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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: October 17, 2009

IT TAKES ONLY a couple of days reading the London daily papers — there are nine of them if you don’t count the Financial Times and the Herald Tribune — to realize how old-fashioned is much of the U.S. press, clinging to a linear layout that has been barely changed for at least half a century.  Lavish use of color in both photographs and decoration, inset boxes, abundant benday (shaded areas), varying typefaces, huge pictures, and 72pt heads, all shriek for attention in the English tabloids. (“Get ‘em into the story, get ‘em into the story” was the mandate when I worked on the Daily Mirror long ago.)

But, with the exception of Rupert Murdoch, most American publishers seem to be terrified by tab techniques, apparently associating them exclusively with sensation and scandal, although eight of London’s dailies are now tabloids (the Daily Telegraph is the only remaining broadsheet) and four are ‘serious’ papers, covering the same epics found in the New York Times.

And at weekends the London papers add a batch of different magazines, filled with the kind of fascinating pieces (many about America) that somehow U.S. papers never seem to find. The Los Angeles Times, for example, keeps producing soporific Sunday magazines that are intensely boring, and this in a state that gets almost as much coverage from London’s Sunday Times. Maybe US papers wouldn’t have lost as much circulation if they’d ever learned to look more enticing by adopting more up-to-date techniques. In the case of the LAT (which should have switched to a tabloid format long ago), the ads often seem more colorful than the editorial.

The Independent, Telegraph, Times, and Guardian, in that order, are the most interesting London papers, with the reactionary Daily Mail the only one of the remaining bunch worth any intelligent person’s attention.

“Worst of all are the Americans, it is as though they are from another planet, they don’t understand how the human race lives — they are like badly brought up children.”  — Ed Miller, owner of an English B&B for 16 years, comparing guests in his book Full English

After collecting a couple of hundred dollars each year from every owner of a television set in the country, the BBC is under fire from its commercial rivals who think they should get some of the $5 billion the license fee engenders.  Rupert Murdock’s son James, who runs a rival commercial channel, understandably was one of the first to attack, but it’s gained traction with viewers disgusted by the exorbitant salaries paid to BBC’s executives and “stars”, such as the doltish Jonathan Ross whose recent contract enriched him by more than $20 million.

Ross’ eponymously named show is amazingly one of the BBC’s top attractions, but despite its gaudy set and flashing lights, is nothing more than an unimaginatively old-fashioned 20th-century style talk show. All of which wouldn’t matter if the anodyne show’s host had any style, but Ross has all the charisma and comedy of a used tea bag.

An even bigger issue for the Corporation is the way it has invaded the Internet with hours of free programming that most of the publishing media have belatedly decided they must charge for.  But how can they when BBC Online is claiming that more than 13 million visitors in Britain alone are accessing it free every day?  The general feeling is that the Corporation — once the sole telecaster before commercial TV was introduced — has far exceeded its remit. Even Britain’s Culture Minister, Ben Bradshaw, has declared that the BBC should at the very least cut its license fee and had “probably reached the limit of reasonable expansion.”

A major effect of the recent scandal over expenses by Parliamentarians has been a call for reducing the number of MPs which now stands at 646, more than most other European countries.  Now a new group the Abolish Half Parliamentary Seats New Party has advocated reducing the number to 323.  Its aim, writes Independent on Sunday columnist Arthur Bullard, is “to get a dramatic reform of our political system on the agenda……only those outside the system can clearly see the decay (of parliament).”

In an argument with a Muslim woman who was staying at the Liverpool hotel that they managed, a couple is alleged to have said that Mohammed was a warlord and that Muslim dress is “a form of bondage” for women.  The couple has been charged with a “religiously-aggravated public order offense.”

High-heeled shoes was the unlikely concern of the Trades Union Congress (est. 1868) last month when women delegates complained that many women were required to wear high heels as part of their professional dress code.  Stilettos, for example, throw the weight on the ball of the foot leading to painful bunions, corns, and deformity. “Two million working days are lost every year through lower limb and foot-related problems,” explains Lorraine Jones of the Society of Chiropractors and Podiatrists.  High heels throw the pelvis forward, tighten the calf muscles, cause arthritis in the knees and lead to back problems, and the TUC was asked to insist that wearing them in the workplace be optional.  But some people called the attempt to get the unions involved “frankly ridiculous” and one delegate, Karren Brandy, director of the Birmingham City Football Club, said she would rather have her laptop taken away than her high heels.

Beloved by British soldiers in WW2 for her consoling if lachrymose ballads, singer Vera Lynn, now 92 is amazed to find her re-issued LP top of the pop charts.  “I didn’t have a chance to become a prima donna,” she says “and I’m not going to start now.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: If they win the next election, Tories have promised to cut back the huge number of speed cameras in favor of such alternative measures as ‘smart’ traffic signals…Putting cycling “at the heart of transport policy” the government is adding 10,000 secure spaces for bicycles at railway stations around the country, aimed at turning 2.5 million people into regular cyclists….Speedy dating is being offered by an amusement park in Staffordshire, Alton Towers, where men and boys and girls and women form separate queues and are randomly paired for stomach-churning rides….Tony Blair’s wife Cherie is said to have spent $370,000 on antiques for the 18th-century manor the couple bought from Sir John Gielgud for $10 million….The average monthly bill for a cell phone, about $25, is now less than that for a landline….. Researchers in Poole, Dorset, have been combing householders’ garbage bins, analyzing their contents to find if recyclable items are being dumped incorrectly….The Digital Video Memo ($42) is a refrigerator magnet with built-in video camera and audio with a flashing light to alert your family to the 30-second message you have left for them…..How the affluent met the effluent was the witty Sunday Times lead on a story recounting the problems at Hestor Blumenthal’s top-rated Fat Duck Restaurant when hundreds of customers were sickened by sewage-contaminated oysters,…. Britain’s Ministry of Defense spent $100 million on public relations last year…. After describing claims that their methods could cure certain childhood ailments as “bogus”, a London journalist, Simon Singh, is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association…..Only one in seven people questioned in a poll by the National Mentoring Institute thought that children regarded their fathers as an example model and 55% regarded footballer David Beckham as the best role model…..The film studio that produced the James Bond and Harry Potter movies, Pinewood Shepperton, is planning to sell homes on its new set which will include cloned Venice, New York, and Paris streets….Every dog in the country is to be fitted with a tiny microchip containing its owner’s name and address….And three hundred dogs have been trained to pull lifeguards out to sea, preserving their strength to save drowning swimmers….“Many people are far too busy thinking about themselves to notice others,” observes author Maeve Binchy, “realizing that is a great liberation.”

SPENDING SEPTEMBER in Europe, I first cruised the Norwegian fjords and then spent the rest of the month in England. As usual, my travels can be followed via the video on forthcoming Wait A Minute! shows, and details of my Norwegian trip will appear in the winter issue of the Ojai Orange. Meanwhile, the postcards below illustrate some of the places I visited.  Alnwick is a small pretty town in Northumberland and the Farne Islands are two miles off the coast there.

St. Mawes, Cornwall
© by J. Salmon Ltd.


Farne Islands
© Michael Goonan


Alnick Castle
© Michael Goonan