Thursday, January 31, 2008

18 years in the making

My posts have been few and far between this last week. But that's because I've been busy working with my editor on the manuscript for my first book. As I announced in previous posts, after 18 years of sending my stuff off to publishers and being serially rejected, I now have a contract. I signed with Pan Macmillan earlier this month and the book is due out in October. I can't tell you what it will be called yet as we're still wrangling over that one. But I can say that it will be as informative and eclectic as this blog. And it's being supported by Stephen Fry and the people at QI.

So watch this space for the official announcement very soon.

Meanwhile, bear with me as I dot the 'i's and cross the 't's.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Depp gets bloody stroppy

I went to see Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street this evening and jolly good gory fun it was too. I knew I'd enjoy it even before I went as Tim Burton rarely lets me down (although Planet of the Apes was a stain on his otherwise spotless duvet) and Johnny Depp is always entertaining. The small ensemble cast shone equally brightly; Alan Rickman was suitably sneering and nasty, Helena Bonham-Carter exuded her usual wide-eyed, just-been-pulled-through-a-hedge-and-ravaged-by-the-Lord-of-the-manor sex appeal (have you ever seen her with normal hair? Ever?) and Sacha Baron-Cohen was camp, silly and had obviously placed a large courgette down the front of his pantaloons. That, or those floating black bars that covered his modesty during Borat's naked man fight were really and truly modest. Star of the show for me though was the ghastly and pompous Beadle played by Timothy Spall who was born to play such roles looking, as he does, like a George Cruikshank or Thomas Rowlandson cartoon made flesh.

Blood was the order of the day and there was plenty of it. Our sensitivities were not spared as Depp's vengeful, anguished tonsorialist tore his way through the throats of old London Town. The music was well orchestrated ... although Sondheim has never been a favourite of mine. While he does write some terrific lines, his tunes always come across as a bit samey to me and, like any show I've ever seen of his, I left the cinema unable to remember a single tune.
Many adverts seem to be saying that this is Depp's first singing performance - have these people never seen La Bamba or the excellent John Waters musical Cry Baby? Depp can sing ... but I didn't realise that la Bonham-Carter was quite so gifted. Nor Misters Rickman and Spall, so a pleasant surprise all round. And the three youngest performers - Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener and Ed Sanders were superb, especially Sanders as young Toby - fantastic voice.

So, in summary, great performances, stunning visuals (soooo Tim Burton), dark humour, lashings of gore and unmemorable songs. See it. You'll like it. But don't buy the soundtrack.

All of which begs a question I've asked many times ... why doesn't Hollywood make more musicals? We all love 'em. When you consider that the glory days of the musical were over 50 years ago, aren't we due a resurgence of interest? Every musical since the 1940s seems to have done well at the box office - think of Little Shop of Horrors, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease, and, most recently, Hairspray. Okay, so Madonna's Evita didn't do so well and neither did Phantom of the Opera - but that may be more to do with Lloyd-Webber than Hollywood (I don't like many of his tunes either). But even pseuso-musicals like Moulin Rouge and The Nightmare before Christmas have been huge successes. There must be a welter of composers and librettists out there champing at the bit to give us a new Wizard of Oz or Singin' in the Rain.

Come on Hollywood! If Westerns can make a comeback, let's see some more Musicals too.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Brian Cant ... or maybe he still can?

Very occasionally, you get a frightening reminder of your own frail mortality. I had one yesterday while watching a programme about Brian Cant.

Brian, as those of you old enough will remember, was the stalwart of many children’s TV shows during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I guess we could call him the Grandfather of modern children’s programmes. On shows like Play School, Bric a Brac and Play Away, he was a joy; always happy, always singing and always camp and funny. He was also the invisible voice of the animated shows Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley and it was his soft, Sussex tones that we heard when we were introduced to the Trumpton Fire Brigade:

‘Pugh, Pugh, Barney Magrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb.’

(Barney Magrew (for reasons we’re not privy to) was singled out for full name status. Perhaps there were two Magrews and one was off duty? Then again, there were two Pughs. I’ll shut up, shall I?).

The TV programme I watched was about Brian returning to Ipswich to revisit the places he grew up. But what struck me was how old he was! Don’t get me wrong, he’s wearing well. He’s trim and fit and he has all of his marbles. But his hair has gone and his voice is warbly and he looks like a man in his 70s. Because he is. Brian Cant is 74. What? It seems like only yesterday he was in his 40s and arsing around with Floella Benjamin or Fred Harris or Toni Arthur or Jeremy Irons (Yes, that Jeremy Irons). But if he’s not 40 anymore that means that I must be at least 30 years older than I feel …

And I’ve just read that Floella Benjamin is 59 this year.

Oh bollocks.

Photo (c) Clive Conway Celebrity Productions

Friday, January 25, 2008

At the Still Point of the Turning World ...

Another photo I took at King's Cross today. Amid all the blurry hustle and bustle of the station concourse, one chap serenely sat in quiet contemplation. I'm desperately trying not to sound too drippy here but I immediately recalled some lines from T S Eliot's Burnt Norton. Like many of Eliot's poems it was seared into my adolescent brain by Mrs Carr during A Level English years ago. I didn't remember it word-perfect so I've lifted it from my tattered old copy of Four Quartets:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

As it happened, it was really only the first line that suited my photo. Amazingly, my 30 year old school book is stuffed full of pencilled notes I made as a student. And I have no idea what any of it means any more. Dark nights of the soul? Oyster shells and bowls of rose leaves?

Pretentious, watashi?

Find the Gimp - King's Cross

You're right ... Find the Gimp has been far too easy of late. So I've tried to create a tougher one today. Here's a photo I took at lunchtime at Kings' Cross Station. Can you find him?

Click on the pic for a larger image. If that's still not big enough, then right click on the bigger image and save to your computer for more detailed and magnified searching.

Image and Find the Gimp (c) Stevyn Colgan

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thickie Flipper

Mice don’t like cheese. Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand. Sharks do sleep. Elephants are not scared of mice (nor do they have exceptional memories), Goldfish don’t have a 10 second memory, Cats can swim, Wolves don’t howl at the Moon and … here’s the big one … Dolphins are not necessarily that intelligent. According to the latest research from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, a dolphin’s large brain is mostly made up glial (‘supporting’) cells, rather than neurons. The number of neurons is what makes us intelligent. The glia is there to regulate brain temperature in the cold seas.

Well, well, well.

This was interesting news to me as, for some time, I've had a sneaking suspicion that dolphins and whales aren't quite as smart and as spiritual as some people make them out to be. They are beautiful creatures of course. Gloriously so. But smart? As one comedian once said, 'If they're that smart, why do they keep swimming near Japan?'

But my real interest in writing this post is the whole subject of swimming with dolphins. Apparently it's the Number One thing to do before you die, or so says a poll of 20,000 people run by the BBC. Eh? More important than saying goodbye to friends and loved ones? Or helping a starving child? Or donating money to help find a cure for cancer? Come on ...

I'm sure that swimming with dolphins is quite lovely. I know people who've done it and they tell me just that. But the Number One thing to do before you die? I think that Karl Pilkington - Ricky Gervais's oddly philosophical mate - has sussed out the appeal. As he says, 'I wonder if it’s just the location that makes people pick it. If dolphins swam in the Thames, would it be as popular?'*

*From The World of Karl Pilkington (2006) Fourth Estate, London.

Cartoon (c) RGJ (originally appeared in Private Eye).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Robin Hoodie

I mentioned the British Icons site a few posts back when discussing national pride. I see that it's added some new waves of British ‘icons’ to its list. They include fish and chips, Monty Python, the British Bobby and The Archers radio show.

Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood have also made it onto the list, which is interesting considering that they are fictional characters. I stress the fictional aspect as only today I was walking along Baker Street from Regents Park to the train station and, of course, I passed by 221b, the address where Holmes lived in the stories. There actually isn’t a 221b - there is only a 221 - but such is the lure of the famous detective that the building has been re-numbered and is now the Sherlock Holmes Museum. I can’t help but wonder how many of its visitors believe that Holmes was a real person. Certainly, when I was a police officer working in the West End in the early 1980s, a lot of the tourists I spoke to found it hard to divorce fact from fiction. I remember one American lady getting so irate that she was right that we almost had a stand-up argument in the street. Eventually, I gave up.

Robin Hood is an interesting choice of ‘icon’ though. Again, he’s essentially a fictional character although there may be a nub of truth at the heart of the legend. There are many candidates for the historical Robin Hood including Robert Fitzodo, Robert of Loxley, Robert de Kyme and a certain Robert Hod. But underlying the whole legend is the unpalatable fact that this enduring national icon was an armed robber!*

Robin Hoodie?

* a subject we discussed back in December - read the post here.

Gofs are grate

Goth news: A goth who leads his girlfriend around with a dog lead and collar was stopped from getting on a bus recently because the driver feared for passenger safety. The incident took place in Yorkshire and Arriva Buses claim that the driver was correct as 'sharp braking could cause danger to them and other passengers'.

So was this event genuine worry for the personal safety of Dani Graves (yes, really) and Tasha Maltby? Or was it the 'shock of the new' and the bus driver just didn't like what he/she saw?

If you think Dani and Tasha are shocking spare a thought for John Hetherington. When he invented the top hat and wore it in the street for the first time in the 1840s, he wasn't just refused bus travel ... he was abused, women fainted at the sight and he was eventually arrested and fined a substantial £50. A law was even passed to ban the top hat from being worn in public for fear of scaring timid people. Fear of the strange, new or different is timeless ... Only the dates change.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating dog collars and leashes. I personally find the whole idea degrading. But if Tasha really doesn't mind, where's the harm? I like goths. They're funny. They're funny because they're so serious and gloomy that they don't realise how funny they are. And they dress to look scary but don't. Brilliant. I won't have a word said against them. Which is why I was genuinely incensed by the most illiterate piece of graffiti I’ve ever seen in my life. I found it recently carved into the handrail of a footbridge over the railway in Wycombe. It said:

ALL GOFS ARE SHIL

Maybe the Graffiti artist was disturbed and never had chance to cross the final letter T? Or maybe he was just a moron. And disturbed.

Mind you, many graffiti monkeys must be seriously disturbed when you see where their tags and slogans turn up; on high advertising boards, water towers, bridges, tower blocks etc. There used to be a strangely Royalist graffiti-merchant in Wycombe who regularly risked life and limb to daub his House of Windsor-based slogans on the side of a very high railway viaduct on the Chiltern Line. When the Queen Mother broke her hip, the message read:

I think the Queen Mum’s Hip.

When she reached her century, it changed to:

100 not out!

Then when she died, it became the oddly touching and respectful:

RIP Ma’am.

Nice.

Photo copyright (c) Ross Parry and taken from the BBC News website

Second new must-have vinyl figure of 2008

Patrick Morgan's Whaleboy also available in a Goth stylee and in mono and camo. Gorgeous. And I love the little Sucka fish on the back of his neck. It's those kinds of details that make vinyl so damned spanky.

Patrick Morgan's blog is here and well worth a visit.

Get yerself a Whaleboy here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Easiest Test in the World

I got sent this by email last night.

1) How long did the Hundred Years' War last?
2) Which country makes Panama hats?
3) From which animal do we get cat gut?
4) In which month do Russians celebrate the October Revolution?
5) What is a camel's hair brush made of?
6) The Canary Islands in the Pacific are named after what animal?
7) What was King George VI's first name?
8) What colour is a purple finch?
9) Where are Chinese gooseberries from?
10) What is the colour of the black box in a commercial airplane?

Get the answers by clicking on Comments below.

First new must-have vinyl figure of 2008

Amanda Visell's Pink Elephant (featuring Drunky McSkunky). I want one! I want one! I want one!

Available from Designer Toy Store.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Find the Gimp - Colombo, Sri Lanka

Click on the pic for a larger image. If that's still not big enough, then right click on the bigger image and save to your computer for more detailed and magnified searching.

Image and Find the Gimp (c) Stevyn Colgan

All the Fun of Affair

I'm not a prude by any stretch of the imagination but I was genuinely surprised to receive spam today from an agency that, if the advertising blurb is true, boasts one and three quarter million members around the world who are all looking for extracurricular nookie. This agency - and I presume there are others like it - provides a covert method for people to have affairs. Extraordinary.

Does it say something about the way society is changing? I'm not sure. It's prompted me to ask whether such a thing would have existed 50 years ago. Let's imagine that the internet was around in 1958 ... would men and women have joined a site like this?

There's no denying that people were having affairs back in the 1950s. Divorce rates were substantially lower but that was heavily due to women having fewer opportunities for independence. I suppose that there was a stronger sense of duty and responsibility back then; there was a tougher code of morality and greater belief in religion. But people were still having clandestine trysts when the muse and the urge took them. The difference is that women stood to lose so much more.

So I have a feeling that if this agency and its ilk had existed then, it would have been stuffed to the gills with male members (oo-er) and a very few independently wealthy women looking for a bit of fun. All of which means that it would have failed ... or quickly become a kind of gay dating service.

Fascinating stuff. Oh, and the reason I've pixellated the name of the agency is not because of moral outrage ... it's because I'll be damned if I'll give advertising space to spammers. You want to find the site? It wouldn't take long on Google.

The question you have to ask yourself is ... why would you want to find it?

Omnibus tomfoolery

Three very wordy posts in a row there. Sorry. So here's a bit of light relief. Look at the picture below:

It's a badly-drawn bus. But my question is ... which direction is the bus travelling? From left to right? Or right to left?

To see the answer, click on the comments for this post.

Rue Britannia (2006)

Writing about the Righty/Lefty debate prompted me to search through my hard drives for an article I wrote on stereotyping. It wasn't quite how I remembered it but it still seemed right to include it here as it presses home the point that identity isn't about colour or race or handedness; it's about how you feel and relate to others ...

What has happened to the British sense of national pride?

If there had been such a total loss in any other country, there would have been an outcry from royalty and parliament. What happened here? The people who govern us have just ignored the issue. They have even, to some extent, relinquished the Union Flag to the racists. Things got so bad that in the early 1990s, there were even stories in the newspapers of people being threatened with prosecution for ‘inciting racial hatred’ if they flew the Union Flag or painted it on their car. Incredible. I didn’t see the Queen being threatened in the same way by her local council. A great people feel saddened. Many feel angry. A merciful few feel sufficiently angry and dispossessed that they've turn their anger into militant or racist action.

Admittedly, since the United Kingdom stopped being quite so united, the Union Flag has been supplanted by the flag of St George in England. Red crosses far outweigh the red, white and blue. But even that hasn’t helped the English to celebrate their heritage. Scotland, Ireland, The Isle of Man, Wales and even Cornwall have always celebrated their national days. But England? Not a sausage. St George is suspiciously silent.

But parochial pride aside, few Scots or Manx would celebrate their Britishness any more. There seems to be an overall sense of shame in being British. Since the dismantling of the Empire, we’ve spent a hundred years apologising. Apologising for imperialism. Apologising for claiming other people’s lands and countries. Apologising for slavery. Hell, we even apologise when we want you to pass the salt or if we bump into you. But people change. Slavery is abhorrent and it makes me shudder that British people committed such horrendous cruelty to their fellow man. But that’s because I’m seeing it through 21st century eyes. It’s a sad fact of history but many white people didn’t see black Africans as ‘fellow men’ but merely as clever beasts. These are the same people who attended cock fights and bull runnings and dog fights. But I’ve never been involved in such things. And no living Briton was involved in the slave trade (next year marks the 200th anniversary of abolition). We have all moved on. So why are we still so apologetic? It was a terrible, cruel part of our history. But I wasn’t responsible. And nor were you. I don’t see the same apologetic angst among the Dutch. Or the Germans. Or the French. Or those black Africans who supplied the slave traders with their ‘stock’. All of them were heavily involved in the slave trade. But they’ve accepted it, made reparations and apologies and moved on. They still have national pride because they focus on present achievements and future goals. We just seem to wallow in past mistakes.

Or maybe we don’t celebrate Britishness because there’s no such thing? There was a programme on Channel 4 tonight called 100% English? in which several people who consider themselves to be quintessentially English were DNA tested to check their racial background. Unsurprisingly, their results showed that they were all – every man and women – descended from a mixed bag of ancestors that included Romani gypsies and people from the Arab states, South Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. One lady, who'd formed a society for the ‘protection’ of the Anglo-Saxon as a racial group, was so incensed by the result that she’s apparently launched a legal challenge against the programme. Is it any wonder that politicians are scared to let the English celebrate their Englishness? Every time the question comes up, out come a significant minority of rabidly militant nationalists who equate Englishness with superiority over other people and so-called racial purity. One man said that footballer Ian Wright could ‘never be English’ because he’s black. Since when has being black stopped anyone from being American? Or French? We don’t think twice about the nationalities of people like Tiger Woods or Thierry Henry. I'm not sure if this is purely an English phenomenon. Had the same programme run in Scotland, I'm pretty sure that the participants would have been pretty mellow about the results. Why? Because the Scots are secure in who they are. They're happy with who they are and they're allowed to love Scotland. If the same were true in England then maybe feelings wouldn't run quite so high.

Part of this insecurity may rest with the fact that no one can be really sure what 'English' actually means. Most of the things that the racist louts proudly hold up as examples of Englishness invariably aren’t. There’s an on-line study running at the moment by a group called Icons. They’re collating information on what it means to be British and they’re asking people to visit the site and nominate a place, person or thing that defines Britishness [1]. Here are a few of the nominations so far:

Cricket
The Tower of London
A Cup of Tea
Hadrian's Wall
Holbein's Henry VIII
The Sunday Roast
Jerusalem
The Mini (skirt)
The Mini (car)
The Pound
The Pub
Punch and Judy
The Routemaster Bus
The Spitfire

All quintessentially British … or are they?

Depending on which theory you subscribe to, Cricket was invented by the Normans (French) or the Indians of the Punjab. The Tower of London was built by the French when they were in charge to show the English who’s boss [2]. Tea was brought to the UK from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and is drunk from cups made from a substance first invented in China. Hadrian was Italian (or possibly Spanish), and Holbein was German. The Sunday roast was invented by the Romans and most of the ingredients are not native to the UK; potatoes from America, chicken from Africa, sprouts from Belgium … need I go on?

Even that most British of institutions – the Pound – is a foreign import. It’s Italian in origin, coming to us with the Romans. Until they introduced us to a currency, most British trade was done by barter. The Roman Librum (Weight) from which we get the star sign Libra – the Scales – was a specific weight of metal used for the smelting of coins. That’s why a stylised letter 'L' is used for a Pound sign (£) and the symbol for a pound in weight is 'lb'. The term ‘Pound’ comes from the Saxon word for weight – Pundus. The term ‘Quid’ may come from the Latin phrase quid pro quo which means ‘trading like for like in value’. Or it may be from the Gaelic Irish mo chuid which means ‘my money’. And just to rub salt into the wound, the Pound was the original Euro as it was legal tender across the whole of the Roman Empire from Europe to the Mediterranean to North Africa.

All of which reinforces the points that we are what the comedian Eddie Izzard calls ‘a mongrel nation’; the distillation of millions of invaders and immigrants. We have absorbed (or stolen) the best from the rest of the world and made it our own. This has suggested to some scholars that we suffer from a crisis of identity and that’s why we have difficulty is celebrating our Englishness. But why? America is exactly the same. So is Canada. And Australia. All countries colonised by ‘foreigners’. But they all have national pride.

Where is ours?

We should celebrate the diversity of our culture. We should cheer and shout that we live in one of the most enlightened and tolerant societies on the planet. We should all feel proud to be British - whether we are from a Scottish, Bangladeshi, Welsh, Croatian, Geordie or Manx lineage. Let the English be proud to be English. Let all of us who inhabit these islands be proud to be British.

And we should also be damned proud to be mongrels from good mongrel stock. The pedigree dog is the in-bred moron with bad hips and lower life-expectancy who sits in the corner gnawing its own leg off. The mongrel is the cheeky little whipper-snapper who steals the sausages from the butcher's shop and runs away.

To Hell with so-called racial purity. I know who I’d rather be.


References

Note: For the purposes of this essay, English means non-Scots, Welsh, Irish, Manx or Cornish. British means any resident of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

[1] www.icons.org.uk

[2] The French were in charge for several hundred years after the Battle of Hastings (1066 … just in case …) and it’s worth noting that many of the words we still use to describe the higher or posher functions of British society are entirely French: Government. Parliament. Minister. Banquet. Court Martial. Etiquette. Try saying them with a French accent. It wasn't until the 14th Century that English became dominant in Britain again. In 1399, King Henry IV became the first king of England since the Norman Conquest whose first language was English.

Sinister. Dexter. Come out fighting.

I attended a creative thinking course the other day that wasn't. Creative, that is. The trainer was absolutely the least creative person I've ever met in my life and was obviously running from a script that they didn't understand or subscribe to. Imagine turning up at a plumbing course run by a person whose first words are ‘Right. I think I’m here to tell you all about plums ...’ That's what it was like.

We were given a series of exercises to complete but the trainer seemed to think that there was a particular way to complete each problem. Isn’t creativity all about finding new ways to solve problems? Isn't it about encouraging free thinking and radicalism? Einstein once said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So, applying creative thinking to a problem is all about ignoring the obvious and the tried and going for the new, the untried and the occasionally wacky. But no, she had her own fixed ideas about how the puzzles were solved.

As she wrote clumsily upon a flip-chart I noted that she was left-handed. So why is that relevant? It's relevant because she later did a whole spiel about the old ‘left brain/ right brain’ business, pointing to the fact that a lot of the world’s most creative people are left-handed, quoting Paul McCartney, James Cameron, Michael Jackson and others.

Hmmm.

This is an interesting subject. I consider myself to be pretty creative. As you know, I’m engaged in all kinds of creative and artistic projects. I’m predominently right-handed although I'm pretty good with my left hand; my mum is (and my grandfather was) ambidextrous so it may be in the genes. My best friend Huw is an award-winning creative who designs commercials and advertising campaigns. Right-handed. In fact, almost everyone I know who's creative is right-handed. And yet, the story persists that Leftys are more creative than Rightys. So how true is this?

Left-handedness – or sinistrality if you like – appears in approximately 8–15% of the adult population and is more common in men. The term ‘sinistral’ comes from sinister, the Latin word for ‘left’. This word in turn derives from sinus, the Latin word for ‘pocket’. Apparently, the Roman toga had a single pocket on the left side, for the convenience of the right-handed wearer. The Latin for ‘right’ is dexter, from which we get words like dexterity. Do you sense a theme here? Sinister - bad, Dexter - good. Always on the lookout for the odd and the non-conformist, the Church once actively persecuted the sinister Leftys. Left-handedness was seen as an indication of witchcraft or Satanic influence. It probably didn’t help that left-handedness, in comparison to the general population, also appears to occur more frequently in people with epilepsy, Down's Syndrome, autism and paedophiles [1].

Parents would force their children to become right-handed in order to make them conform. Even up until the early 20th century, schools would insist on left-handed children writing with their right hand (it happened to my own mother). And this isn’t solely a Western issue. The Inuit believed that left-handed people were sorcerers. Until relatively recently, a Japanese man could divorce his wife if she was left-handed. And in China, left-handed children were taught to be right-handed so that they could write Chinese characters using the prescribed method. But is there any evidence to support the idea that Leftys are more creative? Apparently not, despite the fact that the urban myth is still promulgated by trainers of creative thinking courses.

Firstly, there is the issue that creativity is something difficult to both define & measure objectively. That would take a huge essay of its own to discuss in any depth.

Secondly, using a few selected examples of left-handed creatives such as Leonardo da Vinci, Bill Gates and Matt Groening does not negate the fact that other brilliantly creative people are right-handed. The vast majority of artists, musicians and other creative people are right-handed in line with population percentages. The trainer actually used James Cameron as an example because he’s left-handed. But Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick are, or were, right-handed. McCartney may be a Lefty, but Lennon was a Righty. There is no significantly higher percentage of Leftys among artists.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the idea that left-handedness stems from greater use of the right side of the brain. It is true that the areas of the brain that deal with creativity, visual images, sounds (non-lingual) etc. are mostly to be found in the right hemisphere ... and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body (The left hemisphere is more concerned with logic, order, organisation, and language). So, goes the story, if your left hand sends signals to the right side of the brain and vice versa you must be more creative.

This is another logical fallacy, it seems. The truth is that no one side of our brain dominates the other. We use both sides equally. The two hemispheres are connected and constantly swap signals via a bridge called the corpus callosum. Scans have shown that while ‘being creative’, signals may go to the left hemisphere first but will then be passed to the right to help make sense of them. Pictures are pointless without understanding what they mean. Similarly, spoken words are first of all input to the left brain but will then be sent over to the right brain to aid processing because language isn’t purely about words; it’s about context and syntax and intonation and inflection. We are whole brain users. It is worth noting that a number of studies using brain scans have revealed that there are some differences between Righty and Lefty brains. A right-handed person's brain is usually very ordered with specific areas dedicated to specific tasks. This ‘order’ is not the same with left-handed people where responsibility for tasks can ‘move’ around within the brain. None of this, however, argues greater creativity in Leftys. Nor does it imply that either kind of structure has any advantages over the other.

I might also add a final argument. Our closest relatives, the primates, have no real language skills and no preferences for left or right-handedness [2]. They may favour a particular hand for certain tasks but are not fundamentally left or right handed as humans are (Oh, and the urban myth that all polar bears are left-handed is just that; an urban myth. There is no scientific support for this story whatsoever). Therefore, the arguments about creativity and language skills being tied to left or right brain function seem to be entirely human - and probably have more to do with history, culture and prejudice than biology.

I've said it before and I'll say it again ... if we put the same effort, time and money into working out and promoting what we all have in common instead of looking for the differences in people, we'd all be a lot happier. Being a Righty or a Lefty isn't some kind of competition; there's nothing productive to be gained by reinforcing stereotypes and creating divisions within society. A creative person is the sum of their environment and life experience, just as a sporty person or a literary person or a political person is. Call me an old hippy if you like but perhaps we should concentrate on the output of the creative person rather than what hand they use?

And perhaps we should employ creative people to teach creative thinking courses?

Just a thought.


References

[1] Cantor, J. M.; Klassen, P. E.; Dickey, R.; Christensen, B. K.; Kuban, M. E.; Blak, T.; Williams, N. S.; & Blanchard, R. (2005). Handedness in pedophilia and hebephilia, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34, 447–459.

[2] Elizabeth V. Lonsdorf and William D. Hopkins (2005) Wild chimpanzees show population-level handedness for tool use. The National Academy of Sciences of the USA

Friday, January 18, 2008

Eurovision Wrong Contest (2006)

Another in my occasional postings of older articles found on my hard drives. Here's one I wrote following the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006 ...

Tonight was Eurovision night, which used to be one of my favourite nights of the year. It was the one night when I could enjoy the strange delights that only Eurovision can deliver - weird costumes, out-of-tune singers, politically strategic voting, presenters apparently made of cheese and lyrics so bizarre that they made you gape open-mouthed. The BBC kindly provides a simultaneous translation on teletext and it's a hidden joy of the competition. My favourite this year was Severina’s song Moja Stikla (My High Heel) for Croatia. It started well with:

‘For the grass has not yet sprouted where my high heel has trodden
Come, come, come, come, hop, hop, hop, hop, come on, my chicken’

and got better and better with such lines as:

‘Tick-tock 'round half past two, you will nibble me, but no one will see,
Golden ring, thin moustache, I know well guys like you’


and the amazing middle eight:

’Zoomb, zoomba, hay, straw, cheese, salami, risi-bisi, bowl,
Red beet, red teet, Africa, paprika, sije, sete,
Sije oto, sije nove, sije mine, come on, come on!’

Fantastic.

The worthy winners this year were Finnish Goth weirdoes Lordi with their anthem Hard Rock Hallelujah! And they – Mr Lordi, Amen, Kita, Awa and Ox - made a real effort to dress up … as monsters, zombies, skeletons and some kind of demonic Roy Wood look-alike complete with glaring red eyes, horns, 24 inch platform boots and an enormous chopper. That’s the spirit of Eurovision.

Finland, we who are about to guffaw salute you!

But Lordi were the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, the show was awful. I never thought I'd say this but ... Eurovision is losing its lustre.

Eurovision has become very knowing in its old age. As you know, people are at their funniest when they are unintentionally bad - that's why the auditions for X Factor and American Idol are far more popular than the actual contest. Eurovision's campiness, bizarre lyrics and obscure untalented stars were what made the contest compulsive viewing. But countries are trying too hard now.

In recent years, Germany (of all places) has tried to put on deliberately comedic acts ... Russia has used lesbian sexiness with Tatu ... Ruslana's Xena Warrior Princess attire was calculated to woo lusty viewers away from the rotten song she was singing ... and Israel fielded a glamorous transexual. Most of the acts now sing in English, robbing us of the charm that comes with translation. And the voting ... well, it now makes the contest pointless. Eurovision was created to unify Europe. All it now does is demonstrate partisan politics and xenophobia.

In 2003, the UK entry Jemini polled no points whatsoever. Admittedly it was never a winner (nor even an also-ran) but it was hugely evident that the voting was indicative of Europe's opinion of the UK supporting America's war in Iraq. And, with the introduction of 'new' Eastern European countries in 2005, the voting system achieved a new low. With all of these countries voting for their nearest neighbours, the so-called 'Big 4' (Spain, United Kingdom, France, and Germany - the biggest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union, who stage the contest (and therefore automatically qualify)) all occupied the bottom four places on the scoreboard.

So maybe it's time for Eurovision to have an extreme makeover. Or maybe we should just kill the beastie off. Whatever the answer is, it needs doing soon before everyone loses interest in it.

I know I have.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Jim Moray and the lost stories

I was always a bit of a folkie. I grew up with folk music. My dad knew lots of songs and taught them to me and I went to lots of folk clubs as a youth. To be honest, there wasn't much else in the way of live music to enjoy in 1970s' Cornwall, but folk was never a chore. I’ve always loved the fact that packaged inside every song is a story; that they’re about people - often real people - who lived and loved and died. Folk has had its ups and downs with popularity but, in the past few years, I’ve been heartened by the number of younger artists embracing the gentre; people like Jim Moray, Eliza Carthy, Cara Dillon, Alasdair Roberts, Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman, Karine Polwart, Bellowhead and others. They're bringing folk up-to-date with new arrangements, new instruments and new songs. And why not? By definition, folk is the music of the people and should be handed down from generation to generation.

I've been particularly impressed by Jim Moray who takes traditional songs and arranges them in brave and creative new ways - like making Early one morning sound like a track by Massive Attack or performing The Week before Easter completely a capella with Brian Wilson-style harmonies. And how about a Coldplay-style reinterpretation of Who's the fool? - a 17th century drinking song? That’s what Moray does and it’s wonderful stuff - equally as dynamic in the studio or live on stage. But he has come in for a welter of criticism from the purists. As Moray himself put it on the BBC series Folk Britannia, there seems to be a belief that unless the ‘Old Guard’ of British folk sanction his work, he will always be seen as simply gimmicky. There are those who claim that if the music isn't performed the same way as it's always been performed then it's not real folk music. That’s ridiculous. What’s the point of having twenty different artists record a song in exactly the same way? Songs and arrangements should evolve so that they don’t stagnate. Keep things the same and they soon lose any kind of resonance with the audience.

There’s a parallel here with faerie tales. And a cautionary tale ...

We all know the stories recorded by the Grimm Brothers (German) and Aesop (Greek) and Hans Christian Andersen (Danish). We even know a few African and Japanese and Eastern European stories. But how many British faerie stories do you know? Ever heard of Cormoran the Giant? Or the Laidly Worm? Or Twm Sion Cati? Or the Fachan? Probably not. Yet these are all fantastic stories that rival any foreign import. And they’re all 100% British. So why don't we know them? Why do we know the foreign imports so much better?

It's all about our attitude to tradition. Grimm and the other writers mentioned above were not scared of change. They took stories that had been part of an oral tradition for hundreds of years and adapted them for their audiences. Then, having established a precedent, other authors came along and did the same thing; altering the stories to match their own audiences. Consequently, the stories evolved to match changes in society and, because of this, they survived. Little Red Riding Hood is a classic case in point. The story started life as a somewhat crude tale told by French peasants. It went something like this:

'A young girl meets a beast called Bzou on her way to Granny's house. Bzou beats her there and kills Granny, storing her flesh in the pantry and her blood in a bottle. Upon arrival, the girl unknowingly snacks on Granny, then performs a striptease before sliding naked into bed with Bzou. As the beast is about to eat her, the girl says she has to go to the bathroom. The beast lets her outside and asks, "Are you merding a load?" but the girl has already gotten away.'

Cannibalism. Child striptease. Defecation. And there are many academics who claim that the story carries a sinister warning about incest. Not exactly Disney material is it? However, it does reflect life in those far off times when life was cheap and children were often treated as objects to be sold, bartered, exploited and abused.

By 1697, when Charles Perrault recorded his version of the story, it had evolved into an allegorical tale intended as a warning to the loose ladies of Louis XIV's court. Our heroine is dressed in red (to identify her with 'scarlet women') and the beast has become a wolf with big arms that were 'the better to hug her' with. In other words, Perrault had made the story relevant to his 17th century audience – uneducated and naïve peasant girls engaged in the world’s oldest profession.

Then, in the nineteenth century, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm traded sex for violence and created a version of the story intended to scare kids into staying on the right path. Instead of big arms, the wolf now had big hands, 'the better to grab her' with. The Grimms also upheld the patriarchal standard of the day by introducing a positive male figure (the woodcutter) to rescue Little Red Riding Hood, as she was now called.

And the story has carried on evolving. Roald Dahl, in his Revolting Rhymes (Puffin Books 2001) has a very emancipated Red killing the wolf herself:

'The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature's head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.'

Picture by me

And in James Finn Garner's hilarious Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (Souvenir Press 1994), Red turns on the woodcutter, calling him a 'Neanderthal' and a 'species-ist' before she and the wolf set up an 'alternative household based on mutual respect and cooperation' and live happily ever after.

Red Riding Hood shows us that the best and most popular stories change with time to suit the audience and the world in which they find themselves. There is a wonderful book by Brian Patten called The Story Giant (Harper Collins 2004) in which the giant in question takes a group of children around the world by way of traditional tales. When questioned about how stories can be ‘lost’ when they exist in books and libraries, the giant explains:

'Their meaning will be lost (…). The pleasure taken in them will be lost. If stories are left unchanged for centuries then the way they are written remains unchanged and they fall out of use through neglect. Stories must be shared if they are to stay alive'.

And that's what happened to our British faerie stories. With the exception of those that were popularised by Joseph Jacobs - and which now survive as pantomimes - most of our stories did fall out of use through neglect. Instead of being told and retold and adapted and changed, they were preserved and archived by 18th century folklorists who collected and stored them away for posterity. It's good that they were not lost ... but the desire to 'preserve' them has left them as dry and dusty as pinned moths in a display case. To all intents and purposes they are dead, which is why our kids don't know any of them. How sad is it that young Cornish kids all know Andersen's Little Mermaid but don't know about the Mermaid of Zennor? Isn't it tragic that kids know all about Pocahontas but have never heard of The Wise Men of Gotham?

We should be celebrating our rich folk tradition, not keeping it in storage boxes or old books for dusty academics to study. Our folk tales should be part of a living storytelling tradition, growing and changing as time goes on. Our stories are a part of what makes us uniquely British and without such things we’d just become some horrid homogenised Anyland with no sense of identity. We should be telling them in our schools. We should be reading them to our kids at night. And Disney should biting our hands off to take them away and make animated versions of them.

The purists and the old farts who resist change because it may 'spoil' our traditions have inadvertently robbed our children of their folklore heritage. It may now be too late to resurrect these stories ... but I hope it's not too late for our folk music. At the moment it is being kept alive and fresh by a small band of folkie heroes who, despite a lack of interest from the music industry are doing what they can to keep the tradition alive.

I was offered two tickets to see Spice Girls at the O2 arena recently. They would have cost me over £100 for the pair and, from what I understand, I'd have been paying to watch five women miming on stage. In stark contrast, I recently paid just £7 to see Jim Moray live in Liverpool. There were no costume changes, no light shows or lasers, no dancers. There was just Moray, a guitar, a battered old keyboard and computer. And he was mesmerising. We should do all we can to support young innovators like Moray and his ilk - many of whom have to self-fund their albums - as they are doing more to enrich our culture and history than any number of girl and boy bands. And certainly more than any X Factor winner ever will.

Visit Jim Moray's MySpace site or his shop here. Both albums are great listening and a third is on the way in May.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Blessed are the medical record librarians

Isn’t it curious that here in the UK we’ve adopted patron saints that are not native? Only St David of Wales seems to have actually come from the place he represents. The others come from all over the place:

  • St Andrew (Scotland) came from Israel;
  • St George (England) came from Turkey (and, incidentally, never once set foot on British soil);
  • St Patrick (Ireland) was an Englishman; and
  • St Piran (Cornwall) was Irish.*

There’s a saint for just about any activity or job you care to think of. Here are some of my favourites:

  • St Basil the Great – Patron saint of hospital administrators.
  • St Clare of Assisi – of television.
  • St Fiacre – of taxi-drivers, venereal disease sufferers, horticulturists and haemorrhoid sufferers.
  • St Rene Goupil – of anaesthesiologists.
  • St Isidore of Sevilla – of computer programming.
  • St Januarius – of blood banks.
  • St Joseph the Betrothed – of fighting Communism.
  • St Martha – of dieticians.
  • St Peter the Apostle – of fishmongers, clockmakers and virgins (and many others. Also called upon to tackle snake bites, rabies and demonic possession).
  • St Raymond of Penyafort – of medical record librarians.

Who decides these things? And how can someone who died in 1253AD be patron saint of television?

*Yes I know that, technically, the patron saint of Cornwall is St Michael ... but he was foisted upon the Cornish by the English. The Cornish prefer instead to celebrate the life of the man who - as legend would have it - discovered tin. The Cornish flag is known as the flag of St Piran and shows a white cross on a black background, representing the shining white metal against the black rock.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Find the Gimp - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Click on the pic for a larger image. If that's still not big enough, then right click on the bigger image and save to your computer for more detailed and magnified searching

Image and Find the Gimp (c) Stevyn Colgan

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The tuck stops here

The story so far ...

2007 was an extraordinary year for me in quite a number of ways. Yes, getting a book contract was fantastic (it arrived on Friday - I should be signing on Monday!) ... but close on its heels in terms of personal satisfaction was my weight loss.

At the start of 2007, I weighed just over 20 stones (that’s 280lbs or 127 kg) and I’m only 5’ 10” (1.77m) tall. I now weigh around 15 and a half stones - just before Christmas and New Year I weighed in at around 15. I promised myself that after six months of abstinence, I would enjoy myself during the silly season. And I did, although I was nowhere near as indulgent as in previous years. And I put on around 7-8 lbs.

Well, that's all gone now. The last of the Christmas cheeses, pies and puddings are now officially eaten or thrown out. I waddle into this coming week in good spirits and in a positive frame of mind. My aim is to drop the final three stones I need to lose by my birthday on August 11th. What a great celebration that will be ... I will be 12 and a half stones - my correct weight - and will have shed a staggering 7 and a half stones. And I will do it. It's only a matter of willpower - nothing else.

So, the tuck stops here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Living with Crazy Buttocks

It’s great when you find something really unexpected. I was spinning some websites this evening trying to find a book about traditional British attitudes to luck and at one point came across this fabulously titled book:

‘Joel on Software: And on Diverse and Occasionally Related Matters That Will Prove of Interest to Software Developers, Designers, and Managers, and to Those Who, Whether by Good Fortune or Ill-Luck, Work with Them in Some Capacity.’

Yes, that is the actual title. The book was written by one Joel Spolsky in 2004 and is published by Apress, USA. That set me to wondering what the worst title for a book would be. So I started trawling through booksellers’ lists. On www.abebooks.co.uk I found the promising:

Smith, J.R. (1987) The Speckled Monster : Smallpox in England, 1670-1970, with Particular Reference to Essex. Essex Records Office.

But then I discovered that the British trade magazine The Bookseller actually awards an annual prize – The Diagram Prize - for the oddest book title of the year. Among the winners in the last few years are:

‘People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It.’

‘Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum Standards and Best Practices from East and Southern Africa’ by Simon Milledge.


‘Ancient Starch Research’ by Robin Torrence and Huw J Barton.

‘Soil Nailing: Best Practice Guidance’ by A Phear.


and

‘Bullying and Sexual Harassment: A Practical Handbook’ by Tina Stephens and Jane Hallas.

Previous year’s winners included ‘Bombproof Your Horse’ (winner in 2004), ‘The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories’ (2003), and the slightly scary ‘Living with Crazy Buttocks’ (2002).

Living with Crazy Buttocks? Was it a book about a person whose arse suffered from mental illness? Or a description of life with some Native American chieftain (who had a father with a ‘zany’ sense of humour).

I heartily recommend Bizarre Books by Russell Ash (author of recent bestseller Potty, Fartwell and Knob) and Brian Lake (Pavillion Books 1998)

Yes, we'll have no spamming

Do you ever get those strange emails where it seems to consist of just a random string of words … until you open it and find that you’re being invited to look at ‘Exciting Russian Teens’ or ‘The Engorger’? I have a great little program called Mailwasher that prevents this kind of shite getting into my inbox. But before it gets rid of the Spam it does allow me a glimpse of messages like this:

Agreement Mollusc Music Found Tanners boyfriend avail. Bib Feeding Union echoes economic upswing Blatter extends sporting nephew ocean mammals wavelets. Sounds equal technique picking species group. merging science greater whales marine glimpse wolfram jazz sonified suspended Honda wires diagram. sculpture closer secrets from frenzied Rules sabotage Runway. invisible body. CRACK. Tell friend Biography exploding Nokias Strange ominous creatures whose origins traced Dwarves cell disco flashing. Shark Discovery Finally Realizes Viewers Brains finally.

Is there some secret message we’re all missing here? Is this how spies send messages to each other?

Or are they simply lyrics by Yes?

(Check out the first two minutes of Tales from Topographic Oceans to see what I mean.)

That Old Fox Terrier Problem

I was on a train travelling into London recently and overheard a guy talking on the phone. He was obviously some kind of TV creative and was talking about a show he was working on; a documentary about the Lusitania. He was moaning about the quality of his researchers.
“These are graduates ... but all they do is search the internet”, he moaned, “and all they give me is the same old shite from the same old sites. I want them to read books where the authors interviewed survivors. I want to track down any surviving U-boat crew. I want witnesses, first or second-hand accounts. I want ships’ records and captains’ logs. All they ever bring me is printouts from Google.”

This is such a terrible shame. The Internet is the greatest resource we’ve ever had. I, for one, use it almost constantly. However, I balance my Internet research against other forms of research like interviews, libraries, newspapers, TV documentaries. And if I do find something interesting on the Internet, I do my damnedest to verify it. Recently, while researching a book, I came across the story of HMS Friday. It goes like this (thanks to the Snopes website):

‘One hundred years ago, the British government sought to quell once and for all the widespread superstition among seamen that setting sail on Fridays was unlucky. A special ship was commissioned, named HMS Friday. They laid her keel on a Friday, launched her on a Friday, selected her crew on a Friday and hired a man named Jim Friday to be her captain. To top it off, HMS Friday embarked on her maiden voyage on a Friday. It was never seen or heard from again.'

Of course, it's a load of old cobblers. Before accepting this story, I double-checked the facts. Snopes - Barabara Mikkelson's excellent urban myth debunking site - also said it was rubbish. I’ve spoken to the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth and they have no record of any such ship. And I’ve checked the listings on Mike Phillips’ exceptionally completist Ships of the Old Navy website and there’s no ship listed between the Freija and the Friendship.

And yet, I must have now found more than 30 websites that repeat the story of HMS Friday as fact. I bothered to find out the truth, but those website authors just copied the story from elsewhere. They didn’t do the research. The late science writer, Professor Stephen Jay Gould, called this the Fox Terrier Problem.*

Gould was a great campaigner to have evolution taught in American schools. As a Christian and a scientist, he abhorred the idea that knowledge and truth be subjugated by a twisted version of his own beliefs. And while he was researching the subject he discovered subtle but undeniable truth-bending in schoolbooks – even in those schools where evolution was taught. For example, some books stated that giraffes had evolved their long necks so that they could reach the leaves at the tops of trees. This was patent nonsense because it presupposed that there was some kind of deliberate plan to grow longer necks. In other words, intelligent design = God. The truth is that the long neck probably evolved by way of advantageous mutation; the giraffes with the longer necks and legs saw the predator first and got a head start. Therefore, their mutant ‘long neck’ and ‘long leg’ genes survived to be passed on to successive generations. And, of course, the process took many millions of years. The by-product was that giraffes could avail themselves of a food source that others couldn’t reach.

He also found evidence that human evolution was being described to schoolkids as a form of constant improvement; that we were getting more and more advanced as if there was a goal to be reached. Again, the fossil record dispute sthis. We are the way we are because of environment, predator/prey relationships, food supply, natural selection and sexual selection. Evolution is not some predetermined march from primate to divinity. A subtle difference in the way the Earth worked a few million years ago and we’d probably still be up in the trees.

The traditional depiction of the evolution of the horse. Image © Research Machines plc

Another common example he found concerned Hyracotherium (or Eohippus as it was called in older textbooks). This was a primitive ancestor of the horse. Physically, it looked quite like a horse, except that it had toes instead of hooves, and was considerably smaller than any modern horse. About the size of a Fox Terrier in fact. Invariably the books would have an illustration showing the gradual evolution of the horse from Hyracotherium to modern Equus by way of a series of intermediate species. The lie here was in suggesting that the horse passed through those different forms in a linear progression. The truth is that each species would diversify into a range of new species and maybe one or two of those would survive to evolve again. The evolution of the horse looks more like a tree with a lot of dead branches than a single long stick.

A more realistic depiction of the evolution of the horse. Image © Critters 2 Go


Then there’s that reference to Hyracotherium being the size of a Fox Terrier. Gould found it in almost every book he read. But when he actually came to think about it, he realised that he had absolutely no idea what a Fox Terrier looked like, nor how big it was. Nor did anyone he knew, which suggested that the people who’d written these books probably didn’t either ... which meant that all of these books had been put together simply by copying previous books. His investigations showed that the first appearance of the Fox Terrier comparison was made as long ago as 1904 when American Museum boss Henry Fairfield Osborne published a description in his article The evolution of the horse in America in Century Magazine:

‘We may imagine the earliest herds of horses in the lower Eocene as resembling a lot of Fox-Terriers in size …’

And for nearly a hundred years, this description was copied and re-copied by lazy researchers who never actually bothered to find out what size Hyracotherium actually was. Gould concluded that if people want the ‘right’ to publish facts and figures, they should discover them for themselves or, at least, go back to the original source instead of relying on quick and easy data that may be a 10th generation (and often inaccurately cloned) source.

And now the Internet has compounded this problem several billion-fold. My nephews and neices go straight to Google when they have homework to do. None of them bother to check the veracity of the facts. And, as overworked and underpaid as they are, it would be an exceptional teacher who did it for them.

It makes me wonder what life will be like 50 years from now. Will we be a society who takes everything we read online as Gospel? If so, The Enlightenment was all for nothing.

Notes:

~On May 7th 1915 the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger-carrying ocean liner was sunk by a German submarine, U-20, with the loss of 1198 lives. The sinking shocked America into finally entering World War I on April 17, 1917.

*Stephen Jay Gould (1991). "The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone." Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History W.W. Norton & Co. New York.

Semiopathy - A Joy for Life

I love semiopathy. It's the art of writing a sentence that can be read in more than one way; in other words, the message you recieve depends on how you read it. Some of my favourites include:
  • We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.

  • Ask about our plans for owning your home.

  • Would you like to enter Miss World? (although this is also double-entendre)

  • Our motto is to give our customers the lowest possible prices and workmanship.

  • Why go elsewhere and be cheated when you can come here?

  • North Carolina pageant contestant gets shot at world title.

  • Please don’t feed the fish kids.

And the commonplace but brilliant:

  • Caution – Slow children.

Do you know of any better ones? Send them in! Oh, and here's one you don't see every day ...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Fear the Gideons!

Staying at a hotel recently, and in a moment of rare and uncharacteristic boredom, I actually found myself skimming through the first few pages of the complimentary Bible I found in my bedside table (along with a five pence piece, a piece of orange peel and, most bizarrely, a London Tube Map - I was in Leeds). I'm not a religious person - I am an atheist of the highest order - but it was either that or daytime TV. So out came the Gideons.

It told me that The Gideons are ‘an association of Christian business and professional men and their wives (sic) who believe that the Bible is the inspired work of God’ and that they ‘place Bibles in hotel bedrooms where a succession of readers can find the word of God.’ What an oddly specific way of spreading the word. Does this mean that, had the founder of The Gideons been a refuse collector, they’d now be placing Bibles in your wheelie bin? It’s all very odd. But not as odd as their logo, which is of an old fashioned stone jar or amphora – of the kind you sometimes see as a decorative pot at garden centres – with big handles on both sides. It looks like a silhouette of Prince Charles. Only his hair’s on fire as there’s a flame emerging from the top. Who knew that Brylcreem was so flammable? Apparently it symbolises a jar with a flaming torch of the kind that ‘Gideon used during his night attack’. What night attack? I’ll admit that I don’t know the Bible at all well but I don’t remember hearing about any night attacks at Sunday School. And is someone who commits night attacks really the best patron for a society that deals exclusively with lonely people in hotel rooms in unfamiliar towns and cities? But it gets worse …

If I were given to paranoia, I’d maybe now turn to the Bible for help. And, sure enough, the front of the Gideons Bible has a handy ‘Where to find help when …’ section. Among the subjects listed are:

Afraid or fearful.
Anxious or worried.
In danger.
Depressed or discouraged.
Feeling inadequate.
Lonely.
Needing sleep.
Troubled.

Now I’m all alone in a strange room and I’m being reminded of what a loser I am by a society based on a bloke that attacked people at night. Great.

I double-locked the door and shut the windows overnight. Just to be safe.

You never know.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Great QI Advertisement - Warning! Rude Words!

video

Yes, I know it's a year or so old now but it still makes me laugh. Warning! Rude words!

This little Pig went wee wee ...

I like a urinal designer with a sense of humour! The excellent photo above was taken by Hans van de Vorst in the offices of AFAS, a software company from Leusden, The Netherlands. I do like their style.

Way, way back in the mists of time ... well, August 2006, we had a rambling discussion about gents' urinals (read it here). An odd subject for discussion I know but there is a science and art to these functional and important items and it's fascinating ... in the same way that a car crash is fascinating or the lifestyles of the rich and famous is fascinating. We don't really want to look, our instincts tell us not to look, but we just have to. And then we instantly regret it.

There is no good reason why urinals cannot be things of beauty. We choose our sofas, televisions, tables, chairs, kettles and mobile phones based upon a combination of criteria that include looks and function. We want them to be funky and chunky or homely and comfy. We want our stuff to look beautiful as well as to meet our needs. That extends to the suites we buy for our bathrooms; our sinks and taps and baths and bidets and bogs. So why shouldn't that aesthetic be extended to public loos?

Variation on a theme - the loos at the Sofitel Hotel, Queenstown, New Zealand.

My 'interest', if you can call it that, is purely professional. As you'll know, I spent many years as a police officer in London. What you may not know is that I spent the latter part of my career working in a new-ish branch of policing known colloquially as 'problem solving'. It's a simplistic title for a very complex subject but what it essentially entails is eschewing enforcement tactics in favour of digging deep down into the root causes of a problem and curing it from that point; it's all about developing a permanent cure rather than constantly treating the symptoms. It involves getting lots of agencies and individuals to work together as a team: some tackle the environment; some tackle the offenders; others tackle the reasons why people become victims and work to re-educate, inform, or empower them. It's a clever way of doing policing and is now working its way into the business practices of your local neighbourhood police.

Which is why I became professionally interested in urinals. Al fresco street urination is a serious problem in London (in reality, it's a national problem). It's unsanitary, it's smelly and it happens a lot. There are many reasons for this: Firstly, the increase in pub opening hours means people are drinking for longer and the binge-drinking culture means that they are drinking more. Secondly, public toilets have all but disappeared. In a 2006 report titled An urgent need: The state of London’s public toilets, the authors pointed out that 40% of all public toilets in London had closed since 1999. Some even more scary statistics for you: The capital now has just one public loo for every 18,000 residents and one toilet for every 67,000 of the city's 28 million annual visitors. Only 88 of the 225 Tube stations have public toilets and, for the 6.3 million daily bus passengers, there are just 13 bus stands with loos, and a further 18 with conveniences in a nearby shopping centre. So is it any wonder people are finding an alternative? The London Assembly is taking the issue seriously and is trying to force through legislation to create 'a statutory duty for local authorities to ensure there are adequate levels of publicly accessible toilets in their areas.'

Bali Airport. I'm sure the splashing water sounds help ...

Thirdly, and most surprisingly, is that fact that female public urination is on the rise. The most common reason given for this increase is that the queues for women's toilets are always too long (when you gotta go, you gotta go) and there are never enough of them. And so-called 'ladette' culture has young women now acting in the same boorish ways that young men always have. Fed up with their lot, some women have - literally - taken things in hand and learned how to wee standing up. Back in New Year 2005, I was with some friends in a pub in Eton. One of them went to the loo and came back looking genuinely shocked and surprised. He said that as he'd been standing there doing his business, an attractive young lady had walked in, stood at the urinal next to him, hitched up the front of her skirt and ... well, you know the rest. She then turned to him, smiled, and said 'That's the most useful thing I learned at Uni' and washed her hands. There are companies that produce helpful devices, such as the SheWee or Femmeplus, to aid with this activity and even whole websites dedicated to training this skill. And why not? 50% of the population have always been disadvantaged when caught short by the fact that they were issued with 'a sprinkler system rather than a hosepipe' (Jo Brand's words, not mine).

So, for a variety of reasons, the crafty sneak down the alley - for boys and for girls - is now a major problem and we were asked to tackle it. The obvious answer was to lay on more toilets of course and this is being addressed to some degree. Westminster Council has recently installed 'pop up' loos that are submerged underground by day but can be lifted at night to pavement level. Portable urinals have also been placed in particularly affected areas, such as alleyways and bus stops, at night. These urinals also have the advantage of being open, much like French pissoires, so they don't attract illegal activities such as drug dealing like traditional closed toilets do. That's not much help for most of the ladies however. And certainly no help for those who have disability or mobility issues.

But even when you do install a public toilet, you need to prevent the thing being vandalised by roving groups of Asbrats (see previous post) and keep the things clean and sanitary. CCTV isn't really an option for such a private personal function and few people would want to work alone in a busy public lav at night for fear of violent behaviour being directed at them. Therefore, we had to look at designing the problem out; we needed to make the facilities resilient to vandalism and, to a degree, self-cleaning.

Many public loos now have stainless steel or diamond-hard ceramic bowls and vandal-proof taps. That's a good start. It helps with the cleaning too. Gents' public toilets are generally ghastly places. Badly designed urinals encourage spillage and the average blokes' aim isn't always spot on - especially after a pint or six. Some sanitaryware manufacturers have been very clever in addressing this. The psychology of the pissoire is fascinating. Maybe it's the old hunter-gatherer instinct, but blokes like to aim at stuff. So one company prints a life-like fly into the glaze at the exact point they want the chap to aim at. Consequently, there is no spillage. Another I saw recently had a miniature goalpost and a ball to push around the drain. Yet another had a coloured dot made of thermo-reactive plastic that, when hit, revealed an image or message. There is even an interactive urinal that allows a chap to play games with his willy instead of a controller. I'm serious - look here.

Even without these gimmicks, most urinal bowls are designed with an optimum curvature to avoid splashback. So here's an interesting idea ... could we turn that on its head and use it as a deterrent against street urination? Could we, for instance, create a tile that could be attached to the outside walls of buildings that is precisely the wrong curvature? Wetting the perpetrator - giving him back what he has so generously provided - would surely make them think again? It's a thought!

Meanwhile, there simply have to be more public loos. And once we have all of these loos, why not make them attractive, clever, funny, beautiful and charming as well as functional and resistant to damage? Shops and houses are designed to look good. Electrical goods are designed to look good. Why should this one aspect of our lives be treated any differently? I maintain that people tend to look after things better if they value them. If I discovered a nice, clean, attractive loo in central London, I'd use it in preference to others and I'd be pretty damned upset if it were damaged. Whereas there are many public loos I could point out to you that I would only ever use if I was in desperate danger of seepage. And frankly, I'd be happy if they were demolished tomorrow. Ladies tend to look after their loos better than Gents (but, then again, most vandals are male) but they need better facilities too. Serious research needs to be done to address the queueing issue - is there a compromise design that could be developed that would provide ladies with a form of quick-stop urinal, such as men have, without loss of privacy or dignity? Such things have been experimented with at the Glastonbury Festival and other public events. The silly British embarrassment that surrounds this everyday bodily function hobbles us in many ways as people don't want to discuss these issues. But we must.

It used to be said that the one thing that you could rely on about the British was that they always had the best toilets. It's no longer true. The Lonely Planet guide to London now advises backpackers to avoid public loos in London and to use conveniences at fast food chains instead. And the capital's official Blue Badge tourist guides feel so strongly about the problem that they regularly smuggle tourists into the National Gallery's loos. But last word goes to Professor Glara Greed from the University of West England: 'A nation is judged by its toilets and world-wide London is seen as a dirty metropolis in comparison with other world cities.'

It's time to come out of the water closet and clean up our act.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Son of Brave New Word (Evocabulary Part Three)

Here's a new word I've coined today while having a rant to a writing colleague on the phone:

ASBRAT Noun - Pr.: \əz-brat, (ˌ)az-brat\

1. An ill-mannered and immature young adult that exhibits anti-social behaviour towards the general public. Orig. derived from ASBO (anti social behaviour order) a legal preventative order issued by the courts in the UK to potential young offenders to discourage further incidents. Usually applied up until the age of 14-15 after which they may be referred to as ASBASTOS.

Start using it today!

Fowl goings on in your local supermarket

You'll need to have a heart of stone not to be affected by the series of programmes on Channel 4 this week that discuss chicken welfare. The main thrust has come from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his three-part series Hugh's Chicken Run (last part tonight) in which he attempts to convert the small town of Axminster in Dorset into the first free-range town in England. His various tactics have included revamping the staff canteen of the town's biggest employers - who were serving supermarket ready meals - so that it serves home cooked and free range food. The result is a happier workforce and a tidy profit. He's also engaged the people of the town with public meetings and posters. The most extreme action he's taken is to recreate a standard broiler stock shed next door to a free range stock shed so that people can see the difference in lifestyles between these two types of intensively-reared birds. But perhaps the most interesting experiment has been with those on lower incomes.

The supermarkets claim that their 'buy it cheap, stack it high' policy is what the customer wants. That may be true but what do the supermarkets do to ensure that their customers are informed about the choices they're making? Certainly, no chicken farm would let Hugh near their property with a camera. Why? Surely they have nothing to hide? It's the same story with the supermarkets. Up until the end of episode two last night, no supermarket would agree to be interviewed, on camera or otherwise. Again, you get the sense of people who know that what they're doing is legal but abbhorent and they're ashamed to let anyone in on their guilty secret.

The packaging of chickens is an issue too. 95% of all intensively-reared chickens (that's 850 million birds - not counting the ones that are culled for being underweight) will never see natural daylight. Their short, uncomfortable lives are spent in near darkness and packed tightly into sheds - each chicken has less floorspace to itself than a sheet of A4 paper. They have no amusement or things to occupy them except food and drink and they spend their whole five weeks of life growing ever more morbidly obese so that we have big birds for a small cost. And yet the packaging regularly displays photos or illustrations of open fields, blazing suns and lovely British countryside. This isn't providing 'what the customer wants' surely? This is disinformation in order to sell cheap chickens. The customer is being tricked into buying it. Honest labelling would put many off ... so they don't bother.
Hugh approached a group of local residents on a local authority-owned estate. Nearly all were in the lower income groups - the kinds of people for whom every penny counts. These were the supermarket's demographic; the people that the 'two chickens for a fiver' market was aimed at. He set them up with their own chicken run on an allotment where they could see what a chicken's life should be like. He also invited them to visit his factory shed. The effect was electric. Most were in tears. Most said that they would never eat cheap, factory-produced chicken again. A few hardliners held out stating that their single Mum income dictated that they bought cheaply and for volume. 'I can't afford to buy free range' said one Mum, 'Every penny counts'. It was telling that the lady who held out most strongly about this issue was significantly overweight (so lack of food isn't the issue here - it's volume) and some said that they only ever ate the breast and legs anyway. Hugh showed them how one free-range chicken could provide two meals if they utilised everything. For many of these people, it was a real eye-opener.

Because of the way I was brought up, a chicken always does me for three meals. There is the initial roast chicken dinner. Then, the bones are picked of any remaining chicken and that goes into a curry or a risotto. Finally, I cook up the carcases with any old tired-looking veg I have to make a stock that forms the basis of soups, stews, risottos and gravies. If I'm not using the stock straight away, as I've mentioned before, I freeze it. That chicken hasn't died in vain. I've brought my kids up the same way, to respect the animals they eat and to make the most of food and not waste it. My daughter Kerys is a single Mum with two kids and she's learned to buy better quality food and make it go further. As the result, she and her kids eat more healthily and ethically. If we all did the same and refused to eat the broilers, the supermarkets would very quickly adapt to demand and only stock free range chickens. And once they all do it, the price will soon drop.

I've never been a vegetarian but I do believe that if an animal has died for you in order that you can eat meat, you owe it to that animal to do whatever you can to have made its life as free from pain and distress as you can (on a purely selfish note, it will taste better too). In an ideal world, we would all be responsible for producing our own food. That means growing and killing animals ourselves. I wonder how many people would still eat meat then? Retail outlets have removed us from reality; the animals have become anonymous with packaging. They're just meat. Programmes like those made by Hugh and, in recent years, other notable personalities, force us back to face the reality of where our food comes from. If you can't accept what really goes on behind shed doors - don't eat meat. Hiding behind ignorance and a refusal to accept the truth is both cowardly and grossly unfair to the millions of animals we kill every year to stock those supermarket shelves. Have the courage of your convictions, people.

So, please, please, please ... if you care about the welfare of the most abused animal in the world, sign Hugh's petition here. Or click on the banner above. You'll be among a whole host of famous names and will be doing a very humane and worthwhile thing. The chickens will be better off and, ultimately, so will we. Watch the show tonight if you can. If you can't, Jamie Oliver is running a show on Friday 11th January at 9pm on Channel 4 called Jamie's Fowl Dinners. It will be shocking but informative ... and may change your eating habits forever.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Best Books for Christmas 2007

I'm pretty easy to buy for. A book or a book token and I'm as happy as Larry - whoever he was. Now that I come to think about it, he must have been pretty damned happy; so happy in fact that his joy has become the benchmark of extreme happiness. Strangely enough, that's just the sort of question that is answered by the sorts of books you buy at Christmas and 2007 produced a glut of them. Not pictured are ones I bought myself in the run up to the big event and they include How to Fossilize Your Hamster: And Other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist by Mick O'Hare, Schott's Almanac 2008 by Ben Schott, Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science and Discarded Science: Ideas That Seemed Good at the Time both by John Grant and the brilliantly titled Do Ants Have Arseholes?: And 101 Other Bloody Ridiculous Questions by Jon Butler and Bruno Vincent. All good fun.

But Christmas brought me some real treasures. First up there's The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have Missed by Justin Pollard. Pollard used to be a researcher for the guys over at QI Ltd and it shows; the book is a meticulously researched list of some of the more obscure but fascinating events in British history. I couldn't put this one down. In the same vein, I Never Knew That About England by Christopher Winn is a county by county list of some of the strange places and traditions all around us that we've probably never noticed. Winn has also produced similar books about Scotland, Wales and London. Potty, Fartwell and Knob: Extraordinary But True Names of British People by Russell Ash is very funny, if a little over-the-top. After a while, the relentless lists of names become a bit wearing. There's at least two books crammed into one here. Saying that, some of the names are hilarious and you can't help but wonder at the motivation of parents who name their kids things like Minty Badger, Pleasant Titty and Everard Cock. Last on my list of 'that sort of book' is the best of the bunch, The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium in which Philip Dodd explains the stories behind the people whose names have been immortalised in everyday things and situations. Obvious examples are cardigans, sandwiches and Wellingtons, but in the book you'll learn the truth about Joseph Frisbie, Adolphe Sax, Jules Leotard, Samuel Maverick and why a man called Guppy gave his name to a fish. Another one I couldn't put down.

In a completely different arena, I have Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind and Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes. Derren Brown's book is part autobiography, part polemic and part explanation of his art. It's a very intelligent book - while remaining funny and accessible - and tackles such things as the structure and psychology of magic, hypnosis and body language. It's quite an eye-opener. Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves do the same thing with their book; a smart, witty and well-researched guide to the psychology and history of jokes. It's a superb read made all the more enjoyable because, peppered throughout the whole book, are hundreds of the very best gags ever written. Not a book to read in public if you have a weak bladder. I read Richard Wiseman's first book The Luck Factor a few years ago and was enthralled. Here was a man, a respectable scientist, who'd started life as a magician and who now used the scientific method to study such bizarre subjects as magic, luck, juggling and escapology. Well, he's now followed it up with Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, further studies of subjects as diverse as behaviour in checkout queues, female van drivers, how to spot the dodgy politician and why quack is the funniest animal noise. Essential reading I'd suggest.

I've saved the best for last. Top of the Pops: Mishaps, Miming and Music by Ian Gittins is an affectionate, copiously illustrated and barmy dip into the history of television's most enduring music show. Each chapter covers an individual subject like Glam Rock, the arrival of Punk, dodgy fashions, dodgy presenters and why Dexy's Midnight Runners once performed with a huge projection of Darts player Jocky Wilson behind them. As the title suggests, it does explain the mistakes and failures as well as why acts were forced to mime. Of course, it would be worth the cover price just for the photos of Pan's People. And yes, I do remember Ronnie Barker's classic gag in Porridge when he said that he'd like to take one of the dancers out for the night. 'Beautiful Babs', he says, 'No idea what her name is though.'

So, a good haul this Christmas. But, is it me, or has there developed a vogue for exceptionally long titles this year? Maybe I'll have to rethink the title of my first book when it's released in time for next Christmas ...