Edited: My Twitter account was suspended, because I was arguing with far-right people and anti-semites. I will write more about this at some point.
Edited: My Twitter account was suspended, because I was arguing with far-right people and anti-semites. I will write more about this at some point.
This week, BBC Radio 3’s always diverting Between the Ears series opened up an inventory of cassettes packed with the life and work of a man named Mark Talbot. For decades, Mark made his own radio shows, usually called ‘Second Side Up’, complete with records, phone-ins and interviews. But while the clips suggested him to be an articulate and slick host, he never became what you might call a ‘professional’ presenter on a national or even a local station. Instead, his programmes were specially and even individually made for members of his family, his friends and partners. It’s a melancholy but compelling half-hour about how the very act of communication can become an obsession. A kind of dialogue at one remove.
One piece of music I keep going back to is called “I’m 49” by Paddy McAloon, the songwriter and frontman with the group Prefab Sprout. It lies somewhere between electronic and orchestral music, with a yearning but resigned quality to it, but what gives it an extra devastating edge is in its use of speech samples, taken from late night radio conversations and phone-ins. The callers are unhappy and even desperate. At the close of the track someone (Paddy?) almost whispers ‘Just hold me’.
The genesis of the track, and indeed of the whole record, I Trawl the Megahertz, had come from a period of convalescence for McAloon; after eye surgery, he had to rest his sight, and so relied on radio and sound which sparked his creativity into making a solo record (his only one to date).
It’s a given that many radio listeners are lonely, especially at night. I find it a shame that more and more night-time radio is now automated or pre-recorded, even on a national station like BBC Radio 2 which recently dropped the much-loved Janice Long and Alex Lester. There’s no shortage of stuff to listen to in the dead of night, but little of it is live and interactive. And in the small hours, people often need company. Even if it’s just to say hello to someone.
What the life and work of Mark Talbot suggests is that, sometimes, it’s not just a listener that needs support and an outlet. Sometimes it’s the presenter that might need it. And of course, you can’t award everyone national exposure but what ‘Second Side Up’ underlined is that everyone needs at some level to express themselves somehow and somewhere.
Thirty years ago or so, in my teens, I worked in radio for a bit, firstly as a volunteer at hospital radio and then at local radio. In the early stages of learning the ropes of broadcasting, you were advised to imagine you were addressing just one listener. At the time, I presumed this was to calm a novice’s nerves, but over time, I realised it was probably also to banish any delusions of celebrity that a budding presenter might be hoping for.
When it soon became clear, at least on hospital radio, that I had very few or indeed no listeners, I would occasionally amuse myself by making and recording programmes for my friends. Back then, I wasn’t sure why I did this, but I think I did it to sound more confident, or at least to find a context which gave me a reason to communicate. If it was just me, with no records or microphone, it felt like it wasn’t enough.
I was about to say that I don’t do that anymore, that those lonely years were a long time ago, but are they always? There are times when all that’s changed is the medium. Tweets have the concise economy of radio links, and you can be serious or silly, but sometimes I strain to come up with them because behind it is a terrible feeling of not being good enough, that everyone else is having a better time.
In a sense, on social media, we front our own shows: linking to playlists and video clips, announcing events, reacting, commenting. But what if we wake up in the morning and we have nothing to say, or nothing we can face admitting? You might be able to unleash one plaintive status update on Facebook, provided you offer the disclaimer that you’re over the worst now. But you can’t do it again. No-one, you assume, will want to read that.
At least with Twitter, you can do that a bit more often, but you feel it’s on the condition that you have to think of some witty metaphors along the lines of ‘I am wearing a grey hat made out of screaming wasps’. In other words, something that might distract people while you wear yourself out.
Maybe you need to talk to someone. In real life. Where ‘it’s really complicated’.
What makes you laugh on television? Maybe it’s Xander and Richard bantering on Pointless. Maybe it’s the dog acts on Britain’s Got Talent. Maybe it’s the esoteric songs they choose for Homes Under the Hammer. Maybe it’s when they say ‘soggy bottom’ on Bake Off. Maybe it’s Danny Dyer’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Maybe it’s when Phil and Holly get the giggles on This Morning because one of them said ‘knob’ in another context, somehow. Or maybe it’s one of the remaining Actual Comedy Programmes that shiver in the schedules due to lack of company and clothing.
Half my life ago now, one sweltering day in July 1995, I attended a final board at BBC Radio, for a position as a trainee comedy and entertainment producer. It was an exciting time for comedy: the BBC Radio and Television entertainment departments were growing closer together. Many radio series had successfully transferred to television – The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Have I Got News for You, KYTV, Room 101, The Day Today – with many more still to come. And the trainee producer candidates were likely to work in both media. I faced five (it may even have been six) people in that interview room. An exciting but scary experience.
There were four trainee producer positions available. I came in fifth or sixth, I think, probably due to lack of directing experience or simply that the others were better candidates. They would join a department that was nurturing shows like People Like Us, The League of Gentlemen, Goodness Gracious Me!, and later Dead Ringers and Little Britain. I licked my wounds, and applied instead for office jobs and hackwork.
In the 1990s, with a massive number and range of comedy programmes on television, it felt like the torrent would never end, and this was still before the invention of PlayUK, E4 and BBC Three, who all invested in original comedy. Twenty years on, TV comedy seems on the fringes. In one way, there’s no shortage of them, but they’re scattered around the edges: iPlayer, Sky, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Only Harry Hill, these past six weeks, has been able to sneak a designated comedy show into pre-watershed hours on terrestrial television, and even his Alien Fun Capsule, which is great fun by the way, needs the facade of a panel show, despite being nothing of the sort on closer inspection. Comedy is expensive and risky, and so a lot of broadcasting couches ‘funny bits’ within other kinds of entertainment format: competitions, lifestyle, reality TV.
But everyone still thinks they’re a comedian, and some like to pretend that provocation is the same as telling a joke. Ersatz ‘comedy’ often survives in bastardised forms, such as the output of the tabloid columnist or a front page headline: you write a shit pun, one which doesn’t even work, you punch down at a minority or at least people who are ‘different’ from you, and then after jokelessly causing offence, you switch to disingenuous and wonder why people are causing such a fuss. Sarah. It’s easier to get attention by enraging them than by entertaining them.
There have been, of course, some great newspaper columnists, but many are, like me, people who would have died on their arse in open spot after open spot. A columnist on a comedy panel show is frequently and embarrassingly at sea, discovering that, when voiced aloud, their aggravating gallery-playing shtick turns to gravel in their own mouth. In the distance, a lone owl coughs, and Paul Merton has to step in. Even Alexander Johnson had to work from an autocue after his first Have I Got News for You appearance.
The columnist’s attitude of bleak bravado has spread to social media. The more shrill posters there – who tend to type with their nose or whole arm – have to stress that they’ve made a joke, using that peculiar crying/laughing emoji, when in fact they mean that they’ve just said something they can’t begin to defend.
Then again, my relationship with Twitter is not entirely innocent. For a while it seems liberating. It’s liberating to dismiss provocative figures in kind: to liken Quentin Letts to the Viz character Spoilt Bastard; to describe the head of The Sun’s editor-in-chief Tony Gallagher as looking like ‘a dented football trophy from the 1930s that’s just been dug up’; to call Paul Dacre ‘a putrified testicle’; to call Theresa May ‘a Londis Thatcher who attended elecution classes and said “Make me sound like the cane from school”’; to wonder why Alexander Johnson and Donald Trump seem to want to look like Jimmy Savile first thing in the morning.
All of this is cathartic, briefly, I suppose. But then the excitement cools and sours and you feel resigned and powerless. It’s not funny anymore, you feel tired, and then the next day’s news comes, and it’s more dung, and the dung is even worse. It’s as if your attempts at being funny didn’t change stuff.
Because Twitter is so transitory, it’s not just easy to become addicted to it (nods), it also has no shape, no finity. If only one could channel its funniest, most dynamic components into a TV concept, for funny, engaging contributors. (Note: I am certainly not suggesting a TV show about Twitter – the only time TV entertainment really used the Internet effectively was on So Graham Norton, which was pre-broadband.)
But I think there’s another problem with Twitter and again, I’m as guilty as anyone. We all have our Twitter character now, and a tweeting style, and we can be prone to catchphrases and memes and hobbyhorses. And if you’re a heavy user of Twitter (nods), you risk becoming reliant on saying a thing just to say something, anything. You are Mumbler3, hence: bins, Pacman Ghosts, pop trivia. You start to become bored of your own language.
On the other hand, Twitter has been a constant companion to me over the past seven or eight years, through self-employment, bereavement (twice), anxiety, depression and isolation. It’s also made me laugh a lot, and there are close friends I would never have met without it.
But one reason I started this blog at all was to expand Twitter thoughts into something more fully-formed and ‘permanent’, if a blog can have permanence. Mind you, it’s been tricky to write much lately without interrupting with BUT SO WHAT in big capital letters. It’s because the enormity of Britain leaving the EU with so few concrete ideas about how and even why it is doing so (and real solutions, please, not just that Union Flag you jammed in your arse last June, thanks) has given us a sense that not only is the past far away, but so is the future – and so is the present.
We need to step back from the edge. Idiots must not set the agenda. We want real clowns. We need incisive, thoughtful comedy back at the centre of things. Partly to entertain us, but partly to make sense of it all.
Tall people really stink. According to research carried out at the University of Otterglans, Idaho, which is a real university and a real place that I’ve just made up, which means that the research probably doesn’t exist either, tall people are statistically more likely to absolutely stink.
I mean it. Or do I? It doesn’t matter – the main thing is, if you are tall or one of those liberal snowflakes that saw a tall person once, you will be offended, and will leave outraged comments underneath this blog entry, so we can have a debate about this, which (don’t forget) is based on something specious that I invented simply to provoke and enrage you.
This is how the news works now. And, although I have really tried not to discuss Twitter on this blog so far, it’s increasingly how Twitter works. About two years ago, when professional trolls had already become the rotten meat and pissy drink of the service, I decided to conduct a part-time experiment, to see just how they liked it if you tried to distract them, or insulted them, or badgered them, or simply laughed at them and took the piss out of them.
What I didn’t do was actually argue with them. There’s no point arguing with them, partly because of the limited character space on Twitter, but also because their argument is frequently based on lies. Lying is what you do now. The so-called President of the United States does it. The Leaves campaign did it last summer and still do it. Tabloids do it every day. So there’s no point wasting energy trying to engage in discussion, because they just want a reaction.
The first person I trolled was third-class brain Toby Young. I asked him ‘what night is bins’ quite a lot (hence the title of this blog) because of some stoopid column he’d written. Since then, I’ve bothered everyone from 90s radio oaf Jon Gaunt (who now looks like Kenny Rogers disguised as a neglected hill), to gelled wanker Milo Yiannopoulos (asking him his favourite Pacman Ghost), to that masked recruitment douche Old Holborn (it’s easy to find out that coward’s real name).
And many of them blocked me. You can see the full list at the top of this blog post, although technically Aled Jones blocked me because he searched his name after I was rude about his barely broadcastable TV review show for BBC2. The rest are all deliberate, conscious wind-ups. (And before you ask: Hopkins, Farage, Morgan, Hannan and a few others have surely muted me.)
Is this a thing to be proud of, in the cold light of day? Perhaps debatable. While I am thrilled to have annoyed several Sun staff, including its editor-in-chief, showbiz hack, political editor and even its entire politics twitter feed, is it energy well spent? Probably not. But I hate bullies, especially when they’re paid bullies.
Ignore them. That’s what you’re told. And it’s true that taking the piss out of them is still engaging with them. But the point is, they are going to carry on doing this because they will lie and yet they will still get mainstream exposure. And reporting them is almost always a fruitless exercise.
And then this week, I discovered that – according to Twitter rules – you can be spectacularly racist and misogynistic and bully people and troll the grieving and vulnerable and Twitter seems to do very little. But if you call a professional troll a ‘cunt’, you get a warning immediately, which explains that only your followers can see your tweets for the next 12 hours. It’s not clear if the word itself triggers an automated response, or if someone complains. But the warning pops up with immediate effect, which leads me to conclude it’s automated.
This morning I did the same to Nigel Farage, who claimed that Malmo was ‘the rape capital of Europe’, presumably another piece of research from the Otterglans team. So I told him to ‘cunt off, you ashen liar’. I’ve dreamed up better insults, I know (for instance when I called him ‘a grasping dead-eyed toad of shit’), but I stand by it. And I appreciate that not everyone likes the c-word, even though according to research at the University of Otterglans, it is by far the best, most effective swear word. The point is, his tweet – extremely unpleasant, and designed purely to stir up ‘debate’ – is allowed to stand. My response seemingly is not. Which leads me to wonder: are people cautioned for insulting the disabled, for racist language, for Nazi support?
And this is where I wonder where we are going with this toxic atmosphere of provocation, that apparently as long as you can have an argument about it, that’s healthy, oh and also it’s lots of traffic on Twitter. What is the point of having an argument based on something that is specious? Isn’t that a waste of breath? Because Nigel just does it to get people to ring his shit radio show. And having James O’Brien on the same station, by the way, is not balance, LBC.
I keep being told that once you tell someone to ‘fuck off’, you’ve lost the argument. But what if there is no argument to have because the premise is bollocks or needlessly inflammatory? Then you have to spend a lot of unpaid time presenting evidence which they won’t read anyway, proving beyond doubt that Otterglans isn’t a real place.
I have two basic Twitter rules. Be polite, because after all many people I come across are lovely, and interesting, and funny. But if they’re a git, you are allowed to tell them to go fuck themselves. Because according to extensive study at the University of Otterglans, telling them they’re a‘ cunt’ and to ‘go fuck themselves’ does officially mean you have won the argument. And if your opponent protests that decision, you are allowed to cite this blogpost as official evidence.
Next week: why brown bread is more dangerous to our national security than white bread.