Thursday, 17 April 2014

The fine art of criticism.

I read a thing on the Guardian the other day complaining about the lack of rigour from film journalists following an apparently extensive discussion in the music review industry about the genre degenerating into lifestyle journalism.

The immediate response is that such things are precisely lifestyle-oriented – if you want to write academically about film or music then be someone’s guest, but most ordinary folks aren’t going to buy it. My industry up the end of last year was car journalism, something I approached with similarly intentional rigour. I took the business seriously, researching and being on top of the latest developments. I fostered a careful awareness of the context and history of what I was driving and writing about – not to show it off in print, but to provide a solid foundation for it.

That’s not to say I don’t have criticisms of the criticism – the internet has decayed the profession, opened it up to enthusiastic amateurs who have an almost-but-not-quite veneer of professionalism that PRs love. They’re (mostly) nice guys, but they’re (mostly) just excited to be there, and often don’t know the rules of the game. Access is their oxygen, whereas the professional outlets have a different and more sturdy constitution.

The lifestyle element of my work made it entertaining and readable, but there’s a higher purpose to good criticism that makes things better for everyone. The pressure from journalists and writers who know their audience and know what they are talking about is what makes manufacturers up their game. I don’t pretend for a second that Top Gear is the only way to a car maker’s heart, but it’s a strong part. The glare of the spotlight is harsher than the passive attentions of the rose-tinted sunglasses. The internet might have opened up a brave new world of direct access to the consumer – in whatever arena – but it’ll ultimately be bad for everyone.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

'We've spared no expense...'

It’s hard to imagine that anyone has had any time to run the country this week, what with all the press questions, the denials, the behind-the-scenes meetings and the proverbial sticking your finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. Fortunately the culture secretary is a fairly second-rate position, it’s not like the BBC goes off the air if they are looking in the wrong direction, but you’d have to imagine it’s been distracting David Cameron from the important business of watching other people run the country.

I was working in parliament when the Telegraph expenses scandal (the daddy of them all) originally broke. It was a bizarre time. Politicians wandering the corridors of power looking like they’d just taken a cricket bat to the knackers. All pale and queasy like. The MP I was working for got dragged about the hot coals for claiming for bin bags and duster cloths. The irony being that they were over-scrupulous in submitting the receipts for them, you didn’t have to under the old rules. And still – cheaper than having an eastern European cleaner on a spurious visa. Oh well.

What’s amazing is MPs’ complete inability to be at all objective about their own expenses. It’s a bit crazy when you think that their whole job is about setting legislation for the country and holding the government to account. Perhaps many of them feel above the scrutiny, but their inability to cede a little means that the civilians will end up taking a lot. It’s simple PR (and I don’t mean proportional representation) – they might feel like they can all be trusted (obviously it’s just a few rotten apples, etc, etc), but the public wants to see something a little more substantial. Until that happens, I’m not sure anyone will be able to get on with their work.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

In which we are supposed to eat more vegetables.

Somebody, somewhere, has decided that I need to eat more vegetables. Maybe they’ve seen how pale I look, but that’s more a side-effect of not believing in spending time outside (it’s cold, wet and smelly). People are always telling me to eat more generally, the body fascists. I think they are secretly jealous of my slim physique. I’m turning 30 in a few months (gasp), I think I shall wake up one morning as middle age looms and not be able to see my feet anymore.

Seven portions of fruit and/or vegetables is a bit much though. How is anyone supposed to munch on that lot and still maintain an essentially optimistic view of life? I can see how you might be able to put aside the time (and money) for such an endeavour, but would such a vapid existence be worth living for? That was a rhetorical question of course – the clear answer is no, it would not.

They haven’t so much raised the bar of healthiness as lowered the bar of failure. I have a new metric by which to die an early and painful death. I don’t know how many years this sudden change in fruit policy will have cost me, but at the same time I don’t drink alcohol or smoke. Does this cancel the other thing out? It’s the stress that’ll get you in the end.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

10 reasons I hate online lists.

1 - This is clearly outrageous link bait with absolutely nothing of worth to be found by clicking on WHAT? 25 KITTENS THAT LOOK LIKE HITLER?!?! WOWOWOW.

2 - You don’t even want to get to know me as a person. You’re only interested in my hits. And clicks. Phew, get a load of those clicks. There’s no relationship here, no connection. I’m just a number as far as you’re concerned, you monster.

3 - You invariably can’t spell. There’s like two lines beneath the picture you stole from somewhere before you want me to click on the next slide in the gallery. You’d think you could take five hundredths of a second to check the basic grammar and readability of your witgasm.

4 - You aren’t even that interesting. I’ve clicked on the tantalising promise of a link that will blow my mind and open me up to a whole new heretofore undiscovered universe of magnificence. I am disappointed.

5 - Shopping is for lists. Or Christmas cards. Although I always forget to send them. The 1,000 richest people in the UK. That’s an interesting list. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to be on there. Nothing too greedy, maybe something in the low 700s. Just enough to get by, you know? Not filthy rich.

6 - I hate myself, but now I’m looking at the related articles.

7, 8, 9, 10 - You’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel when you get to the last few, and it shows. I don’t know about you, but 10 things is just a one-size-fits-all approach. Careless, cavalier, nonchalant. Seven things? Now that looks bespoke. Hey, and it's less work. Now I've saved you enough time to check your spelling.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

No more Airmail!!!

The Royal Mail is not only increasing its prices on 31 March (boo, and indeed hiss), but it is also replacing getting rid of the Airmail name in order to make its outrageously complicated posting services (they’re really not – you take it to the post office, they weigh, you pay) more easy to understand.

This makes me very sad. Folks complain that the internet has sanitised the process of keeping in touch with friends, family and complete strangers, but how is anyone ever going to get excited about sending an envelope halfway across the planet by International Standard? Modern life is all about adding simplification so as to avoid angering the halfwits, but what about the glamour and thrill of it all?

I used to love sending letter to my penpal Ashley in the US – we started writing by email in 1998, but soon graduated to letters. I would buy those pastel blue envelopes with the red and blue strokes around the edge, with that whiff of British Airways and electric trains and a new age. I’d write carefully on the blue paper, thin to save weight, which was like scribbling on cheap toilet paper. ‘Par avion’ – French on the front instantly gave my correspondence a sophisticated mien, dragged it to a higher level.

I post letters now, but I do it in a boring envelope. I go to the post office and they print out a stamp and drop it wonkily on the front. They don’t put a sticker on the front, because practically everything goes par avion these days, even if it’s off to the end of the road. It’s efficient, and now a little bit more simple, but it’s also completely soulless.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Pizza at the Oscars.

When it comes to important and in-depth investigative journalism, I'm really glad that the Daily Mail is up there with the best of them. In years far hence, people will wonder which of the earth-shatteringly significant people of note managed to score a slice of Big Papa's when Ellen passed the boxes round.

Thankfully, the DM has prepared such useful information in any easy-to-digest (much like the pizzas) format:

Brad Pitt: Took a slice and revealed he likes pepperoni
Angelina Jolie: Did not take a slice
Julia Roberts: Took a slice after asking for cheese
Meryl Streep: Took a slice of cheese for herself and a slice for her husband
Jared Leto: Took a slice for his mother
Kerry Washington: Got passed over, but enjoyed a gluten-free slice backstage
Kevin Spacey: Grabbed a box and took a slice after sharing
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Grabbed a box and took a slice after sharing
Jennifer Lawrence: Grabbed a slice quickly
Harrison Ford: Stood up and took a slice
Martin Scorsese: Took a slice
Dax Shepard: Took a slice
Jamie Foxx and daughter Corinne: Took a slice
Channing Tatum and wife Jennna: Took a slice
Leonardo di Caprio: Did not take a slice

What was that about, Leo?

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Happy birthday to my mum. Again. What's with that?

It's my mum's birthday today. Happy birthday Mum.

It only seems like 12 months ago I was wishing her happy birthday before, it's crazy how these things come round in regularly repeated and easily anticipated cycles. One's perception of the passage of temporal events does seem to accelerate when one's enjoying oneself however. At any rate, she's really old, but nobody mention it, it's impolite to do so. Especially via the internet.

I've sent a rubbish present through the post. I'm really bad at presents. I tend to buy things I'd really like, then keep them and send something rubbish. I try to avoid shopping on the whole at the moment, because I'm trying not to spend so much money and why put temptation on a counter behind a chip and pin machine? I go trotting off to buy someone else a present, selfless and giving man of the folks that I am, but I always end up with three more things for myself. As long as they don't cost more than the present, it's OK. That's not selfish at all.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Dull sports on the rocks.

I saw a thing the other day about the costs of the Winter Olympics in Sochi spiralling out of control, as if there was some limit of acceptability when splurging through the nose for people from across the planet to piss about on ice.

Apparently the 'jumping centre' costs six times more than they were expecting. Seriously, the jumping centre. The place where everyone goes for the jumping sports. They spent so long in East London banging on about the legacy of the 2012 tournament to try and convince us that it was cash well spent, but you have to wonder about the long-term prospects for jumping in Sochi.

They spent nearly a billion dollars on the main stadium, but I guess they'll claw some of that back from Abba tribute bands and birthday parties.

I was never really that convinced by the Olympics happening in London. All that ridiculous money being spent at a time it was being taken away from people who needed it. People will say that it was good for tourism, but so Easyjet and the Premier Inn made a bit of money, how does that help anyone except the Argentinian gap year students who are working there? And Lenny Henry.

That last James Bond film did a load more for the British reputation around the world, perhaps tax money should go towards that. Goodness knows there's enough product placement around the place, and Richard Branson appeared in Casino Royale for that split-second cameo. Perhaps Daniel Craig can nip round Number 10 and watch Midsomer Murders with the PM...

It's PR that it comes down to though - the Russians are hoping that some of the charm of the luge will rub off on their witless despotic country. It's not like Vladimir Putin has got anything else, save for the inviting round the Jamaican bobsled team for a Stolichnaya or seven. There are only so many times a man can whip off his shirt and wrestle a bear before people just get bored.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

An open letter to Scarlett Johansson regarding her Sodastream advert.

Dear Scarlett Johansson,

My mum bought a Sodastream years ago. We used it about three times then it got left under the sink. Sodastreams are quite expensive. I have not seen your advert. It has not made me want to buy one.


Sam Burnett

PS You are undeniably cute.

Friday, 31 January 2014

The price is right.

I was horrified today, reading a report about the Tata Nano getting zero stars in a Euro NCap crash test. Basically they fire a car at 40mph into a massive block of something or other and see what’s left of the car on the other side. European cars get all sorts of airbags as standard, specially engineered safety cells and all sorts of other passive and active electronic safety gizmos. Is this because we demand them, because we’re prepared to pay for them, or because it’s required? The dummies in this Nano would have died if it was a real crash.

It’s not just the Nano, despite the narrow focus by Western media on the deficient Indian company – Ford sells a two-generations-old Fiesta in India, badged as the Figo, Hyundai sells its i10 – both cars with reasonably good safety records in the UK, but in India they’re sold in as basic a form as possible – not even an airbag as standard. You can’t help but feel that there’s a sort of racism at work here, like an Indian’s life isn’t worth as much as a European’s. Certainly not worth as much when it comes to getting sued, you might imagine, or worth as much when it comes to selling cars dirt cheap and expecting to still make a profit. The thinking behind the Nano was that it would provide dirt basic driving accommodation to the sort of families who would splurge a chunk of their life savings on a scooter to cart everyone round town, hanging off the luggage racks, or whatever it is they do.

There must be debate on such matters in boardrooms somewhere, men in expensive suits discussing whether or not they can afford to splurge the hundred extra dollars on a relatively simple bit of kit that would save someone’s life. If they are riding around five to a motorbike in New Delhi then surely safety isn’t a concern, I’m sure the argument goes. And yet why isn’t it a company’s duty to raise the bar? It’ll price them out of the market, they’ll say, but hell – that’s just the price of a life.