Robin Brown

Doing journalism. Teaching journalism.

Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Food on the Move: Our Peculiar Relationship With Service Stations

without comments

No matter what car we drive or in what context, or what social circles we move in, we can all expect to have to pull into a motorway service station some time in our life. Driven by hunger, weather, lack of fuel or a call of nature, the motorway services stop is virtually unavoidable for anyone who spends a certain amount of time on Great Britain’s roads. Few will stop beyond a visit to the toilets, a quick fag break or a cup of scalding coffee – for these lonely concrete edifices rarely offer much reason to hang around beyond a necessary 15 minutes. The very name – service station – suggests nothing more than a necessary performance of ablutions and restocking.

Few people ever look forward to a stop at a motorway service station, but it wasn’t always so. When the nation was still impressed by the futurist sheen of motorways, service stations were places to go in their own right. Nights out, fine dining – or simple jaunt out in the car. Now our ambivalent relationship with service stations makes them fascinating in terms of their architecture; their effect on us; the unlikely, often peculiar and things that happen at them. It’s the sort of ambivalence that powered the later works of JG Ballard. They’re familiar, but somehow unknown to us. For places that offer rest and comfort breaks, they’re somehow restless and uncomfortable to us.


Author David Lawrence has spent racked up 11,000 miles of UK motorway driving and eaten breakfast in over 100 service stations for our pleasure. Now he has authored a new book on motorway food and architecture called Food on the Move: The Extraordinary World Of The Motorway Service Area – with contributions from figures as wide-ranging as Joan Bakewell, Alain de Botton, and Jonathan Glancey – that includes 192 pages of colour photographs and stories from Britain’s highways.

Photos and stories from a world where Rolling Stones, film stars and Jimmy Savile rub shoulders with transvestites, drug dealers, and hitch-hikers. Lawrence discusses the romance of the Watford Gap, the beauty of Forton M6 and why we should love our service stations.

Service stations presumably offer one of the more unusual interactions between architecture and society. Is that what attracted you to them?

I’ve always been interested in places where people, design and movement come together. Having written the leading history of London’s tube station architecture, it made sense to move further afield and this is how I got my PhD in motorway service areas. There is a fascination for me in the way people migrate through these overlooked, neglected spaces where commerce, culture and human activity are all played out a high speed and full volume.

They’re a kind of place of accelerated but distant transactions, interactions and society?

Service areas are spaces of performance of every aspect of life. A few examples include the changing subtleties of fashion, hairstyle, body adornment and accent as you cross the country; the regular meeting of transvestites at one service area, where they can anonymously be ‘someone else’; and the poetic sadness of life ebbing and flowing around the small hours of the night, when reality is as distant as the journey’s origin or destination.

JG Ballard spoke of ‘the mystery of multi-storey car parks… the poetry of abandoned hotels’.

There is a deep melancholy in these apparently depthless places – love, loss, tragedy, joy, unexpected encounters, crime, intrigue – and many subtle oddities which these places seem to bring out in people, because everyone feels anonymous and therefore loses their self-consciousness.

The motor car was once aspirational, enterprising and liberating; motorways had a futurist sheen about them. As our relationships have changed with cars and motorways, how has our relationship changed with service stations?

When the motorways had their glory period – circa 1959-69 – there were few service stations, and those that there were came to be seen as glamourous venues, at which to stop and see – or be seen by – others in the newly affluent classes. But even then, the glamour was fading as service station operators struggled to make profits, staff the facilities and pay onerous rents to the Government. Consequently, the services acquired a reputation as being dirty, crowded and expensive.

This reputation prevailed through various difficult trading periods, with some operators taking out much more than they invested. The government did not manage the service station sector effectively or positively and, like the railways in Britain, society and commerce lost its way for a couple of decades. Things then began to improve, both in culinary and architectural terms, and now there are some very good service stations on most motorway routes.

Are the dubious reputations of motorway services deserved?

Reputations are hard to shake off – but the majority of service stations are no less clean and cheap than most British airports or railway stations. It is the feeling of being captive, and stressed by driving, which accentuates the perception.

Additionally, where we feel some sense of being ‘carried’ by the railways and airlines, when it comes to road use the very virtue of being autonomous means we are also ‘on our own’ with all the concomitant insecurities of being a hunter-gatherer in the surreal world of the motorway.

You once spent Christmas in a Travelodge. What was it like?

Yes I did, and an Easter. It was a mixture of being in the midst of everyone’s Christmas travels, and also very alone. I once also got into a motel bed which had not been changed since the previous occupants celebrated their wedding night – there was still confetti in the bed.

Food on the Move: Our Peculiar Relationship With Service Stations

What is your book about?

I would say the book covers many different aspects of service station culture, design and life. The dynasties of families working at service stations are interesting, as was the woman whose entire career is encapsulated in a set of plastic name badges.

There are many stories in the book, including the meeting of Cream’s Jack Bruce and other pop stars at Watford Gap. Some service stations are haunted; others have been the subject of sinister goings on when snowed-in and isolated from society.

The book had its roots in a discussion I had with various individuals who wanted to see a history of Little Chef and Happy Eater, and who wondered why there was no book on motorway services. A niche appeared, and here we are!

Lots of people have met an unlikely celebrity in a service station – who’s yours?

Dame Joan Bakewell – and she’s in the book! Everyone who contributed to the book was approached directly with an invitation to join in with this endeavour in a committed but light-hearted way. Most people were flattered, some surprised, but all expressed a curiosity around service stations. I can’t think of anyone who said ‘no’.

Tebay Services M6 Northbound are my favourite. What are yours and why?

I’d agree with you on Tebay M6 Northbound for the down-home service. Architecturally, Forton M6 takes the chocolate chip muffin, and for camaraderie I have a soft spot for Watford Gap, where we made the Watford Gap musical in 2009.

How should we feel about service stations?

Service stations are now as much part of the heritage of modern Britain as Concorde, the Mini Cooper or Top of the Pops. They are necessary if not necessarily beautiful, and they give us a chance to both watch the world, and escape from our own lives, for the price of a reasonably good cup of coffee.

Food on the Move: The Extraordinary World Of The Motorway Service Area by David Lawrence is available to buy now. His previous book – Always A Welcome: The Glove Compartment History Of The British Motorway Service Area – is also available.

Originally written for

• Forton Servies image by Ian Paterson

Written by Robin Brown

August 27th, 2015 at 11:53 pm

Jonathan Trott: A Very Public Illness

without comments

I watched the recent return of Jonathan Trott to the England Test team with a mixture of concern and sadness. Trott has had an extended sabbatical from international cricket, following the implosion of his batting in the 2012/13 Ashes series, due to what he described as a ‘stress-related illness’.

It has become clear that this is the favoured catch-all term for a variety of mental illnesses, which are still discussed with a certain coyness in sport. Trott also followed the same sequence of events laid down by Marcus Trescothick, of alternating between denial and acceptance. But while the former England left-hander has since come to terms with his mental illness, albeit at the expense of his international career, that never seemed to be the case with Trott.

The Warwickshire batsman went back to county cricket, left again, rejoined and made hay. He also fared well on a Lions tour and was apparently given an all-clear to return to the crucible of Test cricket by a battery of ECB analysts. Trott’s problems, it seemed, were down to fatigue: Pressure, a failure to live up to his own exacting standards – a crisis of confidence, form and temperament that must have been fearful, disturbing, crippling. A terrible vicious circle. It seems to be a peculiarly male problem: the need to provide, prosper and succeed – the failure of which can be devastating to a psyche that is geared up to those goals.

Trott may have viewed his collapse in Australia as letting down his team-mates, family, employers, captain and even country. That it happened in a public spotlight, under hostile conditions and in circumstances that posed extreme physical dangers must have been a shattering experience. A loss of self-image, self-respect; a loss of self-knowledge. To fail at the one thing at which you truly excel; the thing that defines you as a man must be devastating indeed.

Despite a number of international cricketers speaking publicly about their difficulties with mental illness – Trescothick must receive high praise for paving the way for other to follow – Trott received a good deal of criticism from commentators ill-equipped to understand his situation, yet he must bear some of the responsibility for that reaction.

His various explanations as to exactly what was wrong with him suggested that he was experiencing burn-out. Whether Trott was unaware of what was happening to him or deliberately misleading because he feared the end of his career, or loss of face, is still unclear. But it seemed clear that Trott was experiencing a situational anxiety that was divorcing his mind and body in a game where the ability to sum up a situation and react to it correctly in a split second is vital to success and physical well-being. Any batsman fears getting hit at 90mph by a cricket ball – for reasons that became obvious in late 2014.

The England batsman’s technique has seemed bizarre since that Ashes series and his approach to batting highly unusual. He appears uncertain, his judgement clouded. The surprise is that England chose to back Trott in a position and arena that would expose him to fast, hostile bowling despite the fact the root cause of whatever was behind his exit from the team never seemed to have been addressed – because it had never really been acknowledged.

Amid the England set-up and, to some degree, in the media there seems to have been the assumption that Trott had been ‘fixed’ of the anxiety that seems to have crippled him as a sportsman, in the same way that a torn hamstring or chipped bone can be repaired or rehabbed: a physical injury that will simply go away in time.

It’s not necessarily unhelpful to compare mental illness to physical illness in some ways: it can help others understand that there should be no stigma or shame, nor that mental illness cannot be treated; that it can happen to anyone and can be just as debilitating as a broken arm or ripped muscle.

Yet it can be a double-edged sword – such a broad metaphor can also lead people to assume that anxiety, depression and other disorders can be eradicated, never to return. But old cricketers will bear testament that not all physical injuries vanish forever after a few weeks of rest and rehab: nagging anxiety, self-doubt or depression can reappear without warning, just as bone, skin and joints can tell a story on a cold, wet day years later.

Seeing Jonathan Trott bat again against the West Indies recently, it seems clear that whatever issues or affecting him have not been eradicated. It begs some questions as to how wholly the England Cricket Board and sportsmen generally have really grasped the significance of mental illness in high-pressure environments, or they have understood how enduring and difficult it can be.

On one hand it’s to their credit that Trott was given an opportunity to return to the fold, having met every challenge that could reasonably have been expected of him in representing England again. But while commentators and the bulk of the press corps glossed over Trott’s difficulties, his performances led journalist – and friend of Trott – George Dobell to describe him as ‘broken‘.

It seemed a starkly brutal term, yet it seems hard to disagree with the view that, as a cricketer, the Trott of 2015 is a very different beast from the Trott of 2010: the Trott who compiled vast, serene centuries against the best bowling attacks in the world. The strange, kamikaze walks down the wicket to fast bowlers, alarm at short balls and uncertain shot selection suggest more than a lack of form or luck – they suggest a temperament and technique that had slipped their moorings.

Jonathan Trott was Andy Flower’s ‘rock’. That, in itself, seems to hint at the dichotomies of mental illness and suggests why we’re so poorly-equipped to comprehend and react to it. From ‘rock’ to ‘broken’ in two short years. How is that possible?

Perhaps what the Trott saga indicates most of all is that our lexicon is still lacking when it comes to explaining mental illness. The words that are bandied around – broken, burnout, fatigue – vary between crude and coy. ‘Stress-related illness’, that most famous cop-out, reeks of management-speak. The embarrassment and awkwardness with which these maladies are discussed continue to hold back our understanding of mental illness and that lack of understanding necessarily means a lack of empathy and tolerance towards it.

Jonathan Trott may have been a fine servant for English cricket for several years, but his abortive return to the England team demonstrates the strange omerta over mental illness in sport still holds sway.

Originally written for Opening Up

Written by Robin Brown

August 25th, 2015 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Journalism,People

Tagged with

Ramsey Campbell Interview

without comments

I interviewed Ramsey Campbell last year for the SevenStreets Almanac – a short-lived print version of SevenStreets that lasted for about as long as we had the energy and interest to keep ploughing hundreds of hours into something that paid us less than it needed to.

I became aware of Campbell years ago as I’ve always dipped in and out of the wider horror genre, feasting on short stories when younger and buying up Stephen King, James Herbert and Dean Koontz. I’m a particular fan of short stories, being brought up on MR James, Saki and O Henry, and the form lends itself well to science-fiction and horror genres with macabre reveals. That led me to stuff like JG Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell.

I saw Campbell speak at a Twisted Tales event in around 2010 and was struck by his knowledge and humour, so I was chuffed when he subsequently started posting comments on SevenStreets – usually talking his favourite Chinese restaurant. I’d long earmarked him for a proper sit-down interview about his relationship with Liverpool so the Halloween edition we did (at the bottom) was a good opportunity.

Ramsey was as hospitable as I expected, with a big, rambling house – little stacks of DVDs and books everywhere – filled with curios. But I liked how he basically sat and talked to me in his slippers. Matt Thomas took a great pic of Ramsey sat on the sofa which we both instantly thought was the image to use. The interview itself is not vintage stuff, which is my fault, but went some way to exploring the idea that a writer’s physical location – and formative experiences in a particular place – can affect their writing, whether consciously or unconsciously.

I included a reading list at the bottom for those interested in reading Ramsey’s Liverpool-flavoured work, but it’s an awesome canon, to which I can’t really do justice. I’m continuing to tick them off – and re-read a few through the lens of a couple of hours with the author. And I continue to look at Liverpool’s buidings, roads and waterways – and ponder what’s behind, beneath and beyond them.

ramsey campbell interview

I look on from the bay window onto the front lawn and leafy street in Wallasey.

“Do you neighbours know what you do?”

“Yes, I haven’t been run out of town yet!” replies Ramsey Campbell, a man often referred to as the country’s greatest living horror novelist.

I was pondering what it might be like to have a well-known author as a neighbour, but Ramsey answers the question as if I’d suggested that perhaps a man of his profession should not be allowed to live among other people. His warm greeting, an Escher-print t-shirt and pair of comfy slippers indicate that nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you really dislike Escher.

Campbell, a writer for half a century, started off writing in a fictional universe; namely a Lovecraftian town called Brichester, but as time passes and Campbell moves away from Lovecraft to a more subtle MR James idiom, it becomes more recognisable as Liverpool, before being ditched altogether in favour of the author’s hometown.

By the time of Creatures of the Pool – described by Campbell as his ultimate Liverpool novel and ultimate SevenStreets novel – it’s clear that Liverpool has become as much a character as any of Ramsey’s human, or non-human, cast. In his short stories and novels the city takes on a whole new aspect: a city haunted by shadows, connected with its past, harbouring people and things to be avoided who may or may not be phantoms of fevered minds.

Campbell’s journey to authorship started with a chance encounter with a copy of Weird Tales, a pulpy anthology that was something of a gateway drug to youthful minds attracted to the escapism of science-fiction and horror.

“It was one of those places that sold sweets and books in Southport on Seabank Road, including these American imports with a half-crown sticker on the front. The cover had a birdlike grotesque in the foreground in this black desert, being approached by two monstrous skeletons with huge skulls. If that was the cover what would it be like inside? At seven I was too young for it and my mother wouldn’t let me buy it but the memory of it stayed with me.

“I picked it up a few years later to find that it’s a vulture that’s painted quite badly with two human skeletons in the background. But my mind latched on to the original image and wanted it to be stranger – it invented this even more bizarre image. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

This is something of a trend in Campbell’s work; stories rooted in the everyday and brought to life through detail where the protagonist gradually realises that something rationally inexplicable is taking place. Whether it’s all in the mind of the narrator or main character is often left for the reader to decide.

“The writing that I enjoy – and the writing that I try to create – is something that makes you look again at something you take for granted. One of my first stories, The Cellars, is essentially a historical document now of Liverpool city centre as the characters walk this route between Bold Street and to Old Hall Street. And I did the walk – I always go and look again, noticing details I’d never seen before that I could use.

In his earlier works Campbell describes a Liverpool not seen for decades; a Liverpool down on its luck – full of blasted landscapes and joblessness. It was fertile ground for a writer who melded the physical landscape with unconscious terrors.

“In those days I would go to cinemas – The Homer in Great Homer Street and another in Kensington. To get to them you would pass these derelict streets; through this wasteland that Liverpool was in the war. This entire new city opened itself out to me as I was discovering Lovecraft, and the two came together.

“A lot of the stories come out of the location. With Mackintosh Willy I was walking in Newsham Park and found these fading footprints in some new cement. And then I noticed on the park shelter was written Mackintosh Willy; when I looked closer I realised it was three guys’ names – Mack, Tosh, Willy – who had graffitied their names on the wall. And that was all I needed to write the story – the idea of Mackintosh Willy.”

Campbell accepts that Liverpool has very much shaped the writer he has become and though it’s tempting to speculate that there is something in the city that has spawned several more renowned genre writers – not least Clive Barker, who has used Liverpool in much of his writing, most obviously in The Forbidden, the story that became Candyman – he seems inclined to regard of it as coincidence, while acknowledging this part in aiding Barker’s rise to the top table of horror. However, another luminary of the genre hints at something more fundamental between Liverpool and the writers it spawns, as Campbell says:

“Stephen King says something in Danse Macabre to the effect that in my first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Liverpool is the main character; this slumbering beast.”

Can a city – its architecture and race memory and scar tissue – affect the minds of the people who live, write and work there; somehow turn their conscious and unconscious minds into a conduit for things only understood instinctively? Campbell’s work frequently feels like a synthesis of influences – the city of Liverpool speaking through him.

Having digested much of his work over the last 18 months I have begun, as Campbell says, to look again; looking up at the rooftops and facades and down at the flooring and paving, pondering what lies beneath the streets and the rolling Mersey.

Liverpool’s rich, deep, febrile history is evident in its buildings, its road names and peculiar topography: slavers and slaves, rogues, murderers, lunatics – even its own mischievous spirit in Springheel Jack, the fleet-footed gremlin of Everton’s rooftops.

Whitechapel, Princes Avenue and James Street look different to me now with the added context of Campbell’s insidious prose, which lends the suspicion that there is something else at the edge of our perception; something we might glimpse if we were to look again. The creeping suspicion that, somehow, something is vaguely wrong.

Ramsey Streets

Many Ramsey Campbell stories are set in specific Liverpool locations. Here are just seven.

Mackintosh Willy

An old shelter in Newsham Park is the setting for a disturbing tale concerning an old tramp, to whom there is more than meets the eye.

The Companion

A youth is pursued through a fairground in New Brighton by a gang of ne’er-do-wells, taking to a ghost train to escape.

The Brood

An insomniac is unnerved by an old woman standing underneath a lamppost outside his flat on Princes Avenue and resolves to investigate who she is – and why local pets are disappearing.

The Man In The Underpass

A young girl forms a connection with some unusual graffiti in an underpass off West Derby Road.

Creatures of the Pool

Gavin’s father has gone missing. As he searches for him and begins to piece together Liverpool’s myth and history he starts to realise that the city’s connection with what lies in the ground and the water has formed its present. The book is crammed with real-world historical detail on Liverpool.

The Face That Must Die

A homophobic killer stalks the streets of Aigburth and Toxteth in this bleak, hallucinatory thriller.

Calling Card

A miserable tour of Liverpool lends no respite for a woman who lives on Lark Lane, seemingly haunted by a ghost of Christmas past. Commissioned by the Post, it was initially unused, having been deemed too horrible.

The edition of the Almanac the interview featured in…

Written by Robin Brown

December 6th, 2014 at 1:11 am

Posted in Journalism,People

Tagged with ,

Richard Attenborough Interview

without comments

Lord Attenborough’s recent death took me back to an afternoon in 2000 when I went to interview the director, who was promoting Grey Owl – his penultimate work and probably not his best. For some reason, which still baffles me, I had been chosen to interview Attenborough by whatever company had been retained to deal with these things. Alongside Joe Riley of the Echo, I was the only one afforded any time with the great man.

The do took place at what is now the Radio City tower with much food and booze laid on for the occasion – it was like walking into an episode of Sex and the City. Having headed straight from the office where I was laying out the next newspaper, under orders to pretend I’d seen the film at a screening and probably looking like a complete scruff, I was rather out of place. Attenborough clearly spotted this while doing the rounds and made a point of coming over to me to engage me in conversation.

It was a lovely gesture, though I would have warmed to him anyway. I was very chuffed with the interview, where Attenborough nursed me through with interesting and thorough answers to what were probably unimpressive questions and hushed the people telling him he had to make time for other interviews (there weren’t any more as it transpired, we’d talked for so long no-one else got to speak to him). Afterwards he asked: “Was that alright, Robin?”. I was thrilled with that too. He essentially sacrificed the time reserved to promote his new film to be nice to someone who he obviously thought needed it.

I’ve reprinted the interview that resulted below, which is rather shot through with an angsty pessimism that reflected my mood at the time but reflects a style that I have adopted to a lesser degree ever since: a little bit gonzo, emotive, personal. I quite like the interview, despite the lack of quotes, looking back but it wouldn’t have amounted to much without the help of the subject. Those 20 minutes with Lord Attenborough were a wonderful treat and instructive too.

Godspeed, Dickie.

Lord Attenborough. The name itself is so thick with meaning, gravity and grandiosity that the prospect of meeting the man is quite unnerving.

I’m also surrounded by so much decadence at Radio City headquarters at the top of St John’s Beacon, while surveying some of the city’s seamier quarters of Liverpool that it’s impossible not to be struck by the juxtaposition. As I enter the building I am entreated to buy a Big Issue; as I enter the room chosen to host the launch party for Grey owl, Attenborough’s new film, I am faced with plates full of food, a lobster perched slightly sadly on top, as several people try to force wine into my hand.


Slightly fazed by it all and the roll-call of people who move on to another victim once they learn that I’ve come from the student newspaper, I sit by the window to admire the view. Realising there’s someone standing next to me who hasn’t moved away once they’ve noticed my whiskers, I turn to make a comment on the scenery when – inevitably – I’m faced with the man himself: “Magnificent view!”

Lord Richard Attenborough looks like my Grandpapa.

After a fat man from the Liverpool Echo creeps to Attenborough for an eternity, I am maneuvered through the gaggle of journos – “Janet Bland from the Daily Post…” – and get to spend some time with him in a side room. He looks tired [Attenborough was 77 at the time] but that doesn’t seem to dim his enthusiasm.

“Louis B Mayer always said that films have nothing to do with messages, I don’t agree with that, I don’t accept that. I believe that movies are essentially entertainment, but I also believe they are about things that people care about: totalitarianism, racial concerns, religious persecution – things that are worth talking about.

“I do believe that the environment is of great concern. There was a statement out yesterday that said within 70 years we will have plundered the planet, there will be no natural resources left: trees, water. It’s terrible, terrifying.”

Quite what the throng of hacks outside would make of this is anyone’s guess, but there’s no stopping him.

“Now, here’s a tale that deals with these issues, but with a fabulous tale behind it. A guy who was a total phone; a liar, drunk and bigamist…”. Ah, this will be Grey Owl, the true story of the Red Indian who renounced his life as a trapper in Canadian forests to become the leading figure in global environmentalism prior to WWII, only for it to be discovered, upon his death, that he was a chap from Hastings called Archie.

Attenborough’s delight at this story is evident – and his passion when talking about environmental issues evident. Indeed, Grey Owl shares many characteristics with many of the director’s other films: tolerance, harmony and respect chief among them. Looking at the critical and box-office receptions for Ghandi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom it’s hard not to conclude that Louis was wrong after all. But where does all this come from?

“Mike Parkinson said to me: ‘Your parents were committed to good causes’. They weren’t good causes – they were committed to helping people live and breathe, everyday things. It seemed unthinkable to them that you were not concerned with people less fortunate than yourself, or people who were being persecuted. You can’t just stand by. It isn’t something special to me; it’s perfectly ordinary behaviour.”

I’m with him, but the executives who refused to bankroll Attenborough’s films when he was transitioning from Hollywood leading man to director didn’t seem to agree. They laughed Attenborough out of the room for wanting to make a film about ‘a little brown man, dressed in a sheet and carrying a beanpole’. They had reckoned without his eye for telling a good story and his tenacity. Having spent 20 years trying to get the funding together to make Ghandi, he promptly won eight Oscars.

“My monstrous behaviour was that I gloated over the fact that all those buggers who turned me down then started to bid for it,” he admits a little ruefully, but with a definite twinkle.

Attenborough clearly loves making films, despite the difficulties he has encountered – he has also had to raise the cash to make Grey Owl privately – but it seems to me the overriding reason is to convey messages of humanitarianism in a format that people find palatable. The spoonful of sugar in Grey Owl is the love affair between Piers Brosnan’s eponymous lead and his wife, but the message behind it is hard to miss.

It’s a passion that has led Attenborough behind the camera more and more as his career has progressed, but it’s worth remembering that he was one of Hollywood’s key leading men during the golden age, starring in classics such as Brighton Rock, I’m Alright Jack, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and 10 Rillington Place. More recently he has appeared in Jurassic Park, where Steven Spielberg asked him to direct portions of Schindler’s List – he was too busy working on Shadowlands, a critical smash that was showered with Oscar nominations and BAFTA wins.

I waste some precious time musing on his early film career – “William Hartnell was a wonderful man!” – Brighton Rock being one of my favourite books and a strong film to boot. Attenborough’s anti-hero Pinkie is one of the most fearful, most violent figures in literature. He can’t stop himself though; a gentle chat about the films of the 40s becomes an impassioned statement about film violence: “We become inured to violence, we accept it as the norm. We should be horrified by it and we should be horrified by war.”

Time ticks by and we have to make way for Lord Attenborough’s next engagement. I leave the interview and seek out more booze. Everywhere people are chattering into mobile phones, taking wine from pretty waitresses without acknowledging them and networking furiously. What will these people take away from Grey Owl, Cry Freedom or Ghandi?

“What was he in?”

“You know, the one with the dinosaurs.”

• Image via Creative Commons, Flickr

Written by Robin Brown

October 29th, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Journalism,People

Tagged with

Calling Peter Mandelson a liar

with 3 comments

Peter Mandelson says he regrets saying that the Labour party was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’.

From The Grauniad:

Lord Mandelson has admitted he is no longer “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”, given rising inequality and stagnating middle-class incomes brought about by the damaging downsides of globalisation.

Almost a decade and a half after making the remarks, which were seen as characterising the Labour government’s embrace of free markets and the City, Mandelson said he was “much more concerned” about inequality than when he made first made his comments to a US industrialist in California in 1998.

This isn’t, in itself, especially interesting beyond one of New Labour’s key architects admitting he got something wrong, which is fairly rare.

What’s interesting to me is that I interviewed Mandelson in 1998 and quizzed him about the wisdom of those remarks while representing Hartlepool – a depressed post-industrial north-east town with high unemployment and low ‘filthy rich’ rates – as MP (the full story is here).

Unsurprisingly he bridled at the question – and then denied flat out that he’d said it. I knew that he’d almost certainly said it, so I asked for a clarification. “You’ve never said that?”.

“No. Next question.”

These were the days before the internet was much use as a research tool, so I’d trawled newspapers archives and stacks of various political mags to find some interesting questions to ask Mandelson – I’d seen the quote referred to a few times but couldn’t trace where it had first been used or who had first reported it, despite talking to a reporter who’d written it (he’s copied it form another report), so it remained – like the mushy pea story – something that was probably true but plausibly deniable.

Mandelson remains the single most unpleasant interviewee – and one of the more unpleasant people – I’ve ever met and he appeared to take great delight in trying to rough up and obstruct a student reporter simply because they’d nailed him with one of his own dim-witted remarks.

So I take some small measure of satisfaction, the best part of 15 years later, to call Peter – now Lord – Mandelson, in this one regard, a liar (I still have the tapes).

That politicans tell lies and, let’s be honest, wholly inconsequential ones at that, is not headline news either. But on behalf of my 19-year-old self I’d just like to call Peter out on that lie – and for being a total dick.

Written by Robin Brown

January 26th, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Journalism,People

Tagged with

Privacy is for paedos

without comments

I’ve watched the hackgate/NewsCorp/Leveson circus with a fascinated mixture of horror, revulsion and amusement. It’s been something of a car crash spectacle, only onlookers didn’t hack the phones belonging to the relatives of those expiring in the inferno, stick a camera into the faces of dying people or hound the relatives of the dead afterwards.

Seeing the likes of Brooks and the Murdochs get some measure of comeuppance has been vaguely satisfying, but I don’t think a lot will change. One lot of dodgy newsroom execs will get the boot; another load, steeped in the dubious cultures of modern national newsrooms, will take their place.

The new I'm A Celebrity cast lines up at the Leveson Inquiry

What may happen is that the ridiculous Press Complaints Commission might finally shuffle off to a Soho restaurant for good, in that it should be clear to even the most swivel-eyed hack that it’s permanently fucked; rather like a semi-senile octogenarian business type constantly befuddled by what his avaricious minions are up to behind his back.

The revelations over what families such as the Dowlers and McCanns were put through should cause everyone who calls himself a journalist to cringe with the awfulness of it all. The press has been out of control for much of the last decade; each jaw-dropping anecdote about hacking, blagging or other criminal behaviour another black mark against an industry capable of so much good.

Yesterday at the Leveson inquiry absolutely blew that away though, with the testimony of Paul McMullan, a man who has only existed previously in cartoonish representations of the most archetypally amoral journalist going. McMullan virtually admitted, without shame, that he had broken the law in many and varied ways more times than he could remember – and went on to explain that absolutely anything that sold newspapers was justified.

I’d suggest that the combination of massive, extra-legal power, backed up by lorry-loads of available cash – essentially the tools of tabloid journalists over the last ten years – coupled with the belief that virtually any behaviour, and any story, is justifiable is a pretty worrying proposition.

McMullan didn’t seem to think so. “Privacy is for paedos,” he averred, tucking his press card into a hatband, scowling at a Muslim and knocking one out to a page three picture of Lucy Pinder’s tits. `

“Circulation defines what is the public interest,” he continued, lighting up a fag, breaking wind and slurping on a pint of warm beer. “I don’t see it’s the job of anyone else to force the public to read this or that.”

The public interest. Have three words ever been so misused to justify such scandalous behaviour? To a new generation of hacks and hackettes, this new definition of “the public interest” happens to dovetail with “what newspapers want to publish”. Jon Venables’ new identity; Kate McCann’s private diaries; Charlotte Church’s norks – public interest.

These things cannot possibly be in any recognised definition of “the public interest”; the only “interest” involved here is self-interest. Over the last 40 years journalists have started to fantasise a bizarre superhero role for themselves, where they bring down druglords, bent politicans and have become crusaders for free speech and the Great British Public.

In some ways they have – and the right of the press to muddy what constitutes legal and illegal conduct in the pursuit of uncovering corruption, mass illegality and behaviour inimical to civil society has been, unofficially, enshrined.

McMullan just about stopped short of admitting to – but happily defended – a wide spectrum of illegal activities, such as cultivating contacts with police, being involved in high-speed car chases, entering private buildings under false pretences, theft, telephone hacking and using private detectives to ‘blag’ information.

Many of these activities fall into a kind of grey area in the PCC’s codes of practice – and statutory law. The Guardian only managed to bring down Jonathan Aitken – one of the greatest instances of investigative journalism in our country’s history – by faking a letter from the House of Commons. Illegal? Unethical? Perhaps – but there’s a peculiar ‘ends justify the means’ aspect to journalism in this country.

In some instances they do. Most of the great political scoops of the tabloid era will have been broken with some assistance from legally dubious methods. If that work exposes corruption, illegality or double standards of those in public life then I can see a justification.

But somehow “the public interest” has been extended to actors, sportspeople, musicians, reality TV types – even the families of those in the public eye; basically anyone famous enough to arguably be of interest to people who buy newspapers. Tabloids tell us they’re the guardians of truth and honesty and give us tawdry sex-and-drugs splashes concerning people like Joe Calzaghe and Kate Middleton’s uncle; the News of the World wasn’t known as the News of the Screws for nothing.

McMullan’s only apparent regret was that he once discovered Denholm Elliot’s daughter – homeless, drug-addicted and working as a prostitute – took her to his flat, reeled of some grimy topless photos of her and splashed her sad wreck of a life all over the weekend papers. A couple of years later she killed herself. Public interest, right?

Some journos and editors cannot tell the difference any more between who’s a legitimate target and who isn’t. And their behaviour risks legislation, in response, that will make it harder for journalists to investigate legitimate targets.

In taking advantage of the grey areas of what’s excusable as part of political and economic journalism – by exporting those cloak-and-dagger methods to tittle-tattle – they’ve probably made it easier for governments to muzzle the kind of journalists who exposed Jonathan Aitken, Robert Maxwell, Jeffrey Archer, Conrad Black and expenses-fiddling politicians.

That they can’t see it themselves, apart from a few notable exceptions, is worrying. They genuinely believe they have the right to do what they want in the pursuit of a story. That extends to deleting messages on Milly Dowler’s phone, causing her family to believe she was still alive when she was dead; and printing Kate McCann’s grief-filled private diaries, before going on to suggest the McCanns had sold their daughter for cash without a shred of evidence.

The hacking and the dubious provenance of the diaries – almost certainly both illegal – sold papers, runs the McMullan defence, therefore they were fair game. His testimony, while amusing, should do little to convince the general population that tabloid hacks aren’t the absolute scum of the Earth.

How did any of it support his view that the PCC does a good job, the press should remain free and that journos are sympathetic characters who are working in the “the public interest”? Not one jot; in fact his testimony was so batshit that there was apparently some discussion that it should be ignored completely.

Justice Leveson, currently overseeing what amounts to the most fascinating chat show ever broadcast, says that a free press represents “an essential check on all aspects of public life”. Certainly it does, but it’s become clear from the parade of celebs, tits, paedos, grief-mongering, jingoism and shrill hyperbole in many of the tabloids that it’s simply not fulfilling that role any more.

Nick Davies – whose horribly depressing book Flat Earth News is a must for any journos and has been circulated among every journo, by every journo, I know – says that it’s “incredibly difficult” to know where the public interest lies. That difficulty has become a cloak to protect dodgy journalists and covers a multitude of sins.

“[A]ny failure within the media affects all of us,” says Leveson. “At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question — who guards the guardians?”

That should send shock waves rippling through the media – and particularly the PCC. But they only have themselves to blame. For too long the cowboy journalists have bent rules designed to help the press expose wrongdoing in order to shaft anyone who enters into the same definition of “public interest” to which Paul McMullan subcribes.

“A balance must be struck between the freedom of the press and the rights of individuals to be treated fairly,” said Leveson. That the balance is hopelessly skewed is fairly clear from the first few days of the inquiry; that Leveson will feel compelled to act, given some of his statements thus far, seems equally clear.

How has this been allowed to happen? Because successive governments enter a Faustian pact with media moguls and their lackeys such as Murdoch, Brooks, Lord Rothermere, the Barclay Brothers, Paul Dacre and Richard Desmond – bestowing favours and turning blind eyes to the worst excesses.

The end result is a situation where the Prime Minister is best chums with two people described at the Leveson inquiry as “the scum of journalism”, complicit in a system that has the power to bring down politicians – or destroy any public figure – almost at a whim.

I wonder if Leveson has changed his mobile passcode.

Written by Robin Brown

December 1st, 2011 at 12:59 am

Posted in Journalism,Media,People

Tagged with

RIP Steve Jobs

without comments

I learned how to use Photoshop and Quark XPress on a Mac II and frequently produced copy for the student newspaper on Mac Classics.

I was paid as a pagesetter and graphic designer on Bondi Blue G3s and Power Mac G4s.

I bought a used G3 from Future Publishing and then, a few years later, I inherited a band new eMac through Black + White (just about the only material gain we ever made).

I bought an iPod Nano, a iPod Touch and I have an iPhone. I still use an old Mac Mini at work sometimes.

Needless to say, I’m typing this on my MacBook – I’ve dropped it, twice, down a flight of stairs. It doesn’t have a mark on it. Use most other laptops and the difference in perceived quality is extraordinary. It doesn’t get viruses, it’s never crashed, it works with every device I’ve ever plugged into it. WiFi is a piece of cake. At night it glows, gently.

I bought and used all these devices cos I like them. The interfaces knock most other products into cocked hats; they’re faster than most competitors and they look much nicer.

Every home or work computer you came across before the G3 was a whirring, grey plastic box. Or worse, several grey whirring boxes. They were hideous, they were hard to use, they were frequently shit.

Macs changed all that. They became cool because designers, architects, illustrators and journos used them – and they used them because they were, by far, the best tools for the job. Those people were ‘early’ early adopters and they looked so smug because they knew something most people didn’t.

G3s made Macs more accessible and so much more desirable – and soon they all had iTunes built into them. So people bought iPods. But why carry an iPod and a phone around? The rest, they say…

I’m not blind to Apple’s faults. The proprietary software thing is awful; the Flash thing is infuriating; the sweatshop labour thing predictably depressing (Apple’s ads are bloody awful too, natch). But I love their products.

I have admired Steve Jobs too, without ever learning a huge amount about him. His clarity of purpose and thinking was obvious. His instincts appeared superhuman; his charisma undeniable. I have a feeling he was probably a horrible man to work for.

I felt sad when I learned of is death, because any premature death is sad. His public battle against cancer was sometimes inspiring, sometimes uncomfortable. But I also felt sad because Apple’s rise has tracked with my adult life; there are many memorable moments in my life that I associate with various Apple products. Because of Steve Jobs.

I heard a Radio 4 Thought for the Day today and recognised the voice as Jobs’ – from his 2005 Stanford University address. It’s a good speech but it was the bit at the end about death that stood out – and was used in the Radio 4 clip.

It’s a brilliant example of Jobs’ philosophy – and a bittersweet coda to today’s news, and an era in my life and many others.

Written by Robin Brown

October 7th, 2011 at 12:18 am

Posted in People

Tagged with

Is Piers Morgan a twat?

with 4 comments

I don’t follow Piers Morgan on Twitter because he’s a self-important blowhard hiding behind the pretence of being a simple wind-up merchant.

He’s like Wimbledon in the 80s but without the hardness. He’s like an internet warrior who’s been offered his own TV show. He’s not even a twat; he’s just a tit.

But he turns up with tiresome regularity on my Twitter feed, usually when people are RTing some tedious banter between him and Alan Sugar. More often the word ‘twat’ is associated’.

So, I got to wondering, just how often does Piers Morgan get called a twat on Twitter?

The answer, as far as I can work out, is once every 20 minutes or so. But don’t take my word for it, have a look below in this embedded Hootsuite search feed.

NB. This should refresh every ten minutes so think of it as a live insight into the world’s view of Piers. You might need to install Flash if you can’t see it.

Written by Robin Brown

June 2nd, 2011 at 11:53 am

Posted in Media,People

Tagged with , ,

Way of the gun

with one comment

I wrote this in 2005, following the suicide of Hunter S Thompson, for Black+White magazine – a culture and ents guide in Liverpool I ran with Che Burnley and Ben Hau.

While B+W is still online, it’s crumbling into little bits so I thought I’d dig this article out and give it a wider audience. It’s six years to the day since Thompson concluded his odyssey.

Way of the Gun

Hunter S Thompson: Remembering the brutal odyssey of an outlaw journalist

The news that gonzo head honcho Hunter S. Thompson passed away last month, having shot himself in the head was not as surprising as it would if have been if the suicide in question had been, say, Barry Cryer. Thompson had reportedly gone into a decline following recent injuries and the reelection of George W Bush.

The manner of Thomspon’s death was wholly in keeping with the life he had led in recent years; as a virtual recluse in his fortified Aspen ‘compound’, where he amused himself firing guns, tending peacocks and spiking journalists’ drinks with psychedelic drugs. Indeed, in his sole meeting with Thompson – to discuss the proposed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… adaptation, which he was originally slated to direct – filmmaker Alex Cox remembers a “rude and fearful man.”

“He squandered his talent early (on two good books, Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and thereafter wrote little, and even less of consequence,” Cox told me.

“He was evidence that drugs, particularly alcohol, really do work their magic on people,” adds Cox.

There can’t be much doubt that the combined effects of narcotics and alcohol abuse took its toll on Thompson’s mind and creativity over the years, but to overlook the body of work, and his impact on American literature would be a mistake. It sometimes seems as if the myth of HST the personality overshadows the talent evident in much of his work, and the popular image of Thompson as a dangerous space-cadet belies a varied and multi-layered canon.

Like Norman Mailer, with whom he shared a love of guns, booze and boxing, Thompson aspired to be a modern-day Hemingway – who also went to the great beyond courtesy of a self-inflicted gunshot wound – forever in pursuit of a new Great American Novel which was to remain elusive, although alongside the books Cox highlights The Rum Diary is a neglected gem.

Thompson is more associated with ‘gonzo’ journalism, rather than the novel, as his chosen form; a heady brew of anecdote, reportage and invective, and perfect for railing against the corruption and self-satisfaction of America, then and now. Thompson’s style was pretty much unheard of in the 60s as he made his name, and writers like Tom Wolfe and Mailer helped to develop what was termed ‘The New Journalism’, before the more recognisable moniker ‘gonzo’.

His works are, perhaps, not as much political, though they may superficially appear so, but more concerned with rather more abstract notions; good and evil, doom and destiny, loathing and self-loathing. Some of his best work is inspired by pure rage, whether it’s directed at editors who’ve stiffed him out of money; associates or enemies for some perceived slight; or his arch-nemesis Richard Nixon. His work driven primarily by spleen venting is often his funniest too – an overlooked facet of Thompson’s personality is that he was a very funny man, whether in attack or biting self-deprecation.

Thompson was also a ferocious letter-writer and his collected letters, published in several volumes, detail the development of raw young talent and raging ego to drug-addled hack to reclusive nut. There’s a fascinating portrait of Americana in these collections, from the great explosion of civil disobedience and civil rights legislation to Vietnam and the political fallout, through to Nixon’s demise and the new American Dream of the 80s.

Thompson’s legacy is especially important in today’s journalistic mire, where the American media is locked into a love affair with itself, The White House, and all things American. And in an United States where Dubya Bush can stroll to a second term, the need for Hunter Thompson is clearer than ever; an attack dog for the left, for the alternative community at a time when the conservative attack dogs in Washington or the Fox news offices or a hundred neo-Con blogs are in the ascendancy.

Thompson had apparently requested that his ashes be fired across his Colorado ranch “shot out of an upside-down, sculpted mushroom perched on a 150-foot-high, double-thumbed fist”. There’s a pleasing resonance to that.

Hunter S Thompson reading list:

The Rum Diary
Hell’s Angels
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume 1
Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist

Written by Robin Brown

February 20th, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Posted in People

Tagged with

Monica Galetti’s absurd reaction shots

with 3 comments

Needless to say, Masterchef is superb television. This is largely due to spanking-fanatic Gregg Wallace, a genuine comedy genius with all of his ‘beefy, beefy mushrooms’ and delight in tackling ‘puds’.

The early rounds, where a hapless chef is eviscerated for their lack of skill in gutting a turbot, are cringe-inducingly addictive television, not least for the absurd reaction shots of Greg, Michel Roux Junior and especially ice-maiden-cum-chef Monica Galetti, who has obviously been told to, er, ham it up

While she’s generally looking at someone misusing a thermometer, she looks like she’s staring at Dirk Diggler’s pork loin most of them time. Here are a selection of Galetti’s reaction shots.

Monica Galetti's absurd reaction shots

Written by Robin Brown

October 19th, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Follow Robin

For 140-character asides on media, journalism, cars, HE, politics, cricket and Doctor Who, follow Robin on Twitter .

Powered by WordPress Popup