Well I’ve done all the work, but the call hasn’t come yet. I diligently prepared a list of my pet hates – the small things that really annoy me, you’re not allowed to say Covid, Donald Trump or cancer – and they’re ready to go into Room 101, in the programme where guests try to persuade the host to consign their hates to oblivion. The name is inspired by the torture room in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which reputedly contained “the worst thing in the world”.
The BBC named the series ironically: Orwell was inspired by a meeting room in Broadcasting House where he had to sit through meetings he found extremely tedious. I’ve given up waiting, so I’m going to share my list. When they call me, I’ll have to think up some new ones.
Terms and conditions apply
Commercial radio boasts to potential advertisers that it has a captive audience, usually busy driving, cooking, doing something requiring concentration which makes them less likely to switch channels or turn the radio off. Perhaps that used to be me, but now I have acquired the energy and resolve to cut the radio off as soon as the adverts come on. The disclaimers made this leap possible.
So I would turn on the radio hoping for some decent music, and just when I thought the adverts had run their course…
Standard UK minutes and texts. Prices may change. Rolling monthly contract. New customers in low-cost areas only. Traffic prioritisation applies. Offer ends 14th of March. Terms apply. See Plus.net/mobile.
All of this delivered at a frantic pace – often tweaked electronically to make it faster. Sometimes delivered breathlessly as if it’s all a terribly funny joke. In some cases advertisers have been sanctioned by the Advertising Standards Authority for their disclaimers being read out inaudibly fast. Shut up, just shut up!
Me and Alan Bennett, we’re afraid of Virginia Woolf
When my wife told me that she had started reading To the Lighthouse but never finished it, my competitive spirit was awakened, and I set to work. I soon began to understand why she found finishing the damned book as difficult as the characters inside found it to reach the damned Lighthouse. Woolf doesn’t go out of her way to be readable: she’s very writerly, the Meryl Streep of literature, if you like. Take a look at this single sentence:
She had in mind at the moment, rich and poor, high and low; the great in birth receiving from her, half grudging, some respect, for had she not in her veins the blood of that very noble, if slightly mythical, Italian house, whose daughters, scattered about English drawing-rooms in the nineteenth century, had lisped so charmingly, had stormed so wildly, and all her wit and her bearing and her temper came from them, and not from the sluggish English, or the cold Scotch; but more profoundly, she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes, weekly, daily, here or in London, when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note-book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem.
Note how the only help you get here is a couple of semicolons, one of which Woolf teasingly places in the first line, before any confusion has had time to arise. I ploughed doggedly on to the end of the sentence, and the book. And indeed my wife has also now reached that wretched Lighthouse.
But difficult though she can be, Woolf can leave her readers with indelible phrases and ideas, like the marvellous passage from the same book describing the feeling we experience when we reach the limit of our intellectual journey: in this case Mr Ramsay – sure of Q – struggles to reach R:
…he was a failure – that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R—
Another idea has stayed in my memory:
Mrs. Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent… —this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said.
This passage has sometimes come back to me when contemplating a scene, typically at a family gathering in summer, suddenly knowing that the moment will be imprinted on my memory forever, like a photograph. So, maddening though she may be, perhaps I have too much respect for Virginia Woolf to put her into Room 101.
Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb
School dinners are character building. Having to finish my lumpy mashed potato, cold custard, sour lettuce and watercress (or face the wrath of the dinner lady) taught me to tolerate most food even if I didn’t enjoy it, which helped me survive my bachelor days. But I drew the line at rhubarb. At primary school, it seemed to be the default pudding, we got it at least once a week. I hated it, and it wasn’t just the school dinner approximation – I have tried “high quality” rhubarb desserts occasionally since, with no more enjoyment.
“You have to add loads of sugar” they say. Quite. It’s only the sugar that makes it remotely palatable: historically it was more often used as a medicine, and only became a food in the 18th century when sugar became more affordable.
I had an auntie of whom I was very fond, who was an excellent cook. She grew rhubarb in her garden, and three times in a row when I visited, she served up her famous crumble. She thought me a very fussy eater. I’m really not. I just don’t like rhubarb.
It all started so promisingly for the Electric Light Orchestra. I had been a big fan of the Move, and keenly anticipated Roy Wood’s new project, which aimed to “pick up where the Beatles left off”, using classical instruments to play rock music. Their first single, 10538 Overture was distinctive and atmospheric. Soon after, Roy Wood left and Jeff Lynne took charge.
The Beatles, enabled by George Martin’s musical background, had indeed used classical instruments very effectively in their records from Yesterday through to Eleanor Rigby and I am the Walrus. But these were exceptional songs, and the Beatles “left off” for a good reason – they had already fully explored the possibilities of using orchestral instruments in a pop and rock setting.
And although ELO achieved a tolerably Beatle-ish sound, I always found their songs predictable and uninteresting, and suspected that their huge popularity owed more to nostalgia for the Beatles’ 60s heyday than to any real quality. My heart sinks whenever their ploddy lethargic chug comes on the radio.
And the worst is Mr Blue Sky. Thematically identical to Here Comes the Sun, DJs think it’s clever to play it on a sunny day. According to Dominic King on the BBC, the song features “the most freakatastic vocoder since Sparky’s Magic Piano” – and this is a good thing? This limp and self-regarding twaddle (thanks for that phrase Andrew) takes up five minutes and six seconds of your life. Then just when you think your suffering might be over, the song awards itself a self-congratulatory coda, topped off a vocoder finale, the cherry on this queasy cake. Eew.
Mock the weak
Michael Palin is rarely wrong, and usually polite. But in Staged, a 2021 scripted mock-Zoom programme featuring David Tennant and Michael Sheen, Palin appears in cameo, gushing about his love of Staged on camera but once “off-air” immediately challenges Sheen’s assertion that “improvised comedy has produced a lot of good things.” “Has it?” he responds bluntly, saying that he doesn’t find improvisation very funny – and that the Pythons always worked hard on their scripts. (Except Graham Chapman, allegedly).
This was scripted comedy, where the humour came from Tennant and Sheen’s disappointment at being brutally cut down by one of their heroes. And of course Palin can act. But perhaps he wasn’t having to: he appeared to show genuine irritation about the trend towards improvisation. The Monty Python team did indeed take their comedy very seriously, writing in teams, assembling for lively and sometimes difficult script meetings where some ideas were rejected and others refined, until they had a programme they thought fit to put in front of the public.
All this is time consuming and expensive. No wonder TV schedulers prefer improv: just give a couple of drinks to a handful of moderately amusing people, shove them in a studio for a few hours, and keep the best bits. Voila, you’ve got a show.
John Cleese once remarked that it took him a day to write five minutes of comedy, but it took Peter Cook five minutes. Peter Cook was an improv genius, but it wouldn’t work if he tried to wing it live on TV: his funniest sketches may have started off the cuff, but they were refined, edited and rehearsed before being aired.
Perhaps the problem is that we know it’s a recording – if it were truly live, there would be a sense of danger – we would be more impressed with their speed and spontaneity. But knowing that it can be edited and cleaned up post-recording gives it the sterile safety of a circus viewed on TV. And the knowledge that the comics are able to prepare their material before the show provides another jeopardy-sapping safety net.
Improv comedy shows – on TV at least – make me feel like the only sober person at a loud party, assailed by competitive and aggressive – sometimes bullying – banter. They’re cheap, they’re lazy, and they’re fake.
Harry Kane to score next goal 6/1
Hard man actor Ray Winstone can often be seen on TV exhorting us, in his manly way, to wager with Bet365, typically during half time at football matches, when viewers might be tempted to add spice to a dull game in which they have no emotional investment. What kind of a man are you, he appears to be saying, if you won’t make a bet on how many corners West Bromwich Albion will be awarded in the big match against Fulham? More than fifty years after the Stones sang “he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me” they’re still trying to pull this crap on us.
Advertisers will advertise, of course. But in the UK TV cigarette adverts were banned from 1965, and tobacco and cigar adverts were banned from 1991. Alcoholic drinks have very tight restrictions on TV advertising. Just like tobacco and alcohol, gambling ruins lives – sometimes not only those of the gamblers, but their families’ lives too.
That such aggressive and high profile TV advertising is still allowed in 2021 for an unambiguously harmful industry is testament to the tenacity, efficacy and probably the generosity of the gambling lobby. It stinks.
A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby
Twenty or thirty years ago, conspiracy theories were the preserve of a few harmless eccentrics on the fringes of society. Not any more: encouraged by the internet and an unhinged US president, they’ve gone mainstream. A majority of Trump voters believe their man was cheated by a liberal/Democrat conspiracy…many people believe Coronavirus was invented by a wealthy elite to oppress the population…people use the abbreviation MSM for mainstream media as if the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Guardian and the Financial Times were homogeneous, all part of the same plot.
How strange, how baffling, how sad that the miracle of the internet, which puts so much of the world’s knowledge and wisdom in our pockets, has led us to this. This is an echo of an earlier period of history when the increasing affordability of printing, besides spreading knowledge and wisdom, led to an explosion of scurrilous pamphlets. It has never been easier to find information. But it has also never been easier to find lies, or for idiots and charlatans to amplify their voices. The curation of social media leads us into echo chambers which confirm and strengthen our opinions, causing ever sharper divisions in political discourse.
The arguments are circular. Lack of evidence supporting their theory is cited as proof of a cover-up, while evidence against it is ignored or dismissed as fabricated. Discussion is futile. Some people say the moon landings were a hoax. Buzz Aldrin begs to differ. Some people say Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. (I think he did.) Elvis is still alive but Paul McCartney died in 1966. The 9/11 attacks were planned by the US government…and so on. Some people think the earth is flat, for god’s sake.
Why do these bizarre notions have such wide currency? The traditional image of a conspiracy theorist is of a sad, lonely, underwashed young man, looking for reasons to justify his lack of success. But now these ideas are put forward by clean, intelligent looking people with every appearance of respectability, and have gained hugely in popularity. Time will tell whether we are witnessing a temporary mania or a permanent structural shift away from evidence, truth and science towards superstition and belief – a return to an intellectual dark age. If it’s the latter, the outlook is bleak.
Roadworks on the A9 north of Inverness
Travel news next on BBC Radio 2! Yay. We have satnavs and Google Maps to give us up-to-the-moment information on the traffic ahead of us on the journeys we are making. Who in London is concerned about the Exeter by-pass, who in Manchester about the Hanger Lane gyratory? Beeb, please, stop boring us with irrelevant information and take a step into the 21st century.
Sorry about that, I feel better now. Entering month eleven of lockdown we all need a bit of a moan about something. Better splurge it out online than shout at the lady in the Co-op, I guess.