Saturday, December 31, 2016


I stopped looking back on 2016 about three months ago, when I stopped keeping a regular diary. I like to keep a diary, because I like to have a sense of my own history. Just as everyone uses (and should use) history to make sense of their present, a diary is something I can use to keep track of how I think, what I make of events as they occur, and to trip myself up when I realise I could have approached things in a better way.
I had stopped keeping a diary because the events of this year became a bit, well, overwhelming, as I am sure it did for many. Numerous reviews of the year centred on the political world events – Brexit, Trump, increasing nationalism, Syria – and the deaths of people who were not done with life, like George Michael and Carrie Fisher, to name only two from just the last week. There is sense of, “I’ll come back to this later” – needing that bit of distance, to have the right perspective of things, before you can start to make sense of them.

What you can do is hope that 2017 will be a better year. Certainty seems a bit passé these days, as the UK voted for Brexit, but not what kind of Brexit, and there are people in the United States fearing for what their next President might have for them in the coming weeks. You can do all you can to make 2017 the best year for yourself, but you hope it can be a better year for all.  The one discouraging thing about hope is that I thought it invoked a feeling of trust, only for my dictionary to relegate that to a secondary meaning, listing it as “archaic.”

Therefore, in 2017, I hope that:
…people prove my dictionary wrong.
…I keep a diary for every day, even on those rare days when nothing really happened.
…people remember that populism works both ways – if your leader does not work for you, you can get them out
…Brexit is a success for everyone, because it has to be, and the bed we have to lie in is not too hard, and not too soft
…the next time we have to vote for something, we are given the implementation plan beforehand
…people stop using the Nazis as a comparison for anything they don’t like – overuse means you start looking for something worse which, hopefully, doesn’t exist
…people get bored of talking about the political “Left” and “Right,” as it’s too simplistic, and too dismissive a label to slap across people
…the following hashtags are used online: #brexitbed #notaunicorn #trumpmeansfart #wiggledontgiggle #pumpthechump
…people make up their minds on what public toilets transgender people can use, before I piss on their shoes.
…the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland remains as the United Kingdom, the home of the BBC, the NHS, Penguin Books, free art galleries, grumbling about the weather, queueing, and unidentified items in the bagging area.

Saturday, December 24, 2016


One of the few songs to which everyone knows the words, “Happy Birthday to You” is a song we are seemingly stuck with now, being a very quick and easy way to mark a moment in time, and which can be sung in exactly the same way no matter how much you like or dislike the person to which you are singing.
The song began as “Good Morning to All,” written by two teacher sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill (yes, it took two people), to be sung in class at the beginning of the school day. The “Happy Birthday” appeared organically when people wanted to use the tune for other things, and were eventually written down – the piano arrangement, with extra verse (“How old are you now?”), credited to two further people, was published in 1935, over forty years after the Hills published their original. The song entered the hands of music publishers Warner Chappell Music in 1988, who enforced their copyright to charge millions of dollars in royalty payments.

To make it clear, yes, you can use “Happy Birthday to You” for free now. In the United States, a court case was brought against Warner Chappell by the makers of a documentary about the song, whose intentions were to “liberate” the song. Pedantry won the day on 28
th June 2016, declaring the song was in the public domain, by which point repayments to licensees had already been announced. In the European Union, “Happy Birthday to You” becomes a public domain song on 31st December 2016, as copyright law cuts off seventy years after Patty Hill died.
However, what does this mean for the other birthday songs, like the Beatles’ “Birthday,” which is addressed to the listener? There’s also “Happy Birthday” by Altered Images, “Birthday” by Katy Perry, and “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder, even if the intent of that song was for Martin Luther King’s birthday to be made into a US public holiday, which eventually happened. If you can sing the original for free, why now pay for the competitors?
The answer is because they are better. “Happy Birthday to You” makes me think of the routine Billy Connolly once did about how “God Save the Queen” can be hard work, suggesting we hum the theme tune to “The Archers” instead. What is worse, the original tune to “God Save the Queen/King,” when written in 1745, originally had more flourishes, which have been flattened out over time, and could do with being put back.
If you are going to sing a song for someone’s birthday, you want to sing it like you mean it, but if the song can’t help you with that, you should choose a different song. The tradition of singing “Happy Birthday to You” is only a hundred years old, so a new tradition can easily be started – even “For He’s/She’s/They’re a Jolly Good Fellow” is a good start.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


Allow yourself to feel incredibly old and terrified for a moment – TWENTY-SEVEN years ago today, the first episode of “The Simpsons” was broadcast on American television. This means there are people who born since the show began, that now have their own children.
In Britain, for those not willing to pay for Sky TV, the BBC began showing “The Simpsons” in November 1996, at just the right time for the teenage me. For years, I dutifully taped every episode I came across, laughing at its subversive humour, marvelling at its feature film-scale storylines, and identifying with its fully rounded characters.
For the record, my favourite episodes of the series came early in its run, like Lisa winning an essay contest and uncovering political corruption in “Mr Lisa Goes to Washington,” the awful musical “Streetcar!” in “A Streetcar Named Marge,” and the disaster movie plot of “Marge versus the Monorail.” There was once a time where no show could do the two things the “The Simpsons” could – anything, and everything.
I also learned about the references “The Simpsons” made to films, books, philiosophy, and American idioms, both in libraries and online, having just got dial-up internet at home. We eventually did get a satellite dish, and the taping, later joined by DVD buying, continued. The show confirmed I should, without exception, always look under the surface of whatever is put in front of me.

And yet, I found myself falling out with “The Simpsons”, feeling I got all I could from it. I had joined it in its ninth season, and left at its seventeenth – it is now on number twenty-eight. I still watch it occasionally, but usually just my favourite episodes. For all the references they gave to other works of creativity, “The Simpsons” also sent me in pursuit of those works – all the homages to “Citizen Kane” cannot be beaten by just watching “Citizen Kane.”
The sitcoms and dramas that are lucky enough to end on their own terms will usually do so once they have finished exploring the world they created. That may be after twelve episodes, in the case of “Fawlty Towers,” or ten years, if you are “Friends.” Recent “Simpsons” storylines, if you look them up, are still good to watch, and exactly the sorts of episodes you expect from the show. However, for me, this is because they are the sorts of plots I had thought they had already done – they are of “The Simpsons,” but they do not add to my idea of what “The Simpsons” is.

“The Simpsons” may only end when it stops making money for 20th Century Fox, but I hope its makers see the end coming. The only sitcom that comes close in both its longevity and cast of characters, “Last of the Summer Wine,” could also have run forever, until the BBC decided it would not. Thankfully, Roy Clarke, who wrote all 295 episodes, from 1972 to 2010, was aware of the show being ended, allowing him to write the low-key ending that he wanted, but everyone else still complained about. If “The Simpsons” does end, its demise should match the cultural impact it has had on the world – they could try blowing it up.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


Saying you have done something week in, week out, for twenty years, is usually restricted to essential tasks, such as breathing, eating and sleeping - and yet, when I bought the latest Christmas issue last Monday, I have now bought the “Radio Times” every week, without fail, for twenty years.
In an online age, you would have thought that having to go somewhere to buy a magazine, to tell you what programmes are on the television and radio, would be something that died out a while ago, but there was not much of an internet back in 1996, and broadcasters were only starting to open their own websites. As recently as 1991, programme listings were actually regulated in the UK: BBC TV and radio was covered by the self-styled “RT,” owned and published by the BBC, while ITV, Channel 4 and the rest were in the “TV Times” - if you wanted the full picture, you had to buy both magazines. For this reason, the “RT” sold its advertising for more than any other magazine, and continues to do in three quarters of a million copies every week.
(I should now say I wrote an essay about this for my A-Level Business Studies course – for the record, English Literature covered the Arthur Miller plays “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.”)

These days, you can get all the details you need just by a search on your phone, provided you know what you want to search for. Sometimes, you do just need something to cut through the swathes of information, giving you all the important stuff, and provide pointers for where to go if you do want more – ten pages of TV listings each day, another two for radio, and reams of further features might just about do that job, and it certainly does for me.
However, what I have recognised more recently is how the interviews and features from the “RT” can often become news themselves. This appears to be a combination of newspapers and websites picking nuggets of information from them, and the influence of Ben Preston, the magazine’s editor since 2009, two years before the BBC sold its magazine division – “he is a cyclist,” claims Wikipedia.
Therefore, the past week’s news stories about how the Prime Minister’s Christian faith is important at Christmas time comes not from a big interview in a broadsheet newspaper, or from having talked with Andrew Marr or Robert Peston, but from Theresa May having answered the “View From My Sofa” questionnaire on the back page. Meanwhile, Eric Idle’s remarks on his fellow Python Terry Jones’s health came from a “RT” interview the previous week. However, which magazine caused Robert De Niro to walk out of an interview in September 2015, amid “negative inferences” about commercialism in his film festival, and about acting on auto-pilot?
It is necessary to keep your product fresh – in the United States, “TV Guide” cut down on the listings, and increased the features. Thankfully, the “RT” has kept both, and has continued to make it a success, maintaining the reputation it inherited from when it was part of the BBC. Making the news keeps it in your mind, and it sticks around to help you pick your night’s viewing.

Friday, December 9, 2016


Everything I am about to tell you happened before nine o’clock this morning.
I had arrived at work a good hour before my day was due to start, so I could go through my usual warm-up process – reading through e-mails, stretching, continuing to wake up. Meanwhile, two of my managers were talking about the latest of their Christmas dinner out from the previous night. One manager then told the other about a faux pas they had apparently perpetrated, where they had referred to putting something away as stuffing it in their “glory hole.”
This admission had already started waves of laughter, of both recognition and embarrassment. Sitting across from the conversation, I had missed the cause of the laughter. One manager looked to me, and said I didn’t want to know what they were talking about, like I had stumbled across an awkward situation, while the other, who had made the faux pas, walked to my desk to explain, clearly still wanting to get the issue off their chest. They started by apologising if what they were about to say sounded offensive – that is always a good way to start a conversation.

The origin of the term “glory hole” is unknown, having appeared in the early nineteenth century. There is the word “gloriole,” derived from Latin, which is another word for a halo, but this appeared at around the same time, so there appears to be no link. At the same time, there is no clear indication how “glory hole” came to mean an untidy room or cupboard used for storage, or a small furnace used by glassblowers, or a term used in North American mining to describe an open quarry.
The meaning most used nowadays, referring to enabling anonymous sexual activity between two rooms, came from Polari, the secret gay language that employed a combination of English and French and Italian to help save lives, at a time when being gay in the UK was illegal. While sounding appropriate in its own way, it sounds quaint and whimsical in a very British manner, just as the Polari term for public toilets were “cottages,” because they were often built to resemble small houses.

Just like it was at last night’s Christmas dinner, the meaning of “glory hole” changed with the people you were with, and what you are doing, just like the words “thing” or “jigger” might do – evidently, the other people there understood it to mean something entirely different, but it had not meant that one meaning had supplanted the other.
This was where the conversation interested me the most. The definition of “glory hole,” like “gay,” “tranny,” and numerous other words, was being defined as a generational thing, and by one other person at work, who offered to take a picture of the glory hole they had at home, as being “political correctness.” The non-sexual uses of “glory hole” are used less, but are not invalid, and are examples of how the English language continues to develop. In fact, the whole story does speak to the human condition – when someone sees a hole, they must fill it.

Saturday, December 3, 2016


When I last created a CV, I knew I had to use the correct font. I chose Futura, a precursor to Gill Sans, which is clear and easy to read, especially when any human resources person may scan it for only a few seconds before making a decision. If I chose the wrong font, any split second of confusion in the reader could have threatened my future career prospects.
So, when I come across forms at work that use COMIC SANS, that a company has asked us to fill in, and which could be used in a court of law, you do question the decisions made by both the designer, and by those that said, “yes, that looks OK.” The company concerned does not use these anymore, so they must have realised what the forms look like.
Comic Sans exists to look child-like, but its misuse has made it look childish. Designed for Microsoft Bob, a 1994 program to make navigating screens easier for novice computer users, it was intended to solve the problem of having a cartoon dog having speech bubbles that used Times New Roman, a font designed for use in "The Times" newspaper from 1932 to 1972. However, the font’s designer, Microsoft’s Vincent Connare, did not have the font completed in time for Bob, but it was included with Windows 95.

To me, the main problem with Comic Sans is its deliberate aping of someone’s handwriting, in particular the kind of handwriting you expect your child to grow out of when they are taught how to join the letters up. Therefore, when an adult uses it, you doubt any serious intent in the words you are given, and you are less likely to take in their meaning. Its position as a default font on Microsoft Word makes it too easy a choice, especially when few people are likely to look for a font that fits what they want to say. When the inevitable consequences of this appear, you will eventually read the message, but not after you have rolled your eyes first.
The irksome nature of the font’s name doesn’t help either. Few comic books are made for children these days, and the most popular graphic novels of the last thirty years carry the phrase “Suggested for Mature Readers” on the back cover. “Watchmen” and “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” are the two books that, when collected into square-bound books, gained the medium the respect that has grown into blockbuster film franchises.

However, “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight” inspired Comic Sans, through the work of Dave Gibbons and John Costanza respectively, and by being found on Vincent Connare’s bookshelf. Gibbons, who drew and lettered every page of “Watchmen,” described Comic Sans as, “…a real mess. I think it's a particularly ugly letter form.” I don’t think the fact you can buy a Dave Gibbons font has anything to do with his opinion, but having your name even mentioned alongside Comic Sans can’t be desirable.
For the record, Vincent Connare went on to design Trebuchet MS in 1996, which is a much easier font to look at.