Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gorman - aghast!

I like Dave Gorman. I think he's a natural writer and a great communicator. Finding 54 other Dave Gormans was inspired. Travelling the world via a chain of googlewhacks was another. And I've been particularly enjoying his new book - America Unchained - where he attempts to travel from the West coast to the East without paying any money to the big petrol corporations or chain hotels (The accompanying movie was good but not a patch on the book, surprise, surprise.) There are some really good photos in the book but not nearly enough to sum up his epic roadtrip, so you are directed to his blog or website.

So I had a look. Mr Gorman is annoyingly talented in the photography department too it seems. But while huge skies, awesome landscapes, tacky Americana and graffiti are interesting subjects, by far his best collection of photos is his 'I see faces' collection. They're brilliant!

Gorman seems to have an extraordinary ability to spot the simulacra all around us; he manages to anthropomorphise everything from kettles to USB leads to hinges. Some leap out at you. Some take a little longer to reveal themselves. But they're all terrific. See them all here on his Flickr Book Album.

It just reiterates to me something I once heard Richard Dawkins say about all animals being natural artists and mathematicians, always looking for patterns in the randomness of creation all around us. We're programmed to see faces that aren't actually there and Gorman seems better programmed than most.

Oh, and buy the book. It's pithy, poignant, political and pure fun.

Talk to you all again in May!


All photographs copyright (c) Dave Gorman

The Curious Tale of Blackbeard's Pie

I was going to write a post this evening about the lack of suspense in television shows but, by curious and astronomically unlikely coincidence, John Soanes has written a much better piece covering this very subject, so I'll direct you to read that here instead.

Meanwhile, I shall regale you with a story of pirates, naughty deeds and shenanigans in the land of nursery rhymes and why you shouldn't believe all that you read. 'tis a cautionary tale I tell, wi' a curse, me proud buckos, and one that I've talked about in previous posts, notably hither and thither and yonder. OK, no more pirate talk (until International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th) anyway).

Just recently - on a site hosted by an American university* - I found a fascinating story. It explained in some depth that the children's rhyme Six a song of Sixpence had its origin in a coded set of messages devised by Edward Teach - the notorious pirate known as Blackbeard - to find new crew members.

Because piracy was illegal, captains couldn’t just advertise for crew. Therefore, they had a whole language of codes and ciphers to send word around when they were recruiting. Teach's code breaks down like this:

Sing a song of sixpence – Blackbeard paid sixpence a day to his crew – good wages in those days and unusually generous. Most pirates simply shared out the spoils of their work.

A pocket full of rye – The crew were also given a ‘pocket’ – a sealed leather bag of whisky along with their sixpence every day.

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, When the pie was opened the birds began to sing – is a reference to Blackbeard’s men or ‘birds’ hiding on board their ship (the ‘pie’) while pretending that the ship was in distress. This was one of Teach’s favourite tricks. Once a ship came to aid the supposedly stricken vessel, the crew would suddenly emerge from within the ship and attack their luckless saviour.

Was that not a tasty dish to set before a king? – The original rhyme mentions ‘A King’ not ‘The King’ and refers to Blackbeard himself.

The King was in his counting house, counting out his money – A menial task no real king would indulge in … but Blackbeard did. This line informed potential crewmen that Teach had the wherewithal to pay them.

The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey – Teach’s ship was a captured French merchantman originally called Le Concorde de Nantes. Blackbeard renamed it The Queen Anne's Revenge and it is the Queen referred to in this line. ‘Eating bread and honey’ meant that she was in the harbour (parlour) taking on supplies.

The Maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes – A ‘maid’ was a potential target for looting, usually a ship sailing around the Caribbean, known amongst sailors as 'The Garden'. ‘Hanging out the clothes’ meant that the target had sailed and its sails were hoisted.

When down came a blackbird and snapped off her nose! – There is some debate about whether the final line should read ‘her nose’ or ‘a rose’. Either way, it symbolises Blackbeard taking his prize.

So, to recap, the rhyme actually means … ‘Blackbeard’s ship is in the port and making ready to sail. A target has been sighted in the Caribbean Sea. Blackbeard is going to sail out there and use his ship as a lure by pretending to be in distress. When the target comes to his aid, his crew will emerge from hiding, board the other vessel and steal the loot. Fancy being a part of this? Blackbeard has money to burn and is willing to pay you sixpence a day and an issue of Scotch. Yaarrr!’

Of course, it’s all a trouserful of nads. This imaginative explanation was deliberately created by urban myth debunking website Snopes to demonstrate the dangers of False Authority Syndrome. Snopes creators Barbara and David Mikkelson were keen to get across the message that you shouldn’t believe all that you read just because it appears to come from a reputable source. People make mistakes. Lazy reportage continues to propagate those mistakes. Snopes wanted to graphically demonstrate the pitfalls of the ‘I got it from X, therefore it must be true’ mindset. And they obviously did so.

The true origin of Sing a Song of Sixpence is unknown but we can only hope that it doesn’t describe real historical events. Taken in its literal sense, it would be the ghastly story of a poor laundry woman being savaged and mutilated by a large rapacious bird. Her subsequent lack of a nose would have seriously compromised her olfactory sense.

How does she smell?

I won't even dignify that with a punchline.

* And I won't shame the University by naming them and they have since taken the story down. Oh, and the Blackbeard picture is by me.

Another fictional post ...

It's just like unearthing a time capsule ...

I've been going through an old directory of short stories that I wrote and turning up all sorts of stuff I'd quite forgotten about. So I thought I'd share some of them with you over the course of a few days. Frankly, I don't know what else I'd do with them. The market for short stories is very small and quite tetchy.

I wrote Extraction in 1991 and I tried submitting it to UK magazines like Bella and Best that were popular at the time and featured a short story page. As is often the case, the rejection letters I got back didn't go into any detail why it was turned down. I'd like to think that I'd misread what they were after or didn't understand their market. But chances are they just didn't like it. I eventually self-published it under James Murphy's and my Bigger Betty imprint in 1996 (of which I have talked in earlier posts such as here), along with several other vaguely sci-fi, fantasy or horror short stories.

It's a bit longer than Man of Hunger but is still only 1600 words. Grit your teeth. It won't last long.


Extraction

Bernard stormed out of the dentists, upsetting several people in the waiting room with his creative use of Anglo-Saxon. One hundred and fifty pounds! One hundred and fifty pounds for having a wisdom tooth pulled. It was outrageous. It hurt. And in more ways than one. Bernard was not a rich man. As his Auntie Maureen continually pointed out, he didn’t have a ‘proper job’. He'd tried arguing that being an inventor was a proper job. But then his aunt would point out that inventors actually invented stuff and the conversation would degenerate into argument and several hours of seething resentment for each other. Auntie Maureen had a point, he knew. To date, not one of his inventions had been manufactured or sold. This was why he was not a rich man and also why he still resided with his aunt in a shabby Council house in Wembley and spent much of the day trying to avoid her.

Auntie Maureen was feeding one of her many over‑fat cats when he arrived home. As he opened the front door, the fierce Autumnal wind roared into the house sending newspapers flying and cats leaping for shelter. The cold wind made Bernard's mouth ache even more and he forced the door shut. He noted that even the storm force winds hadn’t shifted the perpetual smell of boiled cabbage, litter trays and embrocation.
“Where’ve you been?” asked his aunt.
“Dentiff”, said Bernard. "Ftill a bit nub fwom the novocaine.”
“You sound drunk.”
"I'm fore."
Auntie Maureen laughed unhelpfully. So loud and raucous was her laughter that several of the obese felines at her slippered feet, waddled as quickly as they could in the direction of the lounge. "Ith vewy windy out there,” he said.
“Something went crash outside earlier”, said Maureen. “It might have been some roof tiles.”
“Want me to have a look?”
“What would be the point of that?” said Maureen. “You’re useless at anything practical.”
Bernard frowned lopsidedly and walked upstairs to his 'laboratory'.

It was, in fact, the upstairs lavatory; which was handy as he'd only had to alter one letter and add two new ones to the brass plate on the door. The room’s normal function was obsolete as Auntie Maureen never took a bath for some strange pseudo-gynaecological reason she’d invented that Bernard naturally didn’t want to know the details of. She washed herself using the hand basin in her bedroom and preferred to use the old-fashioned outside lavatory.
“It's not healthy to sit in your own smell” , she would say, “Fresh air's what you need Bernard ... You always look so pale.”
Bernard was happy to claim the room as his own and had modified it for dual usage. When he wanted a bath, he simply had to lift the cleverly hinged workbench that sat over the top of it. It was the same with the old stained and cracked hand‑basin, which was now incorporated into a computer desk. With the addition of an L shaped foam cushion and a little repositioning, the toilet and cistern had become his chair. Bernard sat down and rubbed his aching jaw. Damn dentist. Yes, they did valuable work repairing the damage wrought by their customers' penchant for sweet tea and Mars Bars. But he didn't like his dentist. Mr Clootie was odd. He dressed oddly and his accent was unplaceable. And it was an odd sort of name, he thought to himself. It made the man sound like an extra from some dire Scottish medical soap opera. He sighed, rubbed his jaw again and switched on his computer. It was time to concentrate on tonight’s instalment of his life's work. Soon, he was sure, he would be able chatting to aliens.

It had always been his ambition to be the first person to make contact. That there were aliens, he had no doubt. He had avidly watched Star Trek and Dr Who his whole life and had grown up an Earthling possessed. They were out there some­where, just waiting for him to contact them. He knew about the Drake Equation. He knew about the Fermi Paradox. These two theories pointed to the fact that the universe was teeming with life, much of it possibly in possession of technology way in advance of Earth’s … but, for some reason, they hadn’t yet made contact. It was a puzzle; a paradox. But that didn’t matter to Bernard. There was obviously a good reason, he surmised; he just didn’t know what it was yet. Maybe they didn’t trust our politicians (who did?). Maybe they’d seen our history of warfare and had decided that we were unworthy to join the greater galactic community. But, whatever the reason for their silence, Bernard was sure that he could persuade them to talk to him. He was worthy and he was a believer. So, for the thousandth time, he loaded his contact software and switched on his transmitter. The toilet light dimmed as power surged into the roof-mounted dish outside. He placed his lips to the microphone and pressed the transmit button.
" Gweetings fwom Earf ..."

An hour later, he made himself a cup of tea. The numbness had finally worn off and he could risk a hot cuppa. It also meant that he was no longer lisping at the stars. Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door.
“I'm going on to bed”, shouted Auntie in an unnecessarily loud voice. “There's something wrong with the telly. The picture's gone all rubbish and snowy.”
“Goodnight Auntie”, said Bernard and he listened to her heavy foot­steps thudding along the uncarpeted landing. Auntie's bedroom door slammed shut and he turned again to his transmitter.
" Greetings from Earth ..."

Another hour passed.

Bernard leaned back on the toilet seat and sipped a fresh brew. A slight static hiss was all that had emanated from his speakers all night. He yawned and decided it was about time that he turned in for the night.
“Hello Earth... Hello Earth ... Do you hear me?”
Bernard dropped his tea in shock.
“Hello Earth ...”
He scrabbled to brush the scalding hot tea off his legs before it soaked into his trousers and grabbed the microphone with trem­bling hands.
"Hello ... H‑Hello ... This is Bernard ... Er... Bernard on Earth. Er ... Who are you?"
The voice at the other end of the transmission became frosty. A diabolical laugh reverberated around the room.
“Hello Bernard”, it said, “This is the Devil here.”
Bernard sighed.
“Whoever you are, get off the air!" he shouted. "This is an important scientific experiment you're interrupting!”
He peered out of the window, expecting to see that the wind had realigned his dish onto the house of one of the local kids. He was a little surprised to see that it was missing. In fact, it was lying on the ground, dish facing downwards, in the back garden where the wind had thrown it earlier in the evening. The television aerial lay next to it, also ripped from the roof by the unusually violent winds. No wonder Auntie Maureen’s picture had gone.
“Are you still there, Bernard?” said the voice.
Bernard sat down.
“Y‑Yes”, he said into the microphone, “I'm still here”.
“Good”, said the Devil, “I'm pleased. Now, you'd better brace yourself for some bad news."
"Bad news?"
"Well, quite bad. I'll be coming up there to take possession your soul in a short while.”
“My soul?” said Bernard.
“Yes ... your aunt has sold it to me for a Rollover win on the National Lottery next week.”
Bernard gaped at the speaker.
“B‑But you can't take my soul! I... I need it! Don’t I?”
“What for?” said the Devil.
“I … don’t know. Anyway, haven't I got to sell it to you myself?”
“Not if I am given some part of your body as a token”, said the Devil, “I can use it to gain possession of the whole.”
“But I have all the parts of my body. You'd know that if you were really Old Nick”, said Bernard, feeling slightly more confident. “I haven't had so much as my tonsils out.”
There was a foul sulphurous smell and Satan materialised in the lavatory. Around his neck, he wore a necklace of human teeth.
“Oh really?” said the Devil with a decidedly pointed smile, rattling his macabre bling. “Old Nick … such an old‑Fashioned name. I haven’t heard it for decades. Did you know that I was also once known as Old Clootie?”
“Bugger”, said Bernard.

In her bedroom, Auntie Maureen was stirred from her sleep by what sounded like a long, loud scream. But then, she rolled over and got back to dreaming about the bevy of heavily muscled, bronzed sailors that she’d recruit for her yacht in Bermuda.

There is, dear reader, a surprisingly happy ending to this apparently tragic tale. Dealing with the Devil is never a good idea. While it is true that Maureen Prentice did scoop the £12 million Rollover Jackpot the following Saturday, she was dead within six months from a completely new kind of superbug that she picked up by not washing her bottom thoroughly. They even named it after her.

And while she languished in the fires of Hell, doing her eternal penance for the wickedness of her life on Earth, Bernard enjoyed the relative luxury of working for the Devil as a cataloguer. Not all the denizens of Hell are there to be punished. It seems that the Devil, or Old Nick, or Old Clootie just likes collecting souls in the same way that others collect stamps or beermats. For these souls – who have mostly led good lives – there are roles to fill, rather like trustees in a prison community. Bernard enjoyed his work. He got to meet some terribly interesting people. He even found himself a girlfriend; a former policewoman from Australia.

And he got to meet his aliens at last because, in a universe of infinite possibilities, it turns out that even aliens have souls.

He catalogued them under ‘Foreign exotics’.

Copyright (c) 1991 Steve Colgan

A fictional post

An unusual post tonight as I don't often post fiction.

I've just been putting the finishing touches to a screenplay for a comedy horror film I was commissioned to write. If all goes well (and the finances come in), shooting could begin in late Summer. And I might just get paid. I'm realistic enough to know that things don't always go to plan so I have retained the rights to the script just in case. I'm actually rather pleased with it.

The story takes place in Ireland and, while I was putting it together, I raided my folders of past work, notes and sketches to see if there was anything I could use. And I found this very short story - The Man of Hunger - that I wrote back in 1990. It's getting on for 20 years old now (1990 seems so recent ... sigh) and I therefore make no apologies for some of the more hackneyed prose and cliche. I was learning. I'd like to think I've got better. Enjoy.

The Man of Hunger

The O’Halloran’s convenience wasn’t at all convenient. It stood at the bottom of a long and rambling garden and, here and there, scattered on the rough crab-grass and cobbles, lay the shards of broken flower pots. It was bad enough trying to negotiate this dangerous obstacle course by day, let alone in the middle of the night. And, in addition, the night held terrors for eight year old Padgraig. He wasn’t sure what he should do. He’d drunk too much water at supper time and now he needed to relieve himself. But how? He had no chamber pot (He’d broken a brand new one a week ago but hadn’t built up the courage to tell his father yet.) There was no other choice. He would have to go outside.

Into the garden.

Into the dark.

Since he was baby, his Nana had told him stories of the night people that inhabited the moonlit world. Just as grey was neither black nor white, so moonlight was neither night nor day and the folk that lived and bathed in it were something less and yet something more than human: The Banshee who wailed and screamed across the marshes; the one-armed and one-legged Fachan; the child devouring Ghillie-Dhu. Padgraig respected the faerie folk. And he feared them. However, the pain in his bladder was growing worse and he knew that he would have to go soon or burst.

He slowly pulled back the bolt on the back door and his stomach growled. He was hungry. Everyone was hungry. Padgraig prayed to God that his hungry tummy would stay silent as his bare feet touched the cool stone of the back step. An owl hooted and somewhere, in the distance, a vixen, sounding for all the world like a woman howling with misery and loss, called for a mate. Padgraig's courage nearly deserted him but desperation drove him on.

One step.

Two.

He made his way carefully down the garden path towards the little shed. All was silent except for his gentle footfalls and a shuffling, rustling noise like dry leaves whispering wind-blown over flagstones. He stopped still, hardly daring to breathe. He listened closely. A cat? The whiffling, soft scraping noise was coming from the Baxter's garden. And there was another noise; a low moaning like the noises his uncle made when he'd drunk too much poteen. Padgraig slowly and silently tip-toed to the wall and peered into the garden next door.

His eyes opened wide with astonishment. At the back door of the Baxter’s house stood a scarecrow of a man; a stick figure dressed in grubby rags that floated around it as if pushed by a warm breeze. It had the face of a dead man; skull-white, old as parchment, slivers of red muscle and pink flesh clinging in tattered sheets. The eyes were deep-set and staring. The teeth were yellowed and chipped. Wisps of wiry hair grew in clumps upon its wrinkled leathery scalp. The creature was peering through the window and moaning softly to itself. Padgraig was so mesmerised and so scared that he hardly noticed that he had wet himself.

The skeletal figure seemed to become even less substantial as, soundlessly, its arm slid into the wall. Its body followed, slipping through the solid bricks and mortar like a man wading into a pond. The wraith was gone and Padgraig stood trembling in his damp socks. He knew this being. He knew what it was and what it did. This was the Man of Hunger - the Man who stole into houses at night in order to clothe his wasting body in muscle and skin, sinew and bone, taken from those who were close to death. It was a sad, pointless existence that the Man of Hunger endured, for as fast as he re-built his body, it would immediately begin to crumble and wither away. He was a damned soul, destined never to be whole, spurned by God and the Devil.

Despite his terror, Padgriag felt unable to leave the wall and stayed waiting for a further ten minutes, his eyes glued to the rear of the Baxter’s house. His perseverance was rewarded when the Man of Hunger re-emerged rubbing his saggy belly. Muscle and skin now clothed his skull and barely any bone shone through. The pitiful creature let out a last, lonely, mournful wail and walked slowly towards the gate. Then it stopped and those terrible empty black eyes stared straight at Padgraig.

“Not your time”, hissed the Man of Hunger and then, he was gone.

The next day, Padgraig admitted to his father that he’d broken his chamber pot. Calum O'Halloran cuffed him gently around the ear and said, “Accident’s happen.” Then he insisted on Padgraig putting on his Sunday best and going next door to pay his respects to old Mary Baxter who had died in the night. She was 83 and had been ill for some time.

The only person Padgraig ever told about the Man of Hunger was his best friend Terry Colhoun. He didn’t believe a word of it, of course, and Padgraig was so cross that he didn't call for Terry for a week.

And he never again drank water at supper time.

Copyright (c) 1990 Steve Colgan

Monday, April 28, 2008

Killing Bottle? You were lucky ...

I had to go to Finchley today for an appointment with one of those companies that melts bits of your eyes with lasers and then charge you the national debt of Chad for the privilege. Okay, I'm being unkind but to be told that it's going to cost me over £2,500 to have 20/20 vision was a bit of a shock. There's obviously nothing wrong with their eyes ... they saw me coming.

Saying that, I am going to get it done. I've reached the point where annoyance gives way to anger at having to keep swapping glasses for distance vision and for reading. And because I have very light-sensitive eyes, I also have to have sunglasses made to prescription. So I'm usually found carrying three pairs, which is madness. Getting lasered-up will mean that I can ditch the specs and invest in some heavy-duty sunglasses. I may not even need reading glasses but, if I do, I'll be able to buy those cheap, off the shelf babies. So it may be £2.5K but it'll save me money in the long run. All I have to do is stay alive long enough to reap the benefits.

However, that's not the subject of this post. This book (above) is. I got to Finchley early due to the London Underground trains accidentally running on time. So I did some mooching around in the nearby O2 shopping centre and discovered the biggest branch of Borders Books I've ever seen. Heaven! I picked up a couple of titles, but my real booky prize was found at a charity shop further down the Finchley Road. I have no idea what charity it supports as all it said on the sign outside was 'Charity Shop' but they had some real goodies on the shelves. And that's where I found The Children's Book of Games, Puzzles and Pastimes. I paid £3 and it was worth every penny. What a gem!

Published by Odhams sometime not very long after 1952 (it doesn't have a date of publication but does mention 'young' Queen Elizabeth II as well as various Georges and Edwards), it's a guide for bored kids. It boasts fascinating features like Spot the cats, Nut Folk - How to make them yourself, Safety first, Stamps are interesting and the brilliantly titled The Game of Visiting Birds' Nests without Robbing Them. It explains how to take photographs and offers a handy comparison between popular 'modern' models like the folding bellows camera and the box camera. It also dispenses useful advice to butterfly collectors such as:

'Your local chemist will make you a proper killing bottle for insects at the cost of about half a crown. Make quite sure the insects' wings are quite dry before you kill them.'

If you're having a party, why not play some of the rippingly super games described? Like Fish Fanning Relay, Duster Hockey, Sir Walter Raleigh Relay, Driving the pig to market and the cracking good fun of Pass me the newspaper please. There's a guide to identifying trees, another on pond-life and a jolly description of catching crabs at the seaside. There's even a 'simple' guide to building your own radio ... though the final device looks suspiciously like something that Doctor Who would knock up to defeat the Daleks.

But my absolute favourite sections of the book are the quizzes and puzzles. And it is in these that an inconvenient truth (sorry, Al) can be seen. Just a few posts ago (and in several others in the past) I was bemoaning an apparent drop in educational standards despite the fact our kids are smarter than ever and our teachers better educated. Kids are being taught to pass ever more difficult exams to meet politically-imposed standards - but at the expense of life skills and general knowledge. Well, there's a snapshot of this whole can of worms (yes, it shows you how to go fishing too) right here in this 50-ish year old book. Judging by the illustrations, it was aimed at kids between 10-15 ... but I wonder how many kids today could answer some of these:

1. Here is an object described in highfalutin language. Can you get it? An argentic truncated hollow cone, semi-perforated with symmetrical indentations.

2. Can you give the name of the object from the following description? Like one of the giants of mythology it leaves the portals of the North armed with huge blocks of stone. Proudly it sails on. The waves that dash in foam against its sides shake not the strength of its crystal walls nor tarnish the sheen of its emerald caves. Sleet and snow, storm and tempest are its congenial elements.


3. In what works do the following characters occur? (1) Man Friday (2) Sam Weller (3) The March Hare (4) Jeanie Deans (5) Caliban (6) Amyas Leigh, and (7) Worldly Wiseman.

4. Give the plural of the following: phalanx, sphinx, lemma, phenomenon, axis.

5. If a cow and a goat could eat all the grass on a field in 45 days, and a cow and a goose could eat all the grass of the same field in 60 days, and the goat and the goose could eat the grass in 90 days, how long would it take the goat, cow and goose to eat the grass when turned into it all together?

Not easy are they? You'll note that I've only included one maths question. That's because the ones in the book mostly deal in Imperial measurements (hurrah!) and 'old money' i.e. Pounds, Shillings and Pence. Still, I'll leave you with one of them, just for a giggle.

If one toy, three balls and seven wheels cost 2s. 6d., and one toy, four balls and ten wheels cost 3s. 5d., find the cost of a toy, a ball and a wheel. Note, we do not ask you to find the cost of each.

Now, I realise that kids today have other stuff to learn and that the eating habits of farm animals and identifying characters from English literature sadly may not have much relevance for them any more. But these kinds of questions are still valid even in today's society. They exercise the brain. They provoke analytical skills. They encourage problem solving. Maths skills are still useful and communication skills - speaking, writing, spelling, grammar - have never been more important. They should be at the forefront of a child's skill set.

So, a fascinating (and cheap) book and one that has been amusing me all day. And good thing too. Like my credit card, I'm feeling a little fragile, battered, bruised and emotional. Later, I'm going to make myself feel better with a game of Pass me the newspaper please. Sod Grand Theft Auto IV.
The answers can be found by reading the comments attached to this post. Not that you'll need them of course. You knew all the answers ... didn't you?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Island of Fire

I'm off to Lanzarote in a few weeks' time for a fortnight's break. Yes, I know that it's not the most glamorous of locations. And no, I'm not living rough in a bivouac made of pliable birch twigs, or in a hut with Kalahari bushmen. Nor am I doing anything particularly worthy, humanitarian or of deep scientific interest. I'm going on holiday. And that, for me, means doing bugger all. Well, not quite ... I'll always have my laptop or notebooks with me. And a camera. That never stops. But I won't be thinking about meetings, deadlines, shopping, mortgages, bills, direct debits or dinner parties. Just me, Dawn and some sunshine and sea.

I say that Lanzarote isn't glamorous but I'm being unkind and far too generalist. Admittedly, most of the coastal tourist region has taken on a kind of Ibiza anytown aspect with sports bars, karaoke clubs and night spots by the hundred. But there are some great restaurants if you're willing to hunt around the back streets (we found a fabulous seafood place last time and were the only guests in there every night. The food was superb and the fish so freshly killed that the relatives hadn't been informed yet). And there's art. Everywhere you go on Lanzarote you'll see echoes of Cesare Manrique. But more of him in a mo.

Head inland from the main resorts and you find volcano-sculpted landscapes dotted with bodegas growing wine grapes in curious pumice-rimmed craters. You'll find places like the Valley of a Thousand Palms. And everywhere there is quiet. It's just so peaceful and the African sun is glorious and almost constant. As you pass through each of the island's small districts, you also pass a variety of 'wind toys'. This is the legacy of Manrique. A native of the island, Cesar Manrique was a contemporary of Warhol and Picasso (and met them both) but he would not be drawn across the sea from his beloved Lanzarote. Instead, he made it his life's work to preserve the island's unique mix of Spanish and African culture and to stamp it with his own indelible mark.

His wind toys are huge kinetic metal and wood sculptures that spin, dance and twist in the breeze. In the North, there is Jameos del agua, a series of extraordinary buildings and structures that Manrique created within extinct lava tubes and bubbles. There is a restaurant, an undergound theatre and the most amazing swimming pool you've ever seen. Manrique's house - now a museum (he died in a car crash in 1992, aged 73) is well worth a visit as is the Mirador del rio, an observation platform he designed on one of the Canary Islands' highest points. The views are extraordinary. And he also designed the scariest restaurant on the planet - The El Diablo Volcan Grill is built smack bang in the middle of the Timanfaya National Park (an area of the island decimated by volcanic eruptions as recently as 1894). The restaurant cooks all of its food by volcano. Yup, just a few feet down, the ground is hot enough to turn water to high pressure steam and human beings to a crisp. So they dug a hole, stuck some griddles over the top and that's how the food is prepared.

Even the look of the island has a debt to pay to the man - thanks to his constant lobbying, laws were passed to ensure that tower blocks (in fact anything over three storeys) would never ruin the beautiful landscape. Having seen such things go up in the city of Arricife, he was so incensed by their brutality and ugliness that he dedicated himself to preventing any more being built. He also saw the way that package tourism was affecting the sister islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife and Fuerteventura and was adamant that Lanzarote should not be next. Consequently all new builds must be sympathetic to the environment and built with local materials - mostly volcanic basalt stone with the bubbly texture of an Aero chocolate bar. And if it ain't stone or wood, it's painted white. The results are artfully at one with their surroundings.

And that's why I like the place. Art, striking landscapes, great weather, and a little guy standing up to the big guys and saying 'To Hell with you. Art and beauty and style can exist side by side with nature.' In his own words:

“I believe that we are witnessing an historical moment where the huge danger to the environment is so evident that we must conceive a new responsibility with respect to the future.”

And that was 40 years ago. If only all town planners and architects thought the same way. So that's why I go to Lanzarote whenever I need to recharge my body batteries. I love the place. And it's only a few hours' flight away - it would take me longer to drive to Scotland.

I can't wait.
Photos by me

Care in the Community Showcase

I have a real issue with programmes like The X Factor or American Idol.

Or, as I call them, The Care in the Community Showcase.

It wasn't so long ago that we would go to freak shows and point at the dwarfs, bearded ladies, conjoined twins and wolf boys. We don't seem to have come very far if these shows are anything to go by. We're still laughing at people who are at best tone deaf and, at worst, delusional or in some way mentally impaired. I do understand that it's hard not to. At best, we're not laughing at the person - we're laughing at what's coming out of their mouths. Bad singing and bad musicianship is funny. Just a few posts back, we were talking about Morecambe and Wise. And what was their top sketch? Yup, it was the Andre Previn one where Eric plays 'All the right notes but not necesssarily in the right order' of Griegs's Piano Concerto. And would Les Dawson have been so funny if he played the piano in tune? But, at worst, we're laughing nervously because we can't believe what we're seeing and don't know how to react ... or we're being superior and cruel.

We shouldn't be laughing at these people. We're better than that, surely?

And now there are spoofs of these poor oafs appearing on YouTube. Here's one of them. Just be thankful it is a spoof ...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Idler #41 - The QI Edition

Get yer mitts on the latest issue of The Idler if you can. It's been edited by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson - the two coves behind QI - and it's packed to the flaps with quite interesting facts and features. Contributors include Warwick Cairns (who made me measure parts of myself a few posts ago), Kevin Parr, Elizabeth Garner and David Boyle and cover subjects as diverse as eels, William Morris, Patagonia, green funerals and the nudist research library.

How could you resist?

In all good bookshops, Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Humphrey Lyttelton (1921-2008)

Goodbye Humph. A national treasure, jazz man, cartoonist, writer, wit and presenter of one of the best game shows ever. Who can replace him?

I'm sorry, I haven't a clue.

Local Ignorance

It all began with one of those trivia challenges that come up at dinner parties. The question was: 'How many US States can you name?' So I set to scribbling desperately - I only had five minutes after all - and was very pleased with myself that I got 44 out of 50. The ones I missed? Idaho. Michigan. Minnesota. New Mexico. Rhode Island. Vermont. Not too shabby for a British guy, I thought. But it set me wondering ... how many English counties could the average American name? (I'm excluding Wales, Ireland, Scotland, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man here). I threw the question out to my party chums ... and was amazed that none of them could best 30. And they were all English. So how's that for a snapshot of local knowledge?

It's all too easy - and incredibly wrong - to accuse Americans of parochialism. For a start, you can't generalise about people like that. Secondly, it's hard for us on our wee island to imagine living in a country so vast. Hell, Texas alone is bigger than our entire nation - and that's just one of the 50. America is so mind-bogglingly big that it has different time zones. There are fields of ice and there are burning deserts. There are mountains and salt flats and swamps and gorges and great tidal rivers. There are beaches hundreds of miles long and great grass plains that seem to go on forever. America has it all. Therefore, you don't need to leave the country. It's all there; the world in microcosm. The only thing missing is history, and by that I mean Western history - there's plenty of native American stuff around. Modern America is a very young country so if you want to see Norman castles or neolithic stone circles or Tudor wooden-framed houses you need to pop over here to Europe. If we combine the fact that the country has everything you could possibly need and a big dollop of national pride (something that our shoddy St George's day celebrations could learn a thing or two about), it's no wonder that many Americans don't concern themselves with what's going on in the rest of the world.

By contrast, here in the UK, we seem to be obsessed with it. I can honestly say that I probably know more about what's happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, California, Zimbabwe and China at this moment than I do about what's happening in my nearest town. Maybe it's the fact that we are a small, isolated island nation that we're always looking outwards? Or maybe we've just become information junkies. All I do know is that I am ashamed to admit that my percentage score was higher for US states than it was English counties. So maybe I should do something about that.

I thought I knew England quite well. But now I come to think about it ... what do I really know about Leicestershire? Or Worcestershire? Next to nothing, to my shame. I know the West Country and the South-East pretty well because I've lived in them for nearly 47 years. But Staffordshire? Durham? Not a clue. I have a lot to learn. And it starts today.

Incidentally ... how many English counties can you name? Check the comments for the answers.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Watchpeanuts

Not a new picture but it's been sat in my inbox for a while and I needed to share it. It's Evan T Shaner's wonderful 'What if Charles M Schulz had invented Watchmen?' pic that was first posted on DeviantArt. It's proved to be very popular and I would sincerely hope that DC, the estate of Mr Schulz and Alan Moore treat it in the way it was intended - as a humorous piece of non-profit making, respectful fan art.

Way too many people feel the need to flex their litigative muscles these days when, frankly, it just isn't needed.

I love this pic. Somehow they just look so ... right.

While we're talking covers ...

... here's a quick scan of mine. I've been quite lucky with my publisher in that they've been open to my suggestions. I always knew that the cover would have to be of a certain 'type' because of the kind of book it is. Obviously, my publisher also had their own ideas. The trick was agreeing what we all wanted. I was keen that we didn't produce something that looked the same as books like Why don't penguins' feet freeze? or Can cows walk down stairs? I have nothing against them at all - they're very entertaining books - but we were aiming to publish a new kind of fact book so it needed a new kind of cover. At the same time, my publishers didn't want a clone of the QI books although we were all happy for some resonance. So Kate Forrester was a great choice as artist; her quirky style perfectly fits the quirky nature of the book.

So I've been lucky so far ... let's see what happens when I sell my second book, eh? If, indeed, I manage to do so.

You're only as good as your last book after all.

The whiff of desperation

How many times have you picked up a book because of its cover? I have, many times. And while it's true that you can't always judge a book ... etc. at least good design, clever graphics or a witty title can pique your interest enough to make you have a leaf through.

Which is why, if I were Alex Chance or Brett Battles, I'd be spitting blood if my publisher had done this (see above) to me. The whole scheme of 'cloning' a cover smacks of desperation and says to me that the publisher doesn't believe in its author. 'Don't worry ... we'll make yours look like a Thomas Harris book. Then it'll sell.' How many Dan Brown cloned covers have you seen?

It's insulting to the author, insulting to the reader.

John Soanes collects these covers on his excellent blog (where I nicked the pics above) - it's a great blog and well worth a visit. Click here. And he didn't even pay me to say that.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ooh ... get him and his fancy new blog

As you can see, I've had the decorators in. A new, fresher, more contemporary look. A wider screen area for bigger pictures and more space for on-screen text. Much nicer.

Same old guff though.

Wikipedia - Saint or Sinner?

A little while ago, we were discussing the fact that the Internet may be the greatest repository of knowledge Mankind has ever had ... but that so much of it is questionable. I recounted the story of the word Quiz (read it here). And before that, back in February, we discussed the ridiculous rumours of black magic and witchcraft surrounding the Harry Potter books that some took seriously. And there was the 'Fox Terrier Problem' of people simply copying from one source to another without ever verifying the facts.

Well, here's another one for you. Yesterday, while researching one of my new book projects I had occasion to look up some background material about mass murdering family doctor Harold Shipman. I read through the official inquiry documents. I read various on-line newspaper accounts. I watched some news footage on YouTube. I read a couple of books at the library. And then I checked Wikipedia and found this extraordinary paragraph:

'As a young child he was forced by his parents to go on regular family boating trips. Some psychologists suggest that it is due to this, possibly in combination with previously latent psychological issues, that throughout his life a regular boating theme can be seen, either through scrap books kept by Shipman or by his growing boat collection. In one of the more controversial murders committed by Shipman, that of Elizabeth Battersby, a small plastic boat was later found to have been surgically placed in her large intestine. Shipman's love of boats has been widely documented, most prominently after his suicide.'

This was attached to a footnote and hyperlink that took you to a piss-poor animated video on YouTube for a song called 'My name is Shipman and I like boats' by some gonk called MavLoronzo. Now, I accept that in a world of free speech, everyone has the right to post stuff like this on the world wide web. But not within the body of a supposedly informative article Mav! Thing is ... kids turn to Wikipedia to help them with their homework. People researching books use it (hopefully as a starting point - all references should be checked thoroughly of course). The joy of Wikipedia is that it is completely open source - anyone can update, add or edit the content - which makes it far more vital and current than any other encyclopaedia. But we all know the phrase 'Garbage in, garbage out' and what it means. As a resource, Wikipedia will only retain its value while the content is free from this sort of vandalism.

I've removed the paragraph from Wikipedia (because I can). But the damage may have been done. I'm sure it won't be long before some party bore corners me in a kitchen and tells me all about the plastic boat in Mrs Battersby's large intestine.

"You can have that for your next book."

Oh no I can't.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

One last batch of Floaters

I've just about run my other blog - Worlds of Possibility - down to nothing now. It was becoming too much of a hassle to run two blogs simultaneously so I decided to move all of the more interesting posts over to here and delete the rest. After all, this is a fairly broad appeal blog covering a wide range of topics that I personally find interesting. We have everything here from urban vinyl collectibles to discussions about Eurovision, folk music, dog turds, dinosaurs and crap music, curious facts, fabulous art and design, unusual wildlife and alternative names for boobies. So, here's (almost) the last post to be moved across before I lock the door and switch off the lights on my other blog. It's a final fling about Floaters.

Here are some more depictions of life in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet (Carl Sagan has a lot to answer for). The first is by long-time space artist supremo David A Hardy. The picture depicts a group of Floaters and what appears to be one of those ubiquitous freaking Skywhales as it chomps on airborne plankton. The second is the cover for a book -artist unknown. The third is by Adolf Schaller.

These other pictures were found by a friend of mine when searching for my (aliens) blog. By a simple typo, he found the Aliens: Worlds of Possibilities travelling exhibition that was developed by the Pacific Science Centre in Seattle in conjunction with SETI and the US National Science Foundation. The exhibition features three animatronic aliens - the Phineas Palindrome (a creature that 'swims' in a dense gravity and looks the same from the front and the back - hence the name) and the Gusty Traveller - a Floater of sorts.

The third alien - the Hairy Sandwalker - is not a Skywhale or a Floater but, as the name implies, a desert creature. I have no information about this model nor how and why it was designed but it is interesting to speculate based solely upon what I can see.

I presume that it's a predator because it has forward-facing (presumably) binocular vision and what look to be powerful running legs. The rotund body could be fatty tissue for storing water (like a camel's hump(s)) and the feet look to be splayed and toughened, also like a camel's. Finally, there's the fur. Fur may seem illogical for a desert dwelling animal but it can be effective in shielding the skin from the sun and for warmth - Desert temperatures can drop below zero at night. It made me wonder what kind of creature it evolved from. The curious 'grabber' resembles a similar structure found on the Burgess Shale Opabinia species (previously described here). So maybe it had similar ancestors?

Finally, a picture of my own floating alien beastie, last seen back in this post, but now shown in scale with some other Earth species.

The Feast of St Eric

William Shakespeare's birthday and, if the stories are true, his death day too.

And, of course, it's St George's Day, the most underwhelming national celebration of identity in the world. He’s a bit of a mystery man is our George. One story says that he was born to a Christian family in Turkey during the 3rd century. His father was killed in battle so his mother took him back to her native Palestine where he was raised. In time, George became a soldier and achieved the rank of Tribune under the Emperor Diocletian before he was 30 years old. However, when Caesar Galerius decided to embark upon a persecution of Christians, George refused to take part and criticised the Emperor’s decision. Diocletian ordered that George be tortured to renounce his Christianity. George refused despite terrible punishment and was eventually beheaded on April the 23rd 303AD. His martyrdom convinced many others to convert to Christianity.

But it was during his military career that he achieved the feat that he is most famous for. A dragon lived in a lake near Silena, Libya. The dragon demanded two sheep every day from locals and when it didn’t get its portion of mutton, it demanded a young maiden instead. George arrived in the area just as the local village lottery had chosen a young princess to be future dragon poo. Despite the fact that whole armies had died taking on the beastie, George crossed himself and rode into battle and killed it with one blow. Of his sword. As the result, everyone around about became Christians and George distributed his prize (a generous bounty from the Princess’s dad) among the poor before riding off into the sunset.

Of course, there are any number of spoilsports who’ll point out that it’s just an allegorical story about the triumph of Christianity over other faiths. But the dragon story is a lot more fun and George soon became a bit of a cult figure because he was chivalrous, strong, generous and devoted. He was all the things that men wanted to be and all the things women wanted men to be. By the 15th century, his feast day was as popular and important as Christmas Day. And it’s celebrated in many countries still.

The cult of St George probably reached the UK with the Crusaders returning from the Holy Lands in the 12th century. Edward III (reigned 1327 – 1377) was keen to promote the ideals of chivalry and knighthood in his kingdom and so he adopted George as the patron saint of England and dedicated the chapel at Windsor Castle to his honour. And so it continued, with George becoming the icon for all the things that the British aspired to. He was commemorated in song and poetry and prayer. The George Cross was founded as an award for extraordinary bravery in battle. And St George’s flag – the red cross on white – became the English flag.

All this … and George never once set foot on English soil.

So why don’t the English celebrate St George’s Day? There’s no easy answer to that. Many people point accusatory fingers at successive governments who seem to have been so browbeaten by political correctness that they’re scared to celebrate Englishness for fear of being accused of nationalism. Which is why, in a 2004 poll organised by the BBC, 90% of people cannot name a single battle of the English Civil War, 80% don’t know which English king was executed by Parliament in 1649, and 67% of schoolchildren had never heard of Oliver Cromwell (1). Basic English history. Our heritage. Sigh.

But it gets worse … as reported in The Guardian (2), another BBC poll to support the launch of their Battlefield Britain series showed that:

‘A sizeable slice of younger Britons think Gandalf, Horatio Hornblower or Christopher Columbus was the hero of the English fleet's defeat of the Spanish Armada (…) and a third of 16 to 34-year-olds did not know that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, while more than a fifth of 16 to 24-year-olds thought Britain had been conquered by the Germans, the Americans or the Spanish.’

Oh dear. What has gone so horribly wrong? Nationalism isn’t a crime. It’s good and right and proper to celebrate your heritage and history. You’ve just got to be strong enough to divorce yourself from the bullies, the racists and the militants who ignorantly claim that the English should stay ‘pure’; a state which is practically impossible as almost every man and woman in the UK is the descendant of some immigrant, whether it was a Norman, a Saxon, a Viking, a Somalian or a Sri Lankan. At the height of the slave trade in 1750, one in 20 Londoners was black. Multiracial marriages and liaisons were a lot more frequent than you’d think back then and it is quite likely that many white English people have a black ancestor somewhere in their family tree. Certainly, they have an ancestral German. The Y chromosomes of the majority of English men are as Germanic as you can get.

So perhaps it's time we adopted a new patron saint? My money is on Eric Morecambe.

What better example of all that's best and right and proper about being English could there be than St Eric?

Any other suggestions?


(1) You could have the battles at Edgehill, Marston Moor and Naseby for starters, and the king was Charles I. But of course, you knew that …
(2) Information taken from ‘Gandalf finds a place in British history’, The Guardian August 5th 2004.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Secret of the Old White and Crumbly

I mentioned in a recent post one of those jokey emails that starts 'You know you're getting old when ...' Remember? No? Oh dear. You know you're getting old when your memory starts to fade ... But I jest. One of the items nearly always mentioned in the accompanying list is 'old white crumbly dog turds'. Sorry, but it is. And the anonymous author is right; I used to see them all the time when I was a kid but very rarely now. Well, today I realised why and I'd like to share it with you, if you don't mind.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I did my ankle in today. Like the lumbering clumsy twat that I am, I stumbled over the very stone I'd carefully repositioned so I didn't trip over it while putting the wheelie bins out for emptying last night. I put all of my weight onto the side of my foot, wrenched my ankle and then fell over, bashing my already knackered back onto the dwarf wall that surrounds my front garden. Consequently, I ended up cancelling my plans for the day as I nursed my swollen foot and aching back and generally felt sorry for myself as blokes do. But what good timing! The sun came out and we had a glorious day of weather. I couldn't do much so I just sat out in the garden, reading Dave Gorman's America Unchained and watching the red kites (a large British bird of prey) soaring high overhead. They were almost extinct in the UK a few years ago but a captive breeding and reintroduction programme has been so successful that they're as common around here as seagulls are in Blackpool. And they are as beautiful as they are huge. I'm sure I read somewhere that they are the third largest bird of prey in the country after the Golden Eagle and the Buzzard. Certainly, their wingspans can exceed five feet. At one point this afternoon, four of them were floating above my house, eyeing the fields and woodlands nearby for a warm mobile lunch. Glorious.

Anyway, there I was enjoying the weather and raptors when I spotted - yes, you've guessed it - a crumbly old white dog turd. It was hiding under a Bramley tree and as white as white can be (that rhymes!) - as if Frosty the Snowman had been caught short in the garden rather than one of my dogs. And suddenly, I understood why.

I am lucky enough to have village shops and a local butcher nearby from whom I get my meat. It's all local produce, it's mostly organic, and all of the pies, sausages and other meat-based products are made daily on site. That means that when the meat arrives at the shop, it's still hidden inside a cow, pig, lamb or fowl of some description. The carcases have to be butchered ... which means left-over bones. When I was in the shop on Saturday, I found myself watching one of the lads boning out a beef leg. I asked if I could have the old bones for Willow and Buster and brought them home one each. They loved them. They stayed outside in the garden for hours, despite cold wind and drizzle, gleefully cleaning the meat off the outside, cracking their way into the marrow and generally enjoying doggy Nirvana. After two days, they'd reduced the bones to hollow remnants a quarter their original size and devoid of all edible substance. And that explains the change in their ... produce. They had ingested so much calcium and eaten so much bone that the white colour was inevitable.

Thinking back to when I was a kid, dogs always seemed to have bones. They either got the one from the Sunday roast or they got treats from the local butcher. But what chance is there for Rover now with boneless convenience joints of meat for us and tinned dog food for them? How many of you have access to a decent butcher where the meat looks like meat, rather than a Supermarket plastic and polystyrene-packaged anonymous red lump? It's no wonder the white dog turds have gone; the very thing that caused them, the bones that provided so much pleasure for the average dog, have been taken away in order to make our lives convenient. I can't help but feel that in doing so we've robbed our canine chums of something dear and caused hassle for ourselves in the long run ... as the person who has to clear up the 'dog eggs' in our garden, I can assure you that the 'old white and crumbly' is almost odourless compared to the usual fare.

Right, that's me done. Sorry if the scatological content of this post isn't to your liking but at least I didn't include any photographs.

Think yourselves lucky.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Going for a drive through

I'm indebted to my old mucker Huw Williams for finding this on YouTube (and to 'Videocornwall' for filming it and posting it up). This is a drive through the town of Helston in Cornwall where I lived from the age of 11 to 18. I got quite nostalgic watching it. Our journey takes us past two houses that I lived in, my old school, my local pub (The Blue Anchor) and the houses of many friends (including Huw). One point of interest is the 'kennels'; the curious water channels that run parallel to the kerb. They once worked as a rudimentary sewer; now they exist solely to trap the wheels of unwary tourists.

The video lasts for just over four minutes. It's not a big town.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Spring - will it ever be sprung?

Just a quickie post today. Firstly, despite the best efforts of wind and hail and rain and snow, the first hint of my organic Summer vegetables has arrived. I have good crops coming on of onions, garlic, peppers, lettuces, courgettes, radishes and tomatoes. My rhubarb is looking very healthy and there are stirrings of life in my potato buckets.

Secondly, I have (finally) just about finished my 'April Showers' oil painting. Long-time visitors to this blog may recall that I started this one a couple of years ago as an attempt to teach myself oil painting. Since then I've completed a number of other canvasses - with varying degrees of success - but I decided that I needed to finish this one off. So, barring a few more raindrops and a bit of work on the lower right frog, I think it's just about there.

Hoo-bloody-rah.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

DVDs for Alien Lovers

I thought that I'd just quickly mention a number of DVDs you can buy that (currently) provide the best speculative alien biology. They're not perfect by any means but are entertaining nonetheless.

Best of the bunch (visually) is Alien Planet (only currently available in Region 1 format). This is the two-part series that animated the creatures of Wayne Barlowe's Expedition book and features soundbites from such luminaries of astrobiology as Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku and Seth Shostak. Visually, it looks great even though the CGI is a bit ropey (let's face it, we've been spoiled by Star Wars, King Kong and Transformers ... so anything below that standard looks ropey now). But it's better CGI than anything else on the market ... as you'll see below.

Next up is Alien Worlds: Blue Moon and Aurelia. This was a tie-in to the UK Science Museum's Science of Aliens exhibition and has people like Simon Conway Morris and other scientists discussing two hypothetical worlds they have created. The Blue Moon features Skywhales (Eek!), giant Kites and predatory communal Stalkers, while the steamy world of Aurelia gives us amphibious Mudpods and curiously Kiwi-like Gulphogs. Again, poor CGI but interesting viewing. However, like Alien Planet, it does work from the assumption that life on these worlds resembles life on Earth because the planetary conditions are similar. There is a book called The Science of Aliens by Jack Challoner (Prestel/Science Museum) that explains the science behind these creatures.


Best of the bunch in terms of speculation is Cosmic Safari, which was a series produced by the Learning Channel (part of Discovery) in 1999. Sadly, I can't find an English language DVD of this (although it was apparently released on video). It's a real shame because although the CGI is truly awful, the organisms presented were really inventive; silicon-based crystal trees, squat crawling high-gravity world starfish and stick-limbed, paper-thin aliens from low-gravity worlds. Great stuff.

Finally, I'll mention The Future is Wild. Not actually an aliens DVD, this is a series loosely based on Dougal Dixon's After Man book (Dougal did contribute to the series) and provides us with fanciful and largely credible ideas of what life on Earth could look like in three time periods: five million years from now, 100 million years and 200 million years. The CGI is okay (no better or worse than the others) and the science is mostly there. Apparently, some accuracy was sacrificed by the producers to create better visuals but, as an introduction to the whole area of spec biology, it's not too shabby.

Try one of them as an alternative to anything with Hugh Grant in it. You won't be disappointed.

Previously posted on my 'Worlds of Possibility' Blog.

Smart shows for Smart kids

It's been a week of ups and downs. The Book Fair was great. I've hit upon a couple of interesting ideas for new books that I'm keen to explore. And there have been a couple of hiccups with current projects. However, several events caught my eye this week and set me off on one of those meandering, mental walkabouts that so often end up as posts to this blog. Like this one. Fancy a walk?

The first event was the tragic death of Mark Speight. For the benefit of my many overseas readers, I will explain that Mark was a children's TV presenter. He appeared on a number of shows, mostly at the BBC and mostly with an art theme (SMart, Art Attack etc.) and was himself a very talented artist. He was also a very funny actor and comedian and was always a hoot when he turned up as a guest on other shows. Back in January his girlfriend - another children's TV presenter - was found dead at their flat. There was evidence of a joint drink and drugs binge and Speight had apparently been in a narcotic stupor while Natasha Collins had climbed into a scalding hot bath, oblivious of the pain, and died of a heart attack. She suffered 60% burns over her entire body. Speight was understandably distraught and never recovered from the loss. He went missing earlier in the month but was found hanged at Paddington railway station this week. My good friend Mad Woman (who turns in a comment now and again as 'Me' ) wrote a very poignant blog entry about the tragedy. Such a waste.

The second event was seeing just how much of the Autumn book trade is geared towards celebrity autobiographies, ghost-written memoirs and TV tie ins. The Book Fair was full of it.

The third was receiving one of those emails that start 'You know you're getting old when you can remember ...' and listed such things as drinking from the hosepipe, eating raw jelly (jello), attaching playing cards to our bicycle frames with clothes pegs so that they made a sound like a machine gun, dillyboppers, clackers and Rubik's Cubes, and wondering what mad stunt John Noakes would indulge in on Blue Peter (Thanks Emma).

And the fourth was catching a re-run of Sean Lock's excellent TV Heaven Telly Hell show. Comedian and writer David Mitchell was the guest and, as the show's format dictates, he was asked to describe his favourite and least favourite shows. Among his favourites, he listed anything starring Adam Hart-Davis, that slightly mad, definitely eccentric, always enthiusiastic middle-aged Englishman who subjects himself to all kinds of ridicule and physical abuse to show us 'What the Romans did for us' or 'What the Victorians did for us' or even how to complete our self-assessment tax returns. Mitchell bemoaned the fact that TV had moved away from using people like Hart-Davis on children's shows, opting instead for presenters in the 'older sibling' mode.

And that's when my train of thought chuffed and puffed out of the station.

When I was a lad, back in the late 1960s and most of the 70s, children's TV shows were dominated by middle-aged men. Pre-school stuff like Play School and Play Away had Brian Cant, Derek Griffiths, Fred Harris and (amazingly) Jeremy Irons. Infant shows like Rainbow had Geoffrey Hayes and Jackanory - a show in which celebrities read out famous children's books - was most popular when Kenneth Williams or Willie Rushton or Brian Blessed and their ilk brought the stories to life. Art shows had oldies like Tony Hart - he who invented the Blue Peter ship logo. Even the animated shows were voiced over by the likes of Richard Briers (Roobarb), Ray Brooks (Mr Benn), Richard Baker (Mary, Mungo and Midge) and the ubiquitous Oliver Postgate (Ivor the engine, Pogle's Wood, Bagpuss, Clangers etc.) And it was a time of wonderful middle-aged eccentricity in the older children's demographic.

There was barmy, arm waggling scientist Magnus Pyke, snuffling beardy botanist David Bellamy, numbers-obsessed Johnny Ball, animal-voicing Johnny Morris, whispering David Attenborough (thankfully still with us and as enthusiastic and sibilant as ever) and the aforementioned John Noakes. Noakes and his Blue Peter colleagues seemed to spend most of their time doing mad things like painting the Forth Bridge, or scuba diving with great white sharks or free fall parachuting. It was great entertainment. But it was more than that. Without us knowing, these TV icons were acting as role models. These tweedy, hirsute, balding, mad men were teaching us how to behave and things we ought to know. They were showing us that knowledge is not a sin, that science and art and books and travel were all there to be enjoyed. They were inspiring.

When I compare that to an average day of children's TV now, I'm immediately struck by how dumbed-down it all is. Kids are brighter and more intelligent now than they have ever been. They have access to more information than we could ever have dreamed of as kids. They also have a much greater range of methods to access it. We had books, TV (3 channels) and radio (4 channels). They have many, many more channels plus CD and DVD-ROMs, interactive computer programs and, of course, the internet - the greatest repository of knowledge in the history of civilisation. And yet, yesterday's BBC listings consisted of (descriptions lifted from the BBC1 website):

Space Pirates ('Captain DJ is very sleepy, he's even too sleepy to look for music to go to sleep to! Luckily, Honk and Tonk have the perfect, if a little smelly, sleep cure.')

Chucklevision ('Sherwood Chuckle: When Paul is mistaken for Robin Hood, the Chucks have to rescue Maid Marian from the ruthless Sheriff of Nottingham.')

Eliot Kid ('The Big Webster: Eliot and his friends decide to go down into the school cellar in search of Big Webster, who knows everything about everything.')

Thumb Wrestling Federation ('Senator Skull v James Montgomery Flag/Vini Vidi Victory v Big Time: The Stash's super sneeze leaves Skull covered in boogers; the two biggest stars in the TWF meet in the quarter finals.')

Basil Brush (Always a favourite when I was a kid but even this has been dumbed down - if that were possible - 'Anil the Sidekick: Basil hires Anil as his new sidekick, but soon finds he made the wrong choice. But will Basil persuade Liam to come back?')

The Slammer ('It's the battle for supremacy between The Slammer and Da Clinkski, as the annual Russo-British prison cup gets underway. In the Freedom Show, two Russian acts go up against two UK performances.')

... followed by scary Anne and The Weakest Link (where the questions are so pitifully easy it should be called 'The Missing Link'). And it was the same story on ITV and any number of other channels showing programmes during the children's TV time slot. All undoubtedly entertaining but also utterly lacking in any learning, worth or social responsibility. If anything, the shows depict young adults displaying anarchic, anti-establishment behaviour. I'm not saying that there isn't a place for this - some of the best comedy is based upon it. But every show? And when the establishment being railed against isn't a bad establishment?

Am I being old-fashioned here? It's possible and I accept that. But when Lord Reith set the BBC its first mission statement to 'inform, educate and entertain... [and] bring the best of everything to the greatest number of homes' I'm pretty damn sure he didn't mean thumb wrestlers firing snot at each other, fart gags, gunge tanks, practical jokes (a clip shown on the David Mitchell TV Heaven Telly Hell episode showed Dick and Dom - two popular BBC kid's presenters - sticking photos of themselves on pensioners' backs and laughing themselves silly as the result), inane talent shows, so-called reality TV (that doesn't represent reality as people's behaviour changes once a camera is on them) and programmes about C-list celebrity wannabes. And it is our children's TV that has suffered the most from serious mission-drift.

Every day the newspapers bemoan the lack of discipline in our youth, the lack of respect and the arrogance of some kids. Is it any wonder when TV shows tell them that this behaviour is okay? David Attenborough would never pin his photo to an octogenarian I'm sure. Johnny Ball would never have demonstrated the wonder of mathematics by covering people in gunge. And I'm pretty sure I haven't heard of any drugs binges involving John Noakes. Or Shep even.

I'm sure that Mark Speight was under a degree of pressure in his work. Well, sorry Mark, but me too. I'm 47 this year and I've known pressure. I've stood behind a riot shield while people who had just hacked one of my colleagues to death with machetes threw petrol bombs at me. I've had to tell people that their seven year old child has been killed under the wheels of a lorry. I've been kicked and beaten so badly that, on one occasion, I was left with spinal damage and nerve damage in my left leg. But I've never needed to resort to hard drugs. The reason is because I was told, as a child, what drugs are and what they do to you. Kids today know more about drugs than I ever did at their age, but the messages they receive are all skewed. Richard Bacon was sacked from Blue Peter when his drugs history was revealed. It doesn't seem to have done his career any harm. Kate Moss's career has positively blossomed since her habit was made public. And Angus Deayton ... did he ever actually go away? Everyone is allowed to make mistakes - we all do. But when those mistakes are made publicly and you are a role model and you don't seem to receive any punishment for it, what message does that send? Mark Speight and Natasha Collins were not, to my knowledge, addicts or frequent drug users. They knew the risks but had the wherewithal to flout them. They played the game and lost. It is a genuine double tragedy that two young, talented people should die like this. But let's not lose sight of the fact that they had a choice. They weren't driven to it by poverty or dreadful family circumstances. We should use their deaths to send the strongest possible message to our kids, just as we should use the media - TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, podcasts etc. - to educate and inform rather than just celebrate the cult of mediocre celebrity or to read about some soap 'star' who's had a pubic lift.

We all want our kids to act responsibly and with dignity and respect. We all, I would hope, want our kids to develop well-rounded personalities and a good grounding in science and art so that they can get good jobs. We all would like to imagine that the BBC spends our licence fee, and ITV its earnings from advertising, responsibly. But in the area of children's TV, I am convinced that they are failing dismally.

Our kids need role models; they need mother and father figures or uncle and auntie figures. They don't need big brother or sister role models, especially if they behave irresponsibly or just plain stupidly. Let's get rid of greed and the acquisition of wealth and celebrity as life goals. Let's bring back knowledge and education ... but not at the expense of entertainment and fun. It can be done. People like Adam Hart-Davis are living proof of this. He may be seen as an anachronism but he shouldn't be. He is an adult presenter whose shows go out in an adult time slot ... but they are exactly the same kind of shows that kids of my generation got to see between leaving school and tea-time. Why deny our kids this kind of material?

Kids are smart. They deserve smart programmes. Our kids need Tweedies, not Tweenies.

Note: I realise that there were any number of excellent female presenters but the majority were younger and, sadly, added as a touch of glamour. Things got much more balanced towards the end of the 1970s and there were plenty of bonkers middle-aged lady eccentrics to enjoy too.

All images (c) BBC Television except 'Rainbow' (c) Thames Television

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Eye Candy

Marshall Alexander's fantastic paper toys.

A little while ago I became part of the Behance Network, a kind of Facebook for creative types and, every so often, their e-newsletter arrives stuffed full of fabulous artwork. I will post a few items - the kind of work that floats my boat - on my blog now and again. If you like any of it, follow the links and checkout the artists' other work. If you don't like any of it ... that's your prerogative. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.

Landscape by Levi Van Veluw

Chest of drawers designed by Stanislav Katz