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27 July 2009

Quiz night

Monday night is quiz night for the BBC, radio and television. After Eggheads at 6, there was the first programme of a new quiz, Knowitalls. A weird format, which I don't think I like. Two teams have to parade their knowledge of specialist subjects in front of a third panel of experts, who give them points, on what seems to be a largely subjective basis. So, someone had to talk about the Battle of Hastings. They got points for mentioning the Bayeux tapestry, because it was on the secret list, but also got points for other facts that their expert found interesting. Also got points in the last second for saying 'the Conqueror' but had not got them when simply saying William I. Apart from the subjectivity of the scoring, the big problem with the concept seems to be the limited opportunities for joining in at home. In one round, contestants have to produce a 'killer fact' about a given subject. This about electricity was quite rightly given nothing: electricity can be produced by magnetism, just as magnetism can produce electricity. The panel members are given hilarious things to say, seemingly written by the people who write the gags for the Strictly Come Dancing panel. Eg, after a round on Darwin, someone (I'll name names, it was Gyles Brandreth) quipped "Were those answers fit for purpose?" There also seems to be a studio audience. Poor sods.

Then on Radio 7, a repeat of Who Goes There? an understandably forgotten offering from Radio 4's 6:30 slot. Hosted by Martin Young - who I've a feeling I was at school with - it makes Quote Unquote look effortlessly witty and humble. And it features Fred Housego. I used to sympathise with him: the patronising he had to endure when he dared to win Mastermind would have unhinged anyone - but he soon became a caricature of the can't-shut-him-up cabbie.

Now University Challenge, with Clare Cambridge v Jesus Oxford. Clare's a lovely college, so I'm supporting them (and they're losing, because they are hopeless but quite sweet). Which will be followed by the best quiz on TV, Only Connect. Have I mentioned I was on it once? We were that close to getting through to the second round (where we'd have been hammered, but still).

22 July 2009

Surprisingly close

From March to June, time moved so slowly. It seemed like my leaving would never arrive. And at that time the amount of work coming in was so reduced, it was almost too quiet. But now, here I am, just over two months away from my early retirement, my self-inflicted poverty. Things are moving. I've got too much work. I won't be able to finish it. My colleague, J, frets about this. She's nicer than me, and worries about what she'll leave behind. Me, I'll just be happy to leave it.

We've arranged the leaving party - a room in a pub on 30 September, the exact and obvious date to choose. And I've booked virtually every Monday until then as leave, to use it up, but also to give me a taste of not-working.

On Friday I'm going to a pre-retirement course. Organised by some people called Laterlife, which sounds like the provisional wing of Senilitas. I'm dreading/hoping that everyone else will be much older than me, and talking about their plan to move to Spain, to get away from all the foreigners. Me saying, no actually I want more time to appreciate the innacity life, innit.

The course, funnily enough, is at UCL, so I've been provok'd to look again at the MA syllabus in Comparative Literature. It's got me wishing I'd gone for it this year. The best, most exciting, bit is the course on translation studies. I was talking about this to someone at work who clearly didn't see how translation could be contentious - for him, it was straightforward, a matter of knowledge and skill. Just reading the syllabus, I can see how it's much more than that, even beyond the concerns I have as a reader. This part of the course is the one where education is valuable for showing you what you don't know.

And also, I noticed in the marking scheme that this gets a pass mark:

The piece of work is relevant, shows signs of understanding, but nevertheless a rather thin or incomplete grasp of the material. There is little independent thought, ideas are not always well expressed, and the structure is deficient at some levels. The bibliography is rather thin, or inconsistent, or incomplete.

I think I can aspire to that.

Someone asked me today if I had had any second thoughts. I can honestly say, and I honestly said, that I really haven't. Given my genetic inheritance, I need to get my retirement done before I'm 65, and even if, by happy mischance, I live longer than that I can do it. Even if, eventually, my house is all tied up in equity release schemes. Sorry, nieces and nephew.

18 July 2009

Phèdre at the National Theatre

Mixed feelings about this. I was really keen to see a production of Racine - any play, any language - but this seemed like neither one thing nor the other. It had the simplicity of staging you'd expect: some generic palace imagery, set against a cliff face and the suggestion of rough sandy beach and sea, furnished with a few chairs of a design that suggests classical simplicity combined with wealth. Similarly the costumes were a bit generic - avoiding any specific period, but allowing, for example, the concept of "army warrior" to be easily connoted. Nothing wrong with the physical action, either, although I thought the public displays of affection between Aricia and Hippolytus went too far. I mean that they made her character too readable, in a way that the text doesn't entirely support, and that they certainly would not have happened on the stage in Racine's time (that's not so serious a concern).

The main problem was that this largely immaculately faithfully racinian staging was allied to a script, and a performance of the script, that was (inevitably) very shakespearian in its imagery and rhythm. It would be foolish to expect a translation to use alexandrines, but some equivalent of the formality and legacy present in alexandrines would be appropriate. At times, there seemed to be echoes of alliterative verse, but mainly the words were sadly lacking in any music. Actually, shakespearian is wrong. It was much more formless than that. I'll be commenting further on translation issues in the other blog.

So my general feeling is let down. Add to that the fact that the amount of coughing in the theatre made it feel like a swine flu party for the literati, and I'm sorry to say it was an underwhelming night out.

11 July 2009


Maybe I'm turning into the kind of old git I hate but I'm not going to let this go. It's about MPs and their expenses again. They are pretending, eventually, to be transparent but Jim Dowd is only transparent in the sense that he's invisible. Both his and Bridget Prentice's website now have a heading for "MPs' expenses". Inevitable, I suppose, but still rubbish. As before, Bridget is slightly less rubbish than Jim. Click on Jim's page, here's what you get. A link to the index on the Parliament website, not even to Jim's own expenses. Meanwhile Bridget offers this. Again, it's better than Jim, but to describe this as "details" is stretching it, and she also includes a link to the Parliament site.

Neither of them has bothered to offer any kind of comment on the recent controversy. So we can assume that both of them don't care that the reputation of MPs is now so low that estate agents feel like human beings in comparison.

It's a variation of the Mandelson paradox (if he's such a wiz at PR, why does everyone hate him?). If New Labour is really all about presentation over content, why are these two consummately New Labour MPs so bad at presenting themselves?

04 July 2009

Married to Tmob

I posted earlier about a phantom order of a Blackberry Curve and you'd have assumed it was all sorted. But it wasn't. Soon after that, the charge for the new line appeared on my bill. So I wrote to tmob pointing this out and asking them to remove it. Got the reply saying we'lll answer in five days, but they didn't and the line was on the next bill too, so I emailed again and got the same acknowledgement. But no reply. Until Wednesday, when I noticed tmob had tried to call me while I was training the good folk of Ashford in complaint handling. And then yesterday, I got the substantive reply. Although the Curve was apparently despatched, and the Post Office have a signature for it - but not mine, I muttered - they have cancelled everything and will refund the payments. Good. It's almost an exemplary response to a complaint, including an apology and recognition of me as a "valued customer", which may be autotext, but is true. The only problem is the delay, so in my reply, accepting the resolution, I couldn't help advising them to change the wording of the "five days" acknowledgment. I didn't even charge them a consultancy fee for doing this.

I've now got my share of the quiz booty. The prizes were two £50 theatre vouchers, four free Picturehouse cinema entries, and five books on film published (and presumably donated) by the BFI. I've taken the books, leaving the other four to share the vouchers among themselves. The books are:
In the Realm of the Senses a film guide by Joan Mellen
The Films of Nicholas Ray by Geoff Andrew
Hollywood Abroad: Audiences and Cultural Exchange
Fashioning Film Stars: Dress, Culture, Identity
Luchino Visconti by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

A good evening's work!

01 July 2009

Age and guile

Age and guile, said P J O'Rourke, stealing and perverting an Indian proverb, beat youth, innocence, and a bad haircut. How true, especially on Tuesday night, when the star-studded Ombudsman team triumphed in the Suzy Lamplugh Trust summer quiz. The quiz was held in the students' bar of Chelsea College of Art and Design, and the majority of the teams seemed to be of student age. So we felt really old and probably looked, to the kids around us, even older. It was a bit of a trouncing tbh. First up, we won the spot prize for listing the 20 best-selling singles artists in Britain up to 2004. We got 14, which was more than anyone else, and so won a bottle of House of Commons whisky (which will presumably turn up on some MP's expense claim). Then James got second prize in the raffle - a load of West Wing DVDs. And then we won the quiz itself, and the prizes were astonishing, I think. But Keith took them away for safe-keeping and I haven't seen him or them since. A very well organised quiz, and it was good to be in a student bar, where a bottle of decent white wine was just £7.50. Celebrated in the White Swan afterwards, so home just after midnight.

Then an early start today, to get to Ashford for training. Went by train, for all the usual reasons, but as it's in Kent, it's a two-hour journey (I could easily do it in one hour by car, but couldn't use the laptop.) The course wasn't great, but nowhere near the horror of the Luton experience. A really difficult start when, in the "tell us about your complaint making experience" a delegate gave such a moving and inspiring personal story, that no-one dared follow it with a whinge about a mobile phone company. But as usual the case study got everyone going after lunch. But so hot! By the end of the day I had almost forgotten how to talk, and the fact that no-one fell asleep was a major achievement.

I must have travelled on the Catford-Sevenoaks line many times. It offers a fantastic view of the Darenth Valley, one of the most underrated bits of England. But today for the first time, I noticed an obelisk on the railway cutting just this side of Swanley. Turns out it's a coal tax post, a relic of the City of London's system of taxing coal imported into the city. It had the same function as the more mundane looking road posts (a near example being in Leaves Green, near Biggin Hill). Actually the real explanation is quite a disappointment, but one could speculate as to why the railway coal tax posts were given this mysterious and evocative form. Second speculation of the day: why are there five railway tracks through Headcorn station? But that's not really very interesting.

Anyway it's now Wednesday evening. The air is cooling but still sticky. I am tired, as usual after a day trying to get people to feel enthusiastic about complaints. And I have the day off tomorrow!

Jerry Springer moment: Please support the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in any way you can: it's still doing important work. And if you ever work on your own, make sure you follow basic safety rules. And always remember that your life is more important than your job.