Tag Archives: tossers

Virgin Media now giving no choice over TV on Demand

The following is the text of a letter I’ve sent today to Guardian Money:

This morning I got up and as usual put on the Cartoon Network channel for my children on our Virgin “TV Choice On Demand” service. Instead however I got an on-screen message saying I had to pay to subscribe to this service. This seemed to be a fault, as TV Choice On Demand has been included in the “medium” TV, phone and broadband package I’ve had with Virgin for the past 20 months. I rang to report the fault but was told that in fact Virgin had now decided – at no written notice – to withdraw TV Choice On Demand from the medium package, for which I am paying £28 per month. An “upgrade” to the XL package (i.e. to the service I was getting until yesterday, albeit with some extra channels thrown in) would cost an extra £7 per month for 3 months rising to an extra £17 per month thereafter. When I complained, I was all but told I should be grateful for having had the TV Choice service free for the past two years, when in fact what Virgin are now doing is charging me the same monthly fee for fewer services. Although I feel this is unfair, I may not have minded quite so much if I’d been given adequate notice and therefore a real “choice” in the matter. Ending a service overnight so that your kids are suddenly prevented from watching their favourite cartoons unless you fork out more is sharp practice of the lowest order.

Yrs etc.

Posted via email from Thoughtcat’s Posterous

Riddley would be proud

“John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has spent £645 updating the sign on the front of his office,” reports today’s Times. “To ensure that visitors don’t get confused, the old sign, ‘Office of the Deputy Prime Mininster’, has been replaced by one saying ‘Deputy Prime Minister’s Office’.” While I sympathise with the Times’s outrage at this waste of money (and that’s just Prescott’s lunch), its spelling of “minister” doesn’t help its case – why, it’s almost verging on the reasonable to correct a typo in a sign on the door of an MP, no matter how dubious his claim to office may be. More layers of irony suggest themselves, indeed, as it becomes clear that this typo couldn’t have been associated with a more appropriate “mincer” of the language, as my old friend Riddley Walker – whose literacy skills incidentally trounce Prescott’s – would no doubt have described him.

Blair’s exit “strategy”

Haven’t posted in a while and I have a few items of news saved up for when I next get a decent opportunity. For the moment though I couldn’t help but laugh at this report today about a leaked government document giving details of how Tony Blair plans to quit. Amongst other stunts Blair would “appear on programmes including Blue Peter and Songs of Praise“, which is silly enough, but best of all the document adds: “He needs to go with the crowds wanting more.” Surely the only way to do that would be with the aid of a Tardis? About 1998 should do it…

Cherie Blairdo, or: Modesty is the best policy

Columnists are falling over each other to declare themselves either for or against Cherie Blair following the news this week that she’s invoicing the Labour Party for her £275-a-day hairdressing bill incurred during last year’s election, which runs to some £8,000 – more than one Labour backbencher spent on his entire 2005 campaign.

“Once you’ve had a £275 hairdo, it’s pretty hard to go back to a £50 one,” protests the Grauniad’s Hannah Pool, who by pure coincidence is the paper’s fashion correspondent. Isn’t this humbuggery at its best? Fifty quid is probably as much as my mum, for instance, has ever spent (or been able to spend) on a hairdo and I doubt I’m the only one who can’t tell the difference between their mum’s locks and Cherie’s.

Meanwhile, in the same paper (or at least, on the same website) Helene Mulholland defends Cherie on the basis that she’s damned if she does get her hair done and damned if she doesn’t, the latter because of her notorious bad hair days, starting with the morning after Labour’s original 1997 landslide when she was filmed opening the door to Number 10 to accept a bunch of flowers from a well-wisher having obviously just got out of bed, complete with a barnet that could have been designed by Salvador Dali.

The reality is that she and her husband were so popular at that time – and, apparently, deservedly so – that everyone loved her for answering the door with surrealist hair. Not even the biggest cynic could have begrudged that to a woman whose life had just changed forever, who’d been up all night celebrating, who had every reason to celebrate, who had just at that moment discovered the reality that she was no longer an ordinary person but now in the constant media glare.

Modesty tends to endear you to people somewhat more than ostentation, and if Cherie had spent a little less money over the years that followed consulting lifestyle gurus and a bit more time on the things that matter, she might instead have found herself taken to the nation’s hearts. This would have enabled her to have a bad hair day every day, saving the Labour Party a fair sum.

The whole story is the perfect metaphor really for the massive affection for (and trust in) New Labour that the government has squandered over the past decade. They could have had it all – instead they screwed us.

Today’s Sunday Times has at least two columns about Cherie’s latest mammon-friendly stunt. India Knight joins the ranks of (apparently exclusively female, and no doubt immaculately-coiffeured) hacks who are kissing Cherie’s bum so fiercely that the Labour Party will soon be in receipt of another Cherie bill, this time for an industrial vat of sore-arse cream.

Rod Liddle however says it all for me: “Aside from betraying the people who raised the money, it’s also betraying the people that Labour purports to represent. I mean, it’s hardly a statement of solidarity with the downtrodden masses, is it. Spending more than six times the (daily) minimum wage on a quick wash ’n’ blow dry pretty much every day for a month might strike some of Labour’s working-class supporters, if there are any left, as a tad extravagant.

“The Labour party is also skint, on the verge of bankruptcy. Poor Peter Kilfoyle MP fulminated when he heard about Cherie’s bill that this was double what he had to spend on his entire election campaign.

“Then there’s the presumption and the double standards. Quite clearly Cherie Blair feels she has every right to expect the Labour party — or someone, anyway, so long as it’s not her — to pick up the hairdressing bill. She seems suffused with a resentment that her various costs are not more frequently borne by the members of her party, or better still the taxpayer.

“She has been known to whinge that she incurs expenses merely through being the prime minister’s wife when, as everybody knows, because we keep being told, she is a Very Real Woman in her own right with an important and intellectually demanding job.

“However, disaffection with life at No 10 is quickly banished when there’s the chance to trouser vast sums on foreign lecture circuits, billed as the wife of Tony Blair. I may be wrong but my guess is that the filthy-rich denizens of Palm Beach’s Everglades club would not have paid £30,000 to hear a speech from some leftie, limey human rights lawyer who had just co-authored a massive — and massively boring — book on tort. As visiting attractions go, it’s hardly Jackie Mason, is it. They forked out because they thought she was Britain’s first lady.”

Straw on Iran

“The idea of US nuclear attack on Iran is just nuts,” says Jack Straw in today’s Times. A conventional attack on the other hand…

Elsewhere he says, “We can’t be certain about Iran’s intentions and that is, therefore, not a basis on which anybody would gain authority to go for military action.” Funny – it didn’t stop you last time, Jack.

Publish and be ignored

A couple of years ago I entered the manuscript of my unpublished first novel All My Own Work into a competition run by two small UK publishing firms called Publish and be Damned (PABD) and UKA Press. I’d first heard of PABD through an article in the Guardian about publish-on-demand (POD; basically an affordable kind of vanity publishing) a few months before. The prize was several copies of your book “published” by PABD, to be offered for sale on their site as well as Amazon’s and UKA Press’s, and surrounding publicity. I recommended the contest to my mate Chris Bell, whose excellent and equally unpublished first novel Liquidambar had been unaccountably passed over by regular publishers. Both of our novels were shortlisted for the prize, and Chris’s went on to win.

Sadly the prize turned out to be incredibly disappointing, with production errors in the “finished” book, PABD and UKA Press doing very little by way of promotion, the title not turning up on Amazon for months and royalties and sales apparently unaccounted for. Chris is still, nearly two years later, embroiled in a dispute with PABD over all of this; PABD have now incidentally moved to Canada, as you might do if people were chasing you for money.

This would be bad enough, if perhaps predictable for the kind of smalltime, amateur outfits that PABD and UKA Press have sadly turned out to be. However, you might not expect almost as poor treatment at the hands of a national newspaper of the quality of The Guardian. Not long after Chris won the contest and received copies of his book, I offered to send one to the Guardian’s weekly books supplement, Guardian Review, on his behalf – not that I have any special contacts there, but the Review is based (like me) in the UK and Chris in New Zealand, and as mates we’d long agreed to do whatever we could to help promote each other’s books.

While PABD were not (and still aren’t) a regular publisher of the sort that the Review normally reviews, in May last year I’d noticed a new section in the supplement called Footnotes, apparently edited by ex-Bookseller supremo Nicholas Clee, which reviewed a selection of quality books from the small presses. This, combined with Chris’s newsworthy competition win and the Guardian’s own apparent interest in POD from their article that had brought PABD to our attention in the first place, made it seem reasonable to bring Liquidambar to Clee’s attention.

I wrote him a nice letter (in retrospect at two pages it was probably overlong, but I wanted to give him as much relevant information about Chris and the competition win as possible) and sent it with a copy of the book direct to Clee at the Guardian’s Farringdon, London address.

To be honest I’d guessed Clee’s most likely response would be a swift “thanks, but no thanks”, not because Chris’s book isn’t excellent but because he and the rest of the Review would no doubt be inundated with these sorts of author-attempts-at-getting-foot-in-door approaches. What I didn’t expect, though – however naievely – was to not get a response at all. When I’d heard nothing after two months I wrote Clee a much shorter letter reminding him of the book and asking again if he would consider it for the next Footnotes section.

By the end of September I’d still heard nothing from Clee, so as much as I hate going over people’s heads, it seemed a letter to the editor of the Review would be in order. Their name was not published anywhere in the Review or listed in the contacts section of the Guardian’s website, but it was given in my Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (albeit the 2004 edition) and on Wikipedia as Annalena McAfee, a.k.a. Mrs Ian McEwan.

Guess what.

By November I’d still not heard anything at all from Clee, McAfee or anyone at the Review, so by now fuming at their total lack of any form of courtesy whatever – by now even a letter telling me to fuck off would have been better received – I decided to go right over all their heads and ask the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger what was going on.

Funnily enough, this appeared to help.

Finally, just before Christmas, I received a reply, although not from Rusbridger or even McAfee, but the deputy editor of the Review, Georgina Henry, who firstly said McAfee had not been the correct person to write to, as she was not the “literary editor”. The fact that I had deliberately written to the editor-in-chief seemed to escape her, as had the tautology of there being a “literary editor” on the staff of a literary supplement. Nonetheless, she did say (for the record and anyone who cares) that said “literary editor” is Claire Armistead (note the spelling) and that (although she was apologetic) she was unable (or unwilling) to reconsider Liquidambar for review, saying their original decision not to review it should stand.

This letter to me was followed in January this year by another, this time from McAfee herself. I managed to control my excitement at receiving a letter from the wife of Ian McEwan, although this was quelled anyway by her comment “because of the large number of books coming in to the office we are unable to give feedback on individual submissions”. This is exactly what I’d thought would be their reaction in the first place – but how was I to know that if they didn’t tell me? If this is their official position, surely it might be a reasonably bright idea to photocopy it onto a few hundred sheets of Guardian headed paper, or (to be more eco-friendly about it) store it as a standard email, and just send one out to everyone who submits unsolicited books for review? I know the Guardian sends out unsigned, anonymous standard letters, because I’ve received three or four over the years from their “People Department” when I’ve been turned down for jobs at the paper. In fact, if the Guardian employed me to do nothing but send out these letters or emails, that might kill several birds with one stone.

McAfee then went on to say that it had been a further mistake to address the book to Nicholas Clee because “Nicholas writes for the Review on a freelance basis and is not involved in the commissioning of book reviews”. Apart from the fact that Clee had appeared to be “in charge” of the Footnotes section, and I was trying to avoid going round all the houses by sending Liquidambar direct to him, you might have thought that an organisation of the size of the Guardian could manage to get an envelope addressed to an important contributor, even a freelance one, to the man himself without too much trouble.

Finally McAfee said “can I suggest that any future books are submitted to our Literary Editor, Claire Armitstead [sic].”

McAfee obviously could do with someone to proof-read her letters before they go out (something else I could do around the office, perhaps!) as shortly after writing to me she also wrote to Chris, addressing his letter to “Auckland, Australia”.

I reckon all this should be a warning to an
yone wanting to get published: either be Ian McEwan, or be married to him, because everyone else may as well fuck off.

Chris’s own account of the whole sorry farce can be found here

Let them eat sausages

…or not. The Guardian reported on Saturday that a huge consignment of sausages and other “food aid” sent by the UK to the US for Katrina refugees has been rejected by the US authorities over fears about mad cow disease. The aid cost nearly £3m of UK taxpayers’ money. As I wrote in a letter which the paper published yesterday, I don’t know what annoys me more, the rejection or the fact that we sent food to the US in the first place. That the refugees needed food is not in dispute. That the richest, most powerful and most obese nation on earth needs our food is.

Three cheers for Walter Wolfgang

I am very proud to say that Walter Wolfgang, the 82-year-old anti-war activist who was manhandled out of the Labour Party conference this week for shouting the word “nonsense” during a Jack Straw speech about Iraq, lives in my neighbourhood. I sometimes see him shopping in my local Waitrose (a home from home, but that’s another story). He actually used to be a much closer neighbour of mine when I lived in a different part of the town years ago but at that time I didn’t know anything about him. Now the whole world knows about Mr Wolfgang (or “Walter” as Tony Blair called him rather patronisingly in his “apology” for the delegate’s treatment).

The first time I got to know about WW was during the war in Kosovo when I attended a local political meeting. (That invasion seemed pretty dire at the time, although compared to Iraq it now seems a model of legitimacy.) It was a slightly weird occasion – in fact so much so that this was not only the first but the last political meeting I’ve ever been to – where the war wasn’t really discussed but railed against by a bunch of lefty oddballs whose views ranged from moderately critical to downright bonkers. As chair of the “debate”, WW was one of the few calm voices in the room. I have to admit that when I first saw the footage of WW being bundled out of the conference on Wednesday’s Channel 4 News, my gut reaction was that the poor old sod had finally lost it, but I was delighted to see that this was a million miles from the truth.

Yesterday’s Independent lost no time in citing Mr Wolfgang’s treatment as the perfect example of everything that is sick at the heart of the government. As if that front page splash with a photo of WW being led away by police wasn’t enough, today’s front page features a whole article by the man himself about the incident and why he was protesting. It’s excellent: “My case is not important” is the self-effacing opening sentence, while later he describes Blair as “the worst leader the Labour Party has ever had” and observes: “Blair’s instincts are basically those of a Tory. He picked up this cause from the Americans without even analysing it. I suspect that he is too theatrical even to realise that he is lying.” That’s a great line and I think the best and most succinct explanation I’ve yet heard for why Blair has acted (pun intended) the way he has.

So, good on you, Mr Wolfgang. If I ran a restaurant I’d invite you in for a meal on the house but as it is I’ll probably have to make do with shaking your hand the next time I see you in Waitrose.

Getting the blues

I suppose I hardly need add to the column inches (or digital equivalent) laying into the US government’s pathetic response to the Katrina tragedy, but it surely can’t be said often enough that the way the refugees of Louisiana have been treated beggars belief. Yesterday George Bush denied the response was slow or that being black (the affected people, that is, not Bush of course) had anything to do with it. Like Tony Blair denying that the bombings in London on what we must now call 7/7 had anything to do with the war in Iraq, it makes you wonder how it is that the only people who believe the bullshit are the very people we trust to tell us the truth.

Anyway, I’ve been following the series of letters in the Guardian in recent days about the old blues songs about the Louisiana floods of 1927, which documented the same effects of the same sort of disaster on the same poor, black people of the same area. Correspondents have also highlighted Bob Dylan’s “uncanny prescience” in his 2001 song High Water. Although this song was inspired by the work and experiences of Charley Patton, one of the original bluesmen in question, the fact that Dylan had now been brought into the discussion prompted me to look up an old Aaron Neville album called Warm Your Heart (which I was just about to get rid of, oddly enough) which features a cover of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927. In honesty I didn’t know who was US president at the time of the original floods until I read the lyrics and found there the reference to Coolidge. Doubting that an ultra-literate songwriter like Randy Newman would have got such a fact wrong, I nonetheless double-checked the reference in Wikipedia before sending the letter above. As my initial link to the Guardian letters of 12th September attests, the reference by the original correspondent to Hoover has now become a matter for the Guardian’s Corrections & Clarifications department. (I also didn’t know what “crackers land” meant, and therefore felt a bit uneasy quoting it, but it was taken from the official Randy Newman site, so should have been correct, and in fact the Guardian, when printing my letter, added an apostrophe – i.e. “crackers’ land” – indicating that “crackers” were the residents of the area in question.) Altogether therefore I feel a bit embarrassed about all this, but this whole story seems to prove that, with the internet as powerful as it is, we’re all experts now.

All of which brings me to the image of my letter at the top of this post. As part of its recent relaunch in “Berliner” format, The Guardian is offering its excellent digital edition of the paper free until 26th September. It’s really just a very trendy version of the website, as all Guardian stories can be read for free on the main site anyway (the standard text version of my letter is on this page for instance), but the digital edition allows you to click on a story and read a PDF or JPG version of the actual paper as printed, from which the above is a clipping. Like a great many things these days I think a digital Guardian is a bit of a luxury (if you’re going to ordinarily pay through the nose for such a service you might as well read the paper and be done with it) but it’s nice nonetheless.

The Berliner Guardian incidentally is very cool but the smaller size feels weird, as if something’s missing. When I went to buy the launch edition at the paper stands in WH Smith I couldn’t find it to begin with – I thought it must have sold out already, until finally it turned up looking a bit sorry for itself in a compartment designed for a normal-sized broadsheet. And it’s still too big not to fold in half when you’re carrying it or laying it down somewhere, but because of the dimensions it feels wrong being folded either horizontally or vertically… but I feel I’ve strayed from the point somewhat. To round off therefore and return to my original topic, here’s a link to a withering attack on the US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s handling of the Katrina disaster, with a mention in it of Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker no less. As one of my Hoban friends commented when she saw this, “‘Riddley Walker’ and FEMA on common ground — this is eerie.” Or maybe just scary.

The passing of decent geezers

I don’t know about you, but I have a thing for checking the obituary pages of news websites on a daily basis, generally out of curiosity but also with a note of anxiety – it seems to be looking for trouble. While I will of course want to know immediately if someone important (or important to me) has died, I dread actually reading the words. As it happens, today I didn’t have to go to the obituaries for the sad news of two deaths, as they were headline news. The first is Robin Cook, one of the few modern Labour MPs (and MPs full stop) who could rightly claim to be a man of principle and integrity. I mean, Tony Blair uses every possible opportunity to persuade everyone that he has those qualities in abundance, but there’s a vast difference between doing that and actually having them. Blair, being a lawyer by profession, could defend the indefensible, including (seemingly endlessly) his own right to continue as prime minister, but Cook by contrast was the highly respected cabinet politician who took the rare step of actually resigning from the government over its insane determination to take the UK to war in Iraq. The Guardian/Observer website today publishes an extract from his amazing resignation speech, one of the very, very few truly memorable and moving Commons moments in recent memory.

The second sad “celebrity” death today was that of Ibrahim Ferrer, the great Buena Vista Social Club singer. Admittedly he was 78, but I still mourn the decline (with some Thunderbird wine) of that beautiful voice.