Alliances (March 2007)
Quite early on in the history of this website, I was struck by the daunting notion that it would have to finance itself without any capital, because there was no way of accepting investment, or even sponsorship, without yielding the initiative. This decision about foregoing any outside money was made easier by the fact that I have a minus talent for business. Rather than draw up a business plan, I would be pleased to draw up a plan for my own hanging. But the consideration was made irrelevant from the jump by the fact that I somehow knew this website would never be a commercial venture in the conventional sense. This particular intuition of mine proved to be a source of some disturbance to Simon Larcey and Nicholas Watts, my young colleagues on WELCOME STRANGER who designed for me the spin-off platform that would eventually become the site you are looking at now. You couldn't blame them for thinking the Video section I asked them to build might be a potentially lucrative new type of independent television production company. That's exactly what I saw it as, except that I didn't see it as lucrative. The problem thus arose of how to get them to collaborate on a project that would have no immediately foreseeable financial returns. It was at this point, at some terrible pub near Welcome Stranger's office in the depths of Fulham, that I conceived the notion of an alliance.
Basically an alliance is a trade-off by which I supply my name and putative abilities in return for an organization's willingness to pay my expenses, so that they get something they can use while I get something I can keep. The alliance with Welcome Stranger worked out like that. I continued to lend my name and publicity value to IN LONDON, the company that owned Welcome Stranger, while they built the platform that eventually became www.clivejames.com, and also shot and processed the first three series of little Talking in the Library programmes for its Video section. This initial alliance is still going at the time of writing, although I should say, as a declaration of interest, that part of the explanation for the enduring relationship is that I am still among the lucky shareholders of In London, whom I am sure will all one day bless their own initial wisdom, while the company's young directors turn their BMWs into Ferraris by a method other than the one I recommended — i.e. painting them red. So it's in my interest as well as theirs to keep saying, as the site gets bigger and better, that the technicians of the In London subsidiary Welcome Stranger built the platform for this site, as well as for the truly advanced site now operating under their name, and that they are definitely in the business of doing the same for other people.
A second alliance grew out of the first, when the cable channel Artsworld (now called SKY ARTS) saw the video interviews on the site and made an offer to lease them as a package. The resulting revenue helped to defray Welcome Stranger's production and transmission costs. A couple of years later, after I took over the site in my own name and Artsworld was taken over by Sky, the alliance was renewed on more ambitious terms, with Sky Arts undertaking to record and edit the programmes while I undertook to allow a much bigger production team into my apartment. But once again, the twin aims were for Sky Arts to get a series it could transmit on air, and for me to keep the same series for the web. All the young executives at Sky Arts deserve commendation for their foresight in this enterprise, but I should particularly mention the channel's CEO John Cassy and its programme controller Adrian Zak, both of whom understood from the beginning that if I were to maintain the balance of a see-saw with News International looming at the other end of it, I would have to sit a long way from the fulcrum. With the proviso that I keep my distance, however, I couldn't wish for a more productive creative relationship.
Following on immediately from that second alliance, a third was formed with OVATION, the Australian cable arts channel, which also took on all three of the original series of Talking in the Library for repeated transmissions. I need hardly say that for me it was a huge personal patriotic boost to have this happen. Like Sky Arts, Ovation has since gone through a change of ownership, but it still, under the guidance of its key executive Paddy Conroy, generously maintains the connection with this website.
A fourth alliance solved the always threatening problem of webcasting expenses. Because a surge in viewers can put the monthly transmission bill through the roof, it is highly desirable to lay off the risk, and providence intervened in the form of SLATE online magazine in the United States. Owned by the Washington Post, Slate is yet another giant bed-partner by whom it would be fatal to be rolled on during a restless night, but its editor, Jacob Weisberg, not only understood my alliance principle, he pretty well invented it before I did. He was the one who flatteringly said that the first three series of little programmes shot by Welcome Stranger were a reservoir of content that nobody else was doing, and that the best way Slate could continue with its own comparable video arm would be to transmit everything already running on ours, on the understanding that we would go on making more for the future. The arrangement was mapped out during a lunch at the Cantina beside the Thames on a spring day, after which it took about a year to put into effect. It involved a lot of coordinated work by Sky Arts production manager Kate Lovett and my entourage Cécile Menon, but finally a system was nutted out by which the finished programmes, after transmission via satellite by Sky, could be switched to Slate's server and sent out on the web, under the blush-making collective title of the Clive James Show. The transfer to Slate entailed taking down everything that was running already in the video section and bringing it back a batch at a time, a painstaking technological feat of which I am in no position to expound the details, except to say that one of the many advantages of the alliance system is that you can hook up with other people's expertise, rather in the way that computers do to form the web.
A fifth alliance determined the course of the Audio section from its beginnings. After an on-stage dialogue featuring Peter Porter and myself at the Melbourne Festival in the year 2000, Jill Kitson of the ABC RADIO Booktalk programme asked us to develop the occasion into a series of six programmes for the air, to be recorded in the ABC's London studio while she directed the proceedings down the line from Melbourne. Thinking ahead for once in my life, I asked if I could keep the rights to preserve the broadcasts on the web. The ABC generously cooperated, and the result so far has been six complete series of dialogues with Peter Porter, plus several other interviews and solo events recorded either in Britain or in Australia, but always transmitted on the ABC. As the most patriotic of expatriates, I found this, from the beginning, a very satisfactory arrangement. Only when the catalogue of individual programmes had reached well into double figures, however, did it occur to me that the BBC might be persuaded to allow the same latitude.
The sixth alliance is with BBC RADIO 4, whose controller Mark Damazer asked me to write and present a set of programmes under the time-honoured title "A Point of View". Since I retired from mainstream television my schedule had for some reason become more unmanageable than ever, so it was more than a year before I could take Mark Damazer up on his kind offer, which gave him plenty of time to consider my absurd request that I should be able to webcast the programmes for keeps after the BBC had finished with them on the air and on their website. With an imaginative sympathy seldom heard of among broadcasting executives at his level, he gave me the green light. The biggest media giant of the lot had relaxed its giant hand, on whose open palm I danced like a liberated pixie.
A seventh alliance was there from the beginning, but I was slower to spot it than the ally was. Andrew Kidd, head of publishing at PICADOR, could have seen my wish to run pieces of my recent books, and virtually the whole of some of my older books, as an intrusion. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity. Perhaps his reasoning about my proposed venture was darker than that: if it failed, nobody would notice, and if it worked, it could only increase my marketability as an author. Anyway, the latter possibility now looks like being right. My late friend Mark Boxer once interrupted a drunken fit of rhetorical self-belittlement on my part by tartly insisting: "Fame pays." As usual, he was correct. Ideally it should be the right kind of fame, but either way, the awkward truth is that even in the world of the dedicated arts it always helps to have your name known. A device like this website is a way of doing so even in a state of ex-celebrity. You can take centre-stage without laying claim to any space. The trick is to make people find your personal theatre, which is just a pin-point in the void. It ought to be impossible. Strangely enough, however, word of mouth works in the web-wide world: works, in fact, like a trail of gunpowder. All you need is the means to keep going, and to make sure that whoever provides the means doesn't call the tune. The answer to that is to find a provider who wants your tune and not his. The answer is an ally.
Within a few short years after I conceived it out of sheer necessity, the alliance idea has proved itself in reality. All I can say at the moment is that I hope it can go on proving itself. In theory, all media organizations should benefit from independent producers of content. In practise, every media organization wants to control them from within its own house. But that, I believe, is a rap that can be beaten, as long as you don't mind not being as rich as your ally, and as long as he doesn't mind that you keep your freedom. It's a whole new chance. Watch this space for more.
— March, 2007
Site Crew (2008)
Although no policy decisions about the site are taken without the brooding, fretful, dangerous, Bond-like presence of the man with his name in its title, the twin tasks of keeping the decisions rational and of carrying them out devolve mainly on Cécile Menon, this website's copy-editor, art director, administrator and webmaster. In addition to English as precisely good as her French, Cécile is in possession of a third language which remains to me almost a complete mystery: she knows how to converse with my computer. Since the computer contains the very complex platform of the website, this skill is invaluable. (I've just been told that the platform is not actually in the computer at all, but somewhere else in cyberspace. You see what she is up against when dealing with me.) For the benefit of journalists who might very understandably be looking for a human angle when assigned to write about this fumbling hobby of my dotage, here is a brief biography of my CEO, girl assistant, Webmeisterin, amanuensis, organizer, gatekeeper, wardress, minder, junior soulmate, guide dog, proofreader and personal trainer.
Cécile Menon was born in France in 1972 and has been living in London since 1998. She also works as a freelance translator and has been studying for a Ph.D. at the University of Westminster on the French author Robert Pinget. In late 2004 she set up as a freelance web consultant, mainly for me. (In the photograph, CÚcile is captured relaxing in the "Rive Gauche" recreation area of this website's command vessel, holding geostationary orbit somewhere above Mexico City.) For her CV and links to her various published translations, click here.
A vital development in the short history of the website was the commissioning in late 2006 of a CMS (content management system) so that material could be uploaded to the site directly from Cécile's keyboard and even, when she allowed me to touch it, from mine. (This latter consideration was no bagatelle, because there were several times, while the hideously complicated test site was running, that I could have fired the whole lot off to oblivion at the touch of a button.) Before the arrival of the CMS, everything depended on access to the already overcommitted time of the original constructor, so there were frustrating delays. The CMS has solved them.
Born in 1965, John Bryan has been a freelance IT consultant for 14 years as ALT2 Limited, researching and developing website technologies suitable for business and community portals, and providing, he says, specialist skills to large corporate businesses as well as commercial websites for creative, if masochistic, fun. Having been tinkering with computers since the birth of the home-computer in the early 80's, our programmer refuses to believe that he no longer qualifies as a whiz kid – give him a screwdriver and he will take anything apart. (It will probably even work again afterwards although there are usually a few parts left over.) John confesses to spending too much time playing with computer technology to ever make any money at it. His work for this website since August 2007 is no exception to the rule, but his expertise and dedication have made him an essential contributor to its development and maintenance. [Scroll down] to read his engaging account of how the site is built.
Nicholas Watts, chief technical officer to Simon Larcey at the firm which is now called In London, (www.inlondon.com) built the website's platform when both it and the parent organization were called Welcome Stranger. The relevant section of the company is now called Welcome Stranger Publishing Limited.
Simon Larcey, on behalf of In London's web services arm (Welcome Stranger Publishing Limited), is ready to field any enquiries from individuals or organizations looking to build a structure similar to that of this site or any other pattern. He can be contacted personally at simon [at] inlondon.com.
Dominic Cellier was the original designer of this website, and, despite many modifications since, the basic look that he devised has been gratefully retained.
I should say on behalf of the above three people that it was my fuddy-duddy insistence which ensured that no fold-out menus or pop-up features were included in the layout, which is rigidly square — first press this and then press that — because of my conviction that there will always be born, in any generation, a majority of people who, like me, couldn't connect the transformer to the tracks of a Hornby Dublo train set if their lives depended on it.
How the current version of this site is built (2008)
by John Bryan
Notes on the technology: [ These notes do not apply to this Archive site ]
In the past every single part of a website was often hand created from scratch and required arcane knowledge of strange incantations such as PHP, SQL, HTML and Flash. Even computer nerds who had their own mystical knowledge such as EPOS, C+ or VB would be bereft of understanding. Content Management Systems (CMS) separate a lot of the gobbledygook by providing a ready-made blank website that does not require the web designer to re-invent fire, the wheel and the electric toaster. Also they allow a site's content to be updated by normal humans without their hands being held by a web wizard. CMS systems separate the gubbins from the doings: after all you don't need a degree in auto-engineering to drive a car so why should you need to know how the internet works just to write a web page.
One of the later generation CMS systems that has the benefit of learning from its predecessors is DRUPAL (www.Drupal.org). It is a rising star in the world of website platforms that allow a single web designer to create what would take many years of sunlight-shy developers working for some big corporate company to create.
It is also part of the now long-time trendy "Open Source" free software movement. In a universe where the rule "You get what you pay for" is quite rigid, large community-written projects such as this can have highly expensive commercial products beaten hands down. For example how many paid-for software suppliers have potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of programmers able to assist in changing the software to your needs? And, for that matter, if you want to alter the software yourself to exactly fit your requirements, with commercial software it is completely forbidden and there are all sorts of security systems in place to prevent you from using what you have actually paid for.
CMS websites, and Drupal especially, are built in quite a Lego brick style in that when an additional functionality is required there is often a ready-made brick (module) that can be added on to do the job. In the 'Open Source' world, if there is no suitable module, then a web developer might create one for himself and then add it to the pool of ready-made modules. Any faults in the CMS software are reported on the Internet, then those faults might be fixed by someone else on the Internet. In this way a single website may use CMS software and modules that have been jointly created by hundreds of programmers from all around the world in a scale of co-operation that is quite staggering.
Editing the content
Back in the early 80's, even before this web designer had a bald patch, computer word-processors such as Wordstar were human-unfriendly, requiring strange esoteric key presses. They would show whatever you were typing as a very fixed style display, no matter what the chosen font or size that would be printed. Therefore what you wrote bore no relation to what came out on the printer. Later, so-called WYSIWYG editors were created. This stands for 'What You See Is What You Get', and a computer typist could see how what it was they were creating was going to look. All this is taken for granted now on computers with modern software like Microsoft Word but in the newer, still evolving, world of the internet, websites often require the content author to enter strange command codes such as [b] or <hr />. Imagine what the end result will look like.
To save Cécile Menon (this site’s webmeisterin) from needing to type in a computer version of Klingon, the site has a WYSIWYG editor installed, namely FCKeditor (written by Frederico Caldeira Knabben). WYSIWYG editors such as this give a visual online word processor that avoids the need for the site's editor(s) to use the very human-unfriendly HTML language so that it does not need a computer nerd such as myself every time something needs to be added to the site.
In the virtual world of the Internet, even I, as the website's current technical bod, have never seen the physical computer which it sits within. The website runs on a server near Manchester (UK), dedicated to it and only a few of our other customers. It is managed and constantly monitored not by a mass-market hosting service but by a smaller and very professional hosting company that allows me within seconds to talk to a human who can tell me exactly how the computer is at any moment in time.
Previous maintainers had created this site in an early version of Drupal (4.7), so the credit of choosing what is a 'best of the crop' system belongs to them. In 2007/2008 a quite long process of upgrading to Drupal 6 took place as, due to all the new and improved features in Drupal, a lot of the old site's facilities had to be completely recreated. Creating a new site from scratch would have been at least ten times easier but then it would not have been the Clive James website and would not have its considerable content. Once the new site was switched on we then could really start adding new features and improvements such as the onsite bookshop and the Index which uses Drupal's Taxonomy facility to list content by the people that the content is about.
Any future changes are of course subject to the big man's approval and wishes, but they are likely to include RSS feed of content updates, disability access and printing aids, and improved listing and indexing of content etc. Certainly for the time being the site is actively evolving and improving whilst trying not to spoil or drastically change the current usability and style of the site.
And the real credit goes to…
A pretty or technically-sophisticated website is meaningless without the content that gives it its reason for existence. This website already contains about 500 pages of actual real content that has been created or collected and compiled by Clive James and his much-hassled assistant Cécile. The Internet is about content. Without that it is just noise.