The papers are full of hand-wringing editorials about the overheated property market in London and the South East. Who should we blame for this rocketing house price inflation – vote-chasing politicians or the invading hordes of cash-rich overseas investors, who could obviously give Croesus or Carlos Slim Helú a run for their money?
I blame estate agents. Tennyson once wrote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But it’s greed, not romance, that sends London’s army of estate agents into a feeding frenzy at the first sign of springlike weather. With their clipboards, shiny shoes and gigantic bunches of keys, they’re out to seduce you – into a quickie sale.
In the past week, my letter-box has been rattling like a badly installed sash window, as unsolicited mail from local estate agents drops onto my doormat. “I know you are not currently on the market and I’m sure you must be receiving a lot of unwanted correspondence from estate agents in the area,” began once such missive. You’ve got that right. Sadly, after that rare moment of insight, the letter degenerated into the usual mixture of excited claims about double-digit price increases and chain-free buyers who can “move as quick or as slow as is needed”.
I am excited that estate agents now have access to a supply of dual-speed, chain-free purchasers, but it seems to have come at the cost of employing adverbs. This letter did come from Dexters – the apostrophe-free estate agent – so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that grammar isn’t a strong point.
It’s greed, not romance, that sends London’s army of estate agents into a feeding frenzy at the first sign of springlike weather.
When they’re not writing letters, estate agents are penning columns and posing for photos in glossy magazines like Absolutely West, one of a raft of publications from Zest Media. According to its website, Zest “produces luxury lifestyle magazines for the ultra high net worth residents of London”. This is property porn: pages of “magnificent, one-of-a-kind” residences to salivate over, just bursting with desirable period features, well-appointed wet rooms and “mature” gardens.
Television has got a lot to answer for too: property gurus like Kirstie Allsopp, Phil Spencer, Sarah Beeny and the unctuous Kevin McCloud have been trampling all over the schedules for the past decade. Watching people buy, sell and attempt to renovate their homes has become one of the nation’s most popular spectator sports. How many times can you watch some dreary couple walk into a master bedroom and say “This is so big!” without feeling the urge to defenestrate them? Rather than knock down any more stud walls, I think someone should take a sledge-hammer to Kirstie Allsopp.
So be warned: if you live in one of London’s property hotspots, you will be bombarded with carelessly drafted mailshots until you give in and agree to a “FREE VALUATION”. From there it will be a rollercoaster ride of open-house viewings, leading to feverish negotiations, sealed bids and possibly a spot of gazumpering or gazundering. Your friendly estate agent collects his commission for doing bugger all. Game over.
To borrow a phrase from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “A House Is Not a Home” in 21st-century London and it’s certainly not a humble abode in which to relax at the end of a long working day. I’d just like all the estate agents to leave me in peace, so that I don’t feel as though I’m trapped in a reality TV version of the board game Monopoly.
Last week I picked up a book and got all the way to page two before I found these words, “. . . where today a continuous, broad pedestrian path has superceded the old quays”. I was so disgusted that I almost chucked the offending volume across the carriage (I was on a train at the time). It was only my longstanding respect for the printed word and consideration for fellow passengers that prevented Gillian Tindall’s The House by the Thames from ending up in the Thames.
I don’t care what Merriam-Webster or thefreedictionary.com say: the word supersede should have an “s” in the middle, not a “c”. (If you’re a proofreader, you’ll know that Googling a word to check the correct spelling is about as helpful as using a chocolate teapot to brew your favourite hot drink.) I’m also not convinced that we should tolerate this “variant” spelling simply because it’s been knocking around since the 17th century.
Even if we can reach a consensus (no, not concensus) on what the correct English spelling should be, does it really matter any more? As far back as 2008, The Daily Mail, reported the results of research by dictionary experts Collins into commonly misspelt words. Surprisingly, supersede came top of the list of words people frequently get wrong – along with inoculate, sacrilegious and liquefy.
I don’t know about you, but I find I can go for months or even years without employing any of the “problem” words in the preceding paragraph. But that’s no excuse for those knuckleheads at Random House’s Pimlico imprint (publishers of The House by the Thames), because they’re supposed to employ proofreaders to weed out mistakes. You can’t rely on authors to get these things right, and you should never put your faith or stake your professional reputation on a blunt instrument like the spellchecker in MS Word.
Spelling still matters to me because it’s an issue of credibility. When I spot an error that early in a book it makes me think that the publisher didn’t employ a very good proofreader. That affects my view of the author’s competence and makes me not want to read on.
When I worked at Radio Times we had a reviewer who insisted on writing Martin Scorsese as “Scorcese”. I can understand how Alejandro González Iñárritu and his clutch of accents might pose a few problems, especially for non-Spanish speakers. But if you can’t get the name of America’s greatest living film director right, you’ve no business calling yourself a journalist.
Last week I got an email from the Rex Features online picture library asking me to participate in one of those tedious user surveys that all companies seem obliged to carry out at regular intervals. Often they try to entice you into taking part by offering the chance to win an iPad or whichever Apple device happens to be flavour of the month at the moment.
Unfortunately, the person who sent the Rex Features email didn’t try to appeal to my highly developed sense of iEnvy. More worryingly, he/she had spelt the word survey (survery, survrey) incorrectly throughout.
Perhaps it’s an age thing (I’m approaching my half century), but when someone writes to me about a survey and can’t even spell the word, it sends me into a state of lexicographic shock. So disbelief gave way to irritation, and I consigned the offending message to the trash bin.
Yesterday that same fate almost befell a more important item of mail. I’m talking about real mail – the type that comes in an envelope and gets dropped through the letterbox by the postman. Well that’s what should have happened.
In this case, a letter from my freeholder enclosing a cheque was sent to me without any stamp or franking. Royal Mail helpfully sent it back to the sorting office and informed me that there was £1.50 to pay. The envelope had no return address on it and it was only the reference visible through the “window” that alerted me to the fact that this wasn’t another unsolicited missive from an estate agent.
When I finally got the letter home, I noticed an intriguing variation on the spelling of my surname (see picture above). I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. If you can’t even manage to put a stamp on an envelope, you can hardly be expected to achieve consistency in spelling a complicated name like Straughan.
I’m hooked on Pinterest, the photo-sharing website for people who don’t take pictures. Pinterest is for magpies who enjoy browsing the internet and assembling virtual “boards” themed around anything from adorable pets to coronary-inducing pâtisseries.
While Twitter’s mission appears to be about giving spiteful egomaniacs a platform for their illiterate rants, Pinterest is warm, fuzzy and just a little bit old-fashioned. If you’re planning a wedding or giving yourself a fashion makeover, Pinterest is just like having your very own Cher from Clueless, to steer you away from a major faux pas.
The Pinterest mission statement is “to connect everyone in the world through the ‘things’ they find interesting”, a goal that is wildly ambitious and probably a bit daft, too. Some people’s “interests” definitely shouldn’t find their way onto a virtual pinboard any time soon. (No doubt there are other corners of the internet where they’ll feel right at home.)
You can get the measure of Pinterest by reading the laudable Pin Etiquette guide for users. Respect and good taste are valued here rather than the “snark” that seems to be the norm everywhere else.
I was particularly cheered by Pinterest’s assertion that “being authentic to who you are is more important than getting lots of followers”. Right now I have only two followers on Pinterest and not that many on Twitter either.
I should probably be feeling like a social networking pariah, but I don’t. Now that I’ve figured out that Pinterest is really a playground for bored sub-editors, I’m convinced that I can become a pinboard wizard — with a little practice.
As a teenager I had cork board on my bedroom wall, festooned with pictures of my favourite actors, singers and sports stars. They stayed up there until they were torn and covered with drawing pin holes and the sun had bleached everyone’s hair the same colour as Bjorn Borg’s.
Something was missing from my gallery of 70s icons — captions. Where Pinterest scores over blogging, is that you can assemble a picture gallery in just a few minutes by “pinning” images from other websites. (You can pin your own photos, too.) Then you can employ your journalistic skills to good effect with titles, standfirsts and captions.
Perhaps I’m just being lazy, but assembling a pinboard of “Tennis’s Greatest Headbands” turned out to be a lot less time-consuming than writing a blog post and uploading images. If I can overcome my growing aversion to Sue Barker, I may cover Wimbledon this year on Pinterest rather than WordPress.
I recently joined another new(ish) site for journalists called cuttings.me, which is a good way of assembling an online portfolio of your best work. (Not that good, actually, because as I tried to put the link into this post I found the site was unavailable.)
But I think, in time, Pinterest will be the perfect complement to my blog. I’m unlikely to spend much time lingering over other people’s wedding cakes or recipe collections, but I’ll enjoy curating and editing my “boards” for maximum visual and literary impact.
I’m sure I’ll live longer and feel more creatively fulfilled if I stick to virtual “pins” instead of eviscerating people on Twitter. This has been my 200th post on WordPress, so thank-you for reading . . .
This weekend writer and comedian David Mitchell took issue with warring minorities of every persuasion, arguing that we spend way too much time listening to people who just want to pick arguments. He characterised those who spend their time bickering about the merits or demerits of provocative art like Piss Christ as a “tyranny of the argumentative, an unholy alliance of the unholy and the holy”.
Well said, David. Life in modern, post-economic meltdown Britain is simply draining the life out of me. No sooner have we vented our collective spleen over one outrage, than another piece of idiocy hits the front pages. The week leading up to Easter has given us a new Christian martyr in the unlikely person of Colin Atkinson. He’s an electrician, employed by Wakefield District Housing, and not to be confused with football referee Martin Atkinson, Sir Alex Ferguson’s current bête noire.
Colin’s crime was to compromise his professional “neutrality” by putting an 8-inch palm cross in the front of his van. It has not gone unnoticed that his hypocritical boss proudly displays a Che Guevara poster in his office. (I bet he wishes he’d just stuck with a nice Pirelli calendar.) But the good news is that even as Colin faces a disciplinary hearing, his plight has attracted widespread support from across all faiths.
If only common sense was a religion, then I could abandon my long-held position as an atheist. Sadly, no sooner had I decided to heed the wise words of David Mitchell, than I saw another story that made me really annoyed. It was the latest rantings from what, to borrow Mitchell’s words, I’ll call the “hooligan wing of the Church of Rome” that caught my eye. On Easter Sunday Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, went on the offensive to denounce the pernicious effects of “aggressive secularism” in Britain.
The Cardinal was echoing the dire pronouncements of His Holiness the Pope (aka “Cardinal Rat”), during his visit to these godless shores last September. It seems that when you preside over a Church with a long history of bigotry, bullying and bullshit, you still feel morally justified in denouncing all those wicked non-believers rather than addressing the evils within your own organisation.
I’ll admit that I haven’t read the full text of O’Brien’s Easter address. But I do find it ironic that he’s worrying about Christians being marginalised, in a week when sectarian hatred has yet again reared its ugly head in these shores. Even people who find the goings on in Scottish football marginally less interesting than Catholic dogma will have noticed that Celtic manager Neil Lennon is once again in the news. A decade-long campaign of threats against this fiery Irish Catholic has entered a new phase, with letter bombs being despatched to him and two others.
O’Brien, who’s never been in charge of Celtic or Rangers, also received a live bullet and a threatening note prior to the Pope’s visit in 2010. Was it those pesky secularists who were to blame? No, it was the twisted and ugly face of militant Protestants from the Ulster Volunteer Force. Next time O’Brien or his superiors attack all those nasty atheists, agnostics and heathens who are trying to “destroy Christian heritage and culture”, they might like to consider what a bang up job the Christians are doing of that all by themselves.
Since I don’t share the unhealthy Christian obsession with blood sacrifice and martyrdom, Easter for me has always been about the advent of spring and a new crop of cute bunny rabbits. Just as Glasgow football fans fall into two distinct camps, the humble rabbit causes a split between animal lovers who pine for a cuddly pet and those who just see their next meal.
I was delighted that The Guardian has chosen to honour my favourite animal with a blog about the top five rabbits in art, rather than a recipe for rabbit stew. Jonathan Jones drew a certain amount of ire from readers by failing to name the Playboy Bunny in his list and unwisely choosing Durer’s beautiful portrait of a hare, which as we all know is not the same as a rabbit.
For me, there is one literary rabbit who still enjoys an unsullied reputation for purity, innocent fun and simplicity of execution. That bunny is Dick Bruna’s Miffy, who remains my favourite image from childhood. The neat “x” that forms her mouth is one little cross that I’m always happy to look at — whatever the season.
Mary Bale has been transformed from that nondescript middle-aged bin lady into a “viral villain”, with more enemies than Osama bin Laden.
Somewhere in west London last week a cat had a very lucky escape. During one of those rare breaks in the incessant rain, a neighbourhood pet hopped into the flower bed outside my back door, and left me a fresh deposit of manure. I was not pleased.
I looked in vain for the culprit, but it was long gone. Things might have been very different for both of us had I located the offending animal anywhere near a large receptacle — say a wheelie bin — that also happened to be under CCTV surveillance. We could then have been starring in our very own YouTube video, with my face plastered all over the internet as Villain of the Week, just like Coventry resident Mary Bale.
The 45-year-old bank worker was filmed lulling the unsuspecting tabby Lola into a false sense of security with her well-practised “I love cats routine”, before tossing the poor animal into a roadside bin. Lola’s ordeal lasted more than 15 hours, before she was rescued by her owners. Judging by the Facebook furore and the screaming headlines, Bale’s notoriety is going to last a good deal longer.
Now, I wouldn’t dream of subjecting anyone’s pet to this kind of callous treatment, no matter how often it treated my property as its own private latrine. My “live and let live” attitude extends to all God’s creatures — even flies — though the neighbours who toss cigarette butts onto my gravel are on very dodgy ground. But Bale’s moment of madness, which provided another brief diversion during silly season, made me realise how easily an unguarded moment can turn into an international incident.
The corollary to Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”, is that Facebook will allow their deeds to live on in infamy for days, weeks and perhaps even longer. Since Lola’s owners posted footage of the crime online, Bale has been transformed from that nondescript middle-aged bin lady into a “viral villain”, with more enemies than Osama bin Laden. (No pun intended, of course.)
At the time of writing, the Facebook Mary Bale Hate Group had 9,286 followers. Let’s give them their due, some of these posters — ” 8 out of 10 cats hate Mary” — obviously possess the sophisticated sense of humour that is so lacking in Ms Bale. But the Death to Mary Bale page, with its calls for imaginative medieval-style punishment, has now been taken down. I’m sure that won’t stop the extremists masquerading as animal lovers from spreading their message of hate on YouTube and into the blogosphere.
Bale’s tragicomedy has provoked further hand-wringing among journalists who are still reeling from the Facebook love-in spawned by the life and death of gunman Raoul Moat. In a piece sparked by the Bale incident, The Independent’s Rhodri Marsden asks “Why are we consumed by this urge to hate?” His list of the UK’s “Most Hated”, which includes Bale, BP’s Tony Hayward and footballer Ashley Cole is the perfect summation of this summer of simmering discontent. I don’t know about you, but with all this time spent fulminating about England’s World Cup flops and feeling outraged at the demise of a once-great British company, I’ve barely had time to enjoy the season’s more traditional pursuits.
Marsden rightly points out that “Online anonymity or pseudonymity, coupled with the simplicity of airing one’s grievances, propels debate to levels of hatred that are simply not real.” But the specious analysis in the so-called quality press is as much to blame as the intemperate tabloids, in hyping these Facebook hate pages into a new and worrying social trend.
Pillorying people like Mary Bale on social networking sites is, admittedly, not an example of human nature at its best. It’s childish and a waste of time. As an outlet for hostility towards others, I still find it less disturbing than a willingness to turn up for public floggings and executions.
The truth is there’s nothing remotely new in the toxic combination of righteous indignation and vitriol that is inevitably generated by the perceived idiocy of others. In the 70s Mary Bale would probably have been immortalised on some funky t-shirts and badges. Now she’s a “star” on Facebook and her shameful behaviour has been accorded the ultimate accolade of a spoof on YouTube.
My seven-year-old nephew got an iPad for his birthday. As you can imagine, he’s pretty excited about it. After a lightning-fast recap of his holiday photos, it was straight into a Shaun the Sheep video, and then on to the delights of Cat Piano. Half an hour later, when the adults had resumed their usual dull conversation I saw him chuckling to himself. It turned out he was looking at us “upside down” on his iPad. Yes, when all is said and done, you don’t need Wi-Fi to enjoy the decidedly low-tech reflective properties of Apple’s pricey new tablet.
As the owner of a rather pedestrian iPod Classic, perhaps I should be jealous of Gadget Boy. I’m not. But the green-eyed monster has certainly been on the rampage recently, and I’m not talking about the latest instalment in the over-extended Shrek franchise. No, as summer holidays loom, and the news cycle lurches once again into “silly season”, Apple and its many fans are getting a pasting from some frivolous, irrational and very mean-spirited writers.
Unless you’ve been holed up in a Tibetan monastery, you’ll probably have seen last week’s screaming headlines about “horrible” iPad users being part of a “selfish elite”. MyType, a world-renowned purveyor of psychological insights for users of Facebook, revealed the results of a survey of 20,000 people about attitudes towards Apple’s new toy.
In the interests of research, I did look at the analysis of their “Elites vs. Geeks” survey. Unfortunately, pie charts have long been a bit of a turn off for me, and it turns out that a mere 1% of those surveyed actually owned an iPad. In blunt, unscientific terms, I thought this was a load of bullshit. I was also none too impressed by the half-witted, so-called journalists on one of the UK’s most right-wing organs who claimed: “A survey has revealed the typical person who has bought Apple’s latest gadget is unkind and has little empathy for others.”
The same piece went on, “But the next time you see someone sitting on a train smugly using theirs, take comfort from the fact they are probably not a nice person.” Hmm. If I find myself making that kind of snap judgment about someone who has the temerity to use an iPad in public, I shall be seriously questioning whether I am, in fact, a nice person.
But this wasn’t the end of the bad press for iPad users. A couple of weeks earlier, the usually serious Financial Times printed columnist Tyler Brûlé’s hilarious observations of holidaying iPad users, straining to see their (touch screens) in bright sunlight. Our fearless investigative reporter saw one couple almost come to blows after the woman accidentally squirted sunscreen over the screen. I’m sure there’s a risqué joke just itching to be made here, but I can’t be bothered.
Actually, when I said “hilarious”, I was striving for what might be termed a Brûlian level of irony. This was a stupid piece that took far too long to make its not-very-insightful point, which was that only “twits” would persist with trying to read from an iPad by the pool when they could make do with a book, a magazine, or perhaps some of Mr Brûlé’s deathless prose.
The common denominator here is that “iEnvy”, helpfully defined as “The envy of another person’s Apple product, such as an iPod, iPhone, or laptop” appears to be on the increase. I attribute this to the recent launch of seductive new devices like the iPad and the iPhone 4, and also to the post-recession trend for attacking anyone who appears to be better off than you. I wouldn’t mind if this phenomenon was providing us with thought-provoking or humorous material. Sadly, it isn’t. This amusing skit sums up the sound of barrels being scraped:
Fortunately, my recent exposure to iEnvy has also proved to be educational. An article in The Spectator entitled “Rotten Apple” turned out not to be another puff piece examining the shortcomings of iPad users. Instead, I learned that tantalum is not a new App available from the iTunes store for a modest fee, but the name of a greyish blue transition metal used in the manufacture of iPhones and iPads. Who knew?
Writer Philip Delves Broughton cites the dubious provenance of tantalum — one fifth of the world’s supply is mined in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo — as one of several good reasons to take a hard look at Apple’s supply chain. He concludes that while these shiny toys are great, “the world was not a conspicuously worse place without them. The more we learn about what it takes to make them, the less blinding their dazzle”.
Yes, when it comes to iEnvy, the Central African state has assets that are considerably more covetable than a $500 dollar smartphone or tablet. In fact, as Newsweek explains “Its bountiful deposits — in everything from copper to diamonds — are brazenly plundered by corrupt governments and regional warlords.” Instead of recycling meaningless Facebook surveys, I think the British media should consider the true significance of the “conflict metals” being used in Apple’s products and the butchers who helped put them there. It’s no laughing matter.
(Article first published as iEnvy: Trivia, Tantrums and Tantalum on Blogcritics.)
It was all going so well. Wimbledon 2010 (that’s twenty-ten in BBC speak) had been bathed in sunshine and blessed with an air of gentility that only a visit from HM the Queen can bestow. Then, on Day 5, grumpy Victor Hanescu had to ruin it all by spitting at the crowd during his match on (where else) Court 18.
Ironically, Victor turned out to be the loser here on all counts. Despite holding four match points in the third set, the 31st seed ended his contest with Daniel Brands abruptly, when he retired hurt at 0-3 down in the fifth. Hanescu has now been fined £10,000 for committing two of the seven deadly sins of tennis: unsportsmanlike conduct and not trying hard enough.
Hanescu, who has since apologised, was apparently incensed by some drunken oiks in the crowd who were taunting him. It’s a good thing that England’s Wayne Rooney didn’t sign off from his “nice to see your own fans booing” tirade after the Algeria match with one of his trademark gobs. But given that “Wazza” has been so off-target during the World Cup, he probably would have ended up fouling his own misshapen chin.
Anyone who watches football regularly will be all too familiar with the sight of the highly paid stars of the Premier League leaving their sputum all over grounds up and down the land. Is this soccer’s equivalent of dogs marking out their territory? During the swine flu epidemic last year, the Health Protection Agency warned of the increased risk of infection from footballers doing what comes naturally to them. An HPA spokesman admonished our thoughtless stars: “Spitting is disgusting at all times. It’s unhygienic and unhealthy, particularly if you spit close to other people.”
Yes, as any good parent will impress on their child: spitting is disgusting. The exceptions to this rule might include a pugilist who had just had his front teeth knocked out and wanted to avoid choking. It is also permissible if you happen to find yourself in one of those situations — the dentist’s chair, or a wine-tasting — in which swallowing would be the stupid option. In these cases a purpose-made receptacle is provided for your convenience.
But there’s a big difference between routine expectoration on the playing field and spitting as an act of pure aggression and contempt. That’s why Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas found himself in a whole load of Hanescu-like trouble last year, when he was accused of spitting at Hull City’s assistant manager at the end of an FA Cup replay. Fabregas was cleared by the FA, but this wasn’t exactly new territory for the fiery Catalan, as he’d appeared to give Michael Ballack more than just a piece of his mind during a Champions League tie in 2005. The evidence is, as they say, inconclusive.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me has attracted a lot of attention for the protagonist’s merciless attacks on the women in his life. But with all the fists flying around, the moment I found most shocking was when Lou (Casey Affleck) coldly spits on his girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) as the prelude to a merciless assault. In a film with many ugly scenes, this was the worst.
It’s too much to hope that England’s footballers will set some kind of precedent by scoring a hatful of goals and keeping their gobs shut for the duration of the World Cup. But, whatever the provocation, I do hope Wayne Rooney keeps his powder dry and doesn’t use his mouth to aim anything offensive in the direction of the referee, the crowd or the opposition.