February 12-15, 2010

Somebody else's holiday pictures

It's now 18 years ago since somebody in our gang of friends (to core of which goes back to my infant schooldays) had the idea of going away for a weekend at the start of the February half-term (since upgraded to a long weekend).

As we've got older, we've tended to go for more expensive country cottages and barn conversions, and this year we went really mad and booked a really posh place, just outside Bideford, about a mile from the North Devon coast.

Our numbers have risen and fallen over the years, as children arrived and outgrew it (Sean was a notable absentee this year, having decided he'd rather spend time with his girlfriend) and there are even wives in the party who weren't around in the old days! This year there were eight adults and three teenagers. But the weekend activities stay more or less the same, some of which some people might think are a bit geeky (but let them).

This year we had the traditional Friday night curry; got up before 7am on Saturday morning to walk to the beach, where we cooked bacon butties; drove to Bideford for chips before hiring bikes and cycling to Barnstaple and back - a round trip of 18 miles.

The cycleway, which is part of the Tarka Trail and a former railway line, was made famous last Christmas, when it was the subject of a programme called James May's Toy Stories, in which he attempted to get a model train to run the whole length of the route we took - and failed. We secretly hoped to discover some evidence of this epic attempt (which actually took place last August) and were amazed to discover one of the batteries that was used to power the train.

Back at the cottage we organised our traditional evening tasting session. For some reason, every year we buy different brands of certain foods to discover which is the best. We've tested tomato soup, crisps, jam, apple pies and more, and this year it was mature cheddar. Our verdicts: these days, so-called 'mature' is actually quite mild; named brands such as Cathedral City are actually less tasty than standard supermarket brands; and Tesco and the Co-op were easily the top two.

One common theme to our February weekend is we usually get nearly perfect weather, but Sunday was different this year because there was no 'nearly' about it. There was no wind but blue skies and even blue sea - and it was so warm that even an extended walk along the Coast Path from Clovelly back to base (a good 10 miles, uphill and down dale) was mostly done in T-shirt, carrying my coat.

This year (as with last year), our trip coincided with Valentine's Day, which was our excuse for a slap-up meal - delivered, as usual, by Pete and the three remaining kids in the gang - Lucy, Holly and James. This year the blokes also provided some of the frills.

We had to be out of the cottage by 10am the next morning, but the pleasure wasn't over because the route home includes Lynton and Lynmouth, so we spent a few hours mooching around there. If there is more charming, picturesque seaside resort in the universe, I haven't heard of it, so that was a great way to round off another memorable weekend.

Other people's holiday pictures don't always make the most exciting viewing, but needless to say my camera was pretty busy all weekend. A small selection is below, but the whole caboodle is on Flickr. The complete history of our annual February weekends is recorded by my brother Brian.

Planning a headstone

Here's a little curiosity we spotted in a churchyard in Lynton. It's the best example I've ever seen of not planning ahead.

Notice how the mason didn't have room to fit a couple of the lines in. It's not as if part of the righthand side of the stone has been broken off. You can tell it's always been this wide because the decorations under each verse are centralised.

Another thing to note is that there were a few of these (apparently slate) headstones in the churchyard, and apart from being so elegant because they are so thin, they also last, because there was one from the 1770s that was still perfectly readable. So make sure you get a good mason because your headstone could last for centuries.

February 4, 2010

Broken news

I've just finished reading Flat Earth News, which is probably the most depressing book I've ever read in my life. And also one of the best.

It's all about the British news industry in the 21st century, and paints a sad and sometimes sickening picture of the press, which once could have been called it a public service, but has now become an industry in a 19th century sense.

Anybody without direct experience of the business will think the book far-fetched, reactionary and even a little bit hysterical, but some of what author Nick Davies exposes I have had personal experience of, and it is such a perfect representation of that reality that I can well believe the rest is equally accurate.

The book is basically about the way that newspapers that once stood for truth and justice have slowly been turned into ruthless commercial operations - and 'ruthless' is a fairly mild way of describing some of the practices that parts of the media get up to.

It starts by explaining how lack of investment and the pursuit of profits has decimated the local and regional press; then it explains how shameless and usually unskilled PR companies and the garbage they turn out have replaced real newsgatherers; and how propaganda at the highest levels has led to a world where misinformation is the norm. It also exposes the Press Complaints Commission as not only toothless but spineless, and the libel laws as totally inadequate in the face of the rich and powerful corporations that now rule the media.

If I have one criticism of an otherwise excellent, well-written and thoroughly researched book, it is that it dwells too much on political propaganda and distortion, which any (and probably all) politicians and their agents resort to, in all countries, and can hardly be related directly to the British press in isolation. But there is an eye-opener on every single page. Read it and you will instantly understand how the media works and why it churns out such drivel.

You have to read 356 pages of gloomy truth before Davies makes much of a mention of the Daily Mail, but then he lays into it in what becomes the finale to the whole sick opera. Just in case people still believe them, the book dispels some of the more straightforward myths that the Daily Mail has invented - literally invented - over the years, such as the ones about Hackney Council saying the word 'manholes' was sexist (it didn't) and the nursery class in Oxfordshire which banned Ba Ba Black Sheep because they thought it was racist (it didn't). These are only minor indiscretions compared with the systematic distortion of the truth in more complex and serious matters which the book deals with in page after page.

But it was another small example of the Mail's standpoint that I found the most chilling, which is contained in a single paragraph, and more or less says everything about what the Mail is about:

I spoke to a man who had worked for the Daily Mail for some years as a senior reporter. He said: "They phoned me early one morning and told me to drive about three hundred miles to cover a murder. It was a woman and her two children who'd been killed. I got an hour and a half into the journey, and the news desk called me on my mobile and said, "Come back." I said, "Why's that?" They said, "They're black."

The saddest thing for somebody who has worked in this industry is that the overwhelming majority of journalists I've worked with are basically decent people, and while words such as 'nigger' are, apparently, still banded around inside the Daily Mail offices every day (two centuries after the rest of the world realised how offensive that was), most of the honest, hard-working people I've come across in journalism are genuinely sickened by that sort of thing. If anybody had ever used the word 'nigger' just once in the newspaper offfices I've worked in, the rest of the staff would have refused to work with them. I expect the Mail reviles us for our liberalism humanity.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the Mail works to a party political agenda, but the book explains (for those who hadn't realised) that it is much more sinister than that. The paper seemingly never reports the truth, but exclusively deals in something much more powerful: it tells its readers exactly what they want to hear, regardless of whether that overlaps with thinking inside the Tory party (although, in practice, it often does).

Almost all of these readers are lower middle class or people who aspire to it, and they like to think that their lifestyle is under threat from such bogeymen as black people, poor people, immigrants, homosexuals, social workers, 'do-gooders' and possibly any other minority group worth hating. It's not just about picking on these people; it's about the way the readers are fed the idea that any disappointments or failures that they have experienced in their lives can be blamed on somebody else, even though they are actually among the lucky and most privileged people on the planet. It's the perfect drug for the never-satisfied, and the Mail sells them it like dealers sell to heroin junkies. If you asked them, they'd probably tell you, correctly, that they are simply serving their customers with exactly the product they want. This peddling of hate is what the Mail does, rather than toeing the Tory Party line. It invents scapegoats for problems that don't exist.

I don't want to sound too much like Basil Fawlty here, but this really isn't a million miles away from how Nazi Germany started.

And if that wasn't frightening enough, in December 2009, the Mail was one of only two national papers to report an increase in its year-on-year circulation (the other being the Daily Star, which is hardly a newspaper at all). The hatred it spreads - and hatred is the only word that fits - is bought by two million people a day. Here's the bad news on the Press Gazette website.

Ironically, the Mail adopts exactly the opposite economic policy to most owners of local papers, who have been bleeding the whole industry for the last 20 or 30 years, so that it is now on the point of total collapse. The Mail pays its (so-called) reporters over the odds, pays (in other words, bribes) people to lie by giving them vast sums of money, and when anybody tries to take it to court it will, if necessary, settle out of court with the tiniest flexing of its economic muscle.

Contrast the plight of the Mail with the Reading Evening Post, which I did some work for, three or four years ago. At the time it had been voted Regional Newspaper of the Year for the second year running, and I was amazed at the meticulous effort that the editor and the staff put into producing a really good paper, which included so few mistakes that I never actually saw one in print.

A year ago, it was still increasing its circulation, which, in an industry that is about as bouyant as the one that makes films for cameras, was little short of miraculous. Yet, last March, this five-day-a-week paper was slashed to a two-day-a-week paper as its owners, the Guardian Media Group, needed to cut costs.

To quote directly from

Mark Dodson, chief executive of GMG Regional Media, said: "The role of MEN Media and S&B Media is to produce great journalism for our readers and users. If we want to continue to be able to do this, we need to find a new, sustainable, lower-cost business model to support it. The economic viability of local and regional newspapers is under very real and imminent threat."

The first thing to say about this is the Reading Evening Post was producing "great journalism" - and the second thing to say is to translate what is being said in the rest of that quote,which is this: "We still think we can squeeze yet more profits out of it, and we are going to do it by turning something that the people of Reading liked into a lesser one that makes more money."

There are two tiny glimmers of hope on the horizon. If we are lucky, the internet will prove too big a body for the cancer of the news corporations to overcome. And if we are luckier still, the hidden agenda of those who want to commercialise the BBC will be seen for what it is.

Without the BBC, the sharks will be free to charge us to read news on the internet, and when that day comes - it's surely not a question of if - then the sharks will be free to say and do whatever they want, and we will have finally arrived in the information-distortion nightmare that is Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Something bad in the milk carton aisle

You get to see all kinds of life in Asda. This happened last Saturday, but has been on my mind ever since...

We were doing our weekly shop and had become separated, so I waited for Julie by a huge stack of toilet rolls on special offer (either they had grossly over-ordered or there's terrible trouble afoot that we haven't been told about yet).

As the aisle where the standard toilet rolls are kept is between this mountain and one of the main doors, it was inevitable that people had already chosen their toilet rolls before coming upon this special offer. So a few people decided they wanted these toilet rolls and wished they hadn't already selected others. What would you do in this situation?

I know what I would do because, just before Christmas, I trekked half way across the shop (which was the second biggest supermarket in Britain when it opened) to put a small jar of salsa back in its proper place, having been tempted by another of better value. But as I watched on Saturday, a man switched toilet rolls and dumped the original one where he was, apparently without a single thought of taking it back to its rightful place. I looked around and realised at least a dozen people had done the same.

I only had about two minutes to digest the social and anthropological significance of this before I saw something much more striking, in the milk carton aisle.

I just happened to notice a woman take a carton of skimmed milk off a shelf, at more or less waist level. Then she dropped it and it fell on the floor, but it wasn't damaged. She looked at the carton on the floor, sort of shrugged, and then took another off the shelf and walked off, leaving the stricken carton on the floor. She was a bit overweight, but definitely not disabled in any way, so bending down and picking it up should have presented no physical problem for her - apart from the fact that she was obviously too damned lazy to do it. There could be no other explanation.

OK, so everybody's lazy sometimes, although probably never to that extent. But what really annoys me about this is that the people who have to come along and pick things up for people who are too lazy to do it for themselves are just ordinary people like us, and probably get paid very little to do it. I just hate it when people create unnecessary work for other (always poorly paid) people, just through their own laziness and selfishness. No doubt the same woman expects people to pick up her litter, too.

I can safely say that our kids have never dropped a single piece of litter in their lives, because we always instilled in them the philosophy that other people are not there just to be at their beck and call, and it's up to them to take responsibility for their own actions, however trivial. It was the easiest thing in the world to teach them, and they both understood the concept, completely, by the time they were four.