Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Last Post (of 2008 anyway)

To everyone I know: all of my friends and family; to everyone who follows this blog; to everyone who accidentally wanders onto this URL by accident and decides to stay; to everyone who bought my book; to everyone who listened to me wittering on during the radio interviews; to everyone at Pan Macmillan Publishers (especially Jon, Amy and Sandra); to my agent Ben and all at Conville and Walsh Ltd, to Mitch and Lloydy and Sarah and Liz and Nice Justin and Evil Justin and all of the Elves at QI Ltd; to 'Casilingua' (you know who you are); to the London Writers Group; to Lindsey at BBC Wales; to Marie and the stalwarts at Plain English Campaign; to the two Pauls, one Neil, one Andy and a Gary who help me to do the job I do within the Met Police; to all of my problem solving colleagues around the UK - police, community safety and academics alike; to Jim Moray for producing the soundtrack of my 2008; to the artists, writers, musicians, actors and media people who continue to upift and inspire me; and to the nameless chap with grey spikey hair at the Underground ticket barriers at Marylebone Station who always has a kind word to say no matter how crappy life is treating me ...

To you all, have a tumescently brilliant night and a glorious, wish-fulfilling, rewarding and satisfying 2009. You all deserve it.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

When the great Sun has turned his face away ...

There are few pleasures simpler than a walk in an English wood during the Winter months. And few more intoxicating either. Around this part of Buckinghamshire, most of the woods are Beech; High Wycombe was once the centre of the UK furniture manufacturing industry and many of the woodlands around these parts were managed to supply the factories. But there are mighty Oak remnants of the old Saxon forest and Sycamores, Limes and Birches a-plenty (and even a few Sequoia Redwoods, bizarrely).

We took the grandchildren to Common Wood - about a mile from here in the village of Penn - where there are always plenty of horses to admire in the fields around the edge of the woods and plenty of dead leaves on the floor to chuck at each other. As you do. There are some rope swings dotted about the trees in places too and the kids' smiles were evidence of the fun that a bit of old rope and a stick can bring.

The air was crisp, the ground still bore evidence of the night's frost and the sky was clear and blue. There is a quality of light at this time of year - something about the contrast and the polarisation and the long, long shadows - that just screams out to be captured on film. So I did just that.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

And on the 7th day, he blogged

All right you lovely visitors. Come on in and grab a seat. I'll pop the kettle on and we can get cosy. Now then, I've had an interesting idea for 2009 ...

2008 has been a great year for me. There was the publication of my book of course. There were those great trips to California and the Canary Islands and various bits of This Sceptred Isle. And there was the whole getting involved with the splendid chaps from QI business that culminated in me being asked to do some work for this year's annual and meeting all those lovely celebs at the launch party. Whoop! But it was also a year in which I said farewell to some great friends and colleagues as they headed for pastures new upon completing their 30 years in the police. And it left me not only bereft of team-mates but with a lot more work to do. So the final few months of 2008 were exceptionally busy ... and things are likely to remain so for some time yet.

2009 promises to be just as busy, but just as exciting, for me and my chums: old mucker Sarwat Chadda is releasing his first (and much anticipated) novel Devil's Kiss; Joel Meadows and Gary Marshall will be releasing a new Tripwire Annual, a Heroes Special and, if all goes well, a second volume of Studio Space; Danny Schaffer's first film Doghouse should see the light of day (and well-deserved too); Chris Hale and myself will be pitching The Middenshire Chronicles (as featured in this year's QI Annual) at unsuspecting publishers; Luscious Lara Greenway has been shortlisted for the prestigious ScreenEast short films competition; and I will (hopefully) be writing and drawing some bits for the next QI Annual, and pitching at least five new books, two radio series and a handful of screenplays around various companies in the hope that if I sling enough poop I'll catch someone's nostrils. All of which means that I may be kept a little too busy to be quite as bloggingly prolific as I once was.

Therefore I propose to do this: Throughout 2009 I will continue to post up photos, movies, audio clips and anything else that tickles my artifacts (as Ramblin' Sid Rumpo once said) but I will endeavour to write one good feature per week. I'll treat this blog as a newspaper - a Blogspaper if you will - with my regular column appearing every Saturday. That way, it'll give me a week to save up all of my wonder, wide-eyed innocence, anger, vitriol, confusion, stupidity and effervescence for one good blog per week.

So there you have it. My New Year's Resolution for 2009. One good blog post every Saturday for 52 weeks. I hope that you can join me there. Of course, I will also be attempting to shed a walrus worth of blubber too. But that's a standing Resolution every year.

I hope that you all have an utterly fantastic 2009. Cheers!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Joy of Humming

You know that 'Intros Round' in Never Mind the Buzzcocks where two of the guests have to sing, hum, tap, whistle, tweet, twitter, and generally audibly mime the intro of a song to the third member of the team? Well, it's a lot harder than the celebs make it look. Trust me.

Christmas is a time for families and bloody stupid party games (well, it is for us anyway) and Boxing Day saw us with yet another house full: our three kids, their partners and children, and Dawn's brother and sister in law and their two kids. And this year, we'd eschewed the Trivial Pursuit, Cluedo, Pictionary and Monopoly (curse that bloody game!) in favour of a new challenge called Keep on Humming. The idea is simple; you get a card with five categories on it - things like 'Any song by XXX', 'Pop', 'TV and Movie Themes' etc. - and you have to hum the piece of music. Sounds simple eh? You have obviously never tried to hum a song like Nickelback's This is how you remind me or the theme from Bergerac. Just try it. But keep those gums clenched! It's so much harder than whistling or la-la-la-ing. And you can't use your hands or props either ... just your ability to hum. Needless to say, the whole event was hilarious, silly, argumentative and tremendous fun. I heartily recommend it. Partly, I think, because I wasn't too bad at it.

I am rubbish at board games. Except Trivial Pursuit that is. In fact I am so good at Trivial Pursuit that I have never lost a game in 20-odd years and my family will only let me be the Question Master now. No, actually, that's a lie. Last year they banned me from that too as I was always saying things like 'Oh come on! That's easy!' and being generally obnoxious. Cluedo was always embarrassing as my kids would always solve the murder before me and then comment on my three decades as a police officer. Pictionary was okay as I can draw pretty well ... but I always spent so much time adding the details that I failed to finish the clue. Someone else would draw a blobby smiley face and some pear-shaped drops for Rain Man and get the points while I was still completing my portrait of Dustin Hoffman counting cards in a casino and agonising over the haircut he had in that movie. As for Monopoly, the least said the better. I hate the bloody game. It goes on for weeks (I think I may still be playing a game that started in 1983) and I'm so bad at handling the money that I end up selling all of my properties to a bunch of millionaire 12 year olds at a fraction of their true worth. Hateful, hateful game. I'm sure it should be called a 'bored game' as that's the state of mind I enter after the third hour of play. Last year we had a thing called Rapidough which was like a combination of Charades and Pictionary only using modelling clay. The only way I scored any points was if the answer I had to portray had something to do with balls or worms. A combination of the two would have suited me to the ground but there wasn't an 'Adult Films' round.

So no ... I don't usually excel at board games but I'll always have a go. Even though I am frequently told not to pass go.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Doctor of Oz?

Doctor Who Christmas Special Spoiler Alert! Do not read on unless you saw it!

So what did you think of it? I'd find it hard not to enjoy Doctor Who I have to say as it's woven into the very fibre of my being and I've avidly followed the renegade Time Lord's adventures my whole life. Hell, I even got close to writing for it at one time when I was asked by John Nathan-Turner to produce a script for the second Colin Baker season. It didn't happen sadly - the politics surrounding Baker's tenure made it almost impossible - but I still hold out hope that one day I'll get the chance again. I do treasure the memories of many visits to the BBC production office in the early 1980s and watching episodes from Peter Davison's Timeflight and Baker's Vengeance on Varos being filmed. However, back to the present and Russell T Davies' 2008 Christmas Special - The Next Doctor.

On the whole, a very enjoyable script and some great performances by David Morrissey and Dervla Kirwan. And who couldn't have loved a giant mechanical Cyberman stomping over London in 1851? (Loved the line 'Nice year. Bit dull.' What? No Great Exhibition?) Brilliant, camp, classic Doctor Who fun. The teaser trailer (basically the pre-credits sequence) was an excellent set-up as we were left wondering just who (no pun intended) this mad man and his spunky companion Rosita (Velile Tshabalala) were. The Cybermen were, if anything, background characters to Kirwan's fanatical women's-libber and I'm afraid that I still don't quite get why the Cyber-leader had a transparent brain case or what, indeed, the Cybershades were (A primitive conversion? Why? And what for?).

Tennant showed yet again what a tough act he's going to be to follow, hamming it up excellently as 'John Smith' to Morrissey's amnesiac Doctor. And, as with all of Davies' episodes there were a fair few laughs too. The diehard fans even got a treat with a few references to past episodes and a flashback that included all nine previous Doctors.

There is just one more point I'd like to make and it's this ... was this episode Russell T's homage to The Wizard of Oz? Think about it ... we had Tin Men and a wicked witch (Kirwan's Miss Hartigan). We had a chap with no brain - Morrissey's Doctor with no memory - and a man who is often accused of being heartless - Tennant's Doctor (remember the brilliant script from this year's Fires of Pompeii episode where Donna has to beg the Doctor to save the family?). We had Morrissey's Professor Marvel type character (and even a balloon), a spirited heroine in Rosita and even the Cybershades looked a bit like flying monkeys. And the scene where Morrissey's memory is restored was very similar to the Wizard's bestowing of gifts ('the bravery was you all along!) and, let's be honest, a little man looking much more powerful by hiding behind technology is a lot like Hartigan inside her giant robot!

Okay, okay. It's tenuous in the extreme but I did wonder whether it was in the back of Mr Davies' mind as he tapped away at his keyboard. Anyway, enough with this psychobabble. It was great fun and I enjoyed watching it again this morning. Let's hope that the rest of Tennant's final year is just as good, eh?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Turkey, not Snail Porridge (But who knows next year?)

Christmas. Ho Ho Ho! It's a laugh isn't it? We've had all three kids here today for dinner along with their partners and kids and Dawn's mum and stepdad. The turkey was the size of a small ostrich, there was enough veg to start your own greengrocer's, and the gravy boats were the size of ... well ... boats. Presents were unwrapped, chocolates were consumed, my homemade wine was quaffed and everyone had a ripping time. As indeed my trousers may do later. I'm so stuffed I can barely move.

My top pressie this year was a copy of Heston Blumenthal's epic tome The Big Fat Duck Cookbook in which the experimental chef (and a genius in my humble opinion) reveals the secrets of snail porridge, jelly of oyster and passion fruit with lavender, salmon poached in a liquorice gel and egg and bacon ice cream. They may sound bizarre, or even vile, but here is a man with more Michelin stars than is strictly necessary and whose Fat Duck Restaurant (just down the road from here in Bray) has been voted the best restaurant in the world. He knows what he's talking about.

Blumenthal is obsessed with perfection but also with breaking the often silly rules that we have set ourselves about food combinations. Why is it okay to have kippers at breakfast but not cod or John Dory? If we use egg in ice cream anyway, why not combine it with crystallised and sugared wafer-thin bacon? After all, people put maple syrup and bacon together. And ham and honey. Blumethal's recipes famously push at the boundaries of acceptability and incorporate a great deal of food science too; a third of the book is made up of a series of essays by various academics explaining how our senses work, how we learn our food preferences and more. Blumenthal is interested in the whole experience of food - the sound and smell and look of the food, as well as the taste. His philosophy is that a good meal should involve all of your senses, which is why his Sound of the Sea starter not only looks like foaming tide on a sandy shore, but tastes like the sea too. He combines eels, razor clams and oysters and seaweeds to create a meal that is then set on a bed of wonderfully flavoured 'sand' (breadcrumbs and powdered seafoods) topped with a briny foam that looks like the tide has just receded. And the meal is served with a sea-shell containing an i-pod playing sounds of the sea to listen to as you eat. It's a totally immersive experience. I love the whole concept of this. If you think back to the best meal you ever had, I can almost guarantee that the experience was the sum of much more than the food. It will also include where it was, how you felt, who you were with, the time of year and all kinds of other factors.

As some of you know, I dabbled with becoming a chef at one time - I even worked in a kitchen for three years - and I've always retained a love of cooking and fine dining. My belly is testament to the fact that, though I say so myself, I'm not too shabby in the kitchen. This gorgeously produced book is something that will give me hours and hours of pleasure. It comes in a thick slipcase, is embossed and gilded and features vibrant artwork (by Sandman cover artist Dave McKean) and photography. In many ways it's more like an art book than a cookery book. It certainly knocks all of the Nigellas and Jamies and Gordons into a cocked hat. You won't see this book in a bargain bin at W H Smith.

I hope that your day went as well as mine. The fact that we had brand new episodes of Doctor Who and Wallace and Gromit to enjoy was just icing on an already opulent Christmas Cake.

Happy Christmas. x

Have a Smashing Christmas!

However you celebrate this time of year and whoever you celebrate it with, may I wish you all Happy Holidays and here's to an utterly brilliant 2009!

Oh, and to help things along, here's a little ditty that Huw Williams and I wrote back in 2001. Next year's Christmas Number One do you reckon?

'Put your cardigans on and your brand new socks ...'

Monday, December 22, 2008

To Hayle and Back

Hello all. I've just got back from a (modest) epic 800 mile round journey that took me from Buckinghamshire to Plymouth, Devon, to Hayle and Camborne in Cornwall, back to Plymouth and then home to High Wycombe again. And all within 30 hours. I did the same thing last year within 24. I must be mad. But it is an opportunity to visit all of my family in one fell swoop and do the Christmas presents and cards swap.
With it being dark so early in the afternoon, I don't have many photos to share except these shots of the magnificent Great Flat Lode near Camborne. There is a trail that takes you through the entire site.
The Great Flat Lode was a very large and very rich area for tin mining at the height of the Cornish mining industry - the late 1800s. Here's a description taken from the Cornwall Today website:
'The Great Flat Lode was an enormous ore-bearing body tilted at an angle of about 10 degrees to the horizontal situated to the south of Carn Brea. Normally lodes are found perpendicular to the ground surface or at best at angles of about 60 degrees. The Great Flat Lode got its name as, in relative terms, it lay a lot flatter in the ground. This meant that mines could be placed at the optimum locations to extract the tin or copper ore from the ground without digging to excessive depths. The Great Flat Lode Trail encompasses all the major mines of the Camborne-Redruth area running in a 7.5 mile multi-use circular trail around the granite hill of Carn Brea.
The mines of the Great Flat Lode helped to provide employment to men (miners), women and children (ore dressers) at a time when the rest of the Cornish Mining industry was in decline. As the copper ores became exhausted in about 1870, the mine owners explored deeper finding fine high-quality tin concentrations underlying the copper. This gave the mines of the Great Flat Lode a new lease of life. After some of the companies amalgamated in the late 1890's the mines continued producing until about 1918.
The area has now achieved 'World Heritage' status, and has been made safe for walkers, horse riders and cyclists. There are even some parts accessible to wheelchair users.'
For me, it's just fascinating to walk around these huge, peaceful, monolithic buildings and enjoy the silence. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like when it was one of the busiest and most productive mining areas in the South West of England.
Oh, and that's photographer brother Simon and his dog Mya in the first shot.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Safe for who exactly?

Two great shots (well, three to be precise) lifted from my brother Simon's blog. The first was taken in Exeter, Devon. These are Safety Barriers I assume. Or maybe they're Danger Barriers.
The second pair of shots taken in his native Camborne show alternative - and equally odd - methods of attracting customers.
Visit Simon's blog here. He's a great photographer. Talented bastard.

I see Faces - The little chap in the Cadbury's Heroes Box

Hasn't it been fun so far?

So here we are, the final week of mayhem and chaos leading up to Christmas. Have any of you been enjoying the New Humanist advent calendar podcasts I mentioned back on December 1st? If you've missed them, it's not too late to have a listen in. We've had such luminaries as Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Prof Laurie Taylor, Eddie Izzard, Dave Gorman, Marcus Brigstocke and at least eleven others.

Visit the site here.

I see Faces - Well, one anyway

Spotted on a lamp post in Baker Street. Maybe it's because my son is watching The Mighty Boosh live at the O2 tonight, but I swear this heraldic crest looks a bit like the Boosh logo ...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bankable Banksy

Either you love graffiti or you hate it. Personally, I'm a big fan of it - not the no-brainer tagging and sweary drivel, but the considered artwork that's taken some thought and effort.

One of my current favourites is Banksy's audacious One Nation Under CCTV on the wall of the Royal Mail Sorting Office in Newman Street (off the North Side of Oxford Street at the Charing Cross Road end). He erected three tiers of scaffolding behind a security fence and, despite scrutiny from CCTV, managed to create this - his largest guerilla artwork to date. I had the chance to look at it a bit more closely today. I knew about the red-coated painter figure but I'd never seen the policeman/security guard with his dog and camera before. Very clever.

It's a poignant and telling piece. As I understand it, it could be under threat of being cleaned off the wall by Camden Council or the Royal Mail. Their quandary is ... it may be criminal damage but it's undoubtedly worth a bloody fortune. I hope it stays as I love it.

Strolling in Camden

Some time ago I was bewailing the lack of songs written about places in Britain. America has a plethora of such homages, but where are the Brit ballads? Why isn't there a song called I left my heart in Sutton Coldfield? Or Chichester - My kind of Town? Or I've been to Paradise but I've never been to Leeds? Or even York - So good they named it once? Such thoughts were uppermost in my tiny mind as I strolled around Camden today mumbling these words along to the tune of Walking in Memphis.

'Yeah, I was strolling in Camden ...'

Anyhoo, here are some photos I took along the way on what was a deliciously and unseasonally sunny December day. The first is the University of London's Senate House and Library in Malet Street. It's a huge monolith of a building but it looked very striking bathed in warm sunlight and with that wonderful blue backdrop sky.

If you don't know where Camden is, it's one of London's 32 boroughs. The southernmost part of it starts North of Oxford Street and it butts up against the City of London to the East. It takes in Holborn, Covent Garden and the British Museum, Tottenham Court Road and the famous Camden Market, Hampstead, King's Cross and Regents Park (where London Zoo is). You get some nice views of the Telecom Tower too.

There are lots of hotels around the Bedford Square area and I thought it was worth capturing and comparing a few. To start with, here's the outrageously 1960s Imperial Hotel.

Next it's the gothic madness that is the Hotel Russell.

Finally, the Italian loveliness that is Sicilian Avenue. One of my favourite little al fresco eating haunts during the Summer ... but too damned cold now.

Sing along with me ... 'I wish they all could be Covent Garden Girls ...'

More pointlessness

Non-gates with lintels that attract graffiti. Why? Why not make the fence the same all the way along?

Pointless Double-Yellow Lines. Does the van commit an offence?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Don't worry. This isn't as negative a blog post as it may sound.
Today I was struck by how many pointless things happen all around us. My first inkling of this came to me while travelling to the train station in a thick fog. Most car drivers had sensibly put on their headlights. A silly few suicidal sleepy-heads were driving unlit. Then there were those who'd put on their sidelights only. Why are cars fitted with sidelights? What do they do? What are they for? The cars with sidelights on may as well have not bothered. You could only see them from about 10 feet away. That's when I thought to myself ... what a pointless invention! Why not have lights or no lights? Why this in-between, dim and pointless sidelights nonsense?
The second pointless thing was railway announcements. It started well when the speakers at High Wycombe station announced that 'the train now standing at Platform 1 terminates here'. Platform 1 is a dead end. Then, a short while later, passengers on board the train at Platform 2 were asked to ensure 'that they take all of their property with them when exiting the train'. This was about 30 seconds before the arrival of the train. But lest you think it's just High Wycombe Station, think again (I should point out that it's a great station; clean, well-kept, and with helpful, courteous staff. And Chiltern Railways who operate the line is the most efficient in the UK. I thought I'd better say). On a later train journey, on the London Underground, the in-carriage announcements were out of synch with reality and told us, as we arrived at each station, the name of the one before. Great fun. Especially for the tourists.
And then there was this building I spotted in Earls Court. I presume that the left hand building was built after the right and therefore obscures at least two thirds of the advertisement. There is no gap between the buildings. And these are not new buildings. So how long has that pointless third of an advert been there? Why hasn't anyone got rid of it? And what did it advertise? My bet is something to do with holidays in Gotham City.
So, can you suggest some equally pointless things?
Government ministers and departments are exempt.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Happy Qistmas

I've just returned home from a very pleasant few hours at the Groucho Club in London where publishers Faber and Faber put on a celebratory bash for the release of the QI Book of Advanced Banter and this year's QI Annual. It felt a bit like the first of this year's round of Christmas dos and it was a splendid affair.

It was nice to bump into some old QI acquaintances such as John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, Justin Gayner, 'Egg-shaped', Justin Pollard and Tom Hodgkinson. Also nice to meet some people in the flesh whose names I've known for a while or I've swapped emails with like Piers Fletcher, Andrew Murray and Steven Gash. And it was a genuine thrill to meet a few of the actors, comedians and artists who've contributed to the success of the show and the book. I was lucky enough to meet artists Adrian Teal, Cherry Denman, Tony Husband and the legend that is Chris Donald (of Viz fame), and stars of stage and screen Roni Ancona, Clive Anderson, David Mitchell and the inimitable Paul Whitehouse.

No photos to show you as the Groucho is one of the few places that the poor sods can get any peace away from the paperazzi. But a very, very nice evening and my huge thanks go to Faber and Faber and John and John for inviting me.

Meanwhile, in a much happier place ...

A great little movie by The Master (presumably not The Doctor's nemesis as he died. Or did he ...?)

And this great advert found on Graham Linehan's blog.

Danger! Children!

Here's that whingeing post I alluded to ... remember, you get what you ask for ...

The news broke yesterday (Saturday) that the UK government's recently-released statistics on knife crime were somewhat inaccurate. The head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, said that officials pleaded with No 10 not to release 'unchecked' and 'selective' figures. However, the UKSA were allegedly over-ruled by ministers eager to show that a crackdown on knife crime in England was working.

I have some sympathy with the ministers' intentions here if not their rather naive methods* (Did they really think they wouldn't be found out?). The public do need reassurance. The community needs to know that the world is not as dangerous as the media paints it to be. Hell, compared to 100 years ago, it's a paradise. I spend my working days doing just that; trying to reassure people by balancing fact against press speculation and Daily Mail-style scaremongering, while trying to design innovative ways to make their lives better. A friend of mine, Warwick Cairns, released an excellent book earlier this year called How to live dangerously in which he goes back to the unedited, unspun, honest-to-goodness statistics that underlie crime and the dangers that face us in modern life. As you may expect, he found that the world isn't nearly as nasty a place as public opinion thinks it is. He also found that we are hugely selective in our perception of risk. We won't walk past a gang of kids on a street corner but we will happily drive a car in the rain even though the chances of us dying in that car (statistically) are hundreds of thousands of times more likely than of us getting stabbed. You might also be interested to learn that you'd have to lock your kids out of the house every day for 186,000 years before they stand an evens chance of being abducted (and even then you'd get them back within 24 hours). And if you really want to die in a plane crash, you'll need to take a flight a day for the next 26,000 years.

But putting our 'appetite for risk' to one side, I'm keen to return to the subject of knife crime and, in particular, what appears to be a media-led campaign to demonise young people. Want to see how bad things are getting? Have a look at this recent campaign ad from children's charity Barnardos. It's not for the squeamish.

Now, don't get me wrong - there are some right little bastards out there who to be taken off the streets pronto. But because I am a police officer and because I do work in the field of community safety, I meet young people all the time and they're not as bad as they're painted. Yes, some are incrediby aggressive, anti-social and even dangerous. Many more are disenfranchised, bored, surrounded by poverty, have appalling parents and see no positive future in their lives. The vast majority are just normal kids and they act like kids do; they are brash, cocky, ever-challenging of authority and incredibly noisy. In fact, noise seems to be the Number One complaint a lot of the time, whether it's car stereos or kicking balls against a wall or just gathering in large groups.

So who complains the most about kids? Old people? Depends what you mean by old. My late Grandfather was still playing cricket in his 80s, whereas I know 40 year olds who act like octogenarians. In fact, most compaints about kids come from people aged 25-40. Extraordinary, eh? Many of them were kids themselves not so long ago and yet they are the least tolerant. I can only assume it's because the 25-40 demographic are those who don't yet have the benefit of the so-called 'grey pound' and cannot afford that big house set away from the road in a nice village somewhere. They are putting in long hours at work in order to keep their mortgage going and are therefore understandably a bit tired and kranky of an evening. The 25-40 year olds are also the people who have to commute to work every day and therefore read daily newspapers. A 'good' newspaper story these days has to contain at least one celebrity faux pas or government cock-up. If they're not available, a good scare story will do. On Friday, the tabloids reported that a woman had died from drinking water. It was only when you got into the meat of the story that you realised that this was an obese woman who'd drunk over four litres in less than an hour. Not exactly common circumstances. But who cares? Let's scare the public off drinking water. Oh, and on the radio yesterday, the government's 'naughty' attempt to make us all feel safer about knife crime was deemed more newsworthy than four Royal Marines being killed in Afghanistan. It's all very, very wrong.

If the media is to be believed, every young person under the age of 25 is a knife-wielding Hoodie-wearing sociopath. What a pile of absolute arse. There are far too many kids carrying knives to be sure. But it's not every kid. The knife-carriers are very few and far between and tend to be most common in high crime areas (it's not rocket science is it?). Most of those who do carry them do so for protection because, guess what? Youths are by far the most common victims of assaults and crime in general. 'High crime area' doesn't mean that youths are only commiting the crimes - they're suffering them too.

So what's the answer? Personally (and I can only write about this personally), I think that the answer is very simple. Unfortunately, it's also almost impossible to implement.

The first step would be to get kids off the street and into safe, secure, lawful activities. Whenever I ask kids what they want, or why they hang around in groups, the answers I get are nearly always the same: 'We've got nowhere else to go', 'We want a meeting place', 'We want some facilities'. When I was a younger chap I had, at my disposal, youth clubs, after schools projects, the Scouts, Army Cadets, Sea Cadets, Boys Brigade, St John's Ambulance, Snooker clubs, Judo clubs, various collecting and hobby societies ... the list was endless. Things are harder these days. I go into some of the most deprived London Boroughs and I find a lack of money and premises and, sadly, goodwill. The NIMBYs don't want youth clubs as they encourage groups of kids to come into the area and 'attract paedophiles'(look at the current storyline in Eastenders) . So who would want to run one and get tongues wagging about their 'interest in kids'? That's assuming you have the energy to run a youth club after putting in a 10-12 hour day at work (we do work the longest hours in Europe). And who wants to take kids camping and rock climbing when a scratch on Jimmy or Jolene's knee may result in a legal claim from irate parents? To top it all, health and safety regulations have stripped some of the fun from such activities and pushed insurance premiums through the roof. Consequently, kids have nowhere safe to go and nothing worthwhile to do. And these are kids who have grown up in an age of TV, radio, computers, the internet, portable music ... they have been subject to much more stimulus as kids than we ever were. They get bored quicker. They need more outlets for their energy, just at a time in British history when those outlets are fewest. Incidentally, where these cubs do flourish, they are filled to capacity and kids like them so much that they behave better - banning them from the premises is seen as a punishment.

The second thing is education. Or, to be precise, that everyone should be allowed the chance of a good education. Back in September, we learned the scary fact that around 220,000 11-year-olds are still failing to master at least one of the three basic subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic. The biggest problem is with writing where only 67% of youngsters achieved the required grade – a figure which has remained static for the past three years. How can this be true? Kids aren't getting more stupid surely? Of course not. If anything, they have access to more information and knowledge than anyone in history. They just don't what to do with it or they simply have no interest. We know from work by agencies like the KIPP Academies in the USA that kids will excel - despite their circumstances - if they are inspired by good teachers and teachers are given the time (and realistic class sizes) to work with their pupils. The kids also have to work hard of course. If we invested properly in our schools, paid our teachers what they're worth, and had enough of them that class sizes are sensible we'd be giving our kids a fairer chance. We also need to get away from this whole 'league tables' for schools rubbish. All that matters is that kids get an education, not whether a school has passed some arbitrary charter mark set by some government minister who knows as much about teaching as my pet cat.

Kids are learning less and exams are getting easier, despite protestations from the government to the contrary (any study of past exam papers compared to today's papers easily proves this). I have a children's book here on my desk called The Children's Book of Games, Puzzles and Pastimes published around 1952. I blogged about it here where I pointed out that, judging by the illustrations, it was aimed at kids aged between 10-15. And here are some of the quiz questions they were set:

(1) In what works do the following characters occur? (i) Man Friday (ii) Sam Weller (iii) The March Hare (iv) Jeanie Deans (v) Caliban (vi) Amyas Leigh, and (vii) Worldly Wiseman.

(2) Give the plural of the following: phalanx, sphinx, lemma, phenomenon, axis.

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

I realise that some will say that kids today have other stuff to learn and that the eating habits of farm animals and identifying characters from English literature may not be relevant. But these kinds of questions are still valid even in today's society. They exercise the brain. They provoke analytical skills. They encourage problem solving. Maths skills are still useful, despite calculators and computers, and communication skills - speaking, writing, spelling, grammar - have never been more important. They should be at the forefront of a child's skill set. Sadly, my three kids all struggled to answer any of the quizzes in the book (as did some adults I showed it to) ... and these are all sensible, studious, smart 21st century kids in their 20s who have good GCSE and A Level grades. Kids in 1952 were no smarter than my kids but schools had the opportunity to teach them well. My kids were coached to pass their exams rather than given an all round education. My eldest, for example, has an A Level in Art. She is quite the expert on the St Ives School of Painting and the Impressionists as those were the topics she was asked to research for the exam. Outside of those topics, she knows next to nothing; she wouldn't know a Dali from a Delacroix. Children deserve a proper education. The focus must be on them, not the school's performance.

Lastly, there is the thorny matter of discipline and this is the toughest one to crack. Kids need to be taught right from wrong, appropriate behaviour from inappropriate. They need boundaries. My generation was taught this, so were our parents and grandparents. And the majority of us got the hang of it. And, despite the bleatings of the 'thrash your kids' brigade, it wasn't always about corporal punishment - I'm not a great believer in smacking and nor were my parents. But kids do need to be punished when they do wrong. Favourite in my house was the withdrawal of priviliges etc. and these sanctions usually worked. However, things changed for parents during the 80s and 90s, when well-meaning but short-sighted do-gooders gave kids too much power. What probably started as a genuine attempt to rescue abused and beaten kids from their miserable lives became a 'get out of jail free card' for bad behaviour. When kids are in a position to say 'no' to your every attempt to punish them and all you have left is a smack, what do you do? Especially when the very same child tells you that if you do smack them, they'll report you to Childline or the NSPCC.

The changes in traditional family structures haven't helped either of course. We're never going to return to the 'Mum at home while Dad goes out and earns the money' days so it's no use going on about it. Society has moved on. Parenting, in so many cases, has yet to catch up. Just before she died in 2006 I can remember my Gran saying that there was something wrong with a society 'where they need TV programs to tell you how to cook, how to tidy up your house and how to bring up your children'. She was right. These parenting skills should be inherent. But you learn them from your parents and close family, so if you grew up as a latch-key kid with Mum and Dad (if you're lucky enough to have both) not coming in from work until late evening, where do you get it from? TV has taken on that role.

Talking of roles, my final concern is with role models and, once again, I have to curse the media. In my day, we had lots of positive role models in our sports stars, film stars, teachers, scientists, even - dare I say it - politicians. Yes, they got up to the same shenanigens that they get up to now but we didn't always hear about it did we? As a kid growing up in the 70s, we had three TV channels (that broadcast nothing for 12 hours a day), no mobile phones, no internet, four radio stations. If anything significant happened you would never know unless you watched the evening news or read the following day's newspaper. News is instant now and it's everywhere. And, bizarrely, we all know more about what's going on in remote parts of the world than we do about what's happening where we live. Consequently, we live in an age where celebs can't buy a pair of pants without getting a double-page spread in Heat. And the positive role-models - the hardworking, inspiring sports stars and TV stars etc. - are swamped by stories about the drink and drug raddled rockers, the WAGS and sex-scandal football stars, the sleazy politicians, the no knickers soap stars and the ghastly army of no-talent so-called 'reality stars'. Who are, of course, all immensely rich and enjoy enviable life styles. What chance do our kids have when the life they aspire to centres solely on money and celebrity? As I've written about before, studies have revealed that children as young as infants, when asked what they want to be when they grow up say things like 'Rich' and 'Famous'. They have no desire for a profession or skill that would get them to that exalted position. By why should they? They can just go on Big Brother and do something outrageous. Money in the bank. Meanwhile their parents continue to buy magazines like OK and Heat that simply reinforce the message - be slim, be rich, be famous. Nothing else is worth striving for.

But for the kids growing up on dysfunctional concrete housing estates with drug-dependent parents, alcoholic reatives and no choice but to join a gang as it's safer than not joining a gang ... what chance do they have? None, unless people offer them a way out. They need to have the will to take that way out, of course, and many are so entrenched in their lifestyle that they never will. But I meet hundreds of kids who are looking for that life-line which so often, heartbreakingly, isn't there. Instead, there are people writing comments on newspaper websites about hunting them down and killing them.

Yes, I'm an idealist. But, then again, I actually do meet these kids instead of just reading about their worst excesses in the papers. I must also make it clear that my views are just that - my views - and not those necessarily my employers. But I honestly believe that if kids are given support, love, opportunities, guidance, discipline and good role models, they will be better kids and much more able to function within society. With every negative newspaper report or salacious TV show about 'Dangerous Britain' we're pushing those kids further and further away from us. And these people are our future, let's not forget that. They are the Britain that we leave behind when we die.

Right, whinge over (you can maybe see why I removed this post the first time). I will just leave you with a press clipping from the New York Times from 9th June 1908. You may think that anti-social behaviour is an entirely 21st century problem, but it isn't. If you read enough, you'll know that it's been a fairly constant aspect of society for the past 1000 years; it just so happens that a couple of world wars put a blip in the statistics. The only difference I can see between this age and previous ages is that we no longer seem to want to put the work in to invest in our kids. We don't have the time, the schools don't have the money and the media are only interested in sensationalism. It makes me very sad.

'Parks, as we all know, are supposed to be places of recreation for everybody, but in Mount Morris Park there is recreation for very few, especially in the evening, and there are those are the few who are capable of resenting an insult. It is different with young and defenseless girls; they cannot go out into Mount Morris Park without being insulted by a gang of rowdies and ruffians. This is an outrage and ought to be stopped. The one way to stop is to remove the cause - that is, to remove the ruffians. On the outside of the park there are about four policemen but they never come inside except to chase a few five year old children off the grass. Now if these policemen did their duty and patroled the inside of the park instead of the outside, I think Mount Morris Park would once more be what it was intended to be.' - A Lover of Justice.

*Sadly, I'm also painfully aware that the manipulation of stats is as much about the government trying to make itself look effective as it is about public reassurance.

Illustration by J J McCollough

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sarwat snogs Satan

This is the YouTube trailer for my good mate Sarwat Chadda's first book Devil's Kiss due out next year. It's going to be an absolute scorcher bestseller I just know it. Sarwat and I were involved in writing and drawing comics a few years ago and he's a great artist and a natural, gifted storyteller. I can't wait to see the book top the charts. Visit Sarwat's site here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

How to organise a p*ss up in a Brewery

Blimey, is it that time of year again? Must be nearly Christmas. Yes, I was at the annual Plain English Campaign Awards in the City of London today (is it really a year since that odd photo of me with Lenny Henry?) and this year's awards were as worthy, and as funny, as ever. Quite apart from prizes for excellent use of plain English and the issuing of diplomas, there are the Golden Bull Awards given out for gobbledegook of the highest order, and the Foot in Mouth Award, which is awarded to a person who has excelled themselves in making the silliest or most confusing statement of the year. It's always a rollicking good laugh.

John Soanes, myself and Marie Clair, Plain English Campaign's PR Guru and Diana Ross lookalike

There were some hot contenders for the Foot in Mouth as usual but George W Bush walked it, even earning for himself a lifetime achievement award. Sadly, he couldn't be there to accept it but MC for the event, impressionist and satirist Rory Bremner treated us all to a reading of Dubya's greatest moments (or Bushisms as I believe they're now called). Things like:

'This thaw took a while to thaw, it's going to take a while to unthaw.'

'And they have no disregard for human life.'

'I can press when there needs to be pressed; I can hold hands when there needs to be - hold hands.'

Mr Bremner also gave a very funny speech before the presentations and had the crowd roaring with laughter. Mind you, the free wine and brilliant lunch helped (they always do us proud at The Brewery).

John's alibi photo - 'See Dear? I was at the ceremony and not with that woman after all ...'

My favourite award was for this Golden Bull winner from DC Site Services. It was a response to a question (about rates of pay) on their website:

'Many of you often ask for more information. specific rates for specific events. It would of course take some time to here detail the full financial logistics of running a company, especially one as modular as DC Site Services. What we mean by this is that we don't sell oranges.

The selling of oranges, one would assume is fairly straightforward. You buy your oranges, you place your oranges in a cart, you pull your cart to your preferred orange retail outlet, or if going for the maximum profit, your preferred spot in the sun. You sell your oranges on.

Rory tries to escape from me

As you may have guessed. our oranges are fairly involved, many have personal issues, many are in the midst of education, here trying to better their colour, many have families often requiring attention with little notice. All this and more we attempt to work with and sometimes even help with. As with our oranges themselves both our carts and retail outlets (or your and our preferred spots in the sun) are also fairly involved. the latter often chopping and changing with regard to both location and size up to the last minute.

We always try to get the best deal for our standard oranges, and it has also been known for us to give bonuses to our really fruity oranges. Although, with such a volatile market, with so many competitors quoting to the same grocers; from time to time we have to lower our prices to keep our juices flowing. Please keep in mind our oranges are well treated, stored in secure areas, fed (contextually) well, adorned with pretty passes allowing access to peachy areas often out of reach to the average veg ...'

But there is no escape. Just grin and bear it Mr Bremner. It will all be over quickly.

Wonderfully organised as ever, excellently hosted by John Wild and a very enjoyable event. I try to take different people along with me as guests every year so this year I took Dawn, John Soanes, Jon Butler (my editor and also the co-author of bestsellers Do Ants have Arseholes? and Do Bats have Bollocks?) and Amy Lines, my hard-working and very lovely marketing lady from Pan Macmillan.

I did unashamedly nick one of Rory's gags for the title of this post. Please don't sue.

Oliver Postgate (1925-2008)

From the BBC website today:

'Bagpuss creator Oliver Postgate has died aged 83, his family has confirmed. Mr Postgate, who lived in Kent, created some of the best-loved children's TV series including Ivor the Engine, the Clangers and Noggin the Nog. His work, screened on the BBC and ITV from the 1950s to the present day, was often in collaboration with the artist and puppeteer Peter Firmin. In a poll earlier this year, Bagpuss, a saggy pink cloth cat, was voted the best TV animal of all-time.

Mr Postgate's work was popular with generations of children who loved the strangeness of the characters and the warmth of his story-telling. The short animated films, which he would script and narrate, were created by Smallfilms production company, set up with Mr Firmin. The partners worked in a makeshift studio in a disused cowshed in Kent.

Bagpuss was invented in 1974 by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate. They established themselves as reliable purveyors of children's entertainment, in the days when there were just two channels and children's television occupied a privileged teatime slot on both. Describing the commissioning process, Mr Postgate said: "We would go to the BBC once a year, show them the films we'd made, and they would say, 'Yes, lovely, now what are you going to do next?'" "We would tell them, and they would say, 'That sounds fine, we'll mark it in for 18 months from now', and we would be given praise and encouragement and some money in advance, and we'd just go away and do it."

Only 13 episodes of Bagpuss were made in 1974, but were regularly repeated until 1987. Mr Postgate made his last film in 1987, complaining that children's television commissioners were no longer interested in what he had to offer. In October this year, the rights to many of his characters were bought by company Coolbai, which said it planned to introduce Bagpuss to a new generation.'

It's all very sad. I recently read Oliver's autobiography and it was, without doubt, the best book of its kind I have ever read. I am so glad that he got his life down in words as so many wonderful stories and anecdotes would have been lost otherwise. And what a fascinating life he led too, from a childhood in North London (and being part of a very well-placed family), to being a conscientious objector during the war, pioneering new techniques on TV and then getting involved in politics and the anti-nuclear movement. Amazing man. Of course, he is best known for his TV work with Peter Firmin and although the BBC may have stopped showing Bagpuss, he and his Clanger and Ivor the Engine friends continue to run on digital TV children's channels to this day. They are lovely programmes and it's reassuring that we can still hear his calm, reassuringly warm voice narrating them. That's what I'd miss the most I think.

It's a sad loss for us all. But at least his work lives on, much of it still delighting children 50 years after it was made. Postgate was proof, if proof were needed, that children don't need loud noises, gunge tanks, silly costumes, fart gags and disrespect for adults in their shows for them to be enjoyable. They can be entertaining, informative and imaginative. Above all else, Postgate and Firmin told wonderful stories. That's what we need more of.

Thanks Oliver.

The Evil of Santa (Part 2)

Not content with killing off Father Christmas, now Santa Claus is out to terrify our children. Visit this website to see 46 fantastic photographs of scary Santas and terrified kids, care of the Chicago Tribune.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Ooh Grandad ... what a big blog you've got

Clustrmap have just made me aware of my recent visitor totals and I will admit to being overwhelmed. Since the 15th of November 2007, I've had 48,472 visitors. Blimey! Since the 16th of November this year, I've had 4,617 so far. Crikey!

And you're from all over the place too! The largest contingent this past three weeks has come from the United States (1,914), the UK (1,234), Canada (301) and Australia (114) but there has also been interest from Germany (88), The Netherlands (75), France (59) and Spain (55).

If you're really bored, here are the others: Brazil (45), Sweden (12), Mexico (35), Denmark (29), Italy (28), Belgium (27), Ireland & India (26), Poland (23), Hungary (21), Switzerland (20), Israel (18), Turkey & China (17), New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, Russian Federation & Czech Republic (16), Thailand (15), South Africa, Finland & Romania (13), Malaysia (12), Norway, Chile & Singapore (11), 'Europe'(?) & Greece (10), Egypt & Philippines (9), Iran, Hong Kong, Slovakia, Korea & United Arab Emirates (8), Venezuela, Austria, Puerto Rico & Serbia (7), Argentina, Bulgaria, Portugal & Peru (6), Lithuania & Croatia (5), Algeria & Estonia (4), Slovenia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iceland, Morocco, Georgia & Colombia (3), Latvia, Costa Rica, Barbados, Nigeria, Malta, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia & Uganda (2), and, finally, my single-hitters in Guatemala, The Maldives, Macau, Bahrain, The Bahamas, New Caledonia, Tunisia, Ukraine, Vietnam, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Cayman Islands, Bolivia, Uzbekistan & Jamaica (1).

It's quite humbling to think that someone in Montenegro has found this blog, probably by accident, has mumbled 'Who is this fat fool?' under their breath and moved on to more interesting fare.

It makes me feel like a true citizen of the world.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

I see Faces - a woodgrain special

These were all spotted in the wooden safety walls put up around some building work on the train station platform at Lewisham on Tuesday. The last one is extremely creepy ...

But I was cheered by this big-nosed chap spotted on the train home later.