Tuesday, 29 July 2008

A self-indulgent post

Would anyone object if I got a few things off my chest? No? Good.

If you are an angry man wishing to shout and swear at a female I would suggest you call the following number, and not my line at the office: 0908 082 9451. Thanks.

Didn't God tell Noah about the flood and give him a chance to build an ark? Where was our heads up today?

Reality TV show producers, and particularly the people behind X-factor, do you know what you've done? I endured a train journey with four school girls who think they've got talent, and exhibited this with a nice Rihanna / Mariah medley all the way home.

Giles Coren: Give the subs a break, try doing their job for a day, get a life and take a pay cut. Not necessarily in that order.

Celebs selling their baby pictures for cash can't be right can it? How are Brangelina going to explain to Shiloh Jolie-Pitt that she's worth less dollar than Knox and Vivienne without denting her self-esteem?

That's better.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Running into trouble

Disaster has struck! Nine weeks away from The Great North Run and I have sustained a bona fide sporting injury.

Predictably it was all my own fault. The reason I've twanged my knee is the same reason I'm running 13m in the first place: I'm fiercely competitive.

When another journalist asked me if I was thinking about doing the GNR I could just have told the truth - which would have been, "No I hate running" - but we'd done our training together and our entire relationship is about bettering each other so I couldn't back down.

On Friday another competitor, sorry, friend said she was running a 10k race in Battersea Park to prepare for Newcastle.

Not to be outdone I decided to match the distance, and bin my training plan.

What do the professionals know anyway?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. I did it in an hour five - but then noticed my knee felt floppy in a ligament-y sort of way.

The result? Two days rest and the gentle jogging for a week. Which puts me miles behind the competition.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Barefaced cheek

Question: What do Sienna Miller and Max Moseley have in common?

Answer: They have both served writs to News International for breach of privacy after The Sun and NOTW published semi naked images of them involved in morally dubious activities.

Nazi orgies and topless husband stealing are not practices I'd be wanting to discuss in a public court - but then again Max and Sienna are very private people, and as such they need to protect their privacy.

Max has already had his very successful day in court, and over at News International they're counting the £910,000 cost of that, so Sienna is probably banking on a nice apology and big out of court settlement.

She's got Carter Ruck on the case - so she's certainly making like she means business.

Birthday presents for boys

What do you buy for a 23 year old guy?

I have a day off because it's my brother's birthday - but I have no birthday gift.

There's just no winning as far as I can see. Girls are supposedly the difficult ones, but I don't know many that would say no to Chanel perfume, or a bunch of flowers. OK, so they aren't original ideas - but they'd always make her smile.

I'm currently refusing to go down the socks and underpants route - but I see a time in the near future when I'll cave in and join the majority of the female gift buying population.

We bought my grandfather a box of liquorice allsorts for his birthday every year until he died, and that didn't seem to do him any harm.

One year I deviated from the strategy and bought a stupidly expensive pair of magnetic teflon oven gloves, which he was thrilled with. Last night I found them in the bottom of a drawer in my grandma's kitchen - unused.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Data disaster

Forget your kids, your kidneys, the keys to your porsche carrera - the most precious thing you own in this world is your Personal Data.

And like Gollum in Lord of the Rings we need to keep the precious safe, all to ourselves, and away from those hairy hobbit-like civil servants at HMRC.

Ooops, too late.

Ever since they popped that disk with 25 million people's personal information in the post to the Bermuda Triangle we've started taking a bit more interest in who knows what about us.

It was back on November 20, 2007 that Alastair Darling had to own up that the data disk had gone astray, and in the intervening eight months there have been a steady supply of information-at-large stories.

This week started with an MOD laptop containing "sensitive information" stolen from the Adelphi in Liverpool and today the spread of data despair reached the shores of the Wirral.

The Wirral Globe's splash warned: "U.S FIRM TO HAVE ALL YOUR HEALTH DETAILS". Presumably this revelation sent sales of shredders at the Birkenhead branch of W H Smith rocketing.

The thing is that while it's a great story, and I read it all the way through to find out how to opt out, no good can come of it. We waved goodbye to our data years ago. The proof of this theory? Two words: Market research.

When I worked in PR I spent a day training in data capture and TGI marketing research. It was a little bit of hell in Ealing Broadway.

What I learnt there is that there are many, many members of the British public who, if you pay them £5, will tell you everything about themselves. The questionnaire they have to fill in to collect their fiver is as thick as the Yellow Pages. It asks how much you earn, where you live, what you do, how many children you have, if you cook with stock cubes, if so how many times a week, and with what meat. It goes on and on and on - and so do the cretins filling it in.

When the results are in the real fun starts - the raw data forms the basis of a software programme that media companies pay a fortune for. It allows them to tell clients that the people who drink their brand of juice read The Times, never use stock cubes and drive their 3 children to school in a Volvo.

So, if we're giving all of this information up for less than the price of a 0845 phone call to cancel our bank cards, how come we're so worried about what happens to the information we give to the government?

It's ok for us to tell everyone on facebook our name, birthday, occupation, educational history and marital status - but if Whitehall were to put it on a disk and lose it without coughing up £5, well we'd be outraged.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Mercury rising

The shortlist for the Mercury Music prize was announced today, with both bands from the Wirral and UCL in with a shout

The massively talented jazz boys Portico Quartet are thoroughly deserving nominees. If you've never heard of them, let this be your excuse to be bewitched by their Knee Deep in the North Sea album. It's jazz, but not as you know it.

They're a UCL group who were knocking around Russel Sq at the same time as me. I'd seen them play before, but had never had a proper chat with them until I interviewed them for The Journal in Newcastle when they played a gig at the Sage. It's funny how things work out.
Here's my interview: http://tinyurl.com/5pzuxs

Not to be outdone Wirral's own Miles Kane is in the running as one half of the shortlisted duo The Last Shadow Puppets. Miles who hails from Hoylake, teams up with Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys on nominated album The Age of The Understatement but still also plays with homegrown indie kids The Rascals.
I know a few guys who are in with The Rascals, so the first thing on my to do list tomorrow is to ask nicely for an interview with Miles for The News. Watch this space.

And the odds? Portico are the rank outsiders at 16/1 while The Last Shadow Puppets are a safer bet at 7/1.

I'd love to see one of them pull it off.

The Shortlist
Adele - 19
British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?
Burial - Untrue
Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
Estelle - Shine
Laura Marling - Alas I Cannot Swim
Neon Neon - Stainless Style
Portico Quartet - Knee-Deep In the North Sea
Rachel Unthank & The Winterset - The Bairns
Radiohead - In Rainbows
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand
The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of The Understatement

Monday, 21 July 2008

Joking aside

Right, glass of red at hand it's time for a serious blog post. I'll try to keep it brief.

You see, it's this business of "Can we laugh at Obama?" that's getting to me.

Ever since the cover of The New Yorker crashed and burned the media has been navel gazing, asking itself if it can poke fun at the presidential candidate.

We're talking serious column inches dedicated to this non-issue. Presumably WASP journos are keeping themselves awake at night fretting about whether they've become institutionally racist without even noticing. Please stand up: Joel Stein, LA Times, Jeff Zeleny, New York Times, I won't even go on.

Obviously, they haven't. But they have noticed that something is happening.
The public don't want to laugh - whether the jokes are funny or not.

Facing more crises than the human brain can easily comprehend (just for starters: Iraq, Iran, credit crunch, rising food costs, climate change, Afghanistan) maybe people are prepared to take politics seriously again.

Maybe it's because we seriously need some solutions, and seriously need to lose the apathy. Who else is betting we see a record turn-out at both the next US and UK elections?

Satire just doesn't sit right with the current public mood - there's a real desire to believe in something. For once we're not hoping for another juicy Oval Office scandal, we're looking for someone to give us hope.

Now that we're in a corner we've decided we need the next J F Kennedy and Martin Luther King rolled into one. The fact that we're happily manufacturing a Democratic Presidential candidate who embodies the two biggest talismanic icons of 20th century America suggests it might be time to kill the wise cracks.

Can Obama deliver? Maybe. I'd like to think so, but to this issue that's irrelevant.

What's boring, and what made me write this in the first place, is that the minute a joke about a black guy bombs it's because he's black. No, New Yorker - it's not, it's because you can't let go of the cynicism and key into the mood of your readers.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Open season for seniors

As I write this Greg Norman is at the top of The Open leader board. He's also the hot topic in the gossip columns, accompanied by his new wife Chris Evert in Southport. No-one cares about the footballers, wags and Hollyoaks c-listers popping up in the seaside town - this is a Norman conquest for our times.

What's weird about that? Norman's a hugely talented golfer and, to quote The Daily Mail, "Chris Evert shows off her HUGE wedding ring" - so it's the usual combination of celebrity sportsman, blonde partner and bling. Except they're both 53.

Hold that thought a moment, and let me draw your attention to Helen Mirren. If you haven't seen that bikini pic yet and you're a female under the age of 60, prepare to be shamed: http://tinyurl.com/5fa695

She looks incredible, natural, healthy and happy - take note Posh.

I don't know what's more refreshing about this sexy senior phenomenon - the fact that their achievements are down to actual talent, rather than having chosen the right plastic surgeon, or that our admiration is genuine. I mean compare Mirren to Madonna - who would you rather look like?

Yes, you have to admit Madonna's body defies gravity, she can certainly still contort into any yoga position you care to name, and she's worked damn hard for it. Good on her. And that's how we patronisingly respond to showbiz oldies who are still out there: "Good on her, she looks great for her age."

This week it's different though, this isn't about congratulating OAPs for not being dead yet - this about actual, bona fide envy. Mirren and Norman aren't doing great for their age - they're just doing great full stop.

I looked at that Mirren pic and felt the same way I do when I see Scarlett Johansson on the red carpet or Kelly Brook frollicking about in her bikini.

As for Norman - he's pulling out all the shots in Southport and even if he doesn't win it, he'll have put on a damn good show at "brutal Birkdale" in what has been one of the windiest Open events in history.

I'm impressed.

DIY dentistry

What do you do when half of your tooth falls out on a Thursday night and you aren't registered to a dentist?
That's the question I was faced with this week. Although an iceberg sized chunk of molar had freed itself from its normal resting place I could only feel a dull ache.
Stupidly, I told the emergency dental people this over the phone, and apparently a dull ache does not an emergency make. If you find yourself in this situation my advice is LIE.
Cry, gnash and beg your way to an appointment by telling them that you've taken so many ibuprofen for breakfast you can see pixies playing hopscotch under the table.
I learnt too late that this is the way to be seen quick-sharp. So facing the weekend, with the pain now getting worse they told me to sort myself out - and I do love this - by buying my own temporary filling kit from Boots.
That's right, for £5 you too can stick a lump of bluetack-type dental product in your mouth and hope for the best.
I have administered my own treatment - but I'd have rather seen a professional. Do I get a refund on my National Insurance?

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Dubai: Burkahs, big bucks and bikinis

Quelle surprise! Dubai has been exposed by The Sun as a hot bed of drunken debauchery. News of embarrassing ex-pat Michelle Palmer exposing herself on Jumeirah beach has prompted the nation's favourite tabloid to investigate. About time too. According to their report it's all burkahs and bonking on the beach over there - and in a Muslim country! The paper reports that Westerners flock to the UAE for their fix of sun, sea and sex.

Cold, hard, cash more like. Everyone's there for the tax-free earning potential. The place is awash with homesick 20 and 30 somethings who have sold their souls in return for getting rid of their student debt or escaping the credit crunch. It's no wonder Michelle and pals are drinking themselves into oblivion - there's nothing else to do. Remember, this is a place where people pay to jog with a fitness instructor around the air-conditioned interior of the world's largest shopping mall because the outside temperature - the desert - would finish them off in minutes.

I was seconded to Dubai for two months last year. I couldn't get out of there quick enough; suffice it to say the Emirate state challenges Australia for the title "The Land that Culture Forgot."

And while the media has been quick to refer to Dubai as the Las Vegas of the Middle East or the next Ibiza it actually has much more in common with Switzerland. Stay with me on this one.

For a start you leave your religion and ethics at the arrivals gate.

Yes, it's a Muslim state - but only just. It's certainly not Saudi Arabia, and in the time I was there I never saw, or even heard, of a woman being asked to cover herself up.

The same principal applies with alcohol. Dubai is definitely not a dry state, no matter what the rules might say. Booze can be served in hotels - not just to guests -which means there are essentially pubs and clubs on every corner.

As for ethics, well if you think that slave labour is an acceptable price to pay for the 24 hour building sites that support the property boom, then fine. But I regret ever having had anything to do with it.

So why are the rules so lax? Well, this is where the Switzerland comparison starts to make sense.

As long as the ex-pats aren't copulating on the beach a la Palmer then the authorities are happy to turn a blind eye to behaviour that would land you in trouble in other Muslim countries - in much the same way that the Swiss don't ask where your billions came from when you open a bank account.

I've also worked in Switzerland, and upon arrival it struck me that Dubai has that same international appeal. It's called money.

According to the FCO the UAE population breaks down as follows: Arab (55%), South Asian (28%), Iranian (8%), other expatriates (9%).
These are 2007 stats, and I'd be astonished if the expat figure doesn't rise when the figures are updated for '08. As for the 55% Arabic population, they're either the eye-wateringly rich who live in Knightsbridge for most of the year, or they're residents of the most traditional of the UAE states, Sharjah.

It doesn't matter where you are in the food chain, the unspoken understanding is that everyone's in Dubai to work. Minimum wage Malaysian waitresses, and well paid Australian engineers alike come to Dubai to get rich quick, and then get out.

Running out of oil, Dubai has taken drastic steps to reinvent itself as the power house of the Middle East. An international hub which welcomes Westerners, and anyone else that wants to do business, Dubai has fast been positioning itself as the region's economic capital with the Dubai International Financial Exchange (DIFX) doing a tidy trade thanks to the runaway success of the Sukuk.

In real layman's terms the Sukuk is a form of Islamic bond which can be traded within Islamic rules - basically it gets around the issue of debt and interest - but has crucially helped to open up the DIFX to international investors. The details of Sukuk trading aren't important here, my point is that it illustrates the extent to which Dubai is prepared to marry east with west to make money.

During my time in Dubai I was shocked by the lack of news reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the complete silence about the Iranian hostage crisis. Dubai doesn't do bad news, and you certainly won't see anything in print that suggests that the Middle East could be an unstable kind of place, because that could scare off those all important investors.

And so the same logic applies to relaxing the rules for foreigners. While I was there I felt that as a Westerner I would be indulged up to a certain point because Dubai doesn't want to go and get itself labelled as 50 lashes kind of state.

Something tells me Michelle won't be spending too long in the clink.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Elvis and I

I met Elvis Costello today, and I was charmed. The man now has one more fan in the world.
We put a note to the residents of the Wirral on the website asking them to send in the questions they wanted putting to him - and they did! Simple things please me.
Anyway, Elvis loved the geek chic of my (ok, their) questions, such as: "Do you plan to release the Wendy James demos?"
I will now write nice things about him because he had twinkly eyes and was an absolute gent.
I did have to resist the very unprofessional urge to ask if I could try on his trademark specs.