December, 2018

The Secret Barrister

I think it’s safe to say that The Secret Barrister is easily the scariest book I’ve read in a long time. The one takeaway you instantly get from it is that you never want to get involved in the UK legal system.

Unfortunately, even if you’re a squeaky clean individual who does nothing wrong, there are many ways for you to get caught up in the actions of others, and this book highlights some of the frankly horrific consequences. But what is very clear is that the most iniquitous parts of the system mostly affect the poorest in society.

The anonymous barrister who’s written the book gives us potted histories of why our legal system is what it is, and then gets into the big problems that we have with it.

Some of the major problems are very structural – relying far to heavily on volunteer magistrates for example – but many are caused by a lack of funding. I think I’ve been aware just how much has been stripped out of the Department of Justice, but it impacts less on the middle class because most use things like schools or the NHS. Relatively few of that class fall foul of the law.

An essential book.

Boxing Day Radio Times 2018

The third of three days’ worth of useful help to plan your TV entertainment.

You’re welcome!

In case you didn’t want to watch a new version of The ABC Murders on BBC1 (or indeed, watch the older version on ITV3 just to spoil your later entertainment), then there is always the radio – including a new episode of the fabulous radio sitcom, Party!

A reminder that clicking through on either image may make it more legible.

NB. I’ve been providing this “service” for ages now. The back catalogue is all here. 

Christmas Day Radio Times 2018

Happy Christmas everyone!

You’re probably stuffing your face with discounted Celebrations and Quality Street, or hitting the web early to get all those online sales.

There are probably a few arguments and the usual Christmas merriment. Some are already planning how soon they can return an unwanted gift – or at least re-gift it.

But there’s always Christmas television to keep the nation entertained. And let us not forget, radio too.

As ever, I continue my festive high- and low-lights guides to what to watch (and what not to watch) this Christmas.

If you need to give the TV a rest, then why not listen to some radio?

A reminder that clicking through on either image may make it more legible.

NB. I’ve been providing this “service” for ages now. The back catalogue is all here. 

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Suffolk Winter 2013-20
Suffolk fens near Blythburgh

A superb gothic horror set in the wild fens of Suffolk.

I first came across Michelle Paver with her excellent ghost story Dark Matter, set amidst an arctic expedition in 1939. She followed that with Thin Air, another great ghost story, but this time set in the Himalayas in the 1930s, following the route of a previous expedition earlier in the century.

Now we have Wakenhyrst, a village amidst the fens at the turn of the century, where some unpleasant events have left long and deep scars. The book begins in mid-sixties, with a PhD student attempting to make contact with Maud Sterne. Would she be able to help her with her study of a painting known as the Wakenhyrst Doom?

This painting is to become the crux of the story we about to learn about. We go back in time to 1906 and the Stearne household who live in Wake’s End adjacent to one of the fens. The father of the house, Edmund Stearne, is a monster. He forces his wife to bear child after child, with so many being still-born or barely surviving birth. He lays down strict rules all about the house, including the requirement that he basically never interact with his own children (those who make it alive). “Father” is always about his studies, while young Maud is treated with general disdain as a female.

What changes things is his discovery at the local church, St Guthlaf’s, of a hidden painting representing the Last Day of Judgement. Painted on planks and then whitewashed over in the sixteenth century to protect worshippers’ eyes from the licentious behaviour depicted as sending you to hell, it is this painting’s discovery that sends things spiralling out of control. And there are things from the past that in due course will be uncovered.

To say more would be unfair, but the attention to detail is wonderful. You feel that you’re living and breathing in the old house, sitting on the edge of the fens with the sounds and smells that would bring.

The rural life is captured beautifully, with the poor labourers who make ends meet and need the employment of rich landowners like Stearne. Paver gives us some beautiful descriptions of things like eel-babbing and starling murmations.

But it also captures a madness that comes from an obsessional attempt to understand both the painting and studies into the lives of other obsessives.

Everything beautifully comes together in this well-told tale.

I couldn’t put it down and can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus on 4 April 2019. Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for my advance reader copy.

Christmas Eve Radio Times 2018

The big day is nearly here, and having navigated trains and traffic, cursed at airport drone-flyers, and got annoyed with people using smartphones in front of you in the street, you’re feeling all Christmassy!

These days of course, there is serious competition from the streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. And this year, the BBC has 100 boxsets available on iPlayer! 

In other words, there is a lot of other stuff to watch besides what the pages of Radio Times have to offer.

Nonetheless, I’ve run my pen and Post-It notes over the pages again, and here’s what you perhaps should – and shouldn’t – be watching today!

And of course, it’s not just about the television. There’s some radio too!

As ever, click through to see larger versions that might be a bit more legible.

NB. I’ve been providing this “service” for ages now. The back catalogue is all here.

Chris Evans – Ad Free?

Christmas Eve sees Chris Evans present his last Radio 2 breakfast show. Then he takes a few weeks off, before he reappears in brand new studios over in The News Building, just under The Shard by London Bridge station. There he’ll begin his new Virgin Radio breakfast show from the 21st January 2019.

When I took a first look at the news that Evans was leaving Radio 2 to “return” to Virgin Radio, I said that it was a big financial gamble by News UK. And that’s still the case.

But now comes news that Virgin Radio is going to run his breakfast show “with no ad-breaks.” Instead we learn that Sky is going to be sponsoring the breakfast show, and that promotions for Sky will be integrated into Evans’ show.

Now I’ll confess that I’ve always wondered if it was possible to run a full-service commercial radio station without any ad breaks, instead relying on sponsorship, promotions and other means to support the business. This isn’t quite that, as the rest of the schedule will continue to have ad-breaks, but it’s an unusual move as I’ll explain. However for the first few months of the new show, it does make some kind of sense.

Stations going ad-free during the launch phase aren’t an unknown thing. A number of digital stations, like Union Jack, have done it during their first months, in part because they don’t have any data to trade from at first. While Virgin Radio does have current data, Evans joining them makes January a new year-zero and creates a set of circumstances for going ad-free as I’ll explain below.

At the time of the Evans announcement, former radio executive Phil Riley tried to run the numbers on the deal. While these are definitely “back of the fag packet” calculations, they bear looking at, because it’s tricky to make the sums add up.

For a station the current size of Virgin Radio, there’s absolutely no chance that a Sky sponsorship would cover the costs of Evans (and his team), unless either they were taking a pay cut from what they were getting at the BBC, or Sky was paying massively over the odds for its sponsorship.

Neither seems likely to be the case. I don’t see Evans taking a pay cut – you expect Sky will definitely be paying a premium for exclusivity in the show, and there’ll be an expectation that Evans’ show will grow substantially beyond where the current Virgin Radio breakfast show is. But paying massively above the market rate?

Of course Sky and Virgin Radio owners News UK were related within the Rupert Murdoch empire previously. But Comcast has just bought Murdoch’s controlling interest in Sky, and completed that acquisition in October, with the departure of James Murdoch amongst others from Sky’s board. You feel that the recent announcement that Sky would cease to sponsor its spectacularly successful cycling team suggests that Comcast is definitely in control of the business and making its own sponsorship decisions

While it’s possible that some kind of “sweetheart” deal was signed prior that final acquisition, I still really don’t see Sky paying over the odds for a sponsorship property like that.

You would imagine that there’s still room for promotional activity beyond Sky’s involvement in the new show – i.e. sponsored competitions. These remain big business in the radio industry (And that’s why we’re more likely than not to see networked breakfast shows on stations like the Capital Network in the near future. You can do bigger and better promotions with greater creativity and impact if you have a single show).

Between those two revenue sources, perhaps the sums will lead to a break-even situation (if we exclude other costs like marketing). But going ad-free definitely means turning away spot-airtime money which is still the bulk of any commercial station’s revenues. And not having those spots has a wider impact on the station.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t allow an advertiser to only buy spots in a big name breakfast show. You would limit those spots carefully, requiring advertisers to buy packages of spots across the whole station. If you want a couple of breakfast show spots, you’ll need to buy daytime, afternoon, evening drive and overnight spots as well. Those spots get packaged up, and you buy the whole package (Without these packages, there would be barely any advertisers overnight at all!).

By doing away with any breakfast spots, there’s less of an incentive for advertisers to bother buying slots elsewhere on the station.

I had assumed that Virgin would also invest in other parts of the schedule, perhaps picking up a few other high-profile names, but that doesn’t seem to have happened, and that potentially means that spot advertisers aren’t going to want to come to the station as much.

However the real reason to go ad-free – at least for the first three months until they get a set of RAJAR results that incorporate Evan’s listening figures – is because the current data is so low that there’s no significant loss. With just 1.3m listening hours across the station in the most recent RAJAR results – listening hours is the most important measure from a trading perspective – the loss of spot advertising revenue just isn’t that significant.

You may as well go out of your way to incentivise as many current Radio 2 listeners as possible to follow him across with the promise of no ad breaks, and accept what is a relatively small loss.

However, although they’ve not announced it as such, you would strongly suspect that once those first Chris Evans listening figures come through with the mid-May RAJARs, and start being traded on from early June, that ad breaks will duly make their appearance on Evans’ show. That would be my bet.

(As a side note, it would also be in most radio groups’ interest to lower their current ad loads as streaming music services become more mainstream, but that’s another blog for another time.)

In the meantime, I await an upcoming marketing blitz!

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Have you ever wondered what life was like in a band in seventies? Then this is the novel for you. 

I am something of a sucker for books, films and TV series set in the music industry. From Almost Famous (which perhaps is closest in vibe to this novel), to Vinyl and the little seen Roadies, I’m fascinated by a life that I’ve never especially wanted to be part of. This novel ticks all those boxes. 

Daisy Jones & The Six tells the stories of Daisy Jones, an aspiring songwriter, and Billy Dunne, the lead singer of The Six. Told in a first-person style, we learn how the singer songwriter and rock band came together, produced one of the best-selling albums of the period, and then broke up (This is not a spoiler incidentally, as it’s revealed right at the start). 

The novel reads like one of those oral histories that you might read in music magazines like Rolling Stone, cutting back and forth between the relevant protagonists as we follow their lives and experiences.  

Daisy is the daughter of distantly wealthy parents who never seem too worried that their teenage daughter is hanging out on Sunset Strip, becoming the coolest person around, drinking, taking drugs and having sex with whoever she likes.  

Meanwhile, across the country, Billy Dunne is forming a band with his brother Graham amongst others, and trying to make it in the music industry – starting with smaller clubs before eventually getting signed to Runner Records and having some demons to face. 

The novel tells how these two paths collide, and the impact it has on both their lives personal and professional lives.  

These might not be real lives, but they feel real, and that’s what’s important. All the way through this novel you feel that Taylor Jenkins Reid knows about the scene at the time. At the very least, she has spoken to people who understand it. I don’t know who Daisy might be based on, but you can certainly believe that there was a wild child like her, living in a cottage at the Chateau Marmont, and hanging out with all the names of the day. 

You also know that LA was the epicentre of a certain type of music of the time, and that bands did indeed feel the need to move there to develop their careers. 

The structure of the novel means that initially it can be little hard to differentiate the characters – they are all giving interviews to an unseen narrator. But everyone here is their own person, and you begin to wish that you could listen to the songs and hear that music that’s being talked about (In fact, you can read the lyrics from many of their songs in the novel’s appendix). 

One slight complaint I have about the book’s structure is that it requires that all the characters have fantastic recollection of the period. Yes, there are some entertaining “unreliable narrator” moments, when two characters remember a key conversation very differently, but considering the sheer quantities of drink and drugs that were being consumed, word perfect recall of some of these conversations is a little bit of a stretch at times. But it’s hard to work around that given the structure’s constraints. If this were a documentary feature, then those gaps might be filled in with clips from the era, but a novel doesn’t have that luxury. 

It’s very entertaining how the novel has to carefully weave between real people from the period and people who might have been around at the time. A venue in LA is real, a presenter of Saturday Night Live isn’t.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this fictional representation of the rise and fall of a band plying their trade in the late seventies. The book is more about relationships of the protagonists than the minutiae of how the industry actually works. But you kind of wish you could have been there. 

Daisy Jones & The Six is published by Random House on 7 March 2019.  Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for my advanced reader copy. 

Reclaiming Additional Industry Compensation from Thameslink/Great Northern

If you get the train regularly, you may know that 2018 has not been the rail industry’s finest year. In particular, there was the disastrous introduction of new timetables across the whole network, but particularly hitting the Northern Rail and Govia Thameslink services. I know the former has probably been worse, but I was in part affected by the latter. The weeks following the highly theoretical new timetables’ introduction saw delays, cancellations and general miserableness.

The government dictated that passengers should be compensated, and GTR has set aside £15m for claims this year and won’t make a profit.

As to how you go about getting this money back? Well that can be complicated. If you’re a season ticket holder, then it should be simple. But I am not a season ticket holder because I use the line on a variable basis. Most of the time I use the train and my Brompton – but the route can vary. If it’s a nice day, or there are no handy connections, I’ll cycle a longer route. If the weather is worse and there is a good connection, I’ll change trains and cycle a shorter route. Similarly, I might go in one route, and out another. Sometimes I don’t travel at all, and work from home. Finally, I might cycle all the way into work and not bother with the train at all.

Fortunately, I don’t buy paper tickets, but use a Pay-As-You-Go Oyster card. As it turns out, this was a blessing in disguise since if I’d used a contactless bank card (which can sometimes work out better value for regular usage over a week), I’d have been poring over my old bank statements trying to establish my usage patterns over 8 weeks. A lot of work.

But since Oyster records all your journeys, I thought I’d simply log into the Oyster system and do it that way.

Except…

You can only view your last eight weeks! And the compensation system wanted me to note at least three return journeys a week to calculate compensation. Recall that the compensation system only became live for Oyster PAYG users fairly recently, but claims were for the period May to July. The Oyster system is useless for getting this information then!

Now the website did say that my Oyster card number should be enough. With my permission they can query TFL’s Oyster database and get my travel usage directly. But still, I didn’t want to say I was using the train on days I wasn’t. They might reject my claim because I was being fraudulent. (Previously I had to send multiple emails to get a miserly £5 delay-repay compensation when I was stuck in a tunnel for an hour. According to their records, the train had run fine!)

Fortunately, I use Strava for recording my cycling trips – even short commuter journeys. So I sat there with a calendar window open, my Strava account open and the compensation box open. With that information I could work out which rail route I’d taken on a given day.

Of course the system really didn’t like you going in on one route and returning home on another. While most of us probably do exactly the same route, some people have jobs in more than one location, or need to move around for work, or, you know, go out in the evening!

A cynic might say that this was to put you off claiming compensation. 

I was particularly annoyed when after entering a few weeks’ information, it stopped me entering details for further journeys. That was both a blessing and a curse.

But…

I pressed submit and just a few hours later got an email saying I was entitled to £173 compensation! 

I will take that thank you.

So if you were travelling on the Thameslink or Great Northern during the May-July period this year – go to their compensation website and put your claim in. Even if you get as frustrated as I did with multiple dropdowns and repeatedly copying and pasting my Oyster card number into lots of boxes, it’s worth it. You have until the end of January 2019 to make a claim.

YouTube: Different Things to Different People

There have been a few stories kicking around about YouTube’s end of year “Rewind” video. YouTube has been making these for a few years, and they’ve grown to become big-budget affairs.

But this year’s video is seemingly the most “disliked” video in YouTube history.

Now I should say upfront that I have not watched this video. Because frankly, the part of YouTube it represents is not how I watch YouTube. Of course I’m well away from the 15-24 demo that this video perhaps is targeted towards, but that doesn’t mean I don’t watch YouTube. I would say that it’s probably my go-to video streaming app. I might watch it in my browser; perhaps on my phone; but definitely on my TV via my Nvidia Shield TV.

I’m not saying that teenagers don’t watch larger quantities than me, but I suspect that the Venn diagram of my YouTube viewing and those who’ve taken the time to dislike the YouTube Rewind video looks something like this.

Using proper notation, A ∩ B = Ø.

But what this doesn’t really show is the size of the universe of YouTube videos. YouTube has 1.9 B users a month, and they’re not all watching the same videos.

Put that another way. Last week ITV aired the series finale of I’m A Celebrity… and over 11m people watched it. But 56m watched any TV last week. 

In other words, 4 out of 5 TV viewers didn’t watch I’m A Celebrity… That’s not to belittle a sizeable TV audience, but to point out that just because you and all your friends have been watching, it doesn’t mean that the entire population is watching.

Scale that up to the rest of the world and YouTube, and you begin to realise that YouTube for a Rewind-featured YouTuber is very different from YouTube for, well, me.

I’d love to know what the combined 2018 views of all the YouTubers featured in the Rewind video is as a percentage of all the video views on YouTube in total. I’d be willing to bet that it’s relatively small.

As for my viewing habits? I’m watching tech review videos, Global Cycling Network videos, innumerable tutorial and how-to videos and so on. I’m not watching vlogs or anything with a clickbait-y title. I’m also not watching a great deal of music, whereas others are watching an enormous amount of music. 

Different folks, different strokes. 

I bet your viewing habits are quite different from mine.

So when I read these stories about how disliked a video is, I think that there are lot of people who are in a big bubble of their own design and that it’s largely because devoted followers of a big YouTuber who posts the odd link to nasty right-wing sites, was not invited to participate in something YouTube uses to celebrate the platform and so his fans took revenge.