Designs on O’Sullivan

For ages I’ve had it in mind to write one of those ‘it wasn’t like that when I was young’ pieces about the history of desktop publishing. But when I turned on the TV on Monday afternoon to catch up on the score in the snooker World Championship match between Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan, I didn’t expect to spend the next hour chundering around the internet. The result was I came across the modern manifestation of a software program which I thought had long bitten the dust.

There above is Ronnie, in all his open-mouthed glory, snapped by me off the telly and sporting a sponsor’s badge proclaiming the word ‘Publisher’. I couldn’t think what that referred to, even though over the years, there have been a number of programs called with that name, the most notable being that belonging to Microsoft. According to this Wikipedia list, Ventura Publisher and Timeworks Publisher have also popped out of the floppy disk drives of history.

But it turns out that Ronnie O’Sullivan is now sponsored by the Nottingham-based firm Serif (Europe) Ltd, makers of a suite of programs called Affinity Publisher, Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo. Priced at around 50 quid each, they offer a reasonable alternative to the gouging subscription-only model now the only option from Adobe and its Creative Suite. (A nightmarish price of €61.49 a month for a single freelance designer.) The About Us page explains that the company goes back to the early 1990s and its original DTP program PagePlus.

As I still have the full Adobe CS4 bundle, and because I don’t do a lot of DTP work anymore, I don’t really need to upgrade my software, but I have to say that Designer does look like an impressive, professional-level program, and I might be tempted if I were still in the market.

It seems as though it has all the bells and whistles a hip young designer would need, just as long as they can tear themselves away from the snooker. And if Ronnie O’Sullivan goes all the way through to a Sunday late-night final session, it will surely have been a sponsorship deal worth making.

John Hume: ‘A man who had something big to do’

There are many tributes today to John Hume, whose death was announced this morning. The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, summed up his life in a well-crafted statement:

‘All of those who sought and worked for peace on our island of Ireland, and in the hearts of all, will have been deeply saddened by the passing of John Hume, Nobel Peace Laureate and Statesman.

John Hume, through his words, his astute diplomacy and willingness to listen to what was often difficult to accept but was the view of the ‘Other’, transformed and remodelled politics in Ireland, and the search for peace, with a personal bravery and leadership informed by a steadfast belief in the principles and values of genuine democracy.

John’s deep commitment to these values and his practical demonstration of tolerance and social justice, oftentimes in the face of strong opposition and tangible threats to his person and his family, asserted the fundamental principles of democracy. He and those others who helped usher in a discourse that enabled a new era of civil rights and responsive government that few would have thought possible, have placed generations in their debt, have been a source of hope.

That his efforts were recognised through the awarding of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize brought great joy not only to his people in Derry, his colleagues in politics, particularly in the SDLP, but to a wider global set of colleagues and fellow advocates for peace abroad who held him in the greatest esteem and admiration.

Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, as President of Ireland, may I say how deeply grateful we all should be that we had such a person as John Hume to create a light of hope in the most difficult of times.

It was Seamus Mallon, that other great statesman and courageous peace seeker and builder, who observed: “Inside was a man who had something big to do. There is a greatness about his political life in what he did and what he helped to do. I would put him in the same breath as Parnell and Daniel O Connell.”

We are grieving in this difficult year 2020 for two great apostles and seekers of peace.’

A fleet-footed move by the London Review of Books sent a remarkable 1989 article by Hume into their readers’ inboxes this morning. I’ve printed its 3891 words to read more carefully later but this trenchant paragraph stood out at first glance, and shows powerfully what he was up against at the time. It demonstrates the personal courage Hume showed in telling truth to the republican ‘movement’, armed to the teeth as they were:

For people who proclaim their Irishness and their pride in Ireland so loudly they are remarkably lacking in both the self-confidence and the guts to sit round and talk with their fellow Irishmen as a way of persuading them that this vision of Ireland is the best one. In particular, their decision to use guns and bombs to ‘persuade’ their Protestant fellow Irishmen is not only an extreme instance of lack of faith in their own beliefs or in the credibility of these beliefs: it is an indication of appalling moral cowardice and a deeply partitionist attitude. For its real effect is to deepen the essential divisions among the Irish people. There is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life. What is more, the vast majority of the major injustices suffered not only by the Nationalist community but by the whole community are direct consequences of the IRA campaign. If I were to lead a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland today, the main target would be the IRA. It is they who carry out the greatest infringements of human and civil rights, with their murders and bombings, their executions without trial, their kneecappings and punishment shootings. The most fundamental human right is the right to life. Who in Northern Ireland takes the most human lives?

(Incidentally, kudos should go to the LRB whose Diverted Traffic daily emails have been a welcome breath of air in these difficult times.)

A further demonstration of the international esteem in which Hume was held is shown by this photograph from 2014, taken when Congressman John Lewis, who also died in the last few weeks, visited Derry and walked arm-in-arm with Hume across its Peace Bridge.

Pic: Boston Globe

Hume did not do many public engagements at this stage in his life, but he made an exception to meet Lewis. That these two giants of the non-violent approach to politics should die with days of each other is a terrible loss to democracy. We must do all we can to ensure that their legacy lives on.

The trouble with José

Jose Mourinho: It’s all me, me, me. [Pic: Will Oliver/Reuters/Guardian]

It’s been a pretty desperate season to be a Spurs fan.

There was a time not so long ago when things were looking up. In the words of Barbra Streisand, ‘Life was all so different then’. The best time was probably the 2016-17 season, when there was real promise: three players (Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min) each scored more than 20 goals and the team finished second in the league with 86 points. Manager Mauricio Pochettino had brought about an attractive, attacking style of play which pleased crowds and pundits alike. The only fly in the ointment that year was the poor European campaign: after a humdrum Champions League group phase, they dropped down to the Europa League and were then knocked out of the competition by the mega stars of Gent FC.

The following season also went well, finishing third in the Premier League and reaching the last 16 in the Champions League. However, by 2018-19, the wheels were wobbling. Even though the team reached the Champions League final, it didn’t quite feel as though they deserved to be there. Scraping into fourth place in the Premier League seemed about the right level. The goal machine that is Harry Kane did, however, continue his remarkable record with 24 goals in the season, despite missing a slew of matches through injury.

Things were obviously going wrong at the beginning of this season. Hugo Lloris had a terrible injury, Christian Eriksen was obviously unsettled, and Dele Alli seemed to be completely out of form. By 19 November, only three of the first 12 league matches had been won. That was the day on which in what was obviously a pre-planned move by chairman Daniel Levy, Pochettino was sacked and José Mourinho arrived – to what can only be called an indifferent reception from Spurs fans. Things have improved slightly under the one-time Special One, but there has been no real evidence that a return to the Glory Glory days is on the horizon.

And so the interrupted campaign ended yesterday in a predictable dreary fashion, with yet another 1-1 draw, this time with Crystal Palace. Here is Paul MacInnes’s report in today’s Guardian, with two wonderful opening sentences:
It was time for one of those special José moments, where the glowering disappears for just a second and he pays himself a compliment: “Arriving 14th and finishing sixth is not bad at all,” he said. “I’m quite happy to be in the Europa League.”

Sums up Mourinho. Sums up Spurs’s ambition level under Mourinho.

Adding journalism to the Mix

Little Mix, left to right: Jade Thirlwall, Jesy Nelson, Perrie Edwards and Leigh-Anne Pinnock. [Pic Marcen 27/Wikipedia]

A messed-up computer-generated news article about popular beat combo Little Mix (shown above) recently exemplified the problems which face news bosses seeking to cut costs by getting rid of real-life journalists.

The story was broken about a month ago by Jim Waterson in The Guardian, when he reported that dozens of journalists from Microsoft’s MSN website and its Edge browser had been sacked after Microsoft decided to replace them with artificial intelligence software.

About 27 individuals employed by PA Media – formerly the Press Association – were told that they would lose their jobs after Microsoft decided to stop employing humans to select, edit and curate news articles on its homepages. The decision to end the contract with PA Media was taken at short notice as part of a global shift away from humans in favour of automated updates for news.

However, the plan backfired when it turned out that the software had difficulty picking out the correct mixed-race individual from file pictures. One of the first MSN articles led to a story about the Little Mix singer Jade Thirlwall’s personal reflections on racism being illustrated with a picture of her fellow band member Leigh-Anne Pinnock.

Thirlwall went on Instagram to protest: “@MSN If you’re going to copy and paste articles from other accurate media outlets, you might want to make sure you’re using an image of the correct mixed race member of the group.”

“This shit happens to @leighannepinnock and I ALL THE TIME that it’s become a running joke,” she said. “It offends me that you couldn’t differentiate the two women of colour out of four members of a group … DO BETTER!”

Apparently Thirlwall did not know that the image was selected by Microsoft’s artificial intelligence software.

Waterson went on to write:

Asked why Microsoft was deploying software that cannot tell mixed-race individuals apart, whether apparent racist bias could seep into deployments of the company’s artificial intelligence software by leading corporations, and whether the company would reconsider plans to replace the human editors with robots, a spokesman for the tech company said: “As soon as we became aware of this issue, we immediately took action to resolve it and have replaced the incorrect image.”
In advance of the publication of this article, staff at MSN were told to expect a negative article in the Guardian about alleged racist bias in the artificial intelligence software that will soon take their jobs.

And this is the bit from the “you couldn’t make this stuff up” department:

Because they are unable to stop the new robot editor selecting stories from external news sites such as the Guardian, the remaining human staff have been told to stay alert and delete a version of this article if the robot decides it is of interest and automatically publishes it on They have also been warned that even if they delete it, the robot editor may overrule them and attempt to publish it again[Emphasis added]

Not simply names on a list

The New York Times has rightly been commended for yesterday’s stunning type-only front page. Blogging great Jason Kottke has a nice piece about it:

In the past five months, more Americans have died from Covid-19 than in the decade-plus of the Vietnam War and the death toll is a third of the number of Americans who died in World War II. When this is over (whatever that means), the one thing we cannot do is forget all of these people. And we owe to them to make this mean something.

Tree of the week revisited

The moment I saw this picture in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago I knew exactly the place from where the shot had been taken, before I had even looked at the caption. It’s in the Phoenix Park near the Magazine Fort car park. Although I’ve now changed my usual starting point for my daily dog walking route, this tree is only a few dozen yards from the car park which I used to use. The tree’s shape, along with the worn-down path and the curve of the two small hills, are unmistakeable. It must have also made a real impression on the photographer, Finn Richards, because although in real life it’s quite small he describes it as standing “guard over the hill that it sits in front of.”

Because of the restrictions, I wasn’t able to get to the location to check whether my memory was accurate until today. All the smaller gates to the Phoenix Park are currently closed to cars, so I had to leave mine outside and walk in – but there the tree was, just as I recalled.

I haven’t got quite the right angle – it’s difficult comparing the screen of an iPhone with a scrumpled sheet of paper, especially when a dog demanding that a ball be thrown is also present – but I’m sure it is the same tree. I took another shot from a different angle, which shows its position relative to the Magazine Fort.

Looking more carefully at the Guardian’s shot today, I was slightly puzzled by the state of the grass – long, dry and sun-bleached. However, when I checked Finn Richards’s page on Instagram, I see that it was taken in July 2018, which explains it.

There is a reasonable chance that exercise and other restrictions will be relaxed slightly more next week. This could mean more regular trips to the park – something that both the dog and I are already looking forward to.


Culture as class performance

From Normal People by Sally Rooney:

“He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw her hands up and said: Not politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money.”

[page 221]

Other articles which have used the same quote:
Nathan Goldman, The Baffler
Lonesome Reader
Maks Bookshop Cafe
A Purple Onion
Eats Reads Rambles

What’s in a name?

I’m not the Charles Foster who wrote the Story of the Bible.

I’m not the Charles Foster who writes about living as a badger or a fox.

I’m not the Charles Foster who was on Death Row in Florida for 35 years.

I’m not even the Charlie Foster who was the “second second assistant director” on The Sopranos.

And now I’ve just found yet another namesake. The Wikipedia front page for Easter Sunday 2020 has yet another chap with my name as today’s featured picture. A governor of Ohio and US Treasury Secretary no less. Fame at last.

Just puntastic

Back in the days when The Guardian had a separate pullout Media section (on Mondays, if I recall correctly) there was an occasional feature called I Wrote That: A (very) occasional series in praise of the sub-editors’ craft.  This was launched on 14 February 2000 with an interview with the Scottish Sun sports sub-editor, Paul Hickson, after he came up with a classic headline which has since found its way into any number of books and online articles dealing with headline writing. The headline appeared on a report on the Scottish Cup defeat of the mighty Celtic FC by the Third Division part-timers of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, topped with the line “Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious”.

As Hickson explained in the article, this was an adaptation of a headline which allegedly appeared in the 1960s in a Liverpool paper, “Super Calli Scores a Hat Trick, QPR Atrocious”, although no one has actually tracked the original down.

This week saw an Irish Daily Star front page which would surely be a contender for another entry in the Guardian’s “occasional” feature. To head a report on how the Gardai are getting extra powers to stop people setting off to enjoy the current good weather in their holiday homes, an anonymous sub came up with the great line, “Go Out Your Back and Tan”. In doing this he or she has referenced a well-known (in Ireland) song “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans” which has enjoyed a couple of unrelated boosts to its popularity over the last year. The first was a parody version written for a TV ad for Bradys Ham, “Come Out, Ye Other Hams”. The second was its use by Steve Coogan appearing as an Alan Partridge impersonator in an episode of This Time with Alan Partridge, the “TV moment of the year”, according to RTE News. When Sinn Fein used the same tune in a TV ad, and some of the party supporters sang it at the recent General Election count, the irony quotient went up to 11.

Great stuff. And here, just for the record, is Paul Hickson’s original effort from twenty years ago, in a picture I found on the Troll Football website.

Labour’s four-time winning habit

Front page of the West Midlands edition of the Daily Mirror, Friday 23 March 1990. The proprietor, Robert (Captain Bob) Maxwell, ordered a special late edition for the region with a front page update containing the result of the Mid Staffordshire by-election, which was declared at about 4am. The story appeared under the byline of the then political editor, Alastair Campbell. The photograph had in fact been taken earlier in the day. Back row, left to right, are London Labour activist Cathy Deadman, wife of Alan Deadman, the print union official mentioned below, and Sylvia Heal’s son and daughter, Gareth and Joanne. The young woman in the middle row was an American student working as an intern in a Labour MP’s office. Front row shows Sylvia Heal’s mother, Ruby Fox, Sylvia herself and her husband, Keith Heal. 

Today, Sunday 22 March, marks the thirtieth anniversary of Labour’s historic victory in the Mid- Staffordshire by-election, the day in 1990 when Sylvia Heal overturned a Tory majority of 14654 from the previous general election to win by 9449 votes. The swing of 21.4% from Tory to Labour was a record at the time. I’m proud to say that I was there, doing my small bit to help the campaign.

This was actually the second of the four Labour gains from the 1987-1992 Thatcher/Major Tory government, which had a dismal record in by-elections. Altogether in that period, there were 21 contests and the Tories only won one, which was the very first seat they defended at Richmond in Yorkshire. This was caused by the appointment of Leon Brittan as a European Commissioner, and resulted in the election of William Hague. His majority was however slashed from 19576 to 2634.

The Tories went on to lose all seven of the other seats they defended over the following three years – four to Labour and three to the Lib Dems. The four Labour gains are shown below in pink in this screengrab from Wikipedia, and I played a part in all of them.

At the time, I was working at Labour Party headquarters in Walworth Road, London. My job title was nominally campaign writer/sub-editor but in effect, because of the advent of the new-fangled technology of desktop publishing, I was also a designer of campaign material. When a by-election occurred it was the practice for Head Office to post a number of staff to augment the regional team who ran the campaign. These usually included a press officer, a researcher and someone like me, whose job was to produce the campaign literature and other publicity material. Depending on the amount of effort the national party thought necessary, a number of staff from other regional offices would also be deployed as local organisers, computing staff, campaign aides and other roles.

My first outing in this job was actually in February 1989 in Richmond, where I succeeded in spending quite a lot of the party’s money for very little reward when the Labour candidate trailed in a distant fourth with only 2591 votes. The Vale of Glamorgan by-election followed a few months later, in May 1990, but because it coincided with the local elections and the run up to the Euro elections, a freelance was sent off to work on this instead. However, he had to come back to London over one weekend and because a local Sunday newspaper was going to publish an opinion poll, which we expected to be favourable to Labour, I was despatched to Wales to write and produce an instant overnight leaflet. This I did, and it was printed on a small litho machine operated in a back room by an NGA official called Alan Deadman, who had also been seconded for the campaign. Labour’s John Smith (not that John Smith) won the by-election with a majority of 6028.

Seven months later, shortly before Christmas, the Tory MP for Mid Staffordshire John Heddle committed suicide, which meant there would be a by-election in his seat. At first sight, this didn’t look particularly promising for Labour: a Tory majority of nearly 15,000, based on the prosperous cathedral city of Lichfield. But there were areas where Labour could expect to do well, such as Rugeley, a town with 20,000+ voters, which still had a colliery (although it would close less than a year later) and a power station. Also, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher were proving ever more unpopular, and seemed determined to push through with their disastrous Poll Tax proposal.

Neil Kinnock and the leadership decided to push for maximum effort in this campaign, and were backed by the Shadow Cabinet and the party NEC. I asked my boss, Peter Mandelson, if I could take the publicity material job and he agreed. So I packed up one of the only two computers we had in my department and set off for Rugeley. The local party had little experience in running a big campaign but were keen, and they selected an excellent candidate in Sylvia Heal. She wasn’t local –Welsh born, and now living in Surrey – but she had the kind of personality that would go down well with the voters.

So it proved. Labour members flooded in from all over the country. We had excellent support from the unions, the European Parliamentary Labour Party and MPs from the House of Commons. The candidate’s minder was Peter Snape, the West Bromwich MP, a legend in his own lunchtime, who successfully prevented a potentially hostile Daily Mail reporter from asking difficult questions by getting him so drunk that he had to flee back to London to recuperate. The agent was the ever urbane Fraser Kemp, a Sunderland native who was the party’s West Midlands organiser. He went on to become the MP for Houghton and Washington East. I was kept busy producing leaflets and publicity material, much of which was printed in the back of the headquarters by the same Alan Deadman of the NGA.

The campaign went like a dream. The Tories were in complete disarray, trying to defend a Poll Tax which they obviously didn’t really believe in. The newly-formed Liberal Democrats were hampered by having a rival candidate from the rump SDP. Two opinion polls predicted a stomping majority for Sylvia Heal. Neil Kinnock arrived, and a local supporter flew him and Sylvia around in a helicopter. I was deputed to escort Labour supporters Prunella Scales, Timothy West and a then very popular EastEnders actor (whose name I have now forgotten) on a celebrity visit. We eventually won by almost 10,000 votes and Sylvia went on a walkabout the following day. I was able to buy a copy of the special West Midlands edition of the Daily Mirror, shown at the top of this post, and I pinned it up over my desk when I got back to Walworth Road.

Thatcher’s time in office did not have much longer to run. In the autumn, there were several more by-elections. The Lib Dems took a seat off the Tories in Eastbourne in October and then I was involved in a tricky defence of a Labour seat in Bradford North, where the MP who had died was in Militant. The party selected a respected moderate councillor, Terry Rooney. He took his seat on 13 November 1990, the day Geoffrey Howe made the resignation speech which precipitated Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.

John Major became Prime Minister and although the Tories dropped the poll tax and got a bounce in the polls they continued to do badly in by-elections. The Tory MP for Monmouth died in March 1991, so another one was called. Labour selected a candidate called Huw Edwards (not that Huw Edwards) and we won the by-election relatively easily. A Tory majority of 9530 was converted to a Labour majority of 2406. Once more I produced all the party literature, some of which can be seen in this Youtube video compilation. 

Finally, in the autumn of 1991, we were plunged into another by-election campaign when Richard Holt, the Tory MP for Langbaurgh on Teesside, died suddenly on 20 September. The local party had already selected a Middlesbrough councillor, Ashok Kumar, as its candidate for the forthcoming general election. He was confirmed as the by-election candidate and duly triumphed with a majority of 1975, overturning a Tory majority of 2088. This film on Youtube by reporter Steve Richards was part of the BBC coverage of the result. It’s nice to see my friend the late Annie Longley from Chepstow, who later worked for the Co-operative Party, in the Kumar entourage on the campaign trail. It was very sad to hear of the death of Kumar himself at the early age of 53 in 2010.

A few months later, in April 1992, Labour lost all four of these seats in the General Election. All four MPs, however, returned to the house in the Blair landslide of 1997. The Mid Staffordshire seat had been abolished by then, but Sylvia Heal won the target seat of Halesowen and Rowley Regis.

Mid Staffordshire was a great experience, and probably the most exciting campaign I ever worked on. Labour’s by-election total gain of four in the 1987-1992 parliament is second only to the five gains it made between 1959 and 1964. It’s a winning habit the party could well do with today.