Category Archives: Stuff
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.
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.
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.
 Although some boys could do with a clip round the ear!!!!!!!!!11
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.
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.
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.”
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…”
As we approach Poppy Day and all the kerfuffle that inevitably accompanies it, just what are the rules about the wearing of Poppies?
To avoid any confusion, here’s your easy, at-a-glance, cut-out-and-keep guide.
Q When should you start wearing your Poppy?
A You’d think a reasonable answer would be ‘when they go on sale.’ But some people seem to get hold of theirs before that, so maybe there are places that sell them all year round. You can buy fireworks in February, so why not Poppies in May? Although actually wearing it in May might look a bit odd. Basically, there are no rules. Go with your instinct.
Q You HAVE to wear one though, don’t you?
A No. It’s entirely up to you. You can respect Britain’s war dead without signaling it to everyone. And you can plonk money in the tin without choosing to fiddle with the pin and Poppy part. Again, there are no rules.
Q Why the capital P for Poppy?
A You’re right. It doesn’t need one.
Q Should you wear your poppy on the left or the right?
A Either side is acceptable. Anywhere, really. I have mine on my backpack. That’s because I wear my backpack every day, whereas I might switch from my jacket on one day to a raincoat the next and forget to transfer the poppy. Of course, there’s no rule to say you can’t buy more than one poppy, and definitely none about where you should wear it.
Q The leaf on the poppy should point to 11 o’clock, right?
A No. It can point up, down, left or right. It doesn’t matter and there’s no rule.
Q The poppy is an example of wasteful, single-use plastic, isn’t it?
A Yes, but don’t expect the Daily Mail to point this out in their anti-plastic campaign.
Q Does an extra-large poppy signify a personal connection with Britain’s armed forces?
A No. It means you’re wearing the one that was supposed to go on your car.
Q Will wearing an expensive poppy made from shiny enamel show that you care more deeply about our glorious dead?
A Possibly. However, the other interpretation is that you bought one many years ago and dig it out every October without feeling the need to donate another penny.
Q Can I wear a poppy shirt, poppy scarf and poppy hoodie; sport a stripey poppy backpack and swing a giant poppy umbrella?
A Certainly. You won’t look at all deranged.
Back in the day I had a brief to write an insert selling Hilditch & Key shirts to readers of The Times.
It was basically a half-price offer. So that could have been my headline. ‘50% off Hilditch & Key shirts.’ That would have worked. But, and this is where brands and how they sound comes in, would it have felt right? Both The Times and Hilditch & Key deserved better, I thought. You can always slap people about the chops with ‘Half-Price Bargain!’ and ‘Save £££s’ type headlines, but this wasn’t the occasion.
So I did some research about Hilditch & Key (a brand I hadn’t previously heard of) and learned that their shirts were popular with big names in the fashion industry. Yves Saint Laurent. Paloma Picasso. Karl Lagerfeld. In fact, I learnt that Lagerfeld was a proper little H&K fanboy, snapping up more than a hundred of their shirts every year. Weirdo. Anyway, I also read the terms and conditions attached to the offer. Don’t you do that? I thought all copywriters did that! No, I only did because of the Karl Lagerfeld thing. Lo and also behold, there it was: a term, or perhaps a condition, stipulating a maximum of two shirts per household. And with it, there was my headline.
Eye-catching, name-dropping, a bit cheeky, an air of exclusivity, and true to the brand values of both The Times and Hilditch & Key. Details of the offer went on the reverse.
Like I say, the insert might conceivably have sold more shirts if the headline had read ‘BUY NOW AND SAVE 50% ON CLASSIC SHIRTS!’, with a couple of flashes, all the copy in Courier, a call to action on every line and a bigger scissors graphic. But sometimes – hell, always – it’s about the brand.
Art Director: Tony Henry
Note: If you squint you might be able to detect a semicolon on the second line. Strictly illegal these days, a semicolon was sometimes used to indicate a pause shorter than a full stop and longer than a comma. What WAS I thinking.