Friday, November 30, 2007

Respect is due

While negotiations continue on selling the rights to my first book, I just wanted to congratulate a friend of mine who has pipped me to the publishing post.

Joel Meadows is a terrific writer and columnist who started his own magazine over a decade ago. Tripwire was (and still is) the best, independently owned comics and film review magazine on the market. It's had its ups and downs as any creator-owned title does but Joel has stuck with it and has never dropped the quality of his product. He is highly respected in the comics and film world and can count many artists and writers among his friends.

This year saw the Tripwire title refreshed and invigorated with the 2007 Tripwire Annual. But now Joel has landed a deal with Image Comics to produce his first book for them - Studio Space. Using their well-earned connections, Joel and co-author Gary Marshall have visited many of the world's top comic artists at their personal studios to interview them about their careers and methods of work and the working environments they've created for themselves. Among the luminaries featured are Mike Mignola, Brian Bolland, Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Tim Sale, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot, Steve Dillon, Sergio Toppi, Jim Lee and many more.

Studio Space goes on sale in 2008. More news closer to publication date. Buy it in your thousands.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rod, Back. Back, Rod.

Having been so polemical in my last post I find myself in a quandary.

One of my greatest pleasures in life is celebrating the not very good. I adore finding books and films and pieces of music, art, and poetry that are unintentionally bad. They make me laugh while, at the same time, I salute their creators for their unshakeable self-belief. Ed D Wood did make some of the funniest films of all time but set out to expose some serious celluloid. Jess Conrad and Mrs Miller recorded songs that have made me weep with laughter although they recorded them in all seriousness. The poetry of William McGonagall and Julia Moore have made me choke on my lunch.

But can I balance my newly found non-snobbery with getting enjoyment from such things? Oh dear. I may have sabotaged myself here ...

Last First

I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC4 yesterday on band leader, composer and king of so-called Easy Listening - James Last.

It’s very easy to be snobbish about music. I do it myself. I try to be humble and kind and conciliatory to my friends’ music choices, but every so often the Snob sneaks out of my upturned nostrils and has his say. It happened recently when the mysterious Me– my dear friend Debbie – announced that she had tickets for live performances by both Take That and McFly. Immediately and without any consideration for her taste and feelings I launched into what I thought was a humorous tirade of abuse. Plastic pop ... Formulaic ... MOR ... the words slipped from my tongue like acid. It was only later that I realised how unkind I had been. And how blisteringly, callously snobbish. What right have I to denigrate another person’s taste? Isn’t all taste valid? As Margaret Wolfe Hungerford said ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The sentiment may be older – possibly even originating in classical Greece - but Margaret was the first to coin the phrase in modern literature … and she hit the nail on the head.

I have become a snob. As a society, we’ve become snobbish. We all have opinions and we feel the need - indeed insist on our right - to express them. Football fans jeer from the terraces, expressing their views on the state of play. Demonstrators march upon Downing Street to express their opinions on aspects of the law or some perceived erosion of their civil rights. Phone-ins and chat shows appeal for people’s opinions. We’re all encouraged to ‘have our say’ and to complain about the service we receive. The tabloids, it seems to me, are nothing but opinion wrapped around a fulsome pair of baps. But, and here’s the rub, opinion by its very nature can only ever be a personal view of the world. It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It just is.

Tell that to the critics; that curious breed of person whose opinions are apparently of more importance than others.

A few years ago – back in the early 1980s I guess – the late Ludovic Kennedy used to have a show on BBC2 called Did you see? in which he and guest reviewers looked back over the week’s television schedule. I distinctly remember them discussing the phenomenon of Aussie soap Neighbours. It was a pretty new show at the time and we hadn’t seen anything quite like it before in the UK. The reviewers savaged it for its crappy sets, poor acting and banal storylines. But then Ludovic played Devil’s Advocate: ‘Surely’, he said, ‘It can’t be that bad? Millions of people watch it.’ Robbie Coltrane then retorted (and you’ll pardon me if I don’t remember this verbatim after 25-odd years), ‘Aye but millions of people pick their nose and eat it. That doesn’t make it a good thing.’ Big Rab and the panel were expressing their opinions – just four or five people’s critical reviews – but those opinions carried weight because they were ‘on the telly’. The millions of people who love Neighbours were simply swatted aside.

All of which brings me to the much-maligned James Last. Was there ever an artist so scorned and derided? Elevator music. Supermarket music. Cheesy banality. Something to be played in the background rather than listened to with any degree of concentration. Well, if that's true, then there are an awful lot of people out there not listening. Music snobs like me who gush and faff and applaud groundbreaking artists like Bjork, Jim Moray, David Sylvian, Joanna Newsom and The Young Knives are in the minority … and by a long, long way.

James Last has sold over 100,000,000 albums.

Read that last (no pun intended) sentence again. One hundred million albums. That’s as many as David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac ever sold. As many as Luciano Pavarotti and U2 and Prince. That’s very nearly two albums for every single person currently living in England. That’s a staggering number of LPs shifted for a man who produces ‘elevator music’.

The BBC4 documentary was fascinating. I found myself drawn into James Last's world of music and gaining a whole new understanding of just what his brand of ‘easy-listening’ is all about. Its origins lie in national shame.

James Last was born Hans Last in Bremen, Germany in 1929. His family were not political to any degree but his older brothers were conscripted to fight in the war. One of them didn't come home. The young Hans meanwhile was enrolled at the Bückeburg Military Music School of the German Wehrmacht where he learned conducting skills and how to play piano and bass. In time, he became well-known as one of the finest jazz bass players in the country. Then, for a number of years, he became the chief in-house arranger of music for Polydor Records.

In 1965 he took the bold step of releasing an album of his own arrangements of popular tunes. The album Non-stop Dancing was groundbreaking at the time. While the rest of Europe and the world had been embracing the genesis of pop and rock music, a severely spanked and humbled Germany had turned in upon itself in harsh introspection. What the German people needed more than anything was to laugh again; to have fun. James Last provided that. Non-stop Dancing was non-stop fun. I say that the album was groundbreaking and that’s no exaggeration. Last took the big band sound of the 1940s and 50s, added layers of pop guitar, rock drums and jazz basslines and mixed them all up. Then he spliced several well-known songs into one extended track interspersed with recordings of happy people clapping and cheering and dancing. It was not so very different – in its day – to the Superstar DJ mixes we see today with song after song neatly and seamlessly segued into the next.

Polydor decided that the name Hans was just a bit too German and changed the album sleeves to read James – without consulting him first - but the album sales were huge and the die was cast. From now on, he would forever be James Last. And James Last was a sensation. Every album he released brought legions of new fans and shelves full of new accolades. He began to accrue gold discs like some people collect stamps. In the UK alone, he was second only to Elvis in sales during the period between 1967 and 1986.

But the intellectual snobbery that infected me and became oh-so-fashionable in the me-me-me 1980s has now turned this hugely successful and popular artist into something of a musical pariah. No one will admit to liking his music and critics sneer and snipe at his gentle form of non-aggressive orchestration. James Last is easy listening and an easy target. It’s easy (how many more 'easys' can I shoehorn into this paragraph?) to forget that he’s probably the progenitor of acts like The Lighthouse Family, Simply Red and Dido – all acts that in their time were huge but now seem to be under the same kind of attack as he is. What did they all suddenly do wrong? Nothing of course. It’s us. We’ve all caught a big dose of the Snobs.

But there is some light at the end of the trumpet. It’s now ‘cool’ and, doubtless, 'ironic' to like Easy Listening. Andy Williams and Tony Christie and their ilk have enjoyed a recent flowering of popularity. Young men are once again crooning like Frankie and Bing on the X Factor and American Idol. Ballroom Dancing is back with a bang and a cha-cha-cha. There is a new appreciation of bands like Abba, Bread and The Carpenters. And even James Last may be in for a revival – Quentin Tarantino used his The Lonely Shepherd with great success in the soundtrack for Kill Bill Volume 2 (2003).

None of which is of any concern to Hansi (as he’s known to his millions of fans) I suppose. The ‘Gentleman of Music’ must be immensely rich by now and he’s certainly got no worries in terms of popularity, success and awards.

Unknowingly, James Last has made me re-evaluate my position. From this point on, I will no longer be a music snob. I don’t own any James Last records and probably never will. I simply don’t get it (I have heard several albums) and it does nothing for me. But I will respect other people’s right to enjoy it. So even if Debbie tells me she’s bought tickets to see Gareth Gates - the very antichrist of my personal musical tastes - live in concert I will smile and say that I’m pleased for her and that I hope she enjoys the gig.

There. Wasn’t hard was it?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Unbearable Opaqueness of Stig

A lot of my close friends call me Stig and have done so for many years. I'm frequently asked why this is. Well, here's the not very exciting or interesting skinny ...

When I was at school I was a scruffy bastard and our delightfully acerbic and wholly eccentric geography teacher, Mr Fox, used to call me his little 'Stig of the Dump'. He had a name for most of his pupils. Jon Bates was known as 'Master Bates', a joke we didn't get until we were young teenagers. But when we did we chortled and guffawed until our balls dropped.

To be honest, it wasn't really a nickname. Other than Foxy, no one actually called me Stig. They preferred 'Steve' or 'Stevyn' or 'Colgate' or 'Spastic' or 'You filthy boy'. But I adopted the name anyway as my artistic nom de plume, using it to anonymously claim authorship of my dodgier, more teacher-critical or downright naughty cartoons.

Stig of the Dump circa 1977. A vision in cheap denim.

When I left school the nickname, such as it was, was left behind me in Cornwall. I moved up to London to work and became plain old Steve again. That is, until a curious coincidence occurred ...

Sometime around 1990 - some 13 years after the last person had called me Stig - I was working in Hendon, North London. One memorable morning, two items of post arrived for me both of which had spelled my name wrong. Now, I'm quite used to this. I don't know why the simple six letters C O L G A N cause people problems but I regularly get mail addressed to Mr Colean, Coglan, Clogan, Colgram, Cohen, Coghlan, Colon and other variants. Steve Coogan is a regular one. Oh, for a few mis-directed pay cheques! But on the day in particular, the junk mailer had exceeded his/her/itself. My letter was addressed to Mr Goblin.

The resurrected Stig in 1990. Not quite rid of the New Romantic hairstyle.

Goblin for feck's sake! How can you mistake Colgan for Goblin? But, just in case that hadn't caused hilarity enough in the office, the next letter was addressed to Mr Stig Coonan. Not only a duff and almost racist surname but a duff and altogether silly forename too. One of my friends and colleagues - the redoubtable Mr Christopher Hale - decided that this was the best fun ever and, before you could say 'misnomer' I had become Stig Goblin; every piece of correspondence, every time sheet, even the sign on my desk that proclaimed it my territory, now read Stig Goblin.

So what did I do? I did the same thing as I'd done in the 1970s. I embraced my inner Stig. I claimed him. It was, presumably, my destiny. Or something. Stig Goblin became my monicker whenever there was a caricature to be drawn or acid essay to be written for some scathing newsletter or circular. Stig was back and he was edgy!

So there. A potted history of Stig.
Oh, and, obviously, I am not The Stig from TV's Top Gear. I could never cram this chunky body into that driver's suit.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Stars of the Cambridge Folk festival

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's staggering version of Theme from Shaft was definitely one of the highlights of the recent Cambridge Folk Festival. I'm still waiting for someone to post it up on YouTube. Meanwhile, here's their fantastic version of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights.

And check out their versions of Smells like Teen Spirit and Teenage Kicks. If you ever get the chance to see them live - go. They are great value for money.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Never forget the Horror ...

With the movie version of Alvin and the Chipmunks appearing in a cinema near you this Christmas, it's worth reminding you why the horrid little rodents should stay over on the other side of the Atlantic.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Dishy Fishy

The Loch Fyne seafood restaurant at the Old Post Office, City Square in Leeds. Loch Fyne Mussels in cream and white wine with homemade bread, Smoked Haddock in a mustard and cream sauce with peas and mash and seasonal vegetables, freshly made Creme Brulee.

Oooooooooooh.

Fantastic.

A precious moment

Overheard today in a Leeds bookshop ...

A woman was queuing at the till to pay. Meanwhile her teenage daughter and a male chum were perusing some bookmarks based on astrological profiles.

"Sagittarius. That's me" says daughter, "Now, what does it say ... outgoing. Yes. Artistic. Yes, I can be. Warm and friendly. I am aren't I? (kisses boy chum on cheek) Spiritual. Hmmm ... not sure about that one. Though I do that Feng Shui (pronounced Feng Chewy) don't I? Animal lover. Yes. Home maker. Well I like me comforts. Favourite colour ... purple. Purple? No it ain't! It's pink. This stuff is a load of old rubbish in't it?"

Fabulous.

I'm up here in Yorkshire at the Queens Hotel for a conference about evaluation which, as a subject, is about as exciting as watching snails fuck. But I have learned some interesting things - chief among them being that evaluators have an infinite capacity for self-promotion and seem to be incapable of asking a simple open question. When, after a speaker had spoken, questions were invited from the floor, everyone who requested the mic proceeded to ask a convoluted question (or more often a statement) that provided several possible answers. They went something like 'I was interested to hear you say XXXXX. Is that because AAAAA? Or BBBBB? Or perhaps CCCCC? I think it's DDDDD. We at YYYYY Associates believe that EEEEE. Although I do accept that FFFFF is a viable alternative.' I also learned some choice new phrases like 'victim of policy' for someone or something that has had change thrust upon them, and 'won't-reachables' for those hard to reach groups that some people can't be arsed to approach.

Off for a nice evening meal (hopefully) in a minute and then back home on the train tomorrow. And not a day too soon. It's got very chilly up here. I got brain freeze (like you get from eating ice cream sometimes) just walking back from the restaurant last night. We went to an Argentinian Steak House - I can't remember the name of the place (how many can there be?) but I wouldn't go there again. The food was mediocre at best and the service appalling. We had to ask for the waiting staff's attention on no less than five occasions. The much vaunted steaks around which the restaurant's menu are constructed were average and, in our case, not cooked to order. The medium was rare, and the medium rare was rare. At least the guy who ordered his rare actually got what he wanted. Maybe it was Rare Night? Veggies were nice though. Dessert might have been nice but we'll never know. We ordered the tiramisu and were told that it was all gone. And we were then told how nice it is as it's home made and made with excellent ingredients. Yum yum yum. Oh really? Thanks. We'll have to take their word for that as we never even got to see it, let alone taste.

I felt like one of those losers on Bullseye who, having scored nowt on the board, then had a luxury yacht wheeled out in front of them while Jim Bowen tauntingly crowed 'Here's what you could have won ...'

Thursday, November 22, 2007

England 2, Croatia 3, Wireless Connection 6 (Quid)

Well, yes, they do have a wireless connection here in the Marriott Hotel, but at £6 per hour (the cheeky bastards) I will have to type quickly.

My journey to Leeds started with a trip into London from High Wycombe on the Chiltern Line. It’s kind of a backward step doing it this way but getting from Wycombe to Leeds involves so many changes that it’s easier and quicker to travel in to Kings Cross and take the high speed GNER. Consequently, 90 minutes after leaving home I found myself at our first stop – Stevenage – which is just 52 miles from where I live. I’ve always said that what we need in London is an Outer Circle Line. Just as the Circle Line (the yellow one) on the London Underground links to all of the other lines, an Outer Circle would allow you to travel around London’s train lines without having the visit the centre. They did it with roads when they invented the M25 … Why not trains? And, if you dare to say ‘But the M25 is crap! It’s one huge orbital traffic jam!’ I will say back to you, ‘Yes, but how many people use the M25 because of the lack of an Outer Circle Line?’ I know when I have to visit places on London’s fringes like Enfield, Barnet, Hounslow etc. I have to take the M25 as the alternative on public transport is just too soul-destroying to even contemplate.

Anyway, I’m on the train and it’s pretty comfortable. The seats are okay. There’s even a power point and wireless availability if you fancy a second mortgage. There’s no trolley service however, due to staff shortages. Well, that’s not strictly true. There’s no waiter/waitress service (I was once at a restaurant where they’d employed the bizarre non sex-specific term waitron – sounded like some kind of robot or Dr Who monster to me) in First Class due to staff shortages … so they’ve nicked our trolley service. I rarely travel First Class as, unlike airlines, you don’t seem to get much more for your money. Certainly today I’d have been Royally pissed off to have paid £30-40 extra for a can of sprite and a plastic packaged sandwich off the trolley. Ha ha ha. Sorry. How childish.

The extraordinary roof of the Leeds Corn Exchange. Felt like being inside a Zeppelin.

I sat next to a man who was obviously something important up North and who smelled of tweed. He didn’t wear tweed, he just smelled as if he did. Or maybe what I associate with tweed is actually the smell of mothballs? Anyway, he had a big pile of paper in front of him that was headed ‘Minutes of the General Meeting of the bonkers and wibblers or something equally obscure Association’. I can’t remember what the actual words were because they were strangely unmemorable. I think one was ‘tenter’. Is that someone who makes tents? Or is it related to the term ‘tenterhooks’ which, as I understand it, were items used to stretch fabric and hides over frames while you waited for them to dry or cure – hence the term ‘waiting on tenterhooks’. It would make sense. Yorkshire was a major textiles county for many years and its iconic mills – dark and satanic as they may have been to the workforce – once dominated the skylines. My travelling companion was going through the hefty wad of minutes, adding his pencilled comments here and there in the margins. To my delight, I saw that what he was writing were angry little vitriolic squiggles like ‘Lies!’ or ‘Rubbish!’ or ‘Suspicious!’ Looking at the man, I realised that this was a form of catharsis; a small, private act of rebellion. He would never have the nerve to shout ‘Liar!’ during a real meeting with real people but here, on a train and armed only with an HB pencil, he could vent his outraged spleen with gusto. I warmed to Mr Tweedy as I occasionally glanced over at his graphite ranting. He may have been silent but he was infinitely preferable to the chap sitting diagonally opposite.

If, perchance, there is an International Boring Bastard of the Year competition running in Leeds this weekend and he’s a contestant, I’d put my house down at the bookies to back him. The man was insufferable and interminable. He didn’t stop all the way from Kings Cross to Leeds, speaking in a stentorian voice in which every single vowel and consonant and schwa was pronounced with deafening precision. His voice rose above the general murmur of the packed carriage and the noise of the engine. It ensured that we all endured a three hour lecture on the future of electronics, bandwidths, streaming technologies, broadcast systems, his career as an engineer, all the famous people he’d met and then more electronics. By the time we reached Leeds I firmly believed that he was electronic. No one can speak for that long and at that volume for so long without a breath surely?

Leeds was a pleasant surprise. Actually, that’s an understatement. I was bowled over. Amazed. Bollixed. Gobsmacked. Really rather impressed. This is a seriously nice city with great shops (I saw a Harvey Nicks and a Molton Brown – very nice), dazzlingly pretty arcades and new architecture sensitive to the location and look of the place. There was hardly any litter and surprisingly little chewing gum on the pavements; in London in places like Oxford Street, the pavements are entirely made of gum. A drop of rain and the whole street smells of spearmint. I will explore more tomorrow during daylight hours.

In the evening, we had a very passable Indian meal indeed. Akbar’s in Greek Street was tatsefully decorated, packed with punters, reasonably priced and the food was pretty good. The naan bread in particular was some of the best I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve tasted a lot). It arrived at our table hanging on a sort of metal frame and was huge; it looked like half a pig on an abbatoir hook (a tenter hook?) or a very large flat lung but it tasted fabulous. I was sharing with two other guys and we delighted in tearing off great chunks and using it to clean up the sauces on our plates. I put on three pounds just reading the menu. Then it was on to the local Wetherspoon’s and the experience of watching England lose 3-2 to Croatia at footie.

I’m not a football fan. Things might have changed by now but when I was growing up in Cornwall, football just wasn’t a part of our lives. Go on … name a Cornish football team. See? You can’t. The nearest league side to us was Plymouth Argyle and we couldn’t support them out of principle. Devon you see. That’s in England. So football for me as a youth was something that happened to other people in other countries. Closest we ever got was watching local town and village derbys. I remember watching a school friend one Saturday playing for Ponsanooth. We tried our hardest to come up with convincing football chants and songs about the team and failed horribly because nothing rhymed except maybe 'tooth' or 'forsooth' or the slightly more dodgy 'proof'. Not that it mattered. There were only about five spectators there anyway and the game was delayed several times while they chased the cows off the ‘pitch’. Not so much injury time as milking time. It all just added to the feeling that we were there to watch something really rather pointless and amateur. So, it's perhaps no wonder then that football, for me, means 90 minutes of watching 22 millionaires kick a bag of wind pointlessly up and down a field. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. Which is why I found standing in a pub watching England getting a drubbing from the Eastern Europeans to be a matter of extreme indifference.

But it was fun listening to the pundits. I was fascinated to hear that whenever England did something right, the people nearby would analyse the various moves and make intelligent comment. But as soon as someone made a mistake, this erudite commentary was suddenly swapped for raucous abuse. A typical example would be … ‘Oh yes. Look at the way he chipped that up to midfield on his left foot. That’s a very passable chip shot that. Reminded me of that chip in 1985 when Barry Millions chipped one over the heads of the Wombleshire defence to score that goal in the 66th minute. Oh and look, he’s using the Grambley attack on the rear forward now and … you wanker! You twat! What the feck are you doing? You are an arsehole!’ etc. etc.

We lost. We’re out of Euro 2008.

And the subversive naughty boy that lives inside me says ‘In the grand scheme of things, so what? People are starving. Our troops are dying overseas. AIDS continues to spread. Global warming and global dimming are slowly but surely destroying our biosphere and affecting our climate. Fossil fuels are running out. Terrorists live among us. New cancers are appearing every year. Species are becoming extinct. Identity theft is on the increase. The NHS is collapsing. Education is not what it should be. Is the fact that we didn’t play a game of football as well as we should have really so important?’

Discuss.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I've been to Paradise but I've never been to Leeds

I may be off the grid for a few days as I'm off to Leeds for a conference until late Saturday . It all depends on whether the hotel's wireless is any good. I've had mixed experiences. My favourite was a small hotel in Western Scotland where yes, they had broadband and yes, they had wireless. But no, they couldn't let me use it because the manager was the only person who knew the password and didn't trust any of his staff not to download porn and, anyway, he was on holiday. Yes, the receptionist actually told me that.

I'm sure that Leeds will do me proud. But, just in case, have a good weekend!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Nature's Sketchbook

As I mentioned the Burgess Shale fossils in my Desert Island Books selections, I thought I'd just explain the importance of them.

If you ever wanted to find the closest things to aliens on this planet, forget Men in Black and Greys hiding amongst us and look instead to Yoho National Park, high up in the Canadian Rockies. In 1909, a paleontologist called Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered some interesting fossils in a black shale bed that became known as the Burgess Shale (as it is near the Burgess Pass). Over several expeditions, Walcott collected many fossils from the shale which he identified as new species of arthropod.

However, later examination of Walcott’s fossils in the 1980s revealed a startling truth – what Walcott had discovered were not new species but wholly new types of organisms. Work by Harry Whittington, Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris showed that many of the Burgess Shale creatures in fact constituted whole new phyla.

A phylum (pl. phyla) is a large family group. The phylum to which we, and most vertebrates, belong is Chordata. This includes all mammals, reptiles and birds. Insects belong to the phylum Arthropoda, which also includes other jointed-legged animals like spiders, scorpions, woodlice, lobsters and crabs. All of the animals on Earth can be classified within some 30-odd phyla; 95% of species within just nine families. Therefore the discovery of any new phylum is an extraordinary find.

The Burgess Shale, and subsequent similar discoveries in the Maotianshan Shale of Yunnan Province in China and other shale sites, of similar species have added at least six new phyla to the story of life. Many of the species still defy classification today.


The creatures of the Burgess Shale lived in the Middle Cambrian Era, around 500 million years ago when there was a sudden ‘explosion’ of diversity in animal types and body-plans. This is sometimes referred to as the Big Bang of Evolution. It was a time when nature experimented with many different designs for life, most of which proved ultimately to be unsuccessful. Among the fossils so beautifully preserved in the finely textured shale were creatures like Opabinia, which had five eyes and a snout like a vacuum cleaner attachment tipped with a grasping claw, the huge (at 3 feet long it was one of the largest animals on the planet at that time) predatory Anomalocaris with its grasping arms and food disposal-type grinding mouth, and the wonderfully named Hallucigenia that walked on tubular feet - each apparently equipped with a mouth - and was armed with huge spikes; scientists are still not entirely sure which end of the animal was the head and which was the tail.
The Burgess Shale is a truly extraordinary window into that moment when all things were possible for life on this planet. The fossil record is Nature's sketchbook of ideas and it's a fascinating thought to consider just what life might have looked like if some of these designs had survived.

Illustration of Hallucigenia by Mary Parrish for The Smithsonian.
Illustrations of Anomalocaris and Opabinia by John Sibbick.

Recommended Reading:

Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN 0-09-927345-4)
The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals by Simon Conway Morris (ISBN 0-19-850197-8, ISBN 0-19-286202-2)
Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey (ISBN 0-00-655138-6)
The Fossils of the Burgess Shale by Derek E. G. Briggs, Douglas H. Erwin, & Frederick J. Collier (ISBN1-56098-364-7)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Where are all my Blobs?

I installed the Clustrmaps thingummydooodle over on the right hand side of the screen as I thought it would be a hoot to display where my visitors are coming from. But I've obviously done something wrong in setting up as all I have are red blobs on the UK and USA and a small one somewhere in Scandinavia. And yet Statcounter (see map above) tells me that today alone I've had visitors from the UK, USA, India, Greece, Austria, Sweden, Norway, France, Israel, Australia and Ireland.

Ideas anyone?

Desert Island Books - Final Part

And so to my final selection - the arty-farty stuff. I'll begin with the graphic novels if I may. They're a relatively new form of book - maybe less than 50 years old - and, sadly, still have some way to go before they are fully established as proper grown-up literature. And that's a real crime because good graphic novels are better written than 80% of the novels you'll see on your average bookstore shelves. The graphic novel writer has to not only create a realistic world, believable characters and a gripping narrative; he/she also has to work closely with the artist (unless writer and artist are the same person) to bring that vision to life. No one could read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen and not fail to be impressed with the quality. The book works on so many levels, addresses so many issues and is so fecking clever that I still spot something new every time I re-read it. The fact that it is about superheroes is an added level of clever. Graphic novels get their 'not real literature' tag from the fact that the earliest (and still the majority) are merely collections of superhero comics repackaged inside a card cover. True graphic novels are a fully-realised story that is then broken into bite-sized chunks for comic publication. Mike Mignola's Hellboy is another great comic creation and all of the graphic novels are superb. I've included the companion Art of Hellboy book here just because it is so jam packed full of Mignola's chunky graphics. Wonderful. Also shown is Slaine volume 1, a Titan Books reprint of the stories featured in weekly British comic 2000AD. Written by Pat Mills, these particular episodes feature what I believe to be the best artwork ever produced by comics maverick Mick McMahon. I could so easily have included Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman and Joker story The Killing Joke, Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's Marshall Law, Paul Grist's Kane stories and the Preacher series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Or The Trigan Empire by the great Don Lawrence. Or anything illustrated by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Gil Kane, Adam Hughes, John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Nino, Simon Bisley, Frank Quitely, Roger Langridge, Barry Windsor-Smith, Mike Kaluta, Travis Charest or any number of other comic artists who have wowed me over the years.

But now let's leave comics for the very different world of the book illustrator. Here I have several champions to bow my head to including Quentin Blake, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham, William Heath Robinson, Gerald Scarfe, Ed McLachlan and Ronald Searle. But in terms of greatest influence on me and my drawing style, I must single out Ralph Steadman and Willie Rushton. Ralph Steadman's Between the Eyes is a retrospective of his scratchy, caustic and explosive artwork and I spent hours and hours trying to emulate his style with a dip pen and a bottle of Indian ink. I failed dismally and my final art style looks nothing like Steadman's. But something of his pen work and eye for detail has remained with me and my own doodlings and I still delight in finding new examples of his work. Willie Rushton, meanwhile, is perhaps better known as a comedian and a staple of 1970s quiz show Celebrity Squares than as a cartoonist. But he is probably my favourite cartoonist of all time (closely followed by Gary Larson) and I own every single book that Rushton ever illustrated. I chose Pigsticking: A Joy for life for my Top 10 as I think it contains his best work. Plus he wrote the book and it is wonderfully funny. My signed copy is one of my most prized posessions.

And now, the 'serious' art. I'll begin with Roger Dean's Views which was my first exposure to what happens when fine art meets the marketplace. Dean and his contemporaries like Rodney Matthews, Patrick Woodroffe, Chris Foss and others - made the leap from being mere commercial artists to becoming stars in their own right. Dean's album covers for bands like Yes, Osibisa and Uriah Heep became popular art posters as did Foss's blocky, waspy-striped spaceship-filled book jackets. Woodroffe started to create artbooks including his Pentateuch, a gloriously illustrated alien bible that came with two vinyl LPs of 'alien' music written by Dave Greenslade to listen to as you read. Matthews' book covers also became best-selling posters and postcards. Around the same time, my good friend Huw was given the Dracula Annual for christmas. If ever a book was misnamed ... the aforementioned vampire actually appeared in just one panel of one cartoon strip in this 200 page book. The rest of the strips were reprints of European comics translated into English and featuring art by Enric Sio, Esteban Maroto and others we'd never heard of. The art was so different from the usual US comic fare and so refreshing. It took me 20 years but I finally tracked down a copy of the annual.

Lastly, we come to three fine art books. The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes gave me credibility. Art is all about the effect it has on the viewer. There is no such thing as good art or bad art. There is simply art we like or dislike. I'd always known what I liked but often didn't understand why. Hughes gave me the vocabulary to able to explain to people why I liked Picasso when it was 'all mashed up' or why I was moved by Henry Moore when it's just 'a chunk of rock with a hole in it'. And mention of Moore brings me to Barbara Hepworth by A M Hammacher. Hepworth was Moore's contemporary and friend, and a resident of St Ives in Cornwall, where several schools of art have flourished. I met Hepworth once when my father, a police officer and part-time writer/artist returned a stolen artwork to her. I remember seeing the various monolithic sculptures around her house and garden and being awed by them. Many are still there of course. Since her tragic death during a house fire in 1975, her old home has become a museum and shrine to her work. I've always loved Hepworth's work as much as I love Moore's because both artists could capture the essence of nature. Their sculptures look as if they've been eroded by time and wind and rain rather than by chisel and mallet. They are organic and always look wonderful when displayed against a natural landscape. Also from one of the Cornish art movements - in this case the Newlyn School - is Walter Langley. This book Walter Langley: Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony is very hard to find these days which is a shame as its the best book of his work ever published. Written by his grandson Roger Langley, it is an affectionate and comprehensive study of Langley's contribution, so often over-shadowed by the big guns of Stanhope Forbes and others. For me, however, Langley captured life in those old Cornish villages with far more emotion and fondness than his fellow artists did, and certainly better than any photograph ever could.

So there we go. Also-rans would include pop-artist Ron English, forgotten pre-Raphaelite Herbert Draper, ad genius Norman Rockwell, the plump lovelies of Beryl Cook, and Frank Frazetta's action-packed oils.

Desert Island Books - Part 3

Now we come to fiction ... and the hardest choices for me. I do read quite a lot of fiction; I must have read several thousand books by now. But so few ever end up being read again. In fact, the only fiction books I've kept over the years have been ones that I can read time and time again or ones that have some special significance for me. In the latter category I would place Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. I first read Burroughs' books as a young lad and was thrilled and captivated by John Carter's adventures on the war-torn Mars, Carson's exploits on Venus and the amazing worlds of Pellucidar and Tarzan's Africa. It was Boys-Own Paper stuff with burly heroes, swooning princesses, evil bad guys; all the elements that Lucas and Spielberg would later draw together to create the Indiana Jones franchise. The 1930s and 40s was a golden age for adventure science fiction and I still have a huge soft spot for it even now. Slightly more serious but also of that era are the books of John Wyndham. Despite being best known for Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), I've selected The Kraken Wakes as my favourite. It tells the story of a subtle, hidden alien invasion. Unidentified beings in armoured vehicles get underneath the ice caps and begin to melt them, slowly causing the seas to rise and flooding dry land. The book tells the story of how the several main characters learn to cope with this threat. The book is left open-ended because, like most of Wyndham's output, the story is about how humans cope with adversity; how the human spirit refuses to be broken. The events they are having to cope with are almost unimportant. Whether it's telepathic clone children or walking carnivorous plants, Wyndham tells very human stories and makes us wonder how we would deal with the same situations.

I still occasionally read through the Uncle books of J P Martin. Written by an eccentric English vicar and illustrated with gusto by a young Quentin Blake, these long out-of-print books (bring them back!) are a lost gem of British children's nonsense literature that ranks equally, in my opinion, alongside anything produced by Lear or Carroll. Martin had a particular Monty Pythonesque genius with names. Where else will you meet characters called Butterskin Mute, Isadore Hitmouse, Firlon Hootman, Beaver Hateman and Abdullah the Clothes-Peg Merchant?

My taste in comedic writing is very broad and takes in the clever and witty as well as the scatalogical and slapstick. These two polarities are best expressed by, on the one hand, Jerome K Jerome's Three men in a Boat and P G Wodehouse's Right ho Jeeves, and on the other by Tom Sharpe's The Throwback. Jerome's tale of some chaps and their dog arsing about on the Thames is timeless; indeed, read it now and you find yourself laughing at what seem to be very modern descriptions of everyday situations. Jerome was way ahead of his time, as was Wodehouse who, for me, single-handedly redefined the art of the comic novel. I've chosen a Jeeves book here but any of Wodehouse's prodigious output is worth reading. Eerily, he doesn't seem to have ever written a duffer. All are extremely funny. He must have sold his soul to the comedy devil. As indeed must Tom Sharpe because he's also never written an unfunny book either. From his outrageous debut with the two South African novels, Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, he's cut an unparalleled furrow through British comedy. The Throwback tells the story of Lockhart Flawse, a well-educated but insular young man who is set the task of finding his own father who abandoned him. Having been brought up by a mad grandfather on the wild moors of Northumberland, Lockhart is free of such considerations as tact, diplomacy and abiding by the law as he single-mindedly pursues his progenitor. In typical Sharpe fashion this includes bombings, flooding houses with sewage, sexual deviancy, human taxidermy and feeding dogs LSD to make them go on a drug-fuelled rampage. The only person who comes close to Sharpe in this category of humour is George McDonald Fraser. He's most famous for his Flashman books; the further adventures of the foppish bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays. However, I've chosen The Pyrates as my favourite because it is laugh-out-loud funny. An adoring pastiche of Errol Flynn era swashbucklers, it features pirates in Gucci boots, square jawed heroes, a pirates' union and even Tortuga FM - your 24 hour sea shanty station.

Fraser, Wodehouse and Jerome were also personal heroes for the late great Douglas Adams. And included here is his most famous book, the original Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas has caused me more agony of indecision than any other writer in drawing up these lists because I love every single one of his books. But, in the end, I chose Hitchhikers simply because it is such an original. I only ever met Mr Adams once and that was all too briefly at a event at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI). Although his talk was about the future of computer games (a passion of his that I have never shared), I got to chat to him afterwards and he signed my battered old copy of Hitchhikers. Consequently, it's a most treasured item. I wish I'd known him better.

Last of all we come to the 'serious' stuff ... but even here there are crossovers with science and comedy. Iain Banks' blackly funny masterpiece The Wasp Factory is a fantastic study of psychopathy in a remote Scottish settlement and one that I have read time and time again. And Harry Harrison's trilogy of Eden books, represented here by the first, West of Eden, demonstrate everything that I aspire to - good storytelling, excellent research, believeable science, sincerity and humour. It supposes that the Chicxulub (pronounced chicks-a-lube if you didn't know) meteor missed the Earth and the dinosaurs carried on evolving, becoming a society with their own language and technology. The Eden books tell the story of what happens when the advanced Yilane meet with their mammalian competitors - early Man. What makes Harrison's book stand out among so much rubbish speculative sci-fi is that he's really, really made the effort to design an utterly plausible alternative evolution. He even went to the extent of bringing in renowned alien 'expert' Professor Jack Cohen to advise him.

Just one more category to go now ... art. I have so many art books that to leave them out would be a crime. I'll include graphic novels among them too.

Desert Island Books - Part 2

Here's my non-fiction selection. Again, there have been many, many other books that I've read over the years but if I had to choose 10 for my desert island sojourn it might well be these.

The green hardback book is my lovely, rare and beautifully preserved 1923 edition of Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England (sub-titled 'The drolls, traditions and superstitions of Old Cornwall'). Hunt wrote the book in 1865 and together with William Botterell's Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, make up the most complete archive of my native county's faerie tales and mythology. I just love the stories. And talking of stories brings me to Kenneth Williams. I have everything that the great raconteur ever wrote and delight in reading and re-reading his deliciously acid prose. However, The Kenneth Williams Diaries provides a rounder view of the man as his wit and observations are tempered by melancholic descriptions of his illnesses, his confused sexuality and his black depressions. It's the most honest biography I've ever read (maybe with the exception of Stephen Fry's Moab is my Washpot) and makes biographies of people like Jodie Marsh and Billie Piper seem all the more frivolous and pointless. William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade is another book that lifts the lid on the realities of fame - in this case the job of the screenwriter within the Hollywood system. If you ever thought about writing for film or TV you cannot afford not to read this amazing book.

On a brighter note, I've always been a sucker for 'travel' books. I use the inverted commas there because that's the section in the book shops where I usually find these uncategorisable tomes. Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure does involve some travel but is not a Bill Bryson-esque description of a foreign country. Nor is Danny Wallace's Yes Man or Join Me. Yet these books are either listed under 'travel' or 'comedy' when they are neither. Like Tony Hawks's Around Ireland with a Fridge, they are actually 'silly blokes doing silly things books'; the result usually of some daft bet between a couple of lads that leads to an adventure. In Danny Wallace's Join Me, he accidentally starts his own cult whereas Tony Hawks proves that it is possible to hitch-hike around the coast of Ireland accompanied by a small square frost-free companion on a trolley. Pete McCarthy's McCarthy's Bar does start to fit into the category of a travel book but is still incisive and hilarious as is Robin Halstead, Jason Hazely, Alex Morris and Joel Morris's Bollocks to Alton Towers, a description of great British days out that don't involve theme parks or ghastly corporate exhibitions.

My final three books all have something in common in that they crystalise several of my views of how the world should be. Francis Wheen's How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World rants and rages against the madness of so-called New Age therapies and pseudo-religions. It pours scorn and shame upon those people who are diddling us out of our heritage of knowledge and proven scientific theory. Richard Dawkins has also covered this topic with his The Enemies of Reason TV series and, to some extent, his The God Delusion book both of which I devoured as I share their views. If the same money was spent on cancer research each year as is spent on crystals, homeopathy, aura-reading, Tarot, horoscopes and countless other nonsensical placebos with no basis in fact or proven efficacy, there would be no cancer. Next up, and on a lighter note, comes Stephen Pile's Book of Heroic Failures. I love this book as it celebrates that it's okay to be bad at things. It's acceptable to be a bit rubbish. Inept is funny and it's the way most of us are with many tasks and skills. Instead of chasing elusive and possibly unattainable goals in life, most of us would be far better off just accepting our weaknesses and celebrating our strengths and living longer and happier lives. All of which brings me to Tom Hodgkinson's How to be idle. Hodgkinson has done something that most of us dream of but few have the stomach for; he has eschewed modern society in favour of something more pastoral and unhurried. As he says in his preface, 'The purpose of this book is to both celebrate laziness and to attack the work culture of the western world, which has enslaved, demoralised and depressed so many of us. (...) Being idle is about being free, and not just free to choose between McDonald's and Burger King or Volvo and Saab. It is about being free to live the lives we want to lead, free from bosses, wages, commuting, consuming and debt. Being idle is about fun, pleasure and joy'.

Amen to that.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Desert Island Books - Part 1

I was discussing books with friends today; in particular those books that have most inspired and intrigued us and those that have given the greatest pleasure. I was asked to list my Top 10 books; the books I'd want with me on a desert island. But I couldn't do it. There are just too many. So what I thought I'd do is break up my choices into several categories and have 10 books in each. And I'll start today with science.

I was always fascinated by science. For Christmas one year I was given a microscope. It wasn't very powerful and it worked intermittently as you needed to bounce light under the slide platform with a mirror but I can still remember the awe I felt when I first saw an enlarged view of an insect's compound eye. Soon I was sticking all kinds of things under cover slips to see how they were constructed. I did a bit of home chemistry too; typical boy stuff making my own explosives or dissolving the flesh from roadkill so I could keep their bleached skulls on my bedroom shelf. To this day I still have a badger skull that I prepared when I was about 10. But my interest in science wasn't all quite so visceral.

Me today with my old badger skull and a copy of a Diplodocus tail bone

I was lucky enough to watch the first Moon landings live on TV. My dad let me stay up into the wee hours to watch Neil Armstrong fluff his lines even though I was only eight and had school next day. Like a good boy I did turn up for registration, red-eyed and yawning, and found that I was one of only four boys that had bothered. Mr Luke was not impressed but he was the closest thing to a scientist I'd ever met and he loved to talk about space. He had his own telescope though I never got to see it and he taught us all about the stars and planets. I was rapt and found myself devouring every book or magazine I could lay my hands on.

I was fascinated by inner space too, partly because my grandmother worked at the marine research laboratories in Plymouth and occasionally I got to go 'behind the scenes' of the national marine aquarium (incidentally, she was one of the first people in the UK to handle a sample of Moon rock). The adventures of Jacques Cousteau were regularly on TV too and a whole world of amazing and wholly alien life was suddenly revealed to me. Consequently, I added many books on marine biology to my pile of reading and found myself lurking by the fishing boats in Penzance harbour before school trying to identify the odder-looking species that lay glassy-eyed on the piles of ice by the quay.

And then there were dinosaurs. I'm not sure where or when my fascination with them began or whether it's a phase that every kid goes through. All I do know is that I've never grown out of it and still read any new dinosaur book voraciously. And as my knowledge has grown and my circle of friends with it, I've found myself using that knowledge to good effect. Through good friends like John Coppinger and Dave Gavin I've been allowed to contribute artwork and sculptures of dinosaur reconstructions for the Natural History Museum in London and for Ireland's Dinocafe. I can even say with some degree of pride that as you enter the Natural History Museum and gaze up at the unbelievably huge Diplodocus skeleton in the main hall, you can see two or three small bones near the tip of the tail that I made. Yes, me. John had the unenviable task of moulding every bone in the tail and recasting them in lightweight fibreglass so that it could be lifted off of the floor. And there were a lot of bones to mould and cast so I helped out on the odd occasion. Hell, the project even made it into the national press.

My love of dinosaurs and prehistoric life in general ultimately led me to evolutionary science and to Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould who, between them, totally changed the way that I view the universe. So here, in no particular order, are the books that made the greatest impact on me.

Life before Man - a fantastic journey through the prehistoric ages illustrated by the extraordinary Zdenek Burian. I copied and copied his pictures over and over again, marvelling every time at the realistic portrayal of these majestic dead beasts. They seemed so real, especially as they were always painted living in a naturalistic environment. Dinosaurs of the Earth was an older book - probably the first I owned - and is badly painted and hideously inaccurate but it started me down the dinosaur road. As I learned more about evolution, I discovered Stephen Jay Gould's staggering Wonderful Life which told the story of the Burgess Shale fossils and, later, Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. Both books humbled me and made me realise just what a staggeringly complex process natural selection is. And then Dougal Dixon's After Man and Wayne Douglas Barlowe's Expedition took me to the next level, merging my love of art and science in two amazing books that demonstrated the processes of evolution both on Earth (in a far future) and on another world. Desmond Morris's The Human Zoo, his follow-up to the hugely successful Naked Ape, put a cap on the whole evolution business by explaining to me why humans are the way they are; not above and outside of the Earth's ecosystem but very much a part of it. And, perhaps, its Nemesis.

Me, 5 stones heavier and cuddling a sauropodlet in 2002

Now, two books that made me think about what the future has in store ... Kenneth K Goldstein's The World of Tomorrow is, like Dinosaurs of the Earth, wildly inaccurate now but at the time it showed me a future of gleaming futuristic cities, undersea homes, space stations, holidays on Mars and weird Thunderbirds-type trucks that could slice down the biggest trees with laser beams. And the brilliantly titled Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis showed me the very edges of science where madness and genius are just a nanomachine apart. Regis introduced me to the concepts of molecule sized engines, cryogenics, downloading human minds into computers (amusingly named wetware to software transfers) and strange tree-like robots made from self-replicating silicon controlled by a DNA-like programme involving fractals. In this small pile of books I saw the origins of life, the extraordinary processes that developed a simple idea into a complex biosphere and also the possible future of our species.

And then there's my final book ... in fact my favourite book of all time. It's Last chance to see by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. In the highly unlikely event I was ever asked to choose just one book to last me the rest of my life forsaking all others, this would be the one. Why? Because it's as funny as any other book Adams ever wrote. Because it's full of wonder and genuine excitement. Because I learned lots of new things about some of the rarest animals on Earth. And because it is sad, worrying and so horribly honest about the mess we're making of our stewardship of the planet. It's a wonderful book and a great tragedy that Douglas isn't around to write more like it.

Next ... non-fiction (but not science).

More rave reviews

My son Liam's band continues to get rave reviews ... his first million (and my new car) loom ever closer:

From Subba Cultcha:

Impressive and diverse début from young British metallers

This Dying Hour are a British band with more ideas than you can shake a shattered drumstick at, and their début EP, Longest Memory From The Shortest Life, is the sound of them trying to cram every single one into just four songs.

And it's surprisingly successful, due in part to the restraint mixed in with the aggression and intricacy. It's a hard piece of work to classify, but that's more due to a bankruptcy of usefulness of sub-genre definitions in an environment when the things breed like flies; file under 'metal' and be done with it – let the music speak for itself. Which it does; for a début, there's an impressive range of sounds and textures on display, and they're actually balancing and working together within the context of the songs as opposed to being jammed together like mismatched musical sardines. Metronomic double kick drums underpin thrashy muted chord work and subtle fingertapping passages; shouts and screams that wouldn't be out of place in hardcore (especially when combined with the brutal grooves of the bottom end) are played off against clean sung vocals from a distinctive voice; delicate little intros and incidental parts; riffs and clichés from the last few decades of metal re-engineered and reclaimed, made new again. There's even some piano in there, believe it or not.

It's a very promising start indeed; if This Dying Hour can deliver a full-length with this degree of skill and diversity, we'll have another British band to add to the ranks of serious contenders in the metal domain. Keep an eye (and an ear) open. Paul Raven

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fame is a Bee

I’ve just watched Ricky Gervais’s new stand up show Fame. And, as usual, it’s clever, considered, confident, caustic, callous, conceited, charged, combustive and lots of other C words including the C word … which he uses several times during the show with perfect timing and aplomb. Like Politics and Animals before it, Fame takes a simple theme and expands upon it with Gervais visiting subjects as diverse and as seemingly taboo as the origin of AIDS, glory holes, ME (Myalgic encephalomyelitis – also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), tabloid journalism, obesity and, of course, the nature and cost of fame itself.

In one particularly enlightened section he makes several important points about the debasing of fame in the 21st century - the fact that people can become famous now without actually doing anything - and, perhaps most worryingly of all, that there are any number of people out there who want to be famous … and that’s it. Fame is their ambition and they will do whatever they have to do to be famous, but not necessarily earn it. Gervais mentions Big Brother and X Factor in particular as breeding grounds for such people. And he also tells the story of how he was lambasted by the press for making a valid point about fame. When asked by a reporter what advice he had for people who want to become famous, he said ‘Murder a prostitute’. As always, the press got hold of this and twisted it into ‘Ricky’s Sick Joke’. They even resurrected the quote several years later at the time of the Ipswich Call-Girl Murders. His point, of course, is that fame is easy to achieve. Harold Shipman did it. Fred West did it. But there is a huge gulf between being famous and being worthy of fame.

I have no issue with people who want to be successful. Which is why I have no issue with someone like Victoria Beckham. Why is she hated so much? ‘Undeniably, there is something about her that just makes you want to snap the head off all her Barbies’, wrote columnist Jennifer O Connell. ‘It could be the tacky singularity of her purpose - she seems to exist only to fill tabloid column inches, spreads in Heat magazine and bank accounts. Or maybe we just hate her for appearing to have it all so effortlessly.’1
It’s easy to pour scorn upon Posh. She does seem to have it all and she doesn’t seem to do much to earn it. She is one of the world’s most photographed women; an instantly recognisable celebrity and an icon for the fashion and lifestyle industries. She’s very, very rich and she’s married to the equally successful, even more rich and annoyingly good-looking David. But how did she get where she is today? Was it because of her looks? Not really. Her singing voice? Hardly. Was she then just inordinately lucky? Not a bit of it.

Back in 1994, 20 year old proto-Posh Victoria Adams answered an advert in The Stage magazine that said, ‘R U 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance? R U streetwise, ambitious, outgoing and determined?’ The ad had been placed by father and son entrepreneurs Bob and Chris Herbert who’d spotted a gap in the market for an all-girl pop band. Victoria made the effort to travel to the audition in London - as she did for just about any audition or opportunity she could find. She was hungry for fame. And she put on a good enough show to be selected from around 400 wannabes. She must have been good as there were much stronger singers and dancers present. There then followed a year of pushing demos of the new band - then called Touch - around record and management companies before the girls had the balls to sack their managers and look for a new one. They were ultimately picked up by pop impresario Simon Fuller and, another year later, the single Wannabe launched them to international super-stardom. By now, of course, they were called Spice Girls.

In their short career - just six years - they sold over 55 million records (I’m not including their recent reformation which is likely to generate even bigger revenues). They had three consecutive Christmas Number Ones. Their feature film Spice World grossed £245 million globally. At the height of their fame in 1998, the band’s personal annual earnings were in excess of £26 million. Since splitting up, the members of the band have enjoyed successful solo careers but, without doubt, the most successful has been Posh whose personal fortune is, at the time of writing, reported to be in the region of £87million. Admittedly, her husband is the big earner these days but she has personally contributed somewhere in the region of £22 million to the total. Posh has earned her fortune … despite her somewhat dubious musical talent. Luck had nothing to do with it. Ambition was everything.

Even before Spice Girls, Posh was quoted as saying that she wanted one day to be ‘as famous as Persil Automatic’.2 It’s significant that even as a teenager, she had no illusions of ever being compared to great musical artists like Madonna or Aretha Franklin. Victoria Adams dreamed of being as well-known and as identifiable as a household brand of washing powder. And she’s done just that. She has become her own brand. It could also be argued that much of her husband’s income off the football field is due to her determination and clever manipulation of the media. ‘Victoria is greedy and graceless’, wrote British newspaper columnist Amanda Platell. ‘Everything about her is fake: the tan, the breasts, the lips, the nails, the hair. The only real thing about her is her ambition.’3
There is nothing wrong with ambition, Amanda. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. But there is something fundamentally wrong with wanting it all for free. The Royals are rich and famous having been born to their roles. But no amount of money is worth a life of constantly living up to public expectation, complete invasion of privacy, continuous adherence to duty and tradition and having to wear all those silly costumes. Would you want to swap with them? Not me. They earn their living. Oh yes.

But can I say the same for the average Big Brother contestant? What have they contributed to society that should be rewarded by fame and, dare I say it, adoration and idolising?

Okay … maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am just a grumpy old man or it’s just my natural British sense of resentment; of feeling cheated. Here in the UK, we have a very strong sense of fair play. ‘Fairness is an English thing – or rather unfairness is an English thing, a trigger for their rage’ wrote A A Gill and he was right. Try jumping a queue and see what happens. Try cheating during a game of Monopoly. Fairness is everything. What other country could have invented a phrase like ‘It’s not whether you win or lose - It’s the taking part that counts’?4

‘For the English, real character is built not by winners, but by losers’, states Gill, ‘The best thing to do if you’re caught winning is to skip away blushing. If you’re cornered, then mutter something about luck and flukes.’ We love the underdog. We love losers. That’s why the best part of watching the X Factor is the auditions. The losers are so much more interesting and funny than the bland, forgettable winners. We don’t like winners and we particularly don’t like people who behave like winners. Especially when someone gets a reward, monetary or otherwise, without having seemed to deserve it. Before you know it, people will start to moan about the injustice of it all. The paparazzi will try to catch the ‘guilty’ party in flagrante delicto or in a state of undress or distress. The gutter press will start going through their bins or devoting hundreds of miles of column inches to vitriolic attack.

Ask the average person on the street – what they used to call the ‘Man on the Clapham omnibus’ - what they think of Posh Spice. What you’ll get back can be summed up like this: ‘Yes, well, you compare Posh with some bloke who’s spent his whole life hewing coal out of a wall deep in a dark and dangerous mine for less money per year than she spends on pedicures, she does seem to have had it easy. She doesn’t really deserve to be so rich and successful. It doesn’t seem right or fair.’

But that’s the way life is. Life has never been right or fair. Ever. There was no distant halcyon day when all was fair in love and war and everyone got an equal slice of the cake. Someone always had to grow the ingredients, someone always had to bake the cake and someone had to ice it. But only a very, very few got to wipe the cream off their chins. Once upon a time it was royalty and nobility who enjoyed such heightened living. Now it’s celebrity … and that’s made patently obvious to us 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through the media. Celebrities do earn massively disproportionate rewards for their work when compared to us mere mortals. In the they earned their place in our hearts with hard work. Comedians would work their way up from the smoky working men’s clubs or student bars and fringe festivals. Rock bands would play any gig anywhere just to get their faces seen and to start building a reputation. I love reading the biographies of bands who ended up playing Madison Square Gardens but whose first gig involved them playing a school hall to five pensioners and a dog. What can Leona Lewis (currently still Number One I believe) possibly contribute to the canon of rock biography? ‘I went on a TV show, sang quite well, got a recording contract, had a Number One album and single. And all in 12 months’. It’s not going to rival Ronnie Woods’ recent biography is it?

The value of a person is no longer dictated by their worthiness, but by their newsworthiness. Some so-called celebrities have become rich and famous simply by sleeping with someone they shouldn’t have. Or just by claiming that they’ve slept with someone they shouldn’t have. Where’s the worthiness in that? Others have filled their personal coffers by appearing on the aforementioned reality TV shows; starring as themselves in all of their pig-ignorant, lacklustre glory. We read about their fabulous lives in Hello, OK, and Heat magazine. We see their fantastic ‘cribs’ on TV, their fast cars and designer clothes and we think to ourselves ‘You jammy bastards’. We compare celebrities’ lives with our own and we rant and spit and fume because of the injustice of it all. We know people who are more worthy – nurses and carers, firefighters and campaigners for justice, good parents, police officers, medical researchers, charity workers, teachers … In many cases we know that we ourselves are better people than many celebrities.

Fame has become debased, degraded, demoted, dishonoured, diminished, disgraced, downgraded, dismal … and lots of other words beginning with D. I suspect the vast majority of us wish success and happiness to those people who earn it by entertaining us, enlightening us and keeping us safe from harm. It's the others that we revile.

Ricky Gervais has earned his fame and his many accolades by working hard for it. It’s not easy being a writer and performer; you are only ever as good as your last performance, whereas your average 40 hour week professional working chap or chappess can do the same thing every day for 40 years and still take home a steady wage. Fame is fickle. Ask Phil Collins or Mick Hucknall. But it must be earned in the first place.

Fame is a bee
It has a song -
It has a sting -
Ah, too, it has a wing.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

References

1. Victorian attitude raises its ugly head, The Sunday Business Post, 18th April 2004.
2. Learning to fly (2001) Penguin Books, UK.
3. Why we women hate Posh, Daily Mail, April 2004.
4. The angry island: Hunting the English (2005), Weidenfeld and Nicolson, UK.

Picture credit Ricky Gervais and Universal DVD

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mr Personality

He looks like the president of the Freddie Mercury Appreciation Society (Texas Branch). He sings like Kermit the Frog. And he dances like a spanner. Meet Alan Gillett, the unexpected star of Music City Television Network's recent talent competition - a sort of low budget American Idol for the country crowd.

I love the description of his act on WFMU ...

'Standing slightly slouched in his black denim, cowboy hat and moustache (and looking a bit like 80s era Beefheart)- Alan is swallowed up by the massive blue carpeted stage (I guess keying in a snazzy background for him was out of the budget). In this monotone sea, being framed dead centre is enough to make anyone's effort at entertainment worthless - but Alan makes it work by being so deadpan and monotone himself. Alan eventually loosens up throughout the course of his eleven songs - first by incessantly flapping his hand at his side to keep rhythm and then by dancing ... an amazing dance ... a stilted step worthy of a spastic with both feet encased in concrete.'

Ouch.

Several of Alan's other appearances can be found on YouTube. And I hear there's talk of an album. Yikes! Still ... TV exposure didn't do William Hung any harm did it?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Boobies, Baps, and Bangers

I learned from my chum Murphy today that he's been tracking visitors to his blog and found that a number of them had been referred to his site by the dodgy searches they'd been doing in Google. Because (for reasons I won't go into here) his blog contains words like 'minge' and 'boobies' any Googling incorporating those words can lead people to his blog. And has done so. What a great way to elicit visitors I thought!

I then found several blogs that openly admitted to using words that attracted people to them; obvious phrases like nude, naked, sex etc. But also people who are in the news like Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Janice Dickinson etc. Who knows, just by mentioning them here I may get some hits.

However, for a lark, I'm now going to create a list of as many different expressions for breasts as I can think of. Then, in a week's time, I'll check my tracking software to see how people got to my site via searches using any of these words. It'll be interesting to see how many got here via the booby route!

Boobs, Baps, Bangers, Funbags, Tits, Bosoms, Knockers, Shirt Potatoes, Blouse-Busters, Bumps, Warts, Lady Lumps, Chests, White Meat, Breasticles, Bristols, Titties, Tatties, Milk Bottles, Nutcrackers, Dollies, Wibblies, Nibblies, Pillows, Paps, Yummies, Buffys, Yams, Mufflers, Mounds, Bunters, Pods, Thumpers, Top Bollocks, Snublings, Buds, Udders, Teats, Globes, Tugglers, Rack, Balcony, Jugs, Melons, Bazookas, Hooters, Bazoomas, Mammaries, Balloons, Bombs, Cupcakes, Milkmakers, Ninnies, Torpedoes, Bee-stings, Chi Chis, Puppies, Jubblies, Devil's Dumplings, ...

Any I may have missed? Let me know. Meanwhile, welcome new visitors!

Although ... are you the sorts of visitors I want?

So humble, humble ...

The next time you hear about some so-called 'celebrity' shooting their gob off about how important they are, remember this blog post. Jennifer this and Victoria that and Michael the other may think that the world revolves around them but ... oh no.

Oh dear me no.

They are as insignificant as insignificant can be when compared to the vastness of the universe.

This'll put them in their place.

Unfortunately I've been unable to source the origin of these pics. If anyone knows, please contact me and I can credit them accordingly.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Paralysed? Paralytic possibly ...

This is very possibly the most bizarre single of all time ... Paralysed by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. If you think he was messing around, think again. Norman Carl Odam takes his music VERY seriously. Read more about him here.

Amazing stuff.

Monday, November 12, 2007

And London held its breath for 10 minutes ...

I doubt if it will make the international (or even national) news but we had a bit of a scare in London today. This morning, a scarily large plume of smoke appeared over Stratford in East London ... steadily growing larger and larger. It was obvious fairly immediately that this was some kind of major incident ... and for those of us who live and work in London the prospect of a new terrorist attack seemed suddenly very real. People stopped work to stare out of the windows at the huge cloud of filthy smoke hanging ominously over the city. I was working in Earls Court and just happened to be in one of London's tallest buildings so I zipped up to the 30th floor and got these shots.

It turned out to be a warehouse fire on the edge of the Olympics village site. Good news - the warehouse was scheduled for demolition anyway. London breathed a sigh of relief ...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dance with me, Reggie

Those of you old enough and British enough to remember bumbling, mumbling newsreader Reginald Bosanquet will love this gem. Very possibly the worst dance record EVER. What was he thinking?


My thanks to Mick at Craplister for the link.

How to freak out your friends and family

Inspired by the works of Ptolemy, Jennifer, Sophie and David I dug out my box of oddly shaped bits and pieces and decided that I'd start to assemble some into artworks. I've been collecting junk for years; mostly organic stuff like driftwood, shells, bones and stones with a view to one day turning them into something meaningful and artistic.

Well, here's effort Number One constructed entirely from driftwood, wire and two-part epoxy putty (but with a clever paint job to disguise the joins). I call it Pantopoda. Here are three views of the beastie (it's about 49cms (19 inches) high).

It's freaked out my wife, eldest daughter and both dogs so far.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Is this the best Dunny ever?

I'm not a Dunny collector (see my earlier posts on urban vinyl) - I'm more your James Jarvis/ Jim Woodring/ Kaz/ Gary Baseman type. But I just couldn't resist this new 'Eat me' Dunny by Kronk.

And I'm glad I didn't. They're sold out everywhere already.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Is there more silicon-based life in the universe than in Katie Price's bra?

It's been a staple of science fiction for years; the idea that life could be based upon silicon rather than carbon, as all life on Earth is. Think of Terry Pratchett's rock-eating trolls, the planet-wide life form in Arthur C Clarke's Crusade, the alien in the Alien Trilogy, and the crystalline entity and the Horta of Star Trek's Silicon Avatar and The Devil in the Dark episodes. Silicon-based aliens are everywhere. But why do sci-fi writers pick on silicon as opposed to other elements like helium or mercury or calcium? It's basically because silicon is the closest thing to carbon in terms of structure.In this post, I'll try to explain the science behind the concept of a silicon-based organism. It'll be as plain English as I can make it (I'm a writer and artist - not a scientist).

Star Trek's 'Crystalline entity'
It's interesting to speculate what a silicon-based life form would be like. It's more interesting to ask why there are none on Earth (as far as we know) as silicon is far more abundant than carbon here. At first glance, silicon looks like a good basis for an alternative biology. Carbon and silicon both have something that chemists and physicists call a valence of four. That means that individual silicon atoms can make four bonds with other elements to form chemical compounds; like a jigsaw puzzle piece that has four sides and can therefore connect with four other pieces. Carbon can form over 10 million different compounds with other elements, among them many that are essential for life as we know it, such as sugars, celluloses, chitins, alcohols, fats, antibiotics, amino acids and proteins. Silicon can form almost as many, although different, compounds.
Star Trek's silicon-based Horta

Secondly, both silicon and carbon can bond with oxygen. Not all elements can. And, as far as we know at this time, nearly all living organisms need to process oxygen.

Thirdly, by using oxygen as a kind of 'glue', both silicon and carbon atoms can form long chains called polymers. Two examples of this are the carbon-based poly-acetal, a kind of plastic, and silicon-based polymeric silicones, which we use for waterproofing and lubrication. It is carbon's ability to form long complex chains that led to the formation of DNA ... and it is entirely conceivable that silicon could evolve something similar. However, while there are marked similarites between the two elements (which is why they appear so close together on the Periodic Table), there are some major differences too.

A silicon-based Lithovore by Terence Dickinson and Adolf Schaller

You'll have seen that an atom is often represented in books and articles as looking something like a mini planetary system with a central nucleus surrounded by circling electrons (although in newer reference works the orbiting electrons are sometimes represented as a cloud around the central nucleus). Well, with the carbon atom there are six electrons whizzing around a nucleus made of six protons and six neutrons (hence carbon's Atomic Number of 6). Silicon has 14 electrons circling a nucleus made of 14 protons and 14 neutrons (Atomic Number 14). What this means is that the 'cloud' of electrons around the silicon nucleus is bigger and, therefore, the forces that bind it all together are weaker. Consequently, the silicon atom does not form as strong bonds with other atoms as carbon does (which is why even the hardest silicon-based rock is not as hard as carbon-based diamond). This alone makes it difficult to imagine a silicon-based molecule the length of DNA forming and remaining stable.


Secondly, the chemistry of life is difficult (although not impossible) to visualise for a silicon-based life form. When carbon unites with oxygen (oxidises) during breathing, it forms carbon dioxide, a gas. We breathe it out and plants breathe it in. However, when silicon oxidises, it forms a solid called silicon dioxide. It's hard to imagine a creature that breathes in oxygen and breathes out something that is essentially sand. There would also be some 'disposal' issues for a silicon-based life form as it would excrete similar silica-based substances (it adds a whole new dimension to the expression 'Shi**ing a brick'!).

Thirdly, where would a silicon-based life form draw its energy from? All living things need a way to collect, store and utilise energy. Once absorbed or ingested, the energy must be released exactly where and when it is needed within the body. Otherwise, all of the energy might liberate its heat at once, incinerating the life-form. In a carbon-based life-form, storage takes the form of carbohydrates (the curse of us fatties). A carbon-based life-form 'burns' this fuel in controlled steps using speed regulators called enzymes. Carbohydrates (the clue is in the name) are carbon-based compounds that oxidise to form water and carbon dioxide, which are then exchanged with the air. Silicon doesn't form many compounds that will duplicate the function of enzymes so it's hard to imagine how a silicon-based living organism could function.
Of course, as we've so often said on this blog, it would be narrow-minded to assume that life can only exist in the so-called 'Goldilocks Zone' of liquid water, oxygen atmosphere and moderate temperature that we do.

The Web, a silicon-based artificially created life form used to trap the spaceship Liberator in Blake's 7

Raymond Dessy, professor of Chemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has this to say:

'It is possible to think of micro- and nano-structures of silicon; solar-powered silicon forms for energy and sight; a silicone fluid that could carry oxidants to contracting muscle-like elements made of other silicones; skeletal materials of silicates; silicone membranes; and even cavities in silicate zeolites that have handedness. Some of these structures even look alive. But the chemistries needed to create a life-form are simply not there. The complex dance of life requires interlocking chains of reactions. And these reactions can only take place within a narrow range of temperatures and pH levels. Given such constraints, carbon can and silicon can't.'

And UK astronomer and science writer David Darling points out that:

'The absence of silicon-based biology, or even silicon-based prebiotic chemicals, is also suggested by astronomical evidence. Wherever astronomers have looked – in meteorites, in comets, in the atmospheres of the giant planets, in the interstellar medium, and in the outer layers of cool stars – they have found molecules of oxidized silicon (silicon dioxide and silicates) but no substances such as silanes or silicones which might be the precursors of a silicon biochemistry.'

A vacuum 'breathing' silicon life form (artist unknown)

And I'll leave the final words to ATS and their speculative study of the possibility of silicon-based life:

'A silicon-based organism might live on a planet without oxygen. There is no good reason why an organism could not use another gas as a phosphorylation catalyst, like hydrogen, nirogen or other reactive gases. It is also possible that methane might replace phosphor in the metabolic pathway. This would allow totally different matabolisms which might not have the problem of producing a lot of solid waste. A major component of glass is silicon. It might be possible that an organism based on glass exists. An organism like that may get its energy from solar-cell like cells. Zeolites, microporous materials based on silicon, aluminium and oxygen, might play a role in these organisms.'

Then, of course, there's life based on nitrogen, phosphorous, arsenic, ammonia ...


Links:

David Darling
Silicon-Based Life (SCIAM)
Zeolites
Silicon-Based Life (University of Winnipeg)
Wikipedia
Silicon-Based Life (UCLA)