Monthly Archives: May 2010

Like a demented seagull: how hate mail changed my life

This is a letter I received several years ago. It begins ‘Dearest Peter, why don’t you just go and drown in your own shit’, goes on in a similar vein for six impeccably crafted pages before signing off ‘U.R.A. Deadman’. It was written by a mad man and it changed my life.

At the time, I prided myself on writing savage, pithy reviews for Time Out (rechristened Slime Out by the writer). I was vicious and splenetic, with the self-righteous confidence of a 20-year-old who believes they have invented authenticity and everybody else is a fool and a fraud. I verbally annihilated such high-profile targets as Toploader’s second album, anybody who ever appeared on Channel 5, ‘Grumpy Old Men’, Lord Robert Winston and Vigo Mortensen’s chin. 

Mr U Deadman (possibly not his real name) had noted my work and enraged by a particularly malicious piece I had written deriding the ridiculous sport of rugby union (clue: the section was titled ‘Rant’), decided it was time for payback. And how.

Much of what he wrote was plain wrong. The man was unbalanced, a bit racist and rather scary. He had extraordinary recall of past Time Out writers, many of whom I had never heard of, whose supposed sins (and, more worryingly, physical appearances) he would discuss at length. 

He also had a wicked turn of phrase. The key paragraph was the following, a rhetorical question that inadvertently changed everything. He asked me:

‘Are you looking forward to your retirement, to the day when you can look back over your working life and think “I slagged people off. That’s what I did with my life. I spent years – in fact, decades – SLAGGING PEOPLE OFF… screaming relentlessly like a demented SEAGULL. I was Slime Out’s top hatchet man in 2003. No-one else could touch me. Not even Lewis”?’

(The latter is a reference to the internationally respected music critic John Lewis, who was also a bit of a meanie back in the day.)

At the time, I laughed it off as the witterings of a deranged sociopath – albeit one with lovely script and excellent phrasing – but it also made me think. Yes, I could be funny, I could wind people up, but really what was the point? At around the same time I proudly showed my girlfriend a furious review I’d written about some vacuous celeb-loaded TV show about dancing and she wasn’t just unimpressed, she looked at me as if I had crapped in her handbag. Being cruel, I realised belatedly, wasn’t nice, or cool, or clever. Well, it was clever, but not in a nice or cool way.

I should have known this already, after the Jason Lee incident at the Sunday Times, when a throwaway comment about a haircut in my TV column was appropriated by ‘Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football’ with unfortunate repercussions for the career of an innocent pineapple.

So I changed. I stopped reviewing terrible films, only wrote about albums I liked and threw my TV set in the canal. I started to spend more time thinking about the things I enjoyed and wanted to recommend, and less time thinking about funny ways to slag off things I thought were crap.

I probably became more boring and less memorable as a writer, because there are few things more intoxicating than a really wicked piece of invective (pace Brooker), but I think it made me a better writer. I definitely became a happier person. And I still  have no desire to be the sort of person who uses their privileged space in magazines, newspapers and websites to wind-up readers and make asinine generalisations, even if that is the easy way to get noticed (pace a list far too long to mention).

The mysterious mad letter writer continued to treat Time Out to his acidic thoughts, occasionally in the form of epics like the above but usually as mellower postcards, mainly focused on music. He barely mentioned me again, although Lewis got it in the neck a couple of times, and rightly so.

He stopped writing to Time Out completely about a year ago and I often wondered what happened to him. Did he merely cancel his subscription like so many others (to drive off an obsessive, that is impressive), did he get some new, better,  medication, or did something tragic befall him, not entirely unlikely given his clearly troubled mind?

I hope he is okay. I hope he is a happy. And I’ll always keep his letter to remind me of what I never want to become.

Update: Slime Out: The Sequel.

Museum of London reopening

My review of the Museum of London reopening appeared in yesterday’s Independent On Sunday. The museum has refurbished its entire collection from the Great Fire to the present day, something that necessitated closing down the lower-ground floor of the museum for four years. I’ve been on site at a number of times during the refurbishment, so had a good idea of what was intended, but was still hugely impressed (and, in a strange way, rather relieved as so many things can go wrong with these things) by the final result.

The museum now has a great blend of the old and new, with some genuinely impressive modern interactive but also loads of good old-fashioned things in cases. Check it out when it opens to the public on Friday May 28 (it is opening till 9pm on the first day). 

I suppose that a museum ideally wants the visitor feel they’ve ‘got it’ after just one visit, but not ‘got it’ so much that they won’t come back . They don’t want people to be so overwhelmed by information they can’t see what story the museum is telling, but they equally don’t want them to feel they’ve absorbed it all in one go, seen everything there is to see and so never bother returning. The Museum of London, I think, pulls off this delicate balancing act, while also being lots of fun, which is something every good museum wants and needs to be. 

Museum nerds might note that they also manage to subtly highlight a couple of their less appreciated areas of expertise – the excellent costume collection, which gets two strong displays – and their outstanding collection of oral history, which is used to tell the story of the Blitz.

I am particularly interested in oral history. These first-hand recollections from largely ordinary Londoners could be vitally important to future historians, and the museum continues to expand its collection at an impressive rate. One thing I firmly believe is that everybody has a fascinating story to tell, they just don’t always realise what it is about their lives that makes them unique and therefore interesting. Most people are too self-conscious when they write, so oral history is the best way to break down this barrier and capture those stories before they disappear forever.

Finally (and no, I’m not on the payroll), the museum also has a very good (and free) new iPhone app. Check it out here.

The invasion begins!

Magnificent Maps at the British Library

The British Library currently has an excellent new exhibition about maps called Magnificent Maps. I reviewed it for New Statesman (get me), and tried to focus on the sort of political aspects of the maps on display that would appeal to the generally Labour-supporting readers of the New Statesman, seeking any sort of diversion from the electoral massacre they had recently witnessed.

Diamond Geezer also took inspiration from contemporary politics with his review. He wins, I think.

The highlight of the exhibition for many Londoners will undoubtedly be Stephen Walter’s incredible idiosyncratic The Island, which you can study in detail here. This is a very personal and witty look at London by an artist. I particularly like the rather condescending but still satisfying comment he puts next to Herne Hill – ‘If I lived south of the river it would be here’. What finer praise could a North Londoner offer?

If you like maps a lot, you should also check out the hand-drawn gallery at Londonist. A little bird tells me that these may soon get a museum exhibition of their very own.

Exotic animals of London No 1: the humped toucan

I waited all day, but I didn’t see one.

BBC memo: Fawlty Towers ‘dire’ and a ‘disaster’

Some time in the past few years, a copy of this memo came into my possession via the ex TV editor of Time Out, Alkarim Jivani (whose entry in the Urban Dictionary has to be the nicest ever).

It’s from the Comedy Script Editor of the BBC in 1974, who dismisses ‘Fawlty Towers’ as ‘dire’ and ‘a collection of cliches and stock characters’.

Sadly, the coffee stain is not contemporary, dating only from circa 2008.

John Cleese discusses the memo here. He has framed his copy, but I just gave mine to my mate Gabriel. Oh well.

On the buses again

My free Time Out travelcard has run out. This is the one thing I have been dreading since I left the magazine. No more cheeky one-stop tube hops, no more quick bus rides up the hill because I’m feeling lazy. I’ll even have to reacquaint myself with the actual cost of bus and tube fares, plebeian knowledge I have long disregarded. From now on, every journey on public transport has to be justified. My feet are in for a hell of a beating.

I was the same last time I was freelancer, when I first become heavily involved with the London bus. Time-rich and cash-poor, I could afford to take meandering bus trips across London rather than more expensive and direct journeys by tube, and came to appreciate the London bus in all its magnificence. A few years later, armed with a Time Out travelcard and newly installed as features writer, I attended a brainstorming meeting with the editor, who wanted some new ideas for the Big Smoke section. He picked up a copy of Time Out Manchester (a collectors’ item as it was the only issue they produced) and showed me a column called Bus Bingo, in which the writer took a random Mancunian bus every week. Nice concept, I said in one of those ‘monkey tennis’ moments familiar to any journalist, but how about I, er, take every bus in London in numerical order? And so a column was born.

It seemed popular. I don’t go to many parties, but when I did I was frequently introduced as ‘the bloke who was doing the buses for Time Out‘. And people would regale me with tales of terrible bus trips, or rhapsodise about their favourite routes. (Thinking about it, this could be one of the reasons why I don’t get invited to many parties.) People wrote to the mag saying they were collecting each column, or complaining if I gave a favoured bus an unfair review. Plus it got me out the office.

But all good things and all that. We got a new editor, who in our first meeting asked me how long the bus column would go on for. ‘Well,’ I told him, ‘there are at least 500 routes in London, and that’s before you consider night buses and the ones with number prefixs. And I’m only on No 60.’

He looked aghast, the facial expression of a man who had spent a decade taking taxis on an Emap expense account and fully endorsed the old Tory maxim that anybody who took the bus was a loser. He couldn’t understand why anybody would want to travel by bus, let alone write about it, let alone read about it.

The nail in the coffin came when I, perhaps inadvisably given the prevailing mood, commissioned a full-page piece interviewing three other people I had discovered who were also taking buses in numerical order, a pensioner, an artist and a blogger, who I dubbed ‘Buskateers’, a word that has inexplicably failed to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary.

And so the column was scrapped before I got a chance to fruitily ponder the 69, or settle scores on my old school route of the 127.

London wept, and then went back to reading about 50 Essential Hidden East London Cheap Eat Sex Markets For The Summer. And now I’m back on the buses, although not in numerical order and only if it is too far to walk.

(For more bus appreciation, these three pensioners are taking One Bus At A Time, while Ben at Route 1 To 499 pledges to take every bus in London, albeit in no particular order.)

Vote for Horovitz

A couple of weeks ago, I met up with the poet Michael Horovitz (who I previously blogged about here). Michael confirmed that he would be nominated for the prestigious Oxford Poetry Professorship, something the Guardian wrote about recently.

It would be wonderful if Michael took this position as he is quite unlike any of the other candidates and really would be a refreshing choice. If you are an Oxford graduate, you can vote for Michael by registering at the Oxford Poetry Election website.