Sunday, 6 November 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times - A movie every journalist should see

“Journalism is alive and well and feisty, especially at the New York Times.” Those were the upbeat words of journalist John Lloyd after a special screening of Page One: Inside the New York Times at Oxford’s Phoenix Picturehouse last week.

With the hacking scandal still unfolding and journalists universally unpopular, many critics would take issue with his view. But there’s no doubt that Page One shows journalism at its very best. Some have compared it to The September Issue, the brilliant film-documentary about Vogue – and I loved it just as much.

Film-maker Andrew Rossi followed journalists on the NYT’s media desk for a year and the hacks emerge as a sparky and determined crew, dedicated to getting their stories right. Two writers who stick in my mind are Brian Stelter, a go-getting young reporter who juggles phone, two computers and Twitter-feed at lightning speed, while the maverick David Carr, a gravelly-voiced ex-drug addict who’s been writing about the media for 25 years, comes across as a larger-than-life character devoted to his craft.

Several things were puzzling though. As Lloyd, a contributing editor at the Financial Times as well as director of journalism at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, pointed out at the lively debate after the Phoenix screening, hacks in the UK would be astonished at the amount of time Carr gets to produce his reports. At one point he tells his boss that he’s got two more weeks of interviewing and research on a story he’s covering, followed by a week of writing it all up. That’s a luxury that doesn’t happen on this side of the Atlantic any more.

I was surprised, too, that none of the reporters seemed to use shorthand and that when they conducted phone interviews they typed their material straight on to their computers. Not a notebook in sight.

Set against a backdrop of the Wikileaks revelations, charging for news online and the demise of many fine newspapers, this is a movie that every journalist should see. But even if you aren’t a hack and you don’t even buy newspapers any more (shame) it’s definitely worth a look. You never know, it might even make you see journalists in a different light.

PS: Today is Day Six of NaBloPoMo - a fifth of the way there!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From Laura Marling in concert to Nicolas Sarkozy’s kind gesture to David Cameron

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features some of the highlights of the week. I took this picture, by the way, as I walked along London's Marylebone High Street and spotted Emma Bridgewater's gorgeous shop window.

House With No Name Book Review: David Walliams’s Gangsta Granny
House With No Name Music Review: Laura Marling plays Birmingham Cathedral
House With No Name Culture: Where you can buy a work of art for £45
House With No Name on No 10: Nicolas Sarkozy’s kindness to David Cameron
House With No Name Lifestyle: Who does the school run in your house?

PS: Five days into the NaBloPoMo challenge and I'm still going. But a friend from my days as a trainee journalist made me stop and think yesterday. She writes a lovely blog called The World from My Window, about life in rural Dorset, but she's dubious about blogging so often. "I find it self-indulgent inflicting my blog on people twice a week, let alone every day," she wrote. Hmmm. She's definitely got a point, especially as in our early hack days we were instructed not to use the word "I" in news stories. What do you think ? Is blogging every day self-indulgent? I'd (sorry) love to know.

PPS: The most uplifting story in the UK this week was Adam King's proposal to his girlfriend Lucy Rogers on the 19.57 commuter train home from London Euston. If you haven't seen the YouTube video yet, you can watch it here.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Friday book review - Gangsta Granny by David Walliams

I used to find David Walliams (and Little Britain too) plain annoying. But now I’m going to have to eat my words. Firstly because he did that amazing swim for charity along the murky River Thames and secondly because he’s fast becoming a writer to be reckoned with.

I adored Billionaire Boy, his third children’s book, which I picked as one of my Christmas reads last year. Sweetly dedicated to his supermodel wife Lara Stone, it’s the story of Joe Spud, the richest 12-year-old in the world. He’s got 500 pairs of Nike trainers, a grand-prix race track in his garden and a house that’s visible from outer space. In short, Joe has everything a boy could want – except, sniff, a friend.

Now Walliams’s new book, Gangsta Granny, is out – and even though I didn’t love it quite as much as Billionaire Boy it’s hugely entertaining. This one’s the story of 11-year-old Ben, who thinks his granny is the most boring person on earth. All she wants to do when he stays the night is play Scrabble and, even worse, she serves up disgusting cabbage soup, cabbage pie and cabbage mousse for his tea. When he tips one gigantic portion of soup into a pot plant and hurriedly tells her it was “yummy,” she's so pleased she immediately serves up a second bowlful.

In this funny, touching and at times sad story, Walliams cleverly reminds children that just because their grandparents might be old doesn’t mean they haven’t led exciting lives.

As he says: “Ben couldn’t imagine what Granny would have been like young. He had only known her as an old lady. He even imagined she had been born an old lady. That years ago when her mother had given birth and asked the midwife if it was a boy or a girl, the midwife might have replied, ‘It’s an old lady!’”

But even though Ben’s granny has white hair, false teeth and used tissues tucked up her sleeve, it turns out that she has a deep, dark secret he would never have guessed in a million years – one that plunges him into an amazing adventure. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

Brilliantly illustrated by Tony Ross, Gangsta Granny would make a great Christmas present for boys or girls aged nine to 12.

Gangsta Granny by David Walliams (HarperCollins, £12.99)

Thursday, 3 November 2011

David Cameron on doing the school run once a week

Soon after the coalition government was formed David Cameron and Nick Clegg announced their intention to delay morning cabinet meetings so they could help with the school run.

But in this week’s Grazia interview the PM said he doesn’t take his two school-aged children to school as much as he used to, though he does try and do it once a week. “...every morning there are priority meetings and phone calls,” he told interviewer Jane Moore, “so you’re endlessly being squeezed...”

Well, welcome to real life. David Cameron is far luckier than most of the working population because he lives “above the shop” and can dash upstairs to the flat above No 10 for a cuddle with baby daughter Florence in between meetings. If you’re running a small business or working as a teacher (don’t forget, it’s the last episode of Channel 4’s fantastic Educating Essex tonight) there’s no way you can break off during the day and pop home.

For most of us, working means a lot of hard graft and endless compromises. Six years ago my husband was working on his computer in our freezing cold attic. He was in between jobs at the time and suddenly came rushing downstairs at top speed. He’d had an amazing new idea for an ingenious hi-tech system that helps to reduce water leakage. Not the glamour end of the market, but pretty damn smart all the same.

All this time later, his eureka moment has resulted in a fully-fledged company 70 miles from home that’s helping to save vast quantities of water around the world. There’s still a long way to go, but to get this far at all he’s had to work flat out seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. He’s missed parents’ evenings galore, cancelled holidays at short notice and hardly ever took our children to school. But then again, if he had helped with the school run, his company wouldn’t exist at all – let alone be employing anyone or making a major contribution to saving water.

I’m sure he’s not the only parent who’s made sacrifices. In fact he’s probably very typical of so many working parents.

Nick Clegg said last year that children often miss out on time with their dads and highlighted research showing that “where fathers are involved in their children’s lives they develop better friendships, they learn to empathise, they have higher self-esteem, and they achieve better at school.” Well yes, but this isn’t something you can fix through legislation or by insisting fathers (sorry, but it is usually the dads) get home in time to put the children to bed. Working parents simply have to make time for their children when they are at home.

PS: After reading my blog about the forthcoming RCA Secret exhibition yesterday, a reader asked what I’d bought in previous years. I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember who the artists are but the two prints we bought are pictured above, in their full glory. Sad to say, they are not by Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

RCA Secret - how to buy a work of art for £45

The Royal College of Art invitation sits tantalisingly on the shelf. This year’s RCA Secret sale takes place on November 26 and looks set to be as good as ever, with original postcard-sized works by superstar artists alongside up and coming art graduates. Last year's show featured art by Tracey Emin, David Bailey, Peter Blake, Maggi Hambling and many more.

RCA Secret was launched back in 1994 and is now an annual event. Each year hundreds of artists, from penniless students to household names, create a one-off work of art on a postcard. The public can then buy one of the 2,800 cards on display for £45 (all proceeds go to support student artists training at the RCA). But the catch is that you don’t know who designed your card till you’ve handed over your money.

The first year I went I queued for three and a half hours and failed to buy anything. So the following year we set the alarm for the crack of dawn and arrived at 6.30am. Big mistake. By the time we got to Kensington Gore the queue snaked right round the college and back again. Some intrepid art fans had pitched sub-arctic style tents on the pavement outside and rumours were flying around in the darkness that they’d been there for three days.

We thought we were well-equipped for the wait with coffee, iPods and thermals but our efforts paled into insignificance next to our fellow queuers. Most had sleeping bags, blankets, chairs and ski gear.

When the queue hadn’t moved an inch after 90 minutes my son whispered in my ear. “Shall we go home?” he said. Freezing cold and fed-up, I agreed. But my daughter wasn’t having any of it. “Don’t be so feeble,” she instructed firmly.

It was an agonising five hours till we reached the front of the queue. By the time we got inside the RCA building we were so numb with cold we could barely speak. And just like the year before, when we made it to the basement saleroom virtually all the cards we liked had gone. Electronic score boards flashed green for cards that were still available, red for ones that had sold. My daughter gave a running commentary as we inched closer and closer to the sales desk. “There’s one of your choices left, and one of mine,” she told us cheerily.

“Numbers 113 and 1898,” she told the saleswoman, when we finally made it to the front. And guess what? They were still there!

“You were right to make us wait,” I said as we trudged out, clutching our precious postcards. “But I’m not coming again.”

Except now it’s nearly time for the 2011 event… and I’m wavering.

You can view the postcards at the RCA from November 18.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

From Victoria Beckham to David Cameron - the new Grazia

Tuesday is my favourite day of the week. Why? Because a loud thump on the doormat signals the arrival of the latest issue of Grazia. I subscribed to the magazine a few years back, ostensibly for my student daughter. But in truth I love its heady mix of news, reviews and fashion just as much as she does.

I’m supposed to be writing a book review right now but couldn’t resist a sneaky look at today’s edition. It’s a cracker, featuring news that Victoria Beckham’s “in torment” over David’s possible move to play for Paris St-Germain (what are you thinking, Posh, Paris is the most fashionable city in the world), claims that the scar on Kate Middleton's head was caused by a sporting accident at school and an exclusive at-home interview with David Cameron.

The chat with the PM, conducted at No 10 by Sun columnist Jane Moore, is clearly designed to head off criticism that he’s sexist following his “calm down, dear” remark to shadow treasury chief secretary Angela Eagle during a House of Commons exchange. Not only that, a recent YouGov poll found that one in three female voters regard him as the “greatest male chauvinist” of the three party leaders.

Today’s interview runs to five pages but I’m not convinced it will make much difference. Revelations include the fact that romantic dinners with wife Sam are tricky when the protection team is sitting close by, that Sam often tells him to “calm down, dear,” that the couple’s elder two children like taking Fox’s Glacier Mints from the cabinet table and while his daughter Nancy loves The X Factor he tends to wait till near the end of the series because he “can’t be dealing with the man in the silver suit.” Does he mean Johnny Robinson? I’m not sure...

The most touching disclosure is that whatever differences the PM has with Nicolas Sarkozy, he’ll always be grateful to the French president for his kindness before his father’s death on holiday in France last year.

“We didn’t really know how bad it was,” says Cameron. “I was going to do PMQs, then get a flight a bit later, but in the meantime someone told President Sarkozy I was coming to France, and he’d got his own doctor to call the hospital and had found out things were really bad. So he rang me in the car to say ‘you must get on a plane now.’ So I did, and when I landed, he got me to the hospital... Whatever row I ever have with President Sarkozy, I will always remember that he got me to my dad before he died.”

PS: It’s probably mad, but I’ve signed up to NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), which challenges bloggers to post every day for, yes, a whole month. Can I do it? Watch this space!
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