Friday, October 31, 2008

Goodbye to some of my readers, sadly

This was always going to be a difficult blog post. I’ve spent several weeks editing, adding, subtracting, rewording and agonising over the content as I wanted this to be exactly right. You see, the subject of this post is atheism and I am aware that some of my regular blogging chums are people of faith. I’ve been trying to ensure that what follows is a meaningful, intelligent and sober exposition of my views and not anything that could be construed as insulting or in any way unfriendly. On the other hand, I am not going to be apologetic in any way. I’m happy and comfortable with my atheism … and therein lies the core of why I wrote this post in the first place.

It’s not easy being an atheist in a world where my beliefs – or, more accurately, my lack of beliefs – are seen as somehow less important than other people’s beliefs. I feel sometimes as if I’m constantly walking on egg shells. I want the freedom to express my views without people assuming that I’m on the attack. I just want to be treated fairly. Despite this, I may, sadly, lose a reader or two because of this post. That would be a huge shame but it will demonstrate precisely what I’m on about.

I’ve never been a religious person. It’s just never been a part of my life and nor was it a part of my parents’ lives. I didn’t go to church as a kid except for community-oriented events, like Harvest Festival, or family events like weddings, christenings and funerals. The latter were mostly for us to show solidarity as a family and respect for those involved in the event. I was always fascinated by religion (RE was one of my top-scoring subjects at school and I got an A at O Level Grade) and I still am, but it was only ever as an observer. It is part of a much wider interest that I have in what I would term 'mythology'.

Cornwall, in the 1960s and 70s was a Christian county with Methodism and Anglicanism being the primary branches. Even towards the end of the 1970s, religious sentiment was still sufficiently strong among town councils that they universally banned the showing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in Cornish cinemas – despite the fact that most of these censorial councillors could not possibly have seen the film. Several of my teachers were ordained ministers. The band I played in regularly rehearsed in a basement under the vicarage. Church services were well-attended and TV series like Songs of Praise and Stars on Sunday were regular visitors (although the gorgeous Cornish scenery no doubt helped). It was a Cornish vicar – Robert Hawker – who invented the (now) world-wide phenomenon of Harvest Festival and this same man also provided the Cornish with their ‘national’ anthem; Song of the Western Men (better known as Trelawny). So it wasn’t as if I was living in some Godless state where I lacked knowledge or understanding of what faith is. I just didn’t get it. Religion made no sense to me and it still doesn’t. But I’m happy with who I am. I’ve remained, I believe, a fundamentally good person at heart who loves his family and friends dearly and who has – at least for the past 29 years – spent a major chunk of his life helping others less fortunate than himself. And I’ve done all this without the need for a god or any other form of spirituality.

There have been people of faith who’ve told me that I really should reconsider my position. But any arguments that they’ve put forward to try to persuade me away from atheism have simply ‘disappeared in a puff of logic’, as Douglas Adams would have said. There has never been any weight to any of their arguments and I unashamedly remain a heathen. Religion just doesn’t make any kind of sense to me. I will try to explain why:

1. Faith is not enough

As a police officer, I have always been told that truth and justice rests upon the burden of proof. A person is innocent until proven – beyond all reasonable doubt – that they are otherwise. So when I look at religion, I look for proof – beyond any reasonable doubt – for God’s existence. And I don’t find any. Not even the tiniest of scraps. Yes, it’s easy to fall back to the position of ‘God is faith’ but that still doesn’t provide me with anything more concrete than the speaker’s conviction. If I ardently, fervently 100% believed in the Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas or some giant purple fish that orbits the Moon, that doesn’t automatically make them real. So why is God any different? Faith without proof is not enough.

Meanwhile, what I do see is a world of evidence against the notion of God. Again I return to my police career in which I’ve seen or met people who have been killed, maimed, raped, abused, wounded and abandoned. I’ve seen babies killed by their parents, women tortured by people they trusted to protect them. I’ve seen sexual and physical abuse and degradation on a scale that many outside the police service are lucky that they will never have to see. I don’t see any evidence of God or our own divinity in this. What possible greater purpose or plan can there be in allowing an adult to throw a mewling infant against a wall until it is dead or to starve a kindergarten-aged child to death? These are innocents; so innocent that they cannot even yet conceive of the idea of a deity. How can this be right?

In March 2006, the City of the Lord Church in Gayaza, Uganda collapsed killing 26 worshippers. In September 2007, the San Clemente Church, Pisco, Peru collapsed killing 140 people attending a funeral mass. In February this year, an earthquake in Rwanda, Africa caused a church to collapse killing 39 people. These are just a few of the church tragedies that have happened in the past three years. If you search the papers and the internet, you’ll find similar stories going back to the 10th and 11th centuries of people being killed while worshipping their god. Then there are the earthquakes and tsunamis, tornados and typhoons, hurricanes and volcanoes; natural disasters that regularly kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people a year and always, it seems to me, in the most devout countries. Yellowstone National Park sits in the cone of a huge supervolcano that may erupt one day. Maybe even one day soon. When it does, the impact upon America will be as great as any Biblical flood or plague. Some have suggested that it could create a nuclear winter effect that could wipe out most forms of life on this planet. When it does, will this be God rewarding the faithful?

I know many, many people of faith who, despite their good and honest lives have been afflicted by disease and illness; pious, generous people suffering in pain or cut down in their prime while murderers, fascists and dictators grow old and fat. I’ve been told that these are challenges set for us in this life so that we can earn our place in some kind of glorious afterlife. That’s all fine I guess but I come back to the three week old baby I once saw that had been thrown against a wall. How did it ‘earn’ its place in Heaven? What challenge did it face other than to cling to its tiny life? Most of the people I’ve met with terminal illnesses would rather have had the chance to see out their short time on this planet with those they love.

And while we’re having this discussion, let’s not forget that if God does exist, he (I’ll stick with ‘he’ for the sake of easier reading) also created Bubonic Plague, Influenza, Malaria, Bilharzia, AIDS, Tuberculosis, Cancer in all its various forms, Leprosy, Alzheimers, Sickle Cell Anemia and all of the rest. Why? Why would any sane being do such a thing?

This is just one reason why I am an atheist. I can see no substance in the arguments for God. I can see no evidence of a divine hand shaping our destinies. If I’m honest, if I did believe in some higher being, I would find it hard not to see him as cruel, vindictive, uncaring and possibly mad.

2. Religion doesn’t always practice what it preaches

Religion seems to me to be a mass of contradictions. The Bible and other holy books contain manifestly simple rules by which to live our lives. The rules were supposedly laid down by God himself. And yet, people choose to ignore them when it suits. ‘It’s all about interpretation,’ say the scholars. So, God can apparently create the universe and everything in it … but cannot create a set of rules that are unambiguous and easy to follow? Come on …

The laws which govern the UK and America, to take two countries I know quite well, are based upon some of the oldest cultural taboos, one of which is ‘You shall not murder’ – one of the Ten Commandments of course (When I was a child it was ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Ah, interpretation again). Murder, by definition, is killing. It’s the premeditated and deliberate killing of a person by another. If the Bible is to be believed, the Decalogue is the word and law of God handed directly to Moses, and one of those Commandments – the sixth - says that murder is wrong. Therefore it follows that God-fearing people should not kill another person in any kind of premeditated and deliberate way. Yet history is drenched in blood spilled in God’s name. The Crusades. The ‘troubles’ in Ireland. Witch hunts. Heretic burnings. Goodness knows how many holy wars. And now we have young Muslim boys blowing themselves and innocent bystanders to pieces with bombs. Like the Bible, the Qur'an makes it quite clear that murder is wrong.

If deliberate killing is wrong and against God’s own law, why is it tolerated by people of faith? How can religious people square this with being a soldier or a fighter pilot or a gun-carrying cop? Killing isn’t just about extremism. In many supposedly religious countries, state-sanctioned executions still take place. Apart from the inherent barbarism of mistaking revenge for justice, the death penalty means deliberately taking a life when God has expressly forbidden it. How does that work? And how can anyone – religious or otherwise – justify taking another’s life when we all know how fallible criminal justice systems can be? I don’t recall the part in Exodus or Deuteronomy where Moses discovers the small print that says ‘… except when you feel it’s justified’. I am an atheist but I am completely opposed to the death penalty. I believe that no one has the right to take another’s life.

Almost every religion, faith, belief and philosophy has, at its heart, a version of the Golden Rule or 'Ethics of Reciprocity': Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. (Many of them can be seen here). It’s a wonderful concept. I live my life by it. It seems to me that I put more credence in ‘the rules’ than many religious people do.

That's just one example of the contradictions that keep me from going anywhere near a church. It seems to me that religion is something that is bent and moulded and bashed into a shape that suits the user. It’s why there are so many different versions of religion. Some religions have one god, some have many. Some religions have even died. How can that be? Surely the worshippers of the Greek and Roman and Norse gods were just as pious as modern day believers. If faith is enough proof for a deity's existence then they were all as real as the gods people worship today. If so, what's happened to Apollo and Neptune and Odin? It also begs the question 'why are older religions that pre-date Christianity not taken seriously?' The followers of these religions are also believers - people with faith. But you try getting concessions at your workplace, such as changed working hours or prayer rooms, if you label yourself as a pagan or Wiccan.

All you Jedi out there? Grow up. It's just a film.

How do you know which religion - or partition of a religion - is the one you should follow? They can’t all be right. Fundamentalists are able to justify their horrific actions by claiming that their interpretation is the right interpretation. And sometimes groups within a religion even fight amongst themselves. Madness! And yet, here I am, a liberal humanitarian I guess, and it seems to me that I am more consistent, balanced and open to new ideas than I ever would be following a particular religion. So why would I change that?

3. The idea that we are somehow ‘divine’ is just plain weird

We now know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that dinosaurs once roamed this Earth. We know when and where. In many cases we can identify how individual animals died and why. And we know that they were all wiped out some 65,000,000 years ago in a Mass Extinction Event. That MEE was one of several such events in the Earth’s long and rich history. Go back further and we find the fossils of the Burgess Shale in Canada and beasts so bizarrely different from anything alive today that they look like creatures from another world: worm-like forms with silicon spikes and tubular feet; five eyed shrimpish things with fanged mouths set at the ends of vacuum hose-like ‘arms’; things that look like living pinecones with rasping mouth plates that could cut through rock. These things all existed and now they don’t. Evolution is a constant re-evaluation of design, pitting survival against environment with the most suitable designs passing on their genes.

Evolution is now accepted by most religious groups. The concept is pretty much indisputable and the facts inescapable. The proof is there in the fossil record and in the shapes of those creatures – cattle, cats, dogs, chickens – whose genes we’ve manipulated for our own purposes through selective breeding. We can even see the process in the faces of those we love - we don't look exactly like our parents and our kids don't look exactly like us. People with faith who accept evolution as fact do so with a wry smile and the knowledge that ‘God created the universe … so he invented evolution too. QED’. But I’m not going to let them off quite that easily …

The questions I’ve asked myself begin with: Why would any god create something as hit and miss as evolution? Evolution is not an exact science. It makes mistakes. DNA is not an immutable system, which is why we have genetic diversity. It’s also why it sometimes goes wrong. Evolution is peppered with dead ends. Why create a system that evolves whole species over millions of years but then allows them to perish? The proponents of Intelligent Design never seem to have an answer for why trilobites – arguably the most successful animal species ever – are now extinct. Nor can they explain things like autism, deformity, conjoined twins, blindness or epilepsy. These things aren’t intelligently designed surely? Why does our reproductive system use the same equipment as our waste disposal? That's like building a playground in a sewage works. Why do we only have one of all the organs we most need to survive? Why can’t we re-grow limbs and appendages and organs when supposedly ‘simple’ ungodly organisms have no trouble? Intelligent design? Hardly.

I must just quickly state for the record that I have little time for Creationists, particularly those who display the deepest form of ignorance by blindly and deliberately ignoring the evidence before them. I read much Creationist literature and visit many websites. I keep an open mind but have found them to be universally preposterous, scandalously sloppy and full of unsupported claims. Almost any argument put forward can be shot down in flames by even an amateur scientist and thinker like myself and it saddens me that their … I can’t even bring myself to call it a ‘theory’ … version of events has gathered any kind of credence. Creationism seems to me to be a last desperate cry for recognition; a last-ditch attempt to find something special about us humans. I find that insulting. We are damned special. We are extraordinary!

Just think … for you to be reading this now means that every single one of your ancestors, right back to the primordial soup, survived and reproduced. There is an unbroken story of survival against indescribably huge odds that ends with you. Or doesn’t end with you if you’ve already passed your genes on to children. You are outrageously, mind-bogglingly unique; the universe has never before, and will never again, arrange several billion atoms in quite the same way. How much more special do you need to be? Anything beyond that is surely just hubris?

As a species we can manipulate environments. We can travel under water. We can cure our ailments. We can fly – even to our own Moon. We are amazing. Why do we have to be divine too? Creationism claims that we sprang fully-formed from the hand and mind of God (despite the very real and tangible fossil evidence to the contrary) and were made in His image. It will be interesting to see what happens when we eventually discover intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. If evolution has taught us one thing it is that life elsewhere won’t bear even the slightest resemblance to Man. It will be as different from us as we are from wasps. These beings may be far more advanced and intelligent and moral than we are. I wonder if they will have faith?

It is only through a long, long series of chance events that we have evolved to the extent that we can look at the world around us and ask ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ If we hadn’t evolved and had those questions never been asked, what point would there have been in God creating the world at all? Dolphins don’t have a god. Nor do apes who share more than 99% of our DNA. And we think of them as the smart animals. If God is merely faith, could God have existed on a planet of non-sapient animals?

All of which rambling leads me back to why I wrote this post in the first place. In recent years, the political correctness lobby has slapped me a number of times for simply stating my viewpoint. In one recent instance I'd used the phrase 'There is no god' during a conversation and was politely told that I shouldn't say things like that because I'd cause offence. Really? Are people of faith really so insecure about their beliefs that me expressing my opinion is seen as challenging? Did they think I'd infect people with my heathen ways? I'm sorry but this is simply unacceptable. Christians explain all of the horror in the world, and the fact that God does nothing to stop it, by saying that God gave Man free will. If that's the case then even within their own philosophy I am free to choose my own path. I'm not out to convert anyone (unlike the suited men and ladies who bother me on my doorstep every Sunday). I'm not interested in changing your beliefs or challenging your faith. You have free will too.

I know that the intelligent, reasonable and moderate readers of this blog will read this and take it for what it is. It's not polemic or an attempt to undermine religion. It's simply an explanation of why I think the way I do. But I know, with some sadness, that there will be others who will take this as an affront on their deeply-held beliefs. As I said right at the start, I won't apologise if this is the case. It says more about your insecurity than it does about me.

It's not enough for me to say that 'I don't believe in God'. The truth is that, as far as I am concerned, there is no god to believe in. I don’t say this as some rabid anti-religious zealot. I say this as a moderately intelligent, normal, average Joe. In my life I try to be ethical, altruistic, kind, loving, generous, moral and, above all else, honest (hence this long rambling post) ... but not religious. I am entitled to express my personal view. And I will, despite the frequent rebukes I recieve.

There. Now back to the funny stuff.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The OTHER story of the week

Bye bye David.

Click here for the interview.

Story of the Week

After 20 years of living in the wilds on a remote part of the Isle of Skye, Tom Leppard - the Leopard Man - has moved into more conventional lodgings. The 73 year old, who was until recently the most extensively tattooed man on Earth, has decided that he is now too old for his demanding lifestyle. For two decades, the ex-Special Forces soldier has lived in a bothy (a stone-built hut with a tin roof) on the shore of Loch na Bèiste without water, sewage, electricity or heating. However, the Leopard Man now says that the weekly kayak trip across the fast-flowing Kyles of Lochalsh for supplies was taking its toll and that he was 'one big wave away from disaster'. So he has now moved into a one bedroomed apartment in the village of Broadford.
To read Neil Stephen's full story as printed in The Guardian, click here. Photo by Murdo Macleod.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Getting things straight

I've been looking back over the past week of posts. The subjects discussed have been as varied and as eclectic as ever but included (a) drawing with a mouse, and (b) the things we inherit from our forbears. Curiously enough, I realised today that these two disparate subjects are in some way connected. And the connection is straight lines.

One of the many things I inherited from my late father (and he from his own grandfather) was a box of cigarette cards. When I was a kid, Brooke Bond used to place cards inside boxes of tea and we would try to collect the whole set. Usually there were 50 different cards in each set and they ranged in subject matter from Inventors and Inventions to The Race into Space. Once you had your set you could purchase a special illustrated album to stick the cards into (little realising that in doing so you were destroying their value completely for future collectors). I still have many of these albums to this day. In the USA, the same hobby involved not boxes of tea but packs of gum. How delightfully stereotyped is that? British = tea, American = gum.

But before tea cards, the UK had an altogether more unhealthy way to get us all collecting - smoking. Every packet of cigarettes would contain a collectible card and the idea was that you smoked yourself half to death to get a full set. The various sets included caricatures of cricketers and rugby players, football and tennis players. There were sets depicting Cries of old London (the unique calls of street traders), another of Hollywood stars and yet another set with engravings of breeds of dog. I inherited a big old box of these cards - all too tatty to have any value - and I still have them now. My favourite set was called Straight Line Caricatures and featured exactly that; fifty famous people captured by the artist Alick Ritchie using just straight lines. The set dates from 1926 and was given away by Player's Cigarettes. They do provide a fascinating snapshot of who the celebs were in those far off days. No vacuous teenage pop stars here I'm afraid. They were all very worthy and also very male. Some of Ritchie's caricatures were very detailed. Others -like the Earl of Balfour (always my favourite) - were simplistic and very funny. Inspired by these cards I can remember as a kid trying to make drawings of people and animals by just using straight lines.

And that's the connection.

All of the things I've drawn with a mouse this week were drawn using straight lines. The only exception was using a shape tool for the circles of the eyes. It's actually been quite good fun - it took me right back to my childhood - so I decided to share the fun with you. I've scrabbled together a short video demonstration of how to draw with a mouse the Stevyn Colgan way. It's actually more like sculpting than drawing as I use the mouse to chip away at a basic shape and then mask off areas and shade them or lighten them. So here you go. Enjoy.

And yes, I did it in a hurry and forgot to give the poor little beggar any nostrils. Or ears. Or, indeed, a body. What do you expect from a two minute demo? Guernica?!

Dear Daily Mail, my wife and I were appalled ... etc.

I like Jonathan Ross. Always have done. I've liked him since the early days on the infant Channel 4 right up to and including his current Friday night chat show. I don't mind Russell Brand. He can be extraordinarily funny ... although he starts to grate on me after about ten minutes and after 20 I just want to smother him with a thick, damp, heavy pillow. I wanted to keep an open mind about their recent podcast debacle - if only because the people ranting the most about it were Daily Mail readers (here's the full story if you missed it, and also for my overseas readers).

So I read a few versions of events and then listened to the podcast. And yes, I do agree that Andrew Sachs was misused and has every right to feel aggrieved and insulted. Apologies are due; very public and meaningful apologies. Ross should know better and is clever enough that he doesn't need to sink to these kinds of depths. Brand, meanwhile, probably doesn't know any better but should have tighter reins placed upon him for that very reason. The whole episode was ill-advised, pointless, stupid, childish and won't do their careers any favours. But let's keep a sense of perspective here, eh? They didn't stab anyone or cause any long-term psychological damage. If you believe the rabid foamings of the Mail, the two of them have knocked down the last two remaining pillars of Western civilisation. And it wasn't as if the stunt involved some virginal 12 year old schoolgirl either (see here). Nor was it violently 'obscene' as some commentators claim (have they never watched a Gordon Ramsay show? The man uses the word 'fuck' as punctuation!) The most balanced report of events I've seen was on my good chum John Soanes' blog here. I've shamelessly blogwhored* it to my own humble blog:

Numbers Which May Or May Not Be Relevant To The Current Fuss About Brand And Ross's Phone Messages To Andrew Sachs

  • The age of Mr Sachs (78)
  • Number of complaints received before press coverage (2)
  • Number of complaints received after the Daily Mail covered the story (4700)
  • Number of days which it took for the Mail to cover the story (8)
  • Number of semi-dressed pictures of Andrew Sachs's granddaughter in the Daily Mail coverage of the story (5)
  • The salaries of Ross and Brand (seven figures and six figures respectively)
  • Number of answerphone messages left (4)
  • Number of people involved who left Germany in 1938 because of Nazi persecution of Jews (1)
  • Number of newspapers involved who supported the Blackshirts and Nazis between 1934 and 1939 (1)
  • Number of comedians whose apologies referred to Daily Mail support for Nazis (1)
  • Number of uses of phrase 'full transcript' to describe an edited version of the messages (1)
  • Number of times I (John) laughed whilst listening to the podcast, prior to press coverage (>1)
  • Probability as a percentage that there are more than two possible opinions to hold on this matter (>50)
I understand that Ofcom has now been asked to investigate the matter. What's to investigate? You either believe they did wrong and punish them accordingly or we all just get on with our lives. It's not that big a deal. There are more important things to worry about than two silly boys who've made fools of themselves at the expense of a 78 year old man and, as the result, have created a blaze of publicity about themselves.

Oh, did I mention that they both have new books in the shops?

*the term 'shamelessly blogwhored' was shamelessly blogwhored from Pharyngula.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Two Bites of the Pop Cherry

Some Monday evening light relief for you. Here's one of the more sublime punk-ish highlights of the late 1970s - the brilliant Jilted John with his singular hit ... also called Jilted John (but often known by the catchy chorus of Gordon is a moron).

Jilted John was the creation of comedian and musician Graham Fellows. The unlucky-in-love mop-headed punkster's songs of unrequited love for Julie and Sharon (and other girls who hung around the bus stop or chip shop) were collected together on a single album True Love Stories in 1978. It is a thing of joy.

Jilted John disappeared shortly after this; there were a couple more singles (recorded under the name of Gordon the Moron) but nothing came of them. And Graham Fellows also seemed to vanish too. But then, in 1986, a man came out of the North of England with a faux leather jacket and a portable Yamaha organ. His name was John Shuttleworth ...

Yes, it was that Fellows chap back for a second slice of fame pie. And a moderately decent-sized slice it was too with Shuttleworth recording several albums and having his own radio show. He even attempted to get his epic Pigeons in flight selected as the UK's entry for Eurovision.

Between the two Johns, Fellows briefly flirted with straight acting as a recurring character in Coronation Street (he was biker Les Charlton - a temporary love interest for Gail Tilsley) and in various stage and film performances. And he's since created two other characters: media studies tutor and musicologist Brian Appleton who claims to be responsible for many of the best known (but least-noticed) moments in pop - such as the pause in Cockney Rebel's Come up and see me (make me smile); and floorer Dave Tordoff, an aspiring after-dinner speaker.

But now I hear that Jilted John may be making a comeback. He appeared at this year's Big Chill Festival with a brand new song about how thin Kiera Knightley is. I hope he's back. Fellows has a delightful way with words and his lyrics are clever and wonderfully funny. I'm dying to know what's happened to Jilted John during the last 30 years ...

Visit Graham's website here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

My entry for next year's Diagram Prize

Extraordinary title. Extraordinary book too if this website is anything to go by. I thought it was a spoof at first. But, no, it's apparently real. So now I can't make up my mind whether Robert Irwin is serious or not. Is he suggesting that Christian men need more sexual tuition than other men? Hmm ... I've yet to come across a sexual techniques manual specifically for the godless.*

Oh, by the way, this is not Irwin's first foray into the realms of Christian nookie. He also wrote the brilliantly titled She loves God, me ... and sex!

Maybe I'll submit that to next year's Diagram Prize too.

*Presumably we atheists don't need such a thing as we don't have to square our sexual behaviour against scripture. Of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that we're all amoral or deviants as the result. Well, most of us.

Mousing about

Drawn today for the Cornish folklore book project and drawn completely by ... mouse. The pen on my cheap graphics tablet (feel free to gloat Mr Murphy!) lost its button functions just after I'd traced my original drawing onto the computer so I ended up drawing 99.9% of it using just a mouse. Of course, the sparklers, fireworks and cloth textures were grabbed on the internet and then cut and pasted in. But, on the whole, I'm quite peased with the finished result. I may tweak it a little over the next few weeks (her hands need some work - one is conspicuously bigger than the other) but I'll maybe wait until I've got a new tablet, eh?

Talk about wrist-ache.

Image copyright (c) 2008 Stevyn Colgan - Click on it to see a larger version

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Faeries get a makeover

Some time ago, in this post, I talked about the need for stories to have some resonance with the reader. The example I gave was Little Red Riding Hood. Had it never changed, mutated and evolved to match its audience, it would not survived to the present day as a story we tell our children. Instead, it would have remained a piece of intellectual folk history, stored on some dusty shelf or hard drive in an academic's library. Sadly, this was the fate of the vast majority of British folk and faerie tales. They were collected and preserved like anatomical specimens by worthy folklorists and remembrancers and kept for posterity. The stories became immutable and, because of this, quickly lost meaning for people. Society changes and stories must change too to keep up.

From 'Wicked, Wicked Tregeagle'. Picture by me.

Meanwhile, on the European continent, storytellers were adapting 'the old stories' for young minds and the ever-changing world they lived in. The result was a canon of child-friendly stories by Andersen, the Grimms and their ilk that has survived to the present day. The stories have continued to change but that doesn't seem to upset people (except the academic purists). The Little Mermaid didn't originally have the happy ending that Disney gave it. Cinderella and Snow White, similarly, have been 'mucked about with' to suit the age and sensibilities of the audience. But lest you think this is all Uncle Walt's fault, bear in mind that in the UK we arse about with plot-lines all the time with our pantomimes and plays. It's what keeps them current and entertaining.

The reason I mention all of this is because for many years I've been championing our fabulous but largely unknown British faerie stories. They remain obscure and parochial despite the fact that many of them are just as fascinating and entertaining (if not more so) than their better-known European cousins. Why isn't Disney making a version of the Lambton Worm or the Llanfabon Changeling or The Mermaid Of Knockdolion? There are so, so many of these stories that need to be brought into the 21st century. But, obviously, I can't champion them all. So I made a start with the stories of my home county of Cornwall.

From 'The Curse of Kitto's Cats' - illustration by me

I took ten of my favourite stories and re-wrote them in a modern idiom. I also knocked up a few illustrations and asked my good friend Murphy to crank out a few more. You can read the stories by going to this page of my website. Now, this is all old news to those of you who've been dropping in on this blog for a while. What is new news is that the stories are now going to be published in book form. The only twist is that they will be published in the Cornish language and will therefore be unreadable for nearly all of you!

A couple of years ago I was approached by a representative of the Cornish Language Board about the possibility of translating my stories into Kernewek. As they explained, there are quite a number of books published in Cornish these days but they are not original works; they are translations of existing fare like the Harry Potter books or the works of Charles Dickens. Because my stories were previously unpublished, they would provide a new and original read. So could they translate them? I couldn't have agreed more quickly.

From 'Sister Agnes - Killer Nun' - illustration by James Murphy

And now, I hear, the translations are complete. It's taken a long time but the translators are people who do this in their spare time (it is a charity after all). To add to their difficulties, the Cornish language is tantalisingly incomplete as so little of it was ever written down or printed despite it being spoken for 2000 years in some form. And, of course, there is also the problem of making a witticism, pun or joke work in a language that is as different from English as Japanese is. German, French and Dutch are far closer to English than Cornish is.

From 'How the Men-an-tol got its hole' - illustration by me

But the bards have done it! So, I'm now entering negotiations to discuss the look and feel of the book. I'm donating the stories for free (while retaining the copyright) as it is for a charitable and educational purpose and the readership - and therefore the print run - is likely to be small and non profit-making. It'll be nice to do my bit for the culture of my home county. However, the existence of the book in Cornish may one day help to swing a deal with a larger mainstream publisher. I would love to see these stories go out in English. And if that happens, it sets a precedent. There are thousands of other great stories waiting in the wings for their chance in the limelight. What a joy it would be to give them the popularity and wider audience they deserve.

Illustrations and stories copyright (c) 2008 Stevyn Colgan. Giant illustration (c) 2008 James Murphy.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why writing is in my blood

Willow's 'Fourth of fourth' meme unexpectedly turfed up two pictures of my late grandfather Edward Grimson Colgan who, as far as I am aware, was the first person in my family to feel the urge to put pen to paper. I can't be sure of this of course; while we have managed to trace the Colgans back several hundred years, scant personal writings remain. But Edward - Ted to everyone who knew him - left behind a number of notebooks full of his poetry. Plus, I have my memories of the man. I owe him much.

Ted in 1937
He would have been the first to admit that he was no Byron or Eliot. In fact, he often compared himself to the infamous William Topaz McGonagall (see here). But his poems had a gentle naivete to them and I remember reading them when I was younger. His war poems are by far the best and when he read them to us, we would listen while toying with pieces of shrapnel he'd kept as memento mori. Invariably there would be some gory story attached to each piece ('Oh, and that piece went straight through the bosun's neck!') but how true any of them were is a matter of some debate.* Grandad's war poems chart his Naval career pretty much from start to end. Here's an example. It's undated but was probably written around 1943:
The Little Ships (Tally Ho!)

There’s a deathly still on the ship tonight
As we steam along in the waning light
The watch below are fast asleep
The watch on deck their vigil keep

And as we step on Twelve Patrol
Echoes are seen on the radar scroll
“Action stations!” There is a flash
As star shells leave the gun with a crash

Lighting up the battle scene
Germany E boats abaft the beam
“Starboard thirty!” the captain yells
The battle to our MTB’s fell

Crashing past at thirty knots
“Tally ho!” as we raise our hats
Through the darkness guns display
Tracers, only death to convey
Just as quick as it began
The raiders scatter like grains of sand
On the news next day it was read again
Enemy forces scattered in the shipping lane.

1943, Boston, Mass.

Apart from his war poems, Grandad also wrote passionately about Cornwall, particularly his beloved home town of Looe. He bemoaned the constant denuding of the countryside for house building and business premises. He also felt great sorrow for the fishermen of the town. Looe was once a thriving port and many of the fishermen he knew were relatives or close friends and many had seen service at sea in the Navy during wartime. By the end of the war, the fishing industry was already in decline. Within 20 years it was almost non-existent. Here's a typical Ted Colgan lament for Looe :

Came Disillusionment

Motoring down to lovely Looe
Mindful there to find
A peaceful and enchanting scene
A picture in my mind

As I approached along the road
Through miles and miles of greenery
A sight that I shall ne’er forget
A massacre of scenery.

There before me stark and bare
The height of desecration
Those lovely woods once proud and tall
Lay ‘round in degradation

There across the river bank
Also very still
Stumps and trees from a woodman’s axe
It was a sight to chill

A hunter's hut so forlorn
Tho' long since been buried
Now bared for all the world to see
Where once the hunter tarried

O! nature cruel more often kind
Lets swards grow profusely
Hide from me this ugly scene
That man scarred so loosely
Motoring on with heavy heart
Until I reach the town
And there the view across the bay
I quickly lost my frown

It's perhaps no real surprise that my late father grew up with a love of poetry, art and writing of all kinds. He too became a champion of all things Cornish, often published in magazines and newspapers. And he, in turn, passed the baton on to me.

The last photo I ever took of Grandad in 1996 aged 85, a few months before he died

Ted Colgan survived the war despite the sinking of one of his ships in a Norwegian fjord. He trod water for nearly an hour in freezing conditions and suffered with his health for many years as the result. He took part in the D-Day landings, saw many of his closest friends killed and outlived his wife Marjorie and all of his sons, my father included. But throughout his long and eventful life he never stopped writing.

I fully intend to do the same.

So far so good.

*I have one piece of shrapnel that Grandad would always insist was embedded in the side of my infant father's pram during the blitz on the dockyards at Plymouth (where he was stationed at the time). Extraordinarily, this most outrageous of stories turned out to be true. My dad's pram was hit by shrapnel during an air-raid and, in fear for her life, my Nan sought shelter in an underground cellar. The building later collapsed and she and others who'd had the same idea found themselves trapped for several hours. My father, who at this time was just a few months old, was not yet christened so my Nan, believing that they were possibly going to die and discovering that one of her fellow shelterers was a priest, asked that an impromptu baptism took place underground. The other people in the shelter became my dad's godparents. Isn't that an amazing story? And completely true.

Debunking the Personality Test

I got an email from a good friend earlier who said, 'I tried that drawing personality test on your blog and got the same result as you, word for word. So I decided to try again and did a slightly different drawing. Guess what? I got the same result.' His first drawing was the expected mountains, trees and winding path. But here's what he drew the second time:

So, after I'd finish laughing and mopped up the tea that had just spurted from my nose, I thought I'd retake the test myself. Here's the happy picture that I drew:

And guess what? 'You tend to pursue many different activities simultaneously. When misfortune does happen, it doesn't actually dishearten you all that much.You are a direct and forthright person. You like to get to the core of the issue right away, with few signs of hesitation. You like following the rules and being objective. You are precise and meticulous, and like to evaluate decisions before making them. You have a sunny, cheerful disposition.'

I then repeated the test a couple more times - even leaving the drawing blank one time. The only thing that actually affected the results was how I answered the four questions.

Proof, if proof were needed, that internet-based personality tests are bunkum!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gun, Foot. Foot, Gun.

I spotted this poster inside a District Line carriage on the London Underground today. And I can't help but feel that the Metropolitan Police Service has kind of shot itself in the foot. I don't want to sound like I'm being unduly critical here; after all, I work for the Met. But one thing I do know is that if you want people to do something for you, you need to make it as easy as you can for them to do so. And this falls short of the mark I feel. Here's the history ...

When the first national emergency number was introduced to the UK, we chose 999. I have absolutely no idea why as it was pretty much the slowest number to dial. Yes, dial. This was back in the days before push button technology and you had to dial a number by shoving your finger into a rotating disc with ten holes and then whizzing it around clockwise. All of which means that it took longer to dial 999 than, say 111. The Americas plumped for the altogether more sensible 911 and Europe went one better with 112. But heigh ho, I'm sure there was a good reason.
Anyhow, volume soon became an issue. Firstly, there was the rise in home telephone ownership. Then along came mobile phones of which there are now millions in circulation. People don't always know the direct dial number for their local police or fire station or hospital. But everyone knows 999 so people dial it for anything and everything. Cats stuck up trees ... minor accidents ... noise nuisances ... they've heard it all at Scotland Yard. I remember one operator telling me that she'd even had people phoning 999 for the answer to a particularly cryptic crossword clue. The 999 system was in serious danger of collapsing unless we could divert some of the calls to a non-emergency number. It also meant that real emergencies couldn't get through because someone couldn't get 3 down (seven letters).

Now, there was a project set up by the Home Office to introduce a national non-emergency number to run parallel with the 999 system, using the number 101. Very clever I thought. Memorable. Easy. It's a winner. But then we suffered what the Jargonese people call 'mission drift'. All of a sudden, it's no longer a national project; it's local. In their own words:

'The government has not dropped 101, but is no longer offering grants to local operations. However, the 101 telephony infrastructure is available for local areas to use. Further, the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) recognise the benefits of single access locally and are supportive of local areas implementing the service.'*

So now it's a case of various councils, police authorities etc. investing in their own system with 101 being pushed as the best and most easy to use option. So why has the Met introduced 0300 123 1212? I mean ... how easy is that to remember? I like the '1212' bit as that smacks of the old days when Scotland Yard's phone number really was Whitehall 1212. So why not just have 1212? Why all this 0300 business? It reminded me of this wonderful spoof advert that appeared in the UK sitcom The IT Crowd:

0118 999 881 999 119 725 3. So catchy.

To make matters even worse, this new number costs money to dial. Yes, it's only a local call tariff but it's still money that some people - particularly younger people - can't always afford to spend on their pay-as-you-go mobiles. 999 is still easier to remember ... and free.

We'll see just how well it works.

*from the Home Office Crime Reduction site. The full report on the 101 Project is here if you're dull like me and read such things.

The Persistence of Persephone

Persephone asked me if I'd have a go at a personality test based upon your ability to draw a landscape with a computer mouse (?!). I am a diva of procrastination and left it for a day or two but she's now whined at me enough so I've had a go. It was bloody hard work! But here's what I drew:

Apparently this means that:

'You tend to pursue many different activities simultaneously. When misfortune does happen, it doesn't actually dishearten you all that much.You are a direct and forthright person. You like to get to the core of the issue right away, with few signs of hesitation. You like following the rules and being objective. You are precise and meticulous, and like to evaluate decisions before making them. You have a sunny, cheerful disposition.'

Fancy a go yourself? Here's the link.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fourth of Fourth

I get a lot of tag requests; so many that if I responded to them all I'd forever be posting memes rather than my usual balderdash and piffle. But Willow has tagged me with something called 'Fourth of the Fourth' and it looked a bit different. This is how it works: you go to the fourth photo folder or file on your computer and select the fourth picture in it and post it on your blog with an explanation. Hmmm. Okay, I thought. Sounds like a laugh.

Now, I hold the Colgan family photographic archive and store it in year order, so the fourth folder is called 1930-1950 and this is the fourth photograph in it:

It's my late paternal grandfather (x marks the spot) posing with the crew of his ship, HMS Ganges, in 1937, little realising that war was just around the corner. Okay, so not as much of a laugh as I'd have liked ... so, how about only using photos taken within my life-time? In that case, the fourth folder is labelled 1965. And the fourth photo in it is this one:

Coincidentally, it's that same grandfather again, this time with me (right) and one of my brothers, Andrew (the non-photographer). Quite why we're sat in a pile of gravel on a heath somewhere is beyond me. Grandad was notoriously tight-fisted with money so maybe this was his cut-price way of getting us a sandpit? Or perhaps he was conning us into thinking we were at cheap theme park: "Come on kids, I'll take you an alien planet! Yeah! This is where every episode of Doctor Who and Blake's 7 was filmed ..."

Time to pass the Tag on to four of you (naturally). So let me choose some of you that I've not tagged before ... How about Lisa, Protege, Persephone and Planet Me?

Make me proud.

It was Stevyn Colgan in the Library with the Lead Pencil

I've just illustrated a couple of bookplates - one based on an older pirate picture and one spanking new bogie picker - for the My Home Library website. The site provides hundreds of unique copyright-free bookplates and bookmarks, in colour and black and white, for you to print off and personalise your children's books with. Among the artists I'm joining are such luminaries as Quentin Blake, Jan Pienkowski, Corky Paul, Posy Simmons, Raymond Briggs, Nick Butterworth, Michael Foreman, Helen Oxenbury and Tony Ross.

The site is the brainchild of author Anne Fine who was the Children's Laureate 2001-2003. It's all about encouraging children and their families to build a home library of favourite books. The site includes reviews, tips and tricks, competitions and puzzles, and great ideas for book sharing, book clubs etc. There are also links to books in Braille and special 'feelie' bookplates and bookmarks are available by post. Top authors like Terry Pratchett, J K Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman have all donated time and money to help to make the site as open to the visually-impaired as it is to sighted children.

As Anne herself explains on the site:

'Some people print (the bookplates) onto sticky labels; others print on paper, then use scissors and glue. (Don't forget you can always print out the black and white plates on coloured paper. Some look remarkably different against a fresh background.) We know a lot of teachers who use our bookplates for rewards. (You can keep your computer-mad pupils happy printing them out for you). Mothers stick them in their babies' first picture books. And babysitters tell us that some of the black and white ones are perfect for "colouring in before bedtime".

'If you have to get a present for your brother, sister or best friend, and you're not feeling rich, then think about using one of our bookplates to personalise the perfect choice of book from a charity shop or second-hand book shop. They're brilliant for blotting out the last person's name. (In fact, they're so good that more and more bookshops are giving them out free - or is it in the hope customers will buy more books just to have something to stick them in?

Everyone needs a Home Library. Make sure that yours keeps growing. Don't forget that books furnish the mind, and unfurnished minds are EMPTY and TIRESOME.'

So go visit, pick out some of the gorgeous bookplates and enjoy. The site is here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

64 days to go ...

Looking for Christmas pressies? The QI 'F' Annual 2009 goes on sale on the 6th of November. It's even funnier than last year's 'E' annual and highlights include (as recorded on the back cover - click for larger image):

How nice to see my name in lights. Well, ink. Seriously, it will make a great stocking-filler (provided you have oddly rectangular and flattened legs). So buy it!

My other recommendations include:

... and if you really love someone and don't mind spending a bit more, I'd heartily recommend Stephen Fry in America and Russell T Davies's and Benjamin Cook's Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale.

Not to mention a certain Joined-Up Thinking ...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ode de Toilette

To put the record straight, I don't make a habit of taking photographs in gents' toilets. Let's face it, you only need to spotted once and you're tagged as some kind of weird pervert for life. But soemtimes it's worth the risk. In case you can't quite read the handwritten lines that were appended after 'hygienic and clean', they read:

'If you decide to take on this role,
Another cleaner will be on the dole.'

Politics in a toilet cubicle. You couldn't make it up.

Autumnal City

Some glorious Autumn light in Trafalgar Square lifted this picture of St Martins in the Field.

I love this little pub. It's called The Albert on Victoria Street and it's somehow managed to survive while all around has turned to glass and steel. I've walked past it a hundred times but I've never been inside the place. Ah well, no hurry. I suspect it'll be around forever.

Parliament Square with the Palace of Westminster at right and the London Eye peeping above the chimneys of the building that used to be Scotland Yard (now parliamentary offices).

A fantastic old door and a view across the Thames towards Canary Wharf - the tallest building in the UK - and the City, London's financial district.

And, lastly, an unusual view of the Swiss Re Building - better known as the Erotic Gherkin - and some of the more traditional buildings around it.

Joke of the Week


If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And if you can't join 'em, arrange to have them killed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sod it! (The secret swearing life of Clangers)

One of the more interesting conversations I've had this week was on the subject of swearing. It took place live on air with Radio City in Liverpool. The show's presenter, Pete Price, was all in favour of swearing whereas a representative from local paper the Liverpool Echo was completely against it. Marie Claire from Plain English Campaign made the valid point that swear words are as much a part of the language as any other words and therefore should be used appropriately at the right time and place and in consideration of the audience. And you all know my views - I like swearing and would cheer the day that silly and arbitrary taboos about so-called curse words finally disappear. But did you know that aliens have been swearing at us through our television sets for 40 years? Oh yes. I'm talking Clangers here.

Imagine the scene. It’s 1969 and you’re a commissioning editor for the BBC; one of those people who buys new shows. You’re just enjoying a cup of tea when there’s a knock at the door and two friendly-looking gents walk in.

‘We have an idea for a new children’s show,’ they say. And given that these men are Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the men behind such huge successes as
Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and Pogle’s Wood, you decide to hear them out.

‘Well, it’s set in space’, they explain. ‘After all, space is very sexy at the moment what with the moon landings and stuff. So here’s the idea … our programme centres on an extended family of small pink knitted aliens who live inside craters on a small moon. They eat blue string pudding and soup, which they get from the Soup Dragon who controls the soup wells. There’s an Iron Chicken who pops in occasionally, some orangey frog things who live in a top hat or a soup lake that’s vertical and set into a wall. Oh, and a cloud that has musical raindrops. The aliens are called Clangers due to the noise they make when opening the metal dustbin lids they use to cover the entrances to their craters. They have a language that sounds like it’s being played on a sliding Swanee whistle. Oh, and they have a spaceship powered by musical notes that they pick off a music tree.’

You look at these two earnest middle-aged men and wondered just how much acid they’ve dropped the night before.

It obviously didn’t happen that way as Clangers was commissioned and was an immediate hit, spawning two series (set over 26 episodes between 1968-1972) and a four minute special called Vote for Froglet! that was filmed for the 1974 Election Special TV show. The pink beasties even made a guest appearance on Doctor Who when Roger Delgado’s imprisoned Master sees them on television and assumes he’s watching a wildlife documentary set in space (Watch the clip here).

Clangers has its origins in one of Postgate’s and Firmin’s earlier hits – The Saga of Noggin the Nog in which we followed the adventures of a mythical Norse tribe led by said Noggin. In one of the many books written to accompany the series, we were introduced to the Moon Mouse, a small pink creature in a spotted duffel coat whose spaceship crash lands in the capital city of the Northlands, destroying the newly-installed horses’ drinking trough. The Nogs helped the creature refuel the ship with vinegar, oil and soap flakes and sent it on its way. It was this creature that became the first proto-Clanger in the minds of its creators.

Quite why Clangers developed into the pseudo-drug trip it did is entirely down to Postgate and Firmin’s imagination but it did catch the public’s imagination and some 40 years on, the show is still being repeated on children’s TV channels like C-Beebies and Nick Jnr. And all this despite the bad language. Yes, I can reveal that the Clangers swore, and have been swearing, on children’s TV for four decades. In various interviews, Postgate has explained that:

‘Their scripts had to be written out in English, for Steven Sylvester and I to use Swanee whistles; we just sort of blew the whistles in Clanger language for the text that was there, so it didn’t matter much what was written. But when the BBC got the script, [they] rang me up and said, “At the beginning of episode three, where the doors get stuck, Major Clanger says ‘Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again!’. Well, darling, you can’t say that on Children’s television, you know, I mean you just can’t.” I said, “It’s not going to be said, it’s going to be whistled” but [they] just said, “but people will know!” I said no, that if they had nice minds, they’d think, ‘Oh dear, the silly thing’s not working properly’. So the BBC said, "Oh, all right then, I suppose so, but please keep the language moderate."

‘If you watch the episode, the one where the rocket goes up and shoots down the Iron Chicken, Major Clanger kicks the door to make it work and his first words are “Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again!” Years later, when the merchandising took off, the Golden Bear company wanted a Clanger and a Clanger phrase for it to make when you squeezed it. They got “Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again!”’

Apparently, the Clangers’ language is a translation for human ears as they normally communicate by way of ‘nuclear magnetic resonance’ as there’s no air in the vacuum of space to carry sound.

Nuclear magnetic resonance potty mouths in space. So now you know.

Read the rest of Clive Banks’ interview with Oliver Postgate on his extraordinarily completist Cult TV site here. Or visit John S Fletcher’s excellent Clangers fansite here. Oliver Postgate's biography Seeing Things is an excellent read and can be ordered from Amazon here. And yes, I am a huge fan of the show and I’ve mentioned the Clangers in previous blog posts here, here and here.

The name is Levi Stubbs, sucker!

Today we say goodbye to Levi Stubbs, one of the legendary Four Tops and the voice of one of my favourite non-human film characters ever - Audrey II. Yes, Stubbs (whose real name was Levi Stubbles - he should have kept that) owned the sonorous baritone voice that we all try to copy when we shout 'Feed me!' He was perfect for the part of the carnivorous alien plant in the musical movie version of Little Shop of Horrors.

In a curious case of coincidence, a few days ago I was looking at the winning photographs from this year's International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge (there's a snappy title for you) photography competition. And I remembered seeing this shot:

These curious little Audrey IIs are, in fact, suckers found on the tentacles of a long-finned squid. Each sucker -about 400 micrometres wide, or a little smaller than the width of a human hair - is surrounded with 'fangs' of chitin, the hard organic material that insect skeletons are made from. It just goes to show that no matter how hard we try to imagine what aliens could be like, life here on our own small planet can be just as bizarre and surprising.

Sleep well, Levi.

Image captured from National Geographic website. Taken by Jessica D Schiffman and Caroline L Schauer, Drexel University/Science.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Plain Speaking

This late night appearance on the Tessa Dunlop show yesterday (once I'd raced home from the Festival Hall) topped and tailed my fortnight of press and radio interviews. That's 18 shows 'in the can' (ooh get me and my media talk). The night before (Thursday) I took part in a live on-air three-way chat on Radio City Liverpool with presenter Pete Price and Marie Claire, press officer for Plain English Campaign. The topics of discussion ranged from my book to my police career to swearing to punctuation but, running like a spinal chord throughout, was the subject of plain English. It's something I've championed for many years and have mentioned on this blog more than a couple of times. So I will take this opportunity (as I have some newer readers) to once again dispel some myths.

Firstly, plain English is not 'dumbed-down' English. It's just clear English. It means writing in a style appropriate for the anticipated readers. It means writing in a way that the average reader will understand it after a single reading. It means choosing clear, unambiguous words that promote understanding without changing or losing the meaning of what you're saying.

Secondly, it does not suck the joy out of English. I delight in my native language. I love discovering new words. But, like any skill, you adapt it to suit your audience. The way that I would phrase an informational leaflet is very different from the way I'd write a poem.

Thirdly, it does not ban big or difficult words. Hell no. It does the reader good to have their vocabulary expanded so you can use as many big words as you like provided (a) you explain what the word means at its first appearance, or (b) you do not let that word change the meaning of the sentence. For example, I began my introduction to Joined-Up Thinking with the line: 'An interesting and serendipitous thing happened to me a couple of years ago.' Now, if the reader doesn't know what serendipitous means, they have two choices here. They can go and look it up. Or they can ignore it and carry on reading. Not knowing that single word will not affect their understanding of the sentence. All they've missed is a tiny nuance i.e. the fact that the interesting thing was the result of a 'happy accident'. Of course, you don't drop an unfamiliar word into every sentence as that would soon become tiresome. Variety is the spice of life after all. Use a combination of short and longer sentences (although try not to exceed 20 words per sentence). And don't be afraid to write as you speak. I started that last sentence with 'and', didn't I? Horror! Sorry, but that's how we speak and I'll be damned if some 18th century scholar is going to tell me that I can't start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'. The rule is nonsense, cooked up by people who wanted English to follow the rules of the divine language Latin. In fact, I believe that there is no grammar book that says you can't start a sentence this way (although you may want to try to prove me wrong). The Bible does it. Shakespeare and Dickens did it. And I will do it too, thank you very much.

So remember the Five Cs. Plain English is:

  1. Correct - Use the right words, grammar and punctuation;
  2. Clear - Any reasonable person should be able to understand what you’ve written after one reading;
  3. Concise - A lot of people will be reluctant readers. Their first reaction will be to look at the amount they have to read. Keep it short but not abrupt;
  4. Conversational - Use everyday words in an everyday style. That doesn’t mean ‘dumbing down’. Write as if you are sitting opposite a group of your readers. Write the words that you’d use if you were talking to them;
  5. Considerate - Think about your readers’ needs before your own. Only use jargon if you are absolutely sure that all of your readers will understand it.

There. You've been told.

South Bank Joy

I spend many hours bimbling about London doing my day job and, as I do so, there's always a camera in my jacket pocket in case I spot some quirky little piece of the city. Everyone knows the main sights of interest so I'm always looking for the more unusual. Plus, I love capturing the people of London who, it must be said, are even quirkier than the city.

Today's stroll starts near Trafalgar Square in Charing Cross Road where I noticed this strangely creepy little animatronic man on the roof of the Chandos pub next door to the Coliseum Theatre, home of the English National Opera. I don't know about you but any mechanical figure that constantly repeats the same actions while smiling at you is creepy. Or maybe it's just me?

As I was nearing the National Portrait Gallery, I was passed by this young Japanese cyclist. Her helmet was so ludicrously shiny that I am reflected in it.

From there, I walked down past Trafalgar Square and this group of artists. If indeed that that's what they were as none of them seemed to have anything even vaguely resembling a painting about them. My brain was filled with dark fantasies of inept spies or undercover police. Or perhaps they were easel salesmen?

My route took me past South Africa House with its beautiful golden springbok sculpture and on to Charing Cross and the Millennium Bridge. I was due to attend an event starting at 5pm at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames. As I walked, the sun slowly disappeared and an Autumnal chill settled. Dusk seemed to come down really quickly and the skies changed from blue to dull grey in what seemed like just a few minutes. By the time I got to the river, the light had changed considerably.

This view from the bridge shows the London Eye and County Hall on the left and the Palace of Westminster and the clock tower of Big Ben on the right. The two boats moored here are the Hispaniola and the Tattershall Castle - both working, floating entertainment venues. The Hispaniola is a restaurant but the 'Tatty old arsehole', as she's known by her affectionate regulars, is a pub and she used to be my local a few years ago. Around the turn of the century when I was working in offices near Parliament Square. She went for refurbishment not so long ago and I delighted in telling friends and colleagues that my pub had been towed away.

And finally, some dusky views taken from the fifth floor balcony of the Festival Hall. The first shot shows the Millennium Bridge and Charing Cross rail station. The second is, of course, the Palace of Westminster or, as it is often called, the Houses of Parliament. It's probably a better name as 'palace' suggests a grandeur and gravitas that, frankly, many of our ministers don't deserve.

This final shot is a view of the river just as the light is fading. The whole area becomes floodlit and festooned with what looks like a thousand faerie lights. It probably stamps a major carbon footprint but you can't argue with how glorious and magical it can look.
If I was asked to choose a favourite place in London, this would be it. A warm Summer evening on the South Bank, drinking good wine and eating good food with good friends. I really can't think of anywhere else in London I'd rather be.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Aha - A Hand

I didn't think it was possible to produce a funnier version of Aha's Take on me than the literal version a couple of posts ago.

But it is.

Of course, non-singing musical stardom is nothing new ...

Thanks for finding these Huw!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Inspired Design

Following on from my post about problem solving, how about these clever designs that (a) allow you to see the temperature of your drink, and (b) prevent you from getting a wet arse. Clever stuff. And so simple!

Heat Sensitive colour-coded mug - via SwissMiss

The Rolling Bench by Sungwoo Park. I swear he got the idea from a Rizla cigarette rolling machine.