Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bang. Bang. You're Gullible.

I've seen a few movies recently where, as usual, I've been expected to suspend my disbelief. I've seen a man float his house away using nothing but balloons in Up. I've seen twelve feet tall cat smurfs riding six legged horse-thingies while mountains float overhead in Avatar. I've seen civilisation as we know it come tumbling down in Zombieland and 2012. I've even seen Ricky Gervais playing the romantic lead in The Invention of Lying. We don't mind the film makers pulling a veil of unreality over our eyes because it means we can enjoy the spectacle and the drama and the thrill of experiencing things that we'd never otherwise see.

But just recently I was struck by the number of tiny, almost incidental, suspensions of disbelief that we're required to perform almost daily. For instance, unless the plot absolutely demands it, characters in films and TV never have any bodily functions. Just the other night, Tremors or Tremors 2 was on TV and a mixed group of people - chaps and chapettes - spent much of a day and a whole night stranded on a rock as the graboids hungrily circled around them. I found myself wondering ... 'That's a jolly small rock. How did they all have a wee without things getting really personal or messy?' Of course, the director was hoping that their skill in maintaining the tension would stop oiks like me from thinking that way. Nope, didn't work. Sorry.

Then there was the season opening episode of the new 24 where a man escapes from an assassination attempt, smashes a car window with his arm, starts the car by rubbing two wires together under the dashboard and drives off. What? Have you ever tried breaking a car window? I can assure you, having attended hundreds of car accidents during my previous career as a cop, that the glass is very, very tough and will usually only break if you apply pressure at one small area using something like a centrepunch or a 'life hammer'. Hell, a 12 stone person not wearing a seat belt can hit the windscreen at 70mph and only just crack it. But even if you did get the window smashed, you probably wouldn't be able to open the door as locking with a key deadlocks most cars. You'd have to climb in the broken window and, even then, the alarm will be sounding and many car alarms are partnered with an immobiliser which means that (a) it won't start without a proper key and (b) you won't even get the steering lock off. And as for this ignition wires business ... why are there only ever two wires and why are they always conveniently stripped at the ends so that a quick rub and spark will start the car? I worry too that these bare, easy to reach and dangerously live wires are just hanging around under the steering column where my legs go. Sorry Hollywood but that's just silly. That kind of technology may have existed in a 1975 Ford Cortina but you're not going to find it on any car made in the past 20 years. Am I being unduly picky and spoilsporty? Possibly. But I can't help feeling it's lazy writing. Surely we'd gain more insight into our heroes' and villains' capabilities if they did something more clever ... like rewire the car's internal computer or juggle some fuses or something?
Another handy lie that Hollywood throws at us daily is the silencer. There's simply no such thing and there never has been. No, that's not quite true. What I mean is that there is no device that will completely silence a gun. What you see in films - that almost silent 'phut' sound - is a complete fiction. There are noise suppressors and baffles available to reduce the sound of a gun firing. Some even look like the one in Hitman (above) and other films; a long thin tube that screws into the end of the gun barrel. However, these devices cannot silence a shot because when a gun is fired, the noise emits from several areas. A hammer strikes the firing pin which causes a spark that ignites the gunpowder inside the shell casing. There is a sudden rapid expansion of gases within the casing that then explodes out of the shell, pushing the slug - the bullet - through the gun and out of the barrel. That explosion happens deep inside the body of the gun, not at the end of the barrel so some noise will radiate from the gun itself. There is also some noise when the bullet exits the barrel and attains supersonic speed. And, if the gun is self-reloading, there will be some more clicking and clunking as the spent round is ejected and a new one enters the chamber. Even in properly conducted tests, the best silencers that exist can only reduce the noise of a gunshot to between 117 and 145 decibels. That's about as noisy as a chainsaw (110db) or a pneumatic drill (120db). Saying that, there are specially designed guns, such as the Stechkin OTs-38 Silent Revolver, that are designed to be exceptionally quiet but these are never what the Hollywood gunman uses. The reason being, of course, that we are all so familiar with the cliche of screwing a silencer into place that it's become a lazy shortcut; we know what to expect in the next scene. Phut. Phut. You're dead.

To finish this week's portion of witter, I want to mention something that happened on this week's new episode of Midsomer Murders. It was the first time I'd ever watched the show as I'm not a great fan of crime dramas (as you might expect after 30 years in helmet and boots) and, generally, the more twee a programme is, the more I want to avoid it or thrash it with a big stick. Plus, I'm surprisingly rubbish at guessing who the baddie is; something that's always deeply amused my kids. I refuse to play Cluedo ever again. However, several of my close friends insisted that I give it a go because, they claimed, Midsomer is 'like sitting in a big comfy sofa' or, more bizarrely, is 'cake for your eyes'. Having now watched an episode, I can see what they meant. There is something fluffy and comfy about the proliferation of very English stereotypes and the utter predictability of it all. This particular episode revolved around the murder of a muck-raking author played by Rik Mayall who was smothered with a pillow while asleep. It happens all of the time in films and TV dramas doesn't it? But it got me wondering ... is this another of those lazy cinematic cliches like the silencer and hot-wiring a car? Can you actually smother someone with a pillow? And, if so, will it kill them or merely render them unconscious?

Of course, I needed to find out. So the next time I popped upstairs for a wee (because people do need to go now and again, graboids or no graboids), I grabbed a pillow off my bed and held it as hard as I could against my face. It was restricting but it was still quite easy to breathe, especially if - as I would do in real life - I simply turned my head sideways. The next stage of this highly scientific experiment was getting someone else to do the deed. With a manic glare in her eye and thoughts of her inheritance one of my daughters and her boyfriend had a go. Even then I could still breathe, although it was uncomfortable and fairly disturbing (especially the cries of 'Die fat boy! Die!'). But the worst that happened to me was that I bit my lip and my nostrils were squashed closed. So is it possible? The jury is out. I imagine that it would be feasible if the person were semi-conscious through drink or drugs (as Rik Mayall's character was) or frail or weakened in some way. I'm a fairly hefty bloke and I'd take some holding down, let alone smothering.

I guess that the point of this blog post is to highlight the fact that cinema and TV abounds with these kinds of 'shortcuts' and there is a danger that they could become so firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness that writers become so lazy that they use them all of the time. I'd like to see a little more creativity and ingenuity in new scripts. I'd like to see someone escape the bad guys by more unconventional means than simply flicking two wires together. I'd like to see someone devise a way to silently kill someone rather than just sticking a silencer on their gun. I'm tired of seeing every car explode on impact (they don't) and if I see too much more of this nonsense, I may be forced to break someone's neck by twisting it sharply to one side.

Except I can't because it's impossible, despite what happens in the movies.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The best ever customer complaints letter?

This is a real letter received by Sir Richard Branson in December 2008 (reproduced from The Daily Telegraph 26th January 2010). It's worth re-showing because it's so damned funny. Enjoy!

Dear Mr Branson

REF: Mumbai to Heathrow 7th December 2008

I love the Virgin brand, I really do which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years. This latest incident takes the biscuit.

Ironically, by the end of the flight I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey of hell I was subjected to at the hands of your corporation. Look at this Richard. Just look at it:

I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert?

You don’t get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they. Well answer me this Richard, what sort of animal would serve a desert with peas in:
I know it looks like a baaji but it’s in custard Richard, custard. It must be the pudding. Well you’ll be fascinated to hear that it wasn't custard. It was a sour gel with a clear oil on top. It’s only redeeming feature was that it managed to be so alien to my palette that it took away the taste of the curry emanating from our miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter. Perhaps the meal on the left might be the desert after all.

Anyway, this is all irrelevant at the moment. I was raised strictly but neatly by my parents and if they knew I had started desert before the main course, a sponge shaft would be the least of my worries. So lets peel back the tin-foil on the main dish and see what’s on offer.

I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat there with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about. Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this:

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s more of that Baaji custard. I admit I thought the same too, but no. It’s mustard Richard. MUSTARD. More mustard than any man could consume in a month. On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.

Once it was regurgitated it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard. Everybody likes a bit of mustard Richard.

By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to its baffling presentation:

It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.

I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was relax but obviously I had to sit with that mess in front of me for half an hour. I swear the sponge shafts moved at one point.

Once cleared, I decided to relax with a bit of your world-famous onboard entertainment. I switched it on:

I apologise for the quality of the photo, it’s just it was incredibly hard to capture Boris Johnson’s face through the flickering white lines running up and down the screen. Perhaps it would be better on another channel:

Is that Ray Liotta? A question I found myself asking over and over again throughout the gruelling half-hour I attempted to watch the film like this. After that I switched off. I’d had enough. I was the hungriest I’d been in my adult life and I had a splitting headache from squinting at a crackling screen.

My only option was to simply stare at the seat in front and wait for either food, or sleep. Neither came for an incredibly long time. But when it did it surpassed my wildest expectations:

Yes! It’s another crime-scene cookie. Only this time you dunk it in the white stuff.

Richard … What is that white stuff? It looked like it was going to be yoghurt. It finally dawned on me what it was after staring at it. It was a mixture between the Baaji custard and the Mustard sauce. It reminded me of my first week at university. I had overheard that you could make a drink by mixing vodka and refreshers. I lied to my new friends and told them I’d done it loads of times. When I attempted to make the drink in a big bowl it formed a cheese Richard, a cheese. That cheese looked a lot like your baaji-mustard.

So that was that Richard. I didn’t eat a bloody thing. My only question is: How can you live like this? I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like, it must be like something out of a nature documentary.

As I said at the start I love your brand, I really do. It’s just a shame such a simple thing could bring it crashing to its knees and begging for sustenance.

Yours sincerely


Note: Paul Charles, Virgin’s Director of Corporate Communications, confirmed that Sir Richard Branson had telephoned the author of the letter and had thanked him for his 'constructive if tongue-in-cheek' email. Mr Charles said that Virgin was sorry the passenger had not liked the in-flight meals which he said was 'award-winning food which is very popular on our Indian routes.'

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

English - the missing bits

I was struck by a thought today; what is henching?

We all know what a henchman is and have a pretty good idea what such a person does. But what actually is henching? How does one hench?

Well, I found out. Apparently, it's a very old word that means someone who looks after the horses (from the Old English Hengest - horse). But, as it's not used in any other context these days, 'hench' has become something of a linguistic ghost. And that got me wondering about other words and whether they contain the shadows of words we no longer use. We can be underwhelmed and overwhelmed so, presiumably, we could be whelmed at one time. A miscreant is, I assume, someone who creants in a naughty way. If marvelous means 'like a marvel', does jealous mean 'like a jea'?

I obviously have too much time on my hands because I then started to notice that there are missing tenses and uses of some words too. You can do taxidermy and be a taxidermist but you can't taxiderm. What is the missing verb? There is masturbation and masturbating. You can masturbate but you can't have a ... what? There's a missing noun there. Which is probably why we've made a few up to plug the gap, if you'll pardon the innuendo.

If a mobster is someone involved in a mob, is a lobster involved with a lob? And if a surgeon does surgery, does a sturgeon do sturgery?

Send me your English language ghosts and oddities. I'd be fascinated to see some more.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cogito ergo blog

I've been blogging for a while now. I'd quite forgotten how long until earlier today when I found myself trawling back through the archive to find a particular post I wrote about egg balancing. Yes, egg balancing. It is perfectly possible to balance an egg on its point as I demonstrated way back here. Do have a go. It's probably not really what you'd call fun but it is strangely satisfying.

That was just one of several posts I wrote during my first month as a bloggist/blogger. I started mine in July 2006, made a frightful hash of it, then started afresh on the 4th August with a series of posts about egg balancing, the Falkirk Wheel, eating insects, Buck Rogers, snorkeling dogs, fancy urinals, the face of Shakin' Stevens appearing in my toast, big pants, and a New York comedienne's magic vagina. That pretty much set the tone for this blog and it's been as eclectic ever since. But why did I start a blog? Actually, it was to keep myself in practice and to create, for want of a better phrase, a living, growing portfolio of work.

When I tell people that I write and have had work published, I quite often get something back like, 'Oh really? I've always fancied having a go at writing a book'. When I hear that, it's all I can do to keep myself from saying 'Then you won't'. I bite my lip, smile politely and and say 'Good for you' instead. I'm not being unnecessarily nasty or disingenuous here. I just don't think that any of these people will ever write a book. The reason for this is that if they don't write at the moment, then it isn't a passion; it may not even be an interest. And if it isn't something that they're driven to do, they probably won't ever do it. I might be wrong, but it does seem to be the case. Very few people just suddenly conjure up a book from nowhere.

It's a topic I brought up at a recent meeting of the London Writer's Group where myself and a bunch of really talented guys and gals meet every couple of months to drink beer, eat pies and bitch about our chosen career. As professional writers, they hear this comment too and most of them agreed with my sentiments. As one screenwriter, best known for his work on shows like Eastenders once said to me, 'I work in a shed on my own. I hardly ever meet famous people. I don't get invited to The Ivy. You've got to really, really love doing this to keep doing it. Thankfully I do. It may seem an over-simplification but if you write, you're a writer. If you don't write, why not?' It's a good question. Time can't be the answer, surely? You'll always find time for your passions, even if it's just a snatched handful of minutes here and there. people find time to play golf, watch their favourite TV shows, go on holiday ... so surely there's time to write? For nearly 30 years I've held down a 40 hour working week, got married twice, raised three kids ... but I've always made time to write. I've written eight novels, 30-odd short stories, two comics series, three sitcoms, two plays, five pilot TV scripts, two pilot radio scripts, 12 non-fiction books and a bunch of poems and song lyrics. And this blog. Because I am compelled to write, I write. I've always kept diaries and notebooks ... the next logical step was a web log.

Blogging puts my words out in a way that diaries and notebooks never will. I can explore any subject that tickles my whim. I can pepper my posts with photos and illustrations. Most importantly of all, my blog provides me with a reason to write and an outlet with which to make it public. And because I choose to write about television, films, religion, places I've visited, superstition, vinyl art toys, commuting, pirates, the environment, Viagra, aliens, growing your own veg, evolution versus creationism, comics, folk music, artists and, yes, egg balancing, my blog is now poised and ready to act as the perfect 'showreel' of my versatile writing abilities, such as they are. Let's face it, I'm no Hemingway and 99% of everything I've ever written can be appended with the word 'unpublished'. But that's not the point. I would carry on writing if I'd never been published. I write because I love to write. Getting published or being recognised for what I do would simply be a layer of marzipan and thick royal icing on the top of a cake that I already adore.

Meanwhile, while we all wait for fame and fortune to come a-knocking at my door, why don't you pop back now and again and read some of my older posts? Or, if you fancy a change of voice, I can heartily recommend these other excellent friends and bloggers:

Jason Arnopp
Piers Beckley
Paul Campbell
Sarwat Chadda
Simon Colgan
William Gallagher
Dave Gorman
Chris Hale
Robin Kelly
Jed Lomax
Jon Mayhew
Joel Meadows
Mark Page (adult material)
Lizzie Pain
Stuart Perry
Karen Redman
Helen Smith
John Soanes
Richard Wiseman

... and there are so many others I could mention. Give them a try.

King Commute

Yesterday, I did my last ever commute into London. It was a very happy day tinged with a tiny bit of sadness for the colleagues I probably won't see again now that my job has finished. I will miss them but I won't miss the journeys to and from work. Or will I?

You see, I think what I'll actually be glad to see the back of is the getting up early and having to get somewhere at a specific time part of commuting. I've always quite enjoyed the journeys. And I've used them to my advantage. I used that time every day to catch up on my reading, or to make notes or do exploratory drawings. When Walkmans came along, I listened to music as I doodled and, when Discmans and MP3 players evolved, I switched to audiobooks and podcasts. What I didn't do is sleep. Nor did indulge in the great British disease of working on the way to work. Surely we're the only nation stupid enough to do this? Isn't it bad enough that we already work the longest hours, have the fewest bank holidays and shortest holiday entitlements in Europe? I was damned if they'd get even more work out of me, especially unpaid. My commuting time was mine.

I first started commuting in 1980. After leaving the police college in May of that year, I lived for a time in a guest house in Harrow, near to Northwick Park Tube Station. I didn't own a car then and would catch the Metropolitan Line train to Uxbridge, where I worked, some 10 miles away. The earliest train to rattle through in the morning - which everyone called the 'milk train' - was at 5.30am, which was cutting it it a bit fine when I was on the early shift. We were expected to parade in full uniform at 6am, which meant that we usually arrived at 5.45am to allow for a seamless handover from the night shift. The milk train, if it was on time (which it often wasn't), didn't get me to Uxbridge until around 6.50am and I got moaned at every cocking day by a weary old curmudgeon of a sergeant who couldn't get it into his Neanderthal skull that I could do nothing about it other than sleep overnight in the station. Anyway, the problem was solved when I moved first to a bedsit and then a house-share nearer to work in Hilingdon.

For the next two years, my commute was rather shorter. Although I worked at all of the stations on the division - Uxbridge, Hayes, Ruislip, Harefield and Northwood - my trip to work was never more than five miles. And I got a car, a deliciously curvy old Ford Cortina GXL just like the one Gene Hunt drives in the UK Life on Mars. I still remember the numberplate: COX401K. How I guffawed. But then, in 1983, I got married and moved into married quarters at Ealing. My wife needed the car - now swapped for an altogether more conservative and shameful Vauxhall Chevette - for work so I was back on the trains. My journey to work now consisted of a long walk down Castlebar Hill from Preston Road to Ealing Broadway Tube Station and another trip on the trains. I took the District Line one stop to Ealing Common then changed onto the Piccadilly Line to Uxbridge. The journey was around 11 miles and took 20 minutes. Incidentally, I often shared my walk down Castlebar Hill with a young lad who worked for the BBC. Whenever I was on an 8am-4pm shift we'd leave for work at the same time and often found ourselves walking together. We soon got chatting and it became a pretty regular event. Nice guy. Did quite well for himself. Philip Schofield.

In 1986 I transferred to the West End to work at Vine Street and West End Central Police Stations. Now the journey shifted from Ealing Broadway to Oxford Circus and a walk down Regent Street. Thankfully, the shift system there worked on the half-hour so getting in for 6am was no longer a problem. 6.30am was quite do-able. In 1989, I moved to working at Hendon and, simultaneously, moved into a larger house in Wembley. Then, in 1992, I transferred to Ealing before moving house to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire in 1993. Now, my journey was significantly longer - around 30 miles each way five days a week. And things got worse and worse. Landing a specialist role within the Met Police's Problem Solving Unit meant that I was expected to travel all over London and visit any one of its 32 boroughs on any one day. Sometimes my journey was close to home; Hillingdon was a mere 18 miles and 20 minutes away. However, if I was travelling to Croydon in Surrey or way, way over to places like Bexley or Barking and Dagenham in Kent and Essex, my journey each way could take up to three hours.

I've done a very, very rough totting up of my commuting time and distance for the past 30 years. The average is around 15 miles each way per day . So, assuming a five day working week and allowing for 30 extra days off per year to account for holidays and bank holidays, I've travelled approximately 7,200 miles per year and a total of 216,000 miles in my career. That's about nine times around the Earth or most of the way to the Moon. Assuming each journey took me half an hour, I've spent around 300 days - each 24 hours long - commuting. Extraordinary isn't it?

I guess my message to all of you still having to commute is this: don't waste that time. You'll never get it back. For me, commuting offered a moderately distraction-free (most everyone else is asleep or working) parcel of time that I could use profitably. Yes, some days, I'd have to stand for the entire journey - but I could still listen to an audiobook. On better days, I could write or draw or read. My first book was largely researched on the Chiltern Line service between High Wycombe and Marylebone. I've absorbed countless facts and stories during those journeys. I've held conversations, arranged meetings and sent emails. I started a hashtag game on Twitter called #trainbites where myself and others would bitchily describe our fellow commuters. My favourites include the 'lady with a too-small bra and four breasts', the 'man so fat he beeps when he's reversing' and the 'religious guy who hides his Bible inside a Dan Brown book'. What gems.

I shan't miss the commute. But I will miss that valuable time because now I have to find another way to get myself a couple of hours every day where I can just sit and read.

The toilet seat is just too hard.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

30 Years Apart

My uniform goes back to the stores tomorrow so I thought I'd try it on one last time. Amazingly, I can still get into it, which was a pleasant surprise as I haven't worn it in 11 years. The helmet is still the size of a milk bucket though. Here are two photos separated by 30 years (and around three stones):

If I'd been able to get into the uniform on the left, that would have been impressive.

The Madonna Hatter

Separated at birth? I think we should be told. Neither photo has been tweaked.

Friday, January 15, 2010

End of an era

This time next week, I'll be halfway through my last ever working day for the Metropolitan Police Service. What a very strange thought that is. When I finally hang up my helmet and boots, I'll have spent 30 years - the larger proportion of my life so far - working for the same organisation. Scarily, 30 years seems to have flown by in the blink of a hummingbird's eye (time seems to be speeding up anyway ... how can it be halfway through January already?) and I now face, for the first time in my life, the prospect of being unemployed. Well, not quite. I'll have my police pension and hopefully I'll carry on selling books and doing illustration work. but I won't have the imposition of the nine to five job any more. And I won't have to commute for three to four hours per day, five days a week. Just that thought has me grinning like Wallace in a cheese factory.

The photo you see here is of myself (left), Andrew, one of my two brothers, and my mum on February 17th 1980, on the train platform at Redruth, Cornwall. Andrew was returning to the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards for a tour that would take him into the heart of Belfast's 'troubles'. I was on my way to London to start a whole new life; a naive arty-farty 18 year old Cornishman with a crappy hairstyle (Mum did it) who'd joined the police as the result of a £50 bet with his dad. You can't see my late father in the picture as he's holding the camera. He was a police officer in the local Devon and Cornwall force and was feeling hugely smug that he'd bribed me into getting a steady job. I'm amazed it's in focus as he was chuckling so much.

Yup, that's me at Hendon Police College, manning the hugely sophisticated security office and showing my opinion of Met Police Catering Branch tea. I had a bit of a rough time at training school due to (a) homesickness, (b) my natural inability to focus on subjects that bore me (e.g. law), (c) it had a bar, and (d) I was single and there were lots of young ladies in police uniforms. But I survived and I ended up being posted to West London where I was to meet life-long friend Chris Hale (see his blog here). I was collected from Hendon and driven to Uxbridge police station by a big, fat van driver who announced his presence with the words 'So, who's the bloke who still has 29 years and nine months to do?' It seemed such a long time when he said it.

The thing is, 30 years is a long time. When I joined there were no mobile phones, virtually no computers and no cashpoints. All cameras processed film and there were just three TV channels. The photo above is me at Sherwood Colliery in Nottinghamshire during the Miners' Strike in 1984. I kind of understood why I was there. I sympathised with the miners; most of the mines back in my native Cornwall had been closed and there was mass unemployment. I didn't really understand the politics. The police was run on military-style leadership in those days and if someone senior told you to do it, you did it ... within reason. Thankfully, I have a clear conscience as I was never forced to do anything I felt was wrong. But you do hear stories ...

I was at Live Aid (and donated my day's wages) and saw bands like Queen and the Rolling Stones at Wembley. I saw a couple of cup finals. And I got paid for being there! I also served at most of the major riots in London at Brixton, Tottenham and Southall. I picked up a couple of nasty injuries along the way. I lost several colleagues. My hairstyle didn't improve.

In 1986 I transferred to Vine Street police station near Piccadilly Circus. It's long since closed and exists only as a ghost on the standard UK Monopoly board. I worked with Clubs and Vice for a while and was involved in any number of public events including the visit of Pope John Paul II, various presidents and dignitaries, and the wedding of Charles and Diana. That's me in the photo with some dissident Jewish Russians having a bit of a protest outside Downing Street. Them, not me. One constant of working in the West End was having your photo taken with tourists. I always asked them to send me a copy and many did. Occasionally I was sent some very different photos. And they weren't always from ladies. New Year's Eve was always interesting too as everyone wanted to kiss a copper. For a truly memorable New Year's Eve, read this.

1989 found me moving to Hendon and taking up a position as a trainer. Initially I taught the new IT systems the Met was employing. I can remember the first 286 PCs being installed and one of my colleagues saying, 'Why have they given us 40mb hard drives? What a waste of money. We'll never fill them up.' I then gained a string of teaching qualifications and my Cert Ed with the University of Hertfordshire before moving first to the Met's Exam Unit and then into the Training Design Unit where I helped develop courses and programmes for an organisation that had more than 50,000 staff. The photo above shows me posing for an illustration in a training manual. For some reason they asked me to play the drunk. Incidentally, I wrote and made the first ever police training video to use the 'C' word. I'm quite proud of that. Until then, all of the bad guys had shouted things like 'Get off me you oaf!' or 'Run! It's the Rozzers!' They didn't really prepare our recruits for the visceral realities of coppering.

In 1993 I went back out 'on the street' for the last time, pitching up at Ealing. I wasn't there for very long before Hendon asked me to come back. But I did get involved in the early Neighbourhood Watch schemes and several charity ventures including this 'Comics for Aid' venture above. That's local MP Harry Greenaway and me, with Batman, Catwoman and a token kiddy. The comic shop in question swapped comics for food and clothing to be sent on to the victims of the war in former Yugoslavia. I used the police van to deliver the aid to RAF Northolt to be flown out.

Back at Hendon, I piled on the pounds (there's even a tub of Slim-Fast in the shot) and got beardy. I grew some spectacles too. As the result of a police eye-test to keep my advanced driver qualification I was told I needed glasses. I wore them for 15 years. Then, in 2008, I went to get my eyes lasered and was told that I didn't need it as my eyesight is okay. I haven't worn specs since. Madness. This was the last time I was ever to wear a uniform. As our training design role became ever more complex, we all switched to suits as we were always gadding about around London at various meetings. Then, in 1999, I was asked to join a new department within Scotland Yard's territorial Policing Command called The Problem Solving Unit. and there I've stayed ever since, helping to find innovative solutions to long-term persistent problems of crime and disorder.

That 29 years and nine months has now passed. In that time I've been shot at, had knives waved at me and been assaulted more times than I care to remember. I've seen more than 30 colleagues get killed or seriously injured, a handful of them good friends. I've seen more death than anyone should ever have to see and have marvelled at just how strong people can be in the face of tragedy. I've met extraordinary people, seen true heroism and I've met politicians, diplomats, kings and queens and presidents, film stars, popes, rock stars and sports stars. I've even arrested some of them. It's been a good 30 years. I've done my bit to make London safer. Okay, so my contribution has been small but it is a contribution nonetheless and I leave with a sense of fulfillment. I have no idea what the next 30 years hold for me but if they are as exciting, varied, fascinating and compelling as the last 30 years I'll be a very happy chappy.

I wonder if I should keep the handcuffs ...

Friday, January 08, 2010

JML Products of the Gods

A wonderful piece lifted from today's Times Online about the 'ancient geometry' of Woolworths. I really loved this because I'm of that generation who grew up with Erich Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods nonsense. ‘Was God an ancient astronaut?’ he asked and then provided all kinds of wishy-washy evidence – much of it later shown to be misleading or false – to support his idea. Later came the Crop Circlists and their rubbish claims that aliens were flying billions of light years across space and time to draw patterns in a field in Dorset. I’m pleased to say that most of Daniken's work is discredited (as is the whole crop circle business) but there is still a small, insidious group of people out there who simply won’t be satisfied with the idea that many ancient feats of engineering were due to human brilliance and lots of disposable slave labour. Anyway, enjoy this. I know I did.

Aliens with a taste for pick 'n' mix: Woolworths stores follow uncanny geometrical patterns

The landscape of England is scarred by history, with landmarks that stretch back thousands of years. These prehistoric monuments provide some of our only links to previous civilisations, such as the Uffington White Horse, the infamous stones of Stonehenge and of course, the ancient Woolworths stores. It was these Woolworths sites from a bygone age of cheap kitchen accessories and discount CDs that I analysed to try and learn more about our ancestral hunter-pick’n’mixers.

I was inspired by articles in the national press on 5th January 2010 about Mr Tom Brooks’ analysis of 1500 prehistoric sites in the UK that revealed some amazing geometric patterns. He investigated how the various sites form a grid of isosceles triangles. This alignment of some of the prehistoric locations was so ‘sophisticated and accurate’ that he concluded that they were part of a geometrical navigational system and he ‘does not rule out extraterrestrial help'.

Using the locations of the 800 ancient Woolworths stores as my data, I found that they also followed precise geometrical patterns with the same level of accuracy. For example, three Woolworths sites around Birmingham form an exact equilateral triangle (Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Birmingham stores)and if the base of the triangle is extended, it forms a 173.8 mile line linking the Conway and Luton stores. Despite the 173.8 mile distance involved, the Conway Woolworths store is only 40 feet off the exact line and the Luton site is within 30 feet. All four stores align with an accuracy of 0.05 per cent.One possible conclusion from this pinpoint accuracy is that the Woolworths tribal duty managers positioned the stores as a form of ‘landmark satnav’. This allowed travellers to find their nearest outlet for sweets that could be acquired in any combination they desired. This could offer us a fascinating insight into what life was like in 2008 England, and we can’t rule out that alien help was required to position stores this precisely and to offer the Ladybird clothing range at such low prices. Or it could be that I just skipped over the vast majority of the Woolworths locations and only chose the few that happened to line-up. From 800 stores, there are over 85 million possible triangles; the 1500 prehistoric sites that Brooks used give over 561 million triangles. From these millions of options it is easy to pick out the few that seem to be impossibly precise.

It is mathematically known that if you have a sufficiently large set of random data, you can find any pattern that you want with any given level of accuracy. What Brooks and I have discovered says less about any meaning to the patterns and more about how the locations follow a truly random distribution.

Matt Parker is based in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. He also gives talks about mathematics to schools and wider audiences across the UK. Full details of this research are available here.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

All of Nick Griffin's dreams came true ...

A completely white UK. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Framing the landscape

A few more photos from my last visit to Oxford (see the Steampunk feature two or three posts ago). Much of Oxford is pedestrianised these days to save wear and tear on the historic university buildings. The bicycle is king and here's the bike rack at the train station to prove it.

But wait ... if the bikes are all here, how is everyone getting about?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Thank Darwin for my Combi Boiler

I could say that I enjoyed five inches last night. I could say that it's deep and firm and a pain in the arse. I could say it's snow joke. But I won't. Yet again, the world has come to a complete standstill because up here in the Chiltern Hills, Ymir and his lads have been at it again. And it's still falling quite heavily so only the Frost Giants knows how much we'll get in the end. Some doomsayers are predicting 12-18 inches. Oo-er missus. Nope. It's no good. I'm too hacked off for snow puns.

As pretty as it looks - and these are two views of my garden this morning and three photos of the street where I live - the snow means several more days of chaos and panic by people who (a) don't stay at home and (b) do stay at home but think we're entering a nuclear winter and have bought six months worth of supplies.

On a positive note, it's really quiet outside. I can't hear any traffic noise as all of the surrounding roads are impassable except to some 4x4s maybe. I can hear birdsong. better go feed the little buggers. It's even tougher on them.

And they don't have combi boilers and 4x4s.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Steampunk My Ride

I recently got the opportunity to wander around Art Donovan's fabulously eclectic and wonderfully appointed Steampunk exhibition at Oxford's Museum of the History of Science. It's the first such exhibition ever put on in this country and is well worth a visit if you're in the area. Even more so given that it's completely free to go and see.

So what is Steampunk? I like to think of it as utility's evil twin. Doctor Grymm, one of the exhibitors at the show, describes it thus: 'Steampunk offers a melding of late 1800's aesthetic with scientific discovery and other-worldly technology ... Steampunk artists create an alternate world not bound by the modern millennial conventions of physics, science and convenience technology. Today, the movement is alive with artistic creation and ideas to bring a world that never happened into reality'. If you want a populist, if fatally flawed, take on what the good Doctor just said, just go and watch the film version of Phillip Pullman's excellent The Golden Compass where Lyra's Oxford is very much set in a Steampunk universe.

You can go too far down the route of mere utility. Take music for example. Maybe it's my old and sadly fur-lined ears but I'm not convinced that there is a substantial difference between the sound quality of a vinyl LP and an MP3 file. It seems to me that the only real improvement has been music portability. I love my i-pod and the fact I can have music wherever I go (even though it's often hard to hear above the tinny hissing and farting of overcranked MP3 players on the London Underground, or over the conflicting cacophony of 12 schoolkids all playing some ghastly dozen R&B tracks out loud on their mobile phones on the bus). But is the digital sound quality really any better than vinyl? I'm not convinced that my normal human ears are good enough to tell the difference. And what we've lost in square inches, we've surely lost in soul. To play an LP I need a turntable, amplifier and speakers. There is a sensual pleasure in placing the needle in the groove and hearing that first crackle. There is something primal and, dare I say it, sexy about the throb of the sub-woofers. You just don't get from pressing a button with a triangle printed on it and stiking two rubber nipples in your ears. A hand-made wood, brass and velvet gramophone has a beauty and solidity that is entirely absent from my cleverly designed, tastefully moulded but utterly soulless Bose sound dock.

It's the same with telephones; there is something immensely satisfying about slamming the receiver onto the cradle and cutting off the complete arse that you've been arguing the moral toss with. Pressing a little button with a red phone symbol on it just does not do it for me and leaves me unsatisfied no matter how hard I stab the bugger. When I needed a new mobile phone recently I actually went out of my way to find one that had some weight to it so that I felt that I was holding something substantial to my ear. As things get smaller, lighter and ever-more plasticky, I'm yearning for the old clunky analogue stuff. I want tactile pleasure as well as utility. I want good design but I also want substance. I find that as I get older I want green racing Bentleys and not the anonymous jelly moulds that fill our streets and which I can no longer tell apart. I want music that is raw and natural and passionate instead of digitally-remastered recordings with all of the clicks, hisses and imperfecions removed. Which would you prefer - the Mona Lisa or an anodyne, airbrushed Vogue cover girl?

Oh right. Just me then.

Anyway, that's part of what appeals to me about Steampunk. Things should not only work but they should also be a joy to see, hear, smell, touch and, possibly, even taste. That's the ethic behind the work of chefs like Heston Blumenthal who insist that a meal is an event rather than just taking on fuel. It's why Clarkson, Hammond and May drool over certain cars on Top Gear; any competent engineer can make a car go fast but only an inspired engineer can make it look like a Bugatti Veyron EB16. It's why Stephen Fry gushes over Apple products; not because they are Apple but because, in the otherwise dull as lard world of IT, Steve Jobs and his boys are as much concerned with style as they are with function.

After all, most products - from sofas to kettles, and from chairs to mirrors - offer us a range of styles, colours and textures to suit our tastes. Technology, particularly IT, has been outrageously slow in taking this idea on board with the result that most IT is still dull, brutalist and downright ugly.

Steampunk is the absolute antithesis of utility. Bill Gates will give you a white ergonomic plastic keyboard that does the job very well. In Oxford, Datamancer gives us a brass keyboard with old-fashioned typewriter keys and a plush velvet wrist rest (sadly I have no photo but you can see it here). What I actually need is something between the two extremes but, given the choice, I know which one I'd prefer on my desk.

Elsewhere in the exhibition there are the quirky sculptures of Belgian artist Stephane Halleux, who I featured on my blog a month or so ago (see here), and pieces by the aforementioned Datamancer and Doctor Grymm, Tom Banwell, Molly 'Porkshanks' Friedrich, Daniel Proulx, Eric Freitas, Haruo Suekichi, Herr Doktor, Thomas D Willeford, Amanda Scrivener, James Richardson Brown, Jesse Newhouse, Jos De Vink, Kris Kuksi, Mad Uncle Cliff, Vianney Halter and the exhibition's organiser, Art Donovan himself.

There is some truly wonderful work on display and my few photos taken here don't do the exhibition any justice at all. Therefore, I'd ask you to visit the exhibition's blog where you'll find hyperlinks to most of the featured artists' websites. I'd also suggest you visit Art Donovan's website here. And if you're interested in making your own Steampunk art, try these sites for size: Aether Emporium has an excellent 'how to' resource here and the Steampunk Workshop has plenty of useful advice and tutorials here.

And, on a final note ... ever wondered what a Steampunk Dalek would look like? Wonder no more. Just click here.

Who said that Political Correctness is Dead?

Click for a larger image and read the tracklisting. And this is from i-Tunes. Extraordinary.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Never judge a book by its cover as the cover may be so much better

Good book cover design is a real artform. So it was a delight to be directed to this website earlier today - The Book Cover Archive. There's some wonderful work on display here and so many good links that I've spent hours following.Do have a look.