Sound, snow & a solicitor-to-be

This post complements an edition of The London Podcast featuring writer Richard Kurti 

Lucy Carr and Richard Kurti at a Clapham estate agents, London SW4

Lucy Carr and Richard Kurti at a Clapham estate agents, London SW4

Talk of an outside loo*, prefabricated buildings put up after World War II and the coldest winter for 20 years sounds like something out of a sepia-tinged gritty 1950s drama. But it was reality for me and then BBC colleague Richard Kurti, living in 1980s London.

It’s fresh in the memory as I’ve made a podcast where Richard and I retrace our steps to Sandmere Road, SW4 where we lived in 1986-87 (as you’ll hear, I was in denial as to how long ago we cohabited). Fate even managed to sync the weather to provide snow!

It brings back memories of movies like Withnail & I, seeing The Smiths on their The Queen is Dead tour at nearby Brixton Academy, and TV shows like The Late, Late Breakfast Show with Noel Edmonds. I’m sure of the latter because I worked on it. Richard and I were BBC sound technicians, thrown together by fate as we had adjacent rooms at the BBC training centre in Worcestershire where we were on a residential course, prior to working at Television Centre in Wood Lane, W12.

While Richard subsequently went off to direct videos and then write for big and smaller screens, I pursued my own dreams of announcing and presenting.

And if those cultural references all seem prehistoric to you, chances are you’re a millennial. But just to increase the appeal of the podcast – ok, it was chance – we met up with the delightful millennial Lucy, who works at an estate agents near Clapham Common. At least, she does at weekends – in the week, she’s training to be a solicitor, and lives in the trendy east London area of Shoreditch.

In the show you’ll hear what’s changed in the capital since Richie and I shared a ground-floor flat. You’ll also hear what landmarks and features of London haven’t changed. And more to the point, in a studio conversation punctuated by two location pieces, you’ll hear about Richard’s two novels – Monkey Wars and Maladapted – and hear the author read an exciting excerpt from the first of those.

And in the exchanges and crossfire of our conversation, you might discern the reason why we only lasted under the same roof in SW4 for six months – or, at least, you will if you’re – appropriately – reading between the lines..!

 

 

*WC/closet/head/john/restroom… etc. in your language

The Cathedral to St Pancras

Photo of The Meeting Place at St Pancras International

The Meeting Place at St Pancras International

This post supplements my edition of The London Podcast on St Pancras Soundscapes

What’s a guy doing wandering around a London rail terminus in the middle of the evening holding a mike, but with no interviewee and nothing but the surrounding sounds to pick up? Fortunately, nobody asked me this at the time, not even the two patrolling police officers armed with what looked like sub-machine guns. They were on what seemed to be a routine patrol – this is an international port, after all. For a moment I thought they might mistake my stereo microphone for an offensive weapon (I’m 75% joking – the remaining 25% stopped me reinforcing this idea!), but they were of course too smart and too well-trained to make that mistake. Besides, I’m not aware of any firearms with a foam windshield on the barrel. There is such a thing as a gun mike with a ‘pistol grip’, but these names come from what they look like, not their function.

You wouldn’t be able to tell from the podcast that I passed the officers because, although they were vigilant, they made no more noise than anyone else passing me in the commentary-free sequence I’ve called ‘slow podcasting’ (after the ‘slow television’ spawned in Norway). And the whole point of the exercise is to let the atmospheric sound tell the story. From clacky heels to tube station turnstiles, and from pianos in the shopping arcade to snatched conversations, it’s a beautiful merging of sonic scenes, naturally cross-fading from one to the next. And once I get into William Henry Barlow’s magnificent train shed, from where the Eurostar trains depart for the continent, all the sounds are topped off with a cathedral-like acoustic thanks to the very high roof there.

Listen and enjoy – you can subscribe at the website above. And if you’ve enjoyed that podcast, I think you’ll like another example of slow podcasting in the show Sound of the Underground, which takes you on a short tube journey. Less cathedral-like, but still plenty of textures, and a bit of poetry, too, inspired by a classic documentary called Night Mail.

Poll Dark

Presidential memorabilia

Previous US presidential memorabilia – Philadelphia International Airport, October 2016

I was listening to the thoughtful, but now mis-named New York Times podcast, The Run-Up last night as they picked over the entrails of their US election coverage. Three educated contributors agonised over how the media collectively had called it so wrong. May I offer some thoughts?

Are journalists educated enough about being uneducated?

As budgets tighten and journalists are expected to bear more of their own costs (acting as unpaid interns, etc), are they sufficiently in touch with different lifestyles to their own? Had they been, they might have more effectively picked up on the degree of discontent in the American nation.

An alien passing through Philly Airport where the picture above was taken would have quickly discerned that people in the more manual jobs tended to be darker skinned. When were you last flown by a black pilot in the West?

Well, I was that alien a fortnight ago. It is clear to those who have eyes to see that the American Dream is only working for some.

Media outlets are still over-reliant on polls

“53% of white women voted Trump”, according to an exit poll. Really? And we’re still trusting polls after this spectacularly wrong call? Granted, exit polls tend to be more reliable than anticipatory polls, but even so… Shouldn’t we be a bit more circumspect? And there’s another thing wrong with that assertion…

We’re still ignoring the elephant in the room

The biggest single chunk of the vote wasn’t cast – around 43% on current estimates as I write. An accurately worded version of the headline above would have read “53% of women who cast their vote did so for Trump”. Yeah, it’s clunkier, but at least acknowledges that elephant. The first thing I noticed when in the States a couple of weeks ago was the lack of passion for either main candidate (see my previous blog, State of Disunion).

The media tends to underplay don’t knows – I can only assume this is because voter disengagement leads to viewer/listener/surfer disengagement.

Just a few thoughts offered in humility

I didn’t call it right in the previous blog – but I did say how struck I was by the apathy. I can imagine a fair bit of delayed motivation fired up by non-Trump supporters now. But I’m not inclined to make any precise predictions!

Your thoughts?

State of Disunion

The ‘Don’t Cares’ Have It?

img_2163

My first awareness of America as a child was through toy vehicles.

A friend up the road from my home on the outskirts of greater London had some enviable examples. They were bigger and brasher than my British models: a black and white American police saloon with impossibly grand fins, a white Ford Mustang sports car with a red interior and a Thunderbird 2 fantasy transporter aircraft, among others. (Aficianados of the 1960s Thunderbirds children’s TV franchise will know that, like me, it was made in the UK, but for commercial reasons it was effectively, as its maker Gerry Anderson acknowledged, ‘an American show’.)

Fantasies die hard, and in recent weeks I had my own American dream to be a guy driving alone in the desert en route to something on a spectacular scale. It was an added fillip that I would be there in the run up to decision time in one of the most divisive election campaigns of recent times.

img_2111-trump-overcomb

I was visiting my brother, partner and family in Nova Scotia and while basing myself there decided on Phoenix, Arizona as my American target. It was truly temporary; there’s a kind of madness or arrogance to think you can explore any sizeable part of America properly in three days, as I did. All the more since only the middle day was complete, the other two being largely eaten up by the four- or five-hour flight from Canada (via Philadelphia).

img_2183

IMG_2185.jpg

The goal was the Grand Canyon – reachable with three or four hours’ non-stop driving from my northern Phoenix Airbnb location. In the event I added further hours by stopping at the small, tourist-friendly town of Sedona in both directions.

IMG_2127.jpg

But here was the real revelation for me in the States this time (I’d been to New England and Georgia previously): for all the heat of the Trump/Clinton dust-up that we’ve been treated to for months, I met not one person on my American stay who volunteered any preference for either main candidate. We talk of compassion fatigue in matters of charity; this was passion fatigue.

The only conspicuous enthusiasm I came across was as I drove into and out of Sedona on the way to the canyon – and that was on the radio. Rabid right-winger (or conservative commentator – take yer pick) Sean Hannity was fulminating on 97.1FM The Big Talker about how, with 13 days to go to the election (as it was then), America needed to ‘wake up’ and embrace Donald Trump. As the underdog his election couldn’t be taken for granted (one thing most of the audience would agree with Hannity on). He then proceeded to go through numerous states – quite handy to develop relevance for his audience across scores of stations where his show is syndicated – explaining how precarious things were for the Republican candidate. Also, inevitably, an opportunity was never missed to dis Hillary (emails, Clinton Foundation, yatter, yatter).

IMG_2154 straightened.jpg

About an hour from the canyon (above), by which time Sean’s show had been rolling a good couple of hours, he welcomed onto the airwaves someone described as a friend of the show from Britain, and on a scratchy mobile phone came the unmistakably strident tones of Nigel Farage. 5,000 miles from home, I was being introduced to the three-time leader of the United Kingdom’s Independence Party (UKIP). If I was in any doubt that Brexit – Britain’s upcoming exit from the European Union – has some international significance, this was the moment to dispel it. The very justification for Farage’s presence on numerous American radio stations was his success in agitating for Britain’s EU withdrawal and his part in delivering it. Trump fans are quick to seize on the parallels between their man and Farage, the latter an apparent underdog who broke through. They wish.

Ah, yes – Trump. What is left to say about this Twitter-tirade-made-flesh, a product (and purveyor) of extreme anti-social media? A joke, and yet a non-joke, putting two fingers up to the Establishment, yet (as I write, with 24 hours to go) still in with a chance of becoming the Establishment. The apotheosis of celebrity culture (describing himself on that tape as a ‘star’, even as he bragged about committing one or more sexual assaults). It’s easy to forget we have been here before, though – minus the reference to (or reality of) assaults.

I’m surprised former President Ronald Reagan – B-movie actor, in power from 1981-89 – isn’t mentioned more in this connection. But Trump has his work cut out, thanks to the electoral college – he would stand more chance under proportional representation.

IMG_2152 bearded truck driver at Grand Canyon!.jpg

Also, he’s not necessarily liked among those you might expect to be his natural supporters. One extravagantly bearded truck driver from the Midwest (above) I met when I finally made it to the Grand Canyon self-described as a ‘red neck’, but said he wouldn’t vote for Trump as the property tycoon only cared about the big guys. Our trucker would have wanted to support Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon who had been in the running as a Republican candidate, but dropped out. He then nominated – you’ve guessed it – one Donald J. Trump. So my new redneck friend (along with my Airbnb host and many others) wasn’t going to vote.

img_2164-nissan-altima-hire-car-with-sunset-reflection

I drove south from the canyon after a couple of hours in a real (not toy) car, but it wasn’t a fin tailed native wonder from my youth – it was a Japanese Nissan. On the eve of the 2016 election as I write, it would be possible to find poetic images of the sun setting on American democracy that might sound a little contrived, but since Trump has promised to contest the result if it doesn’t go his way, and with even a successful Clinton starting with a negative poll rating, it’s perhaps not such a stretch.

Anticipating my cinematic drive through the desert – not quite man vs the elements: I had AC and GPS/satnav – I had imagined the soundtrack to be Ry Cooder on a slide guitar, à la Paris, Texas. In the event, the podcast Radiolab I was listening to on the journey back provided that kind of music played by a lesser name. It accompanied the story of a small Nebraska town so divided it pushed for a petition to end its own existence. The reporter offered this as a possible image for the state of the union, for the entire USA.

img_2171-sunrise-phoenix

With the sun setting I reflected that no matter how great the United States’ misdemeanours – from the treatment of the indigenous peoples to Vietnam to drone assassinations – there will always be something so intoxicating about so much of Americana for me and millions of others.

Okay, so I didn’t get to drive a Ford Mustang for real. But the affluence and sense of plenty it hinted at had drawn me again to its homeland.

America got me as a young boy, and didn’t let go.

Ronnie Corbett: my part in his shortfall

Ronnie Corbett, for a lot of Brits of a certain age was a staple of Saturday night television comedy. He recently died aged 85. If you weren’t around in Britain or other countries able to pick up his BBC1 show, The Two Ronnies, in the 1970s and ’80s in which he co-starred with Ronnie Barker, let me give you the basics quickly. And then permit me a few personal reminiscences, as I was privileged to work with him.

Continue reading

Wogan RIP – farewell to a great entertainer

Photo of Terry Wogan in the BBC Radio 2 studio

Sir Terry Wogan after finishing his BBC Radio 2 show, London, February 2013

Sir Terry Wogan is no more. A TV and radio natural, beloved across the UK and in his native Ireland, has faded out his microphone for the last time.

I remember him in my latest London Podcast (as I write), Wogan RIP: exclusive interview. It includes a scene-setter – a kind of Wogan for Beginners, in case you’re from outside the UK and Ireland, and not up to speed on his appeal.

His calm centredness on-air and off- (I was lucky enough to experience it first-hand) spread like balm across an often troubled nation.

I didn’t have time in my podcast to recount an occasion I witnessed involving Terry when I was in the original BBC Broadcasting House a few years ago. It speaks to his ability to warmly relate to colleagues at all levels. It was about half an hour before Terry was due to present Weekend Wogan from the beautiful art deco Radio Theatre in front of a typically eager audience.

The audience assistants who usher the crowd in were just gathering before being scrambled into action, and Sir Terry emerged from his dressing room. Approaching the ushers’ huddle he said, ‘It’s too late for a union meeting now!’

As one, they laughed – a good, genuine lung-driven laugh, not the deferential, airless variety reserved for unloved superiors. Many ‘stars’ wouldn’t engage with anyone with ‘assistant’ in their job title. Not Terry.

Terry in tax-free tree-hugging shame shock‘ – not

He was a great ambassador for the corporation, for which he did most of his broadcast work. At a time when a hint of scandal could attach itself – rightly or wrongly – to numerous celebs, ‘El Tel’ stood unimpeachable. The worst the press could dig up was an association with a tax efficient scheme to encourage the growth of forests in Scotland. ‘Shock horror: national treasure behind entirely legal system to increase forestation’.

Even the revelation of his £800,000.00 annual pay cheque for his radio show led to a UK-wide, resigned, l’Oréal-style shrug: because he’s worth it. (Whisper it: I was paid more than that to present on local radio. More per listener that is. A sad consequence of a woefully smaller audience!)

But to be honest, apart from the obvious sadness as a radio lover and as a sometime colleague, I have another sadness over Terry. Years ago, when earnest young humanities graduates forged the BBC2 TV arts strand The Late Show, Terry was once enlisted as a reviewer. In recollection he was fantastically lucid, didn’t have to soften his intelligence for this niche audience, and opined effortlessly on whatever he’d been asked to review (sorry – it’s 20+ years ago and has slipped the YouTube net – I forget the detail). I would like to have seen more of that Wogan.

However, popular culture and serious comment are not easy bedfellows (at the extreme, a world away from Wogan, Stewart Lee is strong on this – search his name and that of fellow comedian Russell Brand, together with the term ‘racism’, if you dare. Warning: adult content will surface.)

Farewell, then…

I’m fortunate enough to have had personal interaction with Sir Terry. But if you were one of his millions of admirers, you’ll have had largely the same warm experience as me, via his shows. And if you were ever in the audience for the Wogan television chat show I worked on back in the ’80s, perhaps you, like me, will carry the memory of comic actor Felix Bowness perform his ‘warm up’, interrupted by the thunderous call to arms from brilliant drummer Barry Morgan. Then Terry would appear on the balcony, trademark glass of red in one hand and sausage on a stick in the other, beaming as the applause erupted, followed by the lad from Limerick’s gentle, self-effacing shtick prior to the show going live.

My last memory of Terry was following the interview featured in the podcast mentioned above. We talked in the Radio 2 lift down about how he was going to appear on a show saying farewell to BBC Television Centre, dubbed by him ‘the concrete doughnut’, in honour of its unconventional shape.

Before I said goodbye, he told me how the paper bag he was holding contained something cake-like from the breakfast tray for his driver (there could be a joke there about ‘concrete doughnuts’, but I think they were pastries. Damn the details!).

Typical Terry, though. Thoughtful to the last.

 

Liberté, libel and illusion

In the wake of the hideous murders at the Charlie Hebdo journal in Paris (which every decent person would unequivocally condemn), the world has seemed very binary: either you’re for total free speech or you’re not.

But here’s a fact which has got lost among the 1s and 0s of binary thinking: we don’t have free speech. Or rather, I’ll qualify that: we have qualified free speech.

In the UK, the Public Order Act 1986 makes any ‘visible representation… causing another person distress’ an offence. Incitement to racial or religious hatred can involve words or images and is an offence. And what about libel laws? You are not free to say absolutely anything about absolutely everybody. And while there’s no hint of physical threat attached, the No More Page 3 movement are clearly not in favour of unlimited free speech (for which, read unrestricted dissemination of images) where it allows the publication of photos of half-naked women in The Sun newspaper.

I don’t want to get into the relative merits of these offences and the campaign here now. But what has worried me since the Charlie Hebdo massacre is what feels like the unspoken implication that if you don’t come out unequivocally as pro-free speech – without caveats – you’re somehow some kind of apologist for the murderers’ actions.

But if ‘the right to offend’ is so crucial and apparently to be valued almost above all else, why have British newspapers avoided reprinting the offending cartoons? Could it be that they have concluded along the lines ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to’? (I don’t believe it’s simply because they fear reprisals.) And have they taken into account the fact that a predominantly white, privileged press, if it goes overboard, can seem quite threatening to a less privileged racial and religious minority?

We need a more nuanced, mature approach to freedom of speech post-Charlie Hebdo. And people need to be free to not feel pressured into saying ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ while still fervently coming out against the barbaric acts of last week.

Surely those so passionately outspoken in favour of freedom of expression would allow for a peace-loving Muslim, say, to declare ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo’?