Thursday, February 28, 2008
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Jimmy Kimmel has yet to make it big on this side of the pond but in the US, he's currently the hottest chat show host. His show - Jimmy Kimmel Live - has been running since 2003 and is a splendid mix of comedy, sketches, music and chat - rather like Jonathan Ross's show here in the UK. One running joke of the show is that Kimmel frequently makes light-hearted fun of actor Matt Damon. The show often ends with the line ... 'Our apologies to Matt Damon, we ran out of time ...' as if Damon is not quite important enough to have made the final edit. And when Damon appeared on the show, the end credits rolled before he'd had chance to say a word.
During the show's 5th anniversary on January 31st just passed, the whole in-joke was kicked up a notch when Kimmel's girlfriend - stand-up Sarah Silverman - provided the show with a video ...
It was a great stunt. But Kimmel was to get his revenge ... during his post-Superbowl show last Monday (25th Feb) he unveiled his celebrity-packed response to Silverman's video. Here it is in all its glory ... Enjoy!
Sunday, February 24, 2008
And that's when the curse of Harry Potter struck him.
Ever since J K Rowling announced that Book 7 would be the final chapter in her young wizard's story, hungry publishers have been looking for the new Harry Potter. Publishers don't seem to be looking for something new and exciting and original ... they're looking for a Potter clone; something that will generate the same sales figures. And people like my mate Mark have been caught up in the madness because his book, at a very cursory glance, seems to push all the right buttons. Kids. Adversity. Big baddie. Consequently, publishers swooped on him and raved about his book ... but then they read the whole thing and discovered that it's actually not a Potter clone. It's different and challenging and original. And they subsequently dropped it like warm poo. They've dropped his book in the hope that something more Rowlingesque comes along. To date he's been snapped up and dumped by two agents and a string of publishers. It's driving him mad and it's so unfair. His book is excellent ... but it's not Potter.
We need new stories, new plots and new characters. Why is everyone so sure that we need another Harry potter?
Well, the first claim you'll hear is that Harry Potter got kids reading. That was a good thing surely? Well, it would have been if it were entirely true. Kids were reading Harry Potter books; millions of kids who would normally not have enjoyed reading. But that's all they were reading. They weren't moving on to tougher, more challenging and (in my opinion) much better books such as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. They just re-read their Harry Potters. Kids who enjoy reading will read a variety of books by different authors. Kids who don’t particularly enjoy reading will not read unless they feel they have to. Peer pressure or a desire ‘not to be left out’ are good motivators and, it seems, many kids were only reading Harry Potter only because their friends were reading it:
‘Previously released results from The Kids and Family Reading Report, a national survey of the reading attitudes and behaviours of children ages 5-17 and their parents, found that there is a significant falloff in children’s reading frequency after age eight. Yet, according to the Harry Potter section of the survey, the average age kids say they start reading the series is age nine and they continue to read and re-read the books as they mature. Nearly 60% of kids ages 9-11 years old have read the books, and 70% say they are interested in reading or re-reading them; 63% of kids ages 12-14 have read the books and 69% are interested in reading/re-reading them; and 57% of 15-17 year olds have read the books and 60% say they are interested in reading/re-reading them.’ (1)
Incidentally, one worrying spin off of the books’ success was the belief among some parents – particularly in the USA where the Christian church is far more vocal than in the UK – that the Harry Potter books lead children into Satanism. This has proven to be entirely without any basis in fact and apparently stems from an article in US satirical magazine The Onion. Here’s an example of the (I would have thought) obvious spoof that The Onion published:
"I think it's absolute rubbish to protest children's books on the grounds that they are luring children to Satan," Rowling told a London Times reporter in a July 17 interview. "People should be praising them for that! These books guide children to an understanding that the weak, idiotic Son Of God is a living hoax who will be humiliated when the rain of fire comes ... while we, his faithful servants, laugh and cavort in victory." (2)
Amazingly though, people bought into this. As reported by the urban Legends Website Snopes:
‘Unfortunately, hysterical religious groups determined to demonstrate that any children's book dealing with ‘wizards’ and ‘magic’ must be a pernicious, evil influence upon young minds have not only failed to realise this article is satire, they've actually cited it as proof that the ghastly phenomenon of Satan-worshipping youngsters is real. If The Onion's parody has demonstrated anything, it's that we should be worrying about adults not being able to distinguish between fiction and reality. The kids themselves seem to have a pretty good grasp of it.’ (3)
Jeffrey S Victor, in his book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (4) describes how an entire urban myth has grown up about Satanism:
‘Again and again we are told (…) that there exists a secret network of criminal fanatics, worshippers of Satan, who are responsible for kidnapping, human sacrifice, sexual abuse and torture of children, drug-dealing, mutilation of animals, desecration of churches and cemeteries, pornography, heavy metal lyrics, and cannibalism. This popular tale is almost entirely without foundation, but the legend continues to gather momentum, in the teeth of evidence and good sense. Networks of 'child advocates', credulous or self-serving social workers, instant-expert police officers, and unscrupulous ministers of religion help to spread the panic, along with fabricated survivors' memoirs passed off as true accounts, and irresponsible broadcast 'investigations'. A classic witch-hunt, comparable to those of medieval Europe, is under way. Innocent victims are smeared and railroaded.’
At the moment, J K Rowling is one of those ‘innocent victims’ as her books are being pilloried by misinformed and fanatical Believers. I even read somewhere that one person claimed that Rowling had sold her soul to the Devil. What else could you attribute her huge success to?
Not Satanic interference certainly. She was just in the right place at the right time and her books captured the zeitgeist of the moment. A Harry Potter clone won't do that. If public taste were that easy to predict, we wouldn't have the fantastic range of literature that we enjoy. We don't want more Harry Potter clones. We want new, exciting, groundbreaking fiction. We want to encourage a whole new generation of writers. We want those new writers to be original, entertaining and successful. None of this will be possible if we spend all of our time looking for a replacement Potter. He was a one-off phenomenon, just as Hula Hoops, Rubik's Cube, Tamagochi, Spice Girls, Clackers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Thunderbirds' Tracy Island were one-off phenomena.
Let's lay the curse of Harry Potter to rest and invest in new talent. Kids will find the next big thing all by themselves and you can bet that it won't be anything that we've foisted on them. Without original writing and brave publishers and agents, fiction will stagnate or simply become a homogenous, unchallenging mess just as populist television and magazines have become.
We deserve better and so do our kids.
(1) Information taken from The Kids and Family Reading Report, a US national survey of 1000 individuals - 500 children ages 5 to 17 years old and one parent or primary guardian per child – prepared by Scholastic Books and Yankelovich, a consumer trends research group.
(2) From The Onion 26th July 2000.
(4) Open Court Publishing Company (1993)
According to Professor Ian Munro of Harvard University, who has made a long and in-depth study of the rhyme, the earliest printed version of the rhyme dates from only 1881(1), some 225 years after the last great plague, and some 550 years after the Black Death pandemic. Words and phrases can remain underground a long time, but two centuries seems a bit unlikely. Plus, the 1881 version is markedly different and not so easy to attach to the plague:
Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We're all tumbled down
Munro states that:
‘This version appears not so much as a story about death and disease, but rather about falling asleep after a day of picking flowers.’ (2)
Another origin is suggested by the researchers at QI who, in The Book of General Ignorance (3), state that the first recorded instance of the rhyme was from Massachusetts in 1790. This is still a long way from 1665 … and a very long way from London. The 1790 version goes:
Ring a ring a rosie
A bottle full of posie
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.
But the rhyme is apparently much older, probably having grown out of ancient ring dancing games. There are variants in almost every culture on the planet. (I should point out that Lloyd and Mitchinson do not cite their source in the book. However, just this once, I’ll accept their word for it.) The current version sung by American schoolchildren is different again and certainly doesn't hint at plague symptoms:
Ring around the Rosie
A pocket full of posie
We all fall down
On that subject ... most medical books joyfully explain (in gruesome detail) that the first major symptom of plague is fever and there are generally no respiratory symptoms. Even in the pneumonic form, the infection is in the lungs. So coughing, and not sneezing, is the main symptom. Which is yet another reason to dismiss the theory.
Oh, and the first link between the rhyme and the great plague comes from a 1961 novel written by James Leasor entitled The Plague and the Fire. Before then, no one had even suggested such a thing - certainly not in writing anyhow.
Sorry to burst your buboes.
(1) In Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose (1881)
(3) John Lloyd and John Mitchinson (2006) QI/Faber and Faber.
Apparently, this is a tradition that spread across Europe during the bad old days of the Bubonic Plague. Between 1665 and 1667, The Bills of Mortality listed 68,576 plague victims in London alone (The true figure is believed to be closer to 100,000). But this was nothing compared to the Black Death pandemic that killed nearly one third of Europe's population (20 million people) in the 1300s.
Bubonic Plague was a horrible way to die. The victim's skin turned black in patches and inflamed glands (buboes – hence ‘bubonic’) grew in the groin. There was vomiting, splitting headaches and, in the pneumonic version of the illness, swollen tongues and throats, coughing and rheumy eyes. It must have been agonising. Because people believed that smells (known as miasmas) were the carriers of disease, they attempted to ward off the illness by dousing themselves in perfume or by holding a posy, or nosegay, of flowers to the nose.
But back to this ‘Bless you’ business. There is a story that, during the Great Plague, Pope Alexander VII (1599-1667) passed a law requiring people to bless anyone who sneezed. At the same time, the sneezer was expected to cover their mouth with their hand or a cloth. This was to stop the spread of the illness. However, I can find no validity to this story. It may be a variant of a similar story involving Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) who became Pope when his predecessor died of plague. Gregory therefore called for unceasing prayer for God's help and that when someone sneezed, they were to be immediately blessed in the hope that they would not develop the plague. But the tradition is even older than that. Although the origins are obscure, it is mentioned in texts as long ago as 77AD when the somewhat barmy Pliny the Elder recorded in his Natural History:
‘Why is it that we salute a person when he sneezes, an observation which Tiberius Caesar, they say, the most unsociable of men, as we all know, used to exact, when riding in his chariot even?’
Incidentally, this may be related to the old superstition about holding your breath while passing a cemetery. The idea is that you will not then inhale any evil spirits that are lurking about. It is perhaps no coincidence that in almost all languages, the word for "soul" usually derives from the word for "breath", "wind", "air" etc.
I can’t believe there’s so much superstition around such a mundane activity as sneezing. I found this rhyme today:
Sneeze on Monday for health,
*Gregory Y. Titelman - Random House, New York, 1996.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
I'm very proud of her. I did such a jump myself 20 years ago in full police uniform and I know just how bowel-emptyingly scary it is. Never again.
Funnily enough, Sarah said the same thing.
But it's still not Life on Mars.
Friday, February 22, 2008
To mark their passing I thought I'd dig out these two ads from the 1980s for Maxell tapes. They made me laugh.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Apart from the various crossbowmen, infantry, generals and horses, there are strongmen, acrobats and musicians and wonderfully rendered bronze birds. They are extraordinary in themselves but all the more so when you realise that when the army was first discovered, almost all of the figures were in pieces, many in 80 or more. For several years they were the world's biggest 3D jigsaw puzzle. That must make them even more fragile than when they were made some 2300 years ago. And maybe that's why so few figures have been shipped over. This does lessen the impact of the find - you've doubtless seen the photographs of them lined up in their hundreds as if about to march to war. Having just a dozen of them simply wasn't as impressive as I wanted it to be. But well worth a visit if you can get there. The exhibition is on until 6th April 2008.
One curious little piece of info I gleaned from the show is that the Emperor's tomb itself has not yet been opened. No one quite knows what to expect but a near-contemporary description states that there are loaded crossbows that will kill any who defile it. It also states that the tomb has untold treasures buried within including a copy of the imperial palace complete with rivers of mercury. Probes at the site have already detected high concentrations of that metal ... so watch this space.
Even the name - Shibboleth - is about division. A 'shibboleth' is a word that cannot be easily pronounced by a person from a different culture from your own. Therefore it identifies them as 'different'. It originates in a Bible story. In the Book of Judges, the Ephraimites flee across the River Jordan but are stopped by their enemies, the Gileadites. The Gileadites ask each Ephraimite to say the word 'shibboleth' in order to pass. But as the Ephraimites had no 'sh' sound in their language, they could not pronounce it and were identified, captured and executed.
It's an interesting piece (although how the Health and Safety people allowed it I have no idea - I can't see the exhibit ending without at least one broken ankle or toppled wheelchair). And visiting the Tate gave me an excuse to go and ogle at some of my favourite pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Joan Miro, Constantin Brancussi, Karel Appel and the always wonderful Anish Kapoor. And spend too much time and money in the book shop.
I just missed the new Marcel Duchamp exhibition as it starts tomorrow. Bugger. Still, that gives me an excuse to go back soon I guess.
And there are always other urinals to visit.
Shibboleth photos by me
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
This whole adventure began when Dawn commented on the fact that I never relax. Don't get me wrong, I'm not some quivering wreck with mad staring eyes who sits twitching in a corner, uttering the occasional 'thweep!' noise. I'm a pretty chilled person by nature. What she meant was that I don't actually ever do nothing. Even if I'm sat in front on the telly, I'm always scribbling in notebooks, doodling in a sketchpad, typing on my laptop or reading some book for research. And so, partly to give me a taste of what doing nothing feels like, and partly as a late Valentine's Day pressie, she whisked me off to the deepest wilds of Northamptonshire for a taste of the good life.
Whittlebury Hall is not, as you might assume from the name, some converted stately home; it's a modern purpose-built hotel, conference centre and day spa set in acres of rolling fields. It's really rather lovely. At least I assume it is as we arrived and left in dense freezing fog. From the outset, I realised that this was no normal hotel. Dawn had been several times before with her girlfriends but I was a Day Spa Virgin. Which is maybe why it took me a few minutes to adjust to the idea that people habitually wander around the hotel in white towelling dressing gowns and beach wear. It really is quite odd to see, especially in the depths of winter when the frost is thick and crunchy on the ground. For some reason I was put in mind of films like One flew over the cuckoo's nest. But there was no nasty Nurse Ratched here ... It may have been freezing outside but it was almost uncomfortably warm and cosy inside. The staff were fabulously helpful and friendly and fluffy and I soon settled into the hotel routine.
The Day Spa itself consists of a range of 'experiences'. There's the inevitable huge indoor heated swimming pool - this one decked out with mock Grecian statues and doric columns. There were dry heat saunas complete with rainforest sounds, Roman salt steam rooms, aromatherapy crystal steam rooms, foot spas and an ice cave (really). And there were scary-sounding places called calderiums (calderia?), sanariums and tepidariums, all of which turned out to be very pleasant indeed. At the centre of it all was a flower-shaped hydrotherapy pool with a variety of water jets and bubble generators that pummelled, squirted, blasted and drenched you with warm water and bubbles. It's all very nice as long as you keep your testicles away from some of the more powerful jets. Elsewhere, people were enjoying massages, seaweed wraps, hot stone therapies, Rasul and many other forms of pampering. Occasionally, the air was rent with the screams of some fool who'd decided to brave the cold water bucket shower.
It was interesting to watch the punters as they strolled from experience to experience. Of the people there, maybe 70% were female and you could tell immediately how each lady felt about her body. There were thin ladies in bikinis and others in one-piece bathing suits or tankinis ... equally there were larger ladies in all sorts of outfits. It was both obvious and a little bit sad that most of them felt the need to cover up as much as possible; even those who had terrific figures. But it was really good to see some of the medium and larger ladies saying 'To hell with the magazine world's impossible ideal of perfection!' and wearing what they liked. Let it all out girls is what I say. None of the blokes felt the need for a one-piece to cover their beer guts.
In the poolside restaurant people sat around in their dressing gowns eating their buffet lunches with hair like a mad woman's breakfast and not giving a damn about how they looked. That was great to see. My top moment came when a raven-haired waitress was showing a customer and her partner to a table and made a mistke. 'Oh sorry!' she says, 'Just having a blonde moment there!' Her very blonde customer smiled the kind of smile you see on people's faces when they're visiting a relative that they detest.
The evening meal was a three course affair and quite passable although not as top-notch as maybe you'd expect. I put this down to the sheer number of diners. It was more mass catering than a restaurant service but, as I say, the food was decent enough. An overnight stay in the pretty sumptuous hotel and a whopping great breakfast was a splendid end to the whole affair.
All in all, a great experience and I'd do it again. Next time I may just get myself pampered. And why not?
You only live once ... and you're dead a long time.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
My attention was captured and held by a young creative type who had a hairstyle identical to that of Mr Spock; jet black, pudding basin fringe, pointy sideburns. The resemblance ended there though, as this guy must have been 25 stone if he was a pound. Without wanting to sound cruel (I’m no supermodel myself, as you know), I was genuinely amazed when the spindly metal chair took his weight. I couldn’t help but overhear that he ordered a Skinny Latte to accompany his brace of blueberry muffins.
A token gesture?
Or the only thing he understood on the menu?
So why don't TV and film studios do the same? The thought occurred to me while I was damning Ashes to Ashes in the last post. How many films have slid around the U-bend simply because the film-makers didn't bother to do a little market research? How many TV series have wasted our - the licence payers' - money because no one asked us what we think?
Take Judge Dredd as the perfect example.
Here was the opportunity to create a lasting franchise based upon the UK's most popular comics character. There are 30 years of stories to draw upon, an entire universe to play with and an existing fan-base numbering in the millions around the world. The Dredd universe is peopled with brilliant characters from the League of Fatties to Judge Death, Citizen Snork to Anderson of Psi Division. All they had to do was write a script that stayed faithful to the character. That's all. Then just sit back and watch the franchise grow and develop. Sequels. Toys. The animated series ... but they didn't. They took the lazy, star-appeasing route of having Dredd commit the ultimate faux pas: he took off his helmet. Dredd has never taken his helmet off in the comic. Not ever. But Stallone spent most of the movie sans helmet. Already, the character was not Dredd. Then there was his relationship with Judge Hershey. Part of Dredd's appeal is his very two-dimensionality; he is the law. He has no time for relationships. So why change that? Why fix what ain't broken?
The biggest mistake was Rico. One of Dredd's most powerful storylines involved him having to judge his own clone brother - a clever resourceful Judge who abused his authority to get rich. Dredd's adherance to the law transcended family relationships and he sentenced Rico to a living hell; the penal colony on Titan where he would be left disfigured by biomechanical surgery so that he could do hard labour in the zero-atmosphere environment. The writers of the movie just ignored the whole story and made Rico into a raving psychopath. It was impossible to have any sympathy for the character whatsoever. All of this (and so much more ... the awful miscasting of Fergie, the portrayal of the Cursed Earth, the rewriting of the whole Judge system history ...) means that the film was a complete dog and the franchise died.
Any Dredd fan could have told them what to do to avoid this. They could so easily have kept Dredd's helmet on and had Stallone also play Rico, his clone brother (a clone is meant to be genetically identical isn't it? So why employ another actor to play him anyway?). Stallone would have had the opportunity to flex his acting muscles by playing two very different roles. But he didn't. And the film bombed. And that's just one suggestion ... get a group of Dredd fans in a room with the writers and director and I guarantee you'll have a film that's a huge hit.
There is a reason why comic characters remain popular for decades ... it's because the writers and artists have got it right. Why can't film makers learn from that? Why is there this arrogance to stamp their identity all over things and, invariably, spoil it? I wonder who they think goes to these kinds of films. The first wave will always be the fans of the comic. And many of them write the first reviews. Consequently, the second wave - new fans - are already wary and may just download it instead of going to the cinema. I mentioned some of these points when I reviewed the equally awful Golden Compass on New Years Day. If film directors want to show their creativity and experiment with new ideas ... then work with scripts by new writers with original characters and plots. Don't bugger about with the stuff that already has a history.
It's generally accepted that Alan Moore is one of the finest comic writers of all time. His books like Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta broke new ground and stand as brilliant literary works in their own right. But Hollywood has taken them, altered them, and ruined them. Every one. The only film that comes close to his original writing is From Hell. But even then, I'd always read the comic in preference. Watchmen is now in production. Moore has distanced himself from it and I know why. I just know that it will be awful; a pale shadow of the book.
As a final note, can I place on record my concerns about Doctor Who. The question I must ask is ... why is Catherine Tate's Donna character becoming a regular? I don't know anyone who liked her. I detested her (but, then again, I can't bear The Catherine Tate Show). This is no disrespect for Ms Tate who is a clever actor and a good comedian. But did the BBC take a straw poll of the viewers? Or did they arrogantly decide to just do what they fancy? The Donna character is hateful ... and I'd put money on the fact that she turns more viewers off than attracts new ones.
Mark my words. It's Bonnie Langford all over again ...
Listen to the fans.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
If you haven't caught it yet, Ashes to Ashes is a kind of sequel to 2006/7's Life on Mars. In that series, modern day cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) is knocked down by a car and wakes up in 1973. We were never sure if he was bonkers, living inside his own coma-induced imagination or whether he'd really travelled back in time. The show featured some strong drama - often based on the frequent culture clashes between 1973 and 2007 (the episode about racism was particularly good). Similar clashes between 21st century Tyler's new-man political correctness and Philip Glenister's superb mysogynistic anti-hero, DCI Gene Hunt added a spice of humour. The two series of Life on Mars were a big hit with viewers, full of wry humour and subtle nods of the head to beloved 1970s TV shows like The Sweeney and Special Branch. Gene Hunt was such a hugely popular character that we always knew that there would be a sequel ...
So when I heard that Gene Hunt was to get his own series, I cheered. What I expected was that, now that the Sam Tyler time-travel element was gone, we'd get a wonderful series of great retro-comedy dramas following Hunt's further adventures; a kind of 1970s period costume drama. What we've ended up with is a sad imitation of Life on Mars. It's a mess.
To begin with, the set-up is all wrong. Life on Mars was set in Manchester and Gene Hunt hated 'soft Southern jessies'. By 1981, everyone knew that Thatcher hated the North; the North/South divide had been strengthened and the crippling Miners' Strike was just over the horizon. And yet, inexplicably, Hunt has somehow transferred to the Met in London, as have his two sidekicks Chris Skelton and Ray Carling. One is thick, the other thicker. It was always a wonder how they got into the police in the first place ... so how did they all manage a successful transfer and stay together as a unit? It just doesn't make sense. And Hunt would never have transferred. Never.
Then, there's the fact that it's now set in 1981. It's eight years on from the orignal series and yet all of the characters look and act exactly the same. There's been no character development at all. If Skelton had been in his late 20s in Life on Mars, he'd now be early to mid-thirties ... would he really be just as uninformed about police procedure? And there are all kinds of mistakes ... the WPC uniforms have black hats when they were actually white back then. Hunt refers to the A Team ... a series that started in 1983. Some of the music is off-beam too and Hunt's car -a red Audi Quattro - wasn't actually available in right hand drive in 1981. All right, they're tiny niggling points, but they are a symptom of a greater malaise. This would never happen with Bleak House or Pride and Prejudice or even a WWII drama. Bigger mistakes exist too. The police have never been regularly armed in the UK and they take the whole of issue of firearms very seriously. Just look at the huge inquiry that resulted from the Menendez shooting. Hunt and his boys would not be armed even today and certainly wouldn't have zoomed up the Thames in a speedboat firing off machine guns willy-nilly. It's just stupid.
But the biggest mistakes lie with DI Alex Drake. When Sam Tyler arrived, he was a bemused visitor who had to fit in. He explains his sudden appearance as a transfer. When Drake arrives, she's all too aware of Tyler's story and immediately starts to analyse all about her (I love her cry of 'Good morning Constructs!' when she enters the office). The viewer is given no opportunity to warm to her or sympathise with her plight. And, she wakes up in the body of an existing DI Alex Drake who is posing as a prostitute. And there's a warrant card waiting on the desk for her ... does that mean that there was already an Alex Drake in existence? If so, where is she?
Okay, maybe I'm not giving the series a chance. Maybe the character will develop. But we are two episodes in ... shouldn't they have grabbed the viewers by now? The reviews don't seem to think so ...
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Sam Tyler must be spinning in his grave.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
It’s a tale of woe. Didn’t any Saint ever have a good time?
The Roman Emperor Claudius II was finding it pretty hard to get men to join the military. Which was annoying, as he had a lot of wars that needed fighting. So he set out to find out why this was. And he discovered that plunging recruitment figures were due to men not wanting to leave their loved ones just to die on some godforsaken foreign battlefield on the whim of their bonkers Emperor. No surprises there, really. But Claudius was livid. And so he issued a decree that effectively banned all marriages and engagements. Enter stage left a Christian priest called Valentine. He protested to Claudius the Cruel, as he came to be known, that banning marriage was wrong but was told to keep his nose out of things. So Valentine started to marry couples in secret. Claudius went ballistic when he found out and had Valentine thrown into prison where he remained until his death on February the 14th 270AD.
That’s one story.
A slightly nastier version claims that Valentine helped many Christians to escape from Rome during the persecutions. When he was caught, he was tortured to make him renounce his faith (which he didn’t), clubbed to death, and then rather pointlessly beheaded on February the 14th AD 273.
Or it may be that St Valentine’s Day is a combination of Christian and Pagan beliefs, rather like Christmas and Easter. The festival of Lupercalia was celebrated on February the 15th for centuries before the arrival of Christianity. The festival took place near the Cave of Lupercal on Mount Palatine, one of the seven hills of Rome. Lupercalia was all about celebrating Spring and the return of new life. It was also used as the date for young men and women of marriageable age to take part in a kind of lottery. It was the practice to write the names of young ladies on slips of paper and place them into a kind of lucky dip. When a young chap drew a name from the tombola of love, he would then pin her name to his sleeve for one week. The phrase ‘To wear your heart on your sleeve’ (meaning to be open about your romantic interests) may come from these times. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the idea was brought to the UK and was adopted by the ancient Britons. When Christianity arrived, the Lupercalia was merged with Valentine’s martyrdom to create a new festival on the 14th. Extraordinarily, there is some evidence to suggest that this marriage lottery malarkey only really died out in the 19th century.
The arrival of Spring is often heralded by birds building nests in mid-February. It’s when the first songbirds start waking us up in the morning with their cacophonous trilling. Perhaps this explains the large corpus of bird lore surrounding St Valentine’s Day. For example, a young woman can tell what kind of man her future husband will be by the first bird she sees when she wakes:
Blackbird – A holy man.
Robin – A sailor.
Goldfinch (or any yellow bird) - A rich man.
Sparrow – A Farmer.
Blue Tit - A happy man (A Tit Man?)
Crossbill - An argumentative man.
Dove - A good man.
The one to avoid is the Woodpecker – It means she will never marry. Probably just as well if he has a wood pecker. Fnar. Enough with the Carry On jokes.
There are some St Valentine’s Day superstitions and customs surrounding plants too. Grab yourself an apple and think of four or five potential mates and then say their names while twisting the apple stem. The name you’re saying when the stem breaks is your future spouse. Then cut the apple in half and count the pips. That’s how many children you’ll have. Another way to check how many progeny you’ll produce is to blow the seeds off a dandelion ‘clock’ on February the 14th. The number left after you’ve puffed yourself dizzy is the number of offspring you’ll have.
But the St Valentine’s plant is, of course, the rose. The rose was the sacred flower of Venus, Goddess of Love and, for the Countdown fans out there, is also an anagram of Eros, who was the God of Love. Every colour and shade of rose has a meaning. Here are just a few:
Pink (Pale) - Grace, Joy and Happiness.
Pink (Dark) - Thankfulness, Friendship and Admiration.
Red - Love, Respect and Courage.
Deep Red - Beauty and Passion.
White - Innocence, Purity, Secrecy, True Love.
Yellow - Joy, Friendship, Jealousy, Hope and Freedom.
A dozen red roses means ‘I Love You’. Six red roses means ‘I’m cheap’. However, there is a handy get-out clause for tightwads (are you reading this Neil?) as a single red rose also means ‘I love you’.
I bought Dawn a single red rose and a criminally expensive card.
Enjoy your evening you lovers!
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
This is the first Find the Gimp where I didn't take the photograph.
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Find the Gimp Copyright © 2008 Stevyn Colgan
Photo Copyright © 2004 by Pedro Alcocer
Anyhow, as a taster of what my fellow dancers may have to watch on Friday, here's four minutes of really bad dancing, courtesy of my good friend Craplister. Visit his blog here. He has one of the best colections of bad music I've ever been privileged to wince at.
It's freaking hilarious.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
I like dogs – I own two - but I don’t watch Cruft’s for the dogs. It's the owners I love to watch as they fuss and croon and pat and kiss and cuddle and pout and groom their cherished 'babies'. I'd go as far as to say that I see more love displayed by dog owners for their pets than I see in many parents for their children. It's almost as if the little darlings were more important than human beings. Surely not ...
Sadly, it’s true. There are people out there who think that animals are more important than people. The law seems to agree with them too. Did you know that there is more legislation to protect animals than there is for children? And is there any significance in the fact that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals receives Royal patronage while the organisation that fights similarly for children's rights is only the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children? And I’ve actually heard people say that they wouldn’t have a dog because their house or flat is too small for one. Presumably it’s not too small for humans, though?
So what does all this say about us as a nation?
I think that many people have forgotten that animals are not little humans. We anthropomorphise far too much. Personally, I blame Walt Disney. It’s all that blasted mouse’s fault. Generations of kids have grown up believing that animals have the same feelings, emotions, sensations and goals as humans do. Sorry kids. They don’t. Animals don’t love. They don’t hate. They’re not greedy, or hopeful, or spiteful or devious. They don’t get jealous, or angry, or frustrated in the sense that we do. They just get on with the business of being a dog. Or a mouse. They just are. In fact, it’s their very lack of these human qualities that endears them to us. They are as helpless and brainless as babies and we feel the need to protect them. And the joy is they never grow up. They are our forever-babies.
We talk to our pets even though what we say is just meaningless blather to them. They’ll never understand it. They’ll never get any cleverer. They’ll never go through the ‘Terrible Twos’. They won’t give us Hell during puberty or get grouchy once a month. They won’t turn into spotty teenagers who hate everything. They’ll stay as our babies until they die. And then we’ll get a new one.
Over the years, I’ve attracted quite a lot of anger for my views on animals. I remain unrepentant. I like and respect animals. My life is enriched by contact with them. All of our lives are enriched by our contact with the unique creatures that share our planet. I just don't lose sight of the fact that their very uniqueness is what makes them special. If we turn them into little human beings, we somehow say that we are better than them and that all animals should strive to be like us.
That’s a ghastly thought. Vive la difference, I say. I think of myself as a part of that great biosphere, not as something outside it or even above it. Biodiversity is something to be cherished, not something to be dressed up in little bootees, coiffured, pampered and placed upon a velvet pedestal. An animal is an animal and a human is a human. Neither is more important than the other. They're just different.
Oh, and Cruft's was named after the dog expert Charles Cruft (1852‑1938) who started the dog show in 1886, by the way.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
And somehow, it doesn’t seem quite right.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no religious objections. Nor do I have any ethical objections to dead humans being on display. I’ve seen real post-mortems, hundreds of dead bodies and people in all kinds of various states of disrepair. As a police officer I saw those kinds of things almost daily. It’s not even that I think it’s ghoulish. It’s just … tacky.
It’s one thing to have dissected humans on display. That can only be a good thing. It increases knowledge and destroys taboos. Some of the exhibits were extraordinary and mind-blowing – like the complete circulatory system separated from the rest of its body and appearing as a human shaped wiring diagram. But many of the exhibits are arranged to look like dynamic sports stars or in almost comedic poses. And that seemed tasteless.
Death as entertainment? It didn’t work for me.
How would my kids feel if I were plasticised, stripped of my skin and put on display playing darts? Or diving to save a football from hitting the back of the net? Or playing leapfrog?
I’ve dictated in my will that any part of my body can be used for transplant surgery. And, until recently, I was happy to donate what’s left for medical research. At the end of the day, I’ll be dead so what happens to me post mortem is the very least of my worries. New doctors and surgeons need cadavers to practice on. Researchers need organs to dissect so that they can develop new cures and procedures. But now I might have to review that decision. I want to know that this sort of thing won't happen to me in the name of 'research'. My conkers are not public domain.
While lecturing to junior doctors recently on the Metacognition Course at Barts and the London (St Bartholemew's Teaching Hospital and the London University), I was privileged to see the anatomical exhibits at the Royal London Hospital (where the skeleton of John Merrick - the Elephant Man - is kept). They are equally fascinating and informative ... but don't have the veneer of sensationalism. They are also quite grisly. But surely that's a more realistic and appropriate view of our biology than brightly coloured figures that look like painted plastic?
I can’t see how a dead body pretending to play basketball for all eternity will push medical science forward or save a human life. And I wonder what the exhibits themselves would have thought? As I understand it, their 'willingness' to be used in this way after death is a matter of some debate.
Bodies: The Exhibition just strikes me as a cheap attempt to shock - like The Half Stone Man, The Child with Two Heads and other similar TV shows. What possible use to society are these programmes? It's no wonder they've been labelled as Fat Porn and Freak Porn. Well, here's a new one for you ...
Note: Since I wrote this short review, there have been further concerns expressed about the origin of the bodies used. They were all living Chinese people ... and China isn't exactly world-famous for its record on human rights issues. According to the exhibition organisers, Premier Inc. 'The cadavers were donated for research by the Chinese government, because all the bodies at the time of death allegedly had no close next of kin or immediate families to claim the bodies.' Premier Inc. have also publicly admitted that the cadavers were not willingly donated. Roy Glover, spokesman for Bodies: The Exhibition, said that 'They're unclaimed. We don't hide from it, we address it right up front.' When the exhibition opened first in Tampa, Florida, last summer, the state anatomical board requested documentation proving the corpses were ethically obtained. Dr Lynn Romrell, who chairs the board, says that 'it got only a letter from the show's Chinese plastinator asserting that they were'.
I must also point out that Bodies: The Exhibition has nothing to do with German anatomist Professor Gunther Hagens and his Bodyworlds exhibition. Bodies was created by his protege, Dr Sui Hongjin, and the two have been in bitter legal battles ever since. Hagens states that he can prove the legitimacy of all of his exhibits.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
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Image and Find the Gimp (c) Stevyn Colgan
Honest, there is. Across the UK, the number of sperm donors has plummeted. Apparently there is now only one single sperm donor covering the whole of Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. And he’s pretty tired. There used to be a steady supply for childless couples - particularly from students who, let’s face it, always have far too much of the stuff and could earn a decent amount of money from donations. However, the rules have changed and it’s no longer anonymous – the idea being that a child has the right to be able to trace its biological father in later life. And all of a sudden, the donors have disappeared.
I guess no one wants the emotional baggage of a kid turning up on their doorsteps in later life. Or the CSA, which is worse - trust me. It just seems such a shame. There are so many people who cannot conceive and who may now lose out on the chance of having a child. The new rules are a triumph for human rights they say. But for which humans? It’s effectively stopped many from even being conceived.
Dr Tim Childs (ha!) from the Fertility Unit at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford said that , “There is a national shortage. It’s not unusual for sperm to be bought in from Scandinavia or America.” All of which raises some interesting issues about our ‘Mongrel Nation’ status, doesn’t it? How British is British? What defines it? Place of birth or where the sperm gets shipped in from?
Answers in a test tube please …
Jarvis’s figures have a corporacy about them whether drawn or sculpted; they all have the same potato-shaped heads and this has become his trademark. Whether dressed as police officers, wimple-wearing mediaeval maidens, Cavaliers and Roundheads or Vikings, the inhabitants of his ‘Potato-headed Multiverse’ all look as if they belong to the same species. And they have no noses or ears. They are not us but their society echoes ours.
I got to meet the guy afterwards and enjoyed a very enlightening chat. I learned that his idea of fun is to run 26 miles in marathons, that he thinks police uniforms are 'scary but incredible iconic' and that his Amos toy company takes his name from his own middle name. And he signed my pink King Ken*.
It doesn't get much better than that.
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Two so-called Jedi Warriors, Umada and Yunyun, aka John Wilkinson and Charlotte Law, have petitioned the UN to acknowledge the religion and its 390,000 followers. Today’s UN International Day of Tolerance is all about discouraging intolerance and promoting integration. So it seemed the right day for Umada and Yunyun to make their point. Dressed in full Jedi regalia, they organised a protest march in Whitehall today carrying placards that read ‘Tolerance for Jedis'.
After all, Buddhism is considered a religion, or a faith or creed at least, and that has no God – just a set of principles to live by. The Jedi say that it’s no different for them. And there are more Jedi than Rastafarians.
Watch this space. And fingers cross you must, Jedi.
Most bizarre is the fact that that most Jewish of films – Yentl (starring Barbra Streisand) - was filmed there … on a soundstage that was once used in an attempt to hide the Holocaust. And, at the risk of resurrecting a very old and very bad joke, Huw did tell me that to reach the lighting gantry (nearly a hundred feet up – it really is a huge space), he had to use lifts made by … you guessed it, Schindler. Schindlers Lifts.
You couldn’t make it up.
Monday, February 04, 2008
He draws with it occasionally too.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
I've recently finished reading Stuart Maconie's excellent memoir Cider with Roadies, which tells the story of how he got into the music business. Maconie is a similar age to the three of us and his reminiscences struck a deep chord with me. I genuinely found myself laughing out loud as I read - something I don't do often. He went through the same phases we did: pop, disco, prog, soul ... he did the same daft things that we did and watched the same TV shows. He joined several local bands, all with increasingly silly names, and wrote songs stuffed with teenage angst and insightful drivel he'd learned in A Level English. So did we. But the similarities stop somewhere around 1979. He grew up in Wigan and got to taste the benefits of the Northern Soul scene and the emerging Madchester revolution. He saw early gigs by New Order and The Smiths. He got legless and danced his arse off at The Hacienda.
We had nothing like that. In deepest, darkest Cornwall we had folk clubs full of beardy off-duty estate agents in fishing smocks singing about tin mines or 'sailing out of Liverpool for twelve months and a day' (why this folkie obsession with 366 day sailing trips?) As I have mentioned in earlier posts, our ultra-conservative council banned Monty Python's Life of Brian from our local cinema, so punk had no chance. Mssrs Rotten, Vicious, Slaughter and Styrene were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to stay on their side of the Tamar in the Sodom and Gomorrah known as Devon. If we wanted to see any kind of gig, we had to pool our petrol money and drive 80 miles to Plymouth where the Polytechnic occasionally put on gigs by strictly B and C list celebs like Steve Hackett, Camel or Eddie and the Hot Rods. Alternatively, we could blow a year's wages and get ourselves to a festival, like we did in 1979 to see Genesis, Devo, Tom Petty, Jefferson Starship and a bunch of others at Knebworth.