Archive for the 'what hacks off the hack?' Category

is it worth it?

11Jan10

Robert Wyatt quit Twickenham when it started to gentrify, he complained.  I feel partly responsible because my moving in coincided with his moving out.  I don’t think it was my fault, although I did arrive with two cars — a cardinal error for a cycling campaigner — but neither was a BMW.

In fact, one was a 1981 Mark V Ford Cortina Estate, beige, purchased specifically for the move.  In subsequent years it didn’t do much: being lent to visiting family and friends, or used occasionally to transport our tandem.  It cost me less than one month’s car allowance. OK,  the car allowance makes me sound yuppie.  I was a 28-year-old bureau chief:  precocious perhaps,  but I think the Cortina shows I was handling it well.  The other car was a Citroen 2CV6 Dolly, cream and maroon, about which there is no denying that it was a convertible.

I’m not an avid Robert Wyatt follower, but he does hold a special place in my musical affections  because when I was about 17 I rushed out to buy Shipbuilding on 12″ vinyl the moment I heard it, even though its melancholy reflection on the Falklands War, if I’m honest, probably did not fully reflect my politics at that time.  The record contained a haunting version of Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight.

Some of you will know thatWyattingis a verb for entering a pub and playing  weird tracks on its  juke box to upset the regulars.  In response to a Guardian question as to whether he would himself “Wyatt”, the psychedelic jazz-rock guru uttered this immortal line:-

Oh no. I don’t really like disconcerting people. Although often when I try to be normal I disconcert anyway.

On New Year’s Day, Wyatt was the guest editor of BBC Radio 4‘s flagship news programme Today, and he did a bit of disconcerting there too.  Wyatt revealed that, despite having no god, his private passion is to wander up to his local parish church in Louth, Lincolnshire, and listen to the choir — his argument being that amateur choirs, lacking the ticks of professionalism with which he’s all too familiar, are what music is really all about.  How odd.

It’s true enough, the parish choir is about as unsung in our culture now as it’s ever likely to get, unless you think Wyatt’s advocacy is a sign of some incipient church choir revival.  That said, the National Secular Society recently celebrated the forecast that church attendance will fall off a cliff.  So maybe the days of the church choir are truly numbered, Wyatt or no.

And when you think about it, what a peculiar thing the parish choir is.  What motivates people to turn up at least twice a week first to practice then to sing to and with an ever-narrowing community of the faithful?  Surely, these musicians, and especially those with the skill to lead such ensembles, have better things to do with their time?  Why not ply their art on You-tube or Britain’s Got Talent?

For my own part, I hesitate to disconcert those who come here for an intermittent dose of skepticism but, despite a consistent pattern of anti-clericalism since childhood, for the past five years I have been been climbing into a threadbare blue cassock and surplice (which may have already seen in excess of half a century’s service) to supply my inadequate baritone voice to a local church choir. This choir, on some winter nights,  had looked so thin that there were doubts whether it could rally a quorum for the next weekend’s communion service. My own voice — which, from the point of view of the choirmaster, probably shares many of the handling characteristics of a Mark V Cortina Estate  — sometimes feels that it has barely improved despite all the practice; it still struggles over the familiar, and can fall apart when overly exposed. But, like the Cortina did all those years ago, it normally gets me from A to B, and (with a following wind) sometimes other notes in the octave too.

From the choir stalls, a modern congregation can look like a strange perversion of the Pareto principle.  Twenty per cent may be over eighty.  Or is it that eighty per cent is under five? — a function of making church attendance mandatory for entry to any associated faith-controlled school.  All garbed up in an elaborate frock, you might be forgiven for thinking that you are just window-dressing to the young urban-professional parents’ will to secure the best for their little ones in an Ofsted-mediated educational world without having to pay.  They disappear after a while, when the school gate has been opened to them, which is incidentally where you will next see them.

Then there are the times at the weddings of young women, who you might be lucky to have seen three times before,  when you feel you may be not much more than a bridal accessory, helping those among their family and friends who have lost their voices through decades of their own neglect stumble through what were once familiar rousing hymns to some common heritage.  You earn your money by filling the gap while registers are signed and witnessed, money which for some time  in our case has been hypothecated to a fund for new robes.  By the way, I heard tell of one bride (not local) who, when asked why she didn’t have the parish choir sing at her nuptials, replied that it was because they were too ugly.  Nice to know that, for some ladies, the parish choir is  in a category below corsages.

But then, there are the times when you have to contain your own tears at the funeral of a fellow singer whose participation has lasted decades and for whom singing provided a source of sustaining health and inter-generational companionship.  Or the time when you glance up momentarily from your score in a quotidian service to catch the doleful eye of  someone recently bereaved, or otherwise troubled, or the transfixed gaze of a musical toddler, someone who may later be driven to sing too, arm stretched aloft as they are dragged down the aisle to be blessed at the communion rail, perhaps witnessing real music for their very first time.

There is no shortage of music in the world, most of it now free at the point of download, but it sometimes seems that, for the handful of minutes that we pipe up every second Sunday, and perhaps this is what Wyatt is driving at, some power law of love is in operation, disproportionate to the music’s duration and even its absolute quality.

All that said, if we can press the pause-button on self-deprecation for a second or two, it is not always as haphazard or mark-missing as it sounds.  In the week before Christmas in a great many churches, and for as far back as it now matters, secular and liturgical have met as some sort of equals in the traditional carol service, something for which most choirs put in many hours of disciplined practice.  Doubtless, Wyatt was invoking this when he referred to his favourite piece of music as being Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the Herefordshire carol This is the Truth Sent from Above, a truth he  nevertheless rejects.  As chance would have it, it was part of our candlelit Nine Lessons & Carols this year too. Through little bits of luck that brought in some new voices, our choir finally delivered a performance worthy of its tireless director: better, in his estimation, than any in the previous 20 years.

It’s a little rehearsed fact that English church music is the oldest Western musical tradition, stretching back 1400 years. Is it worth it? Only time will tell.

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1000 cuts

18Sep09

There seems to be a move to make the Lehman Brothers’ collapse the central turning point in the whole financial and economic crisis.  But this is what Nouriel Roubini thinks:-

Some people suggest that letting Lehman go in this way was a mistake and if we had just bailed out Lehman everything would have been fine. We would have avoided this global meltdown, this global recession. I believe this interpretation of history is totally incorrect, because by the time Lehman had collapsed the housing recession had already started two years ago and was getting worse. So the idea that the crisis started with the collapse of Lehman and if we had only bailed out Lehman everything would have been OK in my view is just total nonsense.  We were already in the middle of a severe economic and financial crisis, and a mortgage problem and a greater credit crunch that had been developing and worsening step by step for almost two years.

Why might it be attractive at this stage in the crisis to draw attention to Lehman as a key turning point? I wonder if such a simplified narrative, and one that hinges on a relatively recent policy error (if that is what Lehman’s collapse was), lets a lot more of us off the hook. If you did not appreciate the enormity of what was happening before Lehman collapsed and weren’t prepared — whether in business, journalism or just in your own household — you can draw a line under your ignorance and apportion blame more specifically. I suspect for journalists, analysts, investors and executives who found themselves adrift as events started turning sour post-February 2007, it allows them to reinvent themselves as more knowledgeable than they in fact were.

It must be some kind of memory bias at work.  But which one to choose?

More from Roubini and the notion that we may still face death by a thousand cuts:-

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Since I heard about social proof, and more specifically Joshua Bell’s famous busking experiment, I’ve wondered what in fact determines my own musical taste: how independent is it of others?  Like anyone, I want to think I’m a free spirit.

This may not be helpful, but the only sure example I have where I responded independently to a piece of music was Michael Jackson‘s Billie Jean.  I really did not like his music in the period up to 1983 for very particular reasons: Off the Wall had been played in our house for several years till it drove me up the wall.

From what may have been the very first UK airplay of Billie Jean, I immediately went out and ordered the 12″ version, making the record an outlier in an LP collection of otherwise orthodox neurotic-boy-outsider (NBO) teenage angst music. That’s if you exclude the bootleg Buddy Guy album that found its way to small-town Lincolnshire by some miracle or another.  Much is made of the revolutionary impact the accompanying video had on the success of Billie Jean, and that may all be true, but I know that did not influence me.

It didn’t stop there.  Soon after, and in a similar fashion, I heard the roughly contemporaneous Walk Right Now, penned and performed by Jackson and brothers.

Walk Right Now certainly does illustrate my early experiences of social proof in action.  I upset and embarrassed a good many of my adolescent chums with this one, particularly one who was a dyed-in-the-wool Joy Division and Morrissey fan. He loathed it, until his big brother (whom he worshipped) returned from Cambridge porting it in his own diminutive singles collection.  Things were crossing over fast in 1983 for those of us with parochial musical tastes and where the only good record shop occupied the tiniest of former corner stores.  Within a few months of Billie Jean’s release, my friend found his erstwhile NBOs, New Order, going all techno-dance on him, creating a yet more legendary 12-inch.

It seems impossible to know the truth about Michael Jackson.  Maybe, with Billie Jean, he flew too close to the sun.  I understand New Order, meanwhile, retired and went yachting.

And here, as promised, we cross over from maudlin to up-tempo.

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One of the most unanswerable questions you’re likely to be asked in a job interview is “Do you think you’re tough enough to stand up to Piers Morgan?” Unfortunately I’ve had that question put to me.

Several years ago, by dint of having the two words “managing” and “editor” next to one another on my CV, Trinity Mirror called me in to see them in the possibly mistaken belief that I could help dig them out of a very big hole. I was pretty sure I could help in some way, but I think we had a different view of what type of hole they were dealing with. Given Piers Morgan‘s inexorable rise on two continents as the mean-spirited arbiter of folksy talent, might I humbly propose that this is the mother of all interview posers? Top it if you can.

To be sure, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, as usual. There was a small coda to this interview conversation which involved another legendary Fleet Street figure: an experience which finally persuaded me it was time to steer a reciprocal course to the one Fleet Street was headed down and, boat-hook in hand, retrieve my bedraggled dignity. As tabloid journalists allegedly say in potentially compromising situations: “I made my excuses and left.”

Rightly or wrongly, and with rare exceptions, my approach to news management had been unusually low-key: a function of personality combined with the demands of real-time, I think.  I was always more interested in process than result. That’s what I offered in that interview, and I suspect that it was mistaken for weakness and (worse still) inexperience, whereas for them it should have represented a diverse perspective. My interviewer, I could tell, was not convinced.

Mercifully one of us escaped. I think it was probably me, though maybe it was Piers. So, in my sotto voce way, this  knackered hack is finally taking a hyper-linked opportunity to stand up to Piers Morgan: something that in real life only a handful of people seem ever to have done, and the Fates denied me the opportunity to chance my arm at.

Morgan was honoured this week with a slot on the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs: the longest-running music programme in the history of radio. It is the mama of all mixtapes: you get to choose the records that define your experience and broadcast them to the nation. Although Bob Geldof famously said that it is only a radio show, I reckon an invitation to appear is greeted by most in the same way as being tapped by Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s birthday honours.

Piers Morgan’s life is a catalogue of rather ghastly errors, none of which seems to have been a setback to his advances to fame and fortune: a modern day Bel Ami, perhaps?  So it seems like a category error for our public service broadcaster to accord him such high-quality attention. But hey, there goes the neighbourhood. For those who want to see if theirs is a match for his musical taste, this link should do it. Me, I’m averting my eyes.

In at least one of those counter-factual universes of infinite mathematical possibility, the Knackered Hack has himself been granted the honour of discussing his own desert island discs before an eager nation. In this same universe, Piers Morgan blogs and nobody reads.

Here’s a small taste of what my list contains. Until a few weeks ago Haydn would not have been on my modest mixtape.  For undisclosable reasons he has now hopped in.  The words, courtesy of the ChoralWiki, are below.  And for those who read me for stuff on decision-making, Haydn seems to have been on to heuristics and biases long before any of us.  You may have to think about this one a little bit.

Insanae et vanae curae invadunt mentes nostras,
saepe furore replent corda, privata spe,
Quid prodest O mortalis conari pro mundanis,
si coelos negligas,
Sunt fausta tibi cuncta, si Deus est pro te.

Vain and raging cares invade our minds,
Madness often fills the heart, robbed of hope,
O mortal man, what does it profit to endeavour at worldly things,
if you should neglect the heavens?
If God is for you, all things are favorable for you.

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pure genius?

04Jun09

In the middle of that 2001 Chapter 11 process, I was being primed for information in the Tipperary pub in Fleet Street. The “Tip” is the oldest Irish pub in England and the first ever to sell Guinness here, or so the free information on the internet tells me today. I did not know that then. There was plenty of free information available in 2001 despite a relative shortage of comprehensive pub histories. All the same,  you still had to pay for the Guinness. And that’s invariably the case today.

Guinness

I was with a very senior colleague who was plying me with the black stuff; I think he’d been asked to keep an eye on me and my rank-breaking entrepreneurship. I said to him that I thought part of the problem for even highly specialized subscription content businesses, like the one we were proposing to launch out of the bankruptcy, was that so much generic news was then free on the internet. This factor perhaps had already tipped investor sentiment away from the concept of proprietary news content. I suggested that one of the principal reasons for this may have been the example set by our competitor, the news agency Reuters, in selling its news feed to search engine/portal Yahoo!, without obvious limitations on what could be published.

“Oh, I did that deal!” said the executive. Imagine the Knackered Hack coughing into his artisan-poured pint, spraying his “mentor” with white foam. [For sure, that's not what happened exactly, but I'm not a factual journalist any more; I don't carry an NUJ card these days and even my poetic licence is provisional.]

Some of us had known for a long while that the value proposition of unbundled real-time news was not what it once was. It wasn’t a good time to be giving so much of it away. Reuters seem to have wised up a couple of years ago because they no longer operate that Yahoo! deal.

But I still wonder, in my counter-factual way, if such a vast organization as Reuters had not taken that fork in the road so prominently would other news media have felt so compelled to provide so much stuff for nothing? And thence GoogleNews. Would a viable subscription model not have been built by now to get the more innovative news organizations [oxymoron warning] cleanly out of the ink-on-dead-trees business? Perhaps not.

There may be more lessons from the real-time news industry of the ‘80s and ‘90s for today’s media to illustrate the tragedy/farce heuristic. Anyone interested in another chapter on that soon?

Photo credit tricky

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