Archive for June, 2007

Exit Thataway

Away to Spain for a fortnight. Don’t wreck the place while I’m away.

Flat Pack Flag Flap

SDLP Youth: not bothered about mega-air hangar monstrosity with ‘human hamster’-style shopping installations, but very bothered about unacceptable flag hanging outside it.

The Naked Eye

Slumped in front of the television once more. How To Look Good Naked is on. Another one of these ‘reality’ programmes where people’s lives are transformed by submitting to the demands of consumer society after standing in a police-style line up and getting subjected to body probes.

The programme purports to run counter to the dominant demands of society, in this case on women’s bodies, by acknowledging the pressures of such demands: things like don’t be fat, buy lots of beauty products, get rid of blemishes, look younger. It promotes other messages: big can be beautiful, it’s easy to look good if you know how, you look better than you think, don’t be so hard about yourself. But the solutions it proposes entail not being fat, buying lots of beauty products, getting rid of blemishes, looking younger. So you shouldn’t care about the demands of society on your body, but in order to stop caring, you should meet society’s demands on your body.

As ever, to transform your life, you should submit to the expert, who, as ever, has a heavily scripted voice-over, with a torrent of suggestive phrases.

He uses phrases like:

Instant femininity…looking more like a lady….this season’s A-line maxi is perfect…showcasing your boobs…slimming you down…be ladylike….the key to feminising any outfit….soften masculine bodies…look and feel good naked….take control of your life again…girly spa session…lot more feminine…

Ads – Dove ‘Pro-age’ hair product, ice-cream, Coke, BT unlimited call package (women’s voice), promo for 8 out of 10 cats (Jimmy Carr show), Sponsored by Dove Pro-Age.

After the break, lots of shots of ordinary women, topless in their underwear. Followed by shots of women in their underwear running to grab beauty products from a bucket. I can’t wait to find out which product performs best! exclaims the ‘journalist’. Then a review of different eye creams. “For me, it’s performance that counts”, says one of the reviewers.

Other scripted comments:

The ‘war on wrinkles'(!)…. leave a little to the imagination…sexy seductress…killer cleavage…push her femininity up a notch…lovely long legs…big booty….look at my hooters…draw out that feminine person…stylish young girl…just the right amount of carpet written all over it…learning to love herself…for a ladylike look..good fake tan….sophisticated, sensuous and oh so sexy….brimming with confidence…think about all that stuff that you wanted to prove yourself that you could do.

There is a bit where the stylist shows her how to get two outfits for one. This works to demonstrate that you can get good value from clothes shopping, which may come as news to anyone who has ever gone shopping for women’s clothes.

More scripted advice:

sexy glossy hair….every time you wash your hair, you need to condition it….wear a mask….nothing sexier than being natural(!).

More Ads – Dove Pro-Age Hair. Dispatches ad on drinking habits. Toyota ad showing man driving off through desert. Hair colour advert: we’re worth it. BT Broadband advert (woman’s voice). Father’s Day Brain Training Present to stop father from going senile. Gordon Ramsay’s The F-Word. Dove Pro-Age.

The programme ends with the ‘You go girl/All my friends were there’ affirmation moment when the transformed subject goes out onto a catwalk in lingerie.

‘You are truly a remarkable, amazing woman’, says the (very annoying) expert. Hmmph.

You Can’t Make an Omelette Without Breaking Some Exiles

Well, after all that, it wasn’t all that good. In fact, it was almost entirely unsatisfactory.

Let’s sketch two different approaches to writing about any particular culture. One is to try and adopt some sort of objective standpoint, and the other is to write as though you are in the thick of it, feeling your way around. Kamen’s approach is mostly the first, and it entails representing ‘Spanish culture’ to the outsider, even though he is none too specific about what Spanish culture actually might be.

The subtitle of ‘The Exiles Who Created Spanish Culture’ may be misleading. You ponder it and you think, maybe he’s talking about ‘Spanish Culture’ as the contemporary result of some historical process. In fact, it might be more accurate to understand ‘creating Spanish Culture’ in the way that one might create ‘a bit of a stink’.

Exile for him appears a sort of McGuffin to hold his disparate sketches of assorted (overwhelmingly male) figures from Spanish cultural history together. The sections on the expulsion of the Jews and the Moriscos had me wanting more, but once he approaches the modern period, the work starts to lose the plot a bit. He doesn’t think much of the generation of ’98, who come across as a set of fawned-over ponces. Unamuno is a bit of a pompous old goat. Ortega y Gasset is a bit of a gasbag. The States are great, say some Spanish exiles, and the rest of them can’t seem to stomach that their boys took a hell of a beating. Asinine poet Juan Ramón Jiménez is something of a hero, not least because he became a US citizen. In fact, Spain isn’t half as important to Spanish culture as the US is. Or Paris, which is where loads of exiles buggered off to, where they enjoyed the food, unlike those poor souls who made it to England and struggled to learn English.

The centrality of Don Quixote to the idea of ‘Spain’ is rightly duffed up a bit, especially the silliness of the state-run readings, but you would think from Kamen’s account that Don Quixote had the cultural weight of your average episode of Neighbours. Also, in general his translations could put you off reading the original authors.

There are a few instances where he says things to the effect of ‘and this is something that continues in Spain today’ even though he says next to nothing about Spain today. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking -after reading this haughty tome- that ‘Spanish culture’ got mothballed around the time Franco was croaking his last.

Do You Sell George Steiner Pop-Up Books?

Hello. I was going to write a piece on school exams for children, but Andrew O’Hagan has written one which covers everything I would have liked to say and more, and better.


Somehow, “doing well” has too easily supplanted the business of “being well”, and too many of us ambitiously hot-house our children with an often invisible sense of self-regard, looking ultimately for people who will prove to be some sort of adornment and credit to ourselves, as opposed to them being original and good and happy in their own right.


…children are not capital investments, and they cannot simply be repositories of their parents’ anxieties.

Yes. But I get the impression what you see in the ludicrously high number of examinations and assessments used to measure children is not simply a hare-brained development on the part of a few policy wonks, but a reflection of the dominant character of society. That is: children are capital investments, and there is a need to know that they are growing accordingly.

I was in a shop the other day that was selling CDs on how to boost your baby’s IQ. A parallel universe where CDs get sold on how to prepare your baby for a lifetime up chimneys does not seem impossible.

Madding Crowd

Nor any drop to drink

‘People generally regard June 5, 1967, as the day the Six-Day War began. That is the official date. But, in reality, the Six Day War started two and a half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.’

– Ariel Sharon.

Via Michael Perelman.

Sweet Nothings

I was on the blower last night to Marks and Spencer.

M&S has such a strong brand that I led myself to expect something slightly special from their customer services line – the telephonic equivalent of a beef bourguignon ready meal. But while the people I spoke with were pretty good, I was surprised at their wait music. This is a no-frills customer services line. No hold music (I was expecting music to coincide with whatever vaguely retro not-dead-yet ad campaign they are running at the mintute). Instead, just a ringing tone, punctuated by a northern lass saying:

‘We are currently experiencing a high volume of calls. Please be assured that your call will be answered as quickly as possible.’

Personally, I prefer the plain sound of a ringing tone to listenining to The Corrs occasionally interrupted with suggestions to check out their website and the like. The worst I have come across in this regard is UTV. Its helpline has a radio station playing, which is bearable enough, but then Julian Simmons barges in every now and again to tell you that all agents are busy.

So the M&S message is pretty much the standard message placed on helplines. I have often wondered if this is a deliberate strategy on the part of businesses, it having been proven that customers on balance respond best to these empty words, or if the businesses invest or nothing here since providing an update on a sofa delivery or whatever is a fundamentally unprofitable activity.

I think it’s probably the latter, as demonstrated by the next sentence, which may mean something for the people who have to set up the call centre infrastructure, but is pretty much devoid of any meaning for someone who just wants to speak to someone about the arrival of their oak chest of drawers.

‘All calls are answered on a strict rotational basis.’

Perhaps ‘a strict rotational basis’ is the type of seat used by the people who work in the call centre. Or maybe it’s a new fangled way of saying ‘around the clock’.

Update: the current customer service line is certainly doing the business for M&S Chief Executive Stuart Rose, who pocketed a 68% pay rise last year, earning £3.6m overall. Most of this came from bonuses, earned by staying behind to take calls for the furniture department helpline.

If I Ever Get Out Of Here

And now, some phrases that irritate me at work. How brain-expandingly original.

‘In close proximity’  – what other type of proximity is there, jackass?

‘Needless to say’ – so why say it?

‘On a daily basis’ – Irritates daily.

‘Going forward’ – From now on, going forward will be replacing from now on.

‘Cool!’ – It is so cool that you are working in exchange for money.

‘Awesome!’ – You are working in exchange for money. How awesome is that?

On the bright side, it feels like my hay fever is easing. That, and the holidays are just over a week away.

How Was I To Know She Was With The Russians Too?

There are some things that don’t bear thinking about, like getting halved up the middle by a slow approaching buzzsaw, or being forced to drink Harp.  One such thing is getting eliminated in a nuclear holocaust. I prefer to occupy my mind with more pleasant matters than this, such as the pork kebab I had last night, with barbecue sauce.

But what if the fear of nuclear holocaust becomes so great that it stops you from enjoying your pork kebab? As with all that stuff about Putin talking about pointing missiles at Europe in response to the proposed missile bases in Czechoslovakia and Poland. (Outrageous behaviour altogether from the Russian BTW. After all, the Americans would let the Russians set up missile bases in Mexico, Cuba and Haiti without any complaint whatsoever. Hell, they’d send out shipments of Coors Light so as to make them feel at home)  What do you do then?  I think there are a few different approaches:

a) in anticipation, build a massive bunker in your back garden, 60ft underground, with DVDs and stockpiles of pulses, dried fruit and bottled water enough to last 20 years or so, with a sewage system that works independently of the county council system and a viable electricity supply. Then, when the bombs fall, get into that bunker and die like a couch potato. Life is good.

b) Continue as normal, but spend smoke breaks praying to the Virgin Mary for intercession. She saw off the Russkies once, and she can do it again. But wait. Maybe she was working with the Russians all along. Listen to repeat plays of ‘Russians’ by Sting, and learn all the grunts to Rocky IV.

c) Seek out a couple of Russian dissenters and become their PR manager and literary agent. Do a tour of daytime talk shows where they talk about the horrors of Putin’s Russia, like this one time where the only thing left to eat in the country was rotten cabbages.

d) Become a nuclear weapons advocate. Start wearing a cravat and pinstripe and smoke a pipe, and furrow your brow. Say things like “it is counter-intuitive, but the threat of nuclear weapons only demonstrates how much we need nuclear weapons. Indeed, everyone needs nuclear weapons, but the Russians need them more than most. Dropped on them from a great height.” Add that you have only arrived at this conclusion after a great deal of general moral turmoil.

I on Twitter

June 2007