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Danny Baker: a bit of a knock-out

Going to Sea in a Sieve: the Autobiography - review.

Going to Sea in a Sieve: the Autobiography
Danny Baker
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 272pp, £18.99

The costermonger has barked his wares for the last time, the newspaper vendor has shouted himself hoarse and now another familiar cry of old London town has fallen silent. Danny Baker has parted company with the radio channel BBC London 94.9, though not without a final, noisy hurrah. He’s the award-winning broadcaster with a voice like – well, put it this way, if they ever turn the Woolwich ferry into a cartoon character, Baker’s a shoo-in for the voiceover. Can it be true, as he has claimed, that he learned that his show was to be axed when he read about it at the doctor’s? Does BBC management really want to replace him with rolling coverage of the capital’s admittedly troublesome drains? The BBC has said it’s all part of a normal refreshing of the schedules.

It’s a dark hour for the capital’s listeners – and a case of here we go again for Baker. Throughout his career, he has walked out of – and sometimes been shown out of – a striking number of the programmes he’s fronted. He can count more exits than London Underground.

Disconcerting as this must be to the longsuffering Wendy Baker and the kids, there’s a cockeyed greatness about this in the eyes of the presenter’s admirers, not to mention timid salarymen everywhere. In one studio after another, Baker has been dauntlessly improvising a kind of epic poem in vernacular blank verse, with funny and rococo passages. Future historians of popular culture will say of him, with apologies to Keats, “Here lies one whose name was writ in between the travel bulletins.”

Somewhere along the way, he invented the football phone-in. It’s an equivocal legacy. With its invariable – indeed, scripted-sounding – iterations of “Such and such a manager has taken us as far as he can” and “We’ve become a selling club”, this type of programme can sound like a tune played over and over again on a tray of wine glasses.

Baker still hosts a talk show on the BBC’s football-mad network Radio 5 Live – or, at least, he does as we go to press. Yet you only have to listen for a few minutes to know that he scorns the hotly contested ins  and outs of goal-line technology and has slipped the surly bonds of the pre-match handshake imbroglio. His true contribution may be in pioneering the ironic, mocking critique of the national game that is now a staple of fanzines, online forums and the sports sections of the papers.

However, this mickey-taking is now almost as tired as the proverbial pies at the visitors’ end. So Baker has abandoned it and broken free into the pure ether of surreal whimsy. The only connection that his programme has to professional football is a feature with the self-explanatory title “Retired footballers read the dull bits of erotic fiction”, one of the more unheralded consequences of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Baker has outflanked his journeymen peers to take the medium in a new direction, only to weary of it and move on.

Having made a comeback from throat and mouth cancer, Baker has now written his autobiography. It must jostle for space on Yuletide shelves groaning with showbiz lives: the misery memoir of this misfiring singer; the bio of that inexplicably in-demand comedian with low self-esteem. Baker, who by his own account was popular in class, top of the form, a big hit with the girls and so on, appears to suffer from the opposite condition.

His happy childhood among the bombedout ruins of postwar south-east London reads like the shooting script of an unmade Boulting Brothers comedy. His love-hate relationship with football began at the age of five when his father took him to his first Millwall game, “a screeching Hogarth sketch wired to the national grid”. An even more formative experience was sitting on dad’s knee as he read from the mesmerising verse of Edward Lear.

Despite Baker’s encounters, as a young journalist on the New Musical Express, with the giants of pre-download rock’n’roll – on the road with the Clash; a brush with Michael Jackson – it’s Baker Snr who emerges as the hero of the book. A docker with his own fierce code of back-scratching and boot-filling, he, too, was an improviser of genius, returning home from the waterfront burdened with jetsam of a distinctly moody kind and enlisting the family to help him “knock it out” for ready cash.

His son took this life lesson into his early career among the record shops of Soho, where he developed a sideline in knocking out prog rock albums that were questionable in more ways than one. Like its author, Baker’s book is garrulous, preening, self-mocking and funny. It’s as rattling to read as it evidently was to write. In the proud Baker tradition, it’s a bit of a knockout.

Stephen Smith is culture correspondent of BBC Newsnight

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture