Thursday, 21 March 2013

I’m reading a lot at the moment. I’ll post extracts from time to time that I’ve found helpful or enlightening. In the meantime, though, here’s something that simply made me giggle, from David Brooks’s The Social Animal. (I have always said that white middle class males are the real persecuted minority.)

Popular, good-looking and athletic children are the subjects of relentless abuse. While still young and impressionable, they are force-fed a diet of ugly duckling fables to which they cannot possibly relate. They are compelled to endure endless Disney movies that tell them that true beauty lies inside. In high school, the most interesting teachers favor the brainy students who are rendered ambitious by social resentments and who have time on Saturday nights to sit at home and develop adult-pleasing interests in Miles Davis or Lou Reed. After graduation the popular and good-looking have few role models save for local weathermen and game-show hosts, while the nerds can emulate any number of modern moguls, from Bill Gates to Sergey Brin. For as it is written, the last shall be first and the geek shall inherit the Earth.

On a related and slightly more serious note, Bobo culture, together with the outrageous behaviour of technology companies, are the reason, I think, that the “geek” is becoming the most hated subculture on the planet – among ordinary people, that is.

Don’t be fooled by the tech press: geeks and tech entrepreneurs aren’t, and won’t ever be, cool. They have many virtues, but coolness isn’t one of them.


Whispers from the classical music world

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Rumour has it that Katherine Jenkins provided the vocal track for this delightful mimed performance of Der Hölle Rache from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.


The show must not go on

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

“My whole concern is to first get rid of all the polemical, negative stuff in me; I want to sing assiduously the whole scale of my hostile feelings, up and down, really outrageously, so that ‘the vault resounds’. Later – five years later – I shall chuck all the polemics and think of a good work. But now my heart is downright congested with aversion and oppression; so I must expectorate, decently or indecently, but once and for all.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, letter dated 19 March 1874

This quotation, in Brian Magee’s book Wagner and Philosophy, spoke to me tonight after an email from a friend who is both perceptive and wise. It’s a journey I think I too have been on, but one that has now come to an end.

In business, I’m guilty of incompetence and over-optimism. Not great crimes, all things considered. But in my attitude, personal life and so often in my writing, I owe it to myself to be a better man than I have been.

For too long I have hurt others because I too was hurting; lived for public pride in that way people with brittle self-esteem so often do. I know a lot of bitter and lonely old men who chose ego over love. I don’t want to become one of them.

It’s time to find out what comes next.


A new low

Friday, 4 January 2013

On 3 Jan 2013, at 17:25, Charles Arthur wrote:

You claimed on Twitter that some funding [for The Kernel] came from a legacy in your grandmother’s will. I understand that she died in March 2012. Are you saying that the probate was completed and a payment made by September? My experience of probate suggests that six months is an impossibly brief period for processing.

Sometimes I wonder about these people.


Fan mail

Friday, 28 December 2012

There are no words.


Nana Petra (1933-2012)

Saturday, 3 March 2012

For as long as I can remember, at least as far back as 1990, my grandmother had been telling me she was dying. I think she secretly got a kick out of it. Like the rest of the family, she was an attention-seeker, and it must have been hard for her, after a colourful life as a model and artist’s muse in Chelsea in the 50s, to grow old in a small house in Kent, with occasional visits from friends who reminded her of her old life.

Perhaps that’s why she liked the internet so much. She spent practically all day online in her last few years. We got her an iPad so she could read the papers in bed and she used to spend hours and hours on the Daily Mail website, emailing me gossip about X Factor contestants and “those awful people on The Only Way Is Essex” and telling me who she was writing an angry letter to that week. Towards the end, it was invariably David Cameron, for not being tough enough on benefit scroungers. I had to resist the temptation to point out how much her capacious kitchen cupboards full of opiates, blood-thinners and painkillers were costing the taxpayer.

Everyone says this about their own relatives, but Nana Petra was truly a one-off. Her friends spoke of her with the sort of affection and hushed reverence reserved for larger than life personalities. Chief among the topics of conversation when she was mentioned at garden parties was her modest house in east Kent, which was decked out with lavish tapestries, lace, marble, Parian ware figurines and lush fabrics. Except for the occasional colour refresh (“This isn’t burgundy, this is bordeaux, and I asked for burgundy”), the interior did not change in thirty years. Things were exactly – in some cases, to the millimetre – where she wanted them, and she saw no reason to fix what was not broken.

Nana had spooky levels of intuition about people, which made her a fearsome adversary. Her annual feuds with my mother were spectacular – as, on occasion, was her language when my mother’s name came up. Needless to say, it was she who emerged victorious from the skirmishes, dusting off her velvet cuffs and muttering “uppity cow” under her breath. (This was to become a favourite expression of mine.) As a child, I remember Nana sweeping magisterially through the house in layers of silk and brocade, archly passing judgment on the issues of the day.

But she was a deeply tender woman, too, who loved unquestioningly and unconditionally, and enjoyed expressing her affection through matriarchy. I can’t imagine what trouble I must have put her through in my late teens, when I lived with her after finding it impossible to co-exist with either of my then-separated parents. She was there, looking on with mild astonishment but never disapproval, when I dressed up as Cleopatra and rolled myself up in her carpet, drunkenly sobbing and yelling “Where’s my Rex Harrison?” (I was 19.)

We had one of those relationships in which an old-fashioned look was all it took to shut me up if I was putting my foot in it, or banging on too long. Sometimes it didn’t even get to that: her little finger would twitch slightly when she was irritated. That meant it was time to change the subject. For those three years when she put me up in her top bedroom – “as long as you don’t bring home anyone I wouldn’t approve of, Milo” – we cuddled, we laughed and we had a good bitch about some of the neighbours, whom she considered dull – a cardinal sin in her view.

As I grew older, and started working, I saw less of her. But, if anything, we got closer. When I got my first job in London and spent all my money in the first two weeks of the month partying (not for the first time), she was there to bail me out, albeit with a few choice words about personal responsibility. “This is the last time, Milo,” was to become a constant refrain in her weekly Sunday emails to me.

In 2010, she began obsessively checking my online activity to see what I was up to, who I was with, whether I was spending too much money “living it up” and whether I was being nice to people. She hated it when I picked on someone, whatever the reason, and if I got into a catfight I could rely on a sternly-worded email arriving within the hour. If she had been any less extraordinary a woman, I’d have found it oppressive. But it was wonderful. In twenty-eight years, my grandmother never let me down, and her watchful and loving eye was never far away.

Last October, I set her up with her own Twitter account. I thought it might be a fun way for her to feel involved in my life. People thought it was me behind the account, particularly when she almost admitted to an affair with Jimmy Savile (later calling him an “ugly bastard” and demanding that I apologise), but no. It was all her. She loved it, especially meeting the friends she’d heard so much about and being able to natter with them about clothes and her favourite television shows.

Around the same time, she began to explore the internet properly, looking up the websites of her favourite galleries and museums all over Europe. She adored this easy access to libraries and exhibitions, which fed her love of beautiful things and reminded her of her travels in earlier, healthier years, when she was a social butterfly on a grand scale.

That was the great theme of her life: an insatiable curiosity about other people. She was fascinated, among other things, by what drove murderers to kill, reading hundreds of books on the subject with grim titles like What Makes A Serial Killer Tick and Touched By the Devil: Inside the Mind of the Australian Psychopath. Equally, she loved holding forth on what possessed people to participate in reality television (one of her secret pleasures). That’s why she loved being surrounded by friends: it was a constant stream of new material for her.

She effortlessly drew people to her because everyone wanted to hear her stories, listen to her opinions and, perhaps, be rewarded with a compliment for their manners or their dress sense. She’d say things like, “Nice to see his wife has fixed that awful hair,” and somehow manage not only to further ingratiate herself with the woman concerned but to become an object of admiration for the husband. Though she never married (“I didn’t date below a Major, and finding people in the upper ranks wasn’t easy”), she was deeply and profoundly loved by a long line of friends who lived and died by her observations and aperçus.

Above all else, Nana enjoyed keeping an eye on things. Not just because she enjoyed a good snoop – though she certainly did – but because she was a woman for whom duty and care were the pre-eminent virtues. Without her, I would not have developed much of a sense of right and wrong. “You can be a catty little queen at times,” she’d say. “But your heart’s in the right place.” If she was right, it was thanks to her own instinctive sense of morality and her uncanny ability to suss people out.

She was by far the first person to twig that I was gay. My mother was awful about it, my father was surprisingly understanding, but Nana showed just the right amount of acceptance and concern. “It’s not a happy life,” she would say. “But if you stay safe and away from drugs, you’ll be alright.” Dad and I always laughed at that. “Just look at your bloody cupboards,” he’d say. “You’re the biggest junkie I know!” She’d allow herself a smirk at this, now and again, in between puffs of the Nebuliser.

They put her on morphine towards the end. She’d have liked that, I think. She always said it gave her lovely dreams.


Exit Jihad Jenny, raving about Jews (as usual)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

It’s a strange political system in which a malicious old woman who spreads poisonous lies about Jews ends up in the upper chamber of Parliament. You might think that only a quirk of heredity could land Jenny Tonge in the House of Lords as a Baroness. But, in fact, this disturbed old crone was nominated for the honour by her political party, the Liberal Democrats.

Or, at least it was her party until this week, when Tonge’s latest anti-Semitic outburst finally forced Nick Clegg to present her with an ultimatum: lay off the Die Stürmer propaganda or lose the whip. She chose the latter.

They call her Jihad Jenny, this former GP and MP who spreads stories about Israelis harvesting organs in Haiti and who once said that, if she were a Palestinian, she might well be a suicide bomber. I doubt that very much: old Jenny’s willingness to take risks only extends to spouting ludicrously biased pro-Palestinian rhetoric in the company of Islamic hate-mongers.

There’s no evidence that she’d ever strap a bomb to herself, more’s the pity.


The age of the troll is over

Friday, 3 February 2012

A common misconception about those awful people in the comment box who screech obscenities at journalists and toss insults as though they were green salad, whom we in the trade call trolls, is that they are sad old – or, indeed, young – men who sit in front of their computer screens in yellowing underpants muttering curses and slogans as they type. Actually, if you were to meet a troll, you probably wouldn’t notice anything odd about him. Or her. But one thing’s for sure: after five minutes, you’d be longing to fling yourself down the fire escape – anything to escape their company.

The dedicated troll is never amusingly eccentric. On the contrary, a troll is a 24-carat bore, someone who has spent years emptying parties with their “small talk”, but who now has the miraculous opportunity to force their way into a conversation. These creatures know they are hated, but because they are hiding behind inane pseudonyms, that doesn’t bother them.

They take delight in the literary equivalent of farting in a lift. Their odour is repulsive, but, when they step out into the lobby, they could hardly look more ordinary. Spruce pensioners with tidy comb-overs and UKIP membership cards in their blazer pockets; 35-year-old “indie kids” who still play bass guitar in dad’s garage; sour-faced primary school teachers who would rather people assume they were lesbians than admit that even the flashers in the park find them off-puttingly plain.


An update

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

I’m delighted to announce two new roles I have this week agreed to take on in addition to my editorship of The Kernel.

Firstly, I am now The Catholic Herald’s Chief Feature Writer, focusing my efforts on a monthly interview slot for the paper. I’m looking forward to developing my interview technique and landing some big names, as well as writing more regularly for the paper.

I’ve helped the Herald out in the past with some digital work and written for it on-and-off for some years. It’s a wonderful paper with some brilliant people on its staff. I’m thrilled to have the chance to work with them more often.

Secondly, Adam Baker, founder of citizen journalism news service Blottr, for whom I have been a columnist for a while, has extended an invitation to join the company as an advisor. I’ll be helping the editorial team develop their content strategy over the next few years. I will also continue to write my Thursday column for the site.

Don’t worry, I won’t be losing my focus on The Kernel. But I’m really happy to have some fun projects running alongside it.


Who is bankrolling Johann Hari?

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Johann Hari, in a hastily-written and poorly spelled blog post has announced his decision not to return to the Independent. Instead, he will be jetting around the world to write a book “on a subject I believe is important and requires urgent action”. What scandal is he about to uncover? The pimping of underage boys by their incestuous older brothers, perhaps? We can only guess.

The other thing we don’t know is who is bankrolling this vanity project by a liar and suspected pornographer who has yet to apologise personally to any of the people he viciously libelled. Because, if Johann Hari is actually at Columbia “retraining”, as he claims, he will have needed to conjure up $50,000 just for the tuition fees.

The only celebrity currently associated with Hari is Sir Elton John. The singer should be warned: this act of “gay solidarity” may come back to haunt him.

Years ago, Sir Elton was grossly libelled by The Sun newspaper, which accused him of using the services of rent boys. He should ask himself: does he really want his name to be linked with that of a self-confessed character assassin – and one suspected, moreover, of writing repulsive dirty stories about rent boys?

If Hari had shown genuine remorse for his crimes – and they were crimes, which could easily have landed him in court – people might now feel disposed to forgive him.

As it is, his latest conceited and incoherent piece of self-promotion will ensure that his name remains synonymous with plagiarism, mendacious fantasy and outright deceit.

And that’s before we even get to the subject of Hari’s finances, which Inspector Knacker might find repay close examination.

Oh, and Sir Elton: perhaps you ought to warn your chambermaids about your young visitor’s less-than-sanitary toilet habits. The brilliant young writer is apparently too preoccupied with exposing injustice (or thinking about donkey-dicked black teenagers) to remember to flush. Wire hangers at the ready!


Why are Italians so cowardly?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

“Jokes about cowardly Italians,” says Christie Davis, at the University of Reading, “Are of French origin and can be traced back to a medieval comic image of the Lombards, the gibes of the disgusting Rabelais and the cold wit of Montaigne.

“This kind of French humour survived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and then emerged as a cycle of narrative jokes after the humiliating French defeat by the Axis powers followed by occupation in 1940.

“The jokes are thus a statement of the self-image of the French as the warrior nation of Europe, an assertion of la gloire de la France.”

Come off it, love. Jokes about chicken-shitted grape-stompers abound because at the slightest whiff of trouble they head for the hills faster than you can say arrivederci.


Review: The Iron Lady

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Margaret Thatcher is a divisive figure, it is true. There are normal people who stand in awe at the enormity of her accomplishment, the depth of her integrity and sincerity and the strength of her resolve as a fearless woman in a cruelly misogynistic world. Then there are the whingeing fuckwits who say they can’t stand her as a way of courting popularity with their mates.

But whatever your view of Britain’s greatest peacetime Prime Minister – actually, let’s make that greatest ever Prime Minister – if you have an ounce of human sensibility in your body you can’t but be appalled at the callous abuse of a woman in her twilight years for such shallow dramatic purposes.

I say shallow because there is no artistic purpose whatsoever to the depictions in this film of Maggie as an aging half-wit. They only serve to reduce the time available to its admittedly sublime highlights: those moments during Thatcher’s leadership – her triumphant acceptance speech on May 3, 1979, her fearlessness and clear thinking during the Falklands conflict – that the film manages to re-enact with almost their original grandeur.


Stephen Lawrence: a spectacular victory for the Daily Mail

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The guardians of Britain’s social conscience have had a confusing week. Two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence have been given life sentences, thanks in large part to the crusading bravery of a newspaper determined to expose the racism that inspired the crime.

Our moral arbiters have been forced either to concede, through gritted teeth, that without that other newspaper’s brilliant campaign to bring Stephen Lawrence’s killers to justice that all five of the thugs would still be swaggering around south-east London or, perhaps worse, shut up entirely and miss the best opportunity in a decade to trash the working classes they despise so much and take up their harps for the causes of diversity and multiculturalism.

Had the paper not published that front page, and taken up a ferocious campaign thereafter to bring the killers to justice, the extraordinary chain of events that followed would never have come to pass. Stephen’s parents would never have had justice for their son’s brutal stabbing.

It was, of course, that paper’s valiant gamble on 14 February 1997, when it branded Gary Dobson, Neil and Jamie Acourt, Luke Knight and David Norris as murders, that gave the case a new lease of life after an initial failure by the police to secure a conviction.

And, as the paper’s editor said this week, it was an enormous commercial and editorial risk. Had the any of the five won a legal action against the paper, it could have landed him in prison and cost the owners vast sums of money. So, under normal circumstances, the paper would now be the toast of Fleet Street.


Network Rail

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

I’m coming to the end of a restful long weekend in the countryside, riding horses, shooting small animals and drinking real ale. (OK, just kidding. Obviously I don’t drink ale.)

A few yards from the bottom of the drive to my mother’s house, in the no man’s land between east and west Kent, there’s a railway crossing. For three days, a silver saloon has sat at the crossing. The car has a single, hi-vis jacketed occupant.

When we returned from the East Kent hunt meet in Elham on Boxing Day, my mother wondered aloud who he was, and what he’d been up to. A curious type by nature, this morning I decided to go and ask him.

The chap’s name is Jerry. “I work for the railways,” he says. “Testing the line.”

I point out to Jerry that my mother has quite a good view of his car from the first floor of the house, and that she’s never seen him get out of it, except to use the portaloo that has been unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road. “Well, I’m on triple time, see,” comes the cheerful reply.

Jerry, along with many other employees of Network Rail, does this six times a year. While he is sat in his 2008 Nissan, smoking and listening to Radio 1, no trains can pass that signal point.

I ask Jerry whether the majority of engineering work closures were down to “testing” or whether there were serious bits of remedial work being done. “Out here? Nah, we just come and hang about for a few days.”

Doesn’t he get bored? “Not really.”

What about all the people whose travel will be affected at weekends? Jerry shrugs. Some of them are travelling to and from work, I point out.

“Gives the coach drivers something to do, dunnit,” he says, absent-mindedly.

I wanted to get the train back to London today. I couldn’t: the line was closed. The minicab would have cost me £180. Merry Christmas.


A young bald monarch – just what we need

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Originally posted at Blottr.

No sooner has he acquired a cool wife than Prince William risks falling back into the tragically uncool bad habits of the Windsor family. One of which – as observers of Prince Charles will be painfully aware – involves “spontaneous dancing” with young women, usually of a different ethnicity.

One likes to think that Prince William, at the peak of his sex appeal as an Eton sixth-former, watched in horror as his father swayed uncomfortably in some tribal township, patches of sweat clearly visible under the arms of his Anderson & Sheppard suiting.

But the photograph of William dancing with Vanessa Boateng, 18, at a charitable shelter makes me worry that the Windsor impulse to make an awkward fool of oneself in public is overtaking him.