Sunday, May 31, 2009

I'm too sexy for my Tweets

Thanks to Huw Williams for pointing me in the direction of this fantastically funny site - Tweeting Too Hard. It's a repository of all that is cheesy, egotistical and just plain wrong with some Twitterers.

Do enjoy. I know I did. But that's because I'm gorgeous and so fecking talented.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Caught by the Fuzz

Following on from yesterday's e-fit waffling, I thought you might be interested in this. As you know, I wrote and illustrated a couple of pieces for last year's QI Annual. I was pleased to get something in there as it's always a fight for page space - especially when so many brilliant people contribute. One feature I wrote that didn't quite make it is reproduced below. It would have been illustrated by me and Boris (who provided the e-fits of Alan and Stephen below). Enjoy!

Filth, Fuzz and Flatfoots

Police officers have more than their fair share of nicknames … the Filth, the Rozzers, the Bizzies, Flatfoots, the Boys in Blue, Mr Plod ... but where did these names come from? Who was Old Bill? Why are police officers Pigs, Bobbies or Cops? And are they really Fuzzy?

There is a written reference from 1811 to ‘china street pigs’, meaning the Bow Street Runners, the first proto-police officers. A popular pastime was to ‘floor the pig and bolt’ – to knock the officer over and run away.

In 1829, the newly formed London Metropolitan Police picked up the nickname of ‘Peelers’ after their founder, Sir Robert Peel. Thankfully, this soon fell out of favour and they became ‘Bobbies’. Well, it’s better than ‘The Roberts’.

The name ‘Fuzz’ may have come from the early officers’ large beards and whiskers but is more likely derived from common street slang when ‘fuzzy’ meant unmanly, incompetent or soft.

‘Cop’ and ‘Copper’ both come from the verb ‘to cop’ meaning to seize or get hold of (which in turn evolved from the Latin capere, which means to catch or capture). The term first appeared in print in 1846. It is definitely not an acronym of ‘constable on patrol’ as nearly all acronyms date from the 20th century.

The origins of the term ‘Old Bill’ are less easy to nail down. Among the most popular of the various competing theories are:

The name was arrived at by associating the police with The Old Bailey law courts by way of the music hall song ‘Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey?’ It has nothing to do with Klingon-lookalike comedians.

Many moustache-wearing police officers looked like the cartoon character ‘Old Bill’, a wily old soldier created by Bruce Bairnsfeather. Old Bill appeared dressed as a Special Constable on wartime public information posters with a caption that started with ‘Old Bill says …’

The original cars used by the Flying Squad had registration plates bearing the letters BYL.

Foreign slang words for the police include Bears, Jacks, Dog Catchers, Po Pos, the Barney Fife, Scuffers, La Chotas, Poulets, Omars, Snuten, Bängen, Pekkas, Bullen, Woodentops, Grünmütze, Titheads, Spassbremsen, Fun breakers, Sorte svin, Flics, Poggu and Donut Digesters.

Foxes and Fingerprints

The ‘Twin Foxes’ – the unimaginatively-named Albert Ebenezer and Ebenezer Albert Fox –were born in Hertfordshire in 1857 and at birth were so similar that their father tied a blue ribbon around the arm of one and a red ribbon around the arm of the other. But the ribbons soon got mixed up and, until death, neither of the Foxes was ever quite sure what their proper name should be. They grew up to be notorious poachers and petty thieves who, between them, notched up over 200 convictions. However, they often escaped justice by providing each other’s alibis. They also made frequent claims for compensation for wrongful arrest, claiming that the wrong brother had been arrested. As reported, tongue-in-cheek, by the New York Times of February 9th 1913: ‘For years they have borne these mistakes in silence. But now the soul of each burns at the thought of the injustice done to his brother’.

Sir Edward Henry (Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police 1903-1918) used such cases of incorrect or difficult identification as an argument for throwing out older discredited fingerprint systems. Instead, he advised the use of a new system developed by the Indian police officers Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. It became known as the Henry Fingerprint Classification System after its sponsor and was introduced to British policing in 1901 along with a national fingerprint identification bureau. The system remained in use until the 1990s when computers allowed for even more complex and accurate matching systems.

Fuzzy Firsts and Lasts

1830 - PC Joseph Grantham becomes the first police officer ever to be killed on duty. Three years later, the so-called Coldbath Fields Riot in Grays Inn Road, London result in the death of PC Robert Culley. However, during the subsequent trial, those involved were acquitted of ‘justifiable homicide’ because of alleged excessive force used by the police. A small trophy, the Culley Cup, was presented to the jury by the defendants.

1858 – The first British police van - a horse-drawn lockable cubicle – comes into use. These quickly become known as ‘Black Marias’. Allegedly, the name commemorates a large, fierce, black hostel manager from Boston, Massachusetts called Maria Lee, who would frequently wade into the fray to assist her local police in conveying violent drunks to the station. Sailors brought stories of Ms Lee’s exploits to the UK.

1863 – In the mid 1800s, drunkenness was the primary cause of police dismissal, and in 1863 year alone, the services of 215 officers were dispensed with. The offending officers’ lack of sobriety is perhaps understandable when you note that 50,000 Londoners died of cholera in 1849 due to drinking dirty water. However, that hardly excuses one PC Cleares’ behaviour when he was found drunk and ‘absent from his beat and asleep with his head through a pane of glass in a greenhouse.’

1868 – The last public execution takes place in the UK. From now on, the only people to die in front of audiences would be comedians.

1898 – After PC Baldwin is murdered in Kingsland Road, there are calls for the police to be armed. Over a hundred years later, it still hasn’t happened. Bureaucracy. Tchah.

1910 - Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen becomes the first person to be arrested as the result of electronic communication. After allegedly murdering his wife, Crippen attempted to flee the UK on a ship bound for Quebec, Canada. The captain of the SS Montrose suspected that he had some wrongdoers on board when he spotted some ‘unusually affectionate behaviour’ between a passenger called Mr Robinson and his son, John. Further observation convinced Captain Kendall that the boy was actually Ethel le Neve, Crippen’s mistress, in disguise. Both she and Crippen were on Scotland Yard’s most wanted list and their descriptions had been widely circulated. Kendall used the wireless to voice his suspicions to the ship’s owners back home. Detective Chief Inspector Walter Dew was immediately put on a faster boat, the SS Laurentic, and was waiting in Quebec to arrest Crippen and le Neve as they disembarked.

1915 – The first female police officer, Mrs Edith Smith, is sworn in at Grantham, Lincolnshire.

1919 – The Flying Squad is formed. Their name comes from the fact that they were mobile and could be deployed very quickly, plus the fact that their first two Crossley cars were formerly owned by the Royal Flying Corps. Their nickname of ‘The Sweeney’ derives from the Cockney rhyming slang (Sweeney Todd = Flying Squad). The opening credits of the 1970s TV series The Sweeney featured a fingerprint. This belonged to Pamela Green, a model and pioneer of nudist films. The credits were created by her partner, photographer Douglas Webb who, during the Second World War was an air gunner during Operation Chastise - the famous Dambusters raids.

1952 – The Kray Twins, Ronnie and Reggie, become two of the last prisoners to be kept in the Tower of London. They were banged up for refusing to do their National Service.

1967 – The Metropolitan Police HQ moves into a 20 storey office building on New Broadway, near Parliament Square. The original Scotland Yard was neither in Scotland nor in a yard. It was a building in Great Scotland Yard, a small side-street off Whitehall. Little of the original building remains as it was blown up by the Provisional IRA in 1973. In 1890, police headquarters were moved to purpose-built offices on the Victoria Embankment. This became known as New Scotland Yard. During the building of this new HQ, a woman’s dismembered torso was found buried. She was never identified. Then, in 1967, the whole kit and caboodle was moved to New Broadway.

The name travelled too … so, technically, the current building should be called New New Scotland Yard.

Carry on Constable

England and Wales have 43 police forces between them. Scotland has eight. Before the creation of the police, the role of peace-keeper was performed by privately-funded watchmen and thief takers. Then, in 1737, George II began paying some of these watchmen with tax money, thus sowing the seeds of a government-sponsored police. By 1828, there were policing teams in 45 London parishes, all publicly funded.

The word ‘police’ was borrowed from French but was not popular at first, which is why many of the earlier forces used the word ‘constabulary’ which hinted at elected parish constables rather than some kind of foreign oppressor.

The word ‘Constable’ is from the Latin comes stabuli (count of the stables) and originally meant the person who looked after the horses of the gentry and royalty. Later on, constables also took on responsibility for armaments. While watchmen were used in the city, constables administered the law in the countryside.

The first proper police force arrived in 1800, with the arrival of the City of Glasgow Police. The Royal Irish Constabulary appeared in 1822. Then, in 1829, the Metropolitan Police Act was passed by Parliament, allowing Sir Robert Peel to found the London Metropolitan Police.

I’ve Met the Met

When they were founded, the Met’s original establishment was 1,000 officers who policed an area within a seven-mile radius of Charing Cross. London’s population was then less than 2 million.

Today, the Metropolitan Police Service employs 31,141 officers, 13,661 police staff, 414 traffic wardens and 2,106 Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), and covers an area of 620 square miles and a population of 7.2 million. That’s a population density of 4,540 people per square km. One in four are from an ethnic minority and 300 different languages are spoken. The population swells during the working day as commuters and tourists flock to the city. 471,400 commuters arrive daily by train and 29,000 by car. And 27-30 million tourists visit London every year.

In 1847 London saw 14,091 robberies and 62,181 people were arrested. In 2007, London saw around 37,000 robberies and over 200,000 people were arrested.

The Law is an Arse

It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament.

It is an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British monarch upside-down.

In Liverpool, it is illegal for a woman to be topless except as a clerk in a tropical fish store.

Mince pies cannot be eaten on Christmas Day.

In Scotland, if someone knocks on your door and requires the use of your toilet, you must let them enter.

In the UK, a pregnant woman can legally relieve herself anywhere she wants, including in a policeman's helmet.

The head of any dead whale found on the British coast automatically becomes the property of the King, and the tail of the Queen.

It is illegal not to tell the tax man anything you do not want him to know, but legal not to tell him information you do not mind him knowing.

It is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament in a suit of armour.

In the city of York it is legal to murder a Scotsman within the ancient city walls, but only if he is carrying a bow and arrow.

Taken from The Strange Laws of Old England by Nigel Cawthorne (with thanks to the QI Elves). 'I've Met the Met' sticker circa 1984.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Boris - good enough!

Yesterday found me writhing in a moral malais. As will be patently obvious if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have absolutely no time for cheap sensationalist journalism. I believe that it is irresponsible and has contributed to creating the hugely disproportionate fear of everything that many UK residents are living with. As soon as a decent adult role model emerges, the press immediately set to work to dish the dirt. Salacious headlines may generate sales but they create fear where, really, there should be no fear at all. One of the worst culprits - in my humble opinion - is the Daily Mail. They always seem ready and willing to stir the shit bucket at every opportunity; just look at that ridiculous business with Jonathan Ross last year. It makes me very cross. I read newspapers for in-depth reportage not gross invasions of celebrity privacy. Sorry. Rant over. I mention this because of my aforementioned ethical pickle.

Yesterday, there was a two page spread in the Mail about a good friend of mine called Jan Szymczuk. Known as Boris to his mates, he was (and still is I guess) the UK's foremost forensic illustrator. He's recently retired but he spent nigh on 30 years doing those pencil drawings of bad guys you see on TV - sometimes by hand but also by computer using 'e-fit' software (what we used to call photofit). With recent developments in the Maddie McCann case centred on just such a picture (not by Boris), he was asked to demonstrate how well the system works by doing three drawings of a suspect based on interviewing three witnesses. The feature - typically negatively headlined by the Mail as 'Call that a likeness? It's criminal!' (yawn) - was not too bad, all things considered. What it demonstrated, despite the reporter's every attempt to find fault, was that Boris is very good at his job and that all the police can do is create an image based upon witness testimony. And it's amazing how poor that can be at times. The heat of the moment, the adrenaline rush, can skew perceptions. As an example, here's a picture that Boris created of me a few years ago (when I wore specs), based solely upon the description of a witness - a lady in his office who'd met me very briefly
.
As you can see, it's not a photographic representation of me. But it would probably be enough to jog someone's memory if they saw the picture on Crimewatch the night before. I suspect I'd have had a knock on the door a few days later.

If you want to read the feature, it's online here. I actually went and bought the paper so I could keep the clipping. The whole event made me feel a bit dirty. But, luckily, I was able to sneak through the tills by concealing it inside some gay porn.

Boris's website is here. He's really very good.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I couldn't skip over these could I ...

I found these two images while searching for the Star Trek poster just now. If the writing in the speech bubble is too small, the voice from the Death Star simply says 'Your Highness. We have a problem.'

Getting ahead in advertising

Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of advertisements employing huge heads recently? I was struck by it today. From movie posters to ads for insurance, what you see is large format, hi-res images of the celeb endorser. And they really are hi-res; every pore on the young James T Kirk's lovely moisturised Hollywood skin, every grey stubble hair on Hugh Laurie's chin, every wrinkle and sag of Iggy's belly leather is there before your eyes in near gynaecological high definition.
Weirdly, the two posters above look like a before and after shock tactic campaign warning people about the dangers of sex and drugs and rock and roll. Laurie and Pop do seem to have something similar going on around the mouth area. But I've also been bullied by the giant surprised face of Salvador Dali today, seen here on a poster at my local train station.

It's curious how trends come and go in advertising. On TV there's a positive menagerie of CGI meerkats, pandas, squirrels and frogs advertising everything from lawn treatments to crisps. Even Mr Muscle has turned from a speccy wimp into a pixelated muscle guy who rescues badly-dubbed archetype housewives from the horrors of a blocked sink. But CGI is hugely expensive and in this time of credit crunchiness, will we see a scaling back of budgets? Does that explain the giant heads?

I wonder what's next?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Not just a cabinet of curiosity ... a whole museum

Last night I attended the recording of the sixth and final episode of BBC Radio 4's Museum of Curiosity. I've been lucky enough to be invited along to see all six shows of this second season. If you're not familiar with it, co-hosts John Lloyd and Sean Lock invite three guests every week to place something of interest in the museum. As the museum is entirely hypothetical, this means that the curiosities can be as imaginative or as abstract as you like and we've seen submissions as small as a pineapple or a yeti, as big as the big bang or a live volcano, or as strange as the urge to push red buttons and the notion of privacy. And during the course of the recordings, I've been privileged to meet such people as Brian Eno, Chris Donald, Kate Adie, Rupert Sheldrake, Simon Singh, Dave Gorman and, last night, the brilliant Tim Minchin and the twin intellectual giants of Clive James and Philip Pullman.

But this blogpost is not a hollow boast about the famous people I've met. It's about celebrating the fact that the BBC still makes shows like this. In many ways, the Museum of Curiosity is a sister show to TV's QI. The obvious link here is John Lloyd who created both shows. John has an enviable CV; back in his early days as a radio producer he created the News Quiz - still running to this day - and shows like The News Huddlines and Quote Unquote. He also co-wrote two episodes of the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy with his best friend Douglas Adams and, later, the two of them collaborated on the book The meaning of Liff. Moving to television in the 1980s, he gave us Not the nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image and produced all four series of Blackadder before creating QI. Most recently, John co-wrote The Book of General Ignorance with John Mitchinson, which has sold over a million copies and is the fourth bestselling book in Amazon's history. Surely, with that kind of history, it's no surprise that when he and producers Dan Schreiber and Richard Turner pitched the idea for the radio series to the BBC, they got the green light? Surprisingly, it's never quite that simple.

Nicholas Lezard in The Independent on Sunday wrote: 'I try to envisage the pitch. Imagine if you or I went up to the Head of What Goes Out at 6.30 on Radio 4 and said: "It's a show where we ask guests to bring along an item of interest for us to put in an imaginary museum. They get to tell us some anecdotes, and we make the odd quip." The Head of What Goes Out at 6.30 on Radio 4 puts the tips of his fingers together and says: "Is that it?" "Well, basically, yes." "And will your guests be famous?" "Well, we thought for the first show we'd have Brian Blessed, who is an enormous pain in the arse but undoubtedly very well known; a comedian not too many people have heard of like, say, Sean Lock, and then we'd have a completely off-beam choice, perhaps Richard Fortey, who is a world expert on trilobites and a member of the Royal Society." This sounds a bit mad, no? As I said, if you or I pitched this idea we'd hardly have time to eat our free BBC biscuit before being shown the door.'

But I'm so glad that it was the BBC who looked at this pitch. I'm not going to rant on about what a brilliant institution the Beeb is as people like Stephen Fry and David Mitchell have done so much mor eeloquently than I ever could. But the point they make is that the licence fee system allows these types of risk to be taken. If the BBC was driven solely by demographics and popular vote it would be nothing but soaps, reality shows and the occasional televised execution of a paedophile. The very fact that it doesn't always have to bow to these pressures means that it can make programmes for 'minority' audiences; people from smaller communities within the UK or people with specialist or unusual interests. As Stephen Fry once wrote. 'You know when you visit another country and you see that it spends more money on flowers for its roundabouts than we do, and you think … coo, why don’t we do that? How pretty. How pleasing. What a difference it makes. To spend money for the public good in a way that enriches, gives pleasure, improves the quality of life, that is something. That is a real achievement. It’s only flowers in a roundabout, but how wonderful. Well, we have the equivalent of flowers in the roundabout times a million: the BBC enriches the country in ways we will only discover when it has gone and it is too late to build it up again. We actually can afford the BBC, because we can’t afford not to.'

Sage words.

The Museum of Curiosity is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Mondays at 6.30pm and is repeated on Sundays at 12pm. Official website is here. Blog is here. And they're on Twitter @curiositwitty.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Steve Martin's best gag in 20 years

If you ever perchance to meet comedy superstar Steve Martin, he may well give you his business card. It's the funniest I've seen in years and I just had to share it with you.

If only his films were as funny these days. Sigh.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Announcing the first ever Twitter Musical!

For those of you who don't Twitter, myself and Chris Hale today started the idea of a completely democratic open-house writing project. We're encouraging people to submit lyrics, plot ideas and characters for an operetta set in a supermarket. Here's what we have so far in just an hour. It bodes well ...

Trolley, madly, cheaply

A Shoperetta written by Twitterers: @stevyncolgan, @ewarthale, @redmummy, @igoneill, @catronator, @wisecur, @mangowe, @angpang, @canuckuk, @mrslard, @karacornflake, @janedebond (have I missed anyone?)

The plot so far ... Welcome to BESTCO – an average supermarket in an average Northern town. The unfortunately named Mr Mac Staffbaiter runs a tight ship and dreams of one day becoming an area manager. All he has to do is avoid any kind of industrial hassles for one more week...

But then, a row erupts over new signage for the tills. On one side – those who are happy with the grammar of 'five items or less'. And on the other, those who insist it should be 'five items or fewer'. The staff are split. Tempers flare. Battle lines are drawn. Mac has no choice but to shut the store. Can anyone end the feud? Meanwhile, across the grammatical divide, Benny and Kelly - from rival groups -meet and fall in love. They arrange a tryst at the deli counter. But they are seen by Kelly’s on/off boyfriend Beef McLintock, ambient section manager and a 'five items or less' kind of guy. He bashes Benny over the head with a saveloy and locks him in the freezers ...

Scene 1

View of a supermarket storefront - BESTCO. Customers are waiting outside. The doors swish open and Mr Mac Staffbaiter, the manager, emerges.

Mac:
Good day to all around this county,
Come in, partake you of our bounty ...

The set opens up to reveal the interior of the supermarket. People are bustling around, busily preparing for the customers who rush inside.

Mac:
Open the doors, let the selling begin
Polish the goods, every pack, jar and tin
Tidy the trolleys and throw back the gin
Our store is now open for you!
Weigh out the cheese, slice up the bacon
Tidy the aisles and shelves ready to take ‘em
Let the tills ring with the money we've taken.
Our store is now open for you!

He dances around the aisles, greeting shoppers and chatting to staff.

Mac:
Fill up your carts, let the spending go on
'cos shopping's like life - when it's gone it's gone!
Put the scallops on ice, set your price guns on stun!
Our store is now open for you.
Welcome my friends, let the buying begin!
Please swipe your card with the stripe facing in.
We’re open ‘til Midnight so spend like a King
Our store is now open for you!

Kelly:
My name is Kelly, I serve with a smile,
Check your change, sir, and chat for a while
As long as my boyfriend will let me – he’s vile.

Beef McLintock saunters past, smiling cheesily.

Chorus:
Our store is now open to you.

Trina:
They swarm in and out and they get in my way
As I clean up the filth and debris of the day
On to Aisle Five where some brat’s done a pee …

Chorus:
Our store is now open for you.

Benny:
My heart belongs to Kelly from the deli,
But I am on the fish and rather smelly.
As I'm slicing up the meat I see her face all soft and sweet
I go tingly in the belly when I spy her from my deli …

Gita:
Condoms – you get two whole packs for five pounds
Perfect if you like to put yourself around
That Kelly got caught with her mouth wrapped around …

Chorus:
Our store is now open for you.

Alice:
All kinds of creams and chlamydia tests
To ensure your vagina is feeling its best!
Wish I could remember when I used it last …

Chorus:
Our store is now open for you.

Gita/Alice:
Do you, do you, do you need a bag?
Do you, do you, do you need a bag?

Chorus:
You can buy any item that you care to see
If you buy one, maybe you’ll get one free!

Mac:
You’ll need more than a card to show your loyalty

Chorus:
Our store is now open for you!
Price checks and price cuts and two for one deals
We’re here to sell you your readymade meals

Mac:
You can’t live without us – we’ve got you by the … beels.
Our store is now open for you.

Chorus:
The store is now open for you!

Enter Beef McLintock, lothario, loverboy and ambient goods manager. He is wearing an apron with a strategically placed logo – ‘May contain nuts’.

Beef:
I am the king of everything that keeps at room temperature
My life is just a single tepid excellent adventure
With cabbages and celery, potatoes, leeks and cucumbers,
I am the very model of an ambient section manager.

To be continued ...

There's nothing more creative than a bunch of strangers arsing around on the web is there?

More soon!

The Soundtrack of my Life

Nearly a year ago, there was a meme going around the blogsphere to do with 'My Top Five albums'. I dutifully supplied my list but then started thinking about the wider issue of music and how it has, in some small way, defined who I am. Or is 'who I am' the thing that defines my musical tastes? It's an interesting question. All I know is that I love music in all its forms and it's rare you'll catch me not listening to something.

So I thought it might be fun to pick 10 albums that capture, in a nutshell, my personality. Nutcase more like, I hear you cry (That joke appears courtesy of Monty Python (c) 1975).

My earliest memories of enjoying music are inevitably bound up with my parents' tastes. There was a lot of their record collection I didn't really like - especially the 1950's rock and roll stuff - and they were oddly lacking anything by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But they did have lots of stuff by The Kinks and the Beach Boys. I loved Village Green Preservation Society and Pet Sounds from Day One and still do. Pet Sounds is one of the greatest albums ever made as far as I'm concerned and God only knows may well be my favourite song of all time. It was the multi-layering of the vocals, the richness of the musical textures that fascinated me. Ray Davis's quirky and very British lyrics appealed to me too. While I also loved The Mamas and the Papas, Andy Williams, Glenn Campbell and other US imports, they didn't quite grab me the way that the Beach Boys and Kinks did.

My dad was also fond of classical music, mostly of a Baroque nature, so I was exposed quite early to the likes of Bach and Albinoni. I still enjoy a lot of classical music and J S Bach remains a firm favourite. But I also grew to love the huge and powerful choral works exemplified by my second choice, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. But not just any old O Fortuna will do I'm afraid. I've heard many recordings over the years but this performance by Andre Previn and the LSO is unbeatable in my opinion.

The next big influence on my life was folk music. Growing up in Cornwall in the 1960s and 70s, there wasn't a lot of live music around unless you liked male voice choirs or strange beardy men in Arran sweaters with twigs in their hair singing songs with 'twelve-month and a day' in the chorus. But despite this handicap, I loved the songs themselves. I liked the way that they told stories and I soon became a fan of singer/songwriters generally and particularly female singer/songwriters who always seemed to go that little bit beyond superficial in their lyrics. Consequently, I still listen to a lot of folk, particularly modern interpretations by people like Jim Moray, Seth Lakeman, Bellowhead, Cara Dillon, Eliza Carthy and the sublime Karine Polwart as shown below. The title track of Faultlines sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it. However, I still love the traditional stuff and Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior, Capercaillie, Christy Moore and their ilk occupy a largish chunk of my hard drive.

I must also mention Kate Bush who has had a huge influence on me. I actually heard the very first ever national radio play of Wuthering Heights while in an art class during my A levels. David 'Kid' Jenson introduced the song and I completely fell in love with it. The woman is a genius and her finest work is surely Hounds of Love.

It being the 1970s, I was also very much into progressive rock. In much the same way the vocal richness of the Beach Boys, Kate Bush and others was grabbing me, so was the virtuoso twanging, tweeting and plinky-plonking of such prog superstars as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett, Thijs van Leer and Ian Anderson. My entry level to prog was Genesis and particularly the staggeringly beautiful Trespass album. But then, along came Selling England by the Pound and I was hooked. Soon I was listening to Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Peter Gabriel, Jethro Tull, Steve Hackett, Camel, Focus and UK. Their 'concept tracks' and massive soundscapes are still a guilty pleasure to this day and anyone who says that prog is soulless, unemotional pomp really should listen again to a Genesis track like Looking for someone or the last five minutes of Awaken by Yes. Wonderful, wonderful epic music. To represent this era, I've chosen Yes's Close to the Edge, arguably their finest work and with its gatefold sleeve art by the incomparable Roger Dean, it typifies the very best excesses of prog.

Also emerging from the 1970s are two bands that I consider the finest and probably most underrated bands in British rock history - 10CC and XTC. Sadly, most people only know them for their 'novelty singles' such as Making plans for Nigel, Sgt Rock, Donna or I'm Mandy, fly me. Listen to the albums and you'll soon see that these singles are hardly representative. What makes both bands so special is the quality of the songwriting. You never know where the next track is going on a 10CC or an XTC album. I've chosen The Original Soundtrack and Skylarking as my examples. The Original Soundtrack begins with the humorous mini-rock opera Une nuit a Paris - nine minutes of interwoven themes and more tunes than you'll find on any three Coldplay albums put together. This is followed by the groundbreaking I'm not in love and a sextet of songs ranging from the singalong Life is a minestrone to the high camp of The film of my love. Skylarking, meanwhile, is a tribute to everything that is summery and British. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding take us from Summer's Cauldron, past clouds of buzzing insects, through memoirs of smoking dope, clandestine meetings with loved ones, riding bikes in country lanes and Summer showers, getting married, worrying about money and dying, and the final plaintive Dear God; an angry letter from a child railing at the Almighty for all of the injustice in the world. It is a slice of everything that puts the Great in Great Britain and a contender, in my petty view, for the greatest album of all time.

I kind of missed Punk. It didn't impact on us down in west Cornwall. The Sex Pistols were done and dusted and Sid Vicious was dead before I even got to hear Never Mind the Bollocks ... but once I did there was no turning back. I moved to London in 1980 and it was a great time for seeing new bands. The Pistols had reinvigorated the music scene and nothing I have ever seen since has matched the raw energy of seeing bands like The Pogues, The Stranglers and The Damned playing live on stage. My best friend Huw reminded me yesterday that he'd actually sat on the stage at Middlesex Polytechnic in Hendon as a young and unpretentious U2 had gone through the set that would become their first album. I had to include the Pistols.

Punk eventually gave way to the New Wave and the New Romantics, all of which was a bit silly and left me cold. All except for Adam and the Ants who I thought were superb as they camped up the whole genre and turned out some cracking tunes. But from the ashes grew a strain of clever, brilliantly constructed pop from the likes of The Cure, Toyah and Tears for Fears and this in turn gave us the joy of bands like Curve, Cocteau Twins and Massive Attack all of which I am very fond.

Then along came Britpop and the likes of Oasis, Blur, Pulp and many others. I have many happy memories from seeing these bands live but my favourite among them all was the criminally under-valued Echobelly. As far as I am concerned, they have never written a duff tune ... and I can't say that for most bands of that era. It's hard to chose a favourite album in their back catalogue but ON was the LP that turned me 'on' to them, if you'll pardon the pun, so it seemed the best choice.

In writing this blogpost (at last) I've noticed several themes emerging from my choices of music: highly textured musical soundscapes, female singer/songwriters, 'underdog' bands that don't do as well as some of their contemporaries, virtuoso musicianship and experimentation. All of these come together in the form of Björk Guðmundsdóttir. I fell in love with her voice when Bjork was still lead singer of the Sugarcubes but her first solo album, Debut blew me away. Every album since has surprised, delighted and confused me and that's the joy of it. She refuses to be bound by convention, categorisation or even musical instrumentation; the album Medulla was performed almost entirely by using the human voice. Her finest work to date is, in my humble opinion, Vespertine. Beautiful, smart, challenging. It's everything I want from my music.
All of which bings us bang up to date. So what am I listening to currently? It's usually over on the right hand side of my blog. At the moment I'm enjoying Tale to Tell by The Mummers, Ladyhawke and St Vincent's new album Actor.

It's been so hard trying to whittle down my musical tastes and influences to just ten albums. That's why it's taken me so damned long. I could produce a list as long as a gibbon's arm of bands and artists I like that I haven't even mentioned ... like P J Harvey, Radiohead, Arcade fire, Arctic Monkeys, Burt Bacharach, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Ian Dury ... see what I mean. I'm at it already.

So, have you got ten albums like this? Blog me in a year's time ...

When one thing leads to another

Here's a nice review of my book from a few days ago, published in the New Zealand Herald. I've gone all blushy again.

Tuesday May 12, 2009

Joined Up Thinking by Stevyn Colgan

If you've ever visited Wikipedia and decided to follow the hyperlinks from one piece of "essential" information to an even more "imperative" gem but then, strangely, ended up back where you started, then you have a lot in common with Stevyn Colgan. He is the master of the trivial, the collector and cataloguer of the forgotten and inane - but no matter how worthless and unnecessary the information, Colgan has the knack of making it all sound intensely fascinating.

Joined-Up Thinking is to information what "six degrees of separation" is to people. Colgan's tongue-in-cheek theory proposes that everything on this planet is connected to everything else. In "Round One", for example, he manages to find a connection between the number seven, Isaac Newton, rainbows, Pink Floyd, The Wizard of Oz, and, of course, Shakespeare. Other rounds feature everything from Dr Who and Star Trek to Prince Charles and Robert the Bruce - if you've heard of it, chances are that Colgan has not only logged and labelled it, but also tied it to something else you thought completely unrelated.

He connects each piece of his trivia puzzle in a concise, chatty, easy to follow, even logical, manner. This free-flowing style does not, thankfully, lend itself to pause and evaluation, but does allow for a great deal of chuckling and chin-stroking. This is the sort of book that you will read and then spend the next month or so scratching your head and wondering just how it is, exactly, you know that avocados are poisonous, that indigo is really just a shade of violet, or that Wilma Flintstone had two maiden names, Pebble or Slaghoople, depending on which episode you watched, or that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair owns a telephone that resembles a Harley-Davidson.

You've read the information, encoded and assimilated it, and now you are recycling it - everyone loves kernels of wisdom, especially those that allow you to appear knowledgeable or humorous - and Colgan's do.

What Colgan has really done, here, is to take a rather absurd yet highly intelligent and addictive parlour trick, and delightfully repackaged it as an easily consumed diversion. He traverses everything from high art to popular culture in an insightful, colourful and highly readable fashion.

Steve Scott

How kind. I always liked Kiwis.

The other other book prize

I am a huge fan of the annual Bookseller/Diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year and have blogged about it several times previously. Well, the results are in and here's 2009's worthy winner:

The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais

Fantastic. Here's the full story reprinted from The Bookseller magazine.

The annual award presented by The Bookseller magazine went to the book written by Professor Philip M. Parker and published by Icon Group International after an internet poll of six books. The winner received 32% of the vote.

Philip Stone, charts editor for The Bookseller, said that the book "is a fitting champion given that today's public are more aware of green issues than ever. It highlights an area that, perhaps, we are all guilty of ignoring as we push our trolleys down supermarket aisles".

The custodian of the prize and diarist for The Bookseller, Horace Bent, said: "Given that three times in the 21st century the public have crowned somewhat vulgar titles the winner ("High Performance Stiffened Structures", "Living with Crazy Buttocks" and, most recently, "If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs"), I assumed either "Strip and Knit with Style" or "Curbside Consultation of the Colon" would pick up the 2008 award. But I'm thrilled the public steered clear of smut and bestowed the 'odd title' prize on Professor Parker's worthy winner".

Although 'The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais' was a clear winner, the book is a controversial choice, as Professor Parker did not write the book, but instead used an automated authoring invention, which produces titles on the basis of internet and database searches.

Below are a full list of winners over previous years.

1978 - "Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice" by various authors.
1979 - "The Madam as Entrepreneur: Career Management in House Prostitution" by Barbara Sherman Heyl.
1980 - "The Joy of Chickens" by Dennis Nolan.
1981 - "Last Chance at Love - Terminal Romances" by various authors.
1982 - "Population and Other Problems: Family Planning, Housing 1,000 million, Labour Employment" by various authors.
1983 - "The Theory of Lengthwise Rolling" by A. I. Tselikov, G. S. Nikitin and S. E. Rokotyan.
1984 - "The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today" by Anne Wilson.
1985 - "Natural Bust Enlargement with Total Power: How to Increase the other 90% of Your Mind to Increase the Size of Your Breasts" by Donald L. Wilson.
1986 - "Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality" by Glenn C. Ellenbogen.
1987 - No award given.
1988 - "Versailles: The View From Sweden" by Elaine Dee and Guy Walton.
1989 - "How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art" by Kathleen Meyer.
1990 - "Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual" by Pat Califia.
1991 - No award given.
1992 - "How to Avoid Huge Ships" by John W. Trimmer.
1993 - "American Bottom Archaeology" by Charles J. Bareis and James W. Porter.
1994 - "Highlights in the History of Concrete" by C. C. Stanley.
1995 - "Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes" by Douglas Davies and Alastair Shaw.
1996 - "Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers" by Derek Willan.
1997 - "The Joy of Sex, the Pocket Edition" by Alex Comfort.
1998 - "Developments in Dairy Cow Breeding: New Opportunities to Widen the Use of Straw" by Gareth Williams.
1999 - "Weeds in a Changing World: British Crop Protection Council Symposium Proceedings No. 64" by Charles H. Stirton.
2000 - "High Performance Stiffened Structures" by IMechE (The Institution of Mechanical Engineers).
2001 - "Butterworths Corporate Manslaughter Service" by Gerard Forlin.
2002 - "Living with Crazy Buttocks" by Kaz Cooke.
2003 - "The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories" by Alisa Surkis and Monica Nolan.
2004 - "Bombproof Your Horse" by Rick Pelicano and Lauren Tjaden.
2005 - "People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It" by Gary Leon Hill.
2006 - "The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification" by Julian Montague.
2007 - "If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs" by Big Boom.

Why aren't the hills alive with the sound of new music?

On the way home last night I passed a poster advertising a new musical called All the Fun of the Fair starring David Essex. 'Like father like son - they'll take you for a ride!' the poster proudly proclaimed ... and noting that all the songs from the show are old David Essex hits, this shows a certain degree of irony. It's no surprise that the show revolves around Essex's Gypo-chic. If it hadn't been set in a fairground, it would have been set on a canal boat. But quite how it brings together such disparate elements as Only a winter's tale, Silver dream machine, Gonna make you a star, Hold me close and Me and my girl nightclubbing is a mystery that certainly won't be solved by me going to see the show. And how many hits has Essex had? Enough to fill an entire stage show?

This is just the latest in a long line of West End shows that simply draw together the songs of a particular artist or band and slap a kind of story over the top to link them all. It started with ABBA's hugely succesful Mama Mia and Queen's We will rock you! but has, in recent years, spawned similar shows 'featuring the music of'' Take That, Frankie Valli, Frank Sinatra and many others. And, having seen a few of them, I'm left with an overwhelming urge for an original new musical.

Call me old-fashioned but I think that this is lazy, cheap theatre. The public has a huge love and appetite for musicals; look at the recent success of Hairspray and the revivals of Oliver, The Sound of Music, Joseph and Grease. We love them. Mama Mia was a massive movie last year as were the film versions of The Producers and Hairspray. But none of these were new shows. Hairspray was the musical version of a previous John Waters film. The Producers, bizarrely, was a film of a stage show musical of an earlier film of a stage show musical! At least they had the benefit of some original songs however. But where are the new Gershwins, Lloyd Webbers, Lerner and Loewes, or Rogers and Hammersteins? Hollywood, Broadway and London's West End used to churn out these fantastic shows to meet public demand. Just think how many classic musicals were produced during the 1940s to the 1960s. There were the big production numbers like The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain. There were the smaller but equally brilliant rom-com musicals of Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe and the like. Later, we had the 1970s and early 80s triumphs of shows like The Rocky Horror Show, Grease, Les Miserables and Little Shop of Horrors. We also, incidentally, had the delicious cycnicism of Richard Curtis's 1989 film The Tall Guy which revolves around an attempt to stage a musical based on The Elephant Man (and called Elephant!) But what do we have now? Where's the originality? As we've travelled through the 1990s and into the 21st century it seems to me that theatre has taken the same shoddy path as television - stack 'em high, sell them cheap. It's Tesco theatre.

First came a wave of musicals based upon Disney films like The Lion King and Mary Poppins (Disney, to its credit, has always at least employed good songwriters to produce original new music). Then, just as television became an endless round of reality shows, rubbish docusoaps and cheap 'Top 100' type clip shows, the theatre created the clip=musical using a bunch of old songs. Many didn't even have the decency to try doing something new with the music like Baz Luhrman did with Moulin Rouge or Bob Carlton's clever and funny Return to the Forbidden Planet show.

It means that we've dumbed down the Musicals medium and I fear for its future. And I can't see where the next generation of Musicals will come from. Andrew Lloyd Webber has dominated the West End for two decades but it's not because there's a lack of good writers out there. It's because it's so hard and so hugely expensive to put on a new show. Spamalot came and went but at least had the backing of a Python which gave it some weight. Imagine if you or I had pitched it? Jerry Springer: The Opera was a work of near genius in my opinion but it so outraged the kind of Daily Mail reader that hadn't actually seen it but jumped on the band wagon (see Ross, Brand, BBC etc.) that it was soon doomed to leave the stage.

So what does the future hold? Sadly, more of the same I suspect. We'll see more reality TV shows finding new talent with which to re-launch old franchises. We'll have more 'musicals' based on the old song catalogues of artists and bands in their twilight years. What we really need, however, is some kind of facility whereby new shows can be offered a place on Broadway and the West End ... and let the public vote for their success by buying tickets. I yearn for some originalty. I crave a new West Side Story or My Fair Lady. Or I may just write one myself and climb aboard the lazy gravy train. I know ... how about a musical based on the songs of The Smiths called Heaven Knows I'm Miserable now? It opens with William (this charming man) whose girlfriend is in a coma and needs money for an expensive life-saving operation so he puts his hands in his gloves and hangs a DJ ...

Dear blimey, no.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Templars, Titters and Thieves - The week in pictures

It's been an eventful week. I've had to speak publicly every day, sometimes twice, but I've met some splendid people along the way. And some MPs.

It all began with an invite to watch the first episode of the new series of QI being filmed. Great fun. The guests were Sean Lock, Sandi Toksvig and Bill Bailey who it was wonderful to meet at last. As an unexpected bonus, I also got to meet John Hodgman, regular 'resident expert' on Jon Stewart's Daily Show in the USA and also the voice of Dad in the new animated film Coraline. We got on very well. I got on too with Neil Gaiman and Derren Brown who were invited guests like me. Neil was proudly wearing his Blue Peter badge but I quickly deflated his ego by pointing out that I had a gold Blue Peter badge myself. Oh yes. Fantastic. Derren Brown and I spoke for only a few minutes ... but I woke up at 3am believing that I was a duck.

Tuesday and Wedneaday saw me at Chelsea Football Club for a two day conference on building safer communities. Again, I was a guest speaker and my audience numbered over 100. To everyone's surprise, both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister turned up to support the event and I had a brief opportunity to chat to both. Being of a Twittering persuasion, I did tweet the message 'I am in the same room as Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith' to my 800-odd followers. The first reply I got back said simply 'Have you got a clear shot ...'

On Thursday I spoke at Lambeth to 80 people and then, in the evening, did my first ever 'professional' gig as an after dinner speaker. It was at a rather posh golfing fundraiser for the National Society for Epilepsy at the Sandy Lodge club in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. It was a fine event with great food, a guy who did trick shots with golf balls, a lucrative auction and raffle and my speech seemed to go down well. As did the many bottles of excellent wine. I'm just glad I wasn't expected to bid on anything as there was a lot of cash flying around. Good news for the NSE though.
To round off a busy week, this morning I did a talk at Scotland Yard followed by lunch with best mate Huw during which he showed me the rough cut of the new anti-gun crime advert he recently wrote and filmed. It stars the great Samuel L Jackson. It's very powerful and will doubtless win awards just as Huw's last anti-gun crime ad did (see here). Then, this evening, I travelled to South London and to Sir John Soane's elegant Dulwich Picture Gallery for the launch of my good friend Sarwat Chadda's first book - Devil's Kiss. It's going to be huge I know it.
Talking of huge, we were entertained as we nibbled and drank (and Sarwat signed) by the tubbiest band of Knights Templar I've ever seen. But they were fun, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and their outfits were pretty realistic. The chain mail, for instance, was all hand-made and one portly chap was wearing over two stones worth in weight.
Also huge, bless her, is Lisa, my mate James Murphy's seven month pregnant missus. Great to see all three of them. James's art gallery is here.
Good too to meet Joel Meadows of Tripwire magazine and this chap - Jon Mayhew. I first met him via blogging (here's his) and latterly on Twitter. Tonight was the first time we'd met in 'meatspace' and what a splendid chap he is. He's just signed a three book deal with Bloomsbury so expect to hear more of him and his supernatural thriller Mortlake series later this year ...
But finally, here's the man of the moment himself - Mr Sarwat Chadda. I've known him for more then ten years now and he's living proof that if you work hard, hone your craft and never give up you will succeed. Some people are already saying that Devil's Kiss has the potential to launch a new post-Potter children's fiction franchise. If that's true it couldn't happen to a nicer chap.
And I have my signed copy.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Awkward Family Photos

Great website. Does exactly what you'd imagine a site called Awkward Family Photos should do. I loved this.

A Flood of Nonsense

A couple of days ago, while travelling on a train into London, I spotted a chap sitting opposite me reading a small black book. I figured it was something special - maybe a holy book - as it had gilt edges to the pages and a fancy red cloth bookmark. Also, the reader was moving his lips as he read as if in prayer. Then I made a terrible mistake. I made eye-contact.
"It's all true", he said. He waved the book at me. "Every word. It's all true."
"Is it", I said, smiling benignly.
"Every word. This is the word of God given to Man. Do you read your Bible?"
"I don't own a Bible", I said. "I'm an atheist."
He looked at me and smiled. I can't quite put my finger on the expression I saw in his eyes but the closest I can get is smug. He looked smug, as if he'd suddenly thought to himself 'I'm better than this chubby chap' or, more likely, 'Aha! A chance to get a convert!'
"You should own a Bible", he said. "Everyone should. Whether you believe in God or not, he's there and he's watching everything you do."
"And I'm sure you believe that", I said, "But I don't."
I returned to reading my book which, incidentally (and appropriately), was Thirteen things that don't make sense by Michael Brooks, in the fervent hope that my silence would signal an end to the conversation. It didn't.
"Don't you worry about your immortal soul?" he said.
"No. I don't have one as far as I'm concerned", I explained.
"That's a terrible thing to say", he said.
"Not a bit of it", I said. "I am just a big old bag of atoms with a beard. The particular arrangement of those atoms led to me. When I die, those atoms will fall apart and be redistributed and, in time, parts of me will be parts of other people, animals, plants, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the very Earth itself. It's a beautiful, elegant, recyclable system. Why does there need to be anything beyond that?"
He looked at me again and waved his Bible.
"It's all true! Every word is true! You should take note and ask for forgiveness!"
Thankfully, we then pulled into Wembley Stadium train station and he got off. He did get me thinking though ... while his faith was strong, did he really believe that every word in the Bible is true? The thought stayed with me all day.

Then, last night, I was an invited guest at the filming of Episode 1 of the new series of QI at the London Studios. Stephen Fry was on fine form, as were the panellists. The subject of the show was animals beginning with G. Inevitably, mention of giraffes led to discussions about their curiously long necks and evolutionary theory. During the course of this, Creationism was discussed and my mind drifted back to the conversation on the train. Later, in the Green Room, I kicked off some discussion about the story of Noah's Ark and related the story about the strangely intense locomotive evangelist I'd met. All of which led me to scribbling down a series of notes about why 'every word (in the Bible) is true' is a nonsense. That's the kind of thing I do.

If you believe the absolute literal 'word of God', as contained in the Book of Genesis, Noah was told that the world was wicked and corrupt and that God planned to flood it and destroy everything. My first question therefore is ... why a flood? I mean, if what you're trying to do is clear the world of evil, why not just make all the bad people explode or melt or something? It would be a powerful message to the rest of humanity to behave itself, wouldn't it? A flood seems to me an unnecessarily slow and cruel method of genocide. Plus, it's a bit haphazard. Someone is bound to have built a raft or clung to a log. And what about all of the fishermen and other boat owners? Hell, you could build your own boat in 40 days and 40 nights while the rain is falling. Secondly, there's the question of guilt. Why drown all of the innocent 'living things that moved on the earth'? What have they done wrong? And were newborn human babies and young children really who God was talking about in his 'all the people on earth had corrupted their ways' speech?

Anyway, putting all of that aside, let's look more closely at the story of the ark itself. Noah was told to build an 'ark of cypress wood (...) 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high'. That's a pretty specific build but, I guess, if God can make a universe designing an ark the right size would be a doddle. So, 450 x 75 x 45 gives us an internal cubic capacity of 1,518,750 cubic feet. Can you fit two of every species on the planet within that space? Assuming an average of one cubic foot per 'living thing' as an average (remember, we have everything from bull elephants to bacteria on board), and we need a minimum of two of each species, that means we can store around 750,000 species. Oh dear. Science has already identified 2 million species. And it is speculated that there may be as many as 100 million species. One conservative estimate says that there are 350,000 different species of beetles alone. And, as if this were not problem enough, the Bible actually says that Noah was to take 'seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth'. So there would be even more space needed.

Of course, I'm making an assumption here that we haven't included storing the 79 different species of whale. Nor the other sea mammals. Nor the turtles, sea snakes and marine iguanas. Nor the 20,000 odd fish species. Oh, and all of the corals, sponges, medusans, crinoids, molluscs, crustaceans and other arthropods that live in our lakes, rivers, ponds, seas and oceans. Actually, now I think about it, Noah must have accommodated them. If the world was going to be flooded with rain water, that would have had a huge impact on the salinity and chemical composition of both fresh and sea water. I have a suspicion that so much brackish water would have killed most aquatic species. Noah must have had an aquarium deck big enough to take two (or seven) of everything ... including a couple of blue whales of course. Otherwise, where did all of the underwater life we have nowadays come from?

And we haven't even touched on the subject of how Noah actually built the ark and how he managed to avoid being lynched by all of the lumberjacks, nail makers, carpenters, shipwrights, animal wranglers and tar makers he planned to leave behind when the rain started. However, let's put all that aside. Let's say that he somehow managed to build the ark and to pack all of that lot inside it. Noah's problems weren't quite over yet. Firstly, there's environment to consider. Some animals need cold environments, some need heat. Some are nocturnal, others diurnal. Some need the moist humidity of leaf litter or rain forest, others scorching desert. Creatures live in a bewildering variety of caves, drays, burrows, nests, setts, holes, tunnels and, occasionally, other creatures. How would this be arranged? And how would parasites be accommodated? Someone or something would need to carry the various types of fleas, ticks, mites and lice. And let's not forget the pubic lice in that list. Most troublesome of all, where would you put the venomous creatures? Or the vampire bats? Or - good grief - the woodpeckers, woodworms and death watch beetles? They'd be a bloody liability.

The parasites would have food by living on a host, but everything else would need food and water too don't forget ... and that raises yet another huge issue. God said to Noah, 'You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.' Imagine the storage problems and the complexity of sorting out the dietary requirements for 100 million different species. And what would the carnivores eat? They can't eat the other animals as they're needed to repopulate the Earth. Could Noah have used Quorn instead (Quorn is a protein made from fungus. Are fungi counted as plants or animals? And what about bacteria and viruses and germs generally?)? The vegetarian animals would need a lot of food. Just one elephant will eat 200-440 lbs of food per day. And, presumably, as God was planning on destroying the entire surface of the Earth, they'd also need to take lots of living plants on board to be planted out when the waters subsided. I just hope someone was keeping an eye on the locusts. All of that food and water would eventually be processed and would reappear in the form of faeces and urine. Just imagine that job; clearing out the bodily waste of 200,000,000 creatures, sometimes several times a day.

We have to assume that Noah checked every animal for pregnancy as it came aboard as space would be tight and new births discouraged. Otherwise I'm not sure how he'd have coped with the short gestation times of some species. The ark was afloat for 150 days. The average pregnancy of a rat is just 22 days. Some other rodent pregnancies are even shorter. Many insects can produce a new generation every few days and they often have thousands of offspring at a time. How would Noah have dealt with the population increases? And what if an animal died or fell sick? Did he have a vet on board? I don't remember it being mentioned. Would he have chucked a single remaining animal over the side? After all, one giraffe is pretty pointless keeping if its partner is dead and God has destroyed all the others. Is this what happened to the unicorns?

For five long smelly months the ark bobbed about with Noah and his extended family (wife, three sons and their wives) desperately trying to cope with the eating, drinking, shagging, pooping and peeing of 200 million living things. All this as they scratched at their own bed bug, flea, mosquito and lice bites. And the noise! How did they sleep? Whatever the answer, 150 days later, God caused a wind to blow and 'the water receded steadily from the earth'. To where exactly? And how much water are we talking about? Dr Marty Leipzig has worked it out and it's 4.525 x 10 to the ninth cubic kilometres (4.525x1009 km3) Or, to put into a more sensible number, 4,525,000,000,000 cubic kilometres (if you want to see how the figure was arrived at and much, much more, visit his site here). Over 40 days and 40 nights, the rain would have fallen at an average rate of 5.5 inches per minute - that's means the water gets six feet deeper every 13 minutes. He also usefully points out that if we are taking the Bible literally and all of the Earth was covered, that would include the highest mountains such as Everest and K2. The temperature of a planet flooded so quickly to that kind of depth would rise by something like 1800 K or 1,526.84C (that's 2,780.33F) in which case water could not exist in a liquid state and Noah and all his animal chums would just be so much steamed meat.

So, if we stretch our credulity to accept that up to this point 'every word is true' ... what of the aftermath? If we imagine that all of that water was able to recede, what kind of a world would Noah have faced? It would be a place deep in soft, silty, salty mud; a place covered in the wreckage of villages, towns and cities; a place of great pestilence stacked deep with the corpses of billions of dead people, plants and animals. Thanks to God, only two of each kind of beetle, fly, rat or other scavenger was left. Their task was hopeless. They stood no chance of clearing up that kind of a mess. There would be no food other than what was on the ark and most drinking water would have been polluted by salt or decaying corpses. Disease would be endemic and deadly and the weather system would have been thrown into chaos. Into this sad new world stepped 500 year old Noah and his wife. He may have been a bit old to sire any more children himself so it was up to the three boys, Shem, Ham and Japheth and their wives to repopulate the world. We are therefore asked to believe that it is from these six people, and in only a few thousand years, that the four billion white, black, oriental, arabic, mediterranean, inuit, oceanic and other peoples of this world are descended. Incidentally, in doing so, they changed physical features, body shape and skin colour to suit their environment and therefore, with delicious irony, quite splendidly prove that Darwin got it right.

So there you go. As I've said so many times before, I have no beef whatsoever with religion or faith. What I do have a real problem with ignorance and inflexibility. Fundamentalism is the very worst kind of wrong. The Bible is a splendid book full of allegorical stories told in a way that suggest to people how best to live their lives. But it was written by men not God. It's full of inconsistency and paradox. In some places, God is Love. In others, particularly the Old Testament, he's a wrathful, vengeful God that slaughters the innocent and demands murder in his name. He also admits his own failure, which is not what you expect from a supposedly Supreme Being. By creating the Great Flood, he was destroying his own creations, the in-bred descendents of Adam and Eve who swarmed over the Earth, committing evil acts and sacrilege. They were rubbish creations. What kind of a deity makes that kind of fundamental mistake?

Fundamental. Mistake. Two words that sit very well with each other.

Patently, and obviously, the Bible is not meant to be taken literally, word for word. That's just madness. So, when and if I ever meet that man on the train again, I'm going to tell him so rather than listen to his blinkered and uninformed pronouncements.

Or I may just pop on my i-pod and sit in a different carriage.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Sound of Swine Flu

Here's something extraordinary - scientist Stephan Zielinski has turned Swine Flu into ambient music. Oh yes. Here's what it sounds like:

video

The amino acid sequence within Swine Flu hemagglutinin FJ966952 looks like this:

MKAILVVMLYTFATANADTLCIGYHANNSTDTVDTVLEKNVTVTHSVNLLEDKHNGKLCK
LRGVAPLHLGKCNIAGWILGNPECESLSTASSWSYIVETSSSDNGTCYPGDFIDYEELRE
QLSSVSSFERFEIFPKTSSWPNHDSNKGVTAACPHAGAKSFYKNLIWLVKKGNSYPKLSK
SYINDKGKEVLVLWGIHHPSTSADQQSLYQNADAYVFVGSSRYSKKFKPEIAIRPKVRDQ
EGRMNYYWTLVEPGDKITFEATGNLVVPRYAFAMERNAGSGIIISDTPVHDCNTTCQTPK
GAINTSLPFQNIHPITIGKCPKYVKSTKLRLATGLRNVPSIQSRGLFGAIAGFIEGGWTG
MVDGWYGYHHQNEQGSGYAADLKSTQNAIDEITNKVNSVIEKMNTQFTAVGKEFNHLEKR
IENLNKKVDDGFLDIWTYNAELLVLLENERTLDYHDSNVKNLYEKVRSQLKNNAKEIGNG
CFEFYHKCDNTCMESVKNGTYDYPKYSEEAKLNREEIDGVKLESTRIYQILAIYSTVASS
LVLVVSLGAISFWMCSNGSLQCRICI


Each letter corresponds to one amino acid. So if you attach a sound to each value and then set it to a 3/4 time, you get music. Zielinski explains it like this: 'Amino acids with side chains that are neither aromatic not aliphatic control the piano and organ: the nine non-hydrophobics the piano, and the four hydrophobics the organ. The three amino acids with aliphatic side chains control the low synthesizer, while the four with aromatics control the percussion.' Simple really.

So now you can hear what Swine Flu sounds like.

I've adopted it as my ring tone.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A Guest Blog

Still don't get the appeal of Twitter? Then read this featurette by copywriter Angela Montague (or @angpang for you Twitterati). It's one of the best explanations I've ever read.

This Twitter Thing

I signed up to this Twitter thing a few months ago with an ‘oh all right then’ attitude, expecting to come away with a ‘who cares?’ conclusion. A few months later I’m dipping in the Twitter stream daily. So here it is, my love letter to Twitter. The things I wish I’d known when I started and my take on what it’s all about.

With its 140 character limit, Twitter’s a hostile environment to the boring, dominating or waffling. As it’s on the internet, it attracts the tech savvy. As a public space (anyone can read your updates) it also asks you to be a bit brave. So to be on Twitter you’re already my kind of person. But what do people on Twitter do?

Talk. Imagine a dinner party where a few mouse clicks changes the seating plan to put you in the middle of things; your definition of ‘things’. Antarctic researcher, fashion designer, photographer (currently in Afghanistan) and ordinary soul who shares your humour, there’s your table for tonight. And you can change it at any time, click, click. Eavesdropping, chatting across continents, making an exit to *put the spuds on*, and absolutely no need to brush your hair.
And yes, with Twitter’s list of trending topics, you actually do know there’s an earthquake, plane crash or a new baby for Jamie Oliver, long before it’s reported on the networks. What’s more, you can locate and read the tweets coming from the centre of breaking stories. It’s supreme rubber-necking.

So are you interested? Then go sign up.

This blog is not about the mechanics, though. If you want to know them, put some pertinent phrases into Google. I’m cutting to Twitter’s oohs and ahhs.

But one quick tip. Move away from the Twitter website to applications like Tweetdeck or Tweetie as early as you can. Why struggle with a Walkman when someone’s invented the iPod?

Following some Twitterati

I’ll tell you what I did. We all start with the celebs, so go ahead. A good place to make sure you’re following the real ones and not the fakes is www.valebrity.com. But amazingly, celebs can be dull and not interested in you at all. Shocking, I know.

We also start with people we know in real life. Like any party, it’s nice to turn-up with your gang. For many,Twitter replaces text messaging and adds a new fission to office banter, with a whole new way to delegate. I frequently send a tweet to @ashog (who works five foot away from me) to put on the kettle on. Once you’re following around 50 Twitterers, you’ll understand why I find Facebook a ghost town.

But how do you find and follow normal yet wonderful people you’ve never met? A quick search will show you who’s tweeting right now on your current obsessions. Coco Chanel, Arthur Rackham, Mad Men. It’s like shaking a snow globe and up they float. Pick a few (not just the pretties), look at their Twitter pages and read a few tweets they’ve done. If they tickle your fancy, click follow.

But don’t just stick with your kind of nerd. Cast the net wide. Take a gamble. And look at Trending Topics too to see who’s talking about the latest thing. Within a few days of following someone, you’ll know if they’re for keeps. If they are, plunder their list of people they follow for more goodies. If they’re not for you, un-follow and shake the snow globe again.
And don’t forget to throw in some quality news feeds too, with my pick being @bbcnews.
You’ll also want to follow The Names. Brands, governments, charities, football clubs, festivals, museums… Twitter’s full of organisations attempting to hang with the cool kids. As a copywriter it’s fascinating to watch them sign-up and set out their stalls, with sites like www.mytweet16.com letting you snoop on anyone’s fledgling tweets. And they can really get it wrong.

Have you ever been in a day of meetings and broken for lunch to find someone still doing meeting talk? Corporate language, only one topic (them), only one opinion (theirs). That’s corporate Twitter at its worst.

People follow Names to hear their latest, of course, but they also want to see personality and charm. They want to venture off topic because that’s fun. They want to see a Name ask questions and listen to answers. To loosen the tie. No on wants a 140 character brochure.

Movers and Shakers

The next Twitter challenge is finding the movers and shakers (not slebs) who link to the best of the web as it breaks, and are often at the heart of fascinating, fearless debates that then make the headlines. How? Explore a trending topic that excites you, and you find a lot of tweets coming from one source. Hmm.

Your Followers

To plump-up your follower list, you have to follow and tweet yourself. Shake your Twitter booty. Follow back with a generous spirit,; block the spam and anyone you find offensive.
And if someone does not follow you back right away, relax. They may need you to strike up a few conversations (do an @ reply to their tweet) before they notice your wonderfulness. They may simply not want to follow you: that is allowed.

Once you’ve got around 100 good followers, you’ve got a ‘hive mind’ to ask stuff. Any kind of stuff, and you’ll be amazed at what comes back.

Twitter for the Copywriter

But for the copywriter Twitter has extra appeal. Making your point within seconds is what copywriting has always been about, so for me Twitter’s a trip to the writing gym.
I follow a lot of professional writers, and people who simply write well, and love to see what they do with so little space. And I love the instant feedback. When you watch a tweet skim (being re-tweeted over and over) it sharpens your instincts for what excites. And when a tweet sinks without a trace, you also take note of what bores.

The fly in the ointment?

Not everyone’s a darling, or course. There are people you won’t find exciting on Twitter, oh yes, but you know what, you just don’t follow them. And rude people? Try blocking.

And like anywhere else, there is spam. People trying to gate crash the party wearing a sandwich board. Did they think we wouldn’t notice? But avoiding them is so much easier than in real life.

Once you’ve been baptised in the Twitter stream, you feel a need to write a blog on how great Twitter is. I must get round to doing that. And after that? Well I’m now hunting down Twitter’s cabinet of curiosities; pages and applications that are blowing me away with their creativitiy. But that’s a whole other blog. I’ll let you know.

You can find me on Twitter @Angpang.

Angela Montague is freelance copywriter. This feature first appeared on Sarah Lamballe's Copywriter Blog.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

I was born on the least interesting day of the year

Today it's the birthday of Rob Brydon and Matt Berry, two very funny comedians. Also of James Brown, Frankie Valli, Bing Crosby, Niccolo Machiavell, Pete Seeger, Sugar Ray Robinson and Mary Hopkin. And also Richard D'oyly Carte, Dodie Smith, Golda Meir, Henry Cooper, Engelbert Humperdinck, Sandi Toksvig, Ben Elton, Steve McClaren, Christopher Cross and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.

But what about my birthday - August 11th? Which luminaries were born on the same date as me? Hulk Hogan, Steve Wozniak, Enid Blyton, Alex Haley and comic artists Dik Browne and Jim Lee. It's not what you'd call a bumper crop is it? I can only assume that if you travel back to the point of conception - around 11th November - there was nothing to celebrate and quite a good night's viewing on the telly.

At least I'm among artistic, creative tpes. And Hulk Hogan.

Maybe we should paint our landfill sites?

A design student made a battered old Skoda 'disappear' by painting it to merge with the surrounding car park. Sara Watson, who is studying art at the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan), took three weeks to transform the car's appearance. She created the illusion in the car park outside her studio at Uclan's Hanover Building in Preston. The car is now being used for advertising by the local recycling firm that donated the vehicle.

Ms Watson, a second year student, said: "I was experimenting with the whole concept of illusion but needed something a bit more physical to make a real impact." She was given the Skoda Fabia from the breaker's yard at local firm Recycling Lives. Owner Steve Jackson described her work as 'amazing'. "When I first saw the photos I was convinced it was something which had been done on the computer," said Mr Jackson. "But when you look more closely you see the effort and attention to detail she has put into it. It is just amazing."


Source: BBC News website

The tuck stops here (Part 2)

Remember back here in January when I said that I'd lose loads of weight this year? Well, I've utterly failed so far. The constant dizzying round of events, parties, meetings, writing and illustration work - on top of a 40 hour working week and having a family life - means that I've stayed completely the same weight since January. I have not lost (or gained, thankfully) a single pound. However, the time for procrastination is over and I have to get my lardy arse in gear, as they say around here. So, starting yesterday, I've adopted a fairly strict new regime of sensible eating and exercise. However, this will not involve gyms as I loathe the places with a passion I can barely conceal. Instead, it will mean digging my garden, long walks with the dogs and lots of natural exercise of the kind that humans evolved to take part in.

Brother Andrew and me circa 1967. Note skinny me.

I have nothing but bad memories of gymnasia. As a child I was blessed with size and speed - I was, for a time, the tallest and fastest kid in school due to an early growth spurt - and I won all manner of races, especially cross-country. I also took part in a lot of rugby as I was stocky and swift and I was a much sought-after hooker (stop it ...). But then all the other kids caught up with me and I soon became less than average. I had no problem with this; I'm not a competitive person by nature. Plus, I'd discovered art and music and writing and girls and every minute on the cricket pitch was a minute spent away from the things I truly loved. Even my medal-winning cross-country running went to pot when I discovered various ways to cheat. A favourite was to bisect the route (which involved running through the river Cober) and then to wait up in an old quarry shed, smoking fags and eating things purloined from 'honesty boxes'. People did a lot of honesty boxes back then. They'd put their surplus fruit, veg or flowers in a box at the front of their house and ask people to pay a token amount. And most people did. Even we did as school kids although, shamed as I am to admit it now, we sometimes didn't have any money so we munched on essentially stolen tomatoes, carrots, apples and on at least one occasion, a swede. Then, after stuffing and smoking ourselves daft for half an hour, we'd rejoin the race as it came past and would waddle over the finishing line (in a creditable but believeable 10th or 11th place) clutching our sides to massage the stitch that had developed.


Brother Simon (the photographer) and me circa 1977. Note skinny me. Excuse the hairstyle.

Once I turned Sixth Form and there was no mandatory sports, I gave it up as swiftly as possible. The one exception was swimming but I always saw that as more fun than competition anyway. And it was the one place where you could guarantee meeting girls that had almost no clothing on. But even that stopped when Helston swimming pool sank. Absolutely true. They built the thing at the bottom of the town on the old boggy flood plain where once the Cober met the sea. One day, the staff came in to work to find a big crack in the deep end and no water. The walls soon began to list dangerously as one side sank into the ground. They had to demolish it eventually and now it's a public park.

Once I'd joined the police, the misery of sports came back temporarily. Hendon was pretty physical at times. We had to jump over horses and bounce on trampolines and run around race tracks. We had to climb ropes, a truly useful skill for the street cop whose suspect makes their escape by kite. If you started slipping on the rope, the instructor would beat your arse with the end. In those pre-Health and Safety days, we climbed at least 15 feet above the hard floor of the sports centre without safety nets or bungees. We swam too. Hendon had an Olympic-sized pool and we spent many hours jumping into the water in pyjamas to rescue rubber-coated breeze blocks from the deep end. Those who couldn’t swim were labelled ‘wanky wonders’ for some reason and floundered around in the baby pool until they didn’t drown any more. It should remind you that this was 1980 and things like this simply don't happen any more. But it made me pretty miserable at the time, as did 'milling'. This was a controlled aggression exercise where we’d be paired up with the person closest to us in height and mass and thrown together into a boxing ring to slug it out. For two minutes, we were required to shuffle about, bop each other on the chin a few times and keep a lid on our anger. At the time, I couldn’t see the point of it. It’s only now – years after they stopped doing this at Hendon because it could be construed as bullying – that I see the worth of it. I've survived nearly 30 years as a cop without once ever losing my temper despite intense provocation at times. Sadly, I see cops losing it more regularly these days and I wonder if a bit of milling at the start might have helped them. It taught me restraint. And it also taught me not to catch an ex-army boxing champion on the nose with my glove. He retaliated more by instinct than intent, I’m sure. I wasn’t in a position to analyse the event. There was a bang, some darkness and then I woke up with a thumping head and the trainer shouting for me to be taken to the medical centre for a check-up. Talk about a glass jaw. One punch and I was unconscious. But at least I wasn’t angry.

Me in Bath last month. Note pin-head on huge body. This needs sorting.

Since then, I've joined a gym twice and in both cases all I ever seemed to meet were narcissistic neo-Nazies in gym vests who, for some reason, always thought I wasn't trying hard enough when I was slogging my not inconsiderable guts out and my heart was hammering like Vulcan's forge. So no more. It's long, long country walks for me. Maybe a bit of cycling too. And plenty of gardening. This year I have a whole raft of new fruit and vegetables to cultivate and I'm looking forward to eating them all later this year.

In moderation of course.