Monthly Archives: January 2009

Never mind the show, let’s watch the adverts

It’s the biggest day of America’s televisual year tomorrow – a day so big that retailers such as Best Buy are ramping up their marketing to capture the trade of all those people tempted to upgrade their televisions in preparation. Food is being readied, beer being bought, and corner shopsbodegas are running out of ice across the country. And all because millions of people want to watch a few advertscommercials.

Unfortunately the most eagerly anticipated ads of the year are interspersed with short breaks featuring the Superbowl,  the most overhyped sports game of the year. Apart from this year, of course, where the match-up between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers has all the allure of a game between Derby County and Fulham on a wet Monday night in November.

Never mind, there’s still the ads to look forward to. The Superbowl offers one of the few opportunities left for advertisers to reach a mass audience in one go, with last year’s clash between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots attracting an audience of around 97 million. As a result, brands are falling over themselves to get into the breaks, with each attempting to outdo each other with big budgets, Hollywood production values, and a healthy dose of humour thrown in for good measure.

To be fair, many of them are pretty amusing or impressive. Certainly impressive enough to get featured in shows such as The Greatest Superbowl Commercials Ever, at least. There’s no getting around the fact that, during the live broadcast of the ads, you have to watch some overpaid men try to move a ball ten yards forward, but you can’t have everything.

The strange thing is that the UK doesn’t have an equivalent ad-fest, despite the attempts of broadcasters to create one. Nobody puts a particularly special effort into their FA Cup Final ads, for instance, or fight amongst each other to get into the Christmas special of Heartbeat. Personally I’d like to see the World Darts Championship final declared the focus of UK marketing efforts, if for no other reason than it will take your mind off how big Raymond van Barneveld’s gut is these days.

Incidentally, the Superbowl broadcaster NBC today announced that it is currently in talks to sell the last two of the 67 spots for the game, the rest of which have already been sold for between $2. 4 million and $3 million per 30-second slot. And that’s before the advertisers have even thought about the cost of creating the commercial itself.

Economic crisis? What economic crisis?

My name’s A Brit Out Of Water, and I’m a cheese addict

Having been plugged into my iPod each morning on the way to work this week, I’ve realised just how many guilty pleasures I have when it comes to music. Everybody has their own guilty pleasure – that song that you know you really shouldn’t like, but somehow you can’t just help yourself. Admitting to it loses you all credibility, but – let’s be honest – having been a member of the T’Pau fan club as a youngster, I never really had much of that in the first place.

From Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” to “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, my collection is packed to the gills with the kind of songs I would have taken out of my CD stacks and hidden if any serious music fan had come to visit. Now they sit safely within the shadowy lair of my hard drive, safely out of harm’s way but still accessible to me on the long and winding road into the office.

Of course, the problem with this is like any addict who is successfully able to hide his dependency from friends and family, consumption of said addiction goes up because you think you can get away with it. So while The Special One thinks that I’m constantly listening to the latest hot young things from Brooklyn or Sheffield on my headphones, I’m actually singing along internally to “Mr Blue SKy” by ELO, or “Wind of Change” by The Scorpions.

My stealthy cheese habit extends to the dairy version too. While I love cheese in all its artisanal forms, nasty American cheese (or even the stuff they laughingly call cheddar here) definitely has its time and place. But only when nobody is looking. A good hot everything bagel with melted cheese and ham for breakfast is no substitute for a bacon butty, but it cures most known ills. And pepper jack (a heritage-less cheese if ever there was one) definitely has its place in my heart.

However, the worst sin of all – the Barbra Streisand of the cheese world, if you will – is the clandestine love affair I have with Wispride cheese balls. They look like something that you’d see on a Sky One programme entitled “America’s Worst Inventions,” but for some reason I just can’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re not available in the UK (and so still have novelty value), or perhaps it’s because they’re a subconscious reaction against my adoration of lovingly crafted and aged cheeses of the world, but whatever the case, these things are like crack in dairy form. Give me some Jacob’s cream crackersTriscuits, an extra sharp cheddar cheese ball and maybe an episode of The Wire or 24, and I’m happier than a pig wallowing around in his own excrement. The only way I could be happier would be to put some love songs by Chicago on the stereo at the same time.

Actually, I really shouldn’t have put that thought in my head. I guess I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. Just don’t tell the neighbours, eh?

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Living in the UK, I used to love snow. We didn’t seem to get it very often, to be fair, hence the unprecedented excitement about whether a few drops would fall on the Met Office’s roof on December 25th (the official British definition of ‘a white Christmas’, apparently). But back in my childhood, we’d all head out into the street and play until every last bit of virgin snow had been trodden in or thrown.

Even as an adult, snow in Britain was still an occasion that brought a smile to my face. Sure, I wasn’t throwing snowballs any more (well, not that often anyway), but what’s not to like about the way that the sun reflects off newly fallen snow, or the sight of trees capped with flurries of white. OK, so the occasional train got cancelled, or you might fall on your arseass infront of a big group of people waiting for a bus now and then, but it’s a small price to pay for walking in a winter wonderland.

Now that I live in the US, all that joy has been taken away. Kids still play in the freshly fallen snow, and the setting sun still glows like never before. But now when I see snow, all I see is stuff that has to be moved out of the way so that nobody sues me for all my life savings and my priceless collection of Beano annuals.

See, in the UK, nobody other than businesses really bother to shovel snow from the area around their building. Everybody else just accepts that if you fall on snow outside somebody’s house, you get up, brush yourself down, and move on quickly while hoping that nobody has noticed. Especially not that girl from number 18.

But no, the United States has to take all the joy out of snow. When I notice snow falling as I go to bed, I don’t dream of carefree snowball fights with The Young Ones the following day – I just think about the twenty minutes I’m going to have to spend getting rid of the stuff, or have nightmares about the person who falls and accidentally impales themselves on a stray twig that had coincidentally dropped from the tree above only moments before.

Maybe I’m missing something here. After all, it snows all the time during the winter on the East Coast, so you’d think people would be used to it by now. And contrary to popular belief, snow is not invisible – it’s not as if you can complain that you didn’t know it was there, or that it can sneak up on you when you’re least expecting it. It’s like blaming somebody for the fact that your hair got wet after it started raining while you were walking past their house.

Folks, it’s time to put the fun back into snowfall. Snow is our friend – a cheery visitation that puts everybody in mind of their responsibility-free childhood days. A time to treasure the fact that you can put handfuls of the stuff into somebody’s hood, and then watch in ill-disguised mirth as they unwittingly pull it over their head. It is not a reminder that you need to check your insurance details, or the cost of late night flights to Rio.

Actually, scratch that last one. With snow and freezing cold enveloping New York at the moment, a nice caipirinha on the beach at Copocabana seems pretty damn tempting right now I can tell you.

What have I got myself into?

I went back to pick up my diary yesterday. I allowed fifteen minutes, but it took 45. I’ve been given reading material now, and been told that I will be moved on to something a little more advanced when I’ve finished it. It’s like being back at school, only without the ever-looming threat of wedgies.

What the visit told me is that after thirty years of living in the United States, even foreigners start to lose their ability to understand when someone is making a joke.

As I walked in, the owner took in my fresh-faced good looks, and with a twinkle in his eye asked, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” Recognising that he was – and please excuse the American parlance – “busting my chops”, I responded without missing a beat, “I want to be an astronaut.”

Sadly the childlike declaration was lost on my new friend, and he had already started to question me on the logistics of entering the NASA space programme before I could cut him off. I fear I may have to use all my Photoshop magic later this year to create a picture of me floating in zero gravity, to avoid accusations of lacking ambition in my lifetime’s pursuit.

Anyway, must go – I need to get on with my reading if I’m not to be put in detention.

Reasons why New York is great (part 2 in a long forgotten series)

If there’s one word you could never use about New York, it’s ‘predictable.’ The fact is that you just never quite know exactly what’s going to happen when you walk out of the door in the morning. Actually, that’s not strictly true. You know that you will be delayed on the subway for ten minutes longer than is strictly necessary. You can guarantee that at some point during the day you will get shouted at or pushed out of the way by a random stranger. And you can be 100% sure that it will be cold enough to cause all your bodily functions to begin preparation for cryogenic freezing. But apart from that, it’s pretty damn unpredictable.

Yesterday, I started the hunt for a new diary. Or schedule, or calendar, or journal, or whatever word it is that Americans insist that I call it these days. You might say that I started the process a little late this year, but let’s face it, nothing ever really happens in January. Particularly as I’m on my annual, self-imposed, month-long alcohol abstinence (or Liver Aid, as Bob Geldof and Bono would probably dub it).

Anyway, the point is that I needed a diary, and I knew just the place to get it. Half a block away from my place of work is a tiny office supplies store that has clutter piled from floor to ceiling. This is not a place to browse. You go in, ask for what you want, and hope that they’ve got it. Nothing has a price tag – the owner just decides what to charge you according to whether he likes you, or how he’s feeling that day.

Indeed, what makes this place quintessentially New York is the owner. Transplanted from Tel Aviv more than thirty years ago, the guy is marginally interested in selling stationery, but obsessed with storytelling. What started with me rushing out quickly to pick up a diary ended up with me sitting down for thirty minutes being told a story that encompassed everything from the Holocaust to Marlon Brando to Langley Park in one seamlessly woven analysis. And all because I’d happened to praise him on his choice of The Guardian as a newspaper.

I studied history at university, and like to think I have a pretty strong background in European world affairs. Yet much of the conversation involved him asking me (rhetorical) questions on various shadowy figures in the American, British or German intelligence network, and I ended up showing as much knowledge as an ill-educated squirrel. A dead ill-educated squirrel.

I left the shop half an hour later, bewildered but enlightened. It could have been much much longer had another unsuspecting customer not walked in looking for an envelope. He looked in a hurry, but I suspect he’s still there now.

Oh, and I walked out without a diary. He didn’t have one in stock, so ordered it for next day delivery. I’ve got to go back to pick it up today. If there’s no blog entry for the next week or so, you’ll know where I am.

A nasty infestation of Brits

On my occasional trips back to the UK, there’s always one statement of presumed immutable fact that practically every person makes when they find that I live and work in New York. No, not “you must see movie stars on the streets everyday.” And not even “planes land in the river there, don’t they?” No, the one thing that appears to have become an indisputable truth is “oh they must love your English accent over there.”

Now, I wouldn’t say that I have the classic English tones of an upper class brat. I was brought up in the North-West after all, and the idea of saying something like “gr-arse” for that green stuff that you have a picnic on goes against everything I stand for. Nonetheless, nobody would ever have any trouble guessing where I was from. Well, apart from those Americans who have presumed I was Australian or Canadian, obviously.

But however English I may be (and to be honest, I’d rather be considered Welsh, but that’s another story), nobody really pays a tiny bit of attention to my accent anymore. Put simply, there are just too many Brits in New York. Once upon a time, on my first trips to the city to see The Matchmakers, my accent could turn heads, stop traffic and probably cure cancer. Now every fifth person you meet seems to be from ‘the old country’, and the novelty has definitely worn off for Brit-weary New Yorkers.

The general American attitude to Brits is not helped by the phenomenal success of our actors in blockbuster Hollywood movies. No gritty movie about disaster or the Holocaust is complete without Kate Winslet, and if you’re a producer in need a strong older woman to kick some scrawny American arseass, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you couldn’t get hold of the phone numbers for one of the damely duo, Dench or Mirren.

And then there’s the men. There is a requirement under American law that all action or superhero movies feature at least one British male, preferably in a lead role. If they can play the evil enemy, all the better. It’s a ruling that’s kept Jeremy Irons in Veuve Clicquot for many a year, I can tell you.

Like most women, it would appear, The Special One is particularly taken with swarthy British actors. She became particularly animated at Christmas during a discussion of the merits of Clive Owen, and had to be reminded of her own relationship status when bitterly rueing the fact that he appears to be “very married, sadly.”

And don’t even get me started on Daniel Craig. It’s one thing having a wife who has a soft spot for certain movie stars, but it’s a whole different story when you slowly realise that you are only your life partner’s second favourite person to come from your own home city.

Such is the omnipresence of British actors in movies these days that Americans have started claiming the British as their own. It’s a time honoured process that began with Cary Grant, and continues to this day. Even in my own house.

While watching The Dark Knight this weekend, The Special One and The Young Ones refused to believe that Christian Bale was British, necessitating much grumbling on my part and an eventual trip to Bale’s Wikipedia page.

Turns out that the crowd-sourced opinion of Wikipedia is that Christian Bale is a “Welsh-born English actor.” We Brits may be everywhere these days, our accents may count for little, and even our love of fish and chips doesn’t mark us out as special. But never let it be said that Americans are any closer to understanding a single thing about our geography, alright?

Rudeness with a smile on its face

I’ve said before that New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude and surly. The idea is not without some small justification. After all, in just 17 months of living here, I’ve been bashed out of the way with an umbrella, been screamed at in a supermarketgrocery store by an old lady, and been given death stares by everyone from ten year old kids to grumpy old waiters.

In reality, most locals are actually no more rude than the residents of any other city. And indeed, many are among the most friendly people you could hope to meet. It’s almost enough to make you forget about the man ranting at staff in the coffee shop for using whole milk instead of skim milk. 

After last night though, I’m wondering if this general air of new-found politeness could actually just be part of an elaborate sham. A plot, if you will, to lull me into thinking that New York is a blissful Disney-style paradise where everybody is kind to each other.

Having walked up the steps from the L train to the N train platform, the scene at the top suggested that Manhattan was under attack and everybody was being evacuated to Bay Ridge. People thronged everywhere as they attempted to get off or on trains coming into the station, and the ten yard walk to the N train that had just pulled into the platform seemed to take forever.

All of this posed a problem for the middle-aged mustachioed man on the far side of the platform. Of course, he desperately wanted to get on the train, but at the same time, he needed to adhere to New York’s nascent “let’s be polite” policy. But the two things were mutually exclusive – honorably edge his way through pedestrian traffic and he’d miss the train.

His solution was breathtaking, and I swear that however long I stay in New York, I will never see this again. First he put his arms in the air and clasped his hands together. An unusual move in rush hour, I think you’ll appreciate, and one that didn’t go unnoticed by fellow travellers. Then swiftly he brought down his still clasped arms/hands at 90 degrees to the rest of his body, taking a pose last seen on the starting blocks for the 50 metresmeters men’s freestyle final at the Olympic swimming pool in Beijing. Having got everybody’s attention, he simply jet propelled himself through the crowd to the door of the train, using his arms to part the Red Sea of people ahead of him.

So far, so rude. Or at least, it would have been had he not been shouting at the top of his voice as he did it, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am trying to get on this train, thank you very much.” He may have skittled all commuters in his path, but at least he did it politely, right?

Sadly for him, the doors weren’t open when he got to the train, and he had to spend a good thirty seconds staring into space and trying to ignore the looks of the astonished fellow passengers that he’d belted out of the way. I’m guessing that the anger they vented in his general direction wasn’t quite so well-mannered…

A moment of history

Today has been a proud day for United States. A triumph for the American dream, and for the ideal that all men, women and children are equal regardless of colour, gender or religion. A vindication of the dream that Dr Martin Luther King had more than forty years ago, and a redemption from eight years of leadership that has seen the country slip in the hearts and minds of the world’s population.

And when grandchildren ask me in years to come where I listened to the momentous speech following the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States and the country’s first African-American leader, I will be able to sit them on a lap with a tear in my eye and say, “My dear child, I was on a bus at Heathrow Airport taking me from Terminal 1 to Terminal 5. The reception on the radio kept cutting out, but I heard the occasional word or two.”

Happy days.

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Frenchman…

The coastline at Cannes

Driving back to New York after Christmas with The In Laws upstate, The Special One and I were listening to the radio in a bid to keep ourselves awake. After a number of alt.rock classics, the DJ launched into a tirade against French music, and made a number of jokes at the expense of the French. While The Special One chuckled quietly to herself, I sat in stony silence.

You see, it’s a fact of life that all nationalities have a country that’s the designated butt of their jokes. The Belgians tell jokes about the Dutch, Latvians and Lithuanians make fun of Estonians, and the Austrians poke ridicule at their Germanic cousins. In America, New Yorkers make fun of people from New Jersey, and everybody has a laugh at Canadians.

Whether it’s tongue in cheek or borderline racism I’m not sure, but the basic fact is that every group of people seems to need a whipping boy to convince them that life in their own homeland could be worse.

The British, of course, have been making fun of the Irish for centuries. But over the last few years, maybe as the uneasy peace has come to Northern Ireland, there’s been a noticeable tailing off in jokes made at the expense of the Irish. And that’s where the French come in.

The rivalry between Britain and France goes back centuries. They call us ‘les rosbifs’, laugh at our cooking, and spit on our steaks if we have the temerity to ask for them well done. In return, we collectively sneer at ‘the frogs’, cower in terror at their campsite toilet facilities, and make references to their dubious military record.

The fact is though that we secretly love the French. We’re jealous at their ability to make clothes look good, we wish we could make pastries that taste anywhere near as good as theirs, and we can’t help but admire the romance and passion of their language. I’m in Cannes at the moment, and it’s a non-stop festival of food and fashion that you just can’t help but admire.

As a result, while I’m more than happy to make jokes at the expense of the French myself, if any other nation starts to wade in on them, I’ll get all defensive and start attempting to protect their honour. And the longer I’m away from the UK, the more European I seem to become – I’ll be defending Germans before you know it, mark my words.

For the moment though, be warned America, the French are ours to make fun of, so sod off and find your own target to crack jokes about. But try to be nice about Canada if you can – there’s plenty of French there, after all.

Merci beaucoup.

The British invasion

Some things are just inescapably British – ideas or products that you would just never think to see anywhere else in the world. Try to describe an Eccles cake to an American, for instance, and you’d probably see a wrinkling of features and a look of disgust reserved for farmyard smells and cat vomit. Dandelion and burdock is clearly one of the tastiest fizzy popssodas around, but that doesn’t mean it would make sense to a German. And while the likely identity of the the Christmas number one is debated in pubs and TV shows across the land, nobody else in the world cares what tops their chart on December 25th.

If there’s one country that’s peculiarly averse to all things British, it’s France. Government rations the amount of English language music that can be played on French radio, while there’s a constant war waged against the creeping Anglicisation of the language. Put simply, the French are a proud nation and would be perfectly happy to have nothing to do with the British if they could possibly avoid it.

Which makes the presence of this packet in a local supermarchegrocery store all the more surprising:

Fisherman's Friend

I can’t remember the last time I saw these things in the UK, let alone in a French supermarket. Menthol pastilles with more kick than an angry donkey, Fisherman’s Friend are British enough that you practically expect a rousing chorus of Land of Hope & Glory every time you open a packet. And now they’re in France. Next they’ll be eating Branston Pickle with their croque monsieurs, and salad cream with their fromage et jambon baguettes.

I was so shocked, I had to buy three packets. The Special One and The Young Ones won’t know what’s hit ’em, I can tell you.