Saturday, February 28, 2009

Literally Billy

Dusto McNeato has done it again with another superb literal 1980s video - this time it's Billy Idol's White Wedding. Missed the others? Don't panic - Click here.

Friday, February 27, 2009

I See Faces - A Guest Appearance

I said a fond farewell - hopefully more of an au revoir - to an old mucker of mine this week. Jan 'Boris' Szymczuk (pronounced 'shim-shook') has moved back home to his native Geordieland after living down here among us Southern heathens for 30 years. As we went for a final beer or two, I couldn't help noticing that his car dashboard was looking a bit sad too. Boris's excellent artwork can be viewed here.

And then there's this venerable goatee-wearing gentleman emailed to me by Debby and Tim Hornburg. Excellently spotted! If you have any you want to send in, please do so to

Apologies for the lack of posts - very busy. Will get my arse in gear shortly.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Not a skateboard in sight

This evening I spent a couple of hours in the very pleasant company of Mr Tony Hawks. That's Hawks, not Hawk as in the star of many a skateboard-related video game. Mr Hawks is, of course, the bestselling author of such titles as Around Ireland with a Fridge, One Hit Wonderland, Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, A Piano in the Pyrenees and, most recently, The Fridgehiker's Guide to Life. He's also a stalwart of such radio icons as Just a minute and I'm sorry I haven't a clue and has appeared on endless TV panel shows. And, in case you've forgotten, he made a number of appearances in Red Dwarf too including being the voice of several vending machines and toasters. And he had a Number One hit - Stutter Rap - in the 1980s as Morris Minor and the Majors. A man of many talents indeed. But it was his philanthropy we were meeting to discuss tonight and, in particular, a London charity that benefits kids called the Safer London Foundation. He really is as nice a chap as everyone says he is so visit his site here and do a little towards helping kids in the UK and Eastern Europe.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Roaming around this world wide web as one does, I occasionally find little gems. One such was this truly lovely steampunk Dalek created by Alex Holden. Here's how he describes it on his blog:

'The pictured device is a prototype of Joseph Bazalgette's patent sewer maintenance machine, as demonstrated at the Great Crystal Cyberdrome Exhibition. Its boiler is fired by miasma and it is fitted with a variety of cleaning and pest-control ancillaries. Unfortunately the high manufacturing cost and the temperamental nature of their modified rat brains meant that after the initial batch of fifty had escaped Bazalgette was forced to employ men to maintain London's sewers. Even today, you can put your ear to a manhole cover in our capital city and hear the distant clanking of brass wheels on brick walkways and the squeal of exterminated rodents.'

He also describes how he made it:

'The main body is made from a plastic Dalek bubble-bath bottle I bought very cheaply at Woolworth's in the post-Christmas sales. At the time I had no idea what I could use it for, but it looked too cool to pass up. I disassembled it and spray-painted the parts with a can of gold Plastikote paint after masking off the two silver arms on the front. The wheels, cylinders, chimney stack, and 'bumpers' came from a rather tacky brass model of Stephenson's Rocket I bought for £5 at a car boot sale. The brass brush on the end of the gun is the head of a rotary wire brush attachment that came with a mini-drill set. The pressure gauge, dome, whistle, safety valve, water level gauge, and valve are all bits and pieces I had lying around the workshop (I used to be into model engineering). All the brass parts were painstakingly cleaned and polished with Scotchbrite, Autosol, and Brasso. It is held together with a combination of screws, hot melt glue, and cyanoacrylate glue. I left the plastic bottle inside the body because the neck acts as the turret bearing - I haven't opened it so it must still be full of bubble-bath.'

I'm all inspired now.

Let's get it on ... the internet

An important message put across in a brilliantly hilarious way ... who wouldn't want that? Here's Superfad's wonderful Durex commercial. Look away now if you're easily offended by balloon animal sex. And that's not a sentence I ever thought I'd type.

There's a delicious irony in the fact that this commercial is a viral; a web-based advert propagated by passing it from one person to another. Meh.

In recent years, virals have become the tool of choice for marketing people. After all, the internet is available everywhere: on your computer, on your phone, on your PDA ... so why restrict your marketing potential to TV, cinema or radio? They all require the audience to be at a certain place at a certain time in order to see them. Of course, the other huge advantage of the world wide web is that it is so wonderfully democratic and free. Although some degree of policing does go on, much web content is free from censorship or control. Which means that, in responsible hands, the humour in ads can be a bit fruitier than more traditional advertising media permits.

Why are we still so priggish and prudish about ads in the UK? It seems to be the last bastion of stiff-upper-lippiniess in our media. While post-watershed TV shows regularly feature nudity and simulated sex, extreme violence and swearing - and I mean the bad swear words here - our ads are still strangely coy. While Dr Gunther Von Hagens happily dissects dead people at 10pm on a Friday night, the raciest ad on TV has a woman groaning lasciviously as she washes her hair; the whole ad campaign based upon a spurious similarity between the word 'organic' and 'orgasmic'. Even children's TV has evolved. The word 'fart' was terribly rude when I was a lad and you'd never have heard it on TV even 10 years ago. now it's everywhere on day time TV. The only time I've ever heard the word 'fart' used in an ad is for computer game Little Big World. And that's because someone creates a 'Fart World'. Tell me the last time you heard even the word 'bloody' in a TV commercial?

Twenty years ago I, like many other Brits, hooted and honked with laughter at the TV show Clive James on TV where the no-necked Aussie showed us hilarious, saucy and brilliantly clever commercials from around the world. Watching these, I assumed that we'd have ads like that ourselves one day. But it hasn't happened has it?

The result is that all of the best stuff has shifted to the internet. Quite apart from the censorship issue, the net is cheap. Posting a video on YouTube costs nothing. Buying a TV slot costs a bloody fortune. It's pretty obvious to me that TV companies need to wake up to the reality that they are going to lose sponsorship from advertisers. It's already happening on many cable and satellite channels where the endless repetition of just a handful of commercials showcases their pitiful lack of advertising investment.

I'll leave the last word on this issue to Cory Doctorow, co-founder of Boing Boing. In his essay Media Morphosis: How the internet will devour, transform or destroy your favourite media, he makes the valid point that, 'The Internet chews up media and spits them out again. Sometimes they get more robust. Sometimes they get more profitable. Sometimes they die. It's a scary thought, especially if you're personally attached to an old medium like movies, books, records, or newspapers. But just because an industry is socially worthy, it doesn't follow that it is commercially viable. Today, besides newspapers, three other media are thrashing over their futures in a networked world, and as with newspapers, the rhetoric is mostly of the nonproductive "But I like it!" and "It's good for society!" variety, with not enough thought given to whether these media are commercially viable in the Internet age.'

Food for thought, eh?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The United States of Fried Chicken

I despair at the monotonous homogeniety of many UK High Streets these days. This week I've been all over London and you could have picked me up and plopped me down anywhere and still all I'd see is fast food restaurants, off-licences, Gregg's bakers, pound shops and bookies. It's all very sad and depressing. Even more annoying is the lack of local shops run by small local traders. The Big Boys and multinationals have pushed them all out. The local traders therefore cling to corners on road junctions and other non-High Street places like that.

When I was a kid, traders proudly displayed their family names on shop fronts. It was Gilbert's Ironmogers, Barnett's Gents' Outfitters and Eddy's Toyshop. Nowadays, we seem to have drifted over to literalism with shops unadventurously named after the products they sell. Look at these three all spotted on the same road in South London on Thursday. What do you think they sell?

I'll admit to a slight confusion with 'Saladmaster' as I couldn't figure out how you could be an 'authorised dealer' for salads. But 'Fags and Mags', 'Apples' and 'Lamps R Us' - no problem.

Then there's the fast food outlets. Do they all choose their names from some kind of a template? I envisage a kind of table with the first column containing words like Hot or Spicy, or a person's name or the location. The second column has the foodstuff itself. The third column would consist of words like shack, hut etc. Consequently, by picking one from each column, you'd get names like Royal Fish Bar or Leyton Ribs Shack, or even Spicy Chicken Hut. See what I mean?

I've also noticed that many fried chicken restaurants - all Colonel Sanders' clones - avoid copyright and trademark infringements by cleverly choosing a diffferent US state . Clever eh? Having names like Tennessee Fried Chicken or California Fried Chicken throws KFC off the litigation scent! But I wonder ... are all 50 states represented in UK High Streets? If so, what a great book idea to visit the United States of Fried Chicken!

Not that I could ever eat in any of them anyway. Not until they stop using factory chickens anyway.

London Bridge is ... still standing

It's been a very busy week again and I've been to all four corners of the capital. Yesterday took me out to Croydon in Surrey and, as I had a few spare minutes before catching a connecting train at London Bridge, I thought I'd go for a short wander around its environs.

The area around London Bridge is dripping with history - not the least of which involves the bridge itself where once executed people's heads were displayed on spikes. The newest incarnation has been there since 1973 and, if I'm being honest, is one of London's least lovely bridges. Which is a bit of a shame as London Bridge was, for a long time, the only bridge linking the two halves of London together. It took until 1750 before a second bridge appeared at Westminster. So, by my reckoning, London Bridge deserves to be much bigger and better than it is. At one time it was a huge structure covered in shops and houses - rather like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy - including the enormous Nonsuch house that squatted on one end like a fat bloke on a toilet seat. Here's a reconstruction. However, there are plenty of things near to London Bridge that make the area a joy to stroll around. And I'm not talking about the obvious tourist attractions like the London Dungeon - a kind of chamber of horrors that I've blogged about before - and the dead hulk of ex-warship HMS Belfast.

There's Borough Market, which, I was delighted to see, had one stallholder who was proud to advertise that his family had been selling potatoes on the site since 1875. It's a busy, busy place and over the last few years has mostly gone over to the selling of good quality home-grown and organic produce. If I lived a little closer to it, I'd never visit a supermarket again. Then there's Southwark Cathedral, itself a lovely building.

Wandering out behind the market you come to Guy's Hospital; a bizarre mish-mash of architectural styles with older colonnaded stone buildings rubbing their buttresses against huge concrete tower blocks and the knobbly steel-mesh of the New Salamons Centre. Mr Guys Hospital for Incurables, as it was once known, first appeared on the site in 1725 when the area was still very green. Street names like Great Maze Pond allude to a time when farmers would stop here on their way to Smithfield meat market to allow their cattle to graze and drink. The area where the hospital and bridge stand is known as the Pool of London still.

The Thames was London's main avenue of commerce once with hugely loaded ships and barges jostling on the waters like lorries on a motorway today. Consequently, this area of London has old wharf houses crowded along the river's edge. Once they serviced the river traffic with cranes and hoists and storage but now, sadly, the river is barely used for transport - too slow for our modern lifestyles - and many of the wharves fell into disrepair. But during the 1980s and 1990s, many were bought and preserved. Some became expensive housing developments; London's equivalent of the New York loft appartments. And some, like Hays Wharf on Tooley Street, were turned into shopping malls. The Hays Galleria is very nicely appointed with coffee shops and restaurants, shops and galleries and all enjoying terrific views of the river. The central court has had a delicate cast iron roof built over it and, at the centre, stands a quirky kinetic sculpture called Navigators by fellow Cornishman David Kemp (of whom I've talked in previous blog posts).

Walk out of the back of the Galleria and you join Queens Walk, a riverside path that takes you between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. Again, great views of the river and the City of London. Is there another skyline so varied anywhere else in the world?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Architectural Oddity in Victoria

I was working at the Home Office last Friday and today which meant a very pleasant stroll through Victoria from the eponymous rail station to Marsham Street. I thought I'd take you along with me. First off, we wander down Artillery Row and the gloriously art deco Artillery House, designed by Maurice Webb in 1930. It's a huge building that basically occupies one whole side of the street and houses lots of offices and shops. I love the sculpted font in the arch over the door and the tiny stone cannons.

Walk down through Greycoat Place and we pass the Greycoat Hospital girls school. Founded in 1698, it was originally a day school for 50 boys. In 1701, the Governors bought an old workhouse from Westminster Abbey to establish a boarding school. From that year it was also a mixed school, with both boys and girls attending. The founders' aim was to provide the poor of the parish with an education, so that they could become 'loyal citizens, useful workers and solid Christians'. From 1785, 60 boys and 30 girls were admitted. In 1874 it was changed to a girls' school under church management. The school hit the news in December 2008 when it suspended 29 students for joining an open Facebook group known as 'The Hate Society', which focussed its vitriol and abuse towards a member of school staff. Past pupils are called Old Greys.

This is Strutton Ground, a cobbled and bustling street market that runs between Greycoat Place and Victoria Street. The shops are mostly restaurants and book shops - my favourite combination.

Turning into Great Peter Street, we come to tall banks of flats and apartments with names like Perkins Rents and Elizabeth Court. Many bear plaques declaring them to be part of the Peabody Trust. The first blocks were designed by Henry Darbishire as social housing in 1841 but by the 1870s there were 30 providers of these 'model dwellings'. These were eventually sold to the Peabody Trust. George Peabody, an American whose work brought him to London, gave £½ million towards social housing . Meanwhile Sir Sydney Waterlow, stationer and MP, founded the Improved Industrial Dwelling Corporation which built the Coburg buildings in Greencoat Place in 1875. One of the old courts which were once numerous in the area remains opposite this. A gate leads into a courtyard surrounded by dwellings. The curious small blue door was once where coal was delivered.

And talking of coal, just a little further down Great Peter Street, we come to the back of the Home Office building and the site of the old Gas Light and Coke Company. Production ceased in 1875, the gasholders were demolished in 1937 and the site closed completely in 1948. The substructures of the gasholders remained under the building, later occupied by the Department of the Environment, as part of the wartime Whitehall defence system.

Opposite this is the odd little Church of St Matthew. Well, actually, it's not so little. Built in 1849-51 to the designs of Sir George Gilbert Scott with a Lady Chapel by Ninian Comper, the church was badly damaged by fire in 1977 but was re-built on a smaller scale in 1982-4. Curiously, some of the lost exterior has been replaced by modern developments flanking both sides of the church, so that only the entrance is visible in Great Peter Street with another part of the building emerging in a side street. Despite the tiny outward appearance, inside it is TARDIS-like; bigger than the outside. As you walk inside it opens up into a large and beautiful interior with dazzling gold leaf reredos and high altar. I love it. And I'm an atheist.

Now we come to the Home Office building itself in Marsham Street which, if I'm honest, I think is hideous. Designed by Sir Terry Farrell and Partners and built between 2000 and 2005, it replaced the old building in Queen Annes Gate. It's very modern inside, with high ceilings and open plan floors with oddly organic pods in which to hold meetings. But it's the outside - particularly all of the coloured glass that I dislike. I just find it garish, particularly when surrounded by some wonderful buildings - old and new.

So, meeting over, I headed back towards Victoria Station, passing first by the Channel 4 Building (one of the UK's main TV broadcasters - you might just spot the subtle '4' motif in cast iron) in Horseferry Road. Designed and built by the Sir Richard Rogers partnership between 1991-1994 it has a strange angular look to it ... but it really works. There are two four-storey wings which contain mainly office space and these arranged in an L shape to fit the plot. You walk into the building - a huge concave glazed wall - by walking over a glass bridge spanning a roof-light to an underground studio below. Despite the small site, it also has a garden and rooftop terrace.
The Channel 4 building is sandwiched between more of those social housing blocks I mentioned earlier. I love the sharp contrast between the cutting-edge glass and steel and the dour red brick; between the popstar glitz and the balconies full of old mattresses and pots of dead flowers.

The final part of my walk took me back along Howick Place where we have everything from modernist office blooks, sweeping wave-like glass and steel shopping centres and 1960's concrete tower blocks.

This view is from the plaza in front of Westminster Cathedral. Turn around 180 degrees and this is the view you get.

Westminster Cathedral is nowhere near as well known as nearby Westminster Abbey. But that's because, firstly, the abbey is in picturesque Parliament Square right next to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben while the cathedral is down a side road off Victoria Street. Secondly, the cathedral is Catholic and we stopped being a Catholic country - to any great degree - back in the days of Henry VIII. Thirdly, it is very very ugly. It is everything that Rome and Florence isn't. Imagine what St Peter's Square would look like in red brick. It's extraordinary, huge, monstrous and imposing with many fine features but, overall, the cathedral is not a thing of beauty. It is a monumentally ghastly Byzantine monstrosity. Howeer, inside, it is glorious by comparison with a richness of colour and gilding probably unmatched in the UK. It's a comparatively modern cathedral - the foundation stone was laid in 1895 and the fabric of the building was completed eight years later. Amazingly though, the interior is still unfinished. Meanwhile, I was delighted to read on the official website that 'The Cathedral site was originally known as Bulinga Fen and formed part of the marsh around Westminster. It was reclaimed by the Benedictine monks who were the builders and owners of Westminster Abbey, and subsequently used as a market and fairground. After the reformation the land was used in turn as a maze, a pleasure garden and as a ring for bull-baiting but it remained largely waste ground.' A maze. Bull-baiting. And a marsh! All within five minutes walk of the nearest McDonalds.

Finally, we arrive back at Victoria itself and the lovely Victoria Palace Theatre and adjacent buildings. It's always nice to get a bit of Spring sunshine as it shows off the architecture so nicely against the blue sky. Sadly, the earlier photos were a bit dull but these last few were a lot sharper and brighter.

With so much Victorian architecture to enjoy, the area is well-named. More walks soon. x

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I see Faces - A whole new world!

My good friend Tony Blue has pointed me in the direction of a site called Flabberghastedly in which more of these curiously anthropomorphic images appear. Click on the link and enjoy. They are superb!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Calling all Young Lovers

Have a splendid St Valentine's Day. Just spare a thought for the poor bugger for whom the day is named (read his miserable story on one of my previous blog posts here).


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin in the blink of an eye

Following on from yesterday's apeman-related shenanigens, let's all celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday with this neat little optical illusion courtesy of Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire and Rob Jenkins of the University of Glasgow.

The picture above shows two monkeys. Set your computer monitor to maximum brightness and then stare at the centre of the picture for about 30 seconds without moving your eyes. Next, look to a white wall and blink a few times. The monkeys should suddenly transform into a perfect picture of Darwin!

Visit Richard's website here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Devolve me!

You know that Wednesday night feeling? Nothing on the telly, nowhere to go and you think to yourself ... 'Gosh. I wish there was some way to see what I'd have looked like 3 million years ago.' Well now you can! Thanks to the Open University and their current celebration of the work of Charles Darwin, you can devolve yourself on the internet! All you need is a photo of yourself in a frontal-type elevation, thus:

Then, you log onto the University website by clicking this link. Post your photo, adjust the image template (all very easy) and quicker than you can say 'Ug!' you can see yourself as an ancestral hominid. Here are four screen grabs of myself as (from LtoR) Homo Heidelbergensis (50,000 years ago), Homo Erectus (1.8 million years ago), Homo Habilis (2.2 MYA) and Australopithecus Afarensis (3.7 MYA).

I suddenly have the urge to swing in an old car tyre ...
With thanks to @stephenfry and @iRobC via Twitter for making me aware of this.