Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - An A-Z Guide to the crappy year that was

In his book 2010: Odyssey Two - the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C Clarke had us yomping around Jupiter in spaceships looking for the monolith-building aliens who'd kickstarted the development of human intelligence. It's an optimistic book about us becoming a better species. Ah, would that that were true. The real 2010 has not exactly been a showcase year for Homo Sapiens: Oil spills, riots, duplicitous politicians reneging on election promises, tax evading businessmen, personal freedoms infringed to fight terrorism, phone hacking allegations against the police, appallingly slow aid for earthquake-struck Haiti and flooded Pakistan, Obama having to fight his own nation to get free health care for those that need it most, Blair getting away with it, global recession, tax rises and austerity cuts ...

It hasn't all been bad news though. There was the rescue of the Chilean miners, Wikileaks, the near demolition of the BNP, the England cricket team's Ashes win, and ... er ...

Let's face it, on the whole, 2010 has been a bit shit. It certainly has been for me and I know that I'm not alone. Normally, I'd do a review of the year - the highs and lows, silly and serious stuff. But with it all being so overwhelmingly crappy, I thought, instead, that I'd write a tongue-in-cheek A-Z Guide to 2010. I hope it raises a smile or two. Goodness knows we need a few.

A is for Austerity. Welcome to 2011 and being poor. Or poorer. My house is worth less than it was when I bought it. VAT is going up. Petrol prices are mad - the other day it cost me £80 to drive to Cornwall and back in a pretty average gas-guzzling car. Oh, and I have a tax bill due. Thankfully, that shouldn't be too painful as I've pretty much earned bugger all this year; wherein lies another issue altogether. In February, I left the Met Police Service. I'd done my 30 years and I was eligible for my full police pension. I was offered the chance of a year by year contract renewal to stay on but, frankly, I'd had enough. There's only so long you can keep doing a job where you spend 40 hours a week trying to help people and keep them safe and yet every fecker hates you for it. Besides which, I'd had a book published and things were looking great for me. As it happens, if I had stayed on in the police, I'd have been let go by now; the '30+' officers were the first against the wall in the austerity cuts. Meanwhile, my book deal fell through and I found myself unwaged for the first time in three decades. Admittedly, I have a pension but it barely covers the mortgage and bills. I have no money at all for luxuries. All of which has meant being a little more canny with food and learning to be more frugal with water, electricity, gas etc. It's been a real eye-opener. It's quite amazing what you can do without any appreciable loss of lifestyle and still save lots of money. I've grown my own fruit and veg and learned to bake. It's even led to me experimenting with food that many would shy away from including cooking two pigs' heads which were, I have to say, delicious. I may miss out on the luxuries in 2011 but I won't starve. Which is a bugger as one of my New Year's Resolutions is to shed a few pounds. Maybe just the one pig's head today then ...

B is for BP. Oh dear. Wasn't that a feck up of the highest water? The highest detergent-soaked oily water at that. The incident had Americans marching through the streets with placards blaming BP for everything from global warming to alien abductions and the incident stirred up a lot of anti-British feeling. I suspect it's going to take a lot more than sponging off a few pelicans to rebuild BP's reputation. And by that I don't mean asking seabirds for money you oaf. Of course, look at oil spills globally and the Americans still win hands down. For example, on May 10th this year, ExxonMobile had an oil spill in Nigeria Delta. It was the 16th worst oil spill in world history, at 95,000 tonnes (696,350 barrels or 214,475,800 gallons). This dwarfs the BP oil spill and they are a regular occurrence in Nigeria, about 300 a year. It is estimated over the past 50 years about 1.5 million tons have been dumped in the Delta, equivalent to the Gulf War oil spill (the largest spill on record) or 50+ Exxon Valdez-sized spills. yet you don't hear that being discussed very often do you? The fact that the Deepwater Horizon spillage happened on their doorstep has, at least, stirred Americans up to the point that the world has started to ask questions and it's brought the activities of oil companies to public view. So maybe some good will come of it.

C is for Coalition ... and for another C word equally appropriate to describe the LibDems. I am genuinely appalled by their policy U-turns and supremely disappointed in the spinelessness of Nick Clegg. I didn't vote LibDem (I'm a Greenie through and through) but if you did, I am so sorry that your vote was wasted. It's a shameful time for British politics and if ever a parliament should be hung ... On the up-side, however, the British National Party took a right hammering - a whitewash? - and we can look forward to some great new comedy. It's a fact that all of the best funny stuff tends to happen under a Tory government because very few comedians are right wingers. Best joke so far? What's white and stops you going to work? David Cameron. Fnar. Okay, if you're reading this sometime in the Summer or in warmer climes that doesn't work. You need a good few inches of snow on the ground for the full effect.

D is for Dinosaurs. Stop killing them off you cladistic bastards! When I was a kid I developed a life-long love of dinosaurs. I'm still fascinated to this day. Like most kids, I made an effort to learn their clumsy Linnaean scientific names and wondered why they didn't have common names that were easier to speak and spell. I mean to say, we don't go around talking about Pan Troglodytes or Meles Meles do we? We say 'Chimp' and 'Badger'. So why do I have to try to pronounce a name like Tuojiangosaurus or Similicaudipteryx? Why can't they be called 'Spikey' and 'Flappy'? For that reason alone I suspect that we all tended to learn the easy-to-pronounce ones first. Brontosaurus. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Stegosaurus. Pterodactyl. Triceratops. Easy - although there was always some argument whether it was Diplo-doh-cuss or De-plod-oh-cuss, in much the same way we argue over the pronunciation of 'scone'. This little group of dinos became the Royal Family - the ones that everyone knew. So imagine my horror now that they've all started to disappear. Brontosaurus went a few years ago when it was discovered that he was actually an Apatosaurus instead. Bye bye Bronto. Pterodactyl never really existed anyway as he was an inaccurate generic term for a whole range of smaller pterosaurs. And now, in 2010, Steggy and Trikey are at risk. Research has revealed that Triceratops is probably just an immature form of Torosaurus and, according to Peter Galton, a curator at Yale's Peabody Museum, the first Stegosaurus specimen - described in 1877 - is too incomplete to compare with other fossils, which therefore invalidates the genus name. Instead, more complete stegosaurs such as Kentrosaurus, Lexovisaurus and the tongue-shredding Tuojiangosaurus may become the new holotype. Boooo! Incidentally, we are now - for the first time since the dinosaurs - making species extinct faster than new ones can evolve. We're officially unbalancing the biosphere. Go us.

E is for Easel. I've got mine out this year. As I've been effectively unemployed for 10 months and I've never been able to paint, I thought I'd teach myself. It's been great fun and I get better with every canvas. It may be that I have to rely more on my artistic skills than my writing skills in 2011 in the light of the publishing crisis. I'm certainly planning to run some art classes in a few months' time and I may even hold an exhibition. Watch this (gallery) space.

F is for Football. We lost the bid for the next couple of World Cups amid sour-grapes allegations of 'money always wins' and we crashed spectacularly out of the World Cup this year by playing like a bunch of drunken one-legged ducks who all hate other ducks. The competition was further marred by in-fighting and allegations of players shagging each other's WAGs. Deplorable. But, sadly, inevitable. I will happily admit that what I know about football could fit inside a kitten's fist but isn't our current system specifically designed to make the England national squad a failure? Firstly, look at what we pay the players. Rooney is on £180,000 per week. Yes, that's right - per week. At a time when VAT is being increased, child benefit is being stolen away from some couples who rely on it and higher education is being made available only to those who can afford it, he gets paid £180,000 per week for kicking a bag of wind around a field. The world's gone fucking mad. Believe me, I'm not bitter. I'd love to earn money like that! Good luck to them. But, that aside, is it any wonder that our footie players end up embroiled in sex and drugs scandals? Who wouldn't be tempted to the Dark Side if they had that kind of income to indulge themselves with? In addition, our football league system is built upon tribalism with club hating club so all of our players spend most of the professional careers playing against their national squad team mates. Then there's the fact that most teams seem to be made up of foreign nationals. That says to me that we're training the opposition, aren't we? Shouldn't we be putting our money into developing new home talent and getting them working together in time for the next World Cup? If you halved the money paid to our top players they'd still all be squillionaires and we'd have some money to invest in our sporting future at a time when the government is reducing investment. Just a thought.

G is for Gunmen. First there was Derrick Bird in Cumbria who killed 12 people. Then there was Raoul Moat. It's not been a good year for their victims or their families. My condolencies to them.

H is for Henhwedhlow. Which means legends or fairy tales in Cornish. After many years of slog, my book of Cornish folktales finally made it to print in 2010. If it gives you some idea how long I've been at it, my initial kick up the arse came from Douglas Adams several years before his untimely death. I knew that no mainstream publisher would touch it as it's too parochial. Plus, they're famous for not taking chances, a condition made infinitely worse by the recession. However, the Cornish Language Fellowship (Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek) embraced it and asked if they could publish it in Cornish. The translation was done by a splendid bard chap called Tony Hak and what eventually appeared was a book published in English and Cornish with the languages on facing pages. I donated the stories to Kowethas and I'll earn no money from it. But they may earn a few bob to help keep the language alive and that's a good thing. I'm proud of my heritage and I'm also proud to have written what is now the largest body of original modern Cornish prose in existence. 2011 will see me visiting my home county several times to do readings at various festivals. I can't wait.

I is for i-Pad. The must-have gadget of 2010. i-So want one. i-Can't afford it.

J is for Joke. When is a joke not a joke? When you post it on Twitter and it gets read by some numpty who takes it seriously, that's when. Back in January a trainee accountant called Paul Chambers was experiencing some frustration in his life. His local airport was closed by snow. In annoyance he left this comment on Twitter: 'Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!' Trainee accountant, remember? Not trainee Al Queda-trained terrorist. Not trainee IRA provisional. Not a disgruntled sociopath with a hatred of airports either. Just a normal guy expressing his frustration in the same way that we all do at times. However, to his utter surprise, Chambers found himself being arrested for issuing a 'genuine threat'? It's madness. I was a cop for 30 years and five minutes with the bloke would have easily convinced me that there was no threat and no intent to cause panic. Even the police officer investigating the case branded it a 'foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see'. It's blindingly obvious that there was no malice behind it. It even ended in a brace of comedy exclamation marks!! Terrorists don't do that!! They really don't!! See how silly it is!!? There was no intent to cause terror or to inflict terror and I'm damned sure that Chambers didn't have the capability to blow up an airport. Sadly, the Crown Prosecution Service didn't agree and took the matter to court in May where, to almost every sane person's dismay, he was found guilty and fined £385 and a £15 victim surcharge. Chambers decided to appeal and, unbelievably, he lost and was ordered to pay the outstanding fine plus new prosecution costs of £2,600. He's also been banned from Robin Hood Airport. Astonishing. In solidarity a bunch of us re-Tweeted his joke, word for word, along with the hashtag of #IamSpartacus in a parody of that film's most famous scene. Surely if he can be arrested for writing those words, shouldn't the thousands of us who did the same also be arested? What an appalling waste of time and money and what a damning insight into our out-dated and humourless judicial system.

K is for Kraft. If they fuck up Cadbury's chocolate I will become a terrorist and blow their factory sky high. #IamSpartacus.

L is for Leaks. Specifically Wikileaks. Julian Assange I salute you. I hope that the sexual assault allegations against you are, as the conspiricists claim, an attempt to smear your name and character. If not you deserve everything that you get. However, Wikileaks is bigger than Assange and the truth must always come out, especially when it shows illegality or immorality by the people we trust to run our countries. Interestingly, when Time Magazine asked readers to vote for 'person of the year', they voted overwhelmingly for Assange with a total of 1,249,425; that's 148,383 votes more than the silver medalist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey. So who did the magazine make their Person of the Year? Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg who actually came 10th in the poll. Feck you readers! What do you know with your purchasing power. What? Oh ...

M is for Miners. What can I say? The rescue of the Chilean miners was a triumph of human ingenuity and courage. Sadly, however, the wrong person got all the credit. As writer and blogger Piers Beckley wrote: 'A few moments ago, the Chilean president came on television, thanking God for the rescue of these men. Others have also praised God for His help in this matter. Sebastián Piñera was, of course, incorrect. It was men who organised the operation. Men who designed the equipment. Men who drilled the shaft. Men who worked day and night for the last two months. Men who have saved the lives of these 33 people. God? He's just the fucker that dropped a mountain on those miners in the first place.' As an atheist and sceptic, I couldn't agree more. I found it almost insulting to see the efforts of so many dedicated rescue workers swept aside in favour of a being who, if he/she/it actually exists, would have caused the disaster in the first place. The same being, incidentally, who obviously hates the Chinese. For even as the last Chileans were being winched to freedom, 115 Chinese miners were also trapped underground with little hope of rescue and surviving on eating cardboard. And why would they be hopeful? Mining disasters are as common as dog farts over there and the world conveniently ignores it because it is over there. In 2003 China accounted for 80% of the world’s total coal-mining fatalies, although it produced only 35% of the world’s coal. Official figures show that, in the first six months of this year, 3,393 miners perished in accidents that occurred on an almost weekly basis. In July alone, 126 mine accidents claimed 329 lives. Political commentator Wang Zhi’an believes that the lack of proper safety equipment and facilities is mainly due to the absence of government regulation on safety standards. Safety and shelter facilities require capital investment as well as human effort and other resources; if the cost of death is lower, then mining enterprises prefer cash compensation (to families of the dead miners) instead. Nice.

N is for Natural Disasters. An earthquake in Haiti followed by cholera. Flash floods in Madiera. Earthquakes in Chile and China. Volcanic ash clouds in Iceland. Catastrophic floods in Pakistan. Wildfires in Russia. Hundreds of thousands dead. Millions affected. And on a much less damaging scale but irritating nonetheless - two lots of snow that have caused chaos where I live. Hasn't God been busy this year? How anyone can continue to believe in the fecker amazes me.

O is for Obama. He's had a rough ride in his first year, bless him. His popularity is down and he's been fought every inch of the way by bigoted right wing loons, intolerant Christian fundamentalists and blinkered good ol' boys who can't see anything beyond US borders. His election win was a glorious day for American democracy. Let's just hope the nutjobs can be slapped back enough to let him make the reforms that will make the USA a much better place to live than it already is.

P is for Promises, promises. It would be so easy to whinge here about Nick Clegg and the LibDem's U-Turn on university fees. Words cannot express my anger at him and his party. The Tories? Well, I kind of expected it from them as they've always been a party that favours the well-endowed moneywise. Now, it seems, even an education is no longer a right but a privilege for the privileged. My kids have all grown up now. And I'm glad because I couldn't fund their higher education and it's an appalling thought that in order to have an education, they'd need to enter an adult working life with a huge millstone of debt around their necks. Instead, I am going to have a whinge at spineless book retailers and publishers instead. When I sold my first book Joined-Up Thinking, I got a great advance for it and all was looking great - excellent reviews, cover quotes by Stephen Fry and the QI crowd and the trade magazines nominated it as a definite top Christmas seller ... but it didn't work out that way. The retailers bottled at the last minute, reneged on their promises and the book disappeared under the weight of a celebrity autobiography wankfest (For the full story, read this rather dour post here). It all meant that the sequel I'd been asked to write will probably never see the light of day and the new book I wrote was turned down due to my 'poor sales'. Sigh. I might write a book called 'How to feck a career with one broken promise.' But who'd publish it? The good news is ... celebrity biography book sales have been dreadful. There's hope for me yet.

Q is for QI. The one beacon of light in my career this year has been Quite Interesting Ltd. John Lloyd CBE (as awarded in the New Year's Honours list and quite richly deserved) and his merry band of elves have embraced me and welcomed me and some of my happiest days this year have been spent with them and working for them. I saw several shows recorded and met many of the cast and crew. I also enjoyed watching the recording of all six episodes of the 'spin-off' radio series The Museum of Curiosity, hosted by Lloydy and produced by Dan Schreiber and Rich Turner where I met wonderful people like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Richard Wiseman, Jon Ronson, Sarah Millican, Suggs and Leigh Francis. The year culminated in me drawing and co-writing eight pages for the QI H Annual 2011 and doing the covers for The EFG Bumper Book of QI Annuals. Plus my artwork was shown on the TV show and Stephen gave me a name check. The good news is that my relationship with QI may will be continuing and maybe expanding in the new year. Certainly, I'll enjoy every opportunity I am offered.

R is for Radio. Congratulations to 6 Music. Glad you survived the cull. What a great station.
And a big 'Wooo!' for Radio 4 which continues to delight and entertain me in ways TV never will. Highlights this year included The Museum of Curiosity, Bleak Expectations, The Goodies Reunited, The League of Gentlemen's Ghost Chase, Fry's English Delight, Dom Jolly's Me and my Mobile plus all the perennial favourites such as I'm sorry I haven't a clue, Brain of Britain and Just a minute. May you broadcast forever.

S is for Sherlock. The first time I've ever said 'No shit Sherlock' and meant it. Wasn't it good? Stephen Moffat can do no wrong it seems and Mark Gatiss was an able accomplice. I liked the teaming of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman too. More please.

T is for Tax, non-payment of. And Top Shop. What can I say? How extraordinary that Vodafone's unpaid tax bill is almost penny for penny what the government needs from us in austerity cuts. And as for Top Shop ... I don't condone violence or criminal damage but, if any of their clothes fitted my lardy body, I'd boycott them. Oh yes. Grr.

U is for University fees. Grrr. It's also for Unicorns. Which existed, apparently. Kentucky's state-backed $150 million creationist theme park, The Ark Encounter, will allow visitors to explore a literal interpretation of the Bible's story of Noah and the ark. Incredibly, the official blog of the group claims that dinosaurs (or 'dragons') and unicorns were on the Ark. They say that: 'Being land animals, dinosaurs (or dragons of the land) were created on Day Six (Genesis 1:24–31), went aboard Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6:20), and then came off the Ark into the post-Flood world (Genesis 8:16–19). It makes sense that many cultures would have seen these creatures from time to time before they died out.' And here's their position on Biblical unicorns: 'The biblical unicorn was a real animal, not an imaginary creature. ... The absence of a unicorn in the modern world should not cause us to doubt its past existence. (Think of the dodo bird. It does not exist today, but we do not doubt that it existed in the past.). ... To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God’s Word, which is true in every detail.' I did say it was 2011 this year and not 1711 didn't I? Hang your head in shame Kentucky.

V is for Vuvezela and Volcanoes. It was the sound of the Summer. An irritating, dischordant blast of mind-scraping cacophony. How I hated the vuvuzela. I bet they're here to stay though. I bet every fecking footie match this year will feature those hateful African trumpets. Thank goodness I'm not a footie fan. Another annoying cone-shaped object this year was the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which caused absolute travel chaos back in April. Who'd have thought we'd ever see airport signs in the UK saying 'Flights cancelled due to volcanic activity'?

W is for Who. 2010 saw the debut of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor and a mighty fine job he made of it too. David Tennant was always going to be a bastard of an act to follow but Smith has done himself proud. I'll admit that I started watching his first series with a growing sense of disappointment. I blogged about it here having watched half the series and ended by saying, 'The show is still head and shoulders above much TV drama but it can be, and has been, so much better. I still love the show but I want to love it more.' I am pleased to say that the Moff didn't disappoint and the series ended with me wearing a big grin on my face. I'm still not entirely sure how the Doctor got out of the Pandorica but I loved the sheer pace and stupidity of it, fez, mop and all. The Christmas special was not too shabby either so roll on 2011. While we're on the Ds I'll also mention Dirk Gently, the long-awaited TV adaptation of the adventures of Douglas Adams' holistic detective. Stephen Mangan was born to play the part and I enjoyed it very much. Yes, it played havoc with the characters in the original book. Yes, it had a whole new murder plot. And yes, there was that huge gaffe in that an i-Phone apparently kept its charge in a box for over 20 years. But Douglas famously arsed around with plots and characters himself and the various forms of the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy all contradict each other. I'd like to think that Dirk Gently the series (if it gets one and I hope it does) will be 'the further adventures of ...' The character deserves a good outing on TV.

X is for ... 2010 was not big on xylophone news or stories concerning King Xerxes. I suppose I could say 'X Rays' and mention the intrusive full body scanners being introduced at airports. I guess that the indignity of having strangers laugh at my willy means that the terrorists have finally won. Privacy campaigners claim the images created by the machines are so graphic they amount to 'virtual strip-searching' and have called for safeguards to protect the privacy of passengers involved. There is also the fact that images of children made this way actually contravene the law by making indecent naked images of minors. All I know is that we're all paying the price for the actions of a few nutters and you're still more likely to die in a kettle-related accident than from terrorist activity. No picture here as they all show nudity which kind of defeats the object of me complaining about them.

Y is for Yahoo! Well done to the England cricket team for its spectacular Ashes win in Australia. Well played lads!

Z is for Zebedee. Time for bed for these wonderfully talented people who we lost this year: Norman Wisdom, Leslie Nielson, J D Salinger, Jean Simmons, Erich Segal, Teddy Pendergrass, Johnny Dankworth, Ian Carmichael, Alexander McQueen, Dick Francis, Corey Haim, Peter Graves, Robert Culp, John Forsythe, Christopher Cazenove, Malcolm McClaren, Lynn Redgrave, Ronnie James Dio, Gary Coleman, Dennis Hopper, Louise Bourgeois, Rue McClanahan, Maury Chaykin, Ivy Bean (world's oldest Tweeter aged 104), Mitch Miller, Jack Parnell, Glenn Shadix, Kevin McCarthy, Eddie Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Tony Curtis, Stephen J Cannell, Roy Ward Baker, Joan Sutherland, Simon MacCorkindale, Benoit Mandelbrot, Tom Bosley, Ari Up, Bob Guccione, Gregory Isaacs, Jill Clayburgh, Dino de Laurentis, Irvin Kirschner, Blake Edwards, Bobby Farrell, Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) and Paul the Psychic Octopus.

Happy New Year everybody. Let's all hope that 2011 is a damned sight better for us all.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

241543903 - the strangest meme

Just type 241543903 into Google and do an image search. What you'll find is hundreds of photos of people putting their heads inside freezers. Really. You will.

241543903 (a.k.a Heads in Freezers) is a numerical keyword photo meme. By tagging a series of image files with a cryptic number, a high level of SEO (search engine optimisation) can be easily achieved on search engine sites. As a result, typing 241543903 into Google Images successfully yields page after page of pictures ... showing people with their heads in freezers.

On April 6, 2009, David Horvitz, a New York based artist known for his often eccentric DIY projects, posted a picture with his head in the freezer on his Flickr account San Pedro Glue Stick. Under the image, it read:


On the same day, another Flickr user posted a follow-up picture using the same freezer. A few weeks later on April 23rd, a single topic blog dedicated to 'Heads in Freezer, was registered under the domain The site’s main page displays a headline that reads: Experiencing a MEME in the Making. Since then it's gone from strength to strength.

Okay, so it's all a bit silly and a bit of fun. But it's also an interesting social experiment about the human need to belong and be part of something. As writer and broadcaster Danny Wallace found, people will sign up for anything just to be part of something - even if they sometimes don't know what it is. In his book Join Me, he tells the story of how he accidentally created a cult with thousands of followers just by asking people to 'Join me!' and send a photo to a magazine's PO box number.

We're an odd bunch aren't we?

Want to know more about memes? Click here. It's the 'Know your meme' website.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New painting - Hotlegs!

Some minor tweaks tomorrow when the paint is dry but I'm just about there. Another 24 hour painting inspired by suggestions from Twitter chums.

It's very clever but is it art?

Like that picture? It's a pencil drawing. It really is. It's NOT a photograph. And nor are these:

They're all pencil drawings, as are all the pictures in this blog post. They were drawn by Paul Lung, a Hong Kong-based graphic designer, who specialises in creating utterly photorealistic drawings using a 0.5 mm technical pencil. The 38-year-old spends up to 60 hours on each drawing. Here's his self-portrait:

He has an extraordinary skill and I'm sure, like me, the majority of you went 'Wow!' I bet you still can't quite believe that you're looking at drawings rather than photos. But I wonder how many of you also share my confusion over whether his pictures qualify as art or not? Let me expand on that.

Art, like language and music, is what separates us from every other species on this planet. Creating art is making something from nothing, it's an expression of our personalities. And because we're all different, the art we create is all different. A Picasso doesn't look like a Chagall. A Mondrian doesn't look like a Banksy. Even conceptual pieces - think of Damien Hirst's pickled shark or Tracey Emin's unmade bed for example - carry something of the artist with them. It's all very well saying 'Anyone could put a shark in a tank' ... but they didn't, did they? Hirst did because it's a very Hirst idea.

But when I look at one of Lung's extraordnarily skilled pencil drawings, I see nothing of the artist. It's a carbon copy of a photograph. There's no emotion, no story, no interpretation, nothing except exemplary mechanical draughtsmanship. And that's why I find myself asking these questions; if you could programme a computer to drive a pencil to create an exact replica of a photo, would it be art? A photocopier deposits toner onto paper creating an exact replica of a photo - just like Lung's pencils. But is that art? Can the photographs that Lung works from be called art too? If not, and they're simply visual records or photo-journalism, does copying them with a pencil turn them into art even though the image remains essentially unchanged?

It's a quandary isn't it? Art is such a difficult thing to define. What Lung is demonstrating to me is a highly developed ability to 'see'; to transfer what the eye perceives to the hand and the paper. But is that a technical skill or is it art? People can be capable of the most incredibly intricate and precise physical actions: a brain surgeon knows that one tiny slip could radically affect the patient forever; a watchmaker can assemble hundreds of tiny components into a working timepiece; a jeweller can cut facets into a diamond the size of a pinhead. But they are all working to a template, following a set pattern of rules and instructions. There's very little free expression involved. Part A follows Part B to complete Stage One and so on and so on. Is that any different to what Lung does? Isn't he just copying a photo, line for line, tone for tone, like some human photocopier?

This post is not meant to in any way put down Mr Lung who, as I say, is an extraordinarily gifted man. However, the 'Wow' factor comes from learning that it's a pencil drawing rather than a photo. So the thing that amazes me, and probably you, is his skill and not the artwork itself. And that, dear reader, is why I wonder whether it is art - surely it's the picture and not the person that we should be admiring?


Monday, December 20, 2010

Respect for animals - from Nose to Tail

It's my second day of being snowed in. Here in happy Hazlemere we've had about eight to ten inches of the stuff and, last night, we were in the coldest zone in the UK. Temperatures in Chesham, just a few miles down the road, reached minus 14. And as the area sits smack bang in the middle of the Chilterns, a lot of roads are still unpassable or too treacherously hilly to attempt travel. It's buggered up my plans for Christmas but aaaahhh isn't it pretty?

I took a stroll down to my local shops this morning but the shelves were looking pretty empty. Partly it's due to panic buying by people who equate a few inches of frozen water to a zombie apocalypse, but it's also due to a lack of deliveries. But I'm okay. I have food. And that's because I will eat just about anything.

As you know, I grew up in Cornwall. I had a comfortable childhood although there was never a great deal of money. Food, however, was never an issue. We grew a lot of our own fruit and veg. We had chickens for eggs and ... well, chicken. And my family come from a long line of hunting and fishing types. There were always shotguns and fishing rods in the house. Dad would go walking the dogs most mornings with one or more of us three kids tagging along and would usually come home with something edible; a brace of rabbits or woodpigeons most commonly. And that's what we ate: rabbit, pigeon, woodcock, pheasant, duck ... supplemented by pollack, sea bass, gurnard, crabs, lobsters and any number of flatfish. We picked mussels and winkles at local beaches and used salt to lure razor shells to the surface. At the time I felt like a pauper compared to schoolfriends who boasted of beef and pork and lamb. Now, I realise, I ate bloody well and much more healthily than they did with their pre-packed, water-injected, factory farmed, hormone-pumped supermarket meat.

Dad in 1958 (aged 18) and 1983

When we got old enough, Dad introduced me and my two brothers to guns. I started with a single-barrelled 410 shotgun and soon progressed to 12 bores. I was also taught the arcane art of ferreting. My grandad, and a near neighbour and shooting chum of Dad's called Ronnie, kept ferrets and we used them to flush the rabbits out of their warrens. Part of the package of learning to shoot was responsibility. That meant respect for the gun and respect for the animals. It was hammered into me that your finger didn't go to the trigger until you had a clear shot and that you didn't fire unless you were sure of a good hit; by good, I mean that the animal would die instantaneously and humanely. Dad could't abide cruelty (Plus, an animal in pain and distress becomes flushed with adrenalin and other hormones that makes the meat taste bad). On the very rare occasion that a shot didn't kill outright, I was shown how to despatch the animal quickly to cut short any suffering. Then there was the job of preparing the animal to eat. In the case of birds, that meant plucking and 'drawing' (removing the innards). Rabbits, meanwhile, were skinned and 'paunched'; head and feet removed with the skin and the innards taken out. It was important not to tear the rabbits' gut, which was filled with semi-digested grass and other vegetable matter. I did muck it up and few times and I'll remember that smell until the day I die. Not alot smells as bad as the inside of a rabbit.

Me in 1983, aged 22

So why am I 'swinging the lamp' and recounting childhood memories? It because that childhood taught me two things: firstly to treat animals fairly, humanely and without cruelty; and, secondly, to respect the fact that if an animal has died for my benefit I should do it some justice and make the most of all it has to offer. There is nothing more insulting than to waste it. It makes its death pointless. Consequently, I am a great believer in 'nose to tail' cookery; using every part of the beast that I can.

Even a common domestic chicken will give me at least three meals. I insist on free range. Organic is good too but the main issue for me is that the chicken has had as natural a life as possible. Meal one may be a roast using the breast and leg meat. Meal two may be cold cuts or a curry. Meal three involves boiling the carcase for stock - it's amazing how much meat there is left even after two meals - and I'll make a soup or a risotto maybe. The final stage is the carcase going out on my garage flat roof where the local red kites and crows can enjoy a meal too. Very little goes into the green bins for the dustmen. I feel the same with animals too - I try to use everything I can. I am a huge fan of offal and happily guzzle livers and kidneys. I also make terrines with tongues and tails and have even made my own haggis and sausages. For me, it's all meat. What is the difference between eating a leg or a cheek? Look at your own body. It's all the same skin, muscle and bone wherever you look so why discriminate?

To prove my point, a couple of days ago I took delivery of a couple of pigs' heads. Yes, I can hear some of you going all wobbly already. But bear with me. A friend of a friend keeps pigs but he can never utilise the heads as his kids are far to squeamish to consider it. So they get thrown away. 'Not this year!' I said. So I got them home, gave them a clean (the abbatoir had done a good job) and then a shave. Yes, a shave. With a Gilette disposable. Pigs are hairy buggers and the steaming during slaughter doesn't always get every whisker. Next, I boned the heads, removing all of the flesh, fat and skin like a mask. I won't post photos and risk upsetting some of you but there are several informative videos on YouTube. I then removed a fair bit of the fat; it's quite deep on the face which is why pigs' heads are used to make pork scratchings. Did you know that? Trust me, it's not finest belly pork going into those foil packets. Because people won't eat the heads, that's where they go - into a factory. There's a lot of skin on a pig's head and it ll makes wonderful crackling.

I boiled the bones for stock then got rid of them. I then dressed the face meat - mostly from the cheeks - with a rub of garlic, rosemary, mustard, olive oil and oregano and then rolled and tied it with a good layer of crackling all around. Then I roasted it. And you have never tasted better pork in your life. A pig is essentially an eating machine so the cheek muscles are very well-used. Consequently the meat they give is dark, incredibly tender and flavoursome. It melted in the mouth. The ears and snouts, incidentally, I roasted for my dogs as a treat.

We are a hugely wasteful society. I'd rather people became vegetarians than underuse the animals that have died for them. There's no escaping the fact that if you eat meat, you're eating lumps of a dead animal. It's muscle, skin, bones, organs and connective tissue and that's fine, it really is. We have evolved to eat meat and it is a pleasure to do so. I have no more qualms about eating a chicken than a fox does. However, if you eat meat, spare a thought for that animal and make its death worthwhile. Use as much of it as you can. You'll be saving lives. If I can make a chicken last three meals, it means that I will buy one chicken instead of three, so that's two chickens that don't need to die for my benefit. And if I can get four delicious roasts and a brace of terrines (which I have done) out of a couple of pigs' heads that would otherwise have been thrown away, then I've spared a pig.

It's my choice to be a carnivore. But with that choice comes respect for the animals I eat and a desire to see as few of them die for my benefit as possible.

If you fancy learning more about this subject I recommend any of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage books. I also got a lot from Anissa Helou's offal cookbook The Fifth Quarter. The bible, however, is Fergus Henderson's wonderful Nose to Tail Eating: A kind of British Cooking and its sequel.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

You have to thank the dinosaurs for your Christmas turkey

According to New Scientist magazine, the ancestors of the dinosaurs may have sported feathers long before the first dino took a leap of faith. Here's their web feature in full:

Until China's feathered dinosaurs were discovered, the only fossil evidence for feather evolution came from archaeopteryx – and that wasn't very informative as its feathers were essentially modern. The Chinese fossils have changed all that. Although younger than archaeopteryx, the haul includes dinosaurs sporting what are presumed to be all stages of feather evolution, from simple filaments to fully formed flight feathers.

Last year Xu and his colleagues described the simplest type of "protofeather" – stiff hair-like filaments on the body of a therizinosaur, Beipiaosaurus (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 106, p 832). Feathers gradually became more complex, turning into the veined "pennaceous" feathers suitable for flight (Integrative Zoology, vol 1, p 4).

Exactly when feathers first appeared is not clear. Xu and his colleagues think that protofeathers pre-date the dinosaurs, first appearing on an archosaur ancestor 245 million years ago. All of the evidence points to feathers arising long before flight. "The first feathers probably evolved for display," says Xu. He believes they were too stiff and too unevenly distributed to serve as insulation. Others don't rule out the role of insulation. "Feathers could easily have evolved for both insulation and display. Very few structures in nature do just one thing," says Turner.

Two main scenarios have been put forward to explain how dinosaurs became airborne. The "ground up" hypothesis holds that small and speedy theropods with long, feathered arms took to the air with running jumps. The other, more widely favoured scenario is "trees down", with flight evolving among tiny feathered dinosaurs that took to the trees to escape predators or find food.

The recent discovery of Microraptor supports this view. This 75-centimetre-long dromaeosaur had flight feathers on both its legs and arms, suggesting that it could not have run along the ground. Instead, it probably used four "wings" to glide or weakly flap from tree to tree (Nature, vol 421, p 335). Although Microraptor is not on the bird lineage, Xu believes it preserves a four-winged gliding stage that birds went through on their way to powered flight.

Long leg feathers have also been found in other bird-like dinosaurs, notably Anchiornis (a troodontid) and the enigmatic Pedopenna, which may be a bird (Naturwissenschaften, vol 92, p 173). Xu's claim is controversial, however. "Long leg feathers may have been unconnected to the evolution of flight and I do not believe that birds went through a four-winged phase," says Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Whether any other feathered dinosaurs evolved powered flight isn't clear, but once birds had mastered it they soared ahead. An enormous range of habitats, in the air, over water, in trees and on islands, became available and new species proliferated.

Author: James O'Donoghue, a writer based in Essex, UK.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

I'm in a fridge for Christmas

June the 3rd 2009 was a good day. As I reported here, I was one of a number of extras who took part in filming the triumphant finale of Tony Hawks' film version of his bestselling book Around Ireland with a fridge. We were in exotic Wimbledon rather than Dublin but still, a great experience, and I made some dear friends.

The film didn't make a cinema release sadly - what Brit films do these days? - but it is now available on DVD and implore you to give it a go. Like the book it is by turns hilarious, poignant, insane and heartbreaking and boasts some great performances, especially from the criminally under-exposed Sean Hughes who's been almost invisible since leaving Buzzcocks.
Do have a look at it. It's here on Amazon. Well worth a view. And you may spot my imposing bulk for a second or two (see screengrabs - I'm the beardy bloke in the grey short-sleeved top).

Golden Times

Here are two 'specials' advertising a popular Norwegian (and not Swedish as I previoulsy posted - wrist slapped) TV show called Gylne Tider (Golden Times). The format of the show involves the presenter Øyvind Mund, cameraman Steinar Marthinsen and sound engineer Ingar Thorsen travelling all over the world to meet their favourite stars of stage, screen and TV. The promotional videos for each series - in which the celebrity guests all mime singing a line of a well-known charity single - have become YouTube viral sensations and here are the last two. Where else would you see Bergerac, the Incredible Hulk and James Bond in the same video?

Or Luke Skywalker, J R Ewing, Pat Sharp and Peter Shilton even? Joyous. Mental, but joyous.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Not just about pasties and piskies ...

‘All power to Stevyn Colgan and his project to preserve Cornish myth, legend and song. Who knows; as a result some Penzance Wagner may write the Cornish Ring Cycle and won’t the world be pleased? There’s more to Cornwall than Padstow, pasties and ‘P*** off you grockles’ and Colgan is doing the ancient kingdom a great service.’ - Stephen Fry

It's finally here after two years of translations, budget juggling, editing and illustrating ... my book of Cornish folktales, Henhwedhlow.

In the book I take eight Cornish tales and give them a 21st century tweak. As I explain in my foreword:

'If you know the original stories, you’ll see that I’ve modernised the language, added some new characters, removed others, played havoc with history and taken some diabolical liberties with the plots. I make no apologies for this. I’ve done it all with a genuine warmth and love for the original tales. I’ve also injected a good dollop of humour into what were sometimes dull, gloomy or pointlessly cruel stories. If we don’t make them relevant to children today, they’ll remain the property of academics and our kids will lose sight of them forever.'

I was prompted to write the book after discovering that the children of an old schoolfriend knew Hans Anderson's The Little Mermaid but not the Mermaid of Zennor. And they live in Zennor. It seemed to me that most British fairy stories exist only in dusty academic tomes or regional book imprints. While it's vitally important to archive and preserve our heritage (and I support so many ventures that do) I wanted kids to know them as well as they know fairy stories from Europe, Scandinavia and elsewhere. And that meant making them resonate with modern values and mores. So I set to work re-writing a bunch of them, spurred on by the late Douglas Adams (it's that old a project, bless him) and the wonderful Stephen Fry. Originally, I put them up on my website (here) along with lots of information about Cornish folklore generally. But, in the last couple of years, they caught the attention of Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (the Cornish Language Fellowship) and I agreed to let them translate the stories into Cornish and publish the book as an aid to learning the language.

I think it's so important that we in the UK don't lose these wonderful tales. I want people worldwide to be as familiar with Bolster the giant, Twm Sion Cati and the Laidly Worm as they are with Hansel and Grethel, Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin. I hope that authors in other counties do what I've done for Cornwall; take those old tales and give them some resonance with today's children. I'm reliably informed that the book is the largest original piece of Cornish language writing in the world! Wow. I'm so proud to be a part of that.*

I'm hugely indebted to bard Tony Hak for the translation work and to Hazel Alexander for the editing and DTP work. And to Stephen and bard Howard Curnow who kindly provided the cover quotes.

Henhwedhlow by Stevyn Colgan

ISBN 978-1-899342-63-1

‘Long before the Dark Ages and long, long before the Pitch Black Ages, there was a time called the Dim Ages when unbelievably stupid Giants lumbered across the Cornish landscape ...’

Ugly mermaids, a man who eats cowpats for a bet, mischievous piskys and a truly rubbish witch … You’ll meet them all in this hilarious book. Stevyn Colgan takes eight classic Cornish folktales and re-tells them for a modern audience. Here you’ll find wicked Jan Tregeagle, Mrs Trezillian and her fantastic hair, the pisky who made the hole in the Men-an-Tol and Sister Agnes – the killer nun!

Uniquely, the book is published with both English (Sowsnek) and Cornish (Kernewek) text and can be used as an aid to learning the language.

Henhedhlow - Cornish faerie stories as you’ve never seen them before.

Book £14 (£13 for Kowethas members)

Cover quotes from Stephen Fry and Bard Howard Curnow

Publisher: Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek (Cornish Language Fellowship)

Available from Kowethas and Yeth Kernewek: Tel. 01503 220445, e-mail:

Also available from bookshops in Cornwall or Tor Mark Press, Tel: 01209 822101, e-mail:

*Many existing books have been translated into Cornish from Spot the Dog to the Bible. However, Henhedhlow is the largest new original work in the language.

A well rounded review

I was alerted last night (via @wiggioloz on Twitter) that a website called Good Reads had featured my book Joined-Up Thinking. As you may (or may not) know, the book takes the form of 30 short chapters, or 'rounds', in which a series of interesting facts are linked together into a circular chain; you start at the beginning and leapfrog your way through until you come back to where you started. So I had a look at the website and was delighted to read comments that were complimentary but which also said that 'once you've read a few rounds you want to have a go yourself. And someone has! Here's a round created by Trevor from Melbourne. Well done Sir! I am hugely flattered. x

My friend Nell sent me this nice book. Of course, I mean nice in the modern sense and not any of its old meanings. Nice started life meaning foolish and senseless and then meant wanton and loose – along the way it has also meant strange, slothful, lazy, effeminate, delicate, over-refined, shy, dainty, trivial and finally agreeable or kind. It has been a very busy word.

English is considered to have more words than any other language, so you might wonder why nice has needed to have quite so many meanings. Of course, deciding how many words a language has is not an easy matter – the fact is that it is quite impossible. All languages have words for numbers, for example, and we all know there is an infinite number of those and so all languages must have an infinite number of words.

Some numbering systems are much more logical than others. It is hard to imagine that the placement system which seems so obvious and logical to us today actually had a hard time getting accepted and that some of the greatest of mathematicians did all of their mathematics using numbers that did not use it. I used to believe that this would make doing multiplication hard, except they didn’t actually do multiplication with Roman Numerals, but rather with an abacus. Roman Numerals were only used for recording calculations, not for actually calculating them. It seems also true that the fact that some languages use logical names for their numbers positively affects how well their children learn mathematics.

Asian languages tend to have names for numbers that directly relate to the numbers or fractions being described and are also consistent with the numbers’ placement system. So that 14 will be ten four rather than the very odd English fourteen which is backwards and confuses kids even more by sounding remarkably like our word for 40.

Life is supposed to begin at 40, but really, for me it began in Northern Ireland. I mention this because this book was sent to me for my birthday. I’ve only just learnt that one of my heroes was also born in Northern Ireland – James Burke, most famous for his television series The Day the Universe Changed and Connections. Both of which ought to be compulsory viewing. In Connections he shows how no single event or discovery in history is unconnected to its time. Sometimes those connections and the consequences of them are surprising or even shocking. They are always interesting. This book does for trivia what Burke did for history, shows a series of fascinatingly linked up facts.

The most famous Burke in Australian history was the Irish policeman with an appropriate looking long beard who died on the misadventure to the Cape of Carpentaria known as the Burke and Wills Expedition. Burke was forced to take Ludwig Becker with him, a German scientific artist, socialist and, well, to be frank another hero of mine. Becker at the time was in his fifties and Burke felt that if Becker lived through the expedition people would say it couldn’t have been all that hard – so he effectively worked Becker to death. An act of cruelty and stupidity that pretty much summed up this ‘scientific expedition’ and explains why you don't put a jock in charge of science.

James Burke made his name covering another scientific expedition – the Apollo mission - as a journalist. I had always assumed he must have been a professor of history somewhere, but instead his life and interests sound disturbingly similar to mine. Of course, for anyone interested in ideas history is an inevitable attraction, just as anyone interested in words will tend to end up interested in poetry.

For a lot of people poetry is too much like hard work, but the odd thing is how frequently lines of poetry spring into one’s mind at unexpected times. This is often true in what I guess could be called ‘crisis points’ in one’s life. Excessive joy or pain are particularly prone for this little trick poetry likes to play – although sometimes the connection as to why a line of Keats should suddenly come to mind while we are eating muscles may remain forever obscure. Such being but one of the happenstances of life.

HappenStance Press is a poetry publisher specialising in poetry pamphlets. It has produced some delightful books of poetry by some wonderful poets – a breed of person that our world could do with more of. It was set up by my very dear friend of a thousand names, one of which is Helena Nelson. There is a lovely saying that a favourite child tends to have more names than God. One of the other names I know Ms Nelson by is Nell.

My friend Nell sent me this nice book ...

Saturday, December 04, 2010