EMMA HARDING: ON CHICKENABILITY
Walter Pater wrote that "all art constantly aspires to the condition of music". In the food industry, it would seem that all groceries constantly aspire to the condition of chicken. All food manufacturers know that chicken is the touchstone of foodstuffs. So much so that in 2001, the marketing team charged with relaunching a popular British brand came up with the notion of "chickenability". The idea was that non-poultry food products could be marketed to represent the convenience and familiarity of chicken.
After a company merger, Young's Bluecrest, the largest producer of seafood in the UK, decided to focus their relaunch campaign on giving their fish products chickenability. They realised that although consumers liked eating fish, they were put off by the attendant skin and bones. They, therefore, set about developing fish products which offered the accessibility and convenience of a cellophane-wrapped chicken breast, taking away all the "nasties".
The desirability of chicken rests on its familiarity and affordability. It is also a meat acceptable to most religions and cultures. As a white meat, chicken is the meat of choice for the health-conscious, and it accounts for nearly half of all fresh meat eaten in the UK. According to research by the European Commission, chicken is the "meat of the future", and consumption is predicted to rise from the 21kg consumed per capita in 2000 to 24.8kg in 2008. Not good news if you're a battery chicken.
The rise of chicken poses a huge challenge to those products that aspire to chickenability. Can other foodstuffs win the accolade of "the new chicken"? Or, as The Grocer magazine put it last year: "Can salmon become the new poultry?" Will brainwashed consumers one day find themselves slipping microwaveable sushi-flavoured potato fingers into their shopping baskets with the easy familiarity of a pack of chicken drumsticks? And what about the vegetarians? According to the Vegetarian Society, 5 per cent of the UK's adult population is vegetarian and this increases by an average of 2,000 people a week. Perhaps the world is ready for the next stage: courgettability.
The drive to supply the consumer's insatiable appetite for chicken is neatly satirised in Margaret Atwood's recent novel, Oryx and Crake, set in the near future of genetic engineering. Her fictional food scientists have developed an organism which they have affectionately dubbed "ChickieNobs". These are genetically altered chickens that have no feathers and no brains, and produce only the most useful chicken parts, such as legs and breasts. This endlessly replenishing flesh can be sliced off in the manner of a doner kebab. Perhaps this is the ultimate in chickenability - the boneless, skinless, eternally renewing convenience meal.
The very inoffensiveness of chicken (inoffensive, that is, if you're not a vegetarian or a Buddhist) has a lot to answer for. Have you noticed that whenever someone tries to persuade you to sample something ostensibly unappetising - be it frogs' legs or pigs' testicles - they always use the line that "it tastes just like chicken"? There was a story in the papers recently about a woman from Brighton who placed an advertisement for her placenta in the window of a vegetarian food shop. Her reasoning was that it would be a pity for such a nutritious piece of meat to go to waste. "Fried with a little garlic and some oregano, it's delicious," the woman claimed. "A bit like chicken, actually."
NICK PARKER: ON TRIBUTE BANDS
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the world of popular music, it is also the surest way of making up for a lack of personal creativity. In a long history of bands doing cover versions of famous songs, there has rarely been any excuse for bothering. Madonna's karaoke-style slaughter of Don McLean's "American Pie" is as good an example as any.
Fans of Elvis Presley have been flattering the King in a slightly different way for years. Not content with just doing versions of his songs, many have donned false sideburns and flared jumpsuits and done full-blown impersonations. There have been fat Elvises, thin Elvises, girl Elvises, Punjabi Elvises. There is a restaurant on the Old Kent Road where a Chinese Elvis serenades you as you eat your chow mein.
It was a while, though, before the idea to impersonate a whole band occurred to anybody. In 1980, the ex-cast of the Beatles-inspired musical Beatlemania realised that there was a great demand for all things Fab Four and formed the Bootleg Beatles, wearing period Sixties costumes, playing vintage instruments, and emulating the sound and the look of the Beatles note for painstaking note. It is arguable that they count as the first tribute band, but the Beatles are such a part of national culture, and the Bootlegs' show is such a theatrical attempt to recreate the Sixties, that it has as much in common with a heritage day at a National Trust property as with a rock concert.
The true birth of the tribute band was in Australia in 1988. Being thousands of miles away from the centre of the pop universe, Australia was rarely visited by big-name acts, and musician Rod Leissle decided that if Oz couldn't have the real thing, then copycat versions would do just as well. To this end he formed Björn Again, a "tribute" to the Seventies Swedish pop sensation Abba. He quickly found fans. Before the end of the year his band were playing five nights a week. Other tribute bands followed: the Australian Doors resurrected the memory of Jim Morrison and his archetypal American rockers; Elton Jack brought Elton John's music to the Antipodes. The phenomenon spread around the world and very soon there were hundreds of tribute bands, celebrating the music of bands as diverse as Queen (The Royal Family), Pink Floyd (Think Floyd) and Take That (Fake That).
It is easy to see the appeal of tribute bands. They allow you to see bands or artists previously denied to you by virtue of the fact that they are dead. At last, rock'n'roll fatalities through drug overdoses or plane crashes need no longer be a disaster for fans. Instead of paying £30 to sit at the back of a draughty football stadium in Milton Keynes and watch the Rolling Stones hobble around the stage as specks on the horizon, you can see the youthful Rolling Clones strut the stage at your local pub for a fiver and share a drink with them after. (Admittedly, there's no point in asking for their autographs.)
Tribute bands are generally not concerned with artistic merit or creativity, which means you get to listen to all the really great crowd-pleasing "early period" songs without having to sit through the dull "experimental" tunes or the guff off the latest album that nobody is really bothered about anyway.
The world of pop music has always thrived on image and inauthenticity, and unsurprisingly tribute bands have fitted right in and developed an interesting sub-culture of their own: recently, tribute bands of acts who are still very much alive and gigging have started to spring up - No Way Sis, a tribute to Manc rockers Oasis, who started "paying tribute" just a few months after the original Oasis became famous, even released their own "original" Oasis-style songs. When pop band Erasure released some Abba-inspired songs on an EP called Abbaesque, Björn Again released Erasureish - a few numbers inspired by Erasure. An ex-member of the now-defunct Stone Roses has been spotted playing with a Stone Roses tribute band.
There is little doubt that the copycat acts are here to stay. They have become a multibillion-pound industry. The Bootleg Beatles regularly play in front of tens of thousands of fans at rock festivals, and Björn Again can sell out multiple nights at the Albert Hall. Some tribute bands sell out months in advance. How long, in fact, before the first tribute band spawns a tribute band of its own? After all, the facsimile of the copy of the show must go on...
MILES KINGTON: ON FURTHER INFORMATION
Whenever I put my card into the HSBC cash machine, the screen lights up and says: "Please wait a moment - we are dealing with your request," and I tell it, "No, you are not! I have not made a request yet! I have only put my card in!" But it never listens to me, and that's because it's all part of the upgrading of everything. Everything is being made to sound better than it is. That's why the man on the train, after you have been stationary for a quarter of an hour, says he is sorry for the delay and that he has no idea yet why it has happened, "but as soon as we have further information, we will let you know". Further information? They haven't got any information! How can they give us further information?
Everything is upgraded. The man on the train saying those things used to be a ticket collector, but now he is a train manager, or a steward. There used to be a complaints department, but now it is customer services, thus switching the focus from the bad thing you are complaining about to the good things they will do about it. There used to be people in the office. Now there is a "team". They used to be "personnel", but now they are "human resources".
A woman on the phone recently asked me to confirm my address. I waited to hear what she thought it was, so I could confirm it. She didn't know what it was. What she meant was, "Can you tell me your address?" It's all of a piece with the way we now say that we "target" something, instead of just aiming at it, so that we can "impact" it, instead of just affecting it. It's upgrading. Even "information" has been upgraded to "intelligence". "We raided the house, acting on intelligence," say the police. No, you didn't. Intelligence didn't come into it. Just faulty facts.
That's it. Oh, no, it isn't. My wife wishes to add something. She says her most hated phrase is "their loved ones". She wants to know why "their relatives" has to be upgraded to "their loved ones".
That's it now.
MICHAEL BYWATER: ON NATURE- IDENTICAL FLAVOURINGS
If a scientist analyses a strawberry, works out which chemicals give it its taste, and then synthesises those chemicals in a lab, there is no difference whatsoever between the "natural" and "artificial" versions. You couldn't tell them apart.
Yet "modern folk" believe there is a difference, which is why they have to be coddled with phrases like "nature identical". It's partly snobbery: "artificial" things are made by horrible scientists in fluorescent-lit labs; beastly men with Adam's apples, who wear stiff tweed from Dunn & Co and have wives called Marjorie And The Kiddies.
It is also in part a primitive belief in magic, the same belief that infects PR men, corporate image consultants and politicians; the belief that naming something gives one power over its qualities. Both the man who buys a bottle of cheap scent because it is called Phallus and the politician who speaks of "green shoots" believe, like wizards, that by pronouncing something, they can become it.
This nature business is particularly sad and silly. Not only can you not become "natural" by buying a packet with the word "nature" on it, but the very image of nature these gulls have is wrong and lethal. They envisage a tranquil Eden unspoilt by the works of man: a "nature" that would not support them for a month unless it were subdued, raped and made to bring forth its fruits. It is a bizarre fantasy.
The truth of "nature" is that it has become yet another laboratory, manipulated not by gnarled, timeless peasants with profound knowledge of the seasons, but by men in suits sitting by the silos in their company cars punching the revised yield-per-hectare estimates into their BlackBerries.
The point has been often made that the modern obsession with "nature", expressing itself in such gullibility as Body Shop banana-flavoured hair putty, didgeridoos, ley lines, Glastonbury and vibes, is fundamentally an urban, profoundly sentimental fantasy. If it ever escaped from the gaudy theme-park of the young, privileged Western mind and became the basis of a real culture, it would lead to mass death from malnutrition and disease.
CANDIDA LYCETT GREEN: ON CYCLEWAY
A country "cycleway" is an existing road marked as a cycleway that you had always been able to cycle on before it became a cycleway. Small blue signs have started appearing across the counties, but as they point in opposite directions, it is difficult to know which way to go. They are, says the cycleway leaflet, designed to encourage people "to cycle through the glorious countryside and see rural England at its best". We have had this option since bicycles were invented.
In truth, they are designed for those who don't know where they want to go until they are told. The Highways Department at Trowbridge in Wiltshire says: "A high proportion of the population likes to be nurtured and there is a large demand for this sort of organised leisure."
The whole of Britain's countryside is being signed up in an effort to make it into one big, safe play-area. Britain's pioneering spirit is being successfully throttled by "officers" in towns who have nothing else to do but create new jobs for new "officers" who settle on areas like locusts and tidy the place up.
They came to our area last year and erected half a dozen signs, three of which pointed to bridleways and footpaths that had changed course 100 years ago. They now point foreigners up a dead end, into a rubbish heap and across Giles and Mary Woods' cottage garden. The locals know exactly where their rights of way are, anyway. It is passed-on knowledge.
Nothing, least of all common sense, will stop the signing of Britain. We are outnumbered by interferers who want to tell us how to "go for a walk". "Way-marking" and "trail-marking" are so universal that they are destroying the very thing they purport to do; to show people how beautiful our countryside is. We are also being told, in no uncertain terms, how "style signing" (as it is called by traffic-management departments) is designed for "the touring motorist who will be able to spot the easily identifiable series of signs, which will direct him to individual attractions... The brown signs with white legends and symbols, although distinctive, are considered to be less visually intrusive than other forms of signing, as they fit in more harmoniously with the countryside." Or what's left of it.
The other day, in a rural backwater of north Norfolk, which, apart from wooden fingerposts and village signs, had suffered little labelling, I found myself on a minor road only to be confronted by a sign telling me I was on a "Tudor Trail". Were the trees on either side of me Tudor or had they long been felled to make visible the half-timbered house I expected to see around the corner? I rang the Norwich Tourist Office. "It's a ride you take by car. It's a circular route." "Why is it called the Tudor Trail?" "Well, it passes Blickling Hall, which is Tudor." On its way through Aylesham, Reepham and Holt (almost destroyed by fire in 1706, and as un-Tudor a town as you could find), the "trail" also passes through many modern, Edwardian, Victorian, Regency, Georgian, Queen Anne, Carolean and William and Mary houses and cottages. But none has the same onomatopoeic ring.
As long as 25 years ago, a woman wrote to my husband complaining about the mud on a track through our field. For me, that letter marked the birth of the Wettie Brigade. Did she expect us to tar the track? My husband wrote back and told her to buy some gumboots.
Cycleways were initiated by Beautiful Britain in 1983. Since then, the Wettie Brigade has been infiltrating country life. Its members are writing leaflets, calling themselves "officers" and designating every nook as a signable tourist commodity.
The Ridgeway, Europe's oldest road - a wide track along the top of a great chalk ridge of downs through Wiltshire and Berkshire - is now signposted from the adjacent motorway. Why have they done it? Those who want to find the Ridgeway have done so with no difficulty for the past 5,000 years. Why do they suddenly need nannies to tell them where it is? On your cycleway, Wetties!
BEN TISDALL: ON CORPORATE BONDING
Ever wondered what kind of fruit you are? Or, if you had to be a planet, which one you would be? If you have gone through life without tackling these important questions, you've probably never been on a corporate bonding day.
In order to get the most out of your corporate bonding day, you first need to find yourself a company that will lay on a ridiculous activity for you all to participate in. Phoenix Leisure, for example, offers car racing, paint-balling, ballooning, treasure hunts or falconry, while Accolade, which claims to "deal in memories and give memories to your staff", gives you the opportunity to make a film and attend an Oscar ceremony, or dress up as a knight in armour and fight your colleagues.
A typical day might begin with "personal profiling", where staff are set challenging questions with the aim of team-building and breaking the ice. After a liquid lunch, the serious physical stuff starts. There may well be an opportunity to cross a river with the aid of a few random bits of wood and your entire advertising department or, if you are really lucky, to dress up as a cowboy and ride a go-kart herding colleagues dressed as cows. Doing obstacle courses with Doreen from accounts might not be your idea of fun, but you are "nurturing camaraderie".
If it all gets too much, you can bolster your flagging morale with tales of corporate-bonding sessions that have gone wrong: such as the contingent of Burger King staff in Florida who were burnt in a team fire-walking session. (Perhaps they were being encouraged to understand flame-grilling, from the burger's perspective.) Or what about when The Observer newspaper sent senior staff on a bonding exercise to Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire? Section editors were gelling happily until Tuesday night, when the newspaper laid on free drinks in the bar. Frank Kane, the business editor, became increasingly friendly with his colleagues, eventually bursting into his canon of Irish rebel songs - which so offended Andy Malone, the home news editor, that he lashed out. Kane was felled with a single punch. "We were experimenting with anger-management techniques," said Malone.
The thinking behind corporate bonding seems to be that a more integrated staff makes for a happier staff, and a happier staff will be a more productive staff. Unfortunately, this thinking may be all wrong: according to a recent BBC report, it's unhappy people who make the best workers. Cheerful workers waste too much time, while the dour ones get on with the task.
Or perhaps managing directors secretly know this: it's not that they desperately hope corporate-bonding days will bring us together as one big, happy, smiling, adversity-facing family, but that they know being forced to attend one will make us even more miserable than before, so we'll knuckle down and clear that in-tray. Perhaps, after all, we are all bananas.
MARCUS BERKMANN: ON BOXFRESH
Thirty years ago, trainers were objects of derision, if not pity. Inelegant, clumpish, frowned upon by gym masters and used for football only when your boots were in a state of savage disrepair, they were the shoe world's last resort. Being seen in public in trainers would have incited general condemnation, possibly even arrest. If you felt the urge to don footwear made of rubber, there was always the plimsoll.
Even in the Eighties and early Nineties, the first thing you did when you bought trainers was scuff them up a bit. Your first outing in them would inevitably be traumatic - strangers would point and laugh at your Bright White Trainers. More people might be wearing them, but we didn't like to be reminded of the fact that we'd bought them out of choice. We had the good grace to be embarrassed.
Now the plimsoll is dead and the war is lost. There is no shame any more in owning a pair of trainers. Everyone between the ages of two and 200 will have at least two pairs by the front door. They embody the Holy Grail of modern life: youth, fitness and comfort. We are no longer squeamish about the bright plasticky shamelessness of a brand-new training shoe. In fact, we revel in it. Ah, the smell of the petrochemicals. The crinkle of the tissue paper wrapping against the 100 per cent synthetic uppers. Regard the unsullied injection-moulded sole. Admire the stitching of the corporate logo. This pristine state is "boxfresh".
There was a time when goods were made to get better with age, to be shaped by the passing of time and the love of their owners: a sturdy leather bag, a trusty corduroy jacket, a fountain pen that would shape itself around your handwriting, a cricket bat that would carry the memories of every stroke.
Boxfresh laughs in the face of such sentimentality. Boxfresh means that, like rap mogul Damon Dash, only by chucking your new trainers away after you've worn them once and replacing them with a new pair can you reach Training Shoe Nirvana. Boxfresh is a kind of parody of the subtle pleasures of ownership. Fresh! Ha! Like they were some kind of organic vegetable, or like an oyster teased from its shell. It's insanity. The Campaign for Real Plimsolls starts here.
LYNNE TRUSS: ON REALITY TV
Who was it that said humankind was unable to bear very much reality? TS Eliot, of course, possibly after watching the umpteenth series of Taxicab Confessions or Who Wants to Marry My Dad?.
Unfortunately, he was dead wrong. The universal popularity of "reality" TV shows no signs of abating. At least 200 shows are listed on the US website Reality TV World, where news flashes include "Former Average Joe star Adam Mesh gets married" and "New Apprentice winner Sean Yazbeck clarifies he's not engaged".
The only cheerful development is the exciting news that there's to be a "feline mini reality show" on the Animal Planet network called Meow Mix House, which will involve the bold pretence that 10 rescue cats, living together in a purpose-built "house", could each give a damn about what the other nine are doing.
Reality TV all started with Candid Camera in 1948. Not many people know that the veteran Buster Keaton took part in stunts for Candid Camera, sitting alongside bored bobby-soxers in small-town diners and dropping his hat in his soup.
Overnight, a new kind of prurient entertainment was born. There are now various genres - none of them with much claim to reality - that come under the umbrella heading of "reality TV".
First, there is the "docu-soap", pioneered by the BBC producer Paul Watson with The Family in 1974 and continued through series such as Airport and Driving School, where real people are observed by fly-on-the-wall camera crews, and become famous in the process.
Then there are "special living environment" shows, such as Big Brother, Castaway, or The 1900 House; make-over programmes of various sorts; celebrities allowing cameras to document their lives (The Osbournes); and job-search programmes such as The Apprentice.
Most of these shows are addictive; once a viewer makes the decision to watch the new series of Big Brother, for example, there is evidently no way out but death.
Personally, I have watched Big Brother only once: the first "celebrity" series, which lasted just one week and was done for the BBC's Comic Relief. It featured Jack Dee, Anthea Turner, Vanessa Feltz and others - and over those short few days I certainly discovered I was not immune to the format.
Far from it, in fact: I got dangerously involved - voting repeatedly to get rid of that vain git from Boyzone; talking about Big Brother incessantly to people who weren't watching it; losing all sense of proportion about what a terrific chap Dee was. I even dreamed about it.
But at the end of that week, I was not proud of myself. Because, while there is no denying that the Big Brother format appeals to something very basic in the human psyche, there are many cruel things basic to the human psyche that are better left undisturbed, as all sorts of notorious psychological experiments have proved over the years.
Prurience is the main appeal of reality TV. From the craven safety of one's own sofa, one can watch a group of "real" people operating under conditions of artificial pressure. This is bound to be fascinating, but it is basically exploitative - and it cuts no ice at all that the participants have volunteered for the exploitation.
These participants sometimes even fondly imagine they are in control, but they're always wrong. Everyone is being manipulated by the makers of the programme - especially the audience, which incidentally gets the same message, time after time, that "real" people are almost ferally self-interested, and will do absolutely anything to be famous.
At the extreme, Truman Show end of the spectrum, an American series called The Joe Schmo Show featured just one real person surrounded by actors pretending to be reality TV show participants - and, astonishingly, the real chap didn't sue them afterwards for existentialist trauma; instead, apparently, he was quite proud of his catchphrase, "What's going on?" Yes, the nightmare imaginings of Franz Kafka are now routinely offered up for mainstream entertainment.
Interestingly, in 1968, the TV playwright Nigel Kneale predicted the whole reality TV thing in his dystopian BBC play The Year of the Sex Olympics (starring Leonard Rossiter) - but, although that's a fascinating fact, it's no consolation whatsoever.
NICHOLAS WOLLASTON: ON: CHICK LIT
The heroine, typically, is Joanne. She has a job in publicity. Or marketing. Or she is assistant to someone in television, a sub-editor on a magazine, a drama student - it hardly impinges, she never stays long. The same with men. She tries them out, finds them wanting, wants something better. She is insecure, expectant, fearful of getting pregnant. But marriage, though she won't admit it, is her ambition. Dissatisfaction hovers over her and to dispel it she gets pissed, which gives her a hangover, which leaves her doubly dissatisfied. She lives for what might happen after work tonight, at the weekend, on holiday. And what happens is predictable.
On page one, she wakes up in bed. Is it her own? If not, whose? How she got there is a blur, and she can't identify the body beside her. Three hundred pages later, she is in bed again, with the right man at last. On the way, she has clubbed and pubbed, spent hours on the phone, told lies to people she loves, and ridden in sports cars belonging to men mostly called Alex and in a stretch limo with an awful hen party. Every 50 pages she weeps another bucketful. The reader stays dry-eyed, with a sort of numb admiration for such exuberance.
Joanne's interests are calories, knickers, aftershave, signs of the zodiac, a ticket for the rugby at Twickers and plenty of testosterone with Chardonnay to go with it. She doesn't make love, so much as "do it" in a haze of alcohol, or she grabs a quickie on the stairs at a party. Foreplay consists of pages of dialogue in a breathless girlie tone and lots of arrrgggh, bleurgh, phwoar, cwah-cwah and unh-huh to fill the gaps. In book after book, she drops the same names - film stars, pop stars, footballers, DJs and ephemeral celebs. She's jealous of anyone who gets into Hello! and can reach peaks of bitchiness towards her best friends. Relationships are what makes the world go round, but in the end she finds that sex is sex is sex. That's Chick lit in an eggshell.
This is an edited extract from Bling, Blogs and Bluetooth, A Guide for Oldies, edited by Nick Parker (Profile Books, £7.99). To order this book with free p&p call Independent Books Direct 08700 798 897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.ukReuse content