Sunday 7 October 2012

Morning magic

There's something magical about early mornings.

On a whim I decided to get up early this morning (Sunday) for a run. The alarm went off at 0545, and half an hour later I was cycling in the direction of Hampstead Heath, with the intention of catching the sunrise from Parliament Hill (or wherever there was a decent view).

I ended up locking my bike up on Hampstead Lane about halfway between the Spaniards Inn and Highgate Village. Trail running shoes on, Camelbak and helmet in my bag and away I went in no particular direction.

Although I attempted to track my progress via MapMyRun, the GPS on my phone failed and the app managed to discard everything it had recorded, so I don't know where I went although I criss-crossed my path all over the place.
 There was a mist rising off the ground - quite extraordinary.
 By 7am, the light was bright, but sunrise wasn't until 0712 (I had checked!)
 Above: looking out over London (you can just about see the Shard).
 The heath was almost deserted. I met the occasional dog walker and runner - and after about half 7 when the sun was up, it started to get busier. But for the most part around sunrise, I had the whole place to myself.

 The camera on my phone doesn't deal at all well with poor light, but these give a sense of how things were.
 This tree (below) was pretty spooky:

 I shared the space with plenty of foxes - and a rabbit:

 It was an extraordinary experience - pretty spiritual. I kept on saying "oh wow" to myself - and congratulating myself on the decision.
 And then, at around a quarter past seven...

  I could feel the spirit of Nina Simone in the air...
Here comes the sun, little darling
Here comes the sun, and I say...
It's alright...

 Above: yes along with the rabbits and foxes that is a lesser spotted circus.

 The mist/steam rising from the ponds was pretty magical.
 For some reason mainly that I didn't really care where I was going and kept changing direction randomly, it took me ages to find Parliament Hill. When I did, it was worth it...

 Above: running through the long wet grass meant that my feet were absolutely sodden.
Below: view from Parliament Hill

 Sadly, I could feel my knee problem which gave me problems about a year ago starting to twinge. When I went for a run in the Chilterns a couple of weeks ago (at Dunstable Downs; great place for a walk or run) the knee held firm but I had a problem for several days after in my foot, possibly a trapped nerve. The foot started to hurt again, so it was time to gingerly walk back to the bike.
 A fantastic, superlative, magical morning run. I can't recommend a morning start highly enough! As a reward for my endeavours, I was delighted to see THE BEST PLACE IN LONDON open at 0830: Louis' in Hampstead. I treated myself to a croissant and Danish pastry for breakfast and a box of cakes for later.

Monday 1 October 2012

I'm blogging at The Wall!

Just a quick one. I've started up a regular blog at Haymarket's flagship social media blog, The Wall. It's very exciting for me as the Wall as always been one of my first stops for UK-based social media news and opinion.

Given my own expertise it'll have a social listening research bent but I'll probably cover quite a few topics as the mood takes me!

My posts can be found here.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Publishing the Harry photos WAS in the public interest

I rarely agree with Rupert Murdoch. But in this instance I think he's absolutely right; the Sun's publication of the Prince Harry photos was completely justified and in the public interest.

Let me put my cards on the table to begin with. Despite considering myself a progressive liberal in many ways, and despite often having plenty of rather bitter anti-British sentiment welling up inside me, I'm also an unashamed card-carrying royalist. If Carlsberg made monarchies, theirs would live at Buck House without question. So those are the filtered glasses through which I view this whole affair.

I'm rather ambivalent about Prince Harry in general. Playboy princes are nothing new and if he wants to take advantage of his situation to go off to Vegas, stay in a $5000 a night suite, get battered and get a load of blonde American girls to strip for him, then fair play (as long as it's not the taxpayer who pays, and in this case it wasn't). I've no doubt that I'd think he was a bit of a cock if I met him, but there are plenty of people who are a bit of a cock. I would say that up to a point, it's his decision what he does with his life, and it doesn't bother me personally what he gets up to.

Now the public interest question is important. As the phone hacking stories - and many others besides - have shown, The Sun has no moral perch whatsoever from which to preach on this issue. They have shown time and again that they will bend and break every rule, whether written or unwritten, regarding press ethics and I hope that the Leveson enquiry come up with some robust conclusions and recommendations. The "public interest" defence is used widely to justify all sorts of horrendous invasions of privacy to do with vacuous celebrities, with weak lines trotted out about how because someone has earned a wad of cash from selling albums or movies, that they have some sort of moral obligation as a "role model". This is all nonsense.

But in Harry's case, I think there is undoubtedly a public interest at stake here. Prince Harry is third in line to the throne, which means that anything he says and does could be taken to represent the Royal Family as a whole, whether in public or in private. I'm not particularly interested in whether this party counts as public or private; a bit like the little boy from Sparta, it's the fact that it was allowed to enter the public domain at all that is the issue. And why is it in the public interest? For me, it is the question of whether Harry has brought the Royal Family into disrepute.

Hold your fire, Eoghan, I hear you say; how could a lad taking advantage of his situation and acting like a (relatively) normal bloke possibly be interpreted as bringing the Royal Family into disrepute? I refer you back  to my comment that the British Royal Family is the blueprint for royal families around the world.

The British Royal Family is no bicycle monarchy. It sits proudly on pillars of dusty Victorian ideals and nostalgia. Over the last sixty years, with little help from her offspring, The Queen has made an exhausting effort to make the monarchy a symbol of respectability and stability - of apolitical elegance.

Never was this better summed up for me than in the magnificent scene with James Bond in the Olympic opening ceremony. The Queen's appearance was terse; she said a total of four words. Out of context, the scene was staid and dull. It was only in the context that The Queen has created - a monarchy which does not doff its hat to frivolity - that her cameo was so brilliant. Professional as ever, but allowing a flash of humour to escape, it was a performance which lasted seconds but which had been rehearsed for six decades. Prince Harry himself could actually have jumped out of the helicopter and parachuted into the stadium and it would not have created as much of an impact. But where the values of the monarchy are diluted, its effectiveness wanes, and Harry's antics may have gone against the grain of the values that The Queen upholds so dear.

As such, the monarchy is a symbol of Britishness overseas, which cannot be doubted by royalists or republicans alike. Which means that if there is a possibility that Harry has brought the monarchy into disprepute, there is also the possibility that he has brought the entire country into disrepute; Brand Britain may have been damaged. I do not pass judgement on whether he has; I honestly don't know where I stand on the issue (not sure I'm bothered either way). But the possibility exists that he has. Which, in my mind, means that this is sans doute an issue that is in the public interest and something which should be discussed in the open. With the evidence for all to see.

As ever, views are personal.

Monday 13 August 2012

We were all so wrong

Nothing I say will be new or unique here.

But I wanted to admit that like so many other people, I was wrong.

I have a clear memory of that roller-coaster 24 hours on the 6th and 7th July 2005. I had a few weeks to waste, with a summer job lined up but nothing to do in the meantime. This was also a time when I was a casual party member of the Liberal Democrats - basically I shelled out ten quid and they spent about half that on stamps for letters asking me for more money. During my period of idleness I was bombarded with emails requesting help at a by-election in Cheadle, where Mark Hunter was up in a furious battle with the Tory candidate. With nothing better to do, I took a leap of faith and plunged into political campaigning for the first - and last, as it transpired - time. I had a fantastic few weeks, met loads of incredible people, tramped the streets with luminaries like (Lord) Tom McNally, heard loads of fascinating stories and ended up getting quite close to some very senior people in the party. It was a hoot.

One day when shoving a leaflet through a letterbox, a dog took exception and decided to have a good go at my knuckles, leaving me with a graze and plenty of paranoia about tetanus. So it came to pass that on the afternoon of 6 July, I watched the announcement in the waiting room of a Staffordshire A&E department. I remember the elation, the screams...and the call, in the nick of time, for Mr O'Neill to see the doctor please. (He took one look at my minor graze and laughed in my face).

I remember the following day too - it was a special one for us, for the then leader, Charles Kennedy, was to come and give a speech to rouse the troops. Sure enough, CK turned up first thing in the morning, but there were worried whispers and dark rumours spreading around the office of something terrible happening in London. CK was ushered into the kitchen with a portable radio - he needed to be able to hear the Prime Minister's speech on the bombings, so he could give his reaction.

Fast forward seven years and my excitement grew slowly and steadily. The Olympics have always represented something special to me - the pinnacle of sport, something pure and true, competing for the sake of competition, unsullied by anything else. But for the last few months, I was infected with a cancerous cynicism. The allocation of tickets I found tolerable - demand was always going to outstrip supply. The fact that I would have had to sign up for a new credit card in order to buy some, I did not find tolerable. I refused to apply for any on general principle, and started to be overwhelmed with a blanket of bitterness. But then the other stories about sponsors started to creep out. The Games Lanes - facilitating Coca-Cola execs to be whisked around London like royalty while real Londoners sat in tailbacks. The fact that you wouldn't be able to buy chips, because McDonald's said so. The fact that someone was going to be paid to go around covering up logos on the hand dryers in the toilets, because they weren't an official sponsor. The branding police. Horror story after horror story was leaked, and I felt a weary sense of depression about corporate inevitability.

Then there was the feeling of dread about the infrastructure. I'm well versed in the uselessness of the Jubilee Line, and with a fortnight to go there was a series of catastrophic failures. With London being swamped with extra people, there was no way the tubes would cope. London would choke up and fail, a mediocre town masquerading as a global city, like Atlanta in 1996. I looked forward to the Olympic Games not with anticipation but with apprehension. This was to be a sorry mess.

I decided to volunteer for a hefty chunk of the Games - not as a Games Maker but in my usual rather more mundane capacity which I'm immensely proud of. On the night of the Opening Ceremony I was on the streets of Bloomsbury - Tottenham Court Road was deserted. It was surreal. I went home feeling rather flat. But then I hadn't seen the Opening Ceremony.

I must admit that I've never bothered watching an Opening Ceremony before. I assumed it was just a glitzy pageant with lots of sequins, naff music, fireworks and jingoistic bollocks. I watched the ceremony on iPlayer the next morning and felt a rather unusual emotion. I've always been a proud Londoner. I'm a proud Australian. I'm a fiercely proud Irishman. But even though I was born in Hammersmith, there's something which I rarely feel but which Danny Boyle managed to ignite. I felt a sudden uprush, an explosion or pride in being British.

The Opening Ceremony was designed for British people. The sequences - particularly the TV montages - were full of injokes for Britons. Michael Fish, the Shipping Forecast, EastEnders, Soho sex shops, Great Ormond Street - all were referenced in at least a passing way. This was our Games, said Boyle, and it's for us. Some bits didn't work. The "digital love story" was naff and McCartney was cringeworthy.

But the best moment was Bond. It was understated and perfect. It was just so Bond. It wasn't Daniel Craig; it WAS Bond. You sensed that the curl of his lip at the footman was real, the swagger was just right. But the star of the show? The Queen, of course. Her "Good evening, Mr Bond" wasn't a line that had been rehearsed for a few minutes; it was a line that had 60 years of preparation. Our Queen is no Juliana of the Netherlands; it's the fact that she has been so invisible for the last six decades that made that line so wonderful.

As for the rest of the Games, everything has already been said. They were majestic, awe-inspiring, wonderful. I went to the table tennis and had a great time. I watched more Red Button in two weeks than in the previous two years put together. I screamed at the TV whilst watching handball and archery, weightlifting and gymnastics. I cheered on Mo and Bradley. I let out a broad grin for Usain. The Olympics did everything I'd hoped and more.

The BBC coverage was superb from start to finish. Michael Johnson was a star but my surprise hero of the games was the camp-as-Christmas, dry-as-Prosecco Ian Thorpe. Balding and Barker, Jackson and Boardman, they were all fantastic, and the multiple coverage just demonstrated how lucky we are to live in an age of such rapidly advancing technology.

But my cynicism was behind me, and I was happy to be wrong. The tube was fantastic (I even came through City Airport at rush hour midway through the first week, without a hitch). The branding police were happily low-profile. LOCOG were not the faceless, unsmiling bureaucrats we'd all imagined ruining our Games. Yes, there were hitches with the sponsors not bothering to turn up for the events (and shame on them all) but for the most part, these Games were utterly fantastic.

Best of all, the traditions. The Olympic Rings are surely one of the most powerful, evocative logos in the world. The lighting of the flame at the Temple of Hera and journey to the Cauldron. The symbolism of the Marathon. The Olympic spirit. The Olympics DO have a purity that is absent in so much of society these days, a complete antidote to the usual summers of Sky Sports screaming about football transfer rumours.

Like most of London today, I feel bereft. There's a huge black hole where before we had something to look forward to. But like my mum with her memories of Olympic Rings on her school exercise books in Gippsland in 1956, I will have memories to last me a lifetime, even if most of them will be from the TV. London, we put on the greatest festival on earth, and I'm so proud.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Social media benchmarking

I've written an article for Brand Republic about some of the recent work that we've done at Ipsos MORI alongside Brandwatch. It focusses on the importance of setting norms and benchmarks when working with quantitative social listening research data.

The article is here.

*** Update: I have also written a piece on similar themes for Research magazine. A shortened version is in the print magazine, or you can view the complete article here. ***

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Lament for Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill

What's in a name?

I feel so privileged that my name has meaning and history. My middle names - Seamas Alan - both have family meaning to them. I'm named Alan after my mother's brother - my mum always idolised him and this rubbed off on me when I was small, even though I haven't seen him for years he's still been a hero of mine. Seamas is the hibernicised version of James, the name of both my grandfather and his father before him.

I never met my grandfather who died fifteen years before I was born. His father, also James, would have been born in 1865. My grandfather's younger sister, Eileen, who passed away a few weeks ago aged 104, can also be seen on that census form.

As the census form shows, James and Eileen had many siblings but there were two more still to be born. One was Uncle Owen, who I met a few times. My dad is also Owen/Eoghan - so we're definitely keeping it firmly in the family. But it's not just a recent phenomoneon: Eoghan is one of the most famous names to be associated with the O'Neill dynasty over the years.

Although the O'Neills proper started with Niall Glúndub, one of the High Kings of Ireland in the tenth century, the Uí Néill were originally descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, back in the fifth century. One of his sons was, you guessed it, Eógan mac Néill, from who name Tir Eoghain (land of Eoghan) was taken...better known these days as County Tyrone, a hotspot for O'Neills over the centuries!

Fast forward a thousand years or so, and the O'Neills had done many great things, but it was time for another great Eoghan O'Neill to step up to the mark. This was Eoghan Ruadh, or Owen Roe, who was a leader in the Confederate Wars. A relative of both Hugh ("the great O'Neill") and Conn, the first Earl of Tyrone, whose approach to diplomacy seems to have been not dissimilar to Neville Chamberlain's. Owen Roe, on the other hand, stood up against both the English and the Scottish Covenanters. Things all got a bit messy and in the end he died in 1649, traditionally believed poisoned, shortly after Cromwell's arrival in Ireland.

This post is flirting with family history and pride in being an O'Neill (albeit not necessarily directly descended from the chieftains...I don't know about my bloodline further back than James who was an engine fitter at the start of the 20th century!) and being an Eoghan and being an O'Neill. But the real reason I wrote this is to post Thomas Davis's brilliant nineteenth century "Lament for Owen Roe O'Neill". Read it and weep...

“Did they dare, did they dare, to slay Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill?”
“Yes, they slew with poison him they feared to meet with steel.”
“May God wither up their hearts! May their blood cease to flow,
May they walk in living death, who poisoned Eoghan Ruadh.”

“Though it break my heart to hear, say again the bitter words.
From Derry, against Cromwell, he marched to measure swords:
But the weapon of the Sassanach met him on his way.
And he died at Cloch Uachtar, upon St. Leonard’s day.

“Wail, wail ye for the Mighty One. Wail, wail ye for the Dead,
Quench the hearth, and hold the breath—with ashes strew the head.
How tenderly we loved him. How deeply we deplore!
Holy Saviour! but to think we shall never see him more!

“Sagest in the council was he, kindest in the hall,
Sure we never won a battle—’twas Eoghan won them all.
Had he lived—had he lived—our dear country had been free:
But he’s dead, but he’s dead, and ’tis slaves we’ll ever be.

“O’Farrell and Clanricarde, Preston and Red Hugh,
Audley and MacMahon—ye valiant, wise and true:
But—what are ye all to our darling who is gone?
The Rudder of our Ship was he, our Castle’s corner stone.

“Wail, wail him through the Island! Weep, weep for our pride!
Would that on the battlefield our gallant chief had died!
Weep the Victor of Beinn Burb—weep him, young and old:
Weep for him, ye women—your beautiful lies cold!

“We thought you would not die—we were sure you would not go,
And leave us in our utmost need to Cromwell’s cruel blow—
Sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky—
O! why did you leave us, Eoghan? Why did you die?

“Soft as woman’s was your voice, O’Neill! bright was your eye,
O! why did you leave us, Eoghan? Why did you die?
Your troubles are all over, you’re at rest with God on high,
But we’re slaves, and we’re orphans, Eoghan!—why did you die?”

Monday 16 April 2012

Sarashwathy Bavans, Wembley - review

I made my first trip up to Wembley this weekend since my walk-about three years ago. This time we went hunting for a meal out - some prior research seemed to point to a couple of potential places at the top end of the Ealing Road: the popular chain Chennai Dosa, Palm Beach, and the one we opted for, Sarashwathy Bavans. It's a Sri Lankan/South Indian restaurant which has a second branch in Tooting.

If you're the sort of person who's bothered by the decor of a restaurant then you're unlikely to be the sort of person considering a trek up to Wembley for a meal, but suffice to say it's basically a white-walled, strip-lit diner. Not first date material unless your date is in the top percentile of interestingness and/or open-mindedness.

On the Saturday evening we were there, several Asian families were dining, some with young kids; to our left seemed to be a large family party with about fifteen people, mostly guzzling dosas, which the restaurant professes to specialise in. We've ordered dosas the last few times we've been in South Indian places (although a mate and I ordered a couple of lovely spinach dishes recently for a home delivery from Kovalam on Willesden Lane) so this time decided to go for different options.

To start we went for idly (a light ground rice/lentil cake) and methu vadai (lentil doughnuts) which came with a selection of chutneys. The methu vadai, in particular, were delicious: a strong nutty flavour - possibly a mixture of cumin and mustard, but I couldn't be sure.

The wreckage of an idly with various chutnies in the background. Far left: salt lassi

Crucially, though, the waiter (who perhaps detected a little hesitation when we came to ordering) confidently asked "May I make a suggestion?" EXACTLY what I like to hear. He suggested reducing the quantity of idly and adding some "mushrooms 65". We had no idea what these were but were happy to place ourselves in the hands of the expert - wisely so: the mushrooms were excellent. Fried in a mixture of spices, they were very dry and packed some proper heat - mango chutney provided relief. Apologies for the appalling photography.

Mushrooms "65" hidden somewhere underneath the onion rings!
To follow we went for mutter paneer which was spectacular: cheese and peas in a subtle rich sauce. . Aloo jeera was really a side rather than a main - basically potatoes in cumin seed. Once again, when I asked for chapatis, the waiter swiftly suggested that we run with a combination of chapatis and parathas. The chapatis were excellent, the paratha a little greasy for my taste.

Mutter paneer: fantastic food, not-so-fantastic photography

Aloo jeera - potatoes in cumin seed

We shared an excellent gulab jamun for dessert and finished with masala tea.

Something hot, sweet and delectable...and Rachel.

All-in with drinks, the bill came to £30.50 minus service - fantastic value for one of the better meals I've had in London. I burst out laughing at the note on the bill, presumably for the chef, underneath our starters, which stated ***ALL VERY MILD PLS*** !

Overloaded with carbs and clutching the paneer and cinnamon bark which we'd picked up in Fruity Fresh on the Ealing Road, we stumbled back out, stuffed and happy. Highly recommended and worth the trip.

549 High Road, Wembley

Wednesday 11 April 2012

The MRS response to submissions is out...

Interesting reading and plenty more food for thought. My thought palate is salivating. Have they got it right? My printout is covered in pink highlighter markings; will post some reactions when they come together in my head a bit more coherently. There is no simple quick-fix answer here.