Monday, March 29, 2010

Dan and Dan - saying it better (and more tunefully) than I ever could

I absolutely love this! Remember my rant here?

Coming soon - Katie and Alex go Quantity Surveying

I like to think of this blog as something truly cosmopolitan. It is my personal belief that anyone is ripe for ridicule, vitriol or spoofery regardless of race, sex, colour, faith or taste in clothes. In the past four years, I’ve alienated creationists (We have the fossils – we win), football fans (It’s just a game of 22 spoilt brats kicking a bag of wind around a field) and Facebook users (No, I really do not want to throw a cocking sheep at you). I don’t set out to upset people but I do insist on using my right to free speech when I find a subject worthy of praise or condemnation. My blog, my rules. And today I am very possibly about to inadvertently upset the widest demographic I’ve ever attempted; the person who buys celebrity biographies.

This is not an overnight dose of ire. There have been rumblings in my bile ducts for some time now. The signal event that made me rush to the keyboard and start typing, however, was a visit to a bookshop and seeing … seeing … good grief, it actually hurts to type these words … seeing not one but two recently published books purporting to tell the ‘whole truth’ about the relationship between Katie Price and Alex Reid. The first was ‘Katie and Alex: The Inside Story’ by Alison Maloney and it sat next to ‘Katie and Alex: The Love Story’ by Emily Herbert. I couldn’t bear to pick these sorry tomes up in public so I didn’t read the back cover blurb. However, I have just visited Amazon to get the names of the authors and I see that ‘Inside Story’ asks, ‘What does the future hold for the pair when the honeymoon is over? Alison Maloney discusses the inside story past, present and future in this intimate and essential book.’ This ‘essential’ book was written by Alison Maloney, whose ‘many other books include the autobiography of Craig Revel Horwood, 'All Balls and Glitter', and the official 'Strictly Come Dancing' annuals in 2008, 2009 and 2010.’ Turning to the ‘Love Story’ book, we read that ‘Just hours after announcing their engagement in OK! magazine Katie Price and cage fighter Alex Reid tied the knot in a secret ceremony in Las Vegas' Wynn Hotel. Find out all about their whirlwind wedding as Emily Herbert takes a look at the couple's relationship.’ Emily Herbert has written many, many such books. Now it would be grossly unfair and unprofessional of me to lambaste either author (who are, after all, jobbing writers) because I haven’t read any of their work. But I do wonder how much insight either of them can possibly throw on to a celebrity relationship that had lasted just a few months? Two whole books? I assume a lot of filler must have come from the story of Katie’s previous relationships – particularly with Peter Andre – and Alex’s background. Or maybe not …

On the same shelf, there were also copies of ‘Katie and Peter: The Inside Story of their Divorce’ by Emily Herbert, which, one would assume, tells the story up to the point where Katie met Alex. And next to this book was ‘Katie and Peter: Too Much in Love – the Inside Story of their Break-up’ by Emily Herbert. So we now have a whole book about a break up, a whole book about a divorce, and a whole book about the wedding to a new partner. But there’s more. A quick hunt around the biography section revealed copies of ‘My world: In Pictures and Words’ and ‘All about us: My Story’ by Peter Andre and no less than three Katie Price biographies: ‘Being Jordan’, ‘Pushed to the limit’, and ‘A whole new world’ (There’s a fourth called ‘I’m still standing’ coming out soon, amazingly). And that’s alongside her style book ‘Standing out'. Has the world gone mad and no one told me?

Firstly, I want to say with absolute honesty that I have no personal grudge with Katie Price. I have my own opinions, naturally, but they are irrelevant to this blogpost. Everyone has the right to express themselves as they see fit (and as I am here). This post isn’t about her. She’s just a symptom of my growing malaise. No, I’m saving my splenetic spittle for the pathetically flaccid and non risk-taking publishing industry that felt it necessary to pump out more than 10 books about three people whose entangled lives happen to have been led in a spotlight of their own making. How many revelations can there possibly be in books like this that haven’t already been splashed across a zillion web-pages, trash newspapers and celeb-hungry glossy magazines? And it’s not just Katie Price is it? There are biographies on the shelves of people like Kerry Katona, Jade Goody, Cheryl Cole, Colleen Rooney, Jodie Marsh, Chantelle Houghton … while every person on this planet very possibly has an interesting story or two to tell, how can you justify an entire book about someone who is under 30 and for whom most of their life before fame and/or riches was probably no more interesting than yours or mine?

When I go to the biography section of a bookshop I want to read real-life, eye-witness accounts of extraordinary lives lived in extraordinary times. I want to read about what it actually felt like to live through the London blitz. Or how it felt to be shipwrecked on an island for a year. Or what it was like being a hostage held by terrorists and never knowing whether I’d live another day. I recently read Oliver Postgate’s autobiography ‘Seeing Things’ which is a charming and personal account of how he pieced together the money, knowledge and equipment to sit in an old cow shed and make some of the UK’s best-loved children’s programmes such as Bagpuss and Clangers. But the book also gives us a gloriously rich picture of growing up in a wealthy family in the early part of the 20th century and of Postgate’s misadventures during WW2 when he refused to fight and became that most hated of figures – the conscientious objector. Here’s a small paragraph from Page One of Chapter One in which he revisits his childhood home:

‘As I walked I tried to conjure up the people who used to be about. For a start there were two sorts of ice cream man; Walls and Eldorado. They would be coming along on their box-tricycles, pinging their bells. Errand boys on their heavy bikes would whistle as they passed. The dustman’s cart had two big horses. The rag-and-bone man had one very small horse which pulled a small cart loaded with strange articles. The ice-man had a noisy black lorry which dripped. He carried a huge, gleaming block of ice on a sacking pad on his shoulder, holding it with a set of fearsome black tongs – I was afraid of him. Hopeful people with suitcases were going from door-to-door selling things – brushes, laces, insurance, salvation – to the housewives in the houses’.

And here’s Page one of Chapter One of ‘Being Jordan’:

‘My family are the most important people in my life. I love them all to bits. Through the bad times and the good times they have always been there for me, especially my mum. It is something the press has managed to twist over the years. The way some journalists have described my background, you would think I had the most miserable and unstable childhood, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, my real dad finally walked out on the family when I was three, but I had hardly seen him anyway so he was no loss to me.’

It’s the difference between Wuthering Heights and a Mills and Boon novel, it really is. While Katie Price’s sentiments are no doubt honest and heartfelt, it’s just one hackneyed, cliché phrase after another and there isn’t a single thing to lift it above and beyond the diary scribblings of a million adolescent girls other than the fact that she’s a bit famous. I realise that Oliver Postgate was famous – if not a celebrity – but his book is well-written, inspiring and truly fascinating. Isn’t that what all biographies and autobiographies should be?
All of which nicely brings me to the point in this post where I might upset people. Because, dear reader, the reason why there are so many of these celebrity memoirs on the shelves is that some of you buy them. Yes, I know … I’m sorry but it’s true. People are buying this stuff and, sadly, sales dictate the way that publishers make decisions about taking on contracts. I have never tried to submit an autobiography to a publisher because I know that it would get bounced. Despite having led what I think of as a moderately interesting life, peppered with historic events in which I played some small part, I know that no publisher would risk taking it. And I wouldn’t bother trying … because I’m not famous. I know some amazing people; I know the man who sculpted Jabba the Hutt, the couple who put Rage against the Machine at the Christmas Number One slot in 2009, a man who has developed make-up systems to help the victims of war to hide their scars … but none of them will ever have their stories told because they’re not famous. The cult of celebrity has all but killed the biography writing industry. Fame has replaced Fascination. These days, it is more commercially viable to write a book about a mundane childhood as long as there’s fame in the last couple of chapters, than to write a book about an extraordinary life with no fame at the end. It saddens me, it really does. I just don’t understand the fascination people have with these people’s lives when there are so many more interesting stories to be told.

As a final note, the last couple of London Book Fair were very sad affairs. As I reported here, if it wasn’t a celebrity biography then your book wasn’t going to get any publicity that year. I suffered a little because of this in that the decision was made not to promote my first book despite the fact my publisher had paid me an exceptional advance for a first book. They believed in it but they couldn’t get it past the advertising people because I wasn’t a famous face. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter and the book sold well despite this. But it did highlight the fact that there are some brilliant books out there – so much better than mine - that don’t get any publicity because the budget has been spent on the celebs. Even celebrity authors get the preferential treatment; the posters and TV ads for Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ were everywhere … but why? Surely every Dan Brown fan already knew? Wasn’t it already the most eagerly awaited and pre-ordered sequel in history? Surely those sales were in the bag … so why not spend the money on a lesser-known but possibly better book and maybe generate some extra sales?

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s up to us to change things. The readers drive the book market. Just as viewing figures dictate what gets commissioned and broadcast on the telly, our book-buying and library borrows dictate what books the publishers buy. If we eschew the lurid sensationalist celebrity biography and go instead for the genuinely interesting and insightful biography – celebrity or not – it will lead to a better world. I’m not exaggerating here; the books currently dominating the shelves in the biography and autobiography sections are of society’s role models. Our kids deserve better. I once heard Ricky Gervais say during one of his podcasts that, in the case of art, we should all be fascists. Art, he said, should never be democratic because if it was, then all we’d have on the walls of our galleries is the stuff that got the most votes. There would be no innovation, no risk-taking. There would never have been a Dali, a Rembrandt, a Turner or a Monet. The same applies to the art of biography.

Sod the proles, Mr Publisher. Forget the popular vote. Publish books that challenge and inform and entertain and which put history in focus. Give our kids better role models and give us all a better read.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Danger! Road Safety Songs Ahead

I'm currently writing a book all about solving problems. No surprise there I know. I've talked about it before on this blog and on Twitter. And, as you know, I was part of an odd little team called The Problem Solving Unit that looked at the crime and community issues that traditional policing couldn't shift. Over the years we got involved in some very weird stuff. We also met some amazing problem solvers and many who were ahead of their time. One such was a sergeant from Lambeth, who I won't name, but who in the early 1980s came up with a great idea to solve the problem of kids being knocked down; sing some songs and scare the shite out of them.

The result was a slim printed volume called Road Safety Songs intended for use by police schools officers all over London. I'm pleased to report that I've clung on to my copy all these years. Now I'd like to share some of the highlights with you.

The first thing to note is that, during the course of just 18 pages, the author manages to mow down a dozen kids, mostly using lorries. Take this cautionary tale from 'To the tune of Clementine':

But she dashed right on the roadway
Never heeding brothers nine
And a lorry came and hit her
Foolish foolish Clementine.

Or the royal tragedy laid out in the gripping 'To the tune of The Grand Old Duke of York':

And a lorry came along
And knocked him off his feet,
And now all that's left of the poor old Duke
Is his statue in the street.

Or even the tear-jerking ballad of John the Brixton schoolboy in 'Ode to John' - the only song with a title and no hints as to a tune:

But then one day it happened
As John was out to play.
A lorry come and hit our John
Now he's not feeling gay.

And so it goes on. But my absolute favourite is 'To the tune of Daisy, Daisy' and it goes like this:

David, David, mind how you cross the road
You're half crazy if you don't use the Code
You may be a boy of courage
But if you don't avoid that carriage
Then you'll be sweeped right off your feet
And you'll end up in hospital.

Yes, I know I'm a bad person for taking the Mickey a little tiny bit. The fact remains that Sergeant X at least bothered to do his part to make the roads safer and, who knows, he may even have saved a few lives. I salute him for that. But that doesn't detract from the charming naivety of it all and the fact that 30 years later, it's still making me chuckle. So, children, remember to use your Green Cross Code and ...

Little girls and boys,
Happy in your play,
We don't want an ambulance
To carry you away.

Goodness me, no.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The signs are there

This is a short post about signage and why I find myself frequently confused or mystified by it.

I've always been confused by signs lie 'No timewasters'. Are there really gangs of people roaming the streets looking for opportunities to waste your time? I think we should be told. And how about all those 'Baby on board' signs in the rear windows of cars? What are they for? Are they meant to make the driver behind think to themselves ... 'Oh, I was going to ram that car but now I'll keep my distance'?

I was driving back from Oxford on Friday when I hit roadworks on the M40. A host of speed camera signs then informed me that 'average speed cameras' were in force.

Like me, you must see these signs all the time. But has it ever struck you, as it struck me on Friday, that it's a really odd choice of image? I mean, the icon is a very old style of bellows camera with a film winding spool. Speed cameras came along way after normal SLR type cameras had been invented so why on Earth did the Department of Transport choose such an ancient model of camera? It made me wonder if the younger generation would even identify it as a camera, rather than just recognise the symbol. Here's another oddity:

It's the sign meaning 'Danger! Wild animals!' of course. But why a deer I wonder? It's hardly the most common wild animal you're likely to come across (although we do see a lot of muntjac around these parts). If the sign is warning you about a creature that may lumber onto the highway, surely a more likely candidate would be a fox, rabbit, hedgehog or maybe badger? Deer just seems to be the most unlikely animal you could hit other than something like a mink or an otter.

The ubiquitous 'Men at work' or 'man struggling with umbrella' sign would, I feel, have benefitted from the depiction of a shovel. But, let's be honest, a more realistic symbol would be a JCB style digger. Or maybe a traffic cone.

This one could be seen as just plain insulting:

And I have absolutely no idea what this sign means:

So, maybe it's time to 'rip it up and start again' as 80's art rockers Orange Juice exorted us. If we were to take British road signage and redesign it from scratch for the 21st century ... what symbols would you use and why?


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Ghost Cat

The Google Street View cameras have been busy around here recently and they've just put my street up online. Looking at my house (above) I noticed the bag of gravel on the floor next to the blue car which means that the photo was taken last Summer when I was doing some building work. Closer inspection of the house showed a familiar black and white shape on the doorstep - my cat Bonnie who died in December.

It raises an interesting point; are there people on Google Street View who have since died? That's kind of freaky if true ...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How did I ever have the time for a job?

It's just coming up to one calendar month since I left the cosy world of the monthly pay cheque and entered the slightly scary but infinitely more interesting and rewarding world of the freelance writer and artist. and what an extraordinary month it's been so far. We've finally rid ourselves of the snow and the last few frosts. Although last week, it was so cold overnight that my outside tap created a perfect ice willy.

The weeks have quite literally flown by and it's hard to believe that we've halfway through March already. I guess being busy makes the time appear to go faster. Just look at a typical week in my life ...

Monday began with some beers with my splendid friends, the QI Elves. Yes, they're the researchers who put the scripts in front of Stephen Fry every week. I then went on to watch the recording of the first episode of series three of QI's sister show, The Museum of Curiosity. John Lloyd is once again at the helm with new curator, Jon Richardson. The guests were comedian Shappi Khorsandi, physicist and writer Marcus Chown and the literary juggernaut that is Sir Terry Pratchett.

On Tuesday I packed my bags and headed for Sheffield where I was taking part i the judging of this years South Yorkshire Community Safety Awards. I stayed at the Sheffeld Hilton which, as I joked on Twitter, would be the name of Paris's little known, quite dull and grey sister. My view was of a dingy canal and lots of concrete. But the food was nice and the event was a great success. Came home on Wednesday evening.

Thursday I spent the day writing and as I have no photo of that, here's an amazing tattoo of the constellations on a chap's head. I spotted it and snapped it on a bus in Brighton a couple of weeks ago while visiting my old friend Chris Hale.

Friday was a visit to Oxford for a meeting and lunch with friends and then it was off to Gloucestershire for the first Kempsford Literary Festival. For such a tiny village, they really managed to pack in some heavyweight speakers including Michael Dobbs, Patricia Routledge, Joanna Trollope, Gyles Brandreth, Dame Stella Rimmington, Lord Douglas Hurd and many more. The event was opened and supported by HRH Countess of Wessex and was a triumph. Here are some shots of one of the venues used, the gorgeous village church of St Mary the Virgin.

And that's just this last week. I'm rather enjoying this brave new world.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Gone for a Burton

I've been looking forward to Tim Burton's take on 'Alice' ever since I first read about it. The two Alice books were childhood favourites of mine; mostly, it must be said, because of John Tenniel's beautifully crisp black and white illustrations but also because of the sheer lunacy of it all. In the 1970s, another favourite artist of mine - Ralph Steadman - also had a crack at producing an illustrated version and the hardback is one of my favourite keepsakes from that time. It's hugely collectible now (see here) and also contains Lewis Carroll's 'Hunting of the Snark' poem and a lost chapter of Looking Glass rediscovered in 1977 and featuring Alice's encounter with a giant wasp. I was also hugely taken by artist Rodney Matthew's versions of the Alice characters too (see here). And it was because of my long relationship with the books and some of my favourite artists that I so looked forward to this new film. Tim Burton ties with Terry Gilliam at the top of my list of most artistic directors.

In terms of artistic vision, the film does not disappoint. The characters are wonderfully and idiosyncratically Burtonesque from Depp's star turn as the Mad Hatter to the creatures from the poem Jabberwocky. Incidentally ... isn't the creature called the Jabberwock? It is certainly referred to as such throughout the poem (I had to learn it word-perfect for a school production in 1976 and I still remember it, amazingly, along with how to pronounce Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch) but, for some reason it's called the Jabberwocky in the film (and voiced by Christopher Lee). It irked me as did the scene where Depp walks through a devastated forest reciting it. Wrongly. Grrr.

The 3D was good but not spectacular. Nothing is likely to match Avatar for some time but I'm sad to say that even rubbish like The Final Destination was more effective. The film was also very dark, especially when Alice first falls down the rabbit hole. That scene and the one that follows were so dark I struggled to make out details. Thinking it was my grey 3D glasses I took them off but it was just the same without. And blurry. Things brighten a little once she enters Wonderland - or 'Underland' as Burton has rebadged it (Maybe Disney couldn't bear the thought of not being able to copyright something - it's Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan all over again) but it still has that trademark melancholic Burton feel to it throughout.

It's no secret (so I'm not spoiling anything here) that this version of Alice takes place 13 years after her initial visits to Underland (TM and (c) 2010 Walt Disney Corporation). Alice is about to be married off to a chap she doesn't love and finds distraction in Michael Sheen's White Rabbit who leads her back underground to a world devasted by the evil rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Supported by a playing card army, the Jabberwock(y), the bloke who played Marty McFly's dad in Back to the Future (Crispin Glover) and a frumious Bandersnatch, Red has usurped the White Queen's peaceful reign. Anne Hathaway (White Queen) does a passable imitation of Nigella throughout - she really does - and I've discovered this morning that she was asked by Burton to do exactly that after he'd seen La Lawson on TV. Curiouser and curiouser.

Alice is told by a succession of characters including Stephen Fry's Cheshire Cat and Alan Rickman's Caterpillar, that she is part of a prophesy that on the Frabjous Day she will slay the Jabberwocky. The film then follows Alice's various misadventures and culminates in a predictable uprising against the Red Queen. I shall say no more for fear of ruining it for those of you planning to see it but I will give you my general impressions. Firstly, casting.

Burton has such cache in Hollywood these days that he can select the cream. Despite this he does have a cadre of favourites that he invites back time after time. But what a great bunch of people to have at your disposal! Quite apart from those I've mentioned already, his eclectic dramatis personae also includes Michael Gough as the Dodo, Paul Whitehouse as the March Hare (my favourite character in the film), Barbara 'Saucy!' Windsor as the Dormouse, Matt Lucas as Tweedledum and Tweedledee (did he get two fees?), Tim Spall as a bloodhound, Imelda Staunton as some talking flowers and, back in the real world, various characters played by Tim Piggot-Smith, Frances de la Tour, Lindsay Duncan and Geraldine James. All wonderful actors to the tips of their toes and he gets some polished performances from them all. Newcomer Mia Wasikovska does a passable Alice, both pretty and tomboyish in equal measure, and holds her own well against the weight of talent she's acting with. Nope, can't criticise the casting or acting. So what about the look of the film?

As I said earlier, Burton's films have such a particular look about them that they've spawned the adjective of 'Burtonesque'. With the exception of maybe Ed Wood and Planet of the Apes, all of his films have a dark comic Gothic undertone and look just like 3D renderings of the kind of doodles would carry about in his sketchbook. The gnarly tree from Sleepy Hollow makes a reappearance as Alice enters Wonderland. The strange curlicued wrought ironwork gates from The Nightmare before Christmas and The Corpse Bride are everywhere. The costumes are likewise heavy on the reds with black and white stripes proliferating. Oh, and I have to say how good the wigs and hair design is because I went to school with Emmy-nominated Paul Gooch, the chap who designed them all, and he is exceptionally gifted in the tonsorial department. No, really, he is and it's an often overlooked but vital part of any fantasy film (I also must congratulate my good chum Justin Pollard who acted as historical adviser). The various creatures all look oddly warped and moth-eaten and not so much Disney as Taxidermy. I particularly liked the Bandersnatch which looked like a Bobby Chiu monster made pseudo-flesh. Ah! Quelle surprise! Chiu was a concept artist on the film (see here). It's a Tim Burton movie to the core so it does what you expect it to do in terms of the visuals. So no real criticism there ... except one. The film is mostly CGI, as you'd expect, but I couldn't help feel that this has given Mr B an excuse to overly tinker with reality. Just as George Lucas can't seem to stop re-inventing his Star Wars films, Burton has overcranked the fine details in places. Johnny Depp's eyes, for instance, change size alarmingly at regular intervals as do Anne Hathaways' lips. I'm quite happy for CGI to produce frog courtiers, fish that waddle on land and Jub Jub Birds, but the minute you start cocking around with people's facial features, you distract from the actor's performance. I want to see what Johnny Depp does with the character, not what some geeky animator can knock up on his Mac. So what, if anything, can I criticise if not the acting, directing, casting or visuals? Well, sadly, it's the biggie. It's the script. It's bloody awful.

Screenwriters get the short straw in Hollywood. If a film is magnificent, all credit goes to the cast and director. If a film is seven shades of shite, it's always the poor writer who gets torn up for arse paper. However, in this case, it's justified. I appreciate that the name on the screen may have written a very different script from what makes it to the final cut but, even then, this is a dog of a film script-wise. Wonderland and Looking Glass have been clumsily thrown together to create an alternative world (the Red Queen is apparently the same person as the Queen of Hearts) and the script has far too many central characters to keep a sensible narrative going. Alice changes size more to play with the CGI (and get Ms. Wasikovska in and out of as many dresses as possible) than to further the story and the whole thing utterly fails to make any sense. The deposed White Queen seems to live in a palace filled with happy courtiers ... why has she not staged a coup before? Why hasn't the bulbous-headed (and why is it that big?) Red Queen banged her up in prison if she's such a threat? The Red Queen's lackeys, meanwhile, sport a range of curious prosthetics but it's never really explained why. I can't say too much more without lots of plot spoilers but, suffice to say, the story didn't hang together at all well and some of the lines were execrable. Alice repeats one particular comment all the way through regarding something she'd never do ... and then does it without explanation or justification. I feel particularly sorry for Johnny Depp who never really seemed to establish any kind of depth to his character and, at times, was irritatingly repetitive. I never thought I'd ever say anything bad about the Deppster but this was not his film. Oh no.

So ... how to sum it up? In one word ... disappointment. I love Tim Burton's work and have huge respect for all of the actors involved in this project. But it just didn't work. It's clumsy, disjointed and way too dark for the Alice canon. If I had young kids, I wouldn't be taking them to see it as it's creepy, weird and quite violent at times. It doesn't have the quirky Halloween charm of The Nightmare before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice and it isn't even that funny despite some great comic performances, especially by Paul Whitehouse and Matt Lucas. I left the cinema with a slightly deflated feeling which is such a shame. It could have been wonderful.

Or should I now say 'Underful'? (TM and (c) Walt Disney Corporation)

They also own all of the images in this blog post - please don't sue.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Digital clock ... with hands ... what?

Brilliant piece of post-modern wit here in the Segmentus clock - an apparently digital time-piece that uses hands to generate the digits. Bloody wonderful design by Artemy Lebedev (thanks to @jackpot73 for making me aware of it). See it working in a Flash movie here.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Almost as funny as last week's 'Trololo' song ...

It seems that Russia has a particular genius for this brand of cheese. I nearly soiled myself watching this.

Meet the folks

Some extraordinary reconstructions of our ancestors by paleo-artist John Gurche now on display in the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Absolutely amazing. See the full set here.