Monday, June 29, 2009

My latest must-have vinyl figure

Damnation and hell's chickens! I wish I was at the san Diego Comicon this year. If I was I'd pick one of these sick beauties up and bring it home. This is Andrew Bell's latest figure called O-No Sushi based on his ‘Never Look Back’ print series. A Bento set like no other, Chef Bell’s course includes a nervous limb-challenged squid figure with articulated arms/legs (well… stumps), two sets of interchangeable eyes, a bowl of tentacles and a slice of tentacle sushi.

Sick but gorgeous.

Possum identification lessons should be compulsory

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Just like Glastonbury but with less mud, more Pimms

'Ladies and Gentlemen ... it's raining in Glastonbury!'

A resounding cheer greeted the MC's opening statement at tonight's 5 Alive music fest at West Wycombe Park. We were all sat in a field nestling behind the palatial mansion home of the Dashwood family (of Hellfire Club infamy) and facing a stage upon which a number of music icons from the 1980s would soon be doing their stuff. There's an open air weekend of gigs like this every year at West Wycombe, usually a mix of rock, pop and classical performances. It's a glorious location. Rising high above us was West Wycombe Hill with its creepy flint-covered mausoleum and the tower of St Lawrence's church, uniquely topped by way of a hollow golden ball in which the guests of Dashwood's naughty society would perform lewd acts. The hill itself boasts the famous chalk caves in which the Hellfire Club met and debauched. But tonight, all was sunshine, warmth and an almost oppressive humidity. Still, at least it wasn't raining like at Glastonbury.

The West Wycombe area is a posh sort of place with a village of 16th century listed shops and tithe barns and quaint little alleyways and courtyards. The place gets used a lot for filming BBC costume dramas. It was also used in the recent film version of Pride and Prejudice. Consequently, these annual al fresco gigs are not your wellies, cheap tents and cheaper lager type affairs. People brought picnics and chairs - even six seater tables and chairs - the car park was stufffed with Jags and Mercedes and the air fairly whiffed of Pimms. Apparently the most common injuries every year are either champagne cork related or choking on strawberries. All through the show, majestic red kites soared overhead eyeing up the M & S whole organic chicken carcases and cous cous.

A lot of people made an effort to dress up although there did seem to be some confusion among some of the cosplayers as to what decade we were celebrating tonight. There were enormous Afro wigs everywhere and quite a few ABBA clones. The last time I saw so many leg-warmers was while watching the original Fame.

The warm up act was a Take That tribute band appropriately named Fake That. Nothing to do with the 1980s of course but they were fun, sounded pretty authentic and they warmed up the slowly inebriating crowd nicely for the first proper act of the night ... Clare Grogan and Altered Images.

Now, you younger readers may only know Clare as the original Kochanski in Red Dwarf or as the stroppy feminist rock star Niamh Connolly in Father Ted. But to my generation, she was a pop star. And, to my utter delight (because I always had a crush on her), Ms Grogan appears to have completely avoided the ravages of time. Despite happily telling everyone that she's 47 years old and that we'd made 'an old bird very happy', she looked insanely young and fresh and was bursting with energy. She still dances in that slightly bonkers way she always did and her voice still sounds like she's six years old but she was great! If I still can act like that when I'm 47 ... oh. Bugger. They played all of their hits (surprisingly many) but the high spot was a spirited cover of the Ting Tings' That's not my name.

Next up was the act I was most looking forward to - Nik Kershaw. I always loved his quirky pop songs. They always had a dark edge to them with some strange chord shifts and menacing keyboards. He didn't disappoint. His set was immaculate, his guitar playing impeccable and I loved every minute.

Somewhat appropriately, he sang I won't let the sun go down on me as we were treated to a beautiful sunset over the hills behind us. It's a cliche but it really did look as if the sky was on fire. And still the rain held off ...

Next up was Bucks Fizz. A threesome these days rather than the full quartet that won Eurovision, they came out on stage in a riot of colour. Mike Nolan wore a Tango orange suit that I reckon astronauts on the International Space Station could have seen. Meanwhile, Cheryl Baker and Jay Aston (back together after 25 years) both bravely wore a kind of weird burlesque basque affair supplemented with coloured ostrich feathers and short furry skirts. Apparently, it was a visual pun on their band name with the ladies as the bubbly champagne and Nolan as the flat OJ. Poor old Baker's chest was overspilling the tight corset most of the time and she added some extra hand movements to the dance routines as she kept spooning herself back into her costume. They were ... okay. I was never a fan and Nolan's voice - never terribly strong - lost its way on many of the tougher notes and the dance routines were interestingly uncoordinated. But it was great fun and they were very entertaining. Again, I was surprised at just how many hits they'd had as I knew every song. They ended with Making your mind up and the inevitable whipping off of furry skirts. 'And if you want to see some ... more!'

All of which led us to tonight's headline act - Howard Jones. The reason Mr J got top billing, I suspect, is because Wycombe is his home town. It's where he grew up and, between songs, he shared stories about his childhood and teen years in the area. He became quite emotional when he pointed to West Wycombe Hill and explained that he'd both written the lyrics to New Song - his breakthrough hit - and met his wife there. His set was amazing and made more so by the almost supernatural bass expertise of Nick Beggs - late of Kajagoogoo - whose long blonde hair and camouflaged kilt added some strange glamour to proceedings.

As the evening came to a close we were treated to an excellent fireworks display and then, in tribute to the passing of the King of Pop yesterday, a Michael Jackson impersonator came on stage and blamed it pretty convincingly on the boogie. Having heard nothing but Jacko music for two days we decided to leave, thus clearing the car park nicely before the midnight stampede.

It was a great gig and it's made me dig out my old Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw albums. I've never thought of the 1980s as a particularly good decade for music but there were some real stars like Tears for Fears, Adam and the Ants, The Pogues, Talk Talk, Cocteau Twins, Missing Persons, Propaganda, The Creeps, PIL ... and Kershaw and Jones deserve their place in that list too.

And, apparently, it's still raining at Glastonbury.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fallen Princesses

Wonderful Disney-inspired photography project from Dina Goldstein. See the other pics here.

Mobile Phone Evolution

A brilliant Russian Dolls-style series of cardboard models by Brit designer Kyle Bean showing the evolution of the mobile phone. Very very clever. Kyle's site is here.


As you'll recall, I've always had a bit of a downer on web-based social networks. I've written on the subject several times (here, for instance). Bebo and Myspace have recently been cited in cases of bullying (see here) and even suicide pacts. And we all know how Facebook was outrageously used to attack the survivors of the Dunblane massacre (see here). It was always inevitable, I guess, that these sites which encourage us to share so much - personal details, tastes and attitudes, drunken photos etc. - could be turned into something negative or just plain nasty. They also do much to attack the fundamental notion that we should all retain some privacy and secrecy about ourselves. As I discovered while taking part in the recent Twitstunt event, communication by electronic media quite often leads us to reveal more about ourselves than we ever would in face to face encounters. Maybe it's something to do with the lack of visual stimulus? It is a fact that the spoken word accounts for only a small proportion of our face to face communication after all. So maybe with wholly written communication and no access to non-verbals, intonation, accent, emphasis etc. we have to provide more detail to qualify what we say?
The one social media platform I have sung the praises of is Twitter. And with good reason. Firstly, Twitter does not demand many personal details; the bare minimum is a log-in and password. Secondly, it doesn't take up your time asking for photos and profile details or by engaging you in pointless quizzes and activities. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is quick and efficient. All you have to play with is a single field of just 140 characters.

In this past week, I've seen some wonderful examples of why Twitter comes out on top. Firstly, there are the 'trending topics'. This is where topics are suggested for comment and conversation. Anyone who comments includes a hashtag in the body of their 140 tweet so that clicking on it takes you to an index page where all related comments are displayed. Fascinating reading at times. And good fun too as many trending topics are created solely for us all to demonstrate our dreadful punning ability. Like some online democratic version of 'I'm sorry I haven't a clue' (and aren't we all glad that's back? Sadly without Humph, but still just as funny), we get to answer trends like #animalinstruments with such silly answers as Cellocanth, Oboe Constrictor and Captain Corelli's Pangolin. Playing along with these daft games keeps my brain sharp and I love joining in on the daily commute.

Secondly, it's a great way to meet people in an anonymous non-threatening environment. I've met some extraordinary minds via Twitter and think of many as genuine friends even though I've never met them. Some Tweeters do meet of course - I met a couple recently while taking part in filming Tony Hawks' new movie - and TV foodie Greg Wallace took this to a whole new level recently by finding his girlfriend on Twitter (see story here).

Thirdly, Twitter allows for short, quick communication one-to-one or one-to-many. As such, it allows celebs to instantly refute allegations and press stories, at least to those people who follow them (and that can be a lot). Direct messaging between two people mutually following each other provides a quick and easy method of private communication; I definitely DM much more than I email or text these days. And we all vicariously experienced the extraordinary events inside Iran this past week by following various individuals (whom I won't name for their safety) who were trapped in the heart of the chaos and violence of post-election Tehran. It was like watching a quality drama with desperate cliffhangers as the terrified tweeters told us things like 'the police on motorbikes are here ... shots are being fired ... ' or 'we have to split up ... I don't know when we will be able to speak again ...' It was heart-wrenching to read some of this stuff but it was so addictive. Nothing can put you at the heart of events better than personal reportage.

Apple have been quick to mobilise the Twitter platform with various i-phone apps but even a basic web-ready phone like my Nokia E71 allows me to tweet. Twitter allows us to communicate, participate and share without revealing personal details or becoming too invasive. If other software designers take this as a starting point, Twitter points the way to a brighter future for social networks.

For a great explanation of Twitter go here.

(I'll expect a cheque in the post Mr Dorsey)

Monday, June 15, 2009

And we're back ...

I'm so sorry. There has been an unforgiveable pause in my bloggery. I can only put it down to pressures of work, heavy workloads, pretty distractions and general procrastination. Things are once again easing and I will endeavour to be less tardy.

So what have I been up to? Well, great things are afoot. Firstly, I've had to write two book proposals; massively detailed documents with which my agent can whore me around the publishing houses. You may not be aware of this but 95% of all non-fiction books sell on the strength of the proposal ... so they have to be pretty comprehensive. And that means exaplaining the project, why you should be the one to write it, why the market needs this book, what else is out there and how does this differ ... and much, much more.

Secondly came the news that my proposed book of Cornish faeries stories is finally going to see the light of day. The Cornish Language Council approached me a couple of years ago and asked if they could publish the stories - suitable translated - in the Cornish language. I was happy to agree. Most Cornish literature is translations of existing books so there isn't much new material to read in the language. I was happy to help. So now they want to run a bilingual edition of my book and I've been hard at work on the illustrations. Stephen Fry has again provided me with a cover quote bless him.

And on the subject of illustrations, one of mine has just been published in a US school text book for mathematics and Plain English Campaign have asked me to design a new mascot character for their 25th anniversary. Oh, and I'm applying for an 'Artist in Residence' post with a local art college and I may once agin be taking on the mantle of university lecturer in creative thinking and problem solving. It's all been go, go, go. And all this on top of the 40 hours per week day job.

So, plenty to report but not a lot to show you yet. So I'll leave you with some pictures of a very nice walk I did this past week along the river Thames from Bourne End to Marlow - what we locally call the Millionnaires' Riverwalk. What a lovely day it was. And what lovely houses they were.

Friday, June 05, 2009


As I've put up a couple of videos already this week, I fancied sharing a couple more. Here's my favourite band of all time, XTC with King for a Day, one of the best Summer songs I know, and The Mayor of Simpleton. Has there ever been a better walking baseline written? Ever?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Live from the Birdhouse

Two of the best performances I've ever seen of one of my favourite songs of all time - Birdhouse in your soul by They Might be Giants. That guitar riff is fantastic! Enjoy.

Around Wimbledon with Rolo McFlurry

A little while ago, I met Tony Hawks - writer, wit, raconteur and philanthropist (and not skateboard legend Tony Hawk at all) - for a chat and a tea at a very nice cafe in Covent Garden. We spoke of many things, of cabbages and kings possibly, but mostly about his first and arguably best known book, Around Ireland with a Fridge.

If you don't know it, it's the true story of how Tony accepted a bet with his friend Kevin that he he couldn't circumnavigate the coast of Ireland solely by hitchhiking. And with a fridge in tow. The inspiration for the whole silly adventure was that Tony once really did see an Irishman hitching, with a fridge, on the side of the road and it was this insane sense of optimism that Tony hoped to tap into. What ensued was a hilarious and occasionally moving caper that changed Tony's life and which proved the great warmth of the Irish people who embraced his mad ambition and helped him wherever and however they could to try to win his bet. The book was a huge success and even spawned a spin-off - The Fridgehiker's Guide to Life. Anyway, Tony was telling me that he and old friend (and Red Dwarf director) Ed Bye were in the process of making a film based on the story. And a film always needs 'supporting actors'. Oh, all right, extras. Did I fancy a small part? Oo-er.

I'd done some extras work before. As a child, I was in several TV shows that were filmed in Cornwall, including The Goodies and The Onedin Line. I was also, along with brother Andrew, in a film that was especially made to accompany Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme when it hit the Number One spot in 1968. Oh yes, I've been in a Number One chart 'video' ... although I was aged seven and dressed as a cowboy. But I hadn't done anything like this as an adult and so looked forward to the experience.

For the past two days, shoppers at Wimbledon's Centre Court shopping centre have probably been confused and bewildered by banners proudly proclaiming that 'Ireland welcomes Fridge Man'. The upper level of the centre has been doubling as a shopping centre in Dublin and this was where the crew were filming the last few climactic minutes of the story. Was Tony going to win his bet or not? You'll have to read the book, won't you?

We had a fair swathe of amateur dramaticians and semi-pro thespians, along with newbies like me but all were lovely people and great fun to be with. And that's a good thing as you get to spend a lot of time together. There's a hell of a lot of waiting around to do.

Ed Bye boasting about his massive lens.

The scenes mostly revolved around Tony making his way - at a fair old lick - to meet Irish news reporter Roisin (played by Valerie O'Connor) and be reunited with his friend Kevin, played by Andy Taylor (who you may remember as the ship's doctor in Red Dwarf).* Mostly we were employed for the crowd scenes while Tony made his thank you speech to All Ireland Radio. However, I did also get a scene when Tony is seen first rushing into the centre, supposedly late for his meeting. As he does so, he hares past several surprised-looking shoppers, the last of which were myself and another extra. So there you have it ... my three seconds of cinematic not-quite-fame.

Andy, Valerie, Tony and Saiorse the fridge. Its name means 'Freedom'.

Of course, that's why some people are here. As we saw in Ricky Gervais's series Extras, many people do this kind of work in the hope of being 'discovered' and getting that elusive first line. Others, like me, just do it for what the Irish would call 'the craic'; the fun of it. Although, I don't know how much fun it would be to do a lot of extra work. There is a lot of just sitting or standing around. And many scenes get shot over and over again, often from several different camera angles. But, as any extra will attest, the catering is always good and this was no exception with some fantastic spicy meatballs, veggie chili and a gorgeous peach and cherry crumble on offer, amongst other delights. Because it was so warm, I did supplement this diet with an ice cream from a nearby McDonalds and, upon seeing its name, decided that I'd like my stage name to be Rolo McFlurry.

Tony and Valerie praying for Boob Patrol Man to go away (see below)

The best part of the day for me was watching the genuine shoppers. Undirected, unguided and unbidden, they wandered aimlessly into shot, positioned themselves where they shouldn't and generally made themselves a nuisance for the first director. To their credit, they had infinite patience as they politely asked people to step away or, if they wanted to be in a crowd scene, persuaded them to sign the necessary legal disclaimers. The high point came when a couple of young lads - mid 20s I'd say - turned up looking bemused and speaking a language I curiously couldn't begin to identify. From their facial appearance I assume they were from some Eastern European/Western Arabic state. But it was what they were wearing that caught my eye. One was dressed in your standard gang drag of peaked cap with big round shiny labels, loose vest top, gold chains and a baggy trouser crotch that barely cleared the floor. The other, however, was every girl's dream ... around five feet four, wrap-around bug shades, a big white belt with what appeared to be a Star Trek Federation logo for a buckle, black jeans and black t-shirt bearing the slogan 'Boob Patrol' in large, white tasteless letters. And he had tiny, tiny feet. His white trainers looked like a child's. I couldn't stop giggling as I watched him walk right into the middle of the set as the cameras were rolling, all the while staring hungrily at the lovely Valerie. Hilarious.

Tony's brave smile upon discovering that 'Pouty' Craig has landed the Bond role.

These kinds of shoots involve long, long days and these were pretty normal averaging around 12 hours. Quite where the cast and crew get their stamina from is beyond me. All I know is that I was completely knackered upon getting home. But a great experience and one that I'd repeat. But maybe not too often, eh?

The film, incidentally, is scheduled for a cinema release later this year, or possibly early in 2010 dependent upon distribution. The movie website is here. Meanwhile, you can buy all of Tony's books on Amazon here or via his website here.

*Tony was also a 'Dwarfer' in that he played the host of the Better than life total immersion video game and provided the voices for several of the ship's vending machines and toasters.