Sunday, 26 May 2013

Frank Skinner is very good

There must be a reason for putting your best presenters on the radio on a Saturday mid-morning. There's certainly a tradition of it in the UK. Jonathan Ross on Radio 2, Adam and Joe on BBC 6 Music, Danny Baker on 5live, and for the last 4 years, Frank Skinner on Absolute Radio.

I find it hard to listen to Frank live on Saturday mornings - I like to listen to BBC Surrey's Danny Pike on my way home from being his warm-up man, so I podcast Messrs Baker and Skinner to listen to in the gym.

I don't know why Frank doesn't get more industry attention for what he is doing with his show at the moment. It is the funniest thing on the radio by a long, long way. His love of wordplay, cultural awareness, quicksilver wit, encyclopaedic memory and deadpan erudition are perfectly suited to the medium. And despite making it sound completely off the cuff (which I suspect a good 80% of it is), you can tell he's often thought about where he wants to take something.

His sidekicks are posh Emily and Northern Alun. In this clip Emily helps build up the anecdote perfectly. (If you can't see the soundcloud widget below, this link will take you to it)

Note: the above audio obviously belongs to Absolute Radio and will be removed at their request.


Thursday, 23 May 2013

General Sir David Richards, Chief of Defence staff, message to all UK troops after Woolwich murder

The following message was posted to twitter by Steven Nightingale, a British Army Sergeant, earlier today. It is an internal message to all British Armed Forces personnel, sent by General Sir David Richards, Chief of Defence staff.

The reason I am posting it here is because the message was posted as a non-searchable screen-grab, and although I have searched for the statement in a more friendly format online I have yet to come across it.

I am indebted to the BBC's Alex Barnett and the Sunday Times' Toby Harnden for providing the tweet bridge to Sgt Nightingale's timeline.

Here it is as transcribed from the screen grabs attached to Sgt Nightingale's three tweets:

"The appalling murder of one of our number has left us all deeply saddened. For my own part, the death of any Service man or woman is a tragedy. It is for all of us the loss of a friend and comrade. But for the family, the loss is much greater, so it is of them I am primarily thinking today.

20 years ago British forces faced danger to defend the Muslims of Bosnia after the tragic massacres in Srebrenica. Today their successors are risking their lives to bring peace to the people of Afghanistan.

British soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen fight not for or self-interest but to protect people of every creed from those who would harm them. Many have been Muslims. That is why we are able to recruit so many good people into the forces and civilians who support them. Today’s Armed Forces is made up of men and women from every religion and culture of the UK. The ties that bind us are stronger than ever and I’m hugely proud of all those serving.

Your duty, courage and self-sacrifice stands in marked contrast to the murderous exhibitionism of crazed men representing no-one. Remain where we are, held in high esteem by the people we serve and do not get drawn into the politics of this incident.

Whilst taking sensible security precautions hold your head high and trust in the government, police and agencies to do the right thing by us, as I know they will."


On the Mic - Surrey Life - May 2013

The June edition of Surrey Life is in shops now, featuring my latest column (on wanting to play Adam and the Ants on the radio) and a feature I wrote on Brooklands race track and museum. I'm quite proud of both. If you're interested, go straight down to your nearest Surrey newsagent and buy a copy. Or order one here, why not.

May's column (below) was also one of my better ones, so I hope you enjoy it. This one is on supermarkets, brought to you in glorious monochrome.

I love supermarkets. I know many have been flogging us drugged-up horse flesh from Romania. But I love ‘em. 

Repackaging my little pony as prime beefburger is not their only sin. I’m aware some farmers hate them, and the mere prospect of Tesco setting up shop in a Surrey village can turn the most fervent free-market evangelist into a quivering heap of nimbyfied indignation. But where else are you going to get lager and cashback at 11pm?

That’s not to say I don’t support independent retailers in principle and practice. Every Saturday morning on BBC Surrey Breakfast my regular guest is Pauline Hedges, a director of Surrey Farmers’ Markets. She, more than anyone, knows the value and joy that can be derived from enabling a hyper-local supply chain to flourish, and she gets a weekly platform to talk about it, on my show. 

But I do love supermarkets. I love the way the doors are almost always open. I love the twofer deals. I even like the trollies. They’re built much better than they used to be, don’t you think? 

Once wilful reminders of humanity’s inability to manufacture anything that does what it’s supposed to, the modern shopping trolley is now a highly-engineered thoroughbred, partnering us in a glorious retail tango as we traverse the smooth-as-marble performance space.

Most people use television to put their brains into a semi-comatose state. I go to Sainsbury’s. 

We need food, I need to relax. I talk for a living, and in a supermarket, you don’t need to talk, especially with the self-service tills. It’s just you, your little metal chariot and the products. Mmm... the products. The enticing packaging and the promise of so much that’s good and wholesome - or thick and indulgent - underneath. 

It’s not just me. In his novel White Noise Don DeLillo describes supermarkets (with their “dazzling hedgerows” of produce) as centres of “magic and dread”. When the arch lyricist Jarvis Cocker narrates a relationship in Pulp's 1995 hit Common People, he locates the first date in a supermarket. As an arty-farty graduate with a degree in post-structuralist literary theory, I remember thinking “well, of course.”

Aesthetically they are a disaster. Who in their right mind has ever said “oh what a pretty supermarket”? It somehow gets worse when they try squeezing local/metro/mini versions into old pubs. Once inside, we have to deal with strip lighting, freezing temperatures, odd smells (my wife won’t go in one supermarket because of the overwhelming stink of roast chicken that greets her at the door) and drab colour schemes. 

Then you have the pertinent arguments about food miles, the relationship supermarkets have with their suppliers, and their willingness to keep undercutting independents until local butchers, bakers and newsagents expire in little puffs of despair.

I could decide this is terrible, and that I should resolve to do my shopping in Walton-on-Thames high street without going to the nearby Aldi, Waitrose or Sainsbury’s. 

But I have to recognise I am what I am. A happy little supermarket consumer. And if that means I end up eating equine derivative from an unidentified east european abattoir, then I’m getting exactly what I deserve.


April 2013 - on The Invasion of the Coffee Shops
March 2013 - There was NO column in March 2013...
February 2013 - on turning 40
January 2013 - why January should be about headaches, mild depression and whisky
December 2012 - on doing more stand up comedy
November 2012 - on stopping doing weekday breakfast
October 2012 - on trying to engage brain and mouth on air
September 2012 - on my BBC microphone
August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

On the Mic - Surrey Life - April 2013

Harris and Hoole have been good to me. I produced a radio discussion about them on LBC. They were the subject of my first report on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show. They made for a nice little blog post on here, which got a few hits, because for a while, if you googled Harris and Hoole, it was in the top 10 results. It also made for a column in Surrey Life's April issue, which I can now re-publish (with a few tweaks) here. Enjoy, perhaps, over coffee.

The county is under attack. Just as HG Wells’ nineteenth-century Martians scrutinised and studied decent invasion sites near Woking, twenty-first century Surrey is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than our own. 

Stimulant-mongers. Corporate drug pushers. Coffee sellers.

As a recovering breakfast show presenter, my relationship with the bean is deeper and more complex than that of a ten year old boy with his first Panini football sticker collection. I know exactly how and when to deliver the precise amount of liquified granules to my system in order to ensure optimum performance and concentration levels at unholy hours of the day. 

But I know what I’m doing. I understand the risks. I’m a professional. What worries me is the creeping colonisation of our town centres by caffeinated drug dens, indiscriminately emptying their black gold into the veins of an unthinking populace.

At first coffee houses seem benign. Warm, welcoming and comfortable. But then more appear, and soon everyone is wandering about clutching giant cardboard beakers, yabbering incessantly with wide-eyed abandon. Enough is enough. Surrey is in the grip of an addiction. It’s time to to wake up and smell… er… no… hang on...

In my town, it's completely out of control. When I moved to Walton-on-Thames seven years ago, we had Starbucks, Caffe Nero and a couple of independents. Now we’ve also got a massive Costa, a Muffin Break (?!), three more independents and pretty much every pub and restaurant flogging the stuff. The local mini-Waitrose has even started selling takeaway cappuccinos, just in case anyone can’t finish their shopping and make it to the nearest dispensary without grabbing one for the road. 

Which brings us to the Tesco-funded Harris and Hoole. With a name like that on the shop-fitter’s boards I guessed, before it opened, a new chain of ambulance-chasing high street solicitors would be alighting in Walton. 

Then - bang! - without warning, another retail space full of comfy seats, intoxicating, steamy smells and funky but unobtrusive tunes appeared.

Excitingly, it’s from within this controversial new set-up your intrepid reporter is communicating with you now. I’m in the belly of the barista!

Like its competitors, Harris and Hoole make buying your drink a challenge. I asked for a medium-sized strong-ish coffee with hot milk. I swear this is the conversation that followed, verbatim:

“No, freshly brewed.”
“Our filter is freshly brewed.”
“Well I don’t want filter. I want it made through the machine - an Americano with hot milk.”
“Ah yes! An Americano. Well, actually it’s not an Americano here, it’s a Long Black.”
“A Long Black then.”
“What size would you like?”
“Medium.” [I already said that]
“And do you want the hot milk in it or on the side?”
“I don’t care.”
“Do you have a loyalty card?”
“Yes please”
“No - do you have one?”
“Do you want one?”
“Is this a test?”

Even after paying I wasn’t allowed my coffee. I was given a black plastic slab with red lights on and told not to return until the lights started flashing, which they did as soon as I sat down.

Don’t get me wrong. I quite like Harris and Hoole. All bare brick, wooden floors, free wifi and friendly smiles. I was going to mention I don’t really rate their coffee, but having hinted as much a couple of minutes ago to the lady clearing my table she has insisted I try two other different coffees for free. As a result I’m completely off my nut, unable to coherently enunciate my own name, let alone decide whether I’m ever coming back. 

Maybe a county full of coffee shops isn’t a bad thing. It used to be estate agents, and it’s impossible to have a nice sit down in one of those without someone trying to sell you a house. 

You can’t help  wonder how we survived perfectly well before this bizarre mania got hold of us. But they said that about dishwashers, tablet computing devices and Mr Whippy ice-cream. The modern world is exhausting. But at least there are plenty of places round here for a pick me up.


March 2013 - There was NO column in March 2013...
February 2013 - on turning 40
January 2013 - why January should be about headaches, mild depression and whisky
December 2012 - on doing more stand up comedy
November 2012 - on stopping doing weekday breakfast
October 2012 - on trying to engage brain and mouth on air
September 2012 - on my BBC microphone
August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill