Thursday, January 29, 2009

London by night

Amazing aerial photos of London by night by photographer Jason Hawkes. Click here to see more pictures or visit his website here. London is a fantastic city to work in - despite the hateful commuting - and he's somehow made it look even more magical.

A gallery with a difference

An amazing gallery of artworks using unusual materials like etch-a-sketch, Smarties, porn magazines and food.

This final one is by a good friend of mine called Ptolemy Elrington who makes things from roadside trash like hubcaps. Genius.

View the whole gallery here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The man with a head like a thumb

Here's this week's strangest item. Today I've had several tweets from fellow Twitter users alerting me to this picture (even Stephen Fry mentioned it). I've also received three emails from chums who've sent me the picture. It's like some kind of weird meme going around.

The question is ... who is the man with a head like a thumb? And how has this bizarre picture achieved such huge internet coverage?

I could do with the same kind of publicity.

The best TV advert I've seen in ages ...

... but I have no idea why I like it so much.

If only John Updike had been a jellyfish

The Turritopsis nutricula jellyfish is, by all accounts, immortal. After becoming sexually mature and mating, it is able to revert back to a juvenile form. Marine biologists say that the jellyfish's numbers are rocketing because they need not die. Dr Maria Miglietta of the Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute said: "We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion."

The jellyfish are originally from the Caribbean but have spread all over the world. Turritopsis nutricula is technically known as a hydrozoan and is the only known animal that is capable of reverting completely to its younger self. It does this through the cell development process of transdifferentiation. Scientists believe the cycle can repeat indefinitely, rendering it potentially immortal.
While most members of the jellyfish family usually die after propagating, the Turritopsis nutricula has developed the unique ability to return to a polyp state. Having stumbled upon the font of eternal youth, this tiny creature which is just 5mm long is the focus of many intricate studies by marine biologists and geneticists to see exactly how it manages to literally reverse its ageing process.

Source: Daily Telegraph (with thanks to Peter Serafinowicz who alerted me to it)

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Nice little feature here in the New York Times about British place names that sound (snigger) a bit rude.

In praise of paper

Following on from my Saturday rant, I just wanted to add another quick post in defence of a much-maligned method of data storage - paper.

One of my personal hates is the Personal Digital Assistant. Even the name is wanky. These are those hand-held gadgets that purport to save you time by storing lots and lots of data for you; the sort of data you'd normally keep in a diary or a notebook or address book. Some PDAs even masquerade as mobile phones too. I've had several of these evil machines and all of them have helped me to develop a bitter hatred and distrust of their foul ilk. The first I owned was a Sony something or other that sounded French. Firstly, it took forever to type in all of the data it wanted -schedules, contacts etc. It didn't even have a keyboard or a touch screen in those days and everything had to be tapped in with a stylus. It took forever. Then, just two weeks later, it crashed and lost all of the data. And because I didn't have my paper diary with me I spent the day wandering around various rooms and buildings in a pitiful attempt to work out what meetings I was supposed to be at. So what did I do? I filled the bugger up again. And guess what happened ...

My second PDA was a Hewlett-Packard ... but it was still all about tapping with styluses (styli?) and spending hours slavishly feeding it data. I dropped this PDA and, again, lost all of my data. Thankfully, I had backed it all up to my computer. But as that computer was at home, it was no good to me and once again, I found myself bewildered and confused and in search of my itinerary. From then on, a ridiculous scenario ensued whereby I carried both PDA, diary and address books around with me ... just in case. You see, if I drop my diary, the data remains. Even if I get it wet, it continues to function albeit more smudgedly (new word there maybe?). And it's a damned sight quicker to whip a book out of my pocket than it ever was to whip out the PDA, slip it out of its case, switch it on, find the right application and select the data I wanted. Yawn. Besides which, I can scribble in notebooks and diaries. I can doodle. Try doodling on a PDA while you're on the phone.

So I've now returned to paper. And I'm getting endless joy from some of the gorgeous notebooks produced by Moleskine. Admittedly, I can't back up my diaries and notebooks other than by duplicating them. But the simple answer to that is ... don't lose them. I'm no Luddite. It's just that sometimes the old ways are still the best.

If it ain't broke, why mend or replace it?

Oh, and while we're comparing the old with the new, can someone please invent a telephone that I can slam down when I'm pissed off? There is something immensely satisfying about slamming the receiver onto the cradle and cutting off the complete arse that you've been arguing the moral toss with. Pressing a little button with a red phone symbol on it just does not do it for me and leaves me unsatisfied no matter how hard I stab the bugger. Thank you.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Beware of the Ludditosaurus

I was swapping emails with Dan Schreiber - the director of John Lloyd's QI spin-off radio series The Museum of Curiosity - a couple of days ago and during the course of the conversation I admitted that I'd 'taped the first series off the wireless'. Taped? Wireless? Buggeration! How old and dated did I sound? So I considered how to reword the email more accurately. I'd used a software programme to grab the digital audio from a radio show being streamed to my computer by the BBC i-Player and had saved the resulting recording in MP3 format. So how was I going to reduce that tirade of technobabble to a simple bite-size phrase like 'taped it off the wireless'?*

'Recorded it off the radio' seemed like a possibility. But it wasn't strictly accurate as no actual recording had taken place. I'd downloaded a digital file from one location to another. And could I call it 'radio' if there were no radios involved? Remember, this was simply information passing from one hard drive to another via the internet. So what to call it? Accessing? Downloading? You see the problem? The technology has run ahead of our facility to decribe what it does.

Technology has developed so fast, in fact, that it resembles a period in Earth's history around 530 million years ago called the Cambrian Explosion. During this period, Nature ran amok creating many, many different forms of living organism. But then, after a time, those thousands of strange variants were slowly whittled down into just a handful of species from which every creature we know today evolved. The same kind of explosion has happened with technology ... I just wish that the whittling process would hurry up a bit. I'm fed up with the confusion of choice. Take file formats as an example.

For audio, I can now choose between formats like CDA, AAC, M4A, MP3, WMA, OGG, MP4, VOX, WAV, AC3, RAW, AMR, G729, AIFC etc. To watch a movie, I'm faced with choosing between MPEG, AVI, WMV, MOV, 3GP, XVID, DIVX, H246, MP4, ASF, ASX and many more. Worst of all is digital imaging where the number of picture formats is, frankly, arse-wipingly ridiculous. With just one piece of art software that I use, I can load, alter, process and save over 50 different types of file from the more familar JPG, BMP, GIF and TIF formats to the more exotic DXF, CGM, KDP, PIC ... Why do we need so many formats? Can't we get this down to just a handful?

I will concede that certain formats seem to be winning through; MP3 has become a kind of standard although people refer to their 'MP3 players' despite the fact that they may be listening to a variety of formats. The bestselling 'MP3 player' is, of course, the Apple i-Pod ... but that doesn't play MP3s! It converts everything to Apple's M4A format. So even here there is a terminology clash - MP3 can hardly become the industry standard when Apple doesn't use it and when the other big player - Microsoft - encourages the use of their WMA format. In digital photography, people talk most commonly about JPGs because it's the most common format for domestic use cameras. But within professional business, many companies still prefer uncompressed formats like RAW, BMP and TIF because the picture quality is better. Surely we can simplify all of this?

At home I have a choice between normal TV and digital TV, between standard DVD and high-definition Blu-Ray. So why not do the same with file formats? How about .aud for standard audio of MP3 type standard, .vid for DVD standard video and .pic for JPG quality pictures? Simple eh? Then we could have hi-res and hi-def versions of thses files that could be denoted by the addition of an H in the file extension: Aud and AudH, Vid and VidH, Pic and PicH. Isn't that simple? Surely that's all we need? And it would suit everyone.

Then there's the matter of cables. I must own around 20 USB leads. All of them have one thing in common; the plug on one end is universal (that's what the 'U' in USB stands for). The other end has something completely different to every other USB lead. I own a couple of digital cameras, a few MP3 players and i-pods, SatNavs, mobile phones etc. ... and they all have their own unique USB lead. It drives me mad scrabbling through the bowl of black plastic spaghetti on my desk to find the right one. Doesn't this strike you as a kind of madness?

I want all of my computer peripherals, gadgets and doohickeys to run on the same USB cables. If, for some reason I don't understand, they have to have different cables then at least make the choice small and label them with easy tags like A,B and C or small, medium and large. How refreshing it would be to simply walk into a techie shop knowing that I need a USB large or a USB-C cable. Fantastic. What more do you really actually need? Please do tell me because I'm dying to know.

I try not to be a Luddite dinosaur. I really do. I like gadgets and technology. But I also have to get on with my life and it really is too short to be spending time worrying about format types or finding the right leads.

*Wireless is a curious term as it labels me both as an archaic fuddy-duddy and a thrusting modernist geek. We've gone full circle haven't we? Prepare for the Gramophone's second coming ...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Doing the Lambeth Walk

Yesterday I had to go to Brixton in the borough of Lambeth. I always have mixed feelings whenever I visit this area. Like most London Bobbies who were in service in the early 1980s, my first experience of Brixton was seeing it from behind a perspex shield as bricks and bottles clunked off my riot helmet and Molotov Cocktails burst on the ground at my feet. Brixton was one of the epicentres of the early 80s race riots and I spent many many hours of my early service on public order duties there. Consequently, it became a place that held nothing but bad and, I'll admit it, scary memories for me.

But time has moved on and so have the people of London. Concerted effort by the police and the public has built some strong bridges of trust and, 25years on, it's not such a bad place to be. Certainly, I don't feel nervous visiting the area any more.
Confidence in the area has been growing. The Carling Academy (above) - formerly and, to be honest, still known as the Brixton Academy - is one of the best rock and comedy venues in London and anyone who is anyone has played there from Coldplay to Kylie, from Johnny Vegas to The Mighty Boosh.

There's some great architecture around too. Wonderful old redbrick and sandstone buildings with towers and minarets and crenellated roofs. Sadly some of the nicest buildings have been buggered about at ground floor level and you need to look above the plasterboard and glass of the Pound Shops and McDonald's to spot the little gems. Take this one for example (below).

If you can't quite see it (or the photo won't enlarge when you click on it), the upper half of this shop tells us that it was once a branch of a company called Sanders that were silversmiths, goldsmiths, watch and clockmakers, diamond merchants and, incongruously, qualified opticians.

But Brixton still has issues that need addressing. Knife crime is a real problem among younger people in the borough and Lambeth has been the site of too many tragedies in recent years. It would be nice to think that if I returned in another 25 years, there would be no more need for knife amnesties. If the good work that's been done continues, I'm very optimistic.

I see Faces - the first batch of 2009

These next two are the same photo in different orientations. Curiously, they both work.

My brother Simon found another chap who plays this game too. His site is here. However, the undisputed champion is still Dave Gorman.

More pointlessness

Real chips and real mushrooms, eh? As opposed to what exactly? Find me a punnet of artificial mushrooms now!

This seems sensible enough doesn't it? Until you see the door that it was on. What window? And how is it an emergency door when the handle is behind toughened glass?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What a difference 60 years makes ...

I, like almost everyone I know, have just watched the Obama inauguration. What an extraordinary event. Can you imagine people around the world tuning in to watch Gordon Brown get sworn in as Prime Minister? Hell no. Brown suits his name; muddy, dull, slightly unpleasant. By comparison Barack Obama has that same quality we once saw in people like JFK and Churchill; that ability to rouse a nation from its torpor and inspire great works.

Kennedy said that he'd get a man on the Moon. Obama has a harder task - he has an economy to restore and a planet to save (well, a major contribution towards that goal) - but he embraced the challenge. His speech was peppered with great soundbites about global warming and reusable energy and of 'harnessing the sun and wind'. He subtly attacked the oil barons who've grown fat and gouty on the profits of their wells and who've so far kyboshed all attempts to get the USA to acknowledge its pivotal role in reducing carbon emissions.

But there was more, so much more on offer here. He talked about 'elevating science to where it belongs'. Well, Hallelujah to that! Hopefully this will see a drift back towards reality and away from the blinkered, backward thinking of creationism and other such mumbo-jumbo. Great scientists and great science is born from understanding, enlightenment and freedom of thinking, not from superstition and the tight confines of scripture. When he talked about the American people, he talked of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and - Hoorah! - non-believers. At last! A US president who acknowledges that there are atheists and humanists out there who want to do their part to make America great while also being seen as equals with those who have faith. He talked about the war on terror and that Americans should not be living in fear. Good. We've lived with mainland terrorism for decades here in the UK and we're damned if we'll give in to these maniacs. The threat of vile acts should not change the way we live - if it does, the terrorists have scored a point. So hopefully we will see a change in the way we're treated at immigration when we visit the USA from now on. I bloody hope so anyway. It was a speech that spoke of the next generation while acknowledging a debt to those who went before. It was a speech that spoke not only to America but to the world; extending the hand of friendship to those who are willing to 'unclench their fist'. I loved every minute of it.

Obama, as I said before, isn't Superman but today he provided something that so many people have wanted for a long time; hope, inspiration, a vision of how things could be and a very real sense that if anyone stands a chance of achieving it, he's that person. I was gobsmacked - and that doesn't happen often.

If only we had someone with even 50% of that charisma on this side of the pond.

Illustration 'The First' by Drew Friedman, copyright The New Yorker Magazine

Monday, January 19, 2009

One nation under new management

I'm not a language fascist but I do advocate correct punctuation wherever possible. Punctuation is how we convey on paper or plasma the nuances, pauses and emphases of the spoken word. I don't claim to be an expert and I frequently make mistakes. But I do make an effort and that's the point.

Today I was struck by how much difference a simple exclamation mark can make. You see, before George W Bush came to power, I always saw America as a place where:

Anyone can become President!

After Bush's election, I found myself saying:

Anyone can become President ...

Obama isn't Superman and things won't be fixed overnight. No one should expect miracles. But I thoroughly believe that from tomorrow you'll have the right man in the White House.

Wishing all of my American visitors a better four years ahead!

The other news story this week ...

In a bizarre ritual, two minor girls, both seven, from the remote Pallipudupet village of Pudcherry in Tamil Nadu's Villupuram district were married off to frogs on Friday night. The ceremony, an annual feature during the Pongal (harvest) festival, is conducted "to prevent the outbreak of mysterious diseases in the village''. The girls, Vigneswari and Masiakanni, dressed up in traditional bridal finery -- gilded sarees and gold jewellery -- married the frog 'princes' in separate, elaborate ceremonies at two different temples in the presence of hundreds of villagers. Amidst chanting of vedic hymns, the temple priests garlanded the brides and tied the magalsutras on behalf of the frogs pronouncing the two as wives of the amphibians before the sacred fire at the auspicious hour. The villagers threw themselves into the ceremonies with gusto. While residents living in the western part of the village acted as relatives of the brides and those from the eastern part play-acted as relatives of the grooms.

The ceremonies had all the usual elements of a traditional marriage including a sumptuous feast. However, unlike the fairy tale `Frog Prince', where the ugly toad turns into a handsome prince when the princess kisses it, the Villupuram village belles bid their amphibian grooms goodbye and lead a normal life thereafter. As for the terrified frogs, they are thrown back into the temple ponds after the ceremony. Earlier the 'relatives' of the brides came in a procession to the grooms' houses in the eastern part of the village to fix the marriage and later went to the temple pond to catch the frogs. The frog princes were tied to long sticks decorated with garlands for the marriage ceremonies.

An elderly woman of the village said the ritual was practised traditionally for several generations to ward off evil spirits and diseases from the village. Villupuram district collector R Palaniswamy told TOI that he had deputed a team led by the district social welfare officer to visit the village and submit a detailed report. "The district administration proposes to evolve comprehensive schemes to motivate and enlighten the villagers against such evil and ignorant practises," he said. But all these years the strange practice has been going on unchecked.

Source: The Times of India

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tony Hart (1925-2009)

It's thanks to this wonderful man - with some extra nudging from Rolf Harris - that I started drawing. I didn't ever get any of my work into the Vision On or Take Hart galleries but I still watched him avidly whenever he appeared on TV. He was a true inspiration and one of the few men to completely get away with wearing a cravat.

Bye bye Tony. Let's watch an old episode of Vision On in celebration (featuring a young future Doctor Who called Sylvester McCoy)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Dark Side of ABBA

Remember this? The day that Benny and Bjorn sold their souls to the Dark Lord. Very creepy ...

Doctress Who and the Waitrons

Welcome one and all to the Saturday post.

Today I want to talk about political correctness in language. It will mean mentioning a couple of words that are known to cause offence. But, as we will discuss, such words only have power if their use is motivated by racism, homophobia, sexism or some other equally vitrolic-ism ... and you'll find none of that negative stuff here. Oh no.

I was prompted to write this post following a discussion at work about the term brainstorm, which I used during a lesson. I rather took umbrage when a senior colleague rapped me across the knuckles because the term was, in his words, 'offensive to epileptics'. My immediate reaction was to point out that no one says 'epileptics' any more - the preferred expression is 'person with epilepsy'. Certainly within the care profession, it is seen as wholly inappropriate to define someone solely by their illness. After all, we don't say 'There's John. He's a herpes' do we? Or 'This is Susan. She's thrushy.' Anyhow, this issue aside, I was curious as to where this idea that 'brainstorm' was somehow wrong had come from. 'Oh, from the Epilepsy Society', was his reply. Now, this was interesting as my wife Dawn worked for the National Society for Epilepsy for years ... and their staff didn't object to using the term. It's also used widely in business and commerce. So where had this notion started? And why? What this little incident did was make me remember the many incidents I've witnessed in which people have shown their utter misunderstanding of what's come to be known (and in many cases loathed) as political correctness.
Me in 1984. Young. Slim. Idealistic. With a rubbish car.

My first real taste of PC came in the early 1980s. After a decade of hippy-drippy happiness (for many people) and political and industrial unrest (for many others), we entered the angry decade of prolonged strikes, race riots, AIDS, Thatcherism, anti-Reaganism and, never forget, the horror of the New Romantics and their floppy, floppy hair. It was also a time when people became suddenly very sensitive about the language they used lest they cause offence and spark further incidents. I was in my early 20s and was a spanky new, fresh out the box, idealistic young copper (see photo a couple of posts ago) and, of course, I knew that certain words were taboo. The Gangsta Rappers had yet to reclaim 'nigger' and it was the same with gay people and 'poof'. Both words were completely off limits and, if I'm honest, they're words that I find it uncomfortable to type, let alone say. Coming as I did from Cornwall, there were certain words that I'd used in my youth that I discovered were a no-no in London but I was keen to learn and anxious not to offend people so I was willing to adapt.

Music in 1984. New Romantic also-rans Seona Dancing. And yes, that really is Ricky Gervais on the right.

I'd been sent along to County Hall, the huge building that squats at one end of Westminster Bridge beside the London Eye and which now houses a hotel, the Saatchi Collection, the London Aquarium and other premises. But back then it was the HQ of the Greater London Council, and its leader 'Red' Ken Livingstone, and I'd been despatched to take a statement from the victim of a bag snatch who worked in the staff restaurant. While doing my business, I was asked if I'd like a drink so I asked for a black tea. The lady who'd asked frowned and her hands flew to her sides so quickly that she must have had powerful hand magnets implanted in her hips. 'It's tea without milk!' she snapped and fixed me with a glare that would boil granite. She then stormed off and I never got my tea. I was dumbfounded and confused as I couldn't figure out what I'd done wrong.
Back at the station, I told the story to my colleagues. Some treated it with derision: 'It's political correctness gone mad!' they cried. Others reacted by spending a couple of days using 'without milk' instead of the word 'black' on every occasion (I remember one discussion about the ex-Avengers actor Honor Withoutmilkperson). One officer told me that teachers at his daughter's infant school had been instructed to call the blackboards 'chalkboards' and that Baa Baa Green Sheep was the only acceptable version of the rhyme that could be sung. I was flabberghasted. It made no sense to me. Surely you couldn't ban all usage of a word that, in an innocent context like 'blackboard', simply described a colour (or a non-colour if we're going to be specific)?

I could understand that 'black' had traditionally been associated with negative things. There were phrases like black magic, black sheep of the family, accident black spot etc. But that was because black is the colour of night and darkness held hidden fears for our ancestors. Black is the colour of putrefaction and death (who goes to a funeral in white?). Judges would don the black cap to order an execution. You get my drift. So, yes, many uses of the word were negative. But not one of them, it seemed to me, was because of black people.

Baa Baa Green Sheep by Bethany Tetlow, Jessica Sheppard, Amelia Jones, Jessic Hone and Sophie Giles at Lakers School, Gloucestershire.

There's nothing negative about a blackboard*. Or a blackbird. Or a black tea. Therefore, the problem stemmed not from the word itself but the meaning behind it. And the issue had been made all the more confusing for me because people from an African-Caribbean background - most of which, if we're being pedantic, are shades of brown - were saying that 'coloured' and 'negro' were wrong and were calling themselves 'black'. Consequently, their racial self-definition had placed them smack bang in the middle of the argument. It was all very confusing for a young chap.

Like many others at that time, I became scared of saying pretty much anything that could be construed as being prejudiced. And it's easy to see why. As recently as 1999, a US politician felt it necessary to resign when he was accused of racism after using the word 'niggardly'. Now, this is a very old and perfectly innocent word that stems from the Middle English nigon and which means 'miserly'. It has never had any relationship to the word 'nigger' and has no racial connotations whatsoever. But when David Howard, head of the Office of Public Advocate in Washington DC, used the word in a conversation about funding, he brewed up a storm of indignation. Rumours quickly spread throughout local government and soon made Howard's position untenable. He resigned stating that, 'I realise that staff members present were offended by the word. I immediately apologised. I would never think of making a racist remark. I regret that the word I did use offended anyone.' It's kind of sad that Howard felt the need to apologise for other people's lack of vocabulary, let alone resign. But it was also somewhat naive of him to use the word in the first place.

A decade on, I'd like to think that we live in a much more sensible and enlightened age where people take a more reasoned view based upon facts rather than the fear of recrimination. Words are not in themselves good or bad. It is the sentiment and feeling behind them that makes the difference. However, I return again to my recent encounter with the term 'brainstorm'. I was told that the acceptable alternatives were phrases like boardblast or thinkstorm or the truly execrable thought shower. I was left pondering why someone had gone to all the bother of creating alternatives when the original was (a) perfectly acceptable, and (b) in common usage in the business community. I can only conclude that it was driven by that very real fear of recrimination I mentioned just now. That's no way to live is it? We need to challenge these kinds of assumptions and make sensible decisions about the words we use.

Which brings me to the world of gender-specific terms. There's been a general shift in recent years towards referring to all people of a thespian disposition as actors rather than actresses. That makes sense to me. I mean, why have a different term simply to differentiate the sex of the worker or workeress? Many job titles are plainly descriptive: waiters wait, actors act, and doctors ... er ... doct. So why not use them for everyone? After all, we don't have paintresses or decoratresses. And there are (to my knowledge) no teacheresses, or taxi driveresses or Prime Ministresses. It will also do away with pathetic attempts to create non-gender-specific titles too. I once saw - hand on heart - a job advert in a magazine for waitrons to work in a restaurant. Waitrons, for goodness sake! They sound like some dreadful foam latex 1980s Doctor Who monster.

A clumsy waitron that has fallen into a big pile of Hula-Hoops.

At the height of the 80s PC tsunami, I can remember reading feminist articles on phallocentricity - the idea that in order to change the world from being dominated by men, we needed to change the language. Suggestions included fairly sensible things like replacing 'manpower' with 'human resources' (clumsy but more accurate) or talking about 'working hours' instead of 'man hours'. But at the other end of the scale there was talk of 'manholes' becoming 'femholes', or of 'history' being re-termed as 'herstory' (even though the 'his' in history has no more to do with male possession than a set jelly has with a TV set). I even remember talk of the sexual act being talked about in terms of 'enclosure' rather than 'penetration' because the latter put the onus on the man's perspective. Again, I'd like to think that these days we take a more balanced view. 'Manhole' and 'femhole' both intimate that one gender is more important than the other, so 'access hatch' or similar is actually a better term and, more importantly, describes what the thing actually does.

So there's my tuppenny'worth. My personal mantra has always been to treat others as I'd like to be treated myself which, by definition, means that I would never intentionally offend anyone by the words I use. Although I quite often refer to myself as chubby, tubby or plain fat, I wouldn't do it to anyone else and, to be honest, I'm not that keen on people calling me by those words either. However, it's all about intent and if one of my family or close friends called me 'Fatty' or similar, I'd know that it's an affectionate goad so I'm unlikely to get annoyed. I am all for any change in terminology that promotes fairness and equality. But not just for the sake of political correctness please. Let's make sure than any such change is supported by evidence and is not simply driven by paranoia. It's not rocket science. All we need to do is avoid using words that are likely to cause offence by being derogatory, insulting or in some other way innappropriate. That counts for private conversations too; after all, ask yourself ... why you would want to use such words in the first place?

Prince Harry - take note. What were you thinking?

*Interestingly, the blackboard issue was resolved by the move to dry-wipe marker boards which we have come to call 'whiteboards'. I've never heard anyone accuse the users of this term of perpetuating the idea of Caucasian Supremacy even though white is supposedly 'good'. However, I did hear a story that these boards were originally called Whyte Boards after the company that invented them. This is tosh. As far as I can discover, whiteboards were first introduced because chalk dust did horrible things to those old 1980s mainframes and computer terminals. Companies started producing melamine or enameled hardboard surfaces for their workers to write on. Then along came a company called Claridge Products who created the first magnetic porcelain on steel (Liquid Chalk Surface) boards. The rest is history. Or herstory.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Say hello to Paul Cornell

It was very nice to catch up with my friend Joel this evening and Mr Paul Cornell (pictured). He may not be a familiar face but you might know his work. For the world of comics he's written for 2000AD and Marvel (mostly recently on Captain Britain and Fantastic Four). And as a novelist he's written a number of Doctor Who spin-off titles and was the inventor of the very popular Bernice Summerfield character. But it is for TV that he's best known, for work on Casualty, Holby City, Coronation Street, Robin Hood, ITV's dino-drama Primeval and Doctor Who itself. He wrote the Season Three two-parter Human Nature/Family of Blood in which the good Doctor loses his memory, marries a woman and has to fight off a bunch of scarecrows. Remember? Great stuff. He's a splendid chap to knock about with. Oh, and it was also comic artist Fraser Irving's birthday too. Happy birthday!
Visit Paul's blog here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The tuck stops here

It's the New Year and things are lying heavy on my mind. Well, to be honest, it's me that's lying heavy. I am medically obese once again and I need to do something about it. I've struggled with my weight for years and can honestly say that I've tried every diet known to Man. I've F-Planned and Atkinsed, I've Weight-Watched and visited Slimming World. In 2007, I lost nearly 5 stones (70lbs, 31.7kg) in weight on the Lighter Life programme. However, because I started the diet when I was nearly 21st, that still only took me down to around 15st and, for my height, I should be around 12.5 to 13. Anyway, since that epic weight loss, I've put a couple of stones back on so I'm now weighing in at 17. Fat bastard.

1980 - Mr Skinny on the night shift

Being the world's most experienced dieter, I've come to understand an overwhelming if uncomfortable truth; there is only one way to lose weight and maintain it and that's to eat sensibly and do some exercise. And, surprise, surprise, I do neither.

2001 - Me at my largest. I had my own gravity well.

On Monday this week I embarked upon an ambitious programme. I retire from the police service this time next year. When I joined the police at age 18 1/2, I was as fit as a butcher's dog and I weighed just under 13 stones. My aim is to be the same weight on the day I retire. That means losing around 4 1/2 to 5 stones in a year.

2007 and fives stones lighter. Trousers still too baggy.

I can do it. I know I can. I have good willpower (I packed in a 40-a-day smoking habit in 1991 and have never touched a tab since). I just love food so much! But no more. The tuck stops here.

I'll post my progress as the weeks go by. Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Odd Gods, Mythological Sods

Since just after Christmas I've been doing a set of illustrations of some of the odder gods and other characters from world mythology. It may end up as a book proposal, it may end up as a submission to a magazine, or maybe even for next year's QI Annual (G)? The fact is that in most ancient religions and mythologies there are some extraordinarily odd characters. And I've been having fun drawing them.

Depicted here are the Yara-ma-yha-who and Ometochtli. There are hundreds more and they're keeping me very busy. There may even be an A-Z in this. Any suggestions?

If Australian Aborigine parents wanted to ensure that their children did not wander too far from the camp, they would tell the story of the Yara-ma-yha-who, a small but very nasty demon who lives in the crowns of fig trees. The Yara-ma-yha-who feeds firstly upon blood, which it slurps up through octopus-like suckers on its hands and feet, and then eats its victim. Later, after a drink of water and a nap, it is violently sick and the eaten person is restored, albeit a bit shorter and a bit redder. Should the victim be unfortunate enough to suffer several of these attacks, they will eventually become a Yara-ma-yha-who themselves. Looking like a small hairy red man with an enormous head and a wide toothless mouth, the Yara-ma-yha-who cannot run very fast, having a slow, rolling gait like a parrot or Johnny Vegas.
The Centzon Totochtin (the ‘400 Rabbits’) were the children of Mayahuel, the goddess of excess, and Pantecatl, the god who discovered fermentation. They are chiefly associated with drinking (usually of Pulque or Octli, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the Maguey plant). In the Late Postclassic period of Aztec history, these gods became the focus of the Octli Cult – which a cynic could view as an opportunity to get rat-arsed in ‘honour of the gods’. The chief ‘drunken rabbit god’ was Ometochtli whose name translates as ‘two rabbit’. Among his beer buddies were the gods Texcatzonatl, Macuiltochtli, Colhuatzincatl and Tepoztecatl who was particularly associated with wind. It is not recorded whether their names were just as unpronounceable when sober.

Text and illustrations copyright (c) 2009 Stevyn Colgan

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The blunder of Woolworth's

It’s very strange walking past the Woolworth’s in High Wycombe and seeing it bare and empty inside. It's like the store has been looted. On the final day of opening, I'm told that it actually felt like that too as people scrabbled and fought over the final bargains. It must have been like fighting over a corpse. Woolies has been a central feature of the town centre – and, indeed, many town centres – for as long as anyone can remember and the Wycombe store with its colonnaded frontage and roof mounted red lion statue was always a local landmark. But no more. And I find myself oddly nostalgic and upset by its demise. It’s like I’ve just heard that an old schoolfriend has died; not someone close enough to reduce me to tears, but an acquaintance of whom I have fond memories.

Where I grew up in Helston, the Woolworth store sat at the bottom of Coinagehall Street near the Grylls Monument and was managed by the father of a schoolfriend, Mr Davies. Being a hill, it was a good old walk down Coinagehall Street to get to the store and an even harder walk back so the only people who went there were those who really wanted to shop at Woolworth. From my memory that divided into two camps; young mums and pensioners. Woolies was where you went for Ladybird clothes, those slightly old-fashioned but cheap wooly jumpers, trousers, white vests and sensible shoes that we were all required to wear until some genius invented trainers. Even though they were unrelated, there was curious synergy between Ladybird clothes and the Ladybird books that also sold in the store. The books were constantly in print but the illustrations never got updated. Consequently, all of the children in them looked as if they were extras in a Famous Five movie. As indeed did we until we hit puberty and migrated to denim.

There always seemed to be predatory packs of pensioners in the store buying cooking utensils. I used to wonder what they did with them all. I don’t know about you, but I have used the same spatulas, ladles, nutcrackers and serving spoons for years. They need replacing as often as double-glazing but these little old ladies would be in there every week buying them. My theory was that they got home, put them 'somewhere safe' and then forgot where that was. I assume that during post-mortem house clearances, most pensioners’ houses in Cornwall served to fill several skips with slotted spoons and fish slices.

But, for me as a kid, Woolies was about two things: music and sweets. I can remember when the Helston store opened its music section and how it upset my good mate Dylan at the ETS Shop further up the street because they undercut his prices. However, I still shopped with Dylan because he kept back all of the best picture discs, coloured vinyls, posters, premiums and giveaways for me. Yes, I had the picture disc of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and the yellow vinyl edition of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and a host of other collectibles. I will always thank Dylan for that as I sold them all on e-bay a couple of years ago and used the money to buy my dream guitar. Cheers matey! Then there was the famous pick and mix or, as they liked to call it Pic’n’mix. I loved the pick and mix. Flying saucers, foam bananas, sherbet dips, lollipops, chewy prawns - who would think to fashion a sweet after a marine crustacean? Genius! - sweet cigarettes, Cornish clotted cream fudge, those weird white chocolate buttons covered with tiny coloured balls, liquorice bootlaces … it was an absolute joy to spend my hard-earned paper round money on these artery-encrusting treats. And you felt like you got your money’s worth too; a big bulging sack of sugary goodness for the same price as a piddling Mars Bar or Caramac.

I should also mention that the Helston Woolies was the scene of one of my many juvenile pranks as a teenager. Armed only with a microphone (the cable of which, if anyone had looked, went pointlessly into my trouser pocket), I wandered around the premises interviewing shoppers about what they thought of the store, telling them that they were being filmed by the in-store cameras and would feature on the evening news. The interview ended with me persuading them to do a little jig to camera in the centre of the shop. How my friends hooted with laughter.

And then there was Christmas. Woolies was always the first store in the street to put the decorations out and the TV adverts were always the most lavish and spectacular. They starred all kinds of B-list celebs from Rolf Harris (remember the song? ‘Christmas Caaaaaards, Christmas Caaaaaaards …’) to The Goodies (with a Steeleye Span/Abba-esque soundtrack), various BBC Radio 1 DJs, the casts of various sitcoms and game show hosts. And who could forget that shameful – but undoubtedly expensive - 1995 rip-off of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas? Christmas with Woolies was always a big event.

But now Woolworth has gone. Hanging in my study behind me is the last ever Woolies carrier bag I will ever own. And in a tragically ironic way, the slogan on it reads ‘More great news from Woolworths’. Not even Jackie Chan could save the ailing company (he featured in the most recent, and final, set of UK Woolies TV adverts) and the stores all closed earlier this week. So what went wrong? I’m no business analyst and I’m sure that much has been written on the subject by people who are. But I can’t help but feel that it was Woolies' lack of direction that did for the store. If I ask you what Waterstones sell, or Primark, or Greggs, you’ll know instantly that it’s books, clothes and sandwiches. But what about Woolies? Er … clothes, DVDs, garden equipment, kitchen utensils, CDs, anything made by Ronco, K-Tel or JML, computer games, cheap cassette tapes of 'not the original artists' variety, stationery, luggage, cuddly toys … Woolies was always a little schizophrenic; never quite sure what kind of a store it was. It just seemed to sell what it felt like. I’m told by an American chum that where he grew up, his local Woolies had a gun counter. This, I feel, is why it floundered. Most shops have a clear direction and concentrate on a particular segment of the market. Woolies took a scattergun approach to High Street shopping and was therefore, the ‘Jack of all trades’ rather than the expert. And if people are spending money, they like to go to the expert.

So it’s all very sad. Some people have even shed a tear or two. But it’s progress, I’m afraid and, like recent casualties MFI, Adams, Zaavi and Roseby’s, F W Woolworth couldn’t compete with the bigger, more financially-bolstered megacorporations. For me, the demise of Woolies feels like the last nail in the coffin of what we used to call ‘the local shops’. And guess what? Woolworth's probably would have sold the hammer and nails.

Friday, January 09, 2009

My balloon poodle suddenly looks a bit pathetic

Here's some work by artist Jason Hackenwerth who does things with balloons that you'd never dream were possible.

Weirdly beautiful and curiously organic, they have a quality about them that I've only ever seen before in something like Dale Chihuly's glass sculptures. Visit his site and have a look at the gallery. It's wonderful stuff. And visit Chihuly's site too. If you've never seen his work before, prepare to be utterly amazed.

This time next year, Rodney ...

The week started with snow and ended in a blizzard of alcohol, curry and the warmest of reunions. The snow was a surprise and while there was barely an inch of the stuff, it caused chaos as usual. We simply don't know how to cope with it here in the South-East of England. My road hadn't been gritted at all, so those drivers brave enough to head for work soon compacted it to sheet ice. I actually saw a people carrier drive past with both rear wheels locked and unmoving. The car - obviously front wheel drive - was dragging itself along as the numpty behind the wheel had forgotten to take the handbrake off. But that's how slippy the road was. But three days later it had gone, to be replaced with the usual January drizzle and fog.

Then last night, I met up with James Murphy - artist and professional ginger, Joel Meadows - writer, journalist and editor of Tripwire magazine, and Sarwat Chadda - a name you'll soon all know as the author of the Billi SanGreal books, starting with The Devil's Kiss, being published later this year.
I've mentioned the lads before on this blog several times but, for new readers, I will explain that Murphy, Sarwat, myself and a couple of other chaps had a damned good go at launching our own comic book company back in the 1990s. We published two titles, had a third ready to go, had terrific reviews and we sold well; so well in fact that we were one of the bestselling independent British comics in the USA for 1998. However, finances folded on us and we had to quit. We've all moved on to other things but have kept in touch. And last night was the first night we've all been together for ten years. Frankly, it felt as if we'd only been apart for a few weeks.
I should also explain that Joel was very much a part of that huge British indie movement at the time and has remained a close friend too. His then infant Tripwire has since gone on to become one of the industry's most respected magazines. It's also expanded its content to include genre film and TV too and if anyone is worth interviewing, Joel's stuck his microphone in their faces at some time or other.
We enjoyed a good night at the Spice of Life pub at Cambridge Circus before moving on for a fine Indian meal at Mela in Shaftesbury Avenue. The discussion ranged far and wide but was dominated by the fact that all of us see 2009 as a challenging year ahead. For my part, I need to consolidate my writing and artistic career so that I can step permanently out of the old police helmet and boots in 2010. Not easy with the financial crisis all around us and book sales down by around 20%. But heigh ho, we struggle on.
It was a grand night out, wonderful to catch up with good friends and, as you can see, for a short while at least, we were all in our 20s again. And yes, I was wearing a pink shirt. Only real men wear pink. At least that's what the chap in the shop told me ...
See you tomorrow for the Saturday post!*
*Note that although I did say that I'd be reducing my output to Saturdays, I did also state that I'd post the occasional piece as time permits. Like this one. So there.