Thursday, December 28, 2006

Everyone loves their own brand

Christmas is like collective autism. A tight cycle of intricate routines and traditions. It's for family, but not through any particular deep love of its kinship, but because only the family understands the logic paths that have imbedded these traditions into its culture. Nobody likes to be away from their family on Christmas day because, psychologically, it's such an uncomfortable place to go.

Whilst to the outsider these traditions are impenetrable; for those inside they're a norm. I was trying to work out our family's traditional Christmas day, but found it really hard to think of anything I didn't consider to be entirely normal. We get up and open presents, this is the main focus for the day and lasts about 20 minutes. Then we'll have breakfast, usually involving salmon. The rest of the day drifts along towards lunchtime with my dad remembering various food treats he's picked up in the previous few weeks. "Oh, we've got some pear brandy, does anyone want pear brandy?".

This contrasts with Nobby's Germanically regimented Christmas day; bucks fizz for breakfast, stollen cake mid-morning, traditional lunch and card games with the family in the evening. At the other end of the scale, I know of people who sleep in until mid-morning, might have a roast chicken lunch and then dissolve the family unit to allow the individuals to do their own thing for the rest of the day. Presents are unlikely to be anything more than an exchange of cheques.

What with it being Millie's first, Emma and I broke with a tradition and had Christmas lunch together with Emma's family. The close proximity of our families have traditionally meant we've been able to shuttle between the two, but have always stuck to the routine of having lunch apart. This meant I was able to observe their traditional Christmas which after church is an avalanche of present giving punctuated only by a traditional lunch with all the trimmings. Now, I've never previously known what 'all the trimmings' meant. At what point do you know that you have the complete set? We must have been close as excluding the turkey and assorted sauces, there were no less than 16 different trimmings* and I've yet to hear of a Christmas lunch which has more.

You know that you're getting deep into tradition over true value when you're opening a present of a set of second class stamps whilst everyone around you ignores your attempts to be surprised and delighted. Emma got me a Gemini iKey; although I wish I'd asked for a Ninetendo Wii. Emma's grandma was describing what the Wii did as one of her relatives was getting one, Emma's mum looked on blankly until eventually interrupting; 'Is this one of those double-u-one-ones?'

Later in the afternoon we again departed from a Ruffles family tradition and broke the isolation by venturing into the outside world. This tradition was maintained to an extent, I was divorced from broadband for the day, which meant I missed an e-bay auction when it took 14 minutes to download a single page on the household's dial-up connection. So what if the item went at a price some £20 below the ceiling price I'd set myself. I know I know, ebaying on Christmas day... bite me.

Emma's family are very close to two other families on the road and their Christmases have always been closely knitted together. So much so that they can actually spend Christmas together without sullying each others' traditions. They can have a traditional Christmas day regardless of where it's held and who is there; it's like the total football of Christmas day. We popped along the road to find the two families watching a slide show of a holiday they'd taken together back in 1980. To them it was entirely normal, to me, entirely different.

As we get older, children are coming along, grandparents are less mobile, partners expect to see their own families with their own traditions so like a glacier; always moving, but always invisible to the eye the Christmas norms shift. In ten year's time it will all have changed again, who knows where we'll be?

*roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, pommes noisettes, leaks, parsnips, swede, peas, bacon, sausages, cauliflower cheese, onion rings, breadcrumb stuffing, peas, pork stuffing, carrots and brussel sprouts

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Too many cooks

If you're a celebrity cook and want to avoid the purgatory of UKTV Food, you've got to have A Thing. Jamie Oliver had his gastro-pub Brit Pop thing, Gordon Ramsay is all about The Swearing, Rick Stein's thing is The Fish, Heston Blumenthal is supposedly about The Science.

Nigella Lawson's thing is as a middle class 1950's saucepot; perfect for Yuletide. What's not to love about a woman who's first reaction after jolly good rogering is to marinade a turkey in a festive brine before giving the children hand whittled wooden toys and feeding them a pomegranate merigue mountain? Certainly that's what it looks like in the painstaking re-enactment of a Lawson family Christmas on Nigella's Christmas Kitchen. You never see her husband, however, he's probably upstairs smoking a big fat cigar wondering where it all went wrong.

Nigella is a woman who sees nothing wrong with emphasising the words 'breast', 'squeeze' and 'come' in a sentence about the perfect Christmas panchiporan aloo and she's never far away from her vampish red satin dressing gown. However, not all might be what it seems. She's always shot in a dreamlike soft focus, swaithed in floodlights, this may be to emphasise her perfect womanly ways, or it could be to hide the fact that she probably really looks more like her dad.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dress to impress

‘Tis without doubt the season to be jolly, not least in the offices of womens magazines and day time TV shows. For eleven months of the year these editorial teams toil for new features, but once December arrives it’s, well, like Christmas. Time to dredge out the Christmas party frock/new take on the little black dress type articles.

Now, I don’t consider myself to be abnormally unsociable. Even with a seven month old baby, our social calendar is a busy one. However I don’t and never have had the kind of Christmas that involved needing a new wardrobe of party wear, and certainly not the special formal partywear.

Yes, I know, I am A Man and it’s alright for me because I don’t have to worry about these things blah blah blah. But my Christmas calendar this year will be abnormally busy; the weekend before last we had Willy’s Christmas party, on last Thursday was our departmental party, on Friday our work do, Sunday was (look away now single people and those not predisposed for such things) our NCT party for the babies, Saturday is a big night out with friends, Sunday could be the traditional Christmas eve trip to the pub; though we’re not going, on Christmas night it’s the traditional mayhem party, Boxing day is another party, New Year’s Eve is sorted.

Now I reckon that’s eight parties in two and a half weeks, but even if I was a woman I wouldn’t need a party frock for each one.

I don’t know, perhaps I’m altogether too casual, maybe just a bit too Southern (a colleague from the North East frequently laments the lost art of dressing up down south… and I don’t mean wearing a merkin).

Monday, December 18, 2006

Do you? Really?

Love It! magazine is exclusive to Tesco, apparently. It's a women's weekly magazine 'celebrating love, life and laughter' according to the promotional blurb. Can't you tell? It has an exclamation mark at the end of its title.

A good branding strategy gives a product a name which captures its values. It wouldn't seem unreasonable to think that Love It! has lots of things you might love; celebrity gossip, fashion tips and all that kind of thing.

Magazine publishing strategy might also suggest that the best article, the one that most matches the spirit of the magazine, should be on the front page. Ergo; in Love It! the cover might lead with something the reader might love the most. You would think.

This week's lead story in Love It! is 'Raped at gunpoint'.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bottoms photocopied = zero

The Christmas party was OK, a distinct improvement on the lunches we used to have where the silences were punctuated by the sound of knives and forks chinking against cheap plates. Yes, we've had worse.

It wasn't totally without its flash points. Old Man, whose defining characteristic is his one finger jack hammer typing style, suddenly, apropos of nothing, decided to tell us he 'didn't like deviousness'.

He admitted he didn't know one of the women standing with us and described the other as 'not devious, cunning' (an argument ensued). The comment may have been a general point he wanted to get off his chest, it could have been directed at me; the only other person listening to him. I moved onto another group rather than find out.

I'm competitive and will challenge anything I don't see as being correct, I will defend my position fiercely and make comment whether it's mine to make or not. I expect others to do the same. I'm not devious; I have no grand plan or strategy. If I'm inconsistent with my views its because I'm forgetful, not because I'm involved in some deed of sinister derring-do.

The other flashpoint was when Drunk Finance Person suddenly had a moment of clarity and started fretting that she had upset people with her boisterous ways. She was really worried and has apparently made efforts to contact people today to make an apology.

In truth, I don't think anyone really cares that she was drunk; she was loud and a bit random, but she certainly wasn't offensive.

Perhaps people give others way too much credit for the depth to which they think about things. Do people really sit and plot a long term strategy, systematically removing the obstacles in their way (rubbing their hands with sinister glee every time another blockage is expunged). Likewise, are people's lives so empty that they have time to sit and be repeatedly offended by someone who loses a bit of control on a night out.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Xmas factor

Tomorrow is the night of the Christmas party and after that, I’m done until the New Year. Secret Santa-gate has taken a couple more twists. Colleague OJ opted out by email after the deadline for opting in had passed. Within seconds an email had been sent round the whole building asking for the person who had drawn OJ to return their ticket and draw again because he’d pulled out. I’ve pulled out pointing out that I won’t be around when the loot is handed out, but I’d take part if there was an odd number of participants – I know, I’m a wimp.

The halls are well and truly decked; Admin Manager came in distressed that the load of tinsel she bought last year had gone missing. ‘I’ll have to go out and buy a load more, so don’t worry we’ll be up this afternoon to put it up’ she said as I struggled to axe £20,000 from our budget.

Admin Manager is like a Christmas terrorist, popping up all over the place to put another string of tinsel up. ‘I’m sort of a less is more kind of person’ said Finance Person impassively when Admin Manager asked if they should put another load of tinsel in the window. The subtlety of the plea fell on deaf ears so naturally it went up anyway.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Emma's grandma's middle name is 'practical'. On the morning of her eightieth birthday Emma phoned her. 'Have you been doing anything nice?' she asked. 'Dusting', was the reply. 'And what are you doing later?' 'Well, Auntie Margie and Uncle Den are taking me out for lunch, I hope they don't take me anywhere posh; I just want to go somewhere (she paused to find the right word) ordinary.' Well, you don't survive the World War II by being flighty, I suppose.

Emma wished her Grandma well for her birthday dust and ordinary lunch, but the call was actually a ruse. A surprise party had been organised. Now, although only related by marriage Emma's mum is also very practical. But her awareness of time, space and motion is somewhat challenged. She tends to round every activity up to the nearest hour, so making a cup of tea will take an hour, then putting the washing on another hour and so on. She also tends to cook in quantities of no less than 1kg; so 5 people for dinner equals 5kgs of carrots, another kilogram if a sixth turns up.

In this case, it was a party for fourteen, with a sit down lunch in a dining room that can cram in about 10. Suggestions that the four rejects could eat in the living room were swiftly rejected because it was too far away and it was important that everyone was together as a family. A table was put in the hall as close to the dining room as possible. Not that there was any space chairs or adults (or one baby in a high chair) but Emma's mum was adamant. In the end we had to sit on the stairs and the telephone table listening to those lucky enough to get a dining room seat having a marvellous time. God knows what would have happened if there'd been a fire.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Lower Grade

Good luck Michael Grade, for you work for a company I despise, having left a company I truly admire. Now, I do understand commercial TV; programmes are the things that go between the adverts and not the other way around. However, despite its dominant position, ITV has chosen to give up this illusion to chase the dirty dollar.

Channel 4 have shown how to do it by finding a blend of programming that stretches from reputation enforcing niche to populist banal (although programmes on the axis of Sex Tips for What You Eat and How Clean is You Naked Property Ladder are getting a little too much). ITV's programming formula has either been reduced to using desperate (and cheap) celebrities or mildly talented (and free) nobodies for their entertainment schedule or, in the case of their current affairs stuff; being a visual Daily Express by reacting hysterically to everything. The binding factor is always the introduction of audience participation by text message voting.

All of which leaves me with a cold chill to learn that ITV intend to screen a TV event this weekend entitled Extinct. The BBC might tackle the subject by investigating the socioeconomic drivers that are threatening the Northern Spotted Owl. ITV can't afford to lose viewers to the Strictly Come Dancing results programme; so how are they to ensure they get their money in as quickly as possible?

'Text 8556 and add 1 for to make the Hawaiian Monk Seal extinct, 2 for the Eastern Timber Wolf...'.

Monday, December 04, 2006

What is Love?

Looking at the charts this week reveals that the year is coming to an end; we’ve got greatest hits collections from Abba, U2, Oasis, Charlatans, Slade, Depeche Mode, Sugababes, Moby, Girls Aloud and, um, David Cassidy. It’s like the music industry has broken up for Christmas – do you think they brought in games on the last day?

I’m not a great fan of greatest hits collections; I see no joy in buying an album where you know exactly what you’re going to get. It reminds me of my favourite Alan Partidge joke, clearly out of his depth, he’s talking about music with the porter who works in the hotel he’s staying at. The porter says he loves the Beatles (along with a string of bands Partridge has clearly never heard of), clutching at the one name he recognises, Partridge nods sagely. The porter probes as to which is his favourite Beatles album – there’s a pause as Partidge is removed from his small comfort zone; ‘The Best of The Beatles’ he says almost as a request to retain a morsel of credibility. It’s sharply observed; greatest hits albums are for the unimaginative and risk averse. They might buy less shite, but equally, they never get to discover truly great new music.

Ironically The Beatles have released a compilation recently – Love. Normally I wouldn’t be interested. It’s music for Cirque du Soleil and it’s all their hits. Great music, cynically applied, it’s not nice. Buy the real albums, that’s what I would say.

Then I heard an interview with, I think, Giles Martin, who was explaining that it was a non-stop mix of Beatles tracks very much in the spirit of mash-up culture. This sounded interesting, though I should have been wary; what he actually said was ‘It follows the culture of bootlegs or mash ups’ at this point he paused Partidge-esque though way out of his depth ‘or boot-mashes as they’re often called.’

The paper reviewed it favourably, mentioning that it follows on from Dangermouse’s Grey Album (a spectacularly illegal mash up of Jay-Z’s Black Album and The Beatles’ White Album), which I have, though I like more for what it’s trying to do than how it actually sounds.

Remembering that I was impressed a few years ago when Tim Burgess ignored any quest for credibility by identifying the Moulin Rouge Film Soundtrack as that year's best album, I decided to cut through the crap and go for the music. A Beatles mash-up DJ set was a project I could get on board with, at least it wasn’t like one of those albums who's sole selling point is that its been ‘remastered in Dolby 5.1’ like anyone can hear the difference (especially after its been compressed onto an iPod).

My initial instincts were right. The result is disappointing. You can’t fault the actual songs. But George and Giles Martin had every sound from the Beatles back catalogue to play with, to cut and paste and play with, but they end up with Beatles hits interspersed with swirly wirly bits. Perhaps they couldn’t bare to play with the originals, or maybe, just as likely, the Martins simply don’t have the capacity to put together a truly interesting mix in the style of a modern DJ set – which wouldn’t be surprising given their combined age of way over 100. In interviews, George Martin seems truly impressed with his sons ability on ProTools – like an old bloke who is impressed that you can put new paper into a printer (then refers to you as ‘technically minded’, and suggests you as the person who should be in charge of the company website). Perhaps they should have given it to Too Many DJs or Dangermouse after all.

And it's in bloody Dolby 5.1.

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