Commenting? Follow my advice …

Tom van Aardt, Communities Editor at BBC’s Future Media & Technology department works terribly hard. I know because of his various twitter updates and because from time to time he and I have meetings. (He’s terribly busy, terribly effecient and frightfully reliable by the way).

Just this weekend he’s been working on a blog posting about the future of commenting across BBC Online.

Just how should the BBC cater for members of the public to comment via the BBC’s online provision? What does the audience think?

I hesitated before I left a comment, partly because I was reading the posting shortly after he’d published it, partly because as BBC staff it may look a little odd if I’m the first person responding, but mostly because the thing uppermost in my mind was the best one minute of radio I’ve ever heard from comedy gods Mitchell and Webb.

Not only did I hesitate before posting a link to a YouTube video which I think perfectly sums up a few people’s preoccupation with finding out what the audience thinks, the blogging technology used by the BBC actually prevented me from including any links too. Thank God for that. My job should be safe (for the time being at least).

Still, Tom’s question got me thinking about the very same issue I’ve been confronting since Christmas 2007. Do I allow comments after I’ve approved them? Do I allow them automatically? Or do I prevent anyone from leaving comments full stop?

Last Christmas I was a serial Yahoo 360 blogger. There was a network attached to it. I established what felt like strong friendships with a number of random people across the world. I loved my Yahoo blog. People started leaving comments for each posting. I felt encouraged to blog more. I grew to appreciate the network of friends I established on it. One hand washed the other.

But something went wrong around Christmas 2007. In the run up to my most sensitive time of year I began to read quite a few sneery remarks being left by a handful of people. I hated that. I was caught between being painfully aware of my own ability at projecting emotions and having to grapple with the very real possibility that there were some people out there who relished the opportunity of leaving derogatory comments on my posts.

I was only writing to satisfy my own creative urges, not to satisfy an audience. So to read those potentially (almost certainly) negative comments pissed me off no end.

If you’ve not got anything nice to say don’t say anything. Don’t attack me. I’m only writing this stuff because I like writing.

Inevitably, I dealt with the situation in a fairly predictably *adult* way. I disabled all commenting and shut down my blog. I’ll lick my wounds, I thought. Sod them.

A few months went by. I start realising I miss blogging and then I set up this wordpress blog making sure I tick the “don’t allow comments” box when I set it all up.

It’s only recently I’ve unchecked the box, pressured into doing so by an internal voice urging me that if I don’t I’m unlikely to get any links back to my blog and thus will spectacularly fail in driving any traffic to my work.

It was a difficult decision to enable commenting. What if noone left a comment? Would people drop by my blog, read a posting and then think “Well, he’s obviously not very good at what he thinks he’s good at .. he’s got noone commenting. If he’s got noone commenting then noone can be reading this twaddle.”

That’s how I’m gradually seeing commenting, you see. It’s one way of an audience measuring just how popular a blogger is. It’s a way of determining whether this blog you’re reading is really worth reading. After all, if noone else is reading it, what’s the point in sticking with it?

But there’s another, slightly more worrying aspect to commenting and audience interaction which I’ve observed in the past twenty-four hours.

Only yesterday a newly-discovered blogger left a comment on a posting of mine about Mumbai. Despite my protestations, my heart races when someone does leave a comment. There is, quite unexpectedly, a flutter when you see that someone – for what ever reason – has felt they want to leave a comment. It’s a stroke, an encouraging gesture. It flicks a switch in the back of your head which says “keep looking around for stuff to write about.”

As someone who loves writing that feeling is terribly important. But given that I am my own worst enemy and one who understands himself better than any psychiatrist, I’m at pains to point out that the blogger/reader relationship may seem useful initially, but it will only lead to a dangerously dependant relationship in the future.

Frankly, I’d prefer to be self-sufficient.

Christmas: Mother better eat the picalilli

Mother better eat the picalilli, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

A pungent combination of white wine and malt vinegar gently simmering on the hob is producing a gaseous nightmare in the kitchen. It is, consequently, completely out of bounds on matters of health and safety. Thus, I remain in the lounge warmed by a glowing fire updating on this year’s Christmas preparations, waiting for the toxic smell to dissipate.

This is the final phase in a weekend production line which has seen the kitchen window-sill fill up with jars of marmalade, Christmas chutney, cucumber pickle and lethal chilli jam. The last part of this year’s Christmas hamper is the piccalilli.

Had I been born female, I am almost certainly someone who would have chosen to live in the country so as to be able to join the Women’s Institute. My pickles and preserves would have been the stuff of legend had been able to join the WI.

Previous years have seen me knuckle-down for the Christmas holidays indulging a slightly odd interest in candle-making. Refusing to get sucked into purchasing all of the vital equipment, I gingerly melted candle-wax and stearin in a bain-marie and poured the resulting mixture into old ramekins. The results were reasonably successful, although a search deep in the under-stairs cupboard would reveal a number of unlit candles, possibly because those I tested didn’t burn terribly well.

Following my own advice, I’ve embraced pickling and preserving in the run up to this year’s festive season.

There’s something reassuringly therapeutic about the whole process. First there’s the research – hours spent curled up on the sofa reading over recipe books or browsing the internet.

What quickly became apparent reading over Gary Rhodes’ New British Classics (the place to go for piccalilli), Delia Smith’s Cookery Course and this month’s BBC Good Food magazine was that the process of preserving in advance of Christmas is only any fun if there are some unsuspecting people to give the finished product to.

Imagine the hideous situation where your first batch of marmalade looks good in the jar but, but the first taste confirms it isn’t up to much. Then you find yourself lumbered with a cupboard of reasonably attractive looking preserve which should really have a warning label on it: Don’t Eat This.

That’s when a distribution network is vital. If you’ve made fourteen jars of the stuff at least you can experience the joy of gratitude on thirteen other people’s faces when you dish it out in the weeks before Christmas. At least that you’ve only got the one jar to get through or throw away if it doesn’t turn out to be terribly good.

With a distribution network decided upon (mine started off being quite grand but has quickly been de-scoped to feature only my parents – my sister, if she’s really lucky) there is, inevitably the need for a test-phase.

The piccalilli I spoke of earlier was tested a few weeks ago. Sadly, I failed to dry off the cauliflower and cucumber sufficiently well. Hence the two oversized jars in the fridge have vegetables sitting in a yellow sauce with a layer of water sitting on top. Believe me, they don’t look very appetising.

Still, it provided me with the opportunity to go through the process early and thus legitimately extend the Christmas preparations earlier than in previous years.

But perhaps the thing I’m most looking forward to – and perhaps what has driven this surprisingly pleasurable process over the past few weeks – is the opportunity to serve up what my own mum did when I was younger.

When I was in my teens it was my mum who would set aside two days before Christmas day to start cooking and baking like a demon, making cakes and Christmas puddings and jams and bread before placing the results of her handiwork in a festively decorated box. It was then left to me and my older to distribute the gifts amongst various lucky recipients in the village.

Both of us hated the task, partly because we weren’t necessarily the best company for one another but also because I wanted to be at home following the very full tele-viewing schedule I had drawn up using the Radio Times. Delivering food parcels to recipients in the village was not something I wanted to be doing.

Obviously, things have changed somewhat now. The growing realisation that I’ll probably never be very good with money has shifted focus. I realise now I’ll never feel comfortable aimlessly wandering around a shopping mall for hours so I can shuffle home laden with ridiculously oversized bags. I want to derive pleasure from my Christmas giving.

I’ve spent too many Christmases agonising over whether I’ve got the appropriate value present for a particular individual, worrying whether I’ve got too much or too little, or thinking about how big that credit card bill will be in the new year.

Now, as the kitchen window-sill fills up with jars of goodness for this year’s Christmas, I stand back with my arms folded and the pungent gases in the kitchen gone and feel just a little bit smug.

Next Sunday I’ll deliver a box full of stuff I’ve made for my mum. She tells me her diabetes won’t be a problem for any sweet stuff I have in mind. Apparently the drugs work really well.

And frankly, it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t like them or can’t eat it. If the jars remain unopened in a cupboard before they’re thrown away, I won’t care. It’s the process of making and giving the stuff I’m interested in. And, if she’s tasted one and realises she can’t eat them without risking a diabetic coma, she can always give them to someone else. I won’t mind.

Mumbai on the move

One look at my diary this morning – it’s only recently I’ve got in to the habit of using my Outlook calendar – and the prospect of four meetings in the space of five hours made it almost a guarantee I’d find it difficult to keep on top of what was going on in Mumbai.

I wanted to know more. I wanted to follow everything. It was almost as though I wanted someone standing next to me the whole day giving me an update on what was going on each and every moment.

What was my motivation exactly? I kept asking myself the same question all day long. Twelve hours later I’m still not entirely sure why.

Was it a mawkish fascination with the emerging story coming out of India ? Was it a genuine interest in news – one which has surfaced over the past couple of days as a result of work ? Was I really a news junkie who was coming to terms with what had formerly seemed like an underlying interest in news ? Or was I, in fact, feeling the effects of the social networking tools such as Twitter or Facebook, getting the news from the web and responding to events on a minute by minute basis?

Shortly after my first meeting just off Shepherds Bush, I retrieved my mobile from my coat pocket. Compared to the difficulties I’d experienced connecting to the internet with my laptop, my mobile was considerably more reliable.

I stumbled on a live update page on the BBC website. I bookmarked it. I was hooked the entire afternoon.

There are obvious caveats which need to be spelled out here. I work there and on that basis I’m biassed. I’m bound to go to the employer for the news. But, for the rest of the day I wanted to keep checking in, checking to see what had happened, what had developed, if the death count had risen, if things had subsided. I wanted things to wind down. I wanted it to be over. I wanted people to be safe.

What transpired – as a consumer of news – was that this particular event was expanding. This made it an unsual experience. Far away in what feels like a distant land, we weren’t learning about what had occurred, but through minute by minute updates we read about a constantly unfolding series of events. It felt like I was there. It felt like this was a battle, or a war. It felt like it has happening just down the road. It felt real.

Looking back on today I can say with certainty that this bizarre method of retrieving news on events shifted focus. Today was about Mumbai, about India, about innocence gunned down, about anger and pain.

As the fast train from London Charing Cross pulled into Hither Green station, I switched on the six o’clock bulletin on the radio, keen to get some kind of summary of events.

I got the snapshot I was looking for and a bit more. British eyewitnesses were returning home.

One man explained how he had barricaded himself in his hotel room, switched off the lights and kept quiet until the worst of it was over. What had begun as a brisk walk from platform six to the ticket hall slowed to a sombre pace.

Here was someone from the UK – completely unknown to me – recalling the experiences he had in a country that felt like it was far, far away in such a way that I felt immediately protective and defensive for him and all those who had suffered like him.

It was an incredible day for an outsider like me and, no doubt, something a whole lot worse for those who experienced it first hand.

If I truly am a news junkie then I hold my hands up in shame. Don’t – please – feel bad of me if that is the case.

Personally, I prefer to think of myself of a normal human being, horrified by what feels like totally unexpected and at times surreal events.

But if there’s one thing I’m certain of after the past couple of days it’s this: my susceptibility to such harrowing events precludes me from ever being a journalist.

Mumbai on the tube

Front page of the Times, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

The most striking newspaper image I’ve seen in a long time adorned the copy of The Times I scrounged from the lady sat opposite me on the tube this morning.

In fairness she had finished browsing the paper when I carefully removed my headphones, leant forward and asked, “Excuse me, could I possibly borrow the newspaper if you’ve finished with it?” She seemed happy to oblige and blissfully unaware of the news from India.

I didn’t want to read about the shootings in Mumbai. I didn’t know very much about what had happened. I’d stumbled on the breaking news by watching the news live on the internet the night before. I’d seen looped shots of a burning hotel in Mumbai. I’d heard about 80 or so people having died, seen a clip where someone had said “they seemed to be asking for people with American or British passports.”  I’d scrambled to find what facts were available on the internet and quickly followed up with a handful of texts to friends whose friends and associates were based in Mumbai.

All were safe. That was the extent of my research.

This morning, however, trundling to work on the tube my gaze landed on the front cover of The Times. Something about the front page drew my eye. I looked more closely and soon found myself looking at the lady holding the paper, a large and the extremely approachable looking black woman complete with impeccably applied make-up and an adorable hat. I watched as she passed over every page.

I found it almost impossible to stop looking at the front page of the newspaper. Was it a policeman or a soldier leading an elderly looking woman across a blood splattered floor? I couldn’t tell. Where was that? Why were the bags left that way? Did someone really get shot there? Is that really how much blood can come out of a human body when a bullet rips through it?

It all looks so quiet. It all looks so final. India looks so damaged.

Richard Hickox

Richard Hickox

In the relatively small world of the classical music world, the untimely death of conductor Richard Hickox has taken everyone by surprise.

I can’t claim to know him. The only link I have with him is an interview I attended to work for the City of London Sinfonia in the summer of 1991. I didn’t get it.

That’s what we all do when we scrabble around to justify the sadness us bunch of classical music fans feel when a member of the club suddenly drops off the radar.

What are you thinking? Where are you going? You’ve got years in you yet.

What I’ve been touched by is to what extent I start checking to see who’s heard and who hasn’t. I messaged a mate at work to see if he’d heard. Checked in on Facebook to see a journalist I knew of old had registered the same level of surprise. Only this evening I made a point of trotting over to Tommy Pearson’s One More Take. They all said the same. They were all feeling really rather surprised.

It came as a surprise the man was 60. It was a shock to discover he died of a heart attack. It was somehow unnerving and reassuring all at the same time to discover he died only a few hours after doing a recording session of Holst’s Choral Symphony in Cardiff. If you’re going to go, surely the best way is to take your bow and run off the stage in a flash.

Worse than that is the sad truth it’s only in the event of someone’s death that I begin to learn what they achieved in his or her life.

Hickox was one of our stars. He founded the City of London Sinfonia in 1971 at the tender age of 23. The band continues today. I can’t think of anything I did thirteen years ago which still works today.

Ten years later he was serving as Artistic Director of the Northern Sinfonia at a time when most people perceived orchestral life to be centred solely in the main UK cities.

And in case you’re wondering whether this is all sounding quite regional (and shame on you if you are), Mr Hickox was associate guest conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra from 1985 until his death and principal guest conductor with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2000 until 2006.

This man worked hard and went out like a light.

In tonight’s In Tune presented by Petroc Trelawny on BBC Radio 3, pianist Imogen Cooper played some keyboard music by Bach transcribed by Kurtag. I’m not sure whether it was a deliberate choice on her part, but if I’m ever famous enough so that my death features in a radio programme, I wouldn’t mind having Imogen Cooper do the same as she did in this particular broadcast. Breathtaking.