Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Social mobility

This Christmas, I booked my train back to Nottingham early enough to score a cheap first-class ticket. And so I was able to discover the main difference, these days, between the atmosphere in first and second class. You know you're in first class because the crisps are louder.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Rye Lane, in Peckham, south London - where I moved a month ago, and regained internet access this morning - has at least two distinct characters as a commercial street.

On the one hand, it's a forcing ground for small businesses, mostly run by and for the local African community. These shops are busy and various, but margins must be tight and turnover rapid, because many traders don't get around to installing their own signs; we have a grocer apparently called "Big Girl Clothing Company". This aspect of Rye Lane is most evident towards the southern end.

On the other hand, clustered at the north, and matching Rye Lane's character as about the busiest stretch in Peckham, there are the chain stores: Boots, Argos, Currys, Carphone Warehouse, WH Smith.

At the transitional point between the two Rye Lanes, on opposite sides of the street, two people ply their trades most Saturday afternoons.

One is a preacher with a megaphone. An Islamic preacher, although because his diction is not brilliant it took me some time to be sure of that. He seems embattled, even by the standards of street preachers - many of the rooms above the shops are occupied by vigorous little Pentecostal churches - but he isn't giving up.

The other is a woman in a jester's hat, who twists thin balloons into obscene-looking toy swords. By the end of the day you sometimes see small children swordfighting; the loser is presumably the one whose sword bursts.

I think I'm going to like it here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Links here, nonlinks elsewhere

New in the sidebar is a widget displaying my shared items from Google Reader; this will sometimes display homework for the Guardian books linklog, but is also a quick way of linklogging my non-bookish concerns. It should update even when the rest of this still badly neglected site doesn't. (Although I'm planning another minor blogging binge, so even the rest of the site may update.)

The other consequence of that linklog is that my other writing tends to be swamped by it on my whizzy Guardian profile page. So here's an index of recent stuff, by subject.

Journalism, design, &c
- Stylebook geekout (published in Monday media section) plus matching quiz
- Brief eyebrow-raise blog at Wallpaper* cover with logo white on white
- The anonymity of Thomas Barnes's Times, contrasted with the current blogger-outing version
- Moan about alteration to International Herald Tribune masthead

- Sometimes it's nice not to shout at people - controversial, eh?
- Review-after-buying-with-own-money of TfL's supposedly stylish Bspoke cycle jacket (update: two weeks later the zip broke, and I got the shop to replace it with a Gore jacket that actually works)
- Recommendation of

- On almost buying secondhand books
- Review of two not-terribly good e-readers for Tech section
- On reading innovative and imitative books in the wrong order
- On "shelftalkers" (those staff pick slips in bookshops)
- On reviews that are better for ignoring the books
- On facsimile reprints and fake facsimile reprints

- Bad things that happen to the Zune

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cold War nostalgia and the new Russia

The Nation is still publishing long, heated articles about who was a spy, who was a fellow-traveller and who was neither in the 1930s and 40s; these days, though, the online version comes with a Google-served ad for a Russian dating/bridal/I-really-don't-want-to-click-and-find-out agency. Not sure what that symbolises, but it certainly symbolises something.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

What happened to Marie Antoinette's wigmakers?

There is apparently a significant industry - one containing at least several companies - dedicated to the manufacture of "deal toys", given by financial-industry types to mark the signing of large contracts. Its signature material is lucite, a clear plastic heavier and more expensive than glass, into which plaques and objects of symbolic significance can be embedded. Obviously, this industry is in deep trouble.

Also: the FT's Weekend magazine placed its wonderfully dry piece on the subject - my source for everything in the paragraph above - immediately after its serialisation of the Gillian Tett book on how ill-advised financial-indsutry deals blew up the world economy. I sometimes suspect that FT Weekend is trying to incite a revolution, probably aimed at readers of How to Spend It.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A small wish

One day I'd like to have enough space, or few enough books, to look at a shelf like this and just think "Cool!", rather than imagine myself snapping a curlicue as I try desperately to stuff on another couple of Oxford World's Classics.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Links, apologies

This is a badly neglected blog. I now hope to change that - the aim will be to have something, even if just links, up every day. Holding your breath probably remains a bad idea. But...

- If you liked films redesigned as Romek Marber-ish paperbacks, you will probably also like the Blue Note version of the Wu-Tang Clan.

- Mary Beard proposes a do-as-you-would-be-done-by school of reviewing, which seems sensible in the context of reviewing books about classics for the TLS, where the interests of author and reader are relatively close together, but may not apply to the reviewing of general-readership books for a general readership.

Get your stereotypes of Germany direct from Berlin, where J Carter Wood is reading Three Men on a Bummel. Of his quotes, I particularly liked this one:

This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price. You are not kept awake all night, as in England, wondering whether you will get off with a caution, be fined forty shillings, or, catching the magistrate in an unhappy moment for yourself, get seven days. You know exactly what your fun is going to cost you. You can spread out your money on the table, open your Police Guide, and plan out your holiday to a fifty pfennig piece. For a really cheap evening, I would recommend walking on the wrong side of the pavement after being cautioned not to do so. I calculate that by choosing your district and keeping to the quiet side streets you could walk for a whole evening on the wrong side of the pavement at a cost of little over three marks.

Coming soon-ish here: posts on Leadville, the reprinting of Cooking in a Bedsitter and the decline (long ago) of competition in the British regional press; plus the instalment of the Street View abecedary I promised a month and a day ago...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The second lump of sugar

In our view, the effect of every policy must first be regarded from the standpoint of the workers of the Nation, and of the poorest and most helpless among them. The charwoman who lives in St Giles', the seamstress who is sweated in Whitechapel, the labourer who stands begging for work outside the docckyard gates in St George's-in-the-East ... The policy which annexes even an Empire, wins an immortal battle, raises this man or that to the Premiership, or sweeps the board at a general election, shall appear to us infamous, not glorious - evil, not good - a thing to weep over, not to acclaim, if it does nothing towards making the lives of these people brighter and happier. On the other hand, the policy will appear to us worthy of everlasting thanks, and of ineffaceable glory, that does no more than enable the charwoman to put two pieces of sugar in her cup instead of one, and that adds one farthing a day to the wage of the seamstress or labourer.

That is TP O'Connor, writing in the leader column of the first number of The Star, his popular London evening paper, in 1888. You can find it quoted in Matthew Engel's Tickle the Public, or wherever learned British journalists grow teary about their trade. I came across it again in The Last Chronicle of Bouverie Street, a 1963 book about the death in 1960 of the News Chronicle newspaper, and incidentally of the Star. While I knew some of the details of the Chronicle's demise - others were shocking; I may blog about them later - the Star's story came as more of a surprise.

At the time of its death, when it was rolled into the London Evening News for no more than the cost of its pension obligations and week-a-year redundancy payments to its staff, the Star had a circulation - and remember this was a London-only title - of about 700,000. In other words, it was selling 200,000 more copies daily than The London Paper now manages to give away. But in 1960, that was only enough to make it the second-best-selling evening paper in Britain. And it had been losing money consistently since 1956. The poorest and most helpless, while numerous enough to make for a substantial readership, were not a demographic attractive to advertisers.

The city and the country's biggest evening paper, it should be noted, was not the London Evening Standard, eventual sole survivor of this three-way fight, but the title into which the Star was merged, the Evening News. The Standard won out not because of sales but because it attracted the most affluent, advertising-friendly readers. In the end, raw numbers are not enough. That might be considered a parable for the age of the unique-user count.

The other thought the story brings to mind is prompted by O'Connor's leader - as a good a manifesto for intelligent populist journalism as anyone could hope for. Here's the thing. If the conventional media were swept away tomorrow, expert coverage and scandalmongering-shading-into-muckracking would probably continue without much interruption. There are bloggers and others for all of that. What it might take a while to rebuild is any organisation with a wide enough reportorial reach, and a deep enough attachment to a wide enough public, to keep an eye on that second lump of sugar.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Further elsewheres

Here is my Guardian blogging debut. The clever site software automatically generates a feed for me; it will go in the sidebar once there's more than one item in it. I haven't forgotten the promise of another letter in the abecedary; but it may be tomorrow before I get around to it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Street View abecedary: J is for John, but which John?

Strange how, at least if you're as word-obsessed as me, a view can rearrange itself around a piece of lettering. This stretch of Stockwell Road is in many respects rather generically contemporary, for a long-timescale, fairly cynical value of contemporary: some boxy 60s or 70s flats, a boarded-up shop and a fried-chicken francise - which might be very good, for all I know; there's a branch of the same microchain in Sydenham, but I haven't tried it. And then there are the fading painted advertisements on the gable end, which suddenly anchor the picture in the 40s or 50s:

And in Googlecontext:

View Larger Map

The first product advertised is easy to identify: everyone knows Picture Post. Its photography was famous, and its publication dates place these advertisements somewhere between 1938 and 1957. The second, broken panel is trickier. John who? If it's another magazine, then the obvious answer is John Bull, a popular weekly that seems to have been known at different times for rabble-rousing patriotism and nice illustrations. (The two aren't mutually exclusive, of course.)

Wikipedia is entertainingly vague about John Bull, noting a scatter of dates when it definitely existed and concluding that it "may have closed in 1962". You can do much better with the British Library newspaper catalogue, which traces the main 20th-century carrier of the name - the magazine that was famously edited by Horatio Bottomley - from 1906 to 1958, then through a flurry of minor rebranding as it swallows a couple of other magazines, and then to a relaunch in February 1960 as something called Today, which itself comes to an end without any word of continuation in 1964. John Bull clocks up the best part of 2,800 issues in 54 years, which suggests more or less continuous weekly publication over that span. It's easy to imagine it being advertised alongside Picture Post.

That would have been a nice neat story, and I wish I could fully believe it. I had thought the two magazines shared an ownership, but it looks like that's wrong - Wiki does have Hulton, which owned Picture Post, selling out to Odhams, which owned John Bull, but only after Picture Post had closed. Another piece of evidence is a selection of John Bull covers on sale at the Advertising Archive. These have good, consistent branding, in a series of different serif styles that have little in common with the punchy, jauntily arranged sans on this wall. I suppose it could be a John Bull look from before the Advertising Archives' holdings - those seem to start in 1946 - but it could easily be another John altogether.

You'd need street directories and old photographs to get the full story, I suspect - Google, even with Street View, has its limits. This series will continue to explore them on Wednesday, when my alphabetical hopscotch will land on the letter B.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Match King and the fading of fraud

Frank Partnoy's The Match King - a biography of Ivar Krueger, by some accounts the greatest financial swindler who ever lived - has the appearance of a book born under a lucky star. The author's previous works include Infectious Greed, a warning about the dangers of modern Wall Street complexities. So this feels like his moment. My friend Robert Colvile has said so in print. There was even time, before publication, to put a reference to Bernard Madoff into the introduction.

It isn't that simple, I'm afraid. Despite that mention of Madoff, The Match King is not prepared to give its subject the treatment that the times might now demand. In its conclusion, he is praised for his "financial innovation". He was, we are told, the first man to evade tax and scrutiny using Lichtenstein; the inventor of many brilliant schemes for handing investors apparent ownership stakes in a company without surrendering any control. Many of his ideas are still in corporate use today! I'm sure all this seemed less equivocally good a few months ago. Partnoy reserves judgment on just how much of Krueger's fall was panic and the effects of the depression - he was Time's cover boy for October 28, 1929, and seemed at first to be surviving, but ran out of credit-lines in a now rather familiar way - and how much was an unravelling swindle. Perhaps judgment has to be reserved, although it makes for an unsatisfying book. Let me summarise.

Ivar Krueger was "the Match King" because he built a match monopoly in Sweden, and came to America in the early 1920s asking for investment on the prospectus that he would use it to buy match monopolies in other countries. Tobacco was everywhere; the Bic lighter was 50 years away; matches were a big deal. Krueger paid dividends upwards of 20 per cent over a sustained period, and Partnoy is careful to establish that he didn't just do this out of subsequent investors' money - the match factories and their profits were real, and he did succeed in buying several monopolies.

On the other hand, Partnoy lays out several sets of alarming facts without quite drawing conclusions. Krueger apparently had a habit, whenever a deal was signed, of commissioning a rubber stamp of the other party's signature. We get nothing about any practical use he may have made of these souvenirs. He died - a suicide or a suspicious death - with his empire under great strain, and his reputation was destroyed when his associates tried to rescue the business using a document they found in his office safe. It was a monopoly agreement with Mussolini's Italy; and, as they subsequently discovered, it was a crude forgery. But Krueger doesn't appear to have told anyone about it - he merely hinted that something big was in the offing - or tried to use it himself. What gives? Then there is his preference for entrusting his most essential business to underqualified people he could control completely, rather than to anyone who might challenge him; and the way that the most important details of his empire remained inside his head.

It is the reason given for his vagueness that seems most suspicious to me. The case was that he couldn't give details on what he was doing with investors' money, because the details of his negotiations with foreign governments could bring those governments down. This is a confidence-trickster pitch: you elicit trust by admitting that you are trying to get one over on somebody - somebody else. It also plays to American assumptions about the venality of all other countries. "You sound like a conman" is far from a conclusive case, however, and if Partnoy is right we lack the detail to ever know exactly what Krueger was up to.

JK Galbraith thought Kreuger's story could function as an immunising memory - a reminder that this is a kind of person to be cautious of, fully crooked or otherwise, with sincerity possibly more dangerous than cynicism. That clearly isn't working. His top Google results, which are probably what passes these days for the verdict of history, include several defences and celebrations, and a get-rich-quick site with his name as the brand. Will today's fraudsters slip into a similar soft focus? They are probably better documented - but that may merely mean we have too much, rather than too little, information to be certain.

A Street View abecedary: R is for Regen's

So I was fiddling with Google Street View, and it occurred to me that my long-in-abeyance London letters series, about the lovely vernacular lettering you can see on London's streets, would now be childishly easy to revive: Google has taken all the photographs. No more blurred shots! Or at least, no more blurred shots that are my fault. This could actually be good now.

I'm going to start the new, sinister-global-conglomerate-powered series on Rye Lane, Peckham, a classic slice of shabby south London full of shops and signs of wildly divergent age and type. This is a cropped screengrab of my favourite combination:

And here it is in Googlecontext:

View Larger Map

Now, the first thing I like about this is the hand-cut irregular charm of the sign, and the way it clashes with the intended art-deco sleekness. Look at the difference in emphasis between the upper-case 'R' and the lower-case letters next to it, the strangeness of the lower-case 'g', the extreme slope on 'for', the vestigial apostrophe.

But what makes it treasurable is that, to judge by the scuffing on some of the letters and the mess either side of the panel, this sign has been rescued from behind several erected by later retailers, because the owner of the lingerie shop it now advertises either (i) couldn't be bothered to put up their own sign, and instead just kept peeling back until they hit a nice one; or (ii) is impishly pleased by the description of their wares as "baby linen". Or it could be both. In any case, it's very south London.

Bonus Street View question: is it me, or has Google's privacy-protection bot blurred out the face of the shop dummy on the right?