Tag Archives: Tesco

How British Government finance works – by the stand-up comic who worked for Education Secretary Michael Gove

Gareth Morinan in Soho yesterday, shocked by his memories

Gareth Morinan in Soho yesterday, shocked by his memories

Stand-up comics tend to have odd and interesting backgrounds.

Gareth Morinan’s university degree was in Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics.

Yesterday at Bar Italia in Soho, he told me: “I started in the Civil Service in late 2008 because I wanted to see how government works and I was there until around mid-2011.

“Most of the time I was there, I was in the Education Department although, for the first six months, I worked in this dodgy department called The Export Credits Guarantee Department, which is the only department other than the HM Revenue & Customs that makes money. It’s basically like a government-run insurance firm.

If some big British company wants to export, they’ll always have an insurance deal. But, if they’re exporting to some dodgy country – if they want to export fighter jets to some dodgy country – no private insurance company is going to insure that: it’s too risky. So the government has this entire department purely set up for supporting dodgy deals. I was really curious, so went to work there for six months and then left. I was an analyst there. As an analyst, people take your word as Gospel.”

“That’s because your art is a science.” I suggested.

“Yes,” Gareth laughed, “even though, when you look at the spreadsheets, it’s very dodgy. I had situations where I would e-mail someone a figure saying This is a very rough figure. This is the best figure I can get. And it got sent round the department and would eventually come back to me as fact and I’d say: I know that’s not fact. I came up with that figure. Don’t put that out on a press release. But they did. This happened a lot in the Export Credits Guarantee Department.”

“That was under the Labour Party?” I asked.

“Yeah. You had these figures – especially around the time of the financial crisis, where some analyst somewhere in some bank had come out with some figure he’d plucked out of the air on the back of an envelope and, as soon as it became public, that figure became ‘fact’ and it could not be changed and everyone had to work from those figures.

“All politicians really want is a number: Give me a number. Don’t tell me anything else. The less I know about how dodgy this number is, the better it is – It’s that plausible deniability thing.

“I started in the Education Department about a year before the General Election so, when I started, Ed Balls was the Minister and then, about a year later, it was all-change because the Coalition came in and what we were doing changed somewhat.”

“Changed?” I asked.

“Well,” Gareth told me, “the key thing Michael Gove did when he came in was – on the first day – a big picture of the Queen was put up in Reception. And there were some formality differences.

Policies changed with Michael Gove

Policies changed with the arrival of journalist Michael Gove

“The most interesting thing was that the Permanent Secretary told us – these are not his exact words, but he basically told us – This new government – specifically Michael Gove – doesn’t care so much about the details or the facts. He cares more about ‘the narrative’. 

“When we were doing White Papers, whereas before it was very much We’ve got to have these details; this is the headline figure, Michael Gove, because he’s a journalist, just wanted the story to read well.

“He was a local journalist, then a journalist for The Times, then a TV commentator… then suddenly he’s in charge of national education policy, which makes a change from cracking jokes on A Stab in The Dark with David Baddiel.”

There is a clip on YouTube of him presenting 1993 TV satire show A Stab in The Dark:

“Most of the financial projections in Education,” Gareth told me, “are based on how many kids there are going to be and those calculations are based round the Office for National Statistics’ population projections. But Michael Gove was quite keen for a while on trying to replace them with projections done by somebody he knows at Tesco.

“At Tesco, they have all this Clubcard data and they have projections which help them decide where to open up a new store. And, for quite a while, he was arguing we should start incorporating those – or replace the official national projections with ones done by Tesco. It didn’t go down well in the department.

“I actually had to lie for Michael Gove once.

“During the big Comprehensive Spending Review where (Chancellor of the Exchequer) George Osborne works out how much money he’s going to give to all the departments, I was basically the guy working out the headline figures of how many billions we needed. I would hand those numbers to someone who then had a meeting with Michael Gove – There was always a buffer zone between me and Michael Gove. Maybe I was too scruffy.

“Our department did quite well in the budget review – basically they decided to give us extra money at the cost of other departments. So we had a nice little champagne reception to thank everyone and the look Michael Gove gave me when I stood there listening to his speech was like How did this one get in? I was just wearing a shirt and cardigan and looking very scruffy with uncombed hair. He was like Oh God! What is going on there?

“But, basically, in the spending review, we were negotiating and there was a strategy department. I provided numbers and we would go into meetings with all these senior Treasury people and I was the person having to justify all the numbers.

“Over the course of several months, while this was happening, the Office for National Statistics came out with a new projection of pupil numbers, which underpinned all our financial projections… and their projections were basically lower. So, overnight, our projection of how much money we needed went down by about half a billion pounds.

Michael Gove at Westminster in 2008

Michael Gove looking contemplative in Westminster in 2008

“Michael Gove’s opinion was that this had not happened and that the projections we believed were the ones that were higher. That was the official line.

“We were about to go into this meeting and I’m the one who has to explain the actual numbers to all these senior Treasury people who were probably better negotiators than the people in our department and better analysts than me. And I was told before I went into the meeting: Well, just come up with something.

“So I was pinned down in this meeting by the Treasury people: What’s the difference in these numbers? Which ones are the correct ones? The higher ones? Why? I basically just stuttered for a while and gave a very unconvincing performance.”

“Did you get away with it?” I asked.

“No,” said Gareth. “After that meeting, I went to my boss, who was an analyst, and he was like Well, this is outrageous. We shouldn’t be lying. And my boss spoke to the other person’s boss and eventually they decided that we were going to go with the lower numbers… But here’s an interesting example of how analysis works in the government.

“The thing you learn when you work in any government department is how little information we actually have. There are entire swathes of the education budget that no-one really knows the cost of.

“The biggest mystery black hole is kids who have special needs. There are more of these kids every year – especially ones with serious medical problems who require like £100,000 a year – because, as health technology improves, more kids get saved and live longer.

“There’s no way of predicting how many of these kids there’s going to be and medical costs keep going up, so there was this line in the budget which was The 1% Assumption. It was a long-standing assumption: We don’t know how much it’s going to be, so we just assume it’s going to rise by 1% every year.

“My brainwave was to ask: Well… Could we make this The 2% Assumption? That was thought to be a genius idea. We put it into the calculations and suddenly the gap was closed and we were back to the higher figure we had originally wanted.

“That was probably the one thing I did which made the biggest actual difference when I worked for the government.”

* * * * *

Gareth Morinan has a YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/gmorinan, to which he will be adding over the next couple of months.

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Filed under Education, Finance, Humor, Humour, Politics

British Airways are a bunch of drug smugglers who ruined a relationship

Martin Soan got high flying with B.A.

The story so far…

British Airways buggered up their flight from London to Beijing by overbooking it, downgraded my ticket, promised to refund the difference in fare (they have not yet) and gave me £75 compensation in the form of a BA Visa card which they are trying to foist on people.

However, most cash machines only dispense £10 and £20 notes, not £5. So British Airways, in attempting a bit of good PR have created bad PR for themselves by giving alleged compensation in a form where they accidentally but actually screw people for £5. Now read on…

As a Scot brought up among Jews, £5 is £5. I would have been happy with £70 compensation, which I could have accessed. But I am pissed-off if they are allegedly giving me £5 which cannot be accessed.

So, yesterday, having had no response to a message I sent to their Customer Relations Dept via the BA website ten days before, I blogged about it and their Twitter team @British_Airways sent me a message:

Hi John, sorry to read of your disappointing flight. Here is a link to our compensation card info.

All very jolly. Except it just says you get your money by using an ATM. That will be the ATMs which cannot dispense £75 then… Their next attempt was:

You can use the card at a retailer for the residual balance.

Sure enough, if you plough through their Compensation Card Info, you can indeed, use your card to pay at selected retailers displaying a Visa Electron sign. Even if you find a retailer visibly displaying this sign, it involves a terrible rigmarole of using another plastic card in addition to using the BA plastic card but making sure you use the BA one first.

At this point yesterday, I was just interested to see what hoops individuals at BA would contort themselves through in order not to sort out the problem and give me my £5.

What retailer? I replied. Why should I? What if I just want the money?

I got no reply to this, but my Facebook friend comedian Sameena Zehra told me:

BA have been crap for years. What really irritates me is the ‘One World’ concept, so that you can buy a Quantas flight (as I did when I went to Adelaide in March) but find out that one of the flights is operated by British Airways. and then they have different luggage allowances, check in procedures and their attitude is ‘Tough shit – you should have booked a different flight’. Arse.

My Facebook friend Aileen Kane told me: “Cash machines in Scotland give out fivers now! Worth checking…” but it seemed a long way to go from London to get my extra £5.

Pursued further, BA’s Twitter twits then tweeted:

Sorry you’re having difficulty withdrawing your cash, John.  Please call Customer Relations on 0844 493 0787.

I decided to see how much worse they could bugger up their customer PR. So I called.

“You can get £5 notes through-the-wall from Barclays Bank and Lloyds Bank,” I was told.

“I have tried that,” I replied. “Their machines don’t dispense £5 notes.”

“Yes they do,” I was told.

“Righto,” I replied.

So, with the same sense of adventure that built the British Empire, I went down to my high street.

I tried (again) Barclays, Lloyds, NatWest, HSBC, Halifax, Santander and Nationwide. None of their machines dispensed £5 notes. I even, humorously, went in to the Lloyds and Barclays branches and told them British Airways said their machines dispense £5 notes. “No they don’t,” replied one bank…. “British Airways are idiots,” replied the other bank.

I had to agree.

At home, there was an e-mail waiting from comedian Ian Fox saying: “I just got 2 fivers out of a Tesco cash machine.”

Unfortunately, this was in Manchester.

There was a second e-mail from Ian. It said: “You know I did think right after tweeting that That’s probably not going to help. I think I was right.”

This morning, I got a Tweet from journalist and Malcolm Hardee Awards judge Jay Richardson telling me: “You can get £5 only out in Glasgow. Don’t even have to pawn anything.”

But life is cheaper in Glasgow. I understand you can get someone killed for £5. If I could get my extra £5, I would put out a contract for a hit on the entire PR Dept at British Airways. Though it might cost £10 in Glasgow.

But Tesco may be the furrow to plough. Sadly, this morning, I am currently far from a Tesco. (Who would have thought such a thing was possible?)

Last night, comedian Martin Soan suggested Tesco probably do issue £5 notes because they would not want to lose the custom of someone wanting to buy £3.99 of lager.

“Why wouldn’t they just use their card?” his wife Vivienne asked.

“I know the mentality of someone wanting to buy £3.99 of lager,” said Martin.

And he told me his own British Airways story.

“My brother was out in Greece” he said, “and I’d never been out of the country before. I was only 18 or 19. My girlfriend encouraged me to go out there with her. But she made it abundantly clear – after seeing my excessive behaviour in the genre of drug-taking – that I must not take any drugs with me on the flight.

“Of course, I completely ignored her and took about five tabs of ‘Orange Sunshine’, which was the best acid you could buy at the time – about twice the strength of other types of LSD. It was infamously very powerful acid indeed.

“I was working as a Punch & Judy man at the time, calling myself The Greatest Show on Legs. Being a Punch & Judy man, I could accommodate – embarrassing though it is to say – a large mass at the back of my throat.”

(Background info: The swazzle which creates the voice of Mr Punch is two bits of silver held together by a piece of cotton thread. It is put in the back of the performer’s throat. When he wants to speak as Mr Punch, he presses the base of his tongue against the swazzle and directs all the air from his windpipe through the swazzle.)

“So,” Martin told me, “I had this ability to hold and manipulate things at the back of my mouth, top of my throat. The night before the flight, I chewed-up a load of chewing gum and lay the five tabs of acid in the resulting tiny ‘pudding’ of chewing gum. I waited for it to go hard, then shaved it down with a Stanley knife, making it into a small saucer shape – roughly swazzle size. If any Customs man caused problems, I could swallow it.

“In the morning, I had the thing in the back of my throat, leaving the country for the first time, going off to Greece which had very draconian laws against drugs. I was nervous.

“In the departure lounge, I took it out and had a drink, then put it back in my mouth. We get on the British Airways plane. A little later, the pilot announces we’re flying over Paris at so-many-thousand feet. I am nervous. I absent-mindedly think What’s that in my mouth? and feel this bit of what feels like plastic in my mouth. What’s that? I think. I put it between my teeth and pull. I see this vaguely orange saliva-ey thing on the end of forefinger and thumb and think Oh fuck! and then swallow the whole lot – five tabs of Orange Sunshine acid – out of shock.

“I spent the next hour ordering whisky from the flight attendant and trying to ‘come down’ but events started overtaking me and I had some very interesting conversations with my girlfriend who was sitting next to me.

You promised you wouldn’t take drugs, she said. Everything’s OK, I told her. Why are you drinking so much whisky? she asked. I thought Why do I have to be stuck in a Social Security office with 150 of the ugliest and weirdest people I have ever seen in my life? Things like that. Then Oh! I know why! Because I’m not in a Social Security office; I’ve taken some acid and I’m on a plane.

“I remember the British Airways stewardess struggling to understand this man behaving rather strangely It was about 1971.

“At one point I thought I’ve just got to say something to appear normal. It’s going to seem weird if I don’t talk. People were murmuring all around me, then the plane hit this pocket of air and we dropped maybe 50 feet. Everybody went Ooh! and shut up. Total silence. But I immediately launched into some loud nonsensical monologue and everyone looked round at me.

“When I got off the plane, the blast of Greek heat hit me and sent me doolally. I completely lost control. I was convinced we were in Ireland and there was some trouble with the tarmac, so I wanted to lie on it to protect it. I was aware people were looking at me oddly but didn’t know why. I then started running to the terminal building and managed to run through the Customs and out the other side before any staff had arrived there.

“Then I panicked and went back through. I had nothing to declare and I wanted to prove it. They accepted that.

“The girlfriend was not pleased. She had this restrained anger about her the whole holiday. When we got back to Britain, she wrote me a horrendous letter. Quite deservedly. End of relationship. I’ve never seen her since.”

“So,” I asked Martin, “British Airways are a bunch of drug smugglers who ruined your relationship?”

“You want to say that?” asked Martin.

“Well,” I replied, “it would be quite jolly and would it make a good blog heading.”

“Oh,” said Martin. “OK.”

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Filed under Airlines, Comedy, Drugs, PR, Travel

Has Tesco got so big that it does not care about PR or charging one price?

There was a report on the Guardian website a couple of days ago about someone who was almost thrown out of a Tesco store for attempting to compare prices on the shelves. He had noticed a bizarre piece of pricing in which it was more expensive (per bottle) to buy Highland Spring water in 4-packs than in lesser quantities: the opposite of what a casual shopper would assume.

This is something I had noticed myself. There was a surreal period where, at my local Tesco, it was significantly cheaper to buy four individual cans of Red Bull than to buy a 4-pack of Red Bull – the opposite of what you would expect. No special offers were involved; this was the normal, everyday price.

In the case of the Guardian reporter, when he was seen on the Tesco security cameras to be standing by shelves writing down something on a piece of paper, the store’s deputy manager approached him and, when told he was “writing down prices”, responded:

“You’re not allowed to do that. It’s illegal… It’s illegal to write things down and you can’t take any photographs, either. If you want to check the prices, take the item to the till and pay for it there. The price will be on the receipt.”

The store manager told him the same thing.

I thought this might be a quirk. But, when I posted a link to the Guardian article on my Google+ account, someone responded:

“I got escorted from Tesco for taking a snap of price tag on my phone. The same thing – item packed in bulk was 100% more expensive than buying four separate items.”

Someone posted on the Guardian website:

I saw a splendid offer there the other day, some revolting looking snack, 20p each or 4 for a £1.00…

And someone else posted:

Recent gems include:
Fruit squash: £1.35 a bottle or 2 for £2.75
NCG soups: £1 or 2 for £3.00
Bread: £1 a loaf or 2 for £2.00.

There are two things here.

What on earth are Tesco doing with their pricing policy? Occasionally you see TV ads claiming Tesco prices are cheaper than their competitors; and they put prices online. But the company has no actual single price throughout the country – or even in the same neighbourhood. Smaller Tesco Metro stores already routinely charge more for items than larger Tesco stores.

I live in Borehamwood in Hertfordshire. The Tesco store there charges lower prices on everyday items than the Tesco Metro in Radlett, three miles away in the next small town.

Tesco has no uniform pricing. Although it buys in bulk at a set price, it does not sell at a set price and is taking different profit margins from customers in different areas and even at different stores within the same area.

Its TV ads, which quote specific prices for specific products, wrongly imply that there is a single standard price for all items at Tesco. There is not. You go into a Tesco store, you take pot luck on what you pay.

And what’s with this surreal leaping on anyone who dares to attempt to write down the prices in their stores?

Tesco has got so big it appears to have lost control of itself.

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Yesterday was a bad day for watching others work at the coalface of comedy

Yesterday, comedian Janey Godley (of whom more later) said to me about the superfluous ‘tasks’ in the first episode of ITV1’s Show Me the Funny: “Finding someone called Michelle in a street in Liverpool does not mean you are a good comedian; it takes no comedy talent.”

Bloody right.

What on earth is the point of this show?

For no logical or demonstrable reason (apart from copying a not-very-good old TV format where comics performed in front of ‘difficult’ audiences) this week our mis-used nine comics had to perform five minutes of new material to soldiers at Catterick army camp.

Four minutes into the show, the scripted voice-over said pseudo-dramatically – “They’ll be a tough audience to please.”

Maybe. But it was not until 29 minutes into the show that the comedians actually started to perform to the audience.

Why oh why oh why do they not just Show Me The Funny?

Perhaps next year, when television screens the 100 metre race at the Olympics, the race itself will be preceded by 30 minutes of watching the athletes learn how to juggle fruit… and we will only be allowed to see glimpses of the race itself.

In this show, where the format involves writing five minutes of new material, we only get glimpses of the acts performing that material. The longest any of them got was two minutes; most got significantly less than one minute; the shortest appeared to get around 4 seconds.

Last week, I said the problem with this show was that the producers could not see the wood for the trees. We are now into another week, another simile. It is now clear they are just barking up the wrong tree.

The producers are so busy showing us irrelevant production values that they do not have any time left to show us the funny. And, because they have chopped the comedians to pieces in the edit, the person who actually comes across strongest is judge Kate Copstick whose tongue is as sharp as her Scotsman reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. La Copstick has clearly been chopped-to-hell in the edit as well, but she still shines forth a beacon of light in her Cruella de Vil world.

Perhaps I am just becoming a grumpy old man.

A least Show Me The Funny showed us glimpses of what we were supposed to be seeing.

Yesterday, I was invited along by Sky TV to what they called a PR “junket” – which my dictionary defines as “an extravagant trip or celebration”.

Sky say that, by 2014, they will be spending £600 million on British programming and that “original British comedy provides cornerstone of Sky1 HD autumn schedule” this year.

Well, all I can say is they’d better hurry up and get their publicity act together.

I was one of six mostly-mystified people with an online presence – I think we were each supposed to be highly influential in our blogs and websites – and we were invited to “round-table interviews” with some of the talent involved in the new Sky comedy shows.

What a disastrous bit of PR. Are companies just suicidal nowadays?

“What shall we do today?”

“Oh, I know, we will see how we can damage our own brand image.”

Four months ago, I blogged about the disastrous recording session for IKEA’s ‘comedy/Friends’ commercials – it is an old blog which still gets a few hits every day or so.

IKEA promised to ply their Family Card holders with plentiful food and drink if they attended the endlessly unfunny recording of their TV ads. The food and drink which was not supplied made Southern Sudan seem like a land of milk and honey.

Sky did not promise any food or drink, so I can’t complain about the small bottles of water which were probably supplied by the excellently-run hotel where the junket took place and not by Sky.

But I can bitch about the lack of any discernible organisation.

The story was that they would screen clips from possibly four shows, then there would be these “round table interviews” with the talent. Presumably the idea was that, from these glimpses of the shows and sparkling quotes from the talent, we would write glowing online pieces which would spread the word on how good the ‘products’ are.

This was supposed to happen 5.30-7.00pm – “arrive at 5.15pm” we were told. The very efficient hotel staff showed us into a padded room. I should have started to worry at this point.

Around 5.45pm, the first appearance was made by a Sky person – a head popped round the door to say “We’re running a little late” and then disappeared.

The first ‘talent’ came into the room accompanied by a PR lady just after 6.00pm, we turned to the TV screen but there were no clips.

Perhaps later, I foolishly thought.

So we rather awkwardly asked questions of the talent who brilliantly plugged their unseen show. This was repeated with three more different groups of talent being ushered into the room (with large gaps of emptiness between) each with a different, mostly mute, PR lady. We had four bunches of talent from three new Sky series; the talent from the fourth show seemed to have wisely done a runner.

It was a magical mystery guess as to who would come through the door next. Sometimes, as they entered, we were told which show they were on; sometimes we had to guess from their faces and the single sheet press releases we had on each show.

For the record, the shows were The Cafe, Mount Pleasant and Trollied. The billed people from the Spys sitcom must have gone on an undercover mission elsewhere. It was only when we asked at the end that we discovered they were not turning up.

The show people were all rushed through to a tight deadline because, having started half an hour late, the Sky PR machine did not want to end late because they had other things to do. Poor Jane Horrocks and Jason Watkins had to try and ‘sell’ their show Trollied (set in a supermarket) in seven minutes, which they did brilliantly. But what do you ask about a show you haven’t seen which is set in a supermarket?

I asked if, because they were used to performing in studios, it was more difficult to act in the ‘real’ supermarket which Sky had built for the series.

Jane Horrocks said she had done so many ads for Tesco she felt at home in a supermarket.

I like Jane Horrocks.

But quite what we were talking about no-one really knew. Which brings us back to Janey Godley, who was one of the six influential online people invited to the junket and who said to me (I paraphrase extensively):

“You have to see clips to know what the tone is. You can shoot one idea in any number of ways. You can have a great idea badly done and it’s crap. You can have a bad idea brilliantly done and it’s wonderful.”

No clips meant we had no idea what we are supposed to be helping Sky TV promote.

I felt like asking if any of the talent had had their phones hacked by News International.

The “junket” lasted under an hour; one of us had come all the way from Devon to attend.

It all ended with a brief head popping round the door again to thank us for coming. Someone asked: “Are there any DVDs so we can see the shows?”

“Oh,” the surprised PR replied: “Send us an e-mail if you want one.”

I think a basic rule-of-thumb should be… if you are trying to kick-start good word-of-mouth in hopefully influential online sites and blogs… then show us the product.

Show Me The Funny fell at the first hurdle because it failed to Show Me The Funny.

Sky TV, trying to promote their TV shows, fell at the first hurdle because they wanted good word-of-mouth but failed to show us anything at all of the programmes.

And whatever happened to outright bribes of canapés, knick-knacks or, at the very least, an inflatable Jane Horrocks doll?

Word-of-mouth works both ways.

I will listen with interest to Janey Godley’s weekly podcast this Wednesday – after only a year, it gets over 100,000 downloads per week via multiple sites – having built on the success of her blog which, since 2004, had built up to over 500,000 hits per week on multiple sites.

I left the excellent central London hotel hosting the Sky junket – the Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall Place – I recommend it highly – thinking the highly-trained if rather overly-smiley hotel staff should have been arranging the PR.

Then I thought:

“Shall I slag off this shindig or not? If I do, they will never invite me to another one.”

Big decision.

“What have I really got to lose?”

The answer was obvious:

“A bottle of still water but no knick-knacks or inflatable Jane Horrocks doll.”

Lackaday! Lackaday!

Do the words Brinsley Schwarz mean nothing nowadays?

(Janey Godley’s weekly podcast also talked about this Sky junket – 10 mins 20 seconds in)

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Filed under Comedy, PR, Television

The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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Filed under History, Politics, Wales

How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?

Yesterday, a 15 year-old girl asked me:

“How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?”

I told her: “The only way to become a writer is to write. It sounds silly, but it’s like juggling. The more you do it, the better you get.”

On the other hand, I can’t juggle, so what do I know about it?

Always beware of people who use similes about things they don’t know even the first thing about.

And who end sentences with prepositions.

I also told the 15 year old girl she had asked the wrong question.

“You don’t want to know what subjects to write about,” I told her. “You want to know who will buy and/or read the stuff you write. You don’t want to look at anything from the perspective of you writing something; you want to look from the perspective of someone reading what you write.”

That’s the only decent piece of advice I have about writing.

Never think of yourself as a writer.

The worst thing anyone can ever do is think of themself as ‘a writer’. If you do that, your mindset will be wrong. You will think, “How would a ‘real’ writer say this?” and you will copy the way you think a ‘real’ writer should write and it will be crap because you will descend into cliché.

Plenty of people write in the same way, but who wants to write like the lowest common denominator Fleet Street hack?

A famous actress with a great life story once talked to me about writing her autobiography. The most important thing, she said, was that she wanted to write it herself and for the book to be her own thoughts in her own voice. Eventually, the publisher persuaded her to have an experienced Fleet Street journalist ‘help’ her with the autobiography.

I picked up the published book in Tesco one day and looked at the first page. It read like any book serialisation in any tabloid Sunday newspaper. It was written in cliché Fleet Street sentences. It probably sold well because she was a famous actress, but not because it was well-written and not because she herself had written it.

In 2003, Random House commissioned unknown Scots comedienne Janey Godley to write her autobiography. She had gone into a meeting with an editor at their imprint Ebury Press with little hope of getting a book commissioned – nobody had ever heard of her – but, when the editor heard just a little of her life story, Random House virtually ripped her arms off to sign her up.

I was asked to actually edit the book which was published as Handstands in the Dark (a terrible title – it should have been called Good Godley! – but Ebury insisted). I had a meeting with Ebury after the contract was signed at which it was discussed what editing this book might involve, because Janey had never written anything for publication before.

It might involve doing nothing. It might involve tweaking. It might involve a lot of literary shepherding. It might involve writing the whole thing from scratch if it turned out Janey could not do it herself. They wanted to publish her story; she was staggeringly charismatic to talk to; but no-one knew if she could write for print.

As it turned out, she was a brilliant writer, though I had to give her advice in the first few weeks of the process. Of course, it might have been wrong advice – what do I know? – but I don’t think it was.

She used to send me stuff she had written almost every night. Because she was writing an autobiography, at first she delivered lots of facts.

This happened, that happened, then this happened, then…

This can wear the reader down and also it does not actually let the reader share the experience of what happened, which is the whole point of writing the thing. You can get bogged down in facts with no humanity. Writing is not about facts; it’s about emotions and thoughts. The facts, however interesting, are only the skeleton for the meat. People are interested in people, not facts.

I told Janey to find key incidents which epitomised the period or the emotions of what was happening to her at the time and then to describe those key incidents and emotions as vividly as she could.

“Write more about less,” I told her.

One way to make the incidents more vivid was to try to find any of her five senses that were key to the moment. A ‘key’ moment is literally that. It opens up a doorway to something. If she remembered an incident, what was the first thing she remembered inside herself? Which of her five senses was most vivid? Use that key sense of the moment and it opens up a whole emotional experience which readers can share.

When Marcel Proust wrote his autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past (which, of course, I have never read) he ended up writing seven volumes after drinking one spoonful of tea in which he had soaked a piece of madeleine cake. The taste triggered involuntary memories of his entire childhood – all the tiny details came flooding back to him.

He wrote: “The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old grey house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.” Just seeing the madeleine had not brought back these memories. He needed to taste and smell it.

Describing what is seen or heard is obvious. Perhaps smell and taste come next. But touch is important too. If you describe the rough or smooth texture of something, the object becomes more alive.

You can write that you sat on a sofa. Or you can write that, as you sat on the cream sofa with its three dark brown coffee stains, your fingers ran over the rough-textured woollen blanket which Fred had half-thrown over its back that drunken night.

Of course, you don’t want too much of this – it could end up as bad as having endless adjectives in front of the noun. Who wants to read too many sentences about a noisy, black, frightened, one-eyed Shetland pony?

I told Janey that, if she remembered one key sensory detail of any incident, include it. So, in one sentence, she wrote:

“Three plain clothes detectives were standing around, their cold breath drifting up and turning white and blue in the flashing lights of the ambulance.”

I think that description is all-the-more vivid because Janey chooses to write “white and blue” instead of “blue and white”, but that would take a whole extra thousand words to discuss!

In another sentence, she writes:

“I ran up the stairway with one policeman behind me, my bloodied shoes sticking to the wooden stairs as I went.”

It is, of course, the fact that the bloodied soles of her shoes stick slightly on the wooden stairs which makes it so vivid.

Handstands in the Dark is not a book you forget easily. The rather stunned publisher at Ebury Press said details stayed with him vividly for days after reading it. And Janey wrote every word in it. I very carefully did not suggest words or phrases. Which can be a problem with publishers.

My experience is that people who can write do so. People who want to write but can’t write become publishers and then try to write through other people, often messing up writers’ text and downgrading it to cliché mulch. This, it should be said, did not happen with Janey’s book which Ebury were not allowed to see until the manuscript was completed and which went on to be both a Top Ten hardback and Top Ten paperback bestseller.

An extension of the truism that “those who can write do and those who can’t write become publishers” is that those who can’t write start courses teaching people how to write. That is not always true, but it often is,

The only way to learn how to write, as I told the 15 year old girl yesterday, is to write and write and write.

But don’t sit down with a black sheet of paper or computer screen and think you are creating the words that come out of you. Instead, turn it round 180 degrees and, as you write, think you are seeing the words appear for the first time and you are the reader not the writer. Put yourself in the position of someone who does not know what is coming next.

The first sentence should intrigue the reader into wanting to know what the next sentence is going to be. You want to hook the reader. So, imagining yourself as the reader, you know what has to be written to explain more about what is being said – what is needed to understand more about the argument or about the plot. But you don’t want to give the readers 100% of the information. You want to ‘hook’ or intrigue them into constantly wanting to know more.

Keep ‘em wanting more.

My template was George Orwell, who I think was a great communicator though a shit novelist. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful book. But the human beings in it – particularly the heroine – are badly drawn. He was a journalist and writer of ideas – his non-fiction like Homage to Catalonia is masterful. Animal Farm, which is really a non-fiction book masquerading as a fictional story, is amazing. But he was not a good novelist.

Me?

I think layout is almost as important as what you write. Make sure it looks easy-to-read on the page. Vary the lengths and look of the paragraphs. Mix prose and quotes. Don’t have big impenetrable-looking chunks of text. Make it look easy to read and it will be easier to read.

My own big problem is I need deadlines to write anything. So I will just go off out to Tesco now.

Do what I say, not what I do.

Always easier to say to a 15 year-old.

And remember William Goldman’s oft-quoted but oft-misunderstood recurring warning in his brilliantly incisive Adventures in the Screen Trade the best book I know about the creative process and full of great Hollywood anecdotes:

Nobody knows anything.

Maybe it is a pity it has taken me 1,766 words to mention that.

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Filed under Books, Newspapers

All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.

(This blog appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Yesterday I had lunch with a comedian in her twenties – not inexperienced but not yet fully supporting herself on her comedy performing. She is having an early career crisis. She’s no fool. Very sensible of her.

She thinks maybe she may be wrong giving up pretty-much everything in her private life to pursue her might-never-happen career.

She has little social life outside the one-night-stand Open Spot comedy circuit and (as she is from North West England) she is away from all the people she really knows and loves; she is alone on Planet Transient; she no longer has a boyfriend and she is struggling to make ends meet, working in a day job that bores and frustrates her. She does well, is playing lots of gigs but gets to bed late after her comedy work and has to get up very early to commute to her busy day job which allows no time to think about or arrange anything in her more-important-to-her comedy world.

This is the reality of one of the most glamorous jobs in Britain: being a comedian in your twenties.

“Perhaps I’m just wasting my time,” she said to me over lunch. (Obviously I was paying). “What if I never succeed and don’t get anywhere within sight of success? I’ll have wasted years of my life for no reason. I don’t even like London. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be. Maybe I should just go back up North, get a job where I can have a life, find someone to marry and settle down and have children and I know I’d be happy watching them grow up.”

I told her, if she did that, life would be less stressful but she would never know if she might have succeeded.

“If you try and fail, at least you will know what the outcome is.” I told her. “If you go home and have a happy life in tranquility with a husband and children – and that’s assuming you can find a good relationship – it will always be gnawing away inside you What would have happened if… You WANT to do comedy. It’s a vocation, an urge inside you…

“More than being a nurse or anything else. If you don’t play it out as far as you can, you will never know for certain what might have happened. On your deathbed, in sixty years, you will still be looking back on your life thinking What might have happened if… If you do not try, you have the certainty of not succeeding. If you do try, you risk failure – but you could succeed. It’s a toss-up between the certainty of failure and the possibility of success.”

If there is a safe option with an almost certain outcome and a riskier option, my advice is always to take the riskier option. Not knowing if you might have succeeded is infinitely worse than having failed. Taking the risk will at least bring closure.

Mind you, this may not be good advice because it is what I have done throughout my life. Once, in a rare job interview (I have usually not gone through application processes), the prospective employer sitting across the desk from me said:

“John, you seem to have an unfocussed CV.”

He took this as a negative factor; I have always taken it as a positive factor.

There is a Charles Dickens book (I can’t remember which – possibly David Copperfield) in which the central character, as a young man, stands outside a building and the narrative goes:

“I looked at the premises which, for the next 50 years, would be my work place.”

Times have changed, of course. But the ‘safe option’ can drive a truly creative person potty with frustration. You’ll end up walking through Tesco shooting random people with an AK-47. Figuratively if not in reality – and don’t be too sure it won’t be in reality. Uncertainty and adrenaline are attractive, provided you can eat and (in rainy Britain) have a roof over your head.

“But when will I know for certain if I have failed and when to give up?” my twenty-something chum asked me.

“Ah,” I said, “I haven’t got the foggiest. I am making this up as I go along.”

There are no right decisions.

When nerds in the mists of time first tried to program a computer which could play chess, they found it was impossible because the computer was unable to make the first move. The number of potential ramifications of the first move were and are virtually limitless. The computer would have sat there calculating potential first moves for longer than Ken Dodd’s career.

You can’t tell the outcome of any move early-on in chess. Nor in showbusiness. Nor in life. The butterfly theory comes into play.

No choice is simply between Path A and Path B because each of those paths then has literally hundreds of potential avenues which may lead off them. And every one of those hundreds of avenues each has itself hundreds of other sidetracks leading off them which may lead to a dead end or to a sparkling idyllic end result. It’s not a single path you choose; it’s a spider’s web spanning the rest of your life.

The way they eventually programmed computers to play chess was to limit the number of moves ahead which the computer took into consideration. In effect, the computer makes the best bet it can on the limited evidence available.

Choosing a ‘safe’ option may lead unexpectedly to awful consequences. Choosing a ‘risky’ option may lead unexpectedly to unforeseen opportunities which then lead on to a sparkling idyllic outcome which you had never thought of aiming for.

Comedy and successful creative careers generally have a terrifyingly high percentage of luck about them; they are about being in the right place at the right time. You can’t know where/when that place/time might be. So keeping as many options as possible open is the wisest move. Being in as many places at as many times as possible is the best option.

“Put yourself about a lot, love” is the best – indeed, only sensible – advice.

A risky proposition with an uncertain outcome may turn out to be a good idea further down the spider’s web of life.

So, if you are a girl in her twenties and I make a dodgy-sounding proposition to you, look on me kindly.

If you are an aspiring comedian, take my experienced opinion into consideration. You are almost certainly not as funny as you and your friends think you are. You will probably screw up your personal life and your mind by attempting to do comedy. And you will make no money out of it.

But I could be wrong.

To quote the often-misunderstood mantra of the great Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman in his essential-to-read book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING

He does not mean that people are equally ignorant. He means that no-one, however experienced, can know for certain the outcome of a creative work – or, for that matter, a creative career. Because movies, writing – and, yes, comedy – are creative arts, not a science.

The other factor I think you have to take into consideration is that, if you want to be a successful comedian, your mind is probably screwed-up anyway. One of the dullest of all mainstream quotes is:

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE MAD TO WORK HERE, BUT IT HELPS

To be a stand-up comedian, madness does not help.

It is essential.

All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.

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Filed under Comedy, Mental illness