Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A-porkalypse now

So ... 159 people have died worlwide from the Swine Flu 'pandemic'. Sorry, I couldn't help using the inverted commas there. You see, a pandemic is something like what's happening with HIV and AIDS in Africa. It affects hundreds of thousands. A pandemic is what we had in 14th century Europe when the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) killed 50 million people - about 50-60% of the total population. Sad though every death is, 159 deaths is NOT a pandemic nor even the start of one. As I understand it, there's only been one death in the USA and that was a small child. All of the others have been in countries - mostly Mexico - where healthcare ... well, it could be a lot better.

The media are driving me to distraction by whipping this whole issue up into a frenzy of panic and misinformation. Let's keep some perspective here folks! Firstly, if you're fit and healthy you'll almost certainly not be at serious risk. Secondly, face masks only work if you change them every day so issuing them is pretty much pointless. Thirdly, look at the figures.

You are far more likely to die on the roads than die of Swine Flu. In fact, 1.2 million of you will die on the roads in 2009, approximately 3300 in the UK and a staggering 42,700 in the USA among them. I bet you're not panicking about driving to work though are you?

155,000 people will die today of natural causes. Over 100 kids will die this year in the UK from televisions and other furniture falling on them and around 4000 people will be killed in accidents in the home. Saddest statistic of all is that, worldwide, 11 million children under five years old will die this year of entirely preventable illness. So as you sit there on your comfortable First World sofa reading the papers or watching irresponsible news broadcasts (I just know that Charlie Brooker's going to give them Hell on tonight's Newswipe), just think yourselves lucky. You live in a country with adequate medical facilities, and stockpiles of antibiotics and other drugs. Most of you (I assume if you have access to the web) have a roof over your head and are well fed.

So please ... stop worrying about the piggy flu and get on with your lives. I'm sorry if this blog post is a little depressing. But it does at least make the point that there are worse things to worry about.

Live for the day.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tilt-Shifting my Perspective

Tilt-Shift is a particular photographic technique which, as I understand it, allows for the correction of images taken through wide-angle lenses. There is a tendency to distort and for objects to 'lean' away from the centre of the photo. The use of specialised tilt-shift lenses corrects this. One other effect of these lenses is a narrow depth of field and, when this is allowed to blur at the edges, you get a truly odd effect.

The narrow depth of field simulates the effect of macro (close-up) photography and makes normal everyday photographs look like photos of intricate miniature models. It's just a trick of the eye of course, but it is quite extraordinary. Here are a few I knocked up today.

Try it for yourself by using this handy tool at Tiltshiftmaker.com. And check out these links to other tilt-shift sites. You'll get hooked!

Thanks to Graham Linehan for introducing me to this. And congratulations on the TV BAFTA sir!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Rock and (sausage) Roll

It's been a very varied but interesting week again this week. It all kicked off on Monday with a trip to the London Book Fair (as reported on in my previous post) which resulted in some good contacts.

Tuesday saw me in Putney in the London Borough of Wandsworth. It's one of those boroughs that has areas of outstanding natural beauty but also areas of outrageously foul nastiness. Thankfully, I was visiting places somewhere between the two extremes and, towards the end of the day, was able to hang around by Putney Bridge where the river Thames boasts some lovely views, great pubs and restaurants and some nice walks. I rattled off a few photos of which two appear here.


Wednesday saw me in the London Borough of Enfield in North London. I was speaking to an audience of police officers, community advocates, ward panels and just about anyone else who was willing to listen, about the importance of 'different thinking'. Two quotes by Albert Einstein come to mind here. The first is his definition of insanity - 'Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result'. The other quote, not word-perfect I'm afraid, is 'We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them'. I used both when talking about trying new, creative and innovative ways to make people feel safer in their homes and also to prevent the bad guys doing their worst. The talk went down quite well. At least, no one threw anything at me.

I also found a curious shop that seems to cater for the lone vigilante specialising, as it does, in guns and motorcycles. When I posted this on Twitter, the excellent Chris Addison (currently one of the stars of Armando Ianucci's brilliant film comedy In the Loop) was prompted to say that he once found a shop that sold guns and banjos. And they did deliverance. Harf!

I then dived quickly into London to meet up with film maker Lara Greenway and to take part in a filmed experiment involving Twitter. I shan't say too much as I've sworn to keep the wraps on the event until the footage is screened but Lara has some teaser information about 'Project Mute' on her blog here.

On Thursday I was dumped in favour of Samuel L Jackson. Yes indeed, my so-called best mate Huw cancelled a dinner appointment with me because SLJ wanted to meet him in Los Angeles instead. Cheeky bugger. And it was my turn to pay too. I bet Samuel - currently Hollywood's highest earning star - won't even spring for a pudding. I think we all know how stupid Huw will feel upon his return. Seriously though, the great Samuel is putting his name to an amazing charity venture - hush hush for the mo - and has waived any fee. How could Huw refuse the invite?

Instead, I had tea and a muffin at the Home Office and then grabbed a sausage roll on my way home. Rock and roll.

And then there was today, Friday. Today saw me at this lovely old house called The Warren near Hayes in Kent. It's a sports and social club where I took part in a day-long series of training events culminating in various teams having to create short plays from scratch.The twist was that each play had to incorporate at least eight song titles from a particular band or artist. My team got the Bee Gees and the worst pun of the day was found in the name of an Indian restaurant owner called Hardeep. That's Hardeep Isyurluv, of course. Another team had songs by ABBA and also managed an delicious Asian pun with mention of the song Chicken Tikka. Ouch. Sorry. Great fun.

So, another tiring week with lots of travelling (as usual) and a lot of blathering on my part. I would just like to thank my Twitter followers for coming along with me wherever I roamed. Our acid exchanges as we describe fellow commuters always cheer me up as do the many bad puns, jokes and, as on Tuesday, toastie topper recipes.

And who says Twitter is fatuous and silly? At this very moment a bunch of us are creating mediaeval emoticons.

Monday, April 20, 2009

All the Fun of the (Book) Fair

Good news! Christmas looks to be far more interesting this year!

The London Book Fair is the biggest annual trade fair for publishers and buyers and fills both exhibition spaces at Earls Court and Earls Court 2. It's a massive event ... and last year it was a massive disappointment. Everywhere I went, every stand I visited, it was all celebrity, celebrity, celebrity. If it wasn't Jade Goody or Katie Price, it was some B list reality TV diva, overpaid football star or TV chef. You couldn't stuff a fag paper between the famous names on the bookshelves last Christmas.
But they didn't sell. With some notable exceptions, the celebrity stuff bombed. And quite rightly so. Some ghost-written biography of someone who's achieved instant fame at 17 is hardly going to be gripping reading is it? Though I hate to admit to spitefulness, I was very happy to see these books fail. I spent a long time getting my book written ... yet it got pushed to the back of the displays in most bookshops. But who's laughing now, eh? Despite everything I still sold a goodly number of hardbacks and that's why the paperback is coming out in September.
But things were better this year. So much better. Yes, there were some celebrity books but nowhere near as many. What really shone at the fair was optimism. Books were bigand colourful and fun. Lots of great kids books. Lots of fantasy and sci-fi. Lots and lots of high quality photo books. The message to the book buyer this Autumn is a positive 'Cheer up matey!'
Some great new titles on show. German company Taschen had some extraordinary stuff including a very rude photo journal by Naomi Harris around America's swinging community called America Swings. If you're a notebook whore like me, Moleskine are releasing A4 and A3 sized sketchpads - the paper is beautiful.
My own publisher Pan Macmillan is repackaging Alex Boese's brilliant Hippo eats Dwarf - a guide to hoaxes and urban myths. John Lloyd and John Mitchinson will be releasing the QI Book of the Dead with Faber. And Dave Spikey has a book coming out with Michael O'Mara that looks at the best and worst of local newspaper reporting: He took my kidney then broke my heart. Most intriguing (and also by Michael O'Mara) is a book called Letters from the trenches, a collection of private letters sent from the front by a Private Harry Lamin. Very poignant and moving.
I am a much happier bunny than I was last year.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Twictionary

If there's one thing guaranteed to make me smile, it's when someone posts a funny Twitpic on Twitter. Or provides me with my Tworoscope. Or posts a Tweetoon. Twitter being the social media belle of the ball at the moment, people are constantly coming up with new applications and uses for it. Many of these are then given a name beginning with 'tw' to show that they are related to tweeting.

Chris Hale over at The Middenshire Chronicles produced a very funny list last year of words beginning with 'bl' pertaining to blogging. So I thought I'd gather in all of the Twitter terms (plus invent a few more for the sheer hell of it) and present you with the first ever Twictionary. Enjoy.

Twang - The expression of despair when Twitter goes wrong.
Twanker - A person who self-pleasures by #followfriday or retweeting themselves
Twat - Ashton Kutcher
Twecipe - A cooking recipe described in fewer than 140 characters.
Tweed - When you didn't Twiddle quickly enough.
Tweedledee - A tweeter who follows his/her followers.
Tweedledum - A tweeter that doesn't follow his/her followers.
Tweeze - An invitation to view a Twitpic (see me naked) which turns out to be a disappointment (fat bloke).
Twerp - Ashton Kutcher.
Twiddler - Taking your mobile phone or laptop into the lavatory in case you miss a tweet.
Twiddling - See Twiddler.
Tweitgeist - The feeling that everything relates to Twitter.
Twig - A false hairpiece worn to make your profile pic look younger, more virile or zany.
Twill - A last will and testament of 140 characters or fewer.
Twine - An alcoholic beverage you drink too much of when tweeting.
Twink - A gay tweeter.
Twinkle - Urinating while actually tweeting (see also Twiddle).
Twist - The result of drinking too much twine.
Twit - A very short tweet.
Twirl - A tweeting female.
Twitch - A tweeting female with an acid tongue.
Twinge - The naughty part of a tweeting female.
Twotimer - Someone holding a clandestine affair on Twitter (in front of millions).

Can you add to this list?


Twootnote:

Since posting this, the lovely Aniya has pointed me in the direction of her own online Twittonary ... check it out. It's very good!

Friday, April 17, 2009

I am a sexual entry

Weird goings on on the web this week.

It all started when Ed Sapiera of the splendid steampunk band The Clockwork Quartet emailed me to say that my Wikipedia entry had been vandalised. So I went to have a look and, sure enough, the entire page had been altered to include lots of gay references, many of them quite funny but some verging on the homophobic. So I got it fixed and, to my knowledge, it's all better now. I suspect it was a revenge attack as, within the body of the vandalism, there was reference to Harold Shipman. About a year ago, I corrected a Wikipedia entry on Shipman in which a spurious tale was told about him implanting small plastic boats in victims' intestines. It was done to advertise a rather poor taste dance track on YouTube.

Okay whoever you are. We're quits now, okay? But your song is still rubbish.

But then, my excellent chum Chris Hale texted me to say that I had appeared as a page on something (uninventively) called Sexyclopedia. How and why I'm on there I have no idea. I can only assume that it was because, for an unknown number of days, I was a shining beacon of extreme gayness (gaiety?) on Wikipedia. Still, how great is that? I'm a sexual entry.

Of course, the other question is how Chris found this out.

I shan't pry.

Punctuation education

This post begins with some wonderful musing by Mr David Mitchell and was inspired by my tiny segment on Radio 4 last night ... and the subsequent torrent of tweets I received on Twitter. Or should that be tworrents? Much of the discussion was about plain English and the need for clarity.

I agree with much of what David says on his Soapbox. We shouldn't all be getting hot under the collar about the use of myself and yourself. Nor should we be worried too much about the differences between less and fewer. Yes, there are differences and I know what they are. But does substituting one word for the other really make the message less clear? I don't think so. And as fewer people are using fewer these days, the less we'll hear it. Just as may and shall will probably be extinct around the same time as the Northern White Rhino.

I do care about spelling and punctuation, however. But not just because of some arbitrary and often contradictory rules of grammar that I was taught at school. It's because poor spelling and bad punctuation can alter the meaning of a sentence. And if that happens, the purpose of the sentence - to communicate - is lost. You may know this famous example:

An English professor wrote the words: "A woman without her man is nothing" and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.

All of the males in the class wrote: "A woman, without her man, is nothing."

All the females in the class wrote: "A woman: without her, man is nothing."

It's a silly example but it illustrates an important point. Punctuation was invented to replace some of the non-verbal parts of communication; the stops, the pauses, the intonations. It allows us to identify spoken words from reported speech and questions from statements. Without punctuation a sentence can be ambiguous. With bad punctuation it can be misleading. And yet the rules of punctuation - and there are very few of them really - are quite simple. We should all make the effort to learn them. Of course, we'll still make mistakes. I make many myself. But I'd like to think that most of what I write can be understood after just one reading.

Poor spelling can also change the meaning of a sentence although the impact isn't quite as heavy as poor punctuation. We can generally still understand a sentence evn if it's ritten wiv por speling. And the advent of computers and the internet has added an additional layer of difficulty for us Brits as the default variant of English is US English with its simplified spelling and errant Zs. But don't despair! Even American spelling is wholly comprehensible in the UK and, if I was a real language fascist (which I'm not), I would point out that words ending in 'ize' rather than 'ise' are more technically correct; pick up any university text book or grammar guide and it will support my outrageous claim. The use of 'ise' is a purely British affectation and a fairly modern (Victorian) one at that. It's certainly not worth popping an artery worrying about it.

The purpose of language - spoken or written - is to communicate. And if the message arrives in the form that the sender intended, the communication was successful. Which is why my real bugbear is not with spelling, or even punctuation, but with the unnecessary use of jargon and TLAs*. But that's a subject for another day and a much, much larger rant. Oh dear me, yes.

*TLAs - Three Letter Acronyms. Harf.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Plainly Radio Four

Here's a short interview I did for BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight programme this evening. The subject matter is self-evident from the introduction.

There's nothing more important than clear communication.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

David Mitchell is righter than right

I cannot begin to tell you how much I agree with David Mitchell's column in yesterday's Guardian. In case you missed it, here it is in full:

I was deeply offended by something on the BBC recently. It wasn't Clare Balding laying into a jockey's teeth, but this time with a cricket bat, or Frankie Boyle's 10 best jokes about the Queen's genitals, or even a repeat of Diana's funeral with an added laugh track. No, it was a new low. It was Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, eliciting a round of applause on Any Questions for suggesting that Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand should pay the BBC's "Sachsgate" Ofcom fine. The rest of the panel bravely agreed with her.

"Well, you would be offended by that!" you may be thinking. "You work in television and radio. I don't suppose you like the idea of having to foot the bill if something you say appals the nation!" That's true, but we live in the era of the subjective offendee and my complaint is just as valid as those made about jokes involving dead dogs by viewers who say their dog has recently died. As an insider, I can tell you that such opinions are deferred to by the post-Sachsgate BBC. Everything is scrutinised for potential offence by jumpy "compliance" staff who endure no professional setback if the comedy output ceases to be funny. They have the right to do this because they're ultimately responsible for what's broadcast - their organisation pays the Ofcom fine.

But it strikes me that, if I'm going to have to pay the fine, they no longer have the right to censor the content. And it's all academic anyway; if things continue as they are, TV comedies will only ever get fined for blandness. Let me try to fake some objectivity and seriously address Blears's suggestion, which has since been reiterated by Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell. She says it's unjust that the fine comes out of the licence fee, paid for by everyone, so instead the wrongdoers should pay.

There are only four problems I can instantly think of with this. First, this idea of a net cost to the licence fee payer is nonsense; Ross was suspended for three months, saving the BBC £1.5m, and Brand resigned, saving it £200,000 a year. So the licence fee payer is well up on the deal and Ross and Brand have each taken a greater hit than the corporation will.

Second, Blears defines the wrong-doers as only Ross and Brand and gives the BBC's producers and executives no share of the blame. This is grossly unfair. The offending segment was pre-recorded. As a sick comedian myself, I genuinely understand how they could improvise something that offensive in that context. But I cannot understand why the station chose to broadcast it. So the then channel controller, among others, is at least as much at fault. But she's not as rich, so suggesting she pays a massive fine is a less applausey route for Blears to take.

Third, Blears says that regulators' fines are supposed to hurt those responsible and that, in this instance, there was "no sense they're going to be hurt". I don't know whether the fine will hurt the BBC or whether it would particularly hurt Brand and Ross if they paid it, but how can she possibly think that the fallout from the whole business hasn't hurt that institution and those men? Barely a day goes by when the press doesn't pillory them as a result and the announcement of this fine has given it another splendid opportunity, as have Blears's remarks. Far from the arrogant, unaccountable elite that it's portrayed as, the BBC is now a quivering shell, rattling with neurotics. The only truth in her statement is that even losing £150,000 could barely make it more miserable.

And fourth, the law requires that the BBC pay the fine rather than individuals. This is not a law that Blears, Straw or Jowell has ever queried before. But they're willing to come out against it for a short-term popularity boost for a beleaguered government - for an egg-cup sized bailer on the Titanic, for one round of applause. That's what I really despise: the political opportunism. How long do these ministers imagine the friendships in the rabblerousing tabloids that they are so buying will last? And the price is high; they're supporting a campaign to associate the BBC, its comedians and producers - my whole profession - with all that is offensive, smug and self-serving; to encourage millions who are justifiably angry or afraid, who imagine a mugger in every hoodie, who fear for their jobs and houses or have lost both, to associate the causes of that fear and anger with entertainment and, of all things, the BBC.

The BBC is an institution of genius, one of the great achievements of the 20th century. It's famed for its news reporting, drama, comedy and documentaries; it provides the best radio stations and website on Earth. But there is a plot to destroy it; a plot to which Ross and Brand's childish remarks gave an unwitting but enormous boost; a plot led by people who say they support the BBC but not the licence fee, by people who find the word "fuck" more offensive than Holocaust denial. By its competitors.

The newspapers that take every opportunity to knock the corporation do so because they're in the same market and the BBC is the market leader. They can't dominate that market while the BBC exists in its current form because what they provide is so risibly inferior - the licence fee costs less than a daily tabloid newspaper. So they lobby for its destruction and whinge about the profit made by its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, neglecting to mention how much money that saves the licence fee payer. Without the BBC, they'd make more money, even if the whole nation would be left comparatively uneducated, unentertained and uninformed. Their argument is the moral equivalent of private hospitals campaigning against the existence of the NHS. And last week, three members of a Labour government joined in.

I don't think that those ministers really want to damage or destroy the BBC, but they're willing to risk it on the outside chance of saving their political skins. I, for one, find that very difficult to forgive. But then I'm easily offended.

Absolutely spot on David. POliticians are hugely skilled at covering their own sleaze by pointing out the mistakes of others. But if you disagree and would rather have a bland, dull, non-edgy, homogenised BBC then make sure you buy your whingeing tabloid tomorrow.

If I see you, I'll point at you and call you a bad word.

Walt a rip-off!

I was never a great Disney fan. I can respect the animation. Oh yes. But those scripts? Yeek. Give me a good Dreamworks or Pixar movie any day. Disney is all too schmaltzy and dribbly for me. And the man should have been given a medal for his services to recycling. Let's face it, Bambi, The Lion King and various others are all the same film. Only the species change.

Now I discover that even the animation is recycled too! Disney apparently has some kind of stock library of moves for its characters. Watch this amazing film:

What I want to know, however, is ... who spots these similarities? Is it the same people who work for Harry Hill's TV Burp?

P.s. A couple of people have told me that the video doesn't work on their machine (these rubbish PCs ...) so here's the direct link to the FHM site where it came from. And here's another I found on Youtube.

Planet of the Average

So how was it for you?

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead started with a collective groan in our household. Michelle Ryan's art thief Lady Christina (to a suitably James Bond-ish soundtrack from Murray Gold) simultaneously did Mission Impossible and Raiders of the Lost Ark in an uninspired pre-credits sequence and my heart sank. These are David Tennant's final four shows as The Doctor and I really, really want these specials to be really special. So the omens were not good ...

One wormhole and a dodgy bus-driver later, we found ourselves on an alien planet. Apparently, they flew the entire Doctor Who cast and team out to Dubai to film the desert sequences. Money well spent? I thought it looked like a CGI landscape. But maybe my eyes have become so accustomed to FX now that I can no longer tell the pixels from reality. And anyway, it's probably cheaper to fly abroad these days than to employ an FX company and to Hell with the carbon footprint. Whatever the reason, the landscape did look pretty awesome; an appearance they probably wouldn't have got filming in Rhyl. Almost immediately, however (especially having seen the trailer), I was thinking ... isn't this Pitch Black?

Russell T writes some of the best dialogue I've ever heard but, good grief, he's not a man who's famed for his originality and as one cliche piled upon another, I found myself yearning for Steven Moffat's creative hand. Fly humanoids? Fly humanoids that feed on crap? And the logical inconsistencies ... Fly humanoids that have wireless ear pieces perfectly suited for human ears despite the fact they don't have ears? Technology that couldn't possibly be operated by those claws. The anti-gravity components being perfectly designed to fit like London bus wheel clamps. And since when could The Doctor speak every language? Wasn't that all to do with the TARDIS telepathic circuits or something? The alien beasties themselves were a tired and unoriginal manta-ray type design that's been done a million times before and the science around them creating wormholes was neatly glossed over with some technobabble about going fast enough around the planet in their billions. Didn't Superman do something similar with time? Come on Russell ... you can do so much better and I sincerely hope that you will. Time is running out for Mr Tennant. Use it wisely.

It may seem like I'm being overly-critical here but, sadly, I have been spoiled and I expect better. I've had Silence in the Library and The Empty Child. I've had Father's Day and Family of Blood. I've seen the very best that Doctor Who can offer ... and Planet of the Dead didn't even come close. Saying that, there were some genuinely excellent moments. Lee Evans' was a great laugh despite his variable Welsh accent (is it contractual that at least one person must be Welsh every show?). His moment with the fire extinguisher was pure unalloyed joy and I hope that Malcolm returns one day. Michelle Ryan wasn't too bad either. She did, however, lack that aristocratic air that worked so well for Lisa Goddard's identical Lady jewel thief back in the heady days of Bergerac. But, as I said earlier, if there's one thing RTD does well it's dialogue and the script sparkled with wit and invention at times. So, overall, an uninspired special. Not too shabby but definitely under par.

The teaser was interesting ... he is coming back through the darkness and will knock four times eh? The Master? Davros? Or something new? Tenterhooks engaged.

And the trailer for Waters of Mars looked intriguing and much more my kind of Who. I wonder if they've plundered the long and venerable history of Doctor Who martians and resurrected some of them? The Egyptian-themed hordes of Sutekh, last seen in Pyramids of Mars (Tom Baker) might be fun although that whole Egypt thing has been done to death a bit by Stargate. So how about the Ice Warriors? I bloody loved the Ice Warriors. Bring them back and I'll be a happy Easter bunny.

I See Faces - Spring Supplemental

I got an email today from a chap called Don. That's all I know unfortunately but I think from his email address that he maybe lives in California? Anyway, Don spots faces in things, even in pictures that other people have already spotted faces in, such as Debby Hornburg's mailbox photo. Here are four of them. Extraordinary, eh?

Friday, April 10, 2009

The man with no title

I'm writing my autobiography.

Now, that may seem like the most vainglorious and egotistical statement you'll read this Easter weekend ... but before you start tutting and frowning, let me explain.

Although technically it will be an autobiography, it isn't really about me. I will be the narrative device that allows the story to be told of a young, naive Cornish lad joining the police in London at the age of 18 and finding himself plunged into the chaos and madness that was the early 1980s.

WARNING! NAMES DROPPING!

This all started with John Lloyd. We were chatting after the filming of an episode of QI last year and, as often happens, the topic of discussion came round to the fact that I have been a police officer for nearly 30 years. As some of the funnier and more extraordinary stories came out, I found that I'd gathered a small crowd all eager to hear more. 'You really should write this stuff down', said John, 'Even if all you do is donate it to the British Library or pass it on to your kids'. The more I thought about this, the more I liked the idea. There's nothing at all special about me but, like any person who's lived for a few decades, I have many, many stories to tell. Any one of you reading this could fill a book with your life story and much of it would be fascinating to readers. Anyway, I thought I'd give it a go. And, handily, I used to be a diary keeper so I had a lot of material to work with.


Then, last week I met Kate Adie - the undisputed queen of UK journalism. Now, the last time I met Kate was in 1981 when I was a callow spotty youth in uniform. I was one of the first officers on scene at the IRA bombing of RAF Uxbridge and, while no one was seriously injured, the scene was one of confusion and mild panic as we searched the buildings for more devices and attempted to clear the area. Kate and her film crew soon arrived and set up in a suitably photogenic location in front of the gates (RAF Uxbridge was one of the bases of operation for the Battle of Britain and a trophy Spitfire is mounted by the gate as a memorial). I, meanwhile, was engaging in crowd control and was darting around in front of her camera. I imagine that Kate asked me to get out of shot several times but the first I heard was an exaperated 'Get out of the way big ears!'

I recounted this story to her on Tuesday. 'You shouted at me', I explained. 'Only shouted?' she said with a wry smile. After all, this is the lady who has ducked flying bullets in Sarajevo, who witnessed the atrocities in Tiananman Square and who once kneed an armed soldier in the cods in order to escape being arrested. Anyhow, we got to discussing the 1980s and she said (and I'm paraphrasing here), 'It's extraordinary how the passing of time affects people's memories. We hear all the time that we're living with the constant threat of terror these days ... but compared to the 1970s and 80s, things really aren't that bad. Back then we had bombs going off every few months, we had riots, we had a war raging in the South Atlantic and we had bloody and brutal industrial disputes. It was scary for us reporters but it must have been a nightmare for the police.' She too suggested that I should commit my memories to paper.

The final nudge came from comedian Sean Lock. He was telling me about a friend who spent a little time in prison but who is now completely reformed. 'Thing is, he's a really clever bloke', he explained, 'He talks really eloquently about his experiences and I wish I could persuade him to write it all down. You should do the same. I'd read it. I'd really like to read a smart, clever well-written book about what being a copper is like, not just some 'we kicked the door in and nicked the bastards' Sweeney clone.'

The very next day, I dug out my first embryonic attempts at an autobiography and I found myself laughing as I read. John, Kate and Sean were right. This stuff was worth passing on to others. Not because it involved me, but because the situations and characters I describe - all real - are just so damned extraordinary. So, loyal followers (that sounds so patronising doesn't it? Blame Blogger), I thought I'd give you a tiny sample of the work in progress. It may never be published I know, but I will write it as if it were going to be a book and then see what my agent can do with it. All I need now is a great title, something that encapsulates the main theme: a young, naive country boy thrown into what seemed at the time to be a warzone. Pig in the city? Oh, that's been done. Suggestions anyone? If I use one of them and I get it published, I'll credit you with the title.

Enjoy the extract!

Mwah

London’s Trafalgar Square has traditionally always been the place to be on New Year’s Eve. Hundreds of thousands of people swarm there every year and, as the twelfth Bong of Big Ben rings in the New Year, the place starts to resemble a frog spawning pond. Everyone looks for someone to hug (and, if possible, to mate with) and for no good reason I’ve ever been able to identify, normally sane people develop a sudden overwhelming urge to snog a copper.

I'd just transferred to Vine Street Police Station, just off Piccadilly Circus. Vine Street nick is now closed, as is nearby Bow Street (although they are memorialised on the standard UK Monopoly board), but at the time they were, along with West End Central, the best known police stations in London. I loved working there. Except on December 31st. I always greeted the news that I was posted to Trafalgar Square for New Year’s Eve with a mix of glee and abject terror. Like finding out that you’ve won a prize worth a fortune but it’s a signed gold disk by Westlife. It’s not that I’m adverse to attention – far from it. We all like our egos stroked occasionally. And more than just our egos (Copyright © 1971 Benny Hill). It’s just that New Year’s Eve for a police officer is relentless. There’s no discrimination on the part of the snoggers – big or small, short or tall, any race, faith, colour, sexual preference, any species even – everyone wants some tonsil hockey. And it goes on and on and on and on until your lips feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with Tyson and look like two pounds of raw liver.

I always felt particularly sorry for my female colleagues, especially the smaller and slighter ones. Imagine being five feet four inches tall and suddenly finding yourself surrounded by an army of sweaty, beer-soaked Nuts readers reaching lecherously for you and puckering up. And you’re wearing the third most popular naughty fantasy uniform. Scary stuff. We didn’t have CS Spray, long batons and tasers in those days either. No sir. The girls had to fight them off with firm words of advice, no more than necessary force and, if all else failed, a dainty knee to the conkers. Policing New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square was once described to me as like going on a cruise when you suffer from seasickness. It starts off as fun. It’s a big adventure. There are some interesting sights. But then you start to feel bad. And it gets worse. And worse. And after a while, you want to die. But then comes the horrible realisation that you’re not going to. So, like the rest of my colleagues, I smeared on the lip balm and endured the curious sado-masochism that is New Year’s Eve.

“Happy New Year Ossiffer!”
Mwah.
“Gissa kiss!”
Mwah.
“Oy! Tanesha! I found one we ain’t done yet!”
Mwah. Mwah.

Anyway, on thi particular New Year's Eve in 1985, a young Thai lady (you’re probably way ahead of me now) threw herself at me and gave me the longest and deepest smooch of the night. A real pants stretcher. She could have removed my fillings with that tongue. Amid bawdy cries of ‘Wa-hey!’ and similar from my nearest colleagues, I fought for breath as she clung to me like a squid to a bathtub. Eventually, I managed to lever her off … at which point she removed her wig, flashed a huge smile at me and said ‘Thanks mate!’ in a suspiciously deep Scottish accent before walking off into the crowd. She also lifted her dress to flash me a substantial brace of testicles, just in case I hadn’t quite got the jape. The cries from my colleagues remained as loud and bawdy but were no longer quite so congratulatory.

After a shameful initial flurry of panic (Remember that this was the unenlightened 1980s and AIDS-phobia was considerably more virulent than the actual illness), I tried to forget all about it and return to normal everyday life. But the word ‘Ladyboy’ written on my locker would be a constant reminder of that night for years to come. As would the mail-order catalogues for Thai Brides that kept appearing in my correspondence tray every three months. The humiliation was far more traumatic than the event (which, if I’m honest, felt pretty good at the time) … but I still can’t watch The Crying Game.

I see Faces - Springtime Special

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Shameless Nepotism

Some new photos from my brother Simon. Lots more of his stuff on his blog here. Yes, you're right. Pure unadulterated mutual brotherly respect. How I wish I could take photos like he does.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

My idea of a gym

One of the simple pleasures I engage in from around April to October is walking the dogs along by the river Thames. I'm quite lucky where I live as one of the river's prettiest stretches (as far as I'm concerned) takes in Maidenhead, Windsor, Marlow and Henley and all four are quite literally on my doorstep. A quick 10 minute spin in the car and I can be strolling along the bank, envying the millionaires' riverside real estate and the fat cats' cabin cruisers.

It's great for wildlife too. Roll this blog back a year and you'll read about me enjoying the first cuckoo of 2008. No cusckoos today but there were many different kinds of bird from the huge and graceful mute swans to the tiny warblers among the blackthorn bushes.

This part of the Thames has traditionally been the training ground for professional rowers and many an Olympic gold medal winner has sculled up and down the wide expenses of calm water between Henley and London. It was certainly where multi-medal winners Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent did most of their training as they were based at Henley Rowing Club. I just love how quiet it is. All you can hear is the gentle lapping against the banks, the honking of geese, the gentle chug of outboard motors and the slap of oar on water. Wonderful. The dogs think so too.

Back on the commuter train tomorrow. Sigh.

Some funnies

If there's one thing you can guarantee it's that almost anyone who ever visits the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy will do the 'oh look I'm holding it up!' photo gag. Which is why I loved this pic taken from a cynical tourist angle. From Lindsey Weber at Buzzfeed.


A very funny piechart from graphjam.


And remember Slinkachu's Little People in the City book I promoted a month or so ago? Here's a similar project by Vincent Bouserrez. Great stuff.