Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!


It's probably a little bit early to be saying Happy New Year to you all (nine hours to go) but I'm off out shortly to begin the inevitable round of bingeing and excess so I may not get another chance. So Happy New Year!

2007 has been a good year. It's seen some changes in my life; a move of house, a substantial weight loss (nearly five stones), and a change in status from amateur writer to pro. 2008 promises to be even better with the publication of my first book. The cork photographed above was the first of several popped ... although I made do with a glass of red wine as, believe it or not, I'm allergic to champagne.

It's also looking good for some of my family and closest friends too. My wife Dawn is setting up her own business; my son Liam's band cut their first album since being signed; my daughter Sarah is being promoted to a managerial role and my other daughter Kerys is enjoying a new relationship and doing a fantastic job in bringing up my lovely grandchildren. Huw is finally finding the time to develop himself as a writer. Murph has landed a fantastic new job where he'll finally get the kind of wage his hard work deserves. Debbie has a wonderful new house to live in after six months of turmoil, heartache and financial strain. Joel is getting his first book published and his profile as a leading expert on comics continues to grow. Dave's Dinosaur exhibition in Ireland opens its doors to the paying public. Boris is training himself to be a professional artist ... it's all going worryingly well. The tiny pessimist in me says that something's got to go wrong. But then the much bigger Optimist in me says 'Sod you, you miserable bleeder!' and pummels Mr Pessimism to a pulp.

Of course, if I were a superstitious cove, I'd point out that the Number Eight is a remarkably popular lucky number. In Chinese culture, it is considered lucky as it sounds like the word for 'prosperity' or 'wealth'. In Numerology, it's the number of building, and in Tarot, Card 8 is 'strength'. But such things aside, it's a popular number with gamblers and lottery players because of its sense of symmetry; it's divisible by 1,2 and 4, can be halved and quartered without recourse to fractions and it looks like a fat and happy snowman.

Whatever your personal beliefs, I wish you all a very, very happy 2008 and I hope that you have as rewarding a year as I hope I will!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Find the Gimp! (Yet again ...)

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!

It's the Hal-an-Tow on Flora Day in Helston, Cornwall.

Image and Find the Gimp (c) Stevyn Colgan

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Don't forget your Goths!

A slight disagreement over the entrance fee.

A few months ago (and a few stones ago in my case) I got invited to visit the London Dungeon. No, that’s not some kind of padded room that smells of sweat (and worse). And it’s not a place occupied by a lady in leather called Mistress Whippy. No, the London Dungeon is one of London’s top tourist attractions. It’s just by London Bridge in Tooley Street, built inside one of the old buildings that once serviced the Thames when it was a truly working river.

The London Dungeon is like an extended fairground Ghost Train. But instead of a train, you’re herded in groups through a series of themed areas where actors covered in silicon rubber buboes or Addams Family-style make up tell you all about Jack the Ripper, the Great Plague and Fire of London, Sweeney Todd and mediaeval torture while accompanied by animatronic figures, sound effects and clever lighting. The reason we were there is that my friend Dave is building an annexe to his dinosaur exhibition in Ireland. He has a huge hall to play with and fancies creating a Gothic horror house where themed dinner parties and murder mysteries can take place. And if you want to know what works, check out the best.

The London Dungeon is hugely popular attraction and I could see why. While many of the figures are pretty shoddily sculpted and animated and the whole place is riddled with clich√©, the subdued lighting (near darkness) and the reactions of the people around you create a great fun atmosphere. Our party consisted of about 20 Scottish schoolchildren aged 14-15 and two of the scariest Goths I’ve ever met. And I’ve met some scary Goths, trust me.

When guts collide. Beer, in my case.

A few years ago Dawn and I went to watch an episode of Never mind the Buzzcocks being filmed at the BBC. We were sat among a group of Goths. Or should that be a Herd? Or a Tomb? Anyway, there we were sat among a Tomb of Goths … and these were hardcore. I’ve seen less metal embedded in people at multi-vehicle pile-ups. And they looked dangerously high on something. Of course, that didn’t stop Mark Lamarr taking the piss out of them at every opportunity. The man must have had a death wish. The Goths didn’t laugh. Or smile. Or do anything much. Maybe the weight of metal in their faces didn’t allow for much change of expression.

The Goths at the London Dungeon were friendlier – the female one delighted in comparing the size of her beer gut with mine - but were no less scary in appearance. And to my delight, I actually saw them scare one of the staff. The staff lurk around corners or stand about pretending to be exhibits that suddenly burst into life, prompting screams and squeals from delightedly frightened school kids. One of the Scottish kids reacted to this by punching the arm of one of the actors and was immediately reported to his teacher. Meanwhile, I saw the Goths round a corner in front of me … and scare the crap out of a young man dressed as a Victorian police officer. He jumped out of his skin. Priceless.

Entertaining nonsense and expensive, but it’s worth going once for a laugh. Just one piece of advice – book before you go to avoid queues.

Oh, and take some Goths with you.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Uncle and the Battle for Recognition

I am delighted to be able to tell you that the second book in the Uncle series by J P Martin – Uncle Cleans Up – is at long last being reprinted next year. It follows the reprinting of Book 1 – Uncle – earlier this year. And why am I so delighted? Because the Uncle books are, in my humble opinion, some of the funniest and most inventive children’s books ever written.

I bought the very first Uncle book back when I was in short trousers. Published in 1964, Uncle told the story of an immensely rich elephant – the Uncle of the stories – and his adventures. Aided by The Old Monkey, his man-servant (simian-servant?) and cast of bizarre characters with even more bizarre names, Uncle strives to keep the peace and to protect his many friends and residents. His home, a strange place called Homeward, is described wonderfully by writer David Langford as ‘… half Gormenghast and half Disneyland. Scenic railways abound; there are museums with entire floors devoted to flamingo bird-baths or treacle bowls through the ages. Most of Homeward's inhabitants are alarmingly eccentric, and would pass unnoticed in the Goon Show. An epic pitch of fear is reached during an overnight stay in the Haunted Tower, where ‘The White Terror’ proves to be a small ghost about a foot high, which stands disagreeably on the bedside table muttering, “I did it! I took the strawberry jam!" But facing the hundred-towered glory of Homeward is the dark side of the farce: the filthy stronghold Badfort, ruled by Uncle's arch-enemy Beaver Hateman. The Badfort crowd spend their days lounging around dressed in unclean sacking, swilling Black Tom and Leper Gin, writing down bad thoughts in their Hating Books, and hatching terrible schemes to entrap Uncle.’

Uncle appeared in just six books: Uncle (1964), Uncle Cleans Up (1965), Uncle and His Detective (1966), Uncle and the Treacle Trouble (1967), Uncle and Claudius the Camel (1969) and Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown (1973). All are riotously illustrated by the then pretty much unknown Quentin Blake and all are now horribly collectible. The books were published in hardback in the UK by Jonathan Cape and regularly sell on e-bay and abebooks in excess of £150-£600 per book. The fact that the entire series has never been republished has forced the prices ever higher. It’s also meant that J P Martin has not enjoyed the success and recognition given to other children’s ‘nonsense’ authors like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl. And this is a crime, it truly is. Martin’s books are hilarious, touching, almost Pythonesque in their surreal humour and feature the best names for characters ever. Flabskin. Noddy Ninety. Jellytussle. Isadore Hitmouse. Butterskin Mute. Firlon Hootman. Abdullah the Clothes Peg Merchant. Genius.

To understand why the Uncle books have been so hard done by, we need look no further than the deeply misused and misunderstood cult of Political Correctness. It was the PC Police who drove Uncle away - not because of racism (the books are uncommonly cosmopolitan for the times they were written in), nor sexism nor ageism. It was Classism. Because Uncle is rich and often pompous, some claimed that the books championed the elitism of the Upper Classes. Well, all I can say to these people is ‘try reading the books instead of making assumptions’. Uncle is constantly sent up by his friends and enemies and frequently suffers for his pomposity. David Langford again: ‘The hilarious libels they print about him in the Badfort News all have a regrettable element of truth. It's not only the Badfort mob who are sick to death of hearing about his great deeds of benevolence, like the Opening of the Dwarfs' Drinking Fountains. Also, ever-guzzling Uncle isn't terribly bright: the third novel features a hunt for buried treasure described by the enigmatic code-word dlog, the gag being that everyone except our hero cracks this cipher at first glance.’ Uncle's pomposity is funny. It is certainly not a trait that is celebrated nor valued. Except maybe by author Will Self, a long-time fan of the series who says: ‘I think Uncle stuck with me because of its combination of excess, gadgetry and eccentricity – all of which are modes of being I have attempted to emulate in my adult life. I blame J P Martin.’

Ultimately, it is Uncle’s philanthropy and kindness of heart that win the day, not his money or his class. Oh, and there are some mighty battles too which has led to further anti-Uncle protests that the books are ‘over-violent’. This is also nonsense. Yes, Uncle may ‘lay about himself' with a stone club or two and kick the bad guys 50 feet into the air, but this is cartoon violence of a kind far exceeded by Itchy and Scratchy or even Tom and Jerry. There’s no blood or gore or death in Uncle’s world. It’s madness that the books are held in some kind of republishing Hell because of these silly allegations. I wonder what J P himself would have made of the all the fuss?

John Percival Martin (1880-1966) was not a rabid Socialist. Nor was he a member of the landed gentry. Martin was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire and became a Methodist minister in 1902 before serving as a missionary in South Africa and as an army chaplain in Palestine during the First World War. After the Second World War he lived in the village of Timberscombe in Somerset until his death in 1966. He made up the Uncle stories for his children and was persuaded to write them down in his final years. The latter three books were completed by his daughter from notes he left after his death … but, sadly, most people have never read them as they are so hard to find.

I am lucky I guess. I recognised the genius of J P Martin early and got myself copies of the books. Consequently I have read them all several times over. Now I’d like you all to have the same chance. The first book is back in print and the second is on its way (Sadly, they're being reprinted in America rather than their native UK but heigh ho ... let's make the most of the weak dollar, eh?). I’d love to do my small part to ensure that the others follow suit. We should start an official campaign to get the Uncle books recognised for the children’s classics they are. J P Martin has legions of fans including Neil Gaiman, Terry pratchett and the aforementioned David Langford and Will Self. Quentin Blake has said that he’d love to see the books re-issued. In June this year, Guardian columnist Imogen Russell Williams wrote that ‘we should fight to keep it in print, and campaign for the re-emergence of the later books too - I'm desperate to know what happens in Uncle and the Treacle Trouble.’ And designer Tony Bannister – who has long had first dibs on the film rights to the Uncle books – has been campaigning for years to make the books into an animated TV series. The time is right for Uncle to take his place among the giants of quality children’s imaginative fiction.

So come on, Jonathan Cape! Forget the spectre of dodgy 1980s PC politics and enjoy the books for what they are. Let’s get Uncle where he belongs – in the hands and hearts of imaginative children.

If you're the petitioning type, write to Jonathan Cape Ltd, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA and give them a damn good pen lashing.

If you want to read the Uncle books, start here at Amazon with the Red Fox reprint of Uncle and Uncle Cleans Up, published together as Uncle Stories. Or you can buy the new American edition of Uncle here.

Tony Bannister's Tales from Homeward blog is always a good read as is his Uncle website. And there is a Lion Tower newsgroup on Yahoo where fans discuss the books.

All illustrations are Copyright (c) Quentin Blake and the estate of J P Martin. Colouring by Tony Bannister.

Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a Blue Hat can ...

My good friend Joel Meadows from Tripwire magazine (see numerous previous posts) was invited to the BBC yesterday to do an interview for the World Service. You can hear the interview above. Here's the story it related to ...

'He has fought against foes ranging from the Green Goblin to Doctor Octopus, but Spider-Man now faces an even more formidable challenge: improving the battered image of the United Nations. In a move reminiscent of storylines developed during World War II, the UN is joining forces with Marvel Comics, creators of Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk, to create a comic book showing the international body working with superheroes to solve bloody conflicts and rid the world of disease. The comic, initially to be distributed free to one million US schoolchildren, will be set in a war-torn fictional country and feature superheroes such as Spiderman working with UN agencies such as Unicef and the 'blue hats,' the UN peacekeepers.

Camilla Schippa, chief of office at the UN Office for Partnerships, told the Financial Times the script was being written now and the final storyline was due to be approved in February. The cartoonists are working for free. After publication in the US, the UN hopes to translate the comics into French and other languages and distribute them elsewhere, Schippa said.

The idea originally came from French film-maker, Romuald Sciora, who had been working on other UN projects and is making a DVD about the international organisation that will be distributed to schoolchildren along with the comic books. Although the UN did not come up with the initiative, the measure could help revive the body’s troubled image in the US, where relations have been strained, in particular during president Bush’s administration. John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN, once said that 'if the UN building in New York lost 10 storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.'

The latest UN initiative is not the first time US comics have been used for political purposes. During World War II, superheroes were shown taking on Germany’s Nazi regime. Marvel’s Captain America, together with other characters such as Superman, were shown beating up Adolf Hitler.'

You can visit Joel's blog - Walls and Bridges - by clicking here.

Interview copyright (c) 2007 BBC World Service. Text of story copyright (C) 2007 Financial Times Ltd

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Everybody out! Bob Mills in on!

Can TV shows get any cheaper than the hundreds of 'Top 100 ...' shows that seem to have infiltrated every channel? In the past few weeks we've seen Top 100 Comedy Acts, catchphrases, Christmas songs, worst dressed celebrities, gaffes and bloopers, TV animals ... the list goes on and on. It's just an excuse to cobble together a clip show of free stuff from the archives, record a few talking heads from C list celebrities (what does Bob Mills actually do, apart from these shows?) and sell it to us as nostalgia. And we eat it up. Well, I hope you like the taste because there may be a lot more shite like that coming your way ... especially if UK writers join their American comrades in taking strike action.

The writers' strike in America still holds firm and a good thing too. Writers have always been treated shoddily by the business. I remember reading William Goldman's excellent Adventures in the Screen Trade a few years ago and his annoyance that (not quoted verbatim here) if a film is a huge success, everyone heaps praise upon stars and directors and producers. But if the film is a dog, the first bitch is inevitably that 'it was a terrible script'. And when we think about classic lines in films from 'Here's lookin' at you kid' to 'I'll be back', the only person who gets the credit is the star. A writer put those words in the stars' mouths ... but the writer is paid a pittance by comparison and is rarely credited. Could you tell me who wrote the screenplay for Casablanca? Precisely.*

The strike is aimed at upsetting the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), an organisation representing the interests of American film and television producers. Over 12,000 writers have joined the strike which has now been running since the 5th of November and looks set to run on into the New Year. Every three years, the Writers Guilds negotiate a new basic contract with the AMPTP by which its members are employed. This contract is called the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA). This year's MBA negotiations broke down resulting in the strike. Among the bones of contention are several key issues. One is DVD residuals - the current system for allotting a writer a percentage of DVD sales is old and was rooted in the then 'untested' early 1980s market of VHS and Betamax video cassettes. With the huge rise in public consumption of DVDs, the writers feel (quite justifiably in my opinion) that they deserve more than just the 0.3% of the first million of reportable gross that they currently get. To put that into some perspective, the home video market is the major source of revenue for the movie studios. In April of 2004, the New York Times reported the companies made $4.8 billion in home video sales versus $1.78 billion at the box office between January and March (figures from Wikipedia).

There are other issues, such as better pay generally, and union jurisdiction over animation and reality program writers, but perhaps the biggest issue that this strike revolves around is so-called 'New Media' by which I mean content written for (or distributed through) emerging digital technology such as the Internet. With people's viewing habits in a state of evolution from tradition TV and film to new media like smartphones, hand-held digital media players and pay-per-view, the writers are asking that they are adequately compensated for the use of their creations. In the old days, you simply wrote a script, it was filmed, people paid to watch it and you got a cut. Now, that script can be a film shown in the cinema, on TV, on the internet, and streamed live to your phone. Sections can be chopped and used in music videos and soundbites used in the music itself. And, of course, they appear endlessly on TV 'Top 100 movie or TV moments' type clip shows.

So while you may be ranting about the fact that many US TV shows have halted mid-season (Like Heroes series 2 for example) and several films are stuck in pre-production Hell because of the strike, spare a thought for the writers who deserve better. A lot better. All they want, and deserve, is a fair slice of the pie. Just remember, if it weren't for them doing what they do so well, all we'd see on TV is reality shows and clip shows.

Oh, sod it. Top five comedy acts? (5) Eddie Izzard (4) Steve Martin (before he went rubbish) (3) Bill Bailey (2) Morecombe and Wise, and (1) Laurel and Hardy. No question.

* Casablanca had six writers in all. The basis for the film was the script of the stageplay 'Everybody comes to Rick's' by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The script was then turned into a screenplay by Julius J Epstein and Philip G Epstein, Howard Koch and the uncredited Casey Robinson. (Source: IMDB)

Finde Ye Gimpe - An Historickal Puzzel

Clicke on ye 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!

It's the Institute at Gawlor, Southern Australia, 1871.

Image and Find the Gimp (c) Stevyn Colgan

Find the Gimp! (Again)

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!

It's Horseguards in Whitehall, London.

Image and Find the Gimp (c) Stevyn Colgan

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Find the Gimp!

Here's a game for you to play. A couple of years ago, I designed a book called Find the Gimp; a kind of Where's Wally? (or Waldo if you're American) for grown-ups in which a gimp has escaped his mistress and is hiding in plain cover out among the public.

Firstly, no, I am not the gimp. He is dropped in using an art package (if he was actually in the photographs, too many people would be looking at him and would give the game away). However, I did take the photographs.

Secondly, if you don't know what a gimp is or what a gimp mask looks like ... you're probably too young or naive to be reading this blog.

Will it ever make it as a book? I hope so. Meanwhile, here's a sample. It's a bunch of workmen from the Ministry of Defence on the Victoria Embankment, London during a fire evacuation practice.

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!

Have fun!

Image and Find the Gimp (c) Stevyn Colgan

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Goggle my Warty Balls!

Merry Christmas to you one and all! And if you don't celebrate Christmas, then Merry Non-Denominational Winter Festival! And if you're just a miserable old sod who thinks that the whole 25th of December business is so much humbug ... then I wish you plenty of things to whinge about.

Best presents this year? Onion goggles. So I don't hurt my eyes when peeling. Bizarre. And my Squishy Mesh Ball. Squeeze it and it develops worrying buboes. Brilliant.

Have a great day! I know I will!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Glazed and Confused

In a previous existence - well, when I was a teenager - I worked in a professional kitchen. There was a restaurant in my home town of Helston called The Gondolier and it was run by a small, fiery Italian chef called Salvador Pisano. Salvador had cooked for popes and US presidents but had come to Cornwall on holiday, fallen in love with a local girl, and stayed. And, because he knew nothing else, he opened a restaurant. To be honest, The Gondolier was too posh for the locals. I don't mean that disparagingly - what I mean is that Helston was not a rich town; the tin mines were mostly shut, and the fishing and farming industries were in crisis. To add to the problem, Helston had no tourist attractions; it was not near the sea and there was no handy castle or prehistoric site of interest nearby. All Helston had to offer was Flora Day, a hugely popular semi-pagan festival of dance and theatre and music that takes place every May the 8th and fills the narrow streets with hundreds of thousands of visitors. So posh food at posh food prices just didn't work and the restaurant never really acheived the success it deserved. Ultimately (and after my time there) Salvador cut his losses and opened a very popular Pizzeria - the first in West Cornwall.

Anyhow, I got an evening and weekend job there washing pans and operating the industrial dishwasher. But then, one day, flu reduced the kitchen staff by nearly a third and Salvador was having a real problem keeping on top of service. He therefore approached me and said 'Sod the dishes! Can you make starters and desserts?' to which I replied, 'No idea ... but I'll give it a run!' So I did. And I was quite good at it. So every day he taught me a little more. And within a year I was cooking mains alongside the Master.

What Salvador taught me has stood me in good stead ever since. There's almost nothing I can't cook and during two marriages I've never been allowed out of the kitchen. But that suits me because I love cooking and I have the DIY skills of a duck. So while Dawn lays bricks, sands doors, paints walls and sticks tiles, I cook the meals and do a major chunk of the housework. It's not a traditional way of doing things but the role reversal suits us just fine.

The one exception to the rule is Christmas when Dawn likes to cook the dinner. Therefore, I'm left to do all of the 'extras'. So this year I've made fresh pickles, jams and jellies, and chutneys. And today I did a glazed ham. Here's my recipe (for what it's worth). It's one that I've evolved over the years from one I learned at the restaurant and it's delicious.

First of all, get a good quality gammon ham - the best you can afford (I'm told that the left leg is best because pigs are right-handed and do a lot of their digging with the right leg - consequently, the muscle is bigger and tougher). Cook it on the bone if you can - it tastes so much better. And, if you have time, soak it overnight in cold water the day before you plan to cook it to remove the excess salt.

Chuck the ham into a pan of water with a handful of black peppercorns, a couple of bayleaves and a couple of roughly-chopped and peeled onions. Half water and half cider is great too. Add a clove or two of garlic for an additional flavour if you like. Cook it on the hob for around two and a half hours (this was a 2kg ham), turning it over once halfway through the cooking time. I don't have a pan big enough for the size of ham I need to cook every year (we always have loads of people popping in for meals) so I cut it in two and boil the two pieces simultaneously in two pans. This also gives me the option of leaving one plain and one glazed - or of doing two different glazes.

Now take the ham out of the water and drain it on some kitchen paper for about 25-30 minutes. This allows the meat to rest and all of the juices redistribute themselves while the excess drains off into the paper. Meanwhile, don't waste that fabulous stock you've made! Strain it through a seive and keep it for soups and sauces. I pour mine into icecube bags and freeze it for future use (see photo above). Make sure you label the bags though ... nothing spoils a nice Baileys' on the rocks quite like gravy. After half an hour, the meat will be rested and cool enough to work with. If you bought a ham with the skin on, remove the skin and leave a thin layer of fat. Score it in a diamond pattern before applying the glaze. If it is a skin-free ham, just trim off the excess fat but leave some behind to baste the meat in the oven. Now prepare the glaze.

A glaze can be made from anything sticky and sweet. Popular choices are honey or marmalade but I have had golden syrup, raspberry jam , cranberry sauce ... even lime marmalade glazes and they've all been delicious. You also need some bite and the traditional way of doing this is to use English mustard. However, this year, I made a glaze of 1/3 Oxford marmalade, 1/3 my homemade crabapple jelly and 1/3 wholegrain mustard for some bite. Smear it all over the ham and then sprinkle with demerara sugar. If you want some extra flavour, push some cloves into the surface too.

Bung it in the oven for around 15-20 mins at 220°C (gas mark 7, 425°F ). Baste once or twice. When it's a glorious golden brown, remove from the oven and, once again, let it rest to make it juicy and moist. If it catches in a couple of places, don't worry! The black treacly caramel is delicious too!

Have a great day tomorrow people!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Today's Diversions

Care of Exene's always excellent blog I've been to visit Dutch designer Maarten Janssens' brilliant paper models site today at Three Eyed Bear. I've had a go at making the snowman. Great fun although I had some problems with the hat. Follow his links page for more paper models ... although some of them ask for small donations to download patterns. Fair enough I guess for the time and effort they've expended in designing things for me to waste my time on.

And Ian the Git (you know who you are) has put me on to Ecospheres - small, self-contained and self-sustaining ecosystems of algae, bacteria and red shrimp. They carry on working for 2-3 years, often more.

He has one. Now I want one!

Naked came the Spoof ...

My personal copy. A first edition.

Want to read a great novel? Then don't read Naked came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe. Or do. It's awful. It's brilliant. It's a spoof.

Back in 1969, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady was convinced that standards of literary and artistic taste were plummeting rapidly in the United States. Successful authors like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann were riding high in the book charts and it seemed to McGrady that any book, no matter how badly written, would sell as long as it was full of sex. So he decided to prove it. He got together with a group of his colleagues from Newsday - five women and 19 men - to write a collaborative novel that would be the absolute epitome of the sexually explicit dross that filled the book shop shelves. It would have an almost non-existent plot, no social insight, a complete lack of character development and no redeeming features whatsoever. But it would be filled with kinky sex - at least a minimum of two sex scenes per chapter. They gave the resulting pile of poo the suggestive title of Naked Came the Stranger.

The book was heavily promoted and given an appropriately provocative cover. McGrady’s sister-in-law was enlisted to play the role of the book’s fictitious author, Penelope Ashe, and she did so worryingly well, appearing for interviews in low-cut dresses and singing the praises of sexual liberation and the permissive society.

A modern reprint ... after the spoof was exposed.

And the book sold. It sold brilliantly well. McGrady had proved his point rather too well. He soon started feeling guilty about the amount of money he and his confederates were earning. So they exposed the hoax. And the resulting publicity just made the book an even bigger seller.

All of which meant that McGrady had failed. He had been hoping that his experiment would convince American readers to change their ways. They didn't. If anything, their appetite for shite was greater than ever.

The story of Naked came the Stranger was one of the inspirations for Atlanta Nights (see previous post).

It just goes to show that quality and good taste don't always match the public's appetite.

And I would drive 700 miles …

Christmas is a time for giving, as we all know. It’s also a time of shopping madness and erratic postal services (to be fair the Royal Mail are pretty good considering the volume of post they handle at this time of year – but we always seem to lose at least one present in the post), so what I like to do is pop down to Cornwall with the family’s presents and cards and to collect theirs for my family up here in Buckinghamshire. Normally, I’d do this over the course of a two or three day visit but this year things have been so busy that I had just one day to do it. That meant driving to Cornwall (around 300 miles door to door), visiting all my various relatives and then driving home again. All in a single day. My son Liam decided he’d like to come along too so I picked him up from his house at 5am and off we went. It was a good run all the way to my daughter Kerys’s house. She lives in Devon and I’d promised to pick her and my two grandchildren up en route and take them down to Cornwall with us for the day.

I still get a thrill driving over the Tamar Bridge. It’s a high suspension bridge and the view to the river far below is amazing. There are usually a couple of naval warships parked up there and any number of smaller boats and ships. Then there’s Brunel’s sexy curvy railway bridge that runs parallel to the road bridge. It’s a strange design, 100% Victorian but also strangely futuristic and steampunk-ish; like something from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Or it could be a large scale model of the Loch Ness Monster. I don’t think there’s another bridge in the world like it. The other thrill is entirely emotional. Crossing the bridge means that I’m returning to my roots; I’m back in both my childhood and ancestral home. The broad river Tamar slices Cornwall off from mainland Britain and the county is effectively an island - It’s almost impossible to get into the place without crossing a bridge of some kind. Which is why, as the borders of the kingdom of Cornwall were gradually pushed further and further westwards by the English Saxons (Kernow, as it was called then, once consisted of Cornwall and the Scillies, most of Devon and a major chunk of Somerset), the river formed a natural boundary that the enemy couldn’t cross. Consequently, the Celtic culture and the Cornish language (Kernowek) stayed west of the Tamar. It really was a different country once. And even now, stroppy Cornish separatists are demanding equal billing with the other Celtic nations of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany and the Isle of Man.

First stop was Camborne and a visit to my brother Jake’s house. Camborne and neighbouring Redruth once formed the steam engineering capital of the UK and they were two of the richest towns in Britain. Sadly, Camborne now just looks run-down and destitute. There are Pound shops everywhere; as indicative of poverty as DNA is at the scene of a crime. Once, the whole town throbbed to the mighty engines of a hundred tin mines and the sky was black with smoke from iron foundries and engineering works. The monolithic granite-built factories now stand empty and the tin mines are silent. All that’s left of the business are the skeletal remains of the pump houses and their tall chimneys; nothing defines the Cornish landscape more. The mining industry rolled over and died in 1998 with the closure of the last working mine at South Crofty in Camborne. It was the end of an era; tin has been almost continuously mined on the Crofty site for 400 years and the shafts extend two and a half miles under the town and to a depth of some 3000 feet.

The closure was marked by some poignant graffiti. There is a story that the local police caught the daubers just as they were adding the final question mark. The officers read the graffiti, sighed sadly, got back in their car and drove slowly away. And what was written? Two lines from the chorus of Cornish Lads, a modern folk song written by local lad Roger Bryant:

‘Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too,
But when the fish and tine are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?’


Crofty has just re-opened for business and, as long as the price of tin remains high, has the potential for another 80 years of production. But such is the fragile nature of the industry that I'm not hopeful, sadly. There will always be cheaper labour elsewhere.

Then it was off to Hayle to visit my mother. She's just moved house again. She's moved five times in the past 25 years - I once started to suspect that she was trying to hide from me - and never seems to be happy unless she's scatting down walls (Ooh, that sounded so Cornish), building this, converting that or decorating the other. And in between property developments, she buys crappy abused old furniture from car boot sales, strips the paint off, polishes, fills, sands and varnishes and sells the resulting beautifully restored items on. My Mum is nearly 70, but still gets excited by power tools and works to a soundtrack of Queen and Guns 'n' Roses. Amazing woman. Anyhow, we joined her for a bracing dog walk up on the towans – a kind of moorland of sand dunes held together by seagrass – and enjoyed the unseasonal blue skies and the fantastic views across the bay towards St Ives. Nothing is better for showing off a sky than a broad ocean horizon and today was no exception. The clouds were extraordinary.

At the risk of getting boring, I’ll just say that we then spent the remaining daylight hours driving around Cornwall visiting various relatives finishing up just outside of Saltash – the last (or first) town in Cornwall - for a brief tea and biscuits visit with my Aunt Marlene and her chap Mike at their gorgeous hilltop barn conversion. Not that we could enjoy the view. A blanket of fog had settled over this part of North Cornwall and, indeed, the whole of the west country.

Having crossed back over the Tamar (and paid the toll for the privilege of ‘re-entering England’), we dropped Kerys and the kids off and then spent four hours peering intently through thick fog all the way home. The drive would have been tiring enough already but the additional strain that the limited visibility put on me was very wearing. And Liam snoring in the passenger seat didn't exactly goad me on. By the time we reached Wiltshire, my eyes were feeling heavy and my lower back ached. So we stopped at a motorway services, topped the car up with petrol and ourselves with Red Bull and then set off again. And as we drove, we munched our way through several bags of Haribo (the Tangfastic ones – they’re the best) to keep the sugar rush going.

We finally got back to High Wycombe at 12.15am. I dropped Liam off at his house and went home … and was completely unable to get to sleep as the combination of energy drinks and sugar was now providing my brain with enough energy to power the Duracell bunny for a thousand years.

The odometer on my car showed that my total mileage for the day was 717 miles. That's a hell of a drive in 20 hours. So, would I do it again?

Hell yes.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hard Shoulder - Soft Toys

Wow! Roadkill plush toys - the brainchild of London toy designer Adam Arber. Genius idea. I've already ordered my Twitch the Raccoon.

I look forward to seeing how the range develops. Buy them in your thousands and support a new business. I'd rather have a squashed hedgehog than a Bambi any day...

Visit Adam's site here.

Arch Rivals

We had a beautiful piece of English oak furniture arrive today. It's a sideboard; bespoke, chunky, very heavy and something new to dust. While trying to describe it to a chum, I found myself talking about the cabinet maker involved and then about High Wycombe itself and how it was once the centre of the UK's furniture manufacturing industry.

Chair Arch built for Queen Victoria's visit 1884.

Much of the industry has gone now and the old factories have been knocked down to make place for housing or industrial units. But it is commemorated in some small way by road names like Parker Knoll Way and the fact that the local nickname for the Wycombe Wanderers football team is 'The Chairboys'. Oh, and we have a chair museum. No, really. We do.

Chair Arch built in 1889 to welcome Sir Edwin Dashwood home from New Zealand.

All of which leads me to an essay I wrote for the millennium that was published in the High Wycombe volume of the Ottakar's Local History series of books. I wrote the piece partly to salute the industry and partly to have a bite at the Health and Safety fascists that managed to spoil what should have been a striking and landmark tribute. The essay mentions several chair arches that have been erected in Wycombe during the past 150-odd years. As you'll see from the photos below, the 2000 effort wasn't a patch on previous efforts. But 10/10 to Wycombe District Council for having a go despite the many restrictions placed upon them.

Not sure about this one ... it's similar to the 1889 arch but in a different location. Certainly the most complex - and most potentially dangerous - Chair Arch I've seen. Sadly I couldn't find a photo of the arch set up inside the Town Hall for the visit of the Queen in 1962.

Here's the essay. Enjoy.

Arch Rivals

“It’s not healthy you know. Obsession, that is. Especially when it centres on inanimate objects.”
Jake eyed the Millennium Arch with something like suspicion.
“What are you on about?” I said.
“Football. Star Trek. They’re obsessions that I can sort-of understand”, he said, raising a Spock-like eyebrow. It echoed the shape of the ten metre high arch above us. “But chairs? That’s just weird.”
“I’m not with you”, I said.
Jake pointed up at the structure above us; a skeleton of scaffolding under a skin of boards and tarpaulins and supported on two sturdy legs. The legs were trousered with the bright, optimistic paintings of local students. Some idiot had vandalised two of the pictures and torn off a third. Above the lintel and on all four faces, several long ‘shelves’ ran the width of the arch. On each shelf stood a variety of chairs: cane-seated chairs, armchairs, recliners and Windsors, carvers, drawing-room, lounge, library, reading and rocking chairs. There were nearly 200 in all.
“A chair museum? A road called Parker Knoll Way? And now this?” said Jake, laughing. “I’d call that obsession.”
“Not obsession. Tradition”, I explained patiently. “It’s a chair arch, put up to mark the Millennium. Wycombe has a tradition of chair arches.”
Jake snorted. “I just thought you had posh scaffolders round here”, he said. “I can just imagine them up there, all yellow hard-hats and bum-cracks, sat in comfortable Chesterfields and Parker Knoll Recliners shouting, ‘Phwoooaarrr!’ at the ladies below. Well, it would probably be more like ‘Ding dong!’”
“Har har”, I said sarcastically.
“I don’t know”, said Jake, shaking his head. “Millennium Domes, Millennium Eyes, Millennium Arches … call me a cynic but what a waste of money! I mean, it’s not even as if it is the real Millennium yet, is it?”
“Ah, that old argument.”
“It’s not an argument. It’s basic maths. You can’t tick off a period of a thousand years until the end of the thousandth year. The real 21st century doesn’t start until New Year this year, 2000. Those Whitehall wallies had us celebrating the end of 1,999 years.”
“I see your point”, I conceded.
“And how did our government celebrate all that’s best in Britain at the end of 1,999 years? With an up-turned wok that cost the British public billions. Billions.”
“Did you go there? To the Dome?” I asked.
“Me? Not likely”, said Jake.
“That’s a shame”, I said. “I had a great day out. In fact, everyone I know who went also had a great day out. The floor show alone was worth the entrance fee.”
“Yeah, but that still doesn’t warrant the cost”, said Jake. “People like me who live way out in the country couldn’t afford to go there. What with the rail fares being as high as they are. And petrol isn’t exactly cheap either. That’s the true vision of Britain in the year 2000; an attraction that no-one but Londoners can afford to visit. Is that why you lot built this arch? As a cut-price version of the Dome? To give the locals something to look at as they couldn’t get to the Greenwich white elephant?”
I took a deep breath. Jake had ruffled my feathers but I didn’t want this to sound like a history lecture.
“No, Jake. That’s not it at all. The idea behind the Dome was, as you say, to celebrate Britain at the end of the 1900s. Sadly, the Press got their claws out for it from Day One. The whole project was used as a metaphor for the Government’s performance. And the amount of lottery money that went in didn’t help public opinion either. This arch is different. This was built by the people of Wycombe for the people of Wycombe. It’s a way of celebrating our past, while looking forward to future prosperity.”
I paused to wave at the arch above. “This borough was once the furniture capital of England. All the big manufacturers were based here, like Ercol and Parker Knoll. We were particularly famous for chair making. Chairs were the town’s main export. So, when Queen Victoria paid a visit to Disraeli in 1877… you did know that Benjamin Disraeli lived in Wycombe? At Hughenden Manor?”
“I didn’t, but go on.”
“Well, to mark the occasion the Council came up with the idea of building an arch made of chairs. So they got one of their people – a guy with the brilliant name of Walter Skull - to organise it through the Chair Manufacturers’ Association. The arch even included the State chair of the Mayor.”
“But why an arch?” asked Jake.
“Some reckon it’s a tradition that started after Marble Arch and the Arc de Triomphe were built,” I said. “I’ve heard of places making arches from things like flowers, garden tools and motorbikes. Depends on what the local area is famous for, I suppose. In Wycombe, it’s chairs.”
“Good job they didn’t build a Millennium Arch in Soho then”, said Jake.
“Anyway, the arch was built and, apparently, Queen Vic was so impressed that she stopped the coach to have a closer look at it. That’s what started the fad for chair arches. There have been about three more, I think. I know the biggest one was for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1884. That had about 400 chairs. And there was definitely one in 1962 for the visit of the Queen.”
“And you say that you’re not obsessed?” said Jake. “How do you remember these things?”
“I don’t”, I said with a smile. “It’s written on that poster just behind you.”
Jake turned and saw the information sheet. “Ah. You cheated,” he said.
“I may be interested in local history but I don’t own an anorak yet”, I said.
Jake turned and nodded.
“Yeah, well … I guess it is nice to see a town taking pride in its past. A lot of places just don’t bother any more.”
“It’s one of the reasons I like the town”, I said. “And, as you say, it’s civic pride. Some of the big furniture makers may have moved on, but we still have some of the best bespoke cabinet makers in the world around here. And local schools and colleges produce a large number of brilliant new furniture designers every year. So, still think we’re obsessed with chairs?”
“No. Okay. Point accepted. There is a good reason for the arch. If some places can have hat museums and toy museums, I suppose that Wycombe can have a chair arch.”
“And museum”, I said. “If you like, we can take a walk up there. It’s only five minutes away.”
“Not really my bag”, said Jake. “Although I’m quite happy to go and study the barstools in the Falcon.”

Extract Copyright (c) 2000 Ottakar's Local History Series: High Wycombe.

The Millennium Arch. Good effort all things considered ...

References

‘The High Wycombe Millennium Chair Arch was on view From 17th May - 31st May 2000 outside the Guildhall, High Wycombe. The design and planning of the Millennium Chair Arch was a collective local effort, with delegates from higher education, the media, industry and Wycombe District Council working together on a project with its roots in the past, but confidently looking to the future.’

Taken from the Wycombe District Council website (http://www.wycombe.gov.uk/) as were the photographs used in this blog post.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My favourite worst poem

There are many serious contenders for the title of worst poem of all time. The all-time greats - people like Julia Moore and William McGonagall - produced gloriously crappy epics (of which more at a later date). But even the big guns occasionally dropped a bollock. Can you believe that William Wordsworth could produce lines like:

'I've measured it from side to side;
'Tis three feet long and two feet wide...'

(describing a pond in The Thorn)

But this pales into insignificance beside the outlandish poesy of Theophilus Marzials. His greatest work (in my humble opinion) is A Tragedy, first published in 1874 in an anthology of his work called The Gallery of Pigeons. Dante Gabriel Rossetti hated it, saying that, 'I could scarcely believe it wasn't a spoof, so I checked the first edition, and sure enough this text is accurate and the book clearly had pretensions to be taken seriously.'

So here it is in all of its bizarre onomatopoeic glory ...

A Tragedy

Death! Plop.
The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop.
Above, beneath.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop,
As they scraggle black on the thin grey sky,
Where the black cloud rack-hackles drizzle and fly
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop
On the black scrag piles, where the loose cords plop,
As the raw wind whines in the thin tree-top.
Plop, plop.
And scudding by
The boatmen call out hoy! and hey!
All is running water and sky,
And my head shrieks -- "Stop,"
And my heart shrieks -- "Die."

My thought is running out of my head;
My love is running out of my heart,
My soul runs after, and leaves me as dead,
For my life runs after to catch them -- and fled
They all are every one!
-- and I stand, and start,
At the water that oozes up, plop and plop,
On the barges that flop
And dizzy me dead.
I might reel and drop.
Plop.
Dead.
And the shrill wind whines in the thin tree-top
Flop, plop.

A curse on him.
Ugh! yet I knew --
I knew --
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end --
My Devil --
My "Friend"
I had trusted the whole of my living to!
Ugh; and I knew!
Ugh!
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air --
I can do,
I can dare,
(Plop, plop
The barges flop
Drip drop.)
I can dare! I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
And stop.
Drop.
Dead.
Plop, flop.

Plop.


'And let myself all run away with my head?' Genius.

Want to read more bad poetry? I can recommend three books - The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse by D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, Very Bad Poetry by Kathryn and Ross Petras, and Pegasus Descending: A Treasury of the Best Bad Poems in English by James Camp, X J Kennedy and Keith Waldrop. All three are crammed full of delicious dross and doeful waffle.

Kernow! Kernow! Wherefore art thou, Kernow?

Looking at my mappy thing, I see that I now have visitors from as far away as Hawaii and New Zealand ... but none from my home county (or country if you're feeling a little more nationalistic) of Cornwall. Not one!

Come on people! I can't believe that with all the positive mentions I've made about my home county that there isn't a single Cornishman or woman visiting this blog! I shall have words with my family for starters ...

The Worst Book Ever Written?

I'm gathering data for my book on crappiness. I'm out to find the worst songs, plays, films, poems, videos and books of all time. And while researching the books chapter, I came across the story of Atlanta Nights ...

Most of what we would call 'vanity publishing' these days is pretty up-front; you pay your money, they print your book and no judgements. Companies like Lulu and CafePress do not edit, alter or review your book – they simply provide a publishing service. However, there are some vanity publishers that promote themselves as traditional publishers ... which is all very well if they meet their promises.

PublishAmerica, a company based in Maryland USA, attracted a degree of criticism several years ago. It bills itself as the USA’s ‘number one book publisher’ but, being a vanity publisher, they will always publish more titles than traditional publishers. Consequently, their Guinness Book of Records entry for the world’s largest book signing is indisputable but also somewhat misleading. Traditional publishing companies selectively screen submissions and will assign an editor to work with the author to bring a book to publication. They will also market the book. No cost is incurred by the author. By comparison, companies like PublishAmerica expect the author to do all the marketing of their books (a fact that is recorded in the small print of their contracts at Para. 17).

But the big difference between PublishAmerica and traditional publishing houses lies with discounts. PublishAmerica sells them to stores at a discount of 5-10%. Traditional publishing houses sell theirs at around 40% discount. So if you were a book shop and you had the choice of allotting shelf space to (a) a £20 book from PublishAmerica on which you’ll make £2, or (b) a £20 book from a company like Penguin that will make you £6 profit per book … which would you choose?

It was these kinds of figures that started to generate bad press for the company, along with other complaints about missing royalties, poor production quality and poor editing. In December 2005 PublishAmerica author Philip Dolan, who had spent between US$7000 and $13000 promoting his book, took the company to court claiming that no book stores were able to get hold of his book. He also claimed financial irregularities. He was awarded an unspecified amount in compensation for PublishAmerica's breach of contract, and his contract was rescinded.

Just a few months earlier, the company had also been sued by the Encyclopædia Britannica for trademark violation, having started an imprint called PublishBritannica. That too was settled out of court, with PublishAmerica having to agree to stop using the Britannica name.

But PublishAmerica's most notable case followed a series of scathing criticisms and public remarks they made about science fiction and fantasy writers in the Autumn of 2004. The comments included criticism like this:

‘As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction... [science fiction authors] have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home... [science fiction] writers who erroneously believe that SciFi, because it is set in a distant future, does not require believable storylines, or that Fantasy, because it is set in conditions that have never existed, does not need believable every-day characters.’

The comments were sufficiently inflammatory for a group of such writers to decide to test PublishAmerica’s claims that they were a ‘traditional publisher’ that only accepted high-quality manuscripts. PublishAmerica’s own website at the time boasted that they received over 70 manuscripts a day, read every single one and rejected most of them.

The 30-odd authors, led by James D MacDonald collaborated to produce the worst novel possible and took just one weekend to write it. Highlights included two chapter 12s, two chapters (13 and 15) written by two different authors but telling the same story, two identical word-for-word chapters (4 and 17), a missing chapter (21), and a chapter (34) consisting of words randomly generated by a computer programme. The whole book was littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Characters changed sex and colour and died before reappearing later in the book without explanation. And the finale was appalling; firstly, it is revealed that the entire story was a dream (as in bad TV soap ‘cheat ending’) but the book then carried on for several more chapters. And, secondly, the initials of all the named characters in the book were deliberately chosen so that, if they were properly arranged, they made up the sentence:

‘PublishAmerica is a vanity press.’

The completed book, called Atlanta Nights and supposedly penned by one Travis Tea (ho ho!), was sent to PublishAmerica … who accepted it without reservation and offered the author a contract on the 7th of December 2004. At this point the hoax was revealed.

Here’s a quick sample from Chapter 25 of Atlanta Nights to give you some idea of its 'high quality':

‘Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday …’

On the 24th of January 2005, PublishAmerica retracted its acceptance, stating that the novel failed to meet their standards after ‘further editing’.

However, they later accepted another author's manuscript which featured the same 30 pages repeated ten times.

PublishAmerica are still trading (their website) and still claim to be 'the nation's number one book publisher'. It may be that the issues they had in the past are now resolved so all I can do is repeat the facts about their previous trading practices.

Meanwhile, Atlanta Nights can be bought in paperback or download form from Lulu.com. All proceeds from the book go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund charity.

But is Atlanta Nights the worst book ever written? Or do you know better? Leave me a comment with your suggestions or email me at mail@stevecolgan.com.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ribena for grown-ups

I've just had the satisfaction of bottling my very first batch of home-brewed wine. It's a blackberry wine, it's a glorious colour and it tastes divine. I also have the additional smugness of knowing that every single piece of fruit in the batch was picked by me either in my garden or from the wild brambles that surround the fields where I walk my dogs.

Making my own wine is one more step towards my ultimate goal of sourcing all of my food and drink. During my childhood I enjoyed the kind of lifestyle that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his middle class downsizers now promote as the ideal. But we didn't do it to save the planet, or to be ethical, or to promote food awareness. We lived that way because it was cost-effective. We weren't poor - my parents owned their own house - but my dad's police wage wasn't exactly Fat Cat pay either. So we economised. We grew a lot of our own veg or bartered with local farmers. We kept bantams for eggs. And we shot most of the meat we ate. It was mostly rabbit and wood pigeon but we also enjoyed pheasant, woodcock, snipe and an occasional duck. And because Dad and my brothers Andrew and Jake were keen fishermen, our table was also regularly visited by trout, sea bass, pollack, gurnard and the freshest mackerel you've ever tasted. To top up this smorgasbord of wild larder produce, we also scoured rockpools for winkles and cockles and brought home mats of mussels from the local beaches. And to accompany the food, Dad brewed his own beer and wine and seemed to develop ever weirder flavours as time went on. I mean ... mincemeat wine? But somehow they all worked and I promised myself that one day I would learn the arcane arts of winemaking ...

These days, I source all of my meat from local suppliers and either grow my own veg or buy organic from local farmers' markets. I've got myself a greenhouse this year so I'm looking at growing my own peppers, chillies and other exotic produce in 2008. I already have a variety of fruit trees, a rhubarb patch, blackberries, raspberries, grape vines, gooseberries, quinces and a hazelnut tree. So I'm getting to be pretty self-sufficient. The only things missing are the chickens (not really practical with my dogs, the large number of local foxes and the dozens of huge red kites that hover hungrily overhead every day) and the alcohol. So I get my eggs from someone who does keep chickens and ducks and I've started brewing.

I couldn't believe how easy it is! You can make wine from just about anything. Really. Anything. Teabags. Raisins. Beetroot and parsnips. Oranges. Parsley and rice (honest). Even onions and potatoes. Apart from my blackberry batch, I also bottled a demijohn's worth of rich, sweet, golden oak leaf wine (see photo above). Yes, that's right. Wine made from oak leaves. And it tastes great! I found the recipe in a wonderful old paperback by the master of home wine-making, the appropriately named Mr C J J Berry. First Steps in Winemaking is easy to follow and very informative. And, most importantly, aimed at the rank amateur. I commend it to you. And I also ask you to consider giving winemaking a go. The set up costs are minimal - it's under a tenner for a demijohn, some sugar, some yeast and whatever flavouring you're going to use - and voila! three months later you have 4-6 bottles of tasty wine. It's not even as if there's any real work involved either. Mr Yeast does all of that for you. And believe me, there is a real thrill watching those little bubbles popping up through the airlocks. Yeast eats sugar and coverts half to carbon dioxide and half to alcohol ... so for every bubble, an equal amount of booze is being made! Yay! Good old yeast.

Here's the set-up in my study. Four demijohns (one still has a crabapple wine brewing) and a fermenting bucket lurking beneath my easels. Total cost around £40 - but everything is reusable. And the three empty demijohns have just provided me with 18 bottles of wine.

So Christmas dinner this year will be spent in the company of an organic turkey, locally grown veg and home-brewed wine.

What's not to like about that?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cash Cows

Here's a piece I submitted to a magazine back in 2005. It was accepted but was then pushed aside by something more contemporary and newsworthy. Now that the rights have reverted back to me, I thought I'd share it with you.

“I hear that the Boss has been interfering with the pigs”, said Edward.
Desiree half-closed one eye and frowned.
“Really? I thought he’d been at the cows.”
“Oh he has”, said Edward. “They were genetically modified back in February ... During that heat wave, remember?”
“Oh yes”, said Desiree. “They had human genes spliced into them so that they’d produce human milk.”
“I’m told that transgenic animals and plants are excellent cash crops”, said Edward. “Guaranteed better yields and customised produce.”
“Truly Cash Cows”, said Desiree. “But isn’t it all a bit dangerous, this genetic fiddling?”
“I suppose there are bound to be occasional weird mutations and failures”, said Edward.
“Like those giant chickens”, said Desiree. “Or those cats with wings.”
“But at least one of them was a commercial success”, said Edward. “Everyone wanted a Cat Flap. No one went for the giant chickens though. Perhaps it was because they called them Massive Cocks …”
“Anyway, what were you saying about the pigs?” interrupted Desiree.
“I heard that the Boss has bought some genetically modified pigs”, said Edward.
“Why? What do they do? Produce sausages by budding?”
“No. They get slaughtered and harvested so that doctors can use their organs for transplant surgery.”
“That’s horrible!” said Desiree.
“You’re telling me”, said Edward. “The scientists have mucked around with pig and human DNA so that the pigs’ organs won’t be rejected by the human body. It’s a way of keeping a constant stock of human-friendly organs available. And let’s face it … rich old men who don’t want to die will pay a fortune for a brand new heart, even if it is from a pig.”
“Greed and the fear of death. Mankind’s greatest motivators”, said Desiree.
“Or simple survival”, said Edward. “Let’s face it, this farm has been decimated by CJD, Foot and Mouth, the loss of young people from the profession, lack of subsidies … what is a farmer to do? You can’t blame the Boss for jumping on the genetic bandwagon.”
“I suppose not”, said Desiree. “I just wish that people would use genetic science for more noble causes; maybe to undo some of the damage that Man has done. Like increasing the wild populations of White Rhino or Mauritius Kestrels. Or to bring back species that Man made extinct like the Dodo and Steller’s Sea Cow. It’s a crime that such ingenuity is spent on preserving the human race. It’s not as if it’s an endangered species is it?”
“True”, said Edward. “But there’s not a lot we can do about it is there?”
“We can protest”, said Desiree. “I can write to my MP.”
“You don’t have an MP”, said Edward. “You’re a potato.”
Desiree shut several of her eyes and sighed a tuberous sigh.
“But I’m a genetically modified potato with some human genes. That makes me partly human. Give it a few more years and we’ll have the vote, mark my words.”
“I suppose that’s possible”, said Edward. “After all, that donkey did become the Minister for Agriculture in 2020 …”

Satire is a scary thing in the wrong hands, isn't it?

Dying to write

I’ve seen dead people.

Quite literally. Hundreds of them. I've seen babies and toddlers, teenagers and pensioners. I’ve seen them in beds and chairs, lying on kitchen floors, hanging from rafters, floating in rivers and canals, under the wheels of trucks, on mortuary slabs, spread like jam along railway tracks and reduced to their component meaty pieces.

What a jolly way to start a blog post. But there is some relevance. You see, most people only get to see a few bodies in their lifetime and they’re usually dressed and cleaned-up by hospital staff or undertakers. Having spent nearly 30 years as a police officer, I’ve seen every wretched way that exists for a human being to be torn, ripped, split and crushed. I’ve seen every ignominy that can be suffered, every visceral indignity. And that does something to you, I think.

I’ve heard colleagues say that you either learn to cope with it or you go mad. One of the most common coping strategies is simply to leave the job and take early retirement. Another is to develop a deeply black sense of humour (though that has its own attendant problems in our ever-more litigious and politically correct world). I've known officers to find comfort in religion. And, sadly, I've known a few whose only solace came from the prescription pad. My personal coping strategy was my curiosity. I've learned to treat everything you see, no matter how grisly or disturbing, as something of interest. Contrary to popular belief, police officers do not, generally, have to attend post mortems. But I did. Because I was fascinated. I wanted to see, first hand, how our insides connect together and how our hidden squidgy bits works. These days you can watch such things on TV. They are somewhat sanitised and you’re spared the smell and the fluids and the wildlife. But nothing can prepare you for that creepy German and his hat.

And so I coped. I'm okay. And what I've gained from the experience is an insight into death and just how peaceful and unscary it is. Death means no more concerns about your health. No more mortgage or debt worries. No more of anything. It's utter, utter peace. Death is nothing to be scared of. The scary bit is how you get to be dead; the manner of your passing. And there's two parts to that: the first part is hoping that it will be either peaceful and painless or quick and painless. The second is hoping that you'll be remembered.

Writers are often asked why they became writers. Many state that they could have done nothing else; that it's their one ruling passion. Certainly that was the case for me. I have always written. But there is also the immortality thing. I can't explain why but I have always wanted to leave something of myself behind - even if all I do is donate my diaries to the British Library. I guess it's the realisation that you have a short time on this planet and then you're a long time dead ... it makes you want to make a statement. Call it egotism if you will but I've always felt the need to make my own small mark on the world. I don't want to just disappear when I die. I want my time on this Earth to be remembered. I want to have made an impact.

Life is a fragile thing, easily snuffed out. That was hammered home to me in 1991 when my father unexpectedly died at the age of 51. My Dad was a competent and moderately successful writer and he'd jsut started to write a novel when he had his fatal heart attack. Mum suggested that I finish writing Dad’s book but he left so few notes and almost all of them were historical research. None were related to plot or characters. Therefore I could do nothing with it. So, sadly, all that exists of his writing are the magazine and newspaper articles he'd had published and some unfinished work. He never had a book published; one of his greatest ambitions. I was not quite 30 at the time and I realised that, if I were unlucky enough to have the same life span as Dad, I was already half way through. The simultaneously premature death of Freddie Mercury didn't help matters either. Therefore, in a much earlier than scheduled mid-life crisis, I packed in smoking and started to think about what I could do to ensure that I wouldn't be forgotten. There were my kids of course. Kerys was six then and Liam was two. They would be my genetic legacy. But I wanted more. I wanted to leave something of me and my personality behind. Something physical that would endure. So I started to seriously consider writing as a career. It's taken me a few years, but it looks like I'm finally there.

With my recent publishing deal, I will see a book in print next year and that's a kind of comfort. Even if my book ends up in charity shops or jumble sales; even if I enjoy just a brief glimmer of success that then fades quickly away, I'll have achieved my ambition. Somewhere, in the vaults of the British Library and of similar libraries all over the world there will be a Dewey Decimal reference card (or database entry as they invariably are now) for Colgan, S.

I wish there were a Colgan, M. too for Dad.

That would have been a far more appropriate memorial than a headstone.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Wheelchairs and Wheelbarrows

Stuart Maconie's Pies and Prejudice is one of the better books I've read this year. Maconie wanted to reassure himself of his roots and went on a tour to rediscover what it is to be a 'Northerner'. It's a clever, funny, poignant book and, one day, I intend to write something similar about my native Cornwall and my relationship with it.

One thing that comes across very strongly in his book is that he doesn't believe in the oft-mentioned 'North/ South divide'. And he's right. It's a myth. The truth is that any real divide is between London and everywhere else. London is a very different place from the rest of the country. People from the South-West and people from the counties around London are warmer and friendlier even though they are 'Southerners'. I've worked in London for 28 years and I've never known such an unfriendly place. I lived in London for 10 years and never got to know anyone other than my immediate neighbours. It's a sobering thought that you can cram nine million people into a tiny geographical area and a large proportion of them live in isolation.

But to return to the North ... I could relate to Maconie's affection for his home as I've had personal experience of it. I'm a regular visitor to the North of England. Apart from attending conferences and business trips in various places, my wife's sister Donna and her family live just outside of Wigan. And despite the fact that Wigan is allegedly one of the most violent towns in England I've never felt less than welcome there. (Incidentally, if you've ever watched Little Britain Live on DVD you've seen Donna as she's the poor sod who gets pulled up from the audience and abused by Marjorie Dawes during the 'Fat Fighters' sketch.) So here's the story of one such visit that I've been meaning to write up for ages. Reading Maconie's book reminded me of it (he's a Wiganite or Wiganer or whatever the correct term is) and I scoured my diaries for the day in question and laughed as I relived it again.

It was back in 2004 and I was at a hotel in Standish, somewhere between Wigan and Chorley, while attending a training seminar. It was close to Christmas but as we'd enjoyed the festive carvery on our first evening we didn't fancy it again. There's only so much dry turkey and false hotel bonhomie that anyone can swallow. So we wandered into the town in search of a decent pub and very soon found The Forrester's Arms which, to our delight, was holding a Quiz Night. And such was the warmth of the locals (and despite our very obvious Southern accents) we were immediately invited to make up a team.

The first thing I should point out - to help set the scene you understand - is that my team was the youngest by at least 20 years ... and we were all in our 30s and 40s. The pub was a sea of shining bald pates and blue rinses. There were more walking sticks than you'd find in a well-stocked hiking shop and Zimmer frames lined the walls like crowd-control barriers. Various smells vied for dominance above the warm fug of beer and pipe smoke; a sweet, cloying smell that included hints of cabbage, embrocation and damp flat-caps. The quiz itself had several rounds based upon well-known TV shows. There was a kind of trivia-based Bingo. And rounds that used the same format as Family Fortunes. There were Jokers to be played (as in It's a Knockout!) and specialist knowledge rounds like those in Mastermind.

Our quizmaster was a jovial senior citizen with the kind of spectacles you daren't look at the sun through. I don't know what sort of career he'd enjoyed before retiring but I'm guessing that it hadn't been a senior position in the Trades Union movement. He was quite the most conciliatory quizmaster I've ever known and he bowed to pressure like a Werther's Original wrapper before a scirocco. When the correct answer to one question was 'crossbow' (which our team got right), he allowed 'Bow and arrow' - even though the question had clearly mentioned 'mechanical device'. When a photo round included a picture of DJ Emma B he allowed 'Spice Girl' as a valid answer because someone argued with him that Emma Bunton was Emma B (which she isn't). And so it went on with us getting more and more frustrated (and drunk).

Then came the Family Fortunes type rounds. A question was posed and we had to record what we thought would be the top five answers. The first question was 'We asked 50 people on the streets of Roby Mill to name a popular fried food'. We wrote down fish and chips, fried chicken, burgers, sausages and fried breakfast. The top answer? Spam and bacon. We hadn't expected that. But nor had most of the other punters apparently and the tutting and sighing and clacking of false teeth was fearful to hear. Maybe it's the local delicacy in Roby Mill?

The next question was ... 'We asked 50 people on the streets of Bolton to name something that keeps them up at night.' The various answers included money worries, snoring, and cats howling, but the number one answer was ... sex. What does that say about the Boltonese? Anyway, the third question was ... 'We asked 50 people on the streets of Shevington what their partners did that irritated them most'. Popular answers included leaving the cap off the toothpaste, traipsing mud into the house and snoring, but the number one answer was ... sex. (Sense a theme developing here?) We couldn't wait for the next question. And we weren't disappointed.

'Alright', says the quizmaster, 'We asked 50 people on the streets of Appley Bridge what ... oh dear ... oh dear me, no. Er ... right ... we asked 50 people what their favourite sexual position is. Oh dear, oh dear.' As he dabbed the embarrassment from his brow we chewed our pencils thoughtfully and tried our damnedest to think of five sexual positions. You'd think it would be simplicity itself for a bunch of lads out on the booze to name five sexual positions wouldn't you? Oh yeah? Then you try it. Yes, we had missionary and doggy-style and soixante neuf ... and then we faltered. Is there a name for 'lady on top'? If so, we didn't know it. So we wrote 'lady on top' as our fourth choice. One of our team, who is known as Chugnuts, suggested the 'Bucking Bronco' position for number five. This consists of the basic doggy position but then the man grabs the woman's hair and whispers in her ear 'Your sister likes it this way too'. We decided that it was too obscure ... and a very old joke. In the end our final choice was 'spoons'; man lying behind woman. Rubbish answers I know but we were genuinely stymied ... as were our aged opponents. The discussions all around us were a delight to overhear. The highspot, however, was hearing one little old lady on the next table shout to her deaf male friend, 'Tony ... is anal a position?'

So what were the top sexual positions posited by the good folk of Appley Bridge? Missionary, doggy-style, soixante neuf, the cowgirl position (so that's what it's called!) and the wheelbarrow. The Wheelbarrow? I applauded their sense of adventure. If the population of Appley Bridge looked anything like the people here in Standish, wheelchair would have been more appropriate.

The evening ended with a festive Christmas trivia round in which we found ourselves completely outclassed by our opponents' knowledge of Bing Crosby songs, old Hollywood films and TV soaps. But the question that bamboozled us the most was 'Name the four reindeer belonging to Santa whose names have only five letters.' So, we went through the list: Donner and Blitzen. Dasher and Dancer. Vixen and Prancer. Comet and Cupid. And Rudolph. As far as we could see, there were just three with five letter names - Vixen, Cupid and Comet. Try as we might, we couldn't think of a fourth.

Silly us. The answer was Donna of course. We then explained to the quizmaster that the name was Donner because Donner und Blitzen means 'thunder and lightning' in German. And, not surprisingly, he allowed us the point. It was a hilarious end to a fantastic evening and the fact that I remember it so well is testament to the fact that we were made to feel so much a part of the local community. Well, that and the copious notes I scribbled in my diary that night.

So I won't listen to jibes about the North because I'd rather live amongst people like that than people who won't even say good morning to me as they sit next to me on a Tube train.

I will end with a story from a completely different quiz night. It's one that's run by a dyslexic landlady (absolutely true) down here in the South-East and her questions are legendary. During one quiz she posed the question 'What ocean are the Seychelles in?' However, because she pronounced the name like 'seashells' the most common answer people gave was 'all of them'.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Won't you come home?

Bill Bailey is back on Never mind the Buzzcocks this week. Yay! He's been admirably substituted by The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding for a fortnight but you can't beat a bit of Bailey. I've seen several of his live shows and he's never less than excellent.

This reminded me that I entered a competition last year to become a comedy reviewer. The competition, run by the Metro newspaper, asked for a short review of a performance while including something about why I should get the job. So, having just seen two performances of Bill Bailey's Part Troll tour, I wrote the following:

'Experience. That's the thing. I've had 30 years experience of watching comedy acts. Good acts. Mediocre acts. Acts so nuts-shrivellingly bad that they made me want to drive a JCB onto the stage and dig a deep, dank hole to drop the bastard in. And acts so sublime that I seriously considered changing my sexual preference because nothing says 'well done' like tongues.

As for me? My name's Stevyn Colgan. I'm not as tall as I'd like. Not as slim as I'd like. Just a short tubby bag of disappointment really. But I have enough energy to power a small moonbase and balls enough to blag my way into places I probably shouldn't be allowed. I've met a lot of comedians and a lot of people who think that they're comedians ... and I can usually pick a winner. I saw Ross Noble when he was still bleach bottle-blonde and acting as the warm-up man during the recording of Hippies at the BBC. I raved about him afterwards to my friends and family. I saw Jimmy Carr at his Comedy Store debut and I knew that he'd be big (other than just his face). Trust me - I'm your man. Your short, fat man who knows good comedy when he sees it. And I know that Bill Bailey’s live show is seriously good comedy.

Anyone who decides to open their new show with a lengthy discourse on entropy and how the universe is slowly but surely crawling its way towards inevitable heat-death is either (a) extremely brave, or (b) monumentally stupid. Or (c) Bill Bailey. I can't think of another comedian - except maybe Ricky Gervais - who could have pulled it off. But he did. Oh yes. Because Bill Bailey is clever. He's extraordinarily clever, flitting happily between subjects as diverse as George Bush, swimming with dolphins, texting and why people with west country accents can't sing love songs without batting a strangely googly eyelid. And as if you still needed convincing how clever he is, he intersperses his monologues with his self-penned songs, swapping between keyboards and guitar with confidence and skill. Highlights included 'I will not look at titties for a year' - a song that Johnny Cash might have written if he'd decided to give up wank mags for charity, and the 'Hokey Cokey' as performed by a Kraftwerk tribute group.

'Part-Troll' is just as good as his previous 'Bewilderness' and ‘Cosmic Jam’ tours. I've seen the show at two very different venues and he adapted the material perfectly for the different stages and audiences. The songs didn't work quite as well as previous hits like 'Midnight in Parliament Square' or his seminal 'Magic Roundabout’ but the stand-up material is more mature, much funnier and weirder than ever. Like a good wine, Bailey gets better with age.

If only his hairstyle did the same.'


I didn't win.

We will fight them in the playground

(Thanks to Emma Ambrose-Leigh for sending me this.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ignore that nasty Mr Darwin and he might just go away ...

Okay ... time to be controversial. I am going to deal with the subject of evolution. And, in particular, the worrying trend towards Creationism that is growing in some big, important and (you would have thought) open-minded countries. I don't mean to be controversial. As far as I'm concerned, all I'm actually doing is putting across my personal viewpoint and the evidence that supports it. If it offends anyone, it is not intentional. All I will say is that if you are offended, it will have more to do with your beliefs than mine. You have been warned.


Back in 2004, I was walking through Marylebone train station when the magazine cover above caught my eye. I simply had to buy it. National Geographic magazine is an institution; a shining beacon of reporting excellence and the fact that they were obviously tackling such a loaded question intrigued me. Had some new evidence come to light to disprove Darwin's theories? Had National Geographic fallen to the Creationist lobby? I bought the magazine and was delighted to open it to the appropriate page and see this:

Yes, the cover was deliberately provocative. And yes, it made me (and probably many others) pick it up and buy it. Or, at the very least, thumb through it. But I'm glad it did. As I read my copy on the train travelling home I was heartened to read David Quammen's intelligent and thorough analysis of all of the evidence to date. Not once did he simply dismiss other theories as nonsense. All he did was present the facts and, overwhelmingly, they supported the notion that Darwin basically got it right: All living things are in a state of constant flux, adapting to their environments to ensure the survival of their species. Over vast periods of time, tiny subtle changes in physical forms and behaviours lead to the creation of new species - a process we can see greatly accelerated in the selective breeding programmes that have turned the humble wolf into forms as diverse as Great Danes, Chihuahas, Bulldogs and Greyhounds. And the fossil record shows us clearly that these small subtle changes have been going on for billions of years and that the living things we see about us are descended from forms that once looked quite different. We ourselves were more ape-like than we are now (we were never apes because apes evolved alongside us from a common ancestor). Before that, we were lemur-like and once, long long ago, we were something like fish. If we follow the path back to the very origins of life on this planet we find that you, me, wasps, willow trees, mackerel, eagles, dinosaurs, mushrooms, rattlesnakes, axolotls, moulds and cacti are all closely related. An almost unimaginable span of time (life is believed to have begun almost 4 billion years ago – that’s 4,000,000,000 years ago) may have allowed us to change into a staggering array of different shapes but we all sprang from the same fortuitous combination of organic molecules.

The Darwinian theory of evolution by way of natural and sexual selection is the best known and most widely accepted theory to explain the origins of life. But there is an alternative called the Idle Theory of Evolution. This theory goes away from the idea of Darwin’s savage ‘tooth and claw’ survival of the fittest and simply suggests that if populations rise and/or resources like food become scarce, life has to try harder to survive. But in times of plenty or a comfortable environment, life needs to do very little to survive. It becomes idle. Therefore populations oscillate rather than remain at a stable equilibrium. Idle Theory is built upon measures of energy, work, and power, rather than competition. But whichever version of the theory you subscribe to, you're still left with a huge pile of evidence to support them.

By contrast, the Intelligent Design theory proposes that complexity cannot have just randomly appeared. It argues that all living things were designed by God. However, this theory is lacking in evidence and relies on faith.

One common argument for Intelligent Design (ID) is the eye. The proponents of ID assert that 'the combination of nerves, sensory cells, muscles, and lens tissue in the eye could only have been 'designed' from scratch. After all, how could evolution, acting on one gene at a time, start with a sightless organism and produce an eye with so many independent parts, such as a retina, which would itself be useless without a lens, or a lens, which would be useless without a retina?' It's easy and simplistic to argue that this kind of complexity could not arise by chance. But only because we find it hard to grasp the time involved in developing such complexity. The pathway by which evolution can produce complex structures has been brilliantly explained in The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, a biologist at Oxford University. The essence of Dawkins’s explanation is simple: Given enough time (thousands of years) and material (millions of individuals in a species), many genetic changes will occur that result in slight improvements in a system or structure such as the eye. However slight that improvement, as long as it is genuine, natural selection will favour its spread throughout the species over several generations. Little by little, one improvement at a time, the system becomes more and more complex, eventually resulting in the fully functioning, well-adapted organ that we call the eye. The retina and the lens did not have to evolve separately because they evolved together. Put like this, it's not so hard to imagine the eye evolving now is it? (Some of this paragraph was taken from an essay by Kenneth R Miller called Life's Grand Design which argues against ID.)

Besides which, there are creatures with eyes that are nowhere near as complex or as efficient as ours. Why would an intelligent designer equip them with inferior products?

Darwinian theory answers that question whereas ID doesn't. Dr Jack Cohen of the University of Warwick points to what he calls Universals and Parochials when discussing the evolution of individual features.

Universals are things that have happened more than once in evolution. Examples include bilateral symmetry, joints and limbs and Cohen's oft-quoted 'Four Fs' - flight, photosynthesis, fur and sex. These have appeared time and time again as responses to an organism's lifestyle and environment, regardless of species type; mammals have fur, bees and spiders have fur, some flightless birds - like the Kiwi - have a kind of fur, some moulds and other plants have fur. Convergent evolution is also a universal. This is where creatures living in similar environments evolve similar features despite their lack of close relationships. It's why sharks, penguins, dolphins and extinct icthyosaurs are all basically the same shape.

Parochials are 'one-offs'; things that have only developed in certain species, like knees, elbows, feathers, teeth etc. Only birds (currently) have feathers (some dinosaurs did - more proof of the transition between forms). Only mammals truly suckle their young. One human parochial is that our breathing and swallowing tubes have moved closer together as speech has evolved. Consequently, we can asphyxiate from choking on food whereas many other mammals can't. A dolphin's blowhole crosses the oesophagus, but doesn't interconnect. And a galloping horse breathes only through the nose, and its breathing is connected to its stride.

Eyes are a universal as they have developed independently across all animal species. In fact, 'camera' eyes (like we have) have evolved separately up to seven times and the compound eye up to four times. What’s more, certain proteins of the eye, called crystallins, have evolved independently 20 to 25 times. This is compelling evidence that the eye will always evolve. It’s inevitable. The structure of a fly's eye may be very different from that of a cuttlefish or that of a sheep, but they are all functional eyes. And, presumably, they all evolved because there was usable light to be exploited - albiet just one small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some animals can see further than us, even into the ultraviolet frequencies. Some snakes have a kind of thermal 'eye' that allows them to perceive in infrared.

If God were an intelligent designer, why are there so many kinds of eye? And why, as one comedian pointed out, would an intelligent designer build humans with 'our recreation and pleasure areas sited so close to the waste disposal area'. Why do we have an appendix? Why does childbirth have to be so painful? These kinds of questions are best summed up by a dialogue between Evil (played by David Warner) and his assistant Robert (Derek Deadman) in Terry Gilliam's 1981 film Time Bandits:

Evil: Look how (God) spends his time ... forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!
Robert: Slugs.
Evil: Slugs! He created slugs! They can't hear. They can't speak. They can't operate machinery. Are we not in the hands of a lunatic?

Another of Richard Dawkins' books - The God Delusion - looks at the wider issue of religion but, while hotly controversial, all it essentially does is challenge people to think for themselves. It's worth noting that the primary return of volley came from Alister McGrath and his wife Joanna, two scientists who are also Christians. In their book The Dawkins Delusion, they attack Dawkins' own 'fundamentalist' disbelief in religion and argue that faith and belief can have a place in science. They ask us to remember people like the late science writer Stephen Jay Gould, who, though an atheist, was 'absolutely clear that the natural sciences – including evolutionary theory – were consistent with both atheism and conventional religious belief'. In other words, science and religion can go hand in hand. Dawkins may disagree but I'd say that this is a reasonably rational view and probably the most common view among the world's Christian population (and, for that matter, a number of other religions too). However, Christian fundamentalists - and by that I mean people who believe that everything contained in the Bible is a statement of fact - are quick to attack Dawkins and Darwin (and probably the McGraths too). They assert that evolution and religion are mutually incompatible but signally fail to provide a valid argument other than that the Bible is true. When asked to provide evidence of this, they cannot. Surely this cannot be a healthy viewpoint? As Derren Brown points out in his excellent book Tricks of the Mind:

'(But) to decide that the Bible is history, one must ignore the vast amount of impartial Biblical research that shows it really isn't - in other words, to decide that one's personal conviction means nore than clear evidence. We cannot value personal conviction when we are looking at to what extent the story stands up as fact. Such things must be put to one side; only evidence must be of interest. '

All of which is why I worry about countries like the USA. In a recent survey of 34 nations to check their acceptance of evolutionary theory – Darwinian or otherwise – America came last. Worried educationalists have pointed out that a country that doesn't believe in evolution doesn't respect rational thought or the scientific process. Therefore, how can it produce the scientists and leaders it needs to face the problems of the 21st Century? As one scientist wrote, ‘There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that all living things evolved from common ancestors, that evolution on earth has been going on for billions of years and that evolution can be and has been tested and confirmed by the methods of science.’

The Catholic Church rejects the ID movement and supports the teaching of evolution. Both Pope Pius XII in 1950 and John Paul II in 1996 have endorsed the idea that evolution and religion can coexist. The National Council of Churches is a progressive association that represents 55 million American Christians, and it opposes ID. And yet, in several states of the USA including Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Arizona and New Mexico, the teaching of evolution has either been banned from schools or is ‘skipped over’ by teachers in only cursory fashion. Oklahoma’s school textbooks feature a disclaimer to the effect that evolution is a theory, not fact, because ‘no one was present when life first appeared on Earth.’ No other subject in the science curriculum gets this kind of disclaimer. But the Creationist Movement seems to be gathering ground and is spreading from State to State. The question is ... why?

Religious belief does not automatically exclude the theory of evolution. (Oh, incidentally, some Creationists rejoice in the fact that evolution is just a 'theory' as if this somehow lessens the impact of the supporting evidence. It doesn't. The term 'theory' does not have the same meaning in science as it does in everyday speech. In science, a theory is 'a logically self-consistent model or framework for describing the behaviour of a related set of natural or social phenomena, supported by experimental evidence'. In other words, a scientific theory is an explanation of how and why things happen - it's not a 'guess'.) Many religious people are happy to accept the concept of evolution because they still hold the ultimate trump card i.e. evolution may be a staggeringly beautiful, complex but natural process ... but if God created the universe and everything in it then God created evolution too. So where is the clash?

The clash, it seems, comes from us having to accept our place in the natural order of things. We once thought that we were at the centre of the universe. We aren't. We once thought that we were at the centre of the solar system. We aren't. And we once thought that we were divine beings wholly separate from the rich diversity of life on this magic planet. Well, whichever origin story you choose to believe, the arrogance of suggesting that we are somehow better than or higher than other species is proving to be a lie. Intelligent creatures do not despoil their own environment. They enhance and enrich it so that it remains stable and useful and productive for our children and future generations. If a creature as lowly as an ant can contribute to the continued health of the planet while we continue to destroy it ... how can we consider ourselves divine?

Evolution is fact. Incontravertible fact. No one has 'faked' the thousands of fossil life forms we've found in the rocks. No one surely can argue that DNA exists? With Chimpanzees sharing more than 95% of our DNA, surely it's also proven that we are closely related? You cannot simply ignore evidence and hide behind dogma. While I personally am atheist, I accept the fact that faith is important to other people. I also accept that you can have faith and accept proven scientific theory as fact. What I cannot accept is blind faith and an adherence to a belief that automatically denies all evidence that 'does not fit'.

In that direction lie the Dark Ages.