John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for December, 2012

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The antidote to rampant capitalism? 33⅓ revolutions per minute | John Harris

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Sales of tablets (the digital kind) are 1,000% up, but a quiet rebellion is growing as people rediscover the joy of vinyl records

If you’re fortunate enough to be somewhere smattered with Christmas presents, and also in the company of a certain kind of music freak, look around and marvel. As well as the stuff of digital consumerism (more of which in a moment), their haul of gifts may include a few objects that were meant to have been thrown into the dustbin of history a couple of decades ago. You’ll know them if you see them: big, coin-like things encased in glossy cardboard holders, which reproduce sound thanks to a technology that was invented towards the end of the 19th century.

For thousands of people, vinyl records have returned as the acme of listening pleasure. The relevant numbers are counted in the tens of thousands rather than the music industry’s customary millions, but one thing seems clear: though the business writ large is in a dire state, increasing quantities of records are being bought – both secondhand and in souped-up, remastered editions. Witness the season’s must-have item for Beatles fans, who either saved up all year or are toasting the end of the 50p rate of tax: their beautifully presented vinyl catalogue in a deluxe giant box, which goes for around £300.

We await conclusive British figures for 2012, but last year there was a quantum leap in sales of new vinyl albums, which were 44% up on the figures for 2010. Anecdotal evidence suggests the consumers responsible are not just hard-bitten types – men, usually – of a certain age, but much younger people. And the phenomenon extends across the industrialised world: the same pattern is evident in the UK, the US, Australia, Germany – and even cash-strapped Spain.

This piece was written at a desk around 2ft away from a turntable I now use every day. When the grimmer aspects of daily life – deadlines, flooding, Danny Alexander – start to get a bit much, I reach for a record, and take 40 minutes or so to give it my undivided attention. So as to be kept in its original condition, it must be carefully played as its creators intended, and also divided by the lovely pause for reflection in between sides one and two. The sound quality is way better than anything digital; there is an obvious Proustian thrill to the deep click from the stylus that begins the listening experience.

Now, compare all this to the easy delights of music either streamed or downloaded. No one was ever going to miss the charmless compact disc, and when the iPod era ended with the arrival of the streaming service Spotify, the infinite jukebox of millions of dreams was made real.

Here, though, is the problem: as I distractedly jump from song to song, am I actually listening, or merely hearing? And if most of us now listen to music in a state of twitchy impatience, what happens when that feeds back into the art itself? We already know the answer: modern pop has little time for delayed gratification, so intros must be quickened, choruses brought forward, and the most banal buttons pushed.

All this stokes a quiet anti-digital rebellion, and reflects an impulse that is growing, not just in the culture, but in everyday life.

When the vinyl renaissance first became clear, there were allusions to the Slow Food movement, and Carl Honoré’s 2004 book In Praise of Slow. By way of a warning about what happens when such advice is ignored, then – eventually – came Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, the text that bemoaned the online world’s “cacophony of stimuli”, and “cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning”.

Not surprisingly, then, there is rising interest in the notion of living offline, or at least reducing one’s immersion in all that noise and chatter. An American tech-journalist called Paul Miller, for example, is halfway through a year cut adrift, one early report of which found him in the midst of an evening when “he had an unusually long conversation with his roommate and” – get this – “listened to some records”. The account went on: “They stayed up talking until 3am, he said, and ‘I was completely in the moment and having a good time’.”

Now, compare that mode of existence to habits that this Christmas will have taken to new heights. Never mind austerity: some retailers claim that sales of tablets – digital ones, that is, rather than uppers, downers and antidepressants, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a correlation – are up 1,000% on last year. All, then, is frantic: both the pace at which yesterday’s must-have device must be replaced by today’s supposedly vast improvement, and the insane tempo at which everything is intended to be used. Not for nothing, perhaps, did one marketing agency recently try to rebrand Christmas Day 2012 as “tablet Tuesday”, a sacred occasion when we “redeem digital vouchers to fill up new devices with games, music and video”. Hosanna in excelsis, and all that.

It doesn’t matter if the profiteers responsible wear saggy casual rather than tophats: this, surely, is capitalism taken to such an extreme that the only thing to do is reach for Guy Debord’s prophetic text The Society of the Spectacle and boggle at how, 45 years later, every word has come true: “Consumers are filled with religious fervour for the sovereign freedom of commodities whose use has become an end in itself … The proliferation of faddish gadgets reflects the fact that as the mass of commodities becomes increasingly absurd, absurdity itself becomes a commodity … All this is useful for only one purpose: producing habitual submission.”

I know, I know: a mere vinyl habit probably isn’t any kind of cure for the modern malaise. Indeed, if you’re paying what some people earn in a week for a set of Beatles albums, you may have more to do with the problem than the solution. Then again, as a quiet act of refusal, there still seems something unshakeably symbolic about sticking with a supposedly outmoded technology, spending time focusing on one thing rather than hundreds. And, better still, making one’s choices in isolation from the ever-watchful eye of digital marketing machines, so that algorithms cannot calculate what to sell you next – if you want to follow Adele with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, that’s up to you.

In that spirit, I’ll start Boxing Day hopeful that I might carve out a couple of hours to listen to a few of my vinyl Christmas presents.

Elsewhere, enjoyment might be measured in kilobytes per second; here, a kind of stubborn solace comes via black plastic, rotating at a subversively glacial 33⅓ rpm.

John Harris © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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Anywhere but Westminster: where do we go next? – video

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

In our Anywhere but Westminster video series, John Harris and video producer John Domokos have covered political and social stories away from the metropolitan elite. Tell us what you want us to capture next

John Harris
John Domokos

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A moment of truth for Ed Miliband’s Labour party | John Harris

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

If every Labour politician cannot oppose Osborne’s strivers and skivers plan in its toxic entirety, what exactly are they here for?

The welfare uprating bill will apparently materialise early in the new year – a poisonous bit of legislation, conceived for the most abject of reasons. To recap: as a desperate Conservative party scrabbles around for anything approaching a sense of purpose, David Cameron and George Osborne are sounding ever more shrill about the supposed divide between “workers” and “shirkers”, or “strivers” and “skivers”; and this latest proposal is aimed at alchemising popularity from prejudice by capping most working-age benefits – including tax credits – at 1% a year until 2015, severing the link between social security (can we use that term, rather than that ideologically loaded US import “welfare”?) and living standards.

What this means in terms of modern Conservative ideology is clear. It may be clever politics to try to preserve what is left of your faux progressive credentials by picking a fight about gay marriage, but the nobility of that cause shouldn’t distract from what a pup Britain has been sold. The pre-power Cameron, waving around a copy of The Spirit Level and affecting to fret about social justice, was a creature both fantastical and mendacious: the tradition of Macmillanite Toryism he was once said to be resurrecting is now surely stone dead.

It may also say something about modern debate that the most teeth-grinding aspect of Osborne’s move barely attracted comment – but the spectacle of an alumnus of St Paul’s School worth an estimated £4m kicking the poor in order to preserve his political skin is irksome, to say the least.

How the Labour party will respond to Osborne’s plan is obscured by differences in emphasis, and the low chatter of internal argument. But this is probably its most critical moment since Ed Miliband became leader: a point when its positioning will go way beyond the issue at hand and shine a light on the party’s collective soul. It’s one of those “What are you in politics for?” moments, a member of the shadow cabinet told me yesterday. It certainly is: this is a proposal, after all, with all the ideological oomph and toxicity of the poll tax, if not more.

Over the weekend Miliband was on manoeuvres, claiming in the Sunday Mirror that the welfare uprating plan represented the government being “exposed for who they are” and “playing the worst sort of political games”. He cited what Osborne’s wheeze would do to people receiving in-work benefits, as well as unemployed people “doing the right thing, trying to find work”.

Ed Balls made similar noises in Sunday’s Sun, and voiced pointed opposition in the Commons on Monday – though his focus was almost exclusively on people in work, which threatens to leave arguably the bill’s most iniquitous elements outside the debate. Miliband’s position seems that bit clearer: his people want to draw attention to the fact that real-terms benefit cuts will affect thousands in work; but also make a point of refusing to be drawn into Osborne’s game of distinguishing between the working poor and those who are supposedly feckless and unemployed out of choice.

In response to those welcome signals from the Labour leadership, and perhaps mindful of the fact that the opening Labour salvo against Miliband’s position was best fired by a figure of the utmost integrity, the fallen former cabinet minister Jacqui Smith wrote a piece for the website of the ginger group Progress. (It’s still the done thing to describe it as “Blairite”, so I will.) In its reporting of internal Labour tussles over the issue, last Sunday’s Observer made reference to “a caucus of new Labour figures” who thought their leader’s stance politically suicidal: “Frankly,” said Smith, “you can count me into this ‘caucus’.” Any coherent sense of what she was arguing for was rather lacking, but she reckons the moment requires “a more sophisticated approach to the trap set by Osborne than simply to jump into it, even if this is accompanied by cheering from church and voluntary sector groups.” Vicars and charities, eh – who needs them?

These views extend to some of the shadow cabinet. One senior Labour figure recently told me that he’d heard party high-ups claiming that they have to come down “even harder on people on benefits than bankers”, because Labour supporters see the former every day, whereas the latter live in another world entirely. If it followed this view of things, Labour would at best perhaps take some hair-splitting position on the Osborne plan, opposing a cap on working tax credits and the like, but gritting its teeth and letting yet more blows rain down on that part of the population routinely imagined – even when long-term unemployment affects close to a million people – to be avoiding work and living high on the hog.

One Labour polemicist in the blogosphere reckons Miliband is taking a moral stance whose political consequences could be “of no benefit to the weakest and most vulnerable at all”; another argues that “Ed Miliband’s conviction is leading him and his party to disaster”, and that Labour will “lose the welfare war”. In this reading of things, it seems, the party must allow the trampling of the poor in order to win power and save them. Not for the first time Labour voices are embracing the kind of wisdom embodied in that infamous quote from the Vietnam war: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Yes, Labour’s thinking on benefits is in dire need of work: it needs to develop arguments about universalism, the much-hyped but little-developed idea of a more contributory benefits system, and how to push the argument into areas so far untouched: between-jobs training, for example. As proved by the tepid response to Osborne’s plans of its work and pension spokesman, Liam Byrne, the shadow cabinet is going to have to do better than maligning some of Osborne’s plans as a “striver’s tax” and thus leaving the “skiver” aspect largely unchallenged (though it slightly pains me to use the term, a “one nation Labour” imperative if ever there was one). It’s also clear that the leadership laid a trap for itself by backing the government’s public sector pay freeze.

The facts are as cold and unarguable as the winter weather: if Osborne gets his way, the income of Britain’s poorest people will – for the first time in more than 80 years – fall as a matter of government policy, and we’ll take yet another giant step towards a country of ever-multiplying food banks, rampant poverty, and people routinely going hungry. The question has to be asked again and again: if each and every Labour politician does not oppose this in its entirety, what exactly are they here for?

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The battle of the celebrity memoirs

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

As Christmas approaches, it’s time to pit the year’s celebrity autobiographies against each other. So who will win: Clare Balding or Cheryl Cole, David Walliams or Rod Stewart?

What awful times these are. George Osborne cannot meet his fiscal targets, money is too tight to mention, and this Christmas will apparently be further blighted by a shortage of parsnips and brussels sprouts. The festive season, then, is turning out to be somewhat less than festive – though one element of the modern winter ritual may yet cheer us all up, as usual.

Some say that books will soon go the same way as CDs. But visit your local WH Smith (or, rather, the local independent bookshop that does so much to protect cultural plurality and all that), and you will once again see a great mountain of print and paper, devoted to the intimate details of famous lives, described by the famous themselves. In other words, one heartwarming part of British culture remains unchanged – and with the exception of 1,227 QI Facts to Blow Your Socks Off and the must-have Chronicles of Downton Abbey, the summit of the current bestseller charts is dominated by celebrity autobiography.

For the third and possibly last time, I volunteered to read eight such books in their entirety and pitch them against each other in the manner of a sporting tournament, so as to decide which one you might reach for if you have one of those friends or relatives who you have to buy for, but don’t actually like. So, we begin with two books that have so far sold around 40,000 and 150,000 respectively …


David Walliams: Camp David
v Cheryl Cole: My Story

No messing about here. Those crafty minds at Penguin (Walliams) and HarperCollins (Cole) well know where their newest authors sit in the minds of the public. So, on the cover of hers, Cheryl manages to look virtuously princess-like but plainly wronged – while in naming his memoir after the US presidential retreat near Thurmont, Maryland, Walliams has managed two clever tricks: 1) Sending the origins of his title several thousand feet over at least some of his audience, but 2) making the most important point in a mere nine letters.

He’s camp, see, but despite a few incidents in his childhood, not gay. So not gay, in fact, that he has quietly managed to be a freelance sexual jackhammer who has bagged off with a few female celebrities, including troubled erstwhile TV funnywoman Caroline Aherne and equally troubled TV not-funnywoman Patsy Kensit.

But anyway. Cole’s 293 pages boil down to her passage from cash-strapped Newcastle grimness to her brief and wobbly place at the top of the world. At first, she is a geordie no-hoper whose tastes and habits do not suggest anything hugely sophisticated, as proved by what happened when her nephew was born: “‘I want Tweety Pie on me bum with ‘Warren’ underneath,’ I told Tony as I lay face down on the couch in his tattoo parlour.” But then, despite the glaring absence of any material about formative musical discoveries and the like, she wins her place in Girls Aloud, and becomes a rich and successful woman, “living me dream” with her tastes and habits refreshingly unchanged.

When seeding the rapid downfall of her marriage to Ashley Cole, Cheryl is commendably subtle. The-then Arsenal left-back was “soft and gentle, which was just so attractive … I was ridiculously loved up, and in my eyes, he could no wrong … I had no doubts, no worries. We were meant to be together.” No you weren’t, pet! On Thursday 24 January 2008, her life turned on a sixpence, with the first of many allegations of infidelity. Again, subtlety rules: “The girl said Ashley was so drunk he couldn’t walk straight, that he was incoherent, and that he was vomiting during the sex.”

There is, it seems, a very thin line between dreams and nightmares, as Walliams also knows. Camp David has many tangled strands: years spent in the demi-monde of showbiz, Walliams’s lifelong and apparently futile pursuit of his father’s approval, the fact that he can evidently not quite believe he’s famous, and attempts to kill himself that sit rather awkwardly in the midst of anecdotes that are sometimes smug and twee, and sometimes uproariously great. I know: I’m surprised too. But have a look at this one, about a Walliams turn on an unwatched satellite TV show hosted by his old Bristol University friend and former TV personality Dominik Diamond: “As the credits rolled, I put my finger between the cheeks of Dominik’s bum. That, I think, was the final straw in a huge burning pyre of final straws.” This is not exactly Truman Capote, but I like it.

Winner: David Walliams

Clare Balding: My Animals and Other Family
v Miranda Hart: Is It Just Me?

In keeping with the way that posh people have lately managed to grab back the entirety of British culture, my not-quite-random draw results in a thrilling face-off between two leading representatives of what we might think of as the New Yah (as in, perhaps,  ”Merry Christmas and a Happy New Yah”).

Balding’s is a riches-to-riches story, starring the kind of people who are permanently covered in mud and smell of wet dog. Thanks chiefly to her father’s work as an accomplished trainer, we are presented with a right old menagerie of horses and hounds, with chapters named after various animals, and little line drawings that suggest the artists who do those inexplicable artworks of David Beckham and Bob Marley you can buy in inner-London newsagents. But gawd, is she posh, as proved by sentences she dispenses in the casual way other people talk about the weather: “We had about 40 employees, all of whom lived on site … We had many nannies … I was in a four-bed dorm with three other girls known as Bear, Pickle and Snorter.”

Fair play to her, on the whole: unless I was being paid to do so, I would probably not cross the street to hear tales of the Queen popping in for breakfast, or the amateur jockey circuit on which the author briefly toiled. But I can easily spot what puts her a few notches above the herd: getting her thoughts straight before she writes anything, and a nice line in self-deprecation and what posh people call decorum. Do not, in other words, pick up this book if you want anything salacious about Balding’s private life, or her sexuality, which, right at the end of the book, is dealt with thus: “It was another few years before I realised I’d been looking in the wrong section of the library.” Nice, that.

And so to Miranda Hart. Difficult to dislike, obviously. And, on the face of it, the fact that she has spurned the standard-issue, arm-chewingly tedious, presumably ghost-written memoir for something slightly more creative might be to her credit. But no: Is It Just Me? is apparently meant to be a kind of absurdist self-help book focused on the social awkwardness that is Hart’s stock-in-trade, but its opening sentences serve notice of its heart-stopping crapness, in much the same way as the intros of Steps records. From the top, then: “My Dear Reader Chum, a very hearty hello to you. What an honour and privilege it is to have you perusing my written word. It is nothing short of tremendous to have you to chat to …”

Sniiiiip! Repeatedly calling your punter “My Dear Reader Chum” isn’t that funny. Neither is attempting a joke about how Kanye West sounds like a tube station, or using the word “tome” instead of “book”. Round about page 204, in fact, I realise her big problem: much like the inestimable Michael McIntyre, she has no hate in her veins, and despite so far shifting around 160,000 copies, her book – no, “book” – deserves to sell like cold pies.

Winner: Clare Balding

Rod Stewart: Rod: The Autobiography
v Tulisa: Honest: My Story So Far

Tulisa Contostavlos is 24, half-Greek, and may well fade back into obscurity by 2016, whereas Rod Stewart is about to turn 68, is half-Scots, and has been famous since 1969. In addition, his biography is clearly the product of careful work (a lot of it, perhaps, by his “editor”, the writer Giles Smith), whereas hers appears to have been boshed out in no time.

Still, much to my amazement, Honest: My Story So Far has a few things going for it – among them, the revelations that Tulisa’s dad not only played with the fondly loved(ish) 70s pop group Mungo Jerry, but has the name Plato (a common name in Greece, perhaps, though this is like finding out that one of the Saturdays’ mums is called Rosa Luxemburg). Also, she went to the same school as Ed Miliband. He has praised it as the embodiment of the progressive educational ideal, or some such; she reckons it was “more like some crazy play centre than a school”, though reading through her 286 pages, one gets the distinct sense that a “crazy play centre” was exactly what she wanted.

But get this: Michael Gove will be thrilled to hear that for all the weed smoke, shoplifting, minor gang wars and serial misbehaviour that make up her tale, Tulisa is in complete agreement with those who want to rewind Britain to around 1952. It’s all on page 92: “It seems to me that each generation of parents gets weaker and kids seem to have less and less discipline … I really believe parents need to show a firm hand where necessary. I also think that schools should be stricter and that teachers should have the power to discipline kids when they misbehave.” This, she says, may come down to allowing adults to give kids a “wallop”. Brilliant! Oh, and one other thing: her cousin Costadinos “Dappy” Contostavlos apparently has a ”dick like King Kong’s”.

Sorry to go on about such things, but the fact that celeb autobiographies must contain smut seems to be a matter of what we now know as statutory underpinning, and Rod Stewart’s is as good an example as any. On page 95, for example, he and future Rolling Stone Ron Wood meet the fabled Plastercasters, a couple of California women who would make fairly self-explanatory artworks out of rock stars’ genitals. These two, though, bottled it: “Woody and I took a look at the rather challengingly splendid specimens on the table before us, considered for a moment the slightly more modest scale of our own endowments, and said, ‘Hmmm. Nah, I don’t think so.’”

So, there it all is: a way with a story, just the right amount of self-deprecation, and the sense that when Stewart and those 70s gods the Faces wrote a song called Had Me a Real Good Time, they were probably not lying. To break up the narrative, every other chapter zeroes in on one of his trademarks or peccadilloes, including his surreally tedious fixation with model railways (Smack? Weed? Oh no: “Three padded flightcases travel with me on the road, with paints and tools, and whichever model I happen to be working on”). But the main events are the long story of his philandering, plenty of slightly unconvincing admissions that he has been a very bad man, and the fact that Rachel Hunter got her own back on behalf of all womankind when she was the first notable woman to dump him, causing him such a fit of the existential vapours that he did some very strange things indeed. Can you, for example, imagine Rod Stewart reading a self-help book? It actually happened.

All 350-odd pages pass in a relative flash, and the fact that this book has currently done in excess of 120,000 copies seems more than fair. In summary, Rod: The Autobiography compares to the past work of James Corden, Bear Grylls, Ant and Dec et al as the Stealth Bomber does to a push-bike, so hats off to him. And Giles Smith.

Winner: Rod Stewart

Keith Lemon: Being Keith: How I Got ‘Ere If You Don’t Know How I Got ‘Ere
v Will Young: Funny Peculiar: The Autobiography

Space is tight, and the first-round draw produces a tie that suggests Rushden Diamonds battling Crewe Alexandra, so I’ll be relatively brief. The career of Leeds-born TV quite-funnyman Leigh Francis has had its moments: certainly, in those days of wonderment and plenty prior to the economic crash, I laughed at Bo’ Selecta! on at least nine occasions. But I confess: though, as a friend recently suggested, it might be “an age thing”, his character he calls Keith Lemon amuses me about as much as chewing one.

As does his mock-memoir, in which think is spelled “fink”, diarrhoea is termed “shooty arse”, and you are presumably meant to place such Wildean turns of phrase as “smash ‘er back doors in” in a big pair of inverted commas, and laugh in the manner of an amused ape. To be fair, the faintest flicker of an impulse to smile comes on page 129, with the observation that Fearne Cotton “would eat dogshit if it were for charity, she’s good like that”. But my sides remain resolutely unsplit.

As they do reading the story of Will Young, and a book whose most obvious feature is the wind whistling through it. Stewart’s story is told via an average of 370 words per page; Young is lucky to tip 300, and has decided to liberally sprinkle his book with line drawings by someone called Kathryn Pinker, which make the ones in Clare Balding’s book look like the work of MC Escher.

On page 139, there is one of what Lemon might call a banger, with the chapter title “This looks like a man who won’t say no to a sausage”, serving notice that despite his oft-trumpeted 2:2 from Exeter University, this is not a work of vast sophistication – which, given that it has to do its business on the high street, may be no bad thing. In fact, trawling through a story whose most recurrent elements are the music industry whirl and Young’s travails with grinding depression, it occurs to me that you could actually strip out a good deal of his progress from a prep school called Horris Hill to his modest-though-immovable place in the culture, and reproduce his book as a series of simple aphorisms, maybe on cards you could fit in your wallet.

Here are a few. “Not everything can be perfect in life … It is about finding out what works for you that matters … If something starts from any place other than a place of self-love, it will always end up back at the same place again … A gay man on foot is worth two straight men in a Mini.” No, I don’t get what that last one means either, and this is thin gruel, but it is better for all of us that people read about Will Young than Keith Lemon, so that’s that.

Winner: Will Young


Clare Balding
v David Walliams

How to compare these two? Perhaps the solution is a quick “rummest sentence or two” contest. From Balding’s book, it’s probably: “Her eyes sagged, her titties swung low and loose, and her girth was wider than was strictly desirable”, which incurs a large penalty because it evokes the spectacle of Balding not only using the word “titties”, but doing so in relation to a dog. A dog!

There again, try this Walliams one, contained in a diary entry from 17 October 2003: “In the evening I went out to Simon and Maureen’s party. My friend Mark Morriss from the Bluetones was DJing and put on Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I was dancing with Julia Davis and to amuse her, on the word ‘come’, I pretended to come over her. I did it again and realised everyone (including Julia) had stopped dancing and was crowded around me clapping as if I was a champion dancer. I started improvising a routine, coming over different people in the room.” Aw, bless. Get out, Walliams!

Winner: Clare Balding

Rod Stewart
v Will Young

For all that Young is obviously a thoroughly decent and sensitive soul who would not (indeed, could not) cheat on a woman who was carrying his child by copping off with “another model” (”the behaviour of an arsehole,” says Rod, though that may not cut much ice with some), this is the equivalent of Stewart’s Celtic taking on, say, Port Vale and crushing them. Still, while we’re here, time for one last Will Young aphorism, from page 72: “Don’t drink and drive, obviously – it’s stupid and reckless.” He’s right, you know.

Winner: Rod Stewart


Clare Balding
v Rod Stewart

Decisive proof that the tournament system just about works – a thought that, after 10 days that have often tilted towards borderline breakdown, completely restores my inner balance. Over the past three years, I have read books by famous people as varied as Lee Evans, Gok Wan, Stephanie Beacham, Simon Pegg and Pam Ayres – and compared with these two, each and every one of them should feel deep embarrassment and try somehow to atone for all those chopped-down trees. Rod and Balders, see, have written (or co-written) proper books, with nice narrative devices, appealing authorial voices, and a quality that our modern celeb-world tends to ignore: lightness of touch.

But enough of all that: who wins? If you like dogs more than people and think the Queen works harder than wot you and I do for a living, go for Balders. If, however, you think that for all his transgressions, appalling attire and sometimes woeful music, Rod Stewart’s blithely cheerful attitude to just about everything says something affirmative about the human spirit, you will agree that he’s a worthy winner – and besides, the sumptuous wonderment of his story is confirmed by the fact that it even comes with an index. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need a lie down.

Winner: Rod Stewart. And/or Giles Smith

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Britain’s best independent shops

Friday, December 7th, 2012

Buying online may be efficient, but where’s the joy in that? Our writers choose their favourite local bookshops, butchers and boutiques for everything you need for Christmas… and beyond

AG Hendy & Co Home Store, Hastings

My friend Alastair drove all his social circle crazy for years by constantly dragging us to car-boot sales and charity shops every weekend. He’d bag all the best bits, while we looked on sulkily. The stuff he collected was piled up in attics, spare rooms and garages until, finally, it had somewhere to go. Hendy’s Home Store features everything from vintage crockery to Romanian felt slippers. It would be harder to leave the place without a pile of perfect gifts than with them. Deborah Orr
AG Hendy & Co Home Store, 36 High Street, Hastings, East Sussex;

Ritchie’s of Rothesay, Isle of Bute

The recession and mainland supermarkets have made life hard for shopkeepers on the Isle of Bute. Wondrously, those that survive include Ritchie’s, which has smoked haddock and salmon here since 1888, and Macqueens (, a traditional butcher specialising in Bute beef and lamb. Our local butcher in London, Godfreys at Highbury Barn, is, of course, without peer. Ian Jack
Ritchie’s of Rothesay, 111 Montague Street, Rothesay, Isle of Bute;

Raves From The Grave, Frome

A good rule of thumb for record-buyers and house-hunters of a certain age: to gauge the worth of a town’s record shop, see if they’ve a section devoted to the trailblazing art-rock band Pere Ubu. In 2009, I ran the test here and instantly decided to move to Frome. The floor-to-ceiling stock includes vinyl, new and used; the staff know their stuff; and they sell Toy Story DVDs and cater to my six-year-old son’s love of Kraftwerk. While other record shops shut down, they’ve just opened a new branch, in Bath. Spotify? Schmotify! John Harris

The Antique Shop, Kirkcudbright

Lime green art deco shot glasses, lacy Victorian nightdresses and 1930s satin pyjamas, Downton-style bling (in proper velvet boxes), elbow-length gloves – you can pick up all sorts of beautiful gifts in the Antique Shop by the harbour in Kircudbright. Even if you walk out empty-handed, it’s still a pleasant way to while away an hour. Decent price tags, too. For edible treats, make for Coco in Edinburgh for triple-dipped kirsch cherries or a ”tattoo” selection box decorated with 1920s-style lucky dice, tigers and anchors. Sweet. Liese Spencer
The Antique Shop, 67 Saint Mary Street, Kirkcudbright; 01557 332400.

Much Ado Books, Alfriston

For bibliophile walkers, this is a place of pilgrimage. On the South Downs walk, it’s as warm and serene as the Downs are cold and wild, with an eclectic stock including shelves of first novels, everything you ever wanted to know about those local celebs the Bloomsbury Group, and stashes of notebooks with reclaimed picture plates as covers. Comfy chairs provide a reading rest for weary feet. The only problem is resisting the temptation to overload your rucksack on exit. Claire Armistead

The Idler Academy, London

This is not just a brilliant bookshop with a fantastic selection of old and new books. It’s a brilliant bookshop that offers near nightly courses on everything from bridge to tantra to ukulele, weekly author events and a delicious cafe. On any afternoon you’ll find customers of all ages sitting on comfy benches, idly eating coffee cake while lazily reading a book or three. Hadley Freeman

Bluejacket Workshop, Morston

I love this shop. It’s a showroom for a collective of local artists, but nothing like as bad as that sounds. It’s full of beautiful handmade or restored rugs, furniture, knitwear, ceramics, jewellery and toys. There’s a workshop proper adjoining it, so you can look through and wish you could create something lovely, too. When I grow up, I’m going to buy everything there. Lucy Mangan

Washingpool, Bridport

We’re blessed with outstanding farm shops here on the Devon/Dorset border. Just outside Bridport is Washingpool, a favourite since I arrived here 15 years ago – they’ve been growing their own veg for two generations. Heading west on the A35 is Felicity’s, for rare-breed pork; 10 miles on is Millers, always with something new on the go; then head to Ottery St Mary, to Joshua’s, with its fabulous little orchard of cordoned apples and pears. Fantastic healthfood shop Ganesha, in Honiton, is great for organic grains and pulses (and chocolate!). Hugh Fearnley‑Whittingstall

Hanging Ditch, Manchester

Manchester’s small but stunning Hanging Ditch is an architect-designed wine shop and bar next to Harvey Nix. Slap in the middle of the city centre, it sells everything from supertuscans (in the tantalising “fine wine” drawers at the bottom of the shelves) to malbec ice wine. Elsewhere, Grape & Grind in Bristol is a brilliant wine shop with all kinds of interesting, off-the-wall bottles you simply won’t find in a supermarket. Fiona Beckett

Gay’s The Word, London

This legendary bookshop opened in 1979 and is still a distinctive, exciting place, stocking an ever-changing blend of fiction and non-fiction – perfect for that unexpected novel or history book that could not be chanced on browsing the web. Jonathan Jones

OK Comics, Leeds

Stumbling across OK Comics in Leeds as a student was a revelation: I had no idea that there was this incredible world where grown-ups drew cartoons and other grown-ups read them and took them seriously. This was where I discovered Jeffrey Brown, Marjane Satrapi, Charles Burns. Tucked away in a beautiful Victorian arcade, with sofas for reading on, author signings, drink and draw events, and even a free lending library. Becky Barnicoat

Mrs Jones, Holt, Norfolk

Forget Paris, Milan, New York or London. Holt in north Norfolk is my favourite town to shop in the whole world. It has the independent Holt Bookshop, a very superior pretty-things-for-the-house shop, Nixey and Godfrey, as well as top-notch fishmongers, butchers and a 341-year-old department store, Bakers & Larners. Not only that, but it has two outstanding clothes stores: the quirky Old Town and – my favourite – Mrs Jones. Vanessa Bruno jersey pieces, See by Chloé tailoring, Equipment silk blouses, J Brand jeans and Anya Hindmarch bags: the stock is nicely judged at the aspirational-but-not-ridiculous end of the market. The owner knows when to hover and chat, and when to leave you alone (so rare), there is a little box of toys in the changing room for kids, and everything I’ve bought from here has turned out to be a keeper. Who needs Bond Street? Jess Cartner-Morley

Willow & Stone, Falmouth

Browsing here transports me into my fantasy life. While inside, I imagine that, rather than surrounded by mess and plastic toys, I live a life in which my children sit quietly at the table making tasteful cut-out woodland animals, where organic soaps sit tidily in ceramic dishes in the bathroom, while next door my husband sets a fire with a tasteful, clay-coloured kindling bucket at his side. They have oak wellington racks and associated accessories for a boot room (oh, to have a boot room!) and pretty little bobbins of vintage-style ribbons (I can’t even sew). Yes, it’s full of aspirational nonsense, but, hell, there’s nothing wrong with a little dream once in a while. Merope Mills

Rye Books, London

I just looked on the website of my favourite independent bookseller and it said, “TONIGHT: all your birding questions answered.” This distills the purpose of a trusted bibliotaph – their enthusiasms must be much broader than your own; that way, you will always find something to extend you. They’re also quite keen on cake, so may extend you in another direction, if that’s your thing. Zoe Williams

Borderline, Brighton

Brighton is lucky in that it’s packed with independent record shops. Earlier this year, the iconic Rounder closed its doors after 46 years – it named tax avoidance by big online retailers among the reasons – but that still leaves almost a dozen within walking distance of where I’m typing this: secondhand shops, specialist shops including the wonderful vinyl-only Record Album, knowledgable indie retailers such as Resident. My favourite is Borderline in North Laine, which has psychedelic posters on the walls, an intelligently-compiled stock of everything from jazz and world music to krautrock and punk, lots of CDs for a fiver and beautiful, spendy vinyl reissues that represent a clear and present danger to my ongoing ability to pay my mortgage. I recently walked past on a wet Wednesday morning and discovered them gamely trying to engage passing custom by playing the Blues Magoos’ awesome, acid-soaked 1966 cover of Tobacco Road at deafening volume. These people are unequivocally the kind you want running a record shop. Alexis Petridis

Palas Print, Caernarfon

Caernarfon in the rain can be a challenging prospect, and it does rain a lot in this bit of north Wales. But if you ever want to take shelter in one of Britain’s best independent bookshops, step inside. Run by Eirian James and Selwyn Jones, it brilliantly combines English- and Welsh-language books, reflecting an area where more than half the population has Welsh as its first language. It stocks a lot of fiction by Welsh writers working in English, but, unlike some bookshops, doesn’t give it the patronising label “local books”. It puts it on the general fiction shelf. “So Owen Sheers has to battle it out with Carol Shields,” James says. It is also strong in poetry (in both languages) and Welsh history. It turned 10 this year, and is a great place to hang out, rain or shine. Stephen Moss

HE Harrington, Broadstairs

Rumoured to be the inspiration for the famous “Four Candles” sketch (Ronnie Corbett had a house on the seafront), Harrington’s is the hardware store of your – oh, OK, my – dreams: a million tiny drawers; Jim and Henry, the two senior brothers who own it, resplendent in brown coats; and what appears to be a warren as large as Gringotts Wizarding Bank by way of back shop. It’s what Labour And Wait in London pretends to be, and at a fraction of the price: bottle brushes, Brown Betty teapots, whisks, cookie cutters, Mason Cash brown bakeware bowls… A wonderful, thriving little timewarp. Marina O’Loughlin

R Garcia & Sons, London

This Spanish deli is where I go for fresh padrón peppers, the best manchego money can buy and the aroma of cured pork, which is the smell of Spain. Yotam Ottolenghi

Ampthill Antiques Emporium, Bedfordshire

Alongside this Victorian department store, over three floors, there’s a yard full of garden and architectural antiques. From wrought-iron chairs to statues, plus vintage tools, you’re bound to find something for a horticultural friend. Jane Perrone

World of Bears, Taunton

Tucked down a side street in this market town is an extraordinary toy shop dedicated entirely to teddy bears. If, like me, you have a child who is crazy for soft toys, then even entering can be dangerous. These are not all inexpensive bears: some are made by the ursine world’s most exclusive names, including Steiff. Handle with care. World of Bears stocks more than 18,000 altogether and has three levels where children – and adult collectors – can spend hours browsing, picking up and hugging. Harriet Green

RE, Northumberland

An old-fashioned curiosity shop that almost single-handedly invented shabby chic, RE is housed in a small converted workshop in Corbridge. Known for its quirky homewares, it is the place to go for biblical plates, rusty signs, vintage brandy glasses – and everything else besides. Hannah Booth

Deborah Orr
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