Eight reasons The Proms is amazing

A Proms Pano

The Proms is over for another season. It was my first as a member of the Radio 3 family and I’m a bigger fan than ever. Here’s why.

  1. It’s a journey. Over 80 concerts leading audiences (nearly a third of a million tickets were sold for the 2011 season) through the riches of the classical repertoire. As a member of the team, I can’t overstate the thrill of being able to attend so many of the concerts. And my musical knowledge (pitiful to begin with, I’ll admit) has been expanded massively (go on, ask me anything).
  2. It’s a massive event. Classical music’s Glastonbury. This year’s Beethoven cycle – all the symphonies from Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – was momentous and the the collision with the Olympics and Paralympics at the Last Night felt absolutely right.
  3. It’s accessible. ¬£5 for a standing ticket and never sold out. They call it the Proms because you can walk right up. And it’s been like that since the beginning. It’s really the whole point of the season. You should try it.
  4. It’s amazingly vivid radio. The best bit, of course. Every single concert is broadcast live on Radio 3. An enormous enterprise requiring a permanent encampment of trucks outside the Hall (some of them are on the telly, too, of course, if you like that sort of thing).
  5. It’s online. Properly. And the BBC’s seven-day window means that a visit to the web site during the season will typically bring you forty or fifty works (in sparkling, unprocessed HD Sound, natch) to listen to. A kind of rolling window on the repertoire that no other music festival can provide (all gone now, sadly, but these highlights will be around for a while).
  6. It’s adventurous. Since the very beginning, the Proms has hosted new works and new artists. Since the time of Director William Glock in the Sixties, the festival’s gone further and hosted works and events that would rarely have been seen anywhere else. This continues. 2012′s celebration of John Cage saw the Hall filled with cactuses and happy crowds wandering the streets of West London in procession, for instance.
  7. It’s all about the young people. Youth orchestras, bands and choirs were all over the programme this year. It was thrilling to hear the big works revisioned by this army of young musicians from around the world (personal youth highlight: The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s dazzling Prom 29 with Anna Meredith’s Handsfree).
  8. It’s joyful stuff. Some people, let’s face it, think classical music’s forbidding or hard work, or a bit snooty. An encounter with the Proms is quite the opposite, an antidote to all that: a happy, open and welcoming sequence of quite glorious events.

Update: yes, I added one.

Roger Wright, Director of the Proms (and Controller of Radio 3), introduced the season on the Radio 3 blog and had a good go at converting Laura Barton to classical music in The Guardian too.

Seven things it’s worth remembering about Wikileaks

Before its inglorious founder takes it down with him or before it’s chased off the Internet by enraged governments, it’s worth remembering what Wikileaks was before it became a cause celebre:

  1. It used to be a wiki. It stopped being a wiki in 2010.
  2. It was an anonymous drop-box. Whistleblowers could deposit documents without fear of being identified. This was the radical core of Wikileaks. They say that submissions are still accepted but the drop-box was switched off in 2010 too.
  3. It was about using the Internet’s open, peer-to-peer, symmetric-in-all-directions architecture to return power to ordinary people inside dumb corporations and repressive regimes. The kind of thing we always said the Internet was for. But it was also anarchic and unaccountable. It made free speech advocates and netheads queasy.
  4. There was something glamorous and edgy about it. It was morally complicated, like a le Carr√© plot. All those secrets and their forced disclosure, the chaos and panic that their untimely release caused, the attacks from government black-hats, the comicbook torrent of documents fired in its direction. And whatever you think of Assange – hero, demagogue, victim, criminal – he’ll be an important figure when the histories of the first decades of the Internet era are written.
  5. It became home to documents removed from the public record by courts or governments. It claimed a status above national law and essentially demolished the super-injunction and the cosy media blackout. This was bound to make it of interest to lawyers and governments right from the start.
  6. It was run by a maverick and his mates, so governance and accountability looked weak. Wikileaks contained the seeds of the Assange meltdown from the beginning. We could have anticipated all this (maybe not the Ecuadorian embassy balcony bit).
  7. It was a trial-run for a full-on infowar, for authority’s fight-back against the unruly net. Payment processors, service providers, media partners and sponsors all came under huge pressure and mostly buckled. The net’s apparently ungovernable, distributed, supra-national structure turned out to provide hardly any protection at all. We learn that a determined state supported by compliant corporations can damage or destroy an outlaw entity like Wikileaks. That’s an important lesson for you cyberpunks. You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

(update, 22 August, I collapsed the eight things into seven.)

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

The Pussy Riot case is an affront to humanity, a miserable, dispiriting state-sponsored kicking for three angry free spirits. It’s so depressingly like the kind of relentless, malevolent crucifiction handed out to non-compliant creative people across the decades of Soviet rule it’s as if the country has lost its memory (Hari Kunzru has a post about the absurdity of Pussy Riot’s persecution on his blog).

If they were poets instead of punks, a well-organised international boycott would by now be in place. PEN International would have organised a conference and a letter signed by hundreds – including a dozen Nobel laureates – would already have been delivered to the Kremlin (PEN has already taken up the case, of course).

International musicians should boycott Russia. They shouldn’t go there and they shouldn’t permit Russian releases of their work. They should do this for Pussy Riot and on behalf of their Russian peers who can only provide a cryptic, compromised, Sovietised response to this nastiness.

A letter from every major musician on the planet – from Barenboim to Gaga to Jagger – should already have been lodged with the Russian government. Advertisements in national newspapers should announce the action. There should be a hashtag. Record labels and promoters should join in. Individual musicians are angry about the persecution of Pussy Riot – speaking out, putting on protest gigs and benefits. But does the music business have the guts and imagination to act? Or are they too greedy and venal to take on Putin’s bullies?

Blimey. Look who’s on the fifth floor

It was properly spine-tingling. Aung San Suu Kyi visited New Broadcasting House. As the news spread around the building, people came out into the shared spaces and caught glimpses of her progress through the building – she visited the Burmese Service on the fifth floor and went on to meet Dave Lee Travis, John McCarthy and composer Jonathan Dove. Here are some tweets, pics and stories from her historic visit.


NTK: “exactly the same thing, 15 years late”

Fifteen years ago, when it was all fields round here, Danny O’Brien and Dave Green – who were well-known in underground gaming/comedy/tech/confectionery circles – began to publish an email newsletter for and about the British tech community. It was a joy from the beginning – authentic, funny, playful, insightful… Geek storytelling that is probably already consulted as a primary source for the arrival of this whole network/digital/computer thing… NTK is on the newsstands again, in a clever time-shifted form. Sign up here.

Boris Bike lessons

Note: I’m not a proper cyclist. I don’t own a bicycle pump or a puncture repair kit. The Mayor of London takes care of all that for me. I have a Boris Bikes fob and I swan around on one of his sponsored blue bikes for a total of about three hours per week. But here’s what I’ve learnt anyway:

Don’t wear anything special. This is my top tip. In nearly two years of Boris Biking in the West End I’ve never had any grief, never been cut up by a truck, shouted at by a cabbie or come off the bike. I may just be lucky but I reckon I’m beating the odds here (at least if what other cyclists tell me is true). And I have a strong feeling (no evidence at all, though) that this is because I don’t dress the part. Motorists steer clear of me because I look like a fat loon who’s borrowed a bike. So: no helmet, no lycra, no hi-viz and no special glasses (what are the special glasses for anyway?).

Take up a lot of room. To be precise, try to use a whole lane. Science bit: if you politely ride in the kerb, you’ll give overtaking motorists the strong impression that they can probably just squeeze past you without going into the next lane or onto the other side of the road – and your polite side will want to agree. But you mustn’t because, people being people, they will actually try to do it. Pain and aggravation will follow. So, if you take up a whole lane, not only will drivers have to slow down and think carefully about passing, they’ll have to politely indicate and move into the next lane, disturbing the flow of traffic and making everyone think. All of this boosts your odds.

Get out in front. This is about being visible (so it does slightly contradict my ‘no hi-viz’ rule). I always used to wonder why cheeky couriers and fixie herberts were always right out in front of the queued traffic at the lights but it’s obvious once you’ve tried it. You need every driver on the front row of the grid to know you’re there and to have to use their time at the red light to plan a way around you.

Jump lights. This is related to the previous point. Going through a red light when it’s safe to do so will get you out in front of the traffic and give you a chance to get organised before the rush begins. There are, of course, many circumstances when doing this would be stupid. Common sense applies (and they should probably change the rules to allow cyclists to do it legally. Getting the bikes through the lights first would be safer than requiring us all to go at the same time). The other thing is, I think drivers actually get this and appreciate you making yourself visible (although they might not show it and might phone in to James Whale later on to bitch about it).

Go round the outside (don’t try this on the North Circular). This is obvious but can be a bit scary. It’s basically the rule about not trying to squeeze down the left-hand side of trucks and buses where you will be squashed. But the larger point is: don’t be afraid to be in the right-hand lane. You are probably safer there than in the gutter. I think that the more confident and prominent cyclists are – the more ownership we take of the road – the safer we will all be.

Communicate. Wave, shout, raise your hand in a sort of taciturn, blokey way, point and smile. It’s like life: sullen silence will get you sullen silence. Don’t assume everyone knows what you’re planning and don’t assume they know inwardly that you’re grateful when they give way. I am quite sure that substantially increasing the sum total of communication done on the road will improve everyone’s mood, change behaviour and save lives. And another thing: when I started with this cycling thing, I think I assumed that cyclists would be chatting all the time, swapping anecdotes at the lights etc. But that doesn’t seem to happen. Why not? Is it just me? (see ‘fat loon on a bike’ point above).

Bowblog is ten years old today

I adapted the name from Kevin Werbach’s Werblog, which seemed like a cool thing to do at the time. I’d been blogging for a few years before that (since the twentieth century) but only fragments survive. The archive suggests I used to update it a lot more too – back before Twitter. Anyway, I’ll tweet a few anniversary posts. Here’s the first one, from 21 May 2002, which includes a link to a column I used to have in The Guardian’s Online section (then under the legendary Vic Keegan’s editorship).

Best job in Britain

Last week I used one of the days of ‘community leave’ the BBC gives me to spend the day interviewing candidates for deputy head at the junior school in Hertfordshire where I’m chair of the governors. I was one of three governors on the panel, along with the school’s excellent head and our very brilliant and wise local authority advisor. In the end, we didn’t appoint anyone. Sometimes that happens, of course, and we’re going to have to do the whole thing again in a couple of weeks.

This is obviously one of the most important parts of a governor’s job. It’s exhausting, fascinating, sometimes quite emotional and always gripping stuff. I don’t think there’s any doubt that teaching is the most scrutinised profession in Britain. On interview day we required each of the candidates to write a paper about behaviour (against the clock); observe a class, write it up and tell the head what they thought; meet with a group of pupils; take lunch in the staffroom and then, to top it all, make a presentation to the panel before they got stuck into the interview proper (they had, of course, already been observed in their own classrooms by the head).

And, as a volunteer, it’s such an enormous privilege to be allowed to participate in this process: to interrogate the passionate and interesting and complicated people who came through the interview room that day, to unravel their life stories a bit and to test their fit for the equally complicated world that is a modern school. It’s the kind of experience you can’t pay for but it’s one that’s available to pretty much anyone. There are hundreds of thousands of vacancies for school governors in Britain. You should try it.

I cold-called the man who invented the World Wide Web

Tim Berners-Lee

1984. I’m well into my fourth ‘gap year’ (in fact, I’m redefining the term ‘gap’). I’m working at a telesales place in Queen’s Park. This telesales place is different from the other dumps I worked at during the slack years, though – it’s run by a Californian cult whose working practices involve shouty ritual humiliation, enforced separation from family and the loud singing of Mustang Sally at 8am. One of my tasks during my few months in North West London – which included cleaning the cult toilets, walking the cult dogs and photocopying cult ‘training’ materials – involved cold-calling organisations of every kind and grilling them about their IT. Later in life computers became my thing – look, I’m using one now! – but I hadn’t encountered one then (isn’t that a crazy thought? 21 years old and never met a computer!). I might as well have been asking questions about, you know, particle accelerators.

Some other important things happened in that year: William Gibson invented Cyberspace. The Mac was introduced. ‘How Soon is Now?’ topped John Peel’s Festive Fifty. Everybody watched The Living Planet and Spitting Image. The miners’ strike tore up Britain.

I had a script. My goal was to acquire ‘qualified leads’ for my client to contact later. “Do you use computers in your business?” “What kind of computers do you own?” “How many?” “Do they run MS-DOS, CP-M, GEM, DR-DOS or [long list of defunct operating systems]…” One of the organisations I phoned was called CERN. Yes, CERN – essentially the coolest place on earth. Of course, in 1984 I knew even less about CERN than I did about computers.

My list said CERN was in Switzerland, though, which made it a more interesting call than the others I’d make that day so I was going to enjoy it. The cult had taught me that persistence was vital, so, after ten minutes bothering various receptionists, supervisors and under-managers, I was put through to ‘someone in IT’. He was impatient, seemed a bit absent-minded and spoke very quickly – but he spoke English and, at some point, he obviously resolved to help the clueless drone from London on the phone. He told me he was a developer, in information systems. He didn’t buy computers for CERN and and he didn’t know who did. He was obviously a million miles from being a lead, qualified or otherwise.

The cult I brushed with (they never bothered to try to recruit me) was called ‘Exegesis‘ and the telesales firm, which was called ‘Programmes’ emerged after Exegesis was investigated by police. They were a pretty scary bunch – intense, contemptuous of the unconverted, messianic.

But I had a form to complete and knew that a miserable stand-up humiliation awaited me if I didn’t finish it after spending so long on the phone, so I pushed on, obtaining a list of computer technology so exotic, so science fiction, as to render the whole call pointless. I don’t remember the detail but by the time I’d finished I’d used three extra sheets of paper and pretty much the whole of my new friend’s Geneva lunch hour. The cheer from the other telesales drones when I hung up raised the roof. I was ecstatic: on my entirely useless list there were PCs and workstations, minicomputers, embedded systems, mainframes and supercomputers… hundreds of them.

It was many years before it occurred to me that this harried developer with a rather posh voice might just have been the inventor of the World Wide Web. It’s difficult, of course, to know exactly how much influence I had on the final shape of the world-changing technology that was even then forming in that patient man’s head but it’s gratifying to know that I was there at the beginning. Something to tell my grandchildren.