strictly by make of car: thus the Batmobile (a tie-in with Tim Burton’s 1989 movie) is kept on the opposite side of the room from the Joker’s pink monstrosity, which is based on a Porsche moulding. Smith regards both of these with distaste (though he is proud of the unique translucent resin prototype Batmobile shell he acquired directly from the factory), though not with quite the contempt he reserves for the set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on skateboards or the Power Rangers motorbikes and sidecars, “aberrations” Scalextric produced during a rough patch in the 1980s. “They were hit hard by the introduction of computer games, and fewer sales meant less money went into production, so you ended up with what was basically little plastic blobs, plus they went off in a few strange directions before they got back on track when people started to want more interactive, touchy-feely toys in the 1990s.” More pleasing is his collection of 1960s Formula Juniors, Porsches and Ferraris, some of which date back to his own childhood and some of which, as he puts it, “are the ones I got because I couldn’t afford them as a kid.” Many of his cars were acquired at toy fairs and NSCC swap meets, to which his wife accompanies him “as a sort of mobile banker – ‘you’ve now spent this much.’” Others have turned up at car boot sales or auctions for just a few quid (“you develop a good poker face”), but he admits that “Ebay has changed the face of collecting. I used to bring back a carload of stuff every weekend from junk sales, but now it’s mostly online. Plus the things that I’m looking for now are rarer and harder to find.”

The one thing you won’t find anywhere in Smith’s home is a track you can actually play on. “The racing side doesn’t really interest me, to be honest,” he confesses. “I like the sociability of meetings in Farnham, but racing isn’t really my cup of tea. Besides, it’s no fun on your own.”

Friday, September 26, 2008

This week's Friday treat...

BOTH full sets of Horror top trumps.

SCREAM! As you look into the eyes, impractically large teeth and hitherto-unexpectedly lizardy visage of Death!
QUAKE! As you question why the Hangman is obviously Lon Chaney in the Phantom of the Opera, when the Phantom of the Opera isn't!
SHUDDER! At the fact that Venusian Death Cell is so blatantly a sea devil off of Doctor Who!
FINALLY RECOGNISE! The obscure Edgar Allen Poe reference on Prince of Darkness!
HOPE! You don't get landed with Man Eating Plant!
WONDER! What Kit Ward is doing these days and if he still tries to give away Dracula despite his 100 Horror Rating because he's scared he might climb out of the card and get him!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Eye eye

"You know already that for me, this isn't a political agenda but a personal mission. Last year in Bournemouth I told you how when I was 16, I got injured playing rugby and lost the sight forever in my left eye. I knew I couldn't play football or rugby anymore. But I could still read.

But what I didn't tell you last year was that then one morning I woke up and realised my sight was going in my good eye. I had another operation and lay in the darkness for days on end. At that point my future was books on tape. But thanks to the NHS, my sight was saved by care my parents could never have afforded."

So what's he saving up for next year, in the unlikely event that he's still around?

"What I've neglected to mention until now is that shortly after that, one of my legs fell off..."

Monday, September 22, 2008

"One of the finest posts I have ever had the pleasure to read"

Here's a good article by William Leith about blurbing (presumably the one about the equally common promotional practice of getting your editor friends to commission pieces plugging your new book will follow soon).

Want to know a secret? See that book over there? The one that radio's Sandi Toksvig called "a thoroughly-entertaining rummage through the life and times of one of Britain's most eccentric businessmen?" She hadn't read it at the time. But she'd promised me a blurb, and when I offered her the manuscript, she freaked out, told me she was judging the Orange prize and reading an average of a dozen books a week, couldn't possibly take on mine as well, but was happy to put her name to anything I drafted.

"Not as good as The Littlest Viking" - Adam Macqueen

The Independent on Sunday, now edited by Garry Bushell

Nice to see the home of the pink list giving it the old nudge, nudge in their media diary column yesterday...

Just the man for the job!

Eyebrows aloft at 'The Daily Telegraph', which for the first time in its history has a royal editor. The post is one traditionally only found among Fleet Street's red tops. The lucky debut incumbent is Andrew Pierce, the sociable former 'Times' and 'News of the World' scribe. Pierce is certainly the right man for the job: as he says, his knowledge of British queens is intimate.

Eh? Eh? Know warra'mean?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Free books!

Hey, you know that other book, by the way? My novel that was supposed to be coming out earlier this year? Only the publishers went bankrupt?

If you want to read it for free, you can do so here. For those of you who like paper and ink and stuff, there's a link to Lulu where you can buy a spiffy paperback for £12.99.

A historic announcement

In October 2011, Private Eye will be 50. And we're going to be celebrating with a full, lavishly illustrated, no-holds-barred, warts-and-all, kiss-and-tell, filth-and-fury, rag-and-bone, cut-and-paste history of the magazine's five decades.

Guess which idiot they've commissioned to write it?

Look out for a sister blog to this one which should soon appear as part of the official Private Eye website, on which I'll be updating my mum, the three men and a dog that look at it on my progress, as well as appealing for memories, memorabilia, opinions, spare change, unwanted sandwiches etc. from readers along the way.

Plus throwing in the odd fact and figure to whet your appetite. Such as the fact that an undergraduate Ian Hislop was an extra in studio-destroying 1980 flop epic Heaven's Gate.

Cafe Rene

Yonks ago, Rene Lavanchy came in and did work experience for us at Private Eye. Unlike most of the wide-eyed, workshy, "well it was this or a TEFL course" English graduates who darken our doorstep only to disappear into the ether never to be heard of again, he's hacking away valiantly, currently mostly for Tribune. He does the odd bit and piece for us too. And very good they are too.

He also had the best-coloured hair.

And he too has one of these blog things, as well he should, because he's a happy-slapping, blue-toothing, knife-criming, facebooking youth of today. He asked me to show it to you, and here it is.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Personally I'm waiting for the porn remake - Black Holes: Large Hardon Collider

How the hell did Andrew Marr resist the temptation, on Radio 4 yesterday morning, to go "and now the moment approaches as the switch is flicked and the proton beam begins toOHMYGODOHMYGODNOPLEASEGODNO" and then do that thing where you put your finger in your cheek and make a popping sound, before suddenly cutting the live link to London?

That's what I would have done, anyway...

Friday, September 05, 2008

This week's Friday treat

Courtesy of Viz, is a herd of fondly-remembered vibrating bum-faced goats.

Monday, September 01, 2008

In other news: Sunny Jim Callaghan not thought to be Prime Minister any more

Is there really anyone in the world that doesn't already know this?

Ancient History (2.2)

Ten years ago last week - yeah, alright, nobody's perfect - I had my first byline in the national press. It was a piece for the Observer's student pull-out, "On Course '98".

It's not very good. And they took out the best gag, about hall of residence rooms that would make Anne Frank feel claustrophobic. But sheesh, I was proud.

Should I switch to long trousers now?


So what now? Suddenly the single most important thing in the known universe for the past two years has been reduced to a few little letters on a tatty sheet of paper. And one month from now comes a great leap into the rest of your life, and then... what?

The overwhelming feeling that affects most soon-to-be students is that they have no idea what to expect. Most have little conception of what university will be like beyond the image given out by boastful siblings, a few bank adverts and the advice of a careers officer who went to university when you paid in the student bar with a ration book. Let's get one thing clear: it's nothing like Saved By The Bell - The College Years. Unless, you get really unlucky.

I asked sixth formers at James Alleyn Girls School, Dulwich, and Sidcot School, Somerset, about their fears:

'I'm worried about money. I always thought when I finished at school I'd be independent.' Tuition fees are a new area of stress this year. Labour, clearly irked by accusations that they had forgotten their roots of support in the working classes, decided to redress the balance by being absolute bastards to the middle classes as well. In the face of pounds 1,000 extra per annum that dream of independence is replaced with a vision of being shackled to the parental purse strings for another three or four years.

But let's be honest. What else are your parents going to do with it? If you're of university age your folks can't be far off their Honda Civic and beige clothing phase - once you're gone they'll have nothing to do but mope round the house with no one to shout at. And if you're worried that financial dependence on your parents will mean you are less able to branch out and be your own person, just take a look at what independence has down for them!

'I'm worried I'll miss home comforts.' Homesickness, in its most basic sense, is not a problem for most students. After nearly 20 years they, and their parents, can hardly wait to get a bit of their own space. Sure, bouts of flu will never be the same without the comforting maternal hand to mop your brow, but instead you'll have a whole new gang of chums to buy you Benylin and share your germs.

However, most students do find themselves missing the little things about home they took for granted - the opportunity to skank around the house in a grim dressing gown. And until alternatives have been fully explored, no one can really appreciate the importance of a proper TV aerial and a phone that doesn't bleep at you and eat money.

'I'm scared I won't fit in.' However cool you try to be with this one, there is always that feeling of being the new kid in the blazer with room to grow on the first day. You know that there must be people out there like you, but what chance have you got of finding common ground when the small talk is restricted to A-level results and what gosh-how-exciting things people got up to in their years off? Something it's all too easy to forget is that, in all walks of life, it actually takes quite a bit of time to get to know people, and that feeling uneasy is par for the course until you find the other person that knows all the words to your favourite episode of Red Dwarf, or liked Pulp before they were famous. And then you'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

So don't spend too long over selecting what outfit to wear for the first day (and don't pretend you haven't thought about it). Yes, people will judge you by it, and fit you into the sort of stereotypes they've had rammed into their brains by smug articles like this one. But be honest, you'll be doing exactly the same thing with that bloke over there in the rugby shirt... and just look at her in the short skirt.

'I hope my room's nice.' The accommodation pictured in most universities' glossy prospectuses stretches the boundaries of the Advertising Standards guidelines. Yes, from some angles that could be recognised as a first year room in Mandela Hall, but only when you take into account that it was shot from the next county through a fish-eye lens. The next county being where such places as the shops, pub and the actual university are located.

If you've rejected the idea of a campus in favour of city life you might just as well instal your ethnic throws and rubber plant onboard the local bus, as that's where you'll be spending the greater part of your time.

But hey, it's not what you've got, it's what you do with it. Untreated breezeblock walls can be cool in an Ikea sort of way, and listening in (whether or not you want to) on your neighbours' stereos and sex lives can reveal a lot more than the PR exercise of first week smalltalk.

And one last thing. Get some bleach. Because however good your intentions, by the end of the first term you will have had a piss in the sink.

'It's going to be difficult carrying on my relationship.' So you went through the stress of A-levels together. So you went on holiday together this summer, and it was fine. So you've talked it through and you both feel that a long distance relationship will be problematic, but you honestly feel that it would be unfair not to give it a try. So what.

However many pictures you put up of him/her, however many other distraught half-couples you befriend, however much you write in the first week, you'll reach a point where the choice between finding a payphone and doing frankly anything else at all involves no competition. Just wait and see.

Perhaps I am too cynical. After all, I know of two relationships which lasted all through university. Two friends stood by their men right through from Freshers' Week to graduation.

Then they went out into the real world and suddenly realised that when they had to spend any sort of decent amount of time with their boyfriends, they were absolutely sick of them.

'I hope I'm not really thick compared to the other people on my course.' For goodness sake, you're not to worry about that. You probably won't have any idea how any of your mates are doing up until the degree ceremony itself - unless you decide to go down the smug mutual revision sessions and communal stress path, that is. They don't actually read out the marks in class and award gold stars, you know.

And as for the work - think lower sixth. Think minimum. Think subsidised fun. And when finals come round, get very, very, scared.