Category Archives: Stuff

“You were always on my mind”

Who was that by? The Pet Shop Boys, wasn’t it? Or was there an earlier version? Fastrack would have told me. Fastrack was an outfit that sold CDs by post. (Straight away you can tell that I’m going back to olden times, here.) You rang them up, said the name of the song or the album, and they’d send it to you for less than you’d pay in Our Price or Tower Records. The important thing, and what distinguished them from other CDs-by-post people, was that Fastrack wasn’t a music club.

“So they don’t want the ads to look like ads from a music club, like Britannia.” This was the account man at an agency I was working for at the time, briefing me and the art director. “It’s not a club, you’re not a member, there’s no subscription and no commitment.”

“You sound like the ad!” I might have said. But he was right to make the distinction. Britannia’s ads were a staple of the printed press throughout the 70s and 80s. The music-club business model was to lure you in with a seemingly great offer, then trap you into receiving four or five CDs or videos a month at pretty much shop-bought prices. You had to send them back if you didn’t like them. Something like that, anyway. Britannia was aimed at people who liked collecting stuff rather than those who actually liked music.

A Britannia ad from 1986

The ads the art director and I came up with looked very different. No lists, no album covers selected to appeal to the biggest demographic, and definitely no coupon. One of our headlines was ‘From Abba to Zappa’ (a line that would be used by the Observer for their monthly music magazine some 15 years later). We were showing it to the agency’s MD and he shook his head. “I like it, but we can’t present it,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked, not unreasonably.
“Well, what if someone wants an album by the Zombies? They’ll think Fastrack can’t get it.” He was serious. At this point, you’d expect the creative director to step in and deliver an almighty slap, but he was off doing something else. So that ad never appeared. Neither did the one we came up with in response to the weirdest media brief I’ve ever encountered. The ad would be about the size of those cards you get in a newsagent’s window, except that in this case the newsagent was an army barracks and the window was a notice board in the servicemen’s canteen. The strategy was sound: squaddies can’t easily get off base to buy the latest CDs, so here’s a way the CDs can come to them.

My headline?

The MD looked at the headline for what I felt was an inordinately long time. Like, longer than the quarter-second needed to read and understand it.
“Incoming? You mean, like a message or something?”
“Not a message, no,” I said, and virtually shouted the word whilst looking terrified at the office ceiling. Then I looked back at him.
“Not with you,” he said. “Does it mean something?”
“Yes! It’s what people in the army shout to each other when they’re about to be attacked by mortars or bombs or whatever. INCOMING! Like that. But in our context, it also means that their favourite CDs will be incoming, or coming in, to their base.” Fuck me, I was patient.

“Nope,” he says finally, “I don’t think anyone will get it.”

I still think it was good and, yes, I still remain bitter. ‘You were always on my mind,’ I say to myself. So what ads DID run? In the end, the MD overruled me, the art director, the creative director and everyone else, and declared that the agency should present ads that look exactly like music-club ads ‘because obviously they work.’

Despite my best efforts as a customer – I used to know their number off by heart – nobody ever heard of Fastrack again.

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Tech woes

Do you have much technology around your home? Probably. And do you find that it all works reliably, consistently and seamlessly? Probably not. Hopefully not, in fact. Because I’m reluctant to concede the idea that it’s just us who suffer almost daily occurrences of unreliability, inconsistency and seamlesslessness.

Here’s the set-up: An Amazon Echo and two Sonos speakers in the kitchen, an Alexa-enabled Sonos One in the bedroom and a few other Sonos speakers dotted here and there. A couple of TVs and Wi-Fi courtesy of Virgin Media.

For a while, everything worked as it should. Usually, anyway. At bedtime, we’d set the speaker in the bedroom to play the Alexa sleep sound ‘Rain On A Tent’ for 30 minutes, and neither of us would ever be awake to hear it end. (Trouble nodding off? Give it a try.)

bedroom sonos

In the morning, we’d ask Alexa to play Radio 4 or Radio Paradise (an ad-free station that plays non-challenging music of a certain vintage) and Alexa would happily oblige. Meanwhile, true to its raison d’etre, Sonos would stream music from Spotify in whichever room we wanted. We could watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer…

All was well, techno-wise. But gradually things started to go awry. Not hugely, as in total system failure. But in niggling, inexplicable ways. (I’ve compressed the timeline. This all happened – and is still happening – over a period of months.)

“Alexa, what’s got into you?”

A request for Alexa to play ‘rain on a tent’ meets with ‘Sorry, I don’t know that one.’ I change the wording, making it explicit that I want the Alexa sleep sound. Same response. Luckily, there’s a phone app called RainRain that does much the same thing, although the sound quality obviously isn’t so good.

But then, a few months later, Alexa somehow rediscovers sleep sounds. Hurrah! We climb into bed and are soon fast asleep. Some hours later, I awake for a pee and find that rain on a tent is still playing. That’s weird – I’d set the timer for 30 minutes. ‘Alexa, stop.’ Alexa briefly pauses, then resumes. ‘Alexa, stop playing rain on a tent.’ Same thing happens. I physically turn it off, but Alexa immediately springs back into life with more rain. Eventually I have to unplug it and hope it doesn’t somehow re-energise, Christine-style.

In the morning, we plug Alexa back in and ask it to play BBC Radio 4. ‘Here’s BBC Radio 4,’ she confirms. But then – silence. ‘Alexa, play, er, Tom Waits.’ Nothing.

Downstairs, we ask kitchen Alexa to play Radio Paradise. She’s never had a problem doing this before, but now there’s just radio silence or ‘I’m sorry, I can’t find that one.’ I go online to try and sort things out. Some people say I have to disable the Sonos skill, then re-enable it. How that will help Alexa find a radio station? And what’s it got to do with Sonos anyway? But I go ahead and do it. The results are not what I expect.

Kitchen Alexa will now play Radio Paradise (RP), but has elected to play it through various Sonos speakers rather than via the Echo unit itself. This means we can’t control the volume using the handy buttons on Alexa, only via imprecise voice controls. Even more strangely, it’ll play the same four songs on a constant loop, with none of the normal station idents (Hippy Californian voice: ‘You’re listening to Radio Paradise daht cahm’).

Meanwhile, bedroom Alexa says it WILL play RP, then a week or so later decides I’ve listened to it enough and refuses to play it anymore. FFS. I give it a few days and try again and, guess what, Alexa has evidently decided that RP is okay for us to listen to after all. But there’s a catch. We can only listen to one song. Which she plays again and again to the point of audio torture.

Call that a password?

During one of my numerous attempts to get to the bottom of all this, I notice my iPhone is saying that our Wi-Fi security is weak. What new hell is this? I google the warning and discover that this is possibly the worst thing in the world, that passers-by will be emptying my bank accounts and ordering superyachts. But then others say it’s nothing at all to worry about at all; just Apple being over-cautious.  To be on the safe side, I set about reconfiguring the Virgin router. I enter the password and am told that it isn’t strong enough. Well possibly, I think, but that’s the one we agreed on three years ago, so let me in because I’ve got some serious reconfiguring to do. Nope. I can’t use my previously acceptable password until I’ve changed it to a much stronger and of course far less memorable one. So I change it. Now of course we have to update Netflix, iPlayer and Amazon Prime on two TVs. This is where my day goes.

(The irony here is that the TV is supposed to get its WiFi signal from our Tenda mesh system, which has a different password altogether. I AM SO CONFUSED.)

Anyway, can I reconfigure the router? Can I heck. I don’t have the skills or the patience. But I do notice that the little white light on our router is suddenly glowing red.

Danger, Will Robinson!

This could be bad – red is the international colour of imminent threat. I ask @VirginHelp for help. They ignore me. On Virgin’s website I learn that the reason it’s red is because the router is overheating.

Ignoring the fact that we’re in England in October, that the router isn’t perched on a radiator or been covered with a cloth and that we haven’t lit a small fire next to it, I nevertheless do what’s suggested and TIOATIOA. 15 minutes later it reboots with the same red light.

So I call Virgin and, after 30 minutes, get through to someone in Bangalore. “It means it’s overheating,” they say. “Turn it off and turn it on again.” I explain that I have already done this, that it’s not hot where we live, and that there are no nearby fires etc. “It’s nothing to worry about,” they say. “Just leave it.” But a red light signals danger, I say. The light should be white.

“Well, if you don’t like looking at it, says the Virgin expert, “cover it up with a cloth.”

When the country went into lockdown I started growing my hair. Now, some eight months later, I’m just about ready to tear it out.

Postscript: In preparing this blog post, I tried to AirDrop the photos from iPhone to Mac. It always used to work easily. But now, suddenly and you could say inevitably … it doesn’t.

Postscript #2: Something else to get my head around. WordPress has suddenly changed the way blog posts are created. Everything is different, and it won’t let me add captions to photos.

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The Dead Trees of Richmond Park

No. 64. Cause of death: Varicose Rings

No. 291. Cause of death: Multiple Bough Failure

No. 230. Cause of death: Despair

No. 616. Cause of death: Leaf Trauma

No. 928. Cause of death: Arboreal Imposter Syndrome

No. 417. Cause of death: Apathy

No. 668. Cause of death: Trunk Stunt

No. 288. Cause of death: Currently Under Investigation

No. 836. Cause of death: Sudden Bole Death

No. 440. Cause of death: Treasles

No. 106. Cause of death: Pointing Sickness

No. 602
Cause of death: Acute Foliage Envy

No. 551. Cause of death: Taproot Corpulence

Nos. 738 & 739. Cause of death: Suicide Pact

No. 399. Cause of death: Shame

No. 502. Cause of death: Limb Overreach

No. 988. Cause of death: Angler’s Arms

No. 518. Cause of death: Chronic Self-Doubt

 

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In defence of Social Distancing

Saatchi & Saatchi could have gone with ‘Labour’s Double Knockout’ for their Tory posters in the 1992 election campaign. Instead, they used the line ‘Labour’s Double Whammy’.

Nobody had heard or read the phrase before. All that stuff about speaking to your audience in their own language, use familiar words and phrases, assume at best a nodding acquaintance with the English language – all that was quietly dropped in favour of an expression that was new and alien.

Soon after the ads appeared, the newspapers were full of comment pieces about the wording. Where did ‘double whammy’ come from? What did it mean? Who dreamed it up? (Chris Patten, allegedly.) Was it an *gasp* Americanism? (I’d heard of the whammy bar, but that clearly wasn’t relevant here).

The public didn’t care about its provenance. But they could grasp exactly what it meant. And the expression is now firmly established in popular language.

This is why I don’t think we need to worry too much about the phrase ‘social distancing’. It might not be perfect. ‘Spatial distancing’ might convey the intended meaning more accurately, although it is a bit sci-fi. ‘Physical distancing’ sounds like something Gwyneth Paltrow might do. I said might. ‘Keep two metres away from each other’ sounds Ronseally straightforward until you remember that you’d have to include the imperial equivalent to appease the Daily Mail and its army of Little Englanders.

But from my observations, people are very quickly starting to learn what social distancing means to them in their daily lives. Sure, there’ll be those who choose to flout the advice, just as there are those who insist 40mph is okay in a 30mph zone or who see nothing wrong in dropping litter. 

Sometimes, an unusual phrase is what’s needed to get standout and provoke a reaction.

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How journalism works

flats (not in Birmingham)One of the founder members of direct response agency Evans Hunt Scott (now Havas something or other) told me this story about his brief brush with journalism in the early 1980s.

He was doing work experience at a newspaper in Birmingham and had been sent to gather details of a burglary at an apartment block in the city. He found the flat, introduced himself to the tenant, interviewed her about the break-in and headed back to base.

The editor asks him about the robbery. David – for that was his name – replies that it doesn’t really amount to much of a story. The burglar had looked through the apartment window and seen the tell-tale flashing light of a video recorder (as rare then as now, but way more desirable). He forced the door and nicked it. The tenant came home to find her door open and the VCR gone.

That’s it? asks the editor. That’s it, says David. That’s not good enough, says the ed.  So David is sent back to the tower block with a list of questions to ask the residents. The elderly female residents, preferably.

Questions like: Do you worry about being burgled and your flat turned upside down? Are you anxious about coming home late at night on your own? Does the sight of groups of youths scare you? To which the answers were inevitably yes, yes and yes.

Now there was a story. It was about far, far more than a one-off opportunistic theft.  I can’t remember if it made it to the front page or not, but I do remember David telling me the headline they came up with.

Flats of fear

Remember, variations of this happen every day, in everything from whatever’s left of local papers to the national dailies. They’re not happy unless we’re scared.

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‘And the parting on the left, is now the parting on the right’

Socks with sandals was a definite no-no when I was growing up on the south coast. An unspoken law of the beach. You just didn’t.

Later, during travels around France, Spain, Israel and the Greek islands, I noticed with approval that it was fairly universally observed.

More recently, the law has become a lot less unspoken. People frequently comment on (typically) an old person’s socks ’n’ sandals combo and declare it the worst crime against fashion imaginable.

No, sandals on bare feet is the norm. The conventional. You could say it’s ‘mainstream’.

SFX: DISTANT ALARM BELLS

With a growing sense of horror, I started to realise that it was only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, would want to subvert the sartorial status quo. If everyone zigs, you zag, right?

So my loins have been in a perpetual state of girdedness, awaiting the day when the wearing of socks with sandals is not only acceptable but – NOOOOO!!! – cool.

I just never expected the move to come from that well-known fashion house, Google.

 

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“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

A pipe-smoker from years ago, or perhaps from Yorkshire last week.

Mr Watmough certainly did things a bit differently. He was the geography teacher at my school in Bournemouth back in the 1960s. He doubled as the school’s second-tier, hands-off rugby coach who never once actually played any rugby, and tripled as the drama teacher for the boys who’d chosen drama as their ‘special subject’.

This was the name given to the one-hour period each week in which pupils could learn about a topic not covered by the national curriculum. As the other ‘special’ subjects included chess, running about and, unbelievably, additional maths, I chose drama.

There were around 18 of us budding thespians, not that we would have known what thespian meant at the age of 14. We didn’t have an allocated classroom so met in the dining hall about an hour before the dinner ladies started preparing that day’s heated sludge. We’d read parts of Macbeth, pretend to be other people, improvise dramatic conflicts, learn to project our voices (which we probably understood to mean ‘shouting’) and generally have a welcome break from the day’s usual routine of maths, double maths, corporal punishment and maths.

Mr Watmough smoked a pipe and he probably thought that teaching arty-farty, trendy-wendy drama in a room that wasn’t technically a classroom gave him permission to light up during the lesson. So he got out his pipe, filled the bowl with St Bruno, fished around for his box of Swan Vestas, struck a match, applied the flame to the tobacco until giant plumes of smoke began billowing around him and simultaneously replaced the match back in the box and put it in his pocket.

Then his jacket caught fire.

It wasn’t an instant conflagration by any means. A few moments passed before a curling wisp of smoke began snaking out of his right-hand pocket. We watched transfixed as Mr Watmough continued listening intently to a boy somewhere behind me who was extemporising haltingly about life being but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage; the boy’s powers of concentration evidently compromised by the drama unfolding before him.

We should have said something, obviously. Was there not an ounce of common humanity between us? What if it was our own father slowly incinerating before our very eyes?  Of course we’d raise the alarm. And as the flames took hold, one of us did. “Sir!”

“Shut up, Bailey.”

“Sir! You jacket’s on fire!”

Seized by a sudden panic, old Watmough began beating his flaming pocket with a vigour he’d never displayed on the touchline of the rugby pitch. The dining room filled with smoke: from his pipe, from the wood and cardboard of the matchbox and from the material of his ancient sports jacket. I swear I can remember the awful stench of a singed leather elbow patch, although that may be amusing-but-false memory syndrome kicking in.

I was reminded of the incident yesterday when Donald Trump suggested it might be a good idea to give guns to teachers. My experience of teachers – of those who raged and lashed out, who relied on whisky to get them through the day, who seemed to derive pleasure from assaulting and humiliating young boys and who could actually set themselves on fire during a lesson – strongly suggests that this strategy might not be entirely without risk.

 

[edit] Although some boys could do with a clip round the ear!!!!!!!!!11

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Shaz-am puzzled

I found a new playlist on my Spotify account the other day, called ‘My Shazam Tracks’. Surprise number one was discovering that Shazam and Spotify already know each other. I can’t remember making any introductions. But there they were, together on my phone, probably talking about me behind my back.

Surprise number two was finding out exactly what was on ‘My Shazam Tracks’. I’ve used Shazam maybe half a dozen times – in pubs or offices or listening to the radio, hearing a song and wanting to know its name and who it was by. Like everyone else, I suppose.

But instead of My Shazam Tracks showing just these few songs, it displayed a list of dozens. The ones I remember Shazamming were there – tracks by Bonobo, Caribou and a John Williams film score. But so too were others so familiar to me I’d never need an app to identify them. Songs by Stevie Wonder, Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa, the Stones… The idea of holding my phone in front of a speaker to find out who was responsible for ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ is ridiculous. I’m not even a huge fan of either song, although I won’t skip to the next track if they come on, something I’d definitely do with Iggy Pop’s version of Louie Louie. That’s one of ‘My Shazam Tracks’, apparently.

So what’s going on? I asked @SpotifyCares on Twitter and they suggested I contact @Shazam. @Shazam were clearly too busy wondering how they were going to spend the $400m that’s about to fall into their lap courtesy of Apple.

So it remains a puzzle, and one which today developed another layer of puzzlement.

Keen to learn whose record was being played on BBC 6Music, I turned to the digital display of my radio. As is so often the case, this potentially useful aspect of DAB was being used to tell listeners the name of the DJ rather than the song being played. Then I remembered Shazam, and it turned out the song was Nadine Shah singing Holiday Destination. I saw that I could add it to my Spotify playlist. So I tapped the icon and up came this:

So I can’t physically add tracks that I like to ‘My Shazam Tracks’. Instead, a variety of songs – some good, some less so – is added to the playlist on my behalf by entities unknown.

It’s a funny old topsy-turvy world and no mistake.

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My daughters, then and now

The ‘now’ being December 2017, when they presented their mum with a calendar featuring 12 images from their past juxtaposed with contemporary recreations.

There were tears then, and I suspect in years to come there will be more.

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

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Why you can’t start a sentence with ‘And’

You can, of course. That headline was pure clickbait. And it worked! My blog now has a new follower. I wonder if he’ll ever meet the other one?

But anyway, where did this you-can’t-start-a-sentence-with-and thing come from? We’re all pretty sure it was a teacher who first laid down this particular law, but where did THEY get it from?

That’s easy. They got it from you. From when you were in junior school. *cue shimmery effect*

You’ve been asked to write a composition about what you did on your school holidays. Cool, your seven-year-old self thinks. There’s loads to write about there! So, head resting on bent left arm, your right hand inexpertly manipulating a 2B pencil and your tongue half-protruding from your pre-pubescent lips, off you go. ‘I went to Spain with my mummy and daddy and I was aloud to stay up late and I saw lots of stars and we had brekfast by the poool where I dropped my camara and daddy got cross and then we went to Aunty Julias’ house in Door Set and…’ And so on, and on.

Your teacher looks at your essay and says how interesting your holiday sounds, but it would read better if you split the story into more than one sentence. So, with playtime rapidly approaching, you do something you think is dead smart. You sprinkle a few full stops here and there. They seem to work best when they precede an ‘and’. Then you remember that a sentence always begins with a capital letter, so gripping your pencil firmly you turn the lower-case ‘a’s into upper-case ‘A’s. There. No wonder English is your favourite subject.

I’m not having that, thinks the teacher. That’s just too easy. I’ll show them. She thinks for a moment. “This is better,” she says. “But you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’. Write it out again.”

*cue shimmers*

So there we have it. We’re all to blame, us and our anything-for-an-easy-school-life ways. Of course, once ‘And’ was forbidden from ever leading a sentence, other poor conjunctions were doomed to suffer the same fate.

If only your seven-year-old self was smart enough to say ‘But Miss, there’s an ‘and’ at the beginning of that hymn we sing!”

“I don’t think so!”

“There is, Miss, there is! *sings* And did those feet, in ancient times…”

 

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