Friday, 30 August 2013

Winding Up Important Civic People

I’m heading out this morning, so, if you’re reading this on Friday, 30th August, 2013, I’ll probably be in Blackwell’s university bookshop in Manchester, no doubt thumbing a copy of The Comic Journal and otherwise making the most of the quiet before the new university term begins. I’m also running off early to avoid any emails from angry civic leaders. Not that I’m in the habit of annoying civic leaders but sometimes it just can’t be helped.

There might be some sharp people who enter into local politics but I can’t say that I’ve ever met one. People who enter into local politics tend to be the last people who should be involved in local politics. To paraphrase the great Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have those prats as members.

As evidence, I'd like you to consider the following email exchange which took place yesterday, but first, I need to set the scene... You need to know that my old blog, ‘The Richard Madeley Appreciation Society’, was supposedly written by the real Richard Madeley, star of UK TV and the husband of the equally famous Judy. Of course, the blog wasn’t written by Richard Madeley but by me. Richard Madeley had nothing to do with it. You also need to know that I’ve not updated the blog in a long time but that it still attracts the occasional visitor.

What usually happens when a visitor arrives is that they ignore the blog completely. They don’t spot the disclaimers in the banner. Suspicions aren’t raised by Photoshopped pictures of Richard in various freakish costumes or the generally twisted nature of the blog. They just rush straight to the email address at the side and think they’ve got a hotline to a bona fide UK celebrity.

That’s when I get an email such as the following:

Dear Richard,

From the small town of Pud, Glossopshire we  would like to have you sometime to speak at Pud Town Hall if possible. How do we go about making a booking if you would be interested. You remember little Pud from your Glossopshire days  ? – we heard you recall your memories of the County on a recent Radio Glossopshire programme.

I am an ex Councillor and Mayor of Pud and I am a Player and Committee Member of our local Brass Band (Pud Marching Band) and have arranged successful fundraising events before.

Best wishes

Barry and Rita Elbow

To save the embarrassment of the individual who sent me this email, I have changed a few of the details. He wasn’t called Barry Elbow and there is no Pud or county of Glossopshire.

Now, you would think that the kind thing to do would be to email back to explain how they’ve fallen for a hoax. That, however, is the very worst thing you can do. I’ve replied like that many times and it usually results in a severe bollocking from some self-important Reginald quoting advertising standards, scripture, and the law of the land.

I don’t mind the anger. It’s always good to annoy these people. However, I don’t see why I should be punished for their shallow pursuit of celebrity. I’m also of the opinion that I shouldn’t let them down so lightly. If people can’t be bothered to read the blog of the person they’re contacting, it suggests they’re not interested in the person they’re contacting. Even though I’m not Richard Madeley, I do think that the real Richard Madeley deserves more respect than somebody buttonholing him to provide free entertainment during some rainy afternoon in Pud. If you’re going to ask a favour of the man, at least have the common courtesy of learning a little about him and don’t just ask to borrow his celebrity for a couple of hours.

Because, if you do that to me, you’re going to get a reply like this:

Dear Mayor Elbow and Lady Mayoress,

Thank you for your generous invite! I would dearly love to come and speak at Pud Town Hall, though you don’t mention a topic, so I presume it’s my choice! In which case, I’d love to talk to you about my new passion for the English whelk, to be seen next year in my new BBC2 documentary series, ‘Richard Madeley’s Whelk Summer’. A talk at Pud Town Hall would be just the thing to kick off our nationwide publicity about the show.

Did you know that British waters harbour 127 varieties of whelk, of which my favourite is definitely the thick-lipped dog whelk (aka nassarius incrassatus)? If that sort of information excites you, Barry, I could manage perhaps two or three hours on the subject, plus I have some rather amusing slides including one from the first time Judy tried to eat a whelk. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that she has a shellfish allergy so she ballooned considerably, as you’ll see from the slide. The air ambulance was a bit of a white knuckler but at least we can laugh about it now! Well, I can laugh but Judy has a slight residual puffiness around her lips which makes laughter almost as painful as yawning.

Barry, let’s talk wheelbase… Is there ample parking at Pud Town Hall? I’m currently driving a six-berth Majestic motorhome in beige as part of a promotional deal the Beeb have arranged with the makers. I must warn you: it can cause congestion in smaller town centres. In other places (Bridgnorth), local scout troupes were used to guide me into the parking bay. I’m sure with your connections, you could do the same. Nothing too fancy, of course. Just a small procession, perhaps with the Pud Marching Band providing the music. The theme to ‘The Damnbusters’ is a personal favourite. Do you know it and, more to the point, Barry, can you play it?

I don’t know about you but I think the best marching band music came from the films made about the Second World War. The Spitfire Prelude, The 49th Parallel, the theme to ‘The Great Escape’… Steve McQueen was never better, don’t you think? Little known factoid for you, Barry: he made that entire movie wearing a truss. Makes the mind boggle as well as perspire! More recently, of course, we have the music to ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but it doesn’t produce the same swell in the breast as ‘The Dambuster’s March’. I suppose it’s because it’s about Americans. Judy just reminded me about ‘Colonel Bogey’ which was another good one. Good tune, I mean. Not good American though perhaps he was. Now I think about it, if you don’t like the whelk idea, I could talk about World War 2 marching band music. Hit me with your thoughts, Barry (you too Rita!). You’ll both find that I’m very open minded.

By the way, I hope you're not contacting me after finding the blog 'The Richard Madeley Appreciation Society' on the internet. I should mention briefly in passing that the blog was a spoof written by a man of limited intellect and very little talent in the field of comedy writing. He thought himself funnier than he is and occasionally pretends to be me under the name ‘Dick Madeley’. You should watch out for him and try not to get too involved. His real name is Stan Madeley. He wrote a book mocking me but thankfully it was under marketed and therefore a bit of a flop despite it being a proper rib cracker.

But let’s not sour the good tone we’ve set with talk of internet pranksters. These spoofers are just one of the many down sides of being a national celebrity/treasure. Another down side is Clare Balding but best not to go into that over unsecure channels. On a more pleasant note: I’ve just hopped onto Google Maps and eyeballed the width of your High Street. It looks very exciting if a bit narrow for the well-equipped motorhome. I’m intrigued by the look of your ‘Caramel Floom’ tea house, though I’m very disappointed to see that ‘Pud Domestic Applicance Ltd’ has now closed down.

What’s happened to the British high street, Barry? Some people blame internet shopping but I read a story in Judy’s Guardian the other day which said that only 30 percent of people shop on the internet. Well, that just made me want to cry: what about the other 70 per cent? Out-of-town shopping is clearly the problem and I think it should be taxed until B&Q squeak! What we need is for councils to work more proactively to bring new commerce into our small towns. It’s why I’m excited to see your Caramel Floom. In my opinion, every town should have a Caramel Floom, along with a bookshop, a shop selling plumbing supplies, and somewhere to buy nails.

Before I forget: my agent will need to know the numbers you can fit into the Town Hall. The biggest crowd I’ve ever had to work for a talk was 27, though they thinned out a little during the final hour.

But perhaps it’s too early to talk logistics. Let’s just get this sucker organised. Send me more details, size of hall and details of your audio visual equipment (I’m hot on multimedia, Barry), so we can begin to lock down some of the arrangements ahead of what is sure to be a night of slightly saucy crustacean fun.

Again, thank you for the invite. I’m sure the kind people of Pud will give me a very great whelkome!

Sincerely yours,

Dick Madeley
‘The Nation’s Favourite Uncle’

So, how do you reply to a letter like that? With good humour? With a snide remark to indicate that you’re angry at the deception? Perhaps you don’t even reply at all. You allow the silence to convey your disappointment…

Well, not Barry and not Rita. Barry and Rita still think I’m called Richard but Barry is now harbouring some doubts….

Dear Richard

Thank you for your reply – will consider.


And we sometimes wonder why the country is in the state it's in?

Thursday, 29 August 2013

A Meat Cartoon

Speciality Meats

So today’s cartoon makes little sense but I like it. I doodled it watching Curb Your Enthusiasm late last night, so my humour was probably set to full twisted. Meat products must have also been on my mind, perhaps because yesterday was Baconface’s birthday. I don’t use Facebook, detest Facebook, and wish I’d never opened any of my Facebook accounts. Yet I went on Facebook to wish him a happy birthday on such a special yet arbitrarily chosen day. My main purpose was to see if I could prompt that bugger into bringing his lumberjack wit to the rest of the UK. It won’t happen any more than my Sparks strips brought them back to Manchester. However, you’ll never know if you don’t ask…

My other purpose was to make the point that I think I’m owed some free bacon since he used my cartoon on his website. It’s ironic that certain other comedians loudly complain that their fans are downloading their shows from torrent sites. That might be true but they never once took a cartoon from a blog and didn’t even provide a backlink. I think it must be a Canadian thing, like hoary marmots and the four string Yukon banjo (aka the Yokonlele).

Okay. Time for a bike ride and then this afternoon I’ll start something new. It’s a shame that Baconface's shows have come to an end. His strips are actually the most fun to draw simply because I do them purely to amuse myself and as a technical exercise. But perhaps all good things must early end. His mask was getting smaller and his bacon less artfully arranged. It’s harder to draw random bacon and, had he toured, the next strip might have tested my limited skills to breaking point.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Some Heartfelt Thoughts About Cheryl Cole’s Horrendous Bottom

There aren’t many blogs that have stayed in my blogroll from the very beginning but Bryan Appleyard’s ‘Thought Experiments’ is one. It’s always certain to get my brain working in ways that are helpfully tangential to things I’m already thinking about. Today, for instance, the reinvigorated Bryan is talking about ‘people who care’ and, naturally, that immediately made me think about the bottoms of attractive young women in their mid-twenties.

We live in a society where we are routinely expected to adopt positions we might not instinctively support. ‘Caring’ is one example. Even though it makes me sound hammer callous about the truly poor, I’ll be honest and admit that I never really cared all that deeply about ‘feeding the world’. I never went to any ‘Live Aid’ concert but I bet that many who did and bought the t-shirt weren’t actually all that interested in famine or food economics. They furrowed their brows and spoke in platitudes but, deep down, where all our bestial motivations snout around for brushed chrome phones and comfortable underwear, they were just there to see Bowie and Jagger perform.

That isn’t to say that I’m insensitive to suffering but growing up surround by media hype about films, bands, and national celebrations, it tended to make it difficult to recognise the actual reality of the world or to understand the true levels of hardship. I doubt if I’m alone. Once something exceeds the brain’s ability to comprehend scale, it’s as if the brain retreats to failsafe positions: ‘surely the government should do something’ or ‘isn’t it terrible…’ It is bystander apathy on a global scale and totally understandable because to fully commit yourself to the cause would mean changing your life, altering your routine, and sacrificing your comfort.

It’s just one example of the casual hypocrisy we’re taught to exercise between our schooldays and the Pearly Gates. We say we want to see businesses run ethically but the capitalist fat slides thick and heavy though our veins. What we really care about is the price of the new iPhone or the quality of our socks. It’s like people who declare that Michael McIntyre is funny. They don’t really think that but the BBC has filled them with a conviction as solid as slimed drivel nailed to a door.

The worst example of this quasi-doublethink is ‘political correctness’ which often applies a thin veneer of tolerance over more deeply held forms of intolerance, prejudice, and conviction.

TattooI was reading an article in The Guardian yesterday about the horrendous Cheryl Cole’s bottom. On the horrendous Cheryl Cole’s bottom, the horrendous Cheryl Cole has had a large horrendous tattoo of flowers inked by some American artist who probably has a side line in wallpaper design. Jane Martinson, the writer of the piece, suggested the tattoo might be read as a feminist statement, as if to say: ‘men might think I’m ruining a very attractive bottom but I’m showing that my bottom belongs to me, the horrendous Cheryl Cole, and I can do with it what I like.’

The implication in both the article and comments that followed was that I’m not allowed to think that the horrendous Cheryl Cole had a rather nice bottom or that she has now ruined it forever. That would be an example of my being sexist and patriarchal about bottoms that are none of my concern.

It’s a hard slap to take. Even before I read this article I would often find myself wandering around in life and occasionally looking at an attractive female bottom before an inner voice would start to shout Guardian propaganda at me. There I was on the train into Manchester just a week ago, leaning slightly into the aisle to admire the rear of the departing guard (female), when the voice of my inner Toynbee began to bark and I fell ruined back into my seat. I live wracked with all kinds of guilt about my attraction to female bottoms, which I swear isn’t abnormal. There’s nothing illicit about these bottoms, which are usually in their mid-twenties and fully clothed, possibly in tight denim. Think Jacqueline Bisset in ‘The Deep’ or Emmanuelle Seigner in ‘Frantic’ and you’ll know what I mean…

Yet it's this discrepancy between thoughtless actions and thoughtful reflection that makes hypocrites of so many of us. It is partially why political rhetoric is so shallow in this country. There are too many things we cannot say, cannot admit, and are prevented from addressing. Politicians are forced to issue the most jabberingly stupid of statements on subjects which demand more nuanced debate. They lie to us, not because they are deceitful, but because we as a collective have allowed these lies to take on the appearance of moral truths in the hope that at some point everybody will begin to believe them.

For instance, it’s increasingly hard to insult Clare Balding these days lest people intuit that you’re insulting her sexuality. But Clare Balding isn’t annoying because she’s a lesbian. To say that 'she’s an annoying lesbian' should register exactly the same as if one has said that 'she’s an annoying commentator'. You wouldn’t interpret the latter to mean that commentators are inherently annoying and in a proper liberal society that should be also true of the former. The prejudice exists the moment you infer anything else about the statement.

Language mirrors thought, not always as succinctly as we wish, but in a way that we can usually presume it has a basis in a person wishing to communicate what they think. What advocates of political correctness fail to acknowledge is that merely changing the language does not change the underlying thoughts. To pretend that it can is, at best, hypocritical, and at worst, creating a generation of men who feel deeply conflicted about the horrendous Cheryl Cole’s bottom and its hardy perennials. And, as much as I'm sure you'll be shocked to hear this: I don't like them. I really don't...

The Library Cartoon

Annoying People

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Let’s Just Shoot All The Cyclists

I’m beginning to see the sense of it. As a cyclist, I mean. After all, I’m nothing but a drain on local resources, a constant thorn in the side of customer service departments. How is Willard told to deal with Kurtz in Apocalyse Now? With extreme prejudice? Well, I feel like Kurtz, muttering ‘the horror, the horror’ here amid the brutes. I’ve clearly gone rogue, off reservation, or, if you prefer, quite quite mad. I’ve lost all rational sense having gorged myself on a diet of existential cycling philosophy and the foolish belief that we were born free to choose how best to live our lives.

Even if you’re a cyclist, you must see that there is a hard-knuckled truth to my words so open your mind and let them in. Society carries on not through the rational will of individuals but because the great barrelling mass of the majority is steeped in some husky pheromone and brazenly ruts behind council refuse bins when dim on Bacardi and sad dreams. Evolution happily coincides with the squirting dash of sperm towards eggs. It’s no more profound than that and for every conscientious couple concerned about world population there are a thousand drunken pricks with immortality on their tips.

Yet all societies eventually neutralise their radical elements. I’m now beginning to see that we cyclists are more radical than most. We try to present a better vision of the world, of communities, and of towns. Yet we’re also immensely disposable since we lack the genetic code for survival. We’re like the dodo birds so friendly to sailors that they never learned to run away even as they were having their necks wrung. Cyclists have a naïve quality. We put ourselves in harm’s way, laying our necks before the heavy vulcanised tread of wiser souls protected by air bags and 4x4 traction. What benefits do consideration, moderation and environmentalism provide for the species other than to weaken it and turn us all into Guardian readers? So I say again, they should just shoot the cyclists. We’re an evolutionary dead end.

Cycling is for dreamers and who needs dreamers in a world of bankers and rat-tailed business suits? Being a cyclist is for another me in another lifetime. It’s of that same mad idealism that made me think I might make it as a writer, humourist, or cartoonist whilst living in small town England. Dream followed dream and now look at me. Tesco’s customer complaints department already treat me like the horsemeat they deny exists in their burgers. Shoot the cyclist. Some hot fragment of lead placed at considerable speed into my ear would solve quite a few problems. After all, I don’t conform to the identikit picture of the British working male that these companies encourage in order to exploit. To do that, I would need to impregnate at least 2.4 women, buy myself an old arse rattler of a car, and then do the shopping once a month at Tesco whilst sucking on a Mayfair king size or packing the Bud.

Yesterday highlighted how selfish I am by continuing to dream. It was one of those mornings at Tesco when my bike got in people’s way. I would have gone to shop elsewhere but there was no alternative but to endure their bike racks. It was also a Friday which meant the town was busy and the bike racks full.

Well, I say ‘full’ but there was one space and I bet you can’t spot it…


This photo illustrates why we cyclists are an extravagance and why Tesco are right to hate us. Here is a perfect example of a cyclist demanding too much. The room taken up by that bike might have held another trolley, pram, baby, mother, other woman, and another oddly angled youth. Just ignore that sign saying ‘bicycle parking’ above their heads. That’s just a little in-joke between Tesco staff. This is actually an example of high level ergonomics and how to maximise space in a dwindling world. This is people folding done the Japanese way. The message is a simple one: let’s just shoot the cyclists…

But even as I type that, I finally feel my sarcasm running dry. I’m left only frustration and a shrug of the shoulders... These are dog-eat-dog days requiring snarling teeth not smiles.

Yesterday showed me that I’m fighting a pointless battle. Tesco have still haven’t adequately replied to my complaint. It’s now over a week since the polite email from ‘Alex’ the Customer Service Manager and, as is shown in the above picture, the situation hasn’t changed. I’m tempted to write again but I’m deciding whether I should give up or open a second front in this attritional war.

A second front, you ask?

It was almost predictable that as soon as I ask for more cycle stands in one part of town that my local council should rip out the bike stands in one of the few places where they were providing a good service.

Bike stands! I can’t believe my life has come down to something as meaningless as these hoops of metal in the ground. Yet here I am thinking of petitioning my local council leader, Barrie Grunewald.


Since he took office in a local government coup earlier this year, I’ve been impressed by Barrie and his ability to grab a headline. He plays labyrinthine politics like some Greek sandal slapper on the trail of the Minotaur threatening to cut council budgets for the third year in a row. Believe me when I say that this man is marked for the national stage. In ten years, look for him on the back benches, quickly shuffling his way to the front. Government posts. Minister for God knows what. Perhaps party leader, Prime Minister, and the world… He also looks like the kind of forward thinking folder snapper who can explain local cycle policy without looking at his notes. To be fair, I can also do that without notes but only because St Helens Council has what appears to be a simple cycling policy:

Let’s just shoot all the cyclists...

Barrie will probably say that he doesn’t make every decision but I bet he knows which pencil chewer in St Helens Council decided to remove these bike stands.

BikestandFor the last few years, we had two bike stands at the ends of a small street running through our town. They appeared one day as part of a town upgrade and proved very handy if you were going into one of the nearby banks, shops, or opticians. I went there yesterday expecting to leave my bike at the same stand I use three or four times a week. Only I discovered the stand gone. Another stand down the road had also been ripped out. There are now three stands around the corner at the end of the street. I guess it’s a provision of sorts and I also guess that I’m just being lazy. I’ll just have to leave my bike there and walk back to whatever shops I need...

Except, isn’t this another example of the mentality that councils have towards cyclists? Isn’t this the same begrudging nod we always get? Somebody in the last five minutes of a long dull town planning meeting has said:

‘But what about the cyclists?’

And somebody else has tutted, chewed the end of their propelling pencil and then scratched their oversized car-friendly behind.

‘Oh,’ they’ve said, ‘we’ll give them some stands out of the way somewhere so they can’t complain.’

Except I can complain and I do complain. Why did the council take one step back after making a good step forward? Cycle stands aren’t like car parks. You don’t centralise them. You spread them out to aid mobility and increase access to different parts of town. And what harm was there in having bike stands outside shops? That’s just good planning. One small hint of civilisation in this rabbit hutch town.

Of course, they’ll say it’s the cuts. They’ll say that the council once had money to spend on painting bicycles on pavements and putting up cycle racks. They’ll say that austerity has now bitten so hard that they’ve been forced to spend yet more money ripping out the bike stands and building a large and frankly pointless flower bed further up the road. They’ll say the town has been improved.

Except it makes no sense to me. Enlightened thinking has gone back to inside-the-box thinking.

Perhaps I’ll write to Barrie and ask him to explain. Or perhaps I’ll just ask him to shoot me. One way or the other, at least he’ll have put me out of my misery.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

When Roger Moore Was The Best Bond

I’ve become hooked again on rewatching the James Bond films. It happens from time to time, usually when I’m feeling tired or down or simply uninspired. A James Bond season is my way of turning my brain off and vegetating in the early evening over a week or two. My lack of critical faculties during this time perhaps explains why I usually find myself enjoying the films the critics tell me that I’m not supposed to enjoy. It also leads me to write outlandish statements like ‘Roger Moore was the best James Bond’, even though I know that to be rubbish. The best James Bond was Timothy Dalton. The worst James Bond by a good distance was Pierce Brosnan. The rest sit somewhere between those extremes of brilliance and banality.

Connery may have looked the most like the Bond I knew from the novels but it was Dalton who took the Bond from the page and played him on the screen with the right mixture of self-loathing, anger, and masochism. He was Daniel Craig before Craig brilliantly remodelled Bond as a hitman from the pages of GQ magazine. George Lazenby could have been the best had he been given chance and, certainly, his one outing remains a highpoint of the franchise yet he was unlucky to appear in the first Bond film that broke away from the established model. Years ahead of its time, you might say, and in retrospect, probably the first real Bond classic, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the Bond they got so very right but they didn’t realise that at the time.

As for Brosnan, it was an experiment that began well with Goldeneye but went wrong very quickly. He also suffered from his own good looks. He only became a genuinely interesting actor once he stopped trying to be James Bond, making two woefully underrated movies Matador (2005) and Seraphim Falls (2006), and then the critically acclaimed The Ghost with Polanski in 2010. In those films he delivered something he failed to bring to Bond which was the complexity of a man no longer young but more interesting because of that. In contrast, the Brosnan Bond had been too suave, too debonair, too liable to pout to camera at important moments. The films also lost their way with diamond encrusted villains, invisible cars, Madonna, and (the possibly the worst plot point in any Bond film) facial transplants that turned a North Korean colonel into a proper plummy Toby Stephens.

Somewhere in the middle of such debates sits Sir Roger Moore. Moore wasn’t a perfect Bond by any means. In the later films, he was too old but from the beginning he was already too gentlemanly to be the deeply twisted Bond of the novels. He just possessed too much humour, while his taste in clothes was abhorrent. Yet it’s his films that cheer me up like no others in the series. Of course, Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun are two of the strongest Bond films yet made but those aren’t films I find myself rewatching. I have a strange special place in my heart for his last three outings as James Bond even though they are routinely placed at the bottom of other people’s lists. I don’t know why but I love For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and A View To A Kill…

Even when I’m watching them, I know they’re bad. In A View to a Kill, I cringe the moment Bond ‘surfs’ across a frozen lake to the music of The Beach Boys. He then gets into a strange mini submarine camouflaged as an iceberg but inside turned bordello with a blonde busty member of MI6 wearing a one piece fur lined gold lamé ski suit. Don’t get me wrong. If I was going to jump into a mini submarine disguised as an iceberg, my preference would be into the arms of a blonde busty member of MI6 wearing a one piece fur lined gold lamé ski suit and I don’t care what Edward Snowden and The Guardian have to leak about that.

Octopussy has even more of those cringe worthy moments. I detest the moment when Bond arrives in India and the local agent (dressed as a snake charmer) identifies himself by playing the Monty Norman’s James Bond theme. That character, Vijay, was played by Vijay Amritraj, a famous tennis player, which leads to the awful visual pun during a chase scene when Vijay fights off the henchmen with his tennis racquet and the crowd looking one way and then another as if they’re watching a real tennis match. Then there’s that questionable moment when Bond hands Sadruddin, the Head of the Indian Station, a wad of money with the quip ‘That should keep you in curry for a few weeks’. I hate it when Bond swings through the jungle and yodels the Tarzan yodel made popular by Ron Ely’s Tarzan. Then there’s the terrible moment when Bond faces down a tiger by giving it a Mary Woodhouse ‘sit’ and who can really forgive it for the moment Q drops Bond on the villain’s home from a large hot air balloon covertly decorated with the Union Jack. Add in the outlandish yoyo killers who always require a conveniently located high ledge, the scene where Bond dresses as a clown and the moment Bond hides in a gorilla costume and you have the strangest Bond film since the Woody Allen Casino Royale.

Octopussy has a dozens upon dozens of these moment yet I find myself perversely enjoying them and I don’t know why.

A View To A Kill has possibly the worst Bond girl in Tanya Roberts yet I love every moment she’s on screen, either screaming at a pitch that only bothers dogs or talking about geology like she only learned to spell it that morning. It’s also the film with the murder by butterfly on a fishing rod and the bad dubbing that makes French actor Jean Rougerie sound so lecherously vile as Achille Aubergine. In the last twenty minutes, Grace Jones’ May Day undergoes an instantaneous switch from being Bond’s nemesis to being his saviour. There is then a moment when Tanya Roberts is running away and doesn’t noticed the enormous bloody airship chasing her.

BarryinBondYet my favourite Bond movie was the first of the three. For Your Eyes Only has one of the most stunningly beautiful leading ladies in Carole Bouquet yet it’s also the one with the transgender woman who was born a Barry. If you type 'Carole Bouquet' into Google and it will offer as the top suggestion the phrase ‘Carole Bouquet is a man’. She isn’t, wasn’t and never has been, but, as a youth, I learned with great bewilderment that one of the Bond girls in my much thumbed James Bond annual was originally born a bloke. That, however, wasn’t Carole Bouquet but the actress Caroline Cossey seen briefly walking from the pool. I believe she even claimed to have dated Des Lynam though he apparently doesn’t remember.

But back to Bouquet and Bond... For Your Eyes Only begins with a ropey pre-credit fight between Bond stuck in a remote control helicopter over London and Blofeld in his electric wheel chair. Obviously fake mannequins and atypical electronic music set the tone for the rest of the movie. Bond parachutes with a parasol, climbs a mountain with his shoe laces, and ends up snorkelling in the nude as a parrot gets saucy with Janet Brown’s Margaret Thatcher. Yet, again, all of that never stops me enjoying it.

It’s probably the mistakes, the lousy jokes, the comic accidents that keep me entertained. There would be better Bond films. Casino Royale was possibly the best of the lot and Skyfall almost as good. There would be better Bond girls (Carey Lowell, especially in the latter half of License to Kill… sigh). And yes, there would be better Bonds. Yet none of them have Moore whose personality infects the films with a spirit that’s somehow comforting, reassuring, uplifting. He’s wry, knowing, in on the joke. And that’s why I was wrong to say that Roger Moore was the best Bond. I should have said: there was no better Roger Moore than the Moore of the James Bond films. He was my favourite Roger Moore. Nobody did it better.


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Pariah Complex

I notice that Russell Brand’s Messiah Complex is coming to Manchester. Not that I want to see it. I’d rather tattoo my own scrotum with a well-chewed biro found at the bottom of a dermatologist’s desk drawer than put money in that man’s pocket. And it would take serious money to get a seat, in all probability at the very outer limits of the human eye’s ability to distinguish a human being on a largely empty stage.

Stadium comedy makes about as much sense as inter-continental pub darts and you really have to question the motives of any comedian or musician touring that way. I suppose I understand organisers wanting to maximise profits but I really don’t fathom people wanting to pay upwards of fifty quid to watch a show from a distance of about half a mile. I understand even less artists who risk their lasting appeal for short term gain. Leonard Cohen recently came to Manchester and though I’ve always liked his albums, the £100 asking price for tickets in the O2 filled me with a slit-your-wrists-to-a-Leonard-Cohen-album level of horror. His current touring seem to have little artistic merit and total commitment to making as much money as quickly as possible to replace his career earnings which were embezzled by a dodgy manager. I feel sorry that he has to compromise his art that way but I’d prefer not to be complicit in the whole sad business.

Yet Brand is a different kind of performer and grubbing for cash fits his profile. The O2 also seems suited to his zeitgeist and is probably had enough headroom to contain his ego, at least for an hour or so. Yet what most struck me about the promotional material were the following lines in the show’s description. They sounded like they’d been dictated by the man himself:
Messiah Complex is a mental disorder where the sufferer thinks they might be the messiah. Did Jesus have it? What about Che Guevara, Gandhi, Malcolm X and Hitler? All these men have shaped our lives and influenced the way we think.

All great people are flawed, all of us, flawed people are capable of greatness and for every identifiable icon there is an anonymous mob of unrecognised bods doing all the admin and heavy lifting.

The ugly writing of the second part is fun and sounds so typically Brand. ‘Great people are flawed’ it says, followed by ‘all of us’. All of us? Meaning all great people? Meaning Jesus, Che Guevara, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Hitler, and Russell Brand? I wonder who’d dominate the conversation at that dinner party… Or perhaps I don’t wonder. It would the guy in the taffeta scarf and leather pants telling Hitler that ‘you got it all wrong mate’.

Perhaps I’m being needlessly critical. Perhaps the ‘all of us’ refers to the flawed people. As in: ‘all of us flawed people are capable of greatness’. It’s more humble perhaps but I’m not sure about the next bit which sounds like an Oscar acceptance speech. ‘I wouldn’t be here because of all the little people…’ Brand probably believes that having achieved that super stardom, he’s qualified to talk about it. To me it feels like one of those instances where by demeaning their fame, a celebrity actually draws even more attention to it. And that’s the thing about stadium comedy: it makes the little people even smaller while the comedians are raised to the level of the new messiah and the O2 becomes the new Mount of Olives.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Baconface The Comedian Goes Missing

Here’s a doodled strip about Baconface Smith I’ve been working on in my spare time while waiting for inspiration to strike. Yes, it makes very little sense but what the hell… I like it and I had fun drawing it.

The Ubiquitous Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is probably a great bloke. Let me get that out there at the start. I don’t want Gaiman fans coming at me, their pimples distended and ready to burst with righteous fury. I hold no grudge against the man and on occasion I’ve even tried to read his books. I don’t know why I never got into them but, whatever the reason, that’s not what I sat down to write about today. I don’t want to talk about his prose or his symbolism or his gift for narrative. I don’t want to look into his heart and judge if he’s a good or bad man. If you were to tell me that he is the best writer of his generation, I might agree with you but only because that doesn't really interest me. What has become a bit of an obsession with me is his ubiquity.

I first became aware of Gaiman when Jonathan Ross regularly began to mention him as one of his close friends. They appeared together in Ross’s documentary about Steve Ditko, the artist who first drew Spiderman, when the pair of them presented themselves at the door of the reclusive Ditko and talked their way into a brief audience. I became more aware of his name after reading a few books about Scientology. I learned that his family are Scientology royalty in the UK, their company, G&G Vitamins, providing the vitamins used inside the Church.

The next time I came across him was a few months ago when I was reading about the controversy surround the crowdsourcing activities of a musician called Amanda Palmer who I would come to realise is Gaiman's wife.

A few weeks ago, The Guardian was publishing new pieces about Gaiman seemingly every day for a fortnight. He was promoting a new book and, as is typical with The Guardian’s promotion of a new product, book, movie, or album, it was all a bit over the top. (See, for example, David Bowie’s new album before him, Alan Partridge’s new film after him). I tried to ignore it but the publicity worked. I was generally more aware of Gaiman. That, however, was only the start…

Last week, I was reading Ain’t It Cool News and there was a link to the Will Eisner awards. Among the guests: Jonathan Ross and Neil Gaiman.

Later in the day, I was looking at a (sadly now failed) Kickstarter campaign for a documentary about the cartoonist Gahan Wilson. There, featured prominently in the documentary, was Neil Gaiman.

A few days later, I was browsing the Eurogamer gaming website and noticed a new game coming out written by Neil Gaiman.

That same day The Guardian reported that the Edinburgh International Book Fair was celebrating Judge Dredd and there, prominent once again, was Neil Gaiman.

On Sunday, I was reading Bill Stott’s blog. Bill is one of our very best cartoonists and his work will be on exhibition at the Manchester Literary Festival in October. Check out their website. Need I tell you who is featured so prominently on their front page? I'll give you a clue. It's not Bill Stott.

Now, I have you down as intelligent readers so you’ve probably spotted the pattern, but, believe me, this is just a selection of the times I’ve come across Gaiman's name over the last few weeks. Other examples I’ve now forgotten about… Except I haven’t forgotten all of them. I’ve just remembered that it was after the announcement of the new Doctor Who. The next day, Neil Gaiman was in the papers revealing that a black actor had turned down the role.

All of this had been rattling around in my head long before I hit the bookshops yesterday. In fact, I’d drawn a cartoon about it about a week ago which I've republished today. Yesterday, however, I came back with a Neil Gaiman headache. The man is everywhere! He’s providing the blurb on the front of books, introductions to books, or he's edited collections of other people’s work. If it’s either science fiction or fantasy, an author clearly has to have Neil Gainman’s name on the cover or the bloody thing won’t sell. Then there are Gaiman’s books: kids books, adult books, and graphic novels. Lots of graphic novels… Seemingly endless graphic novels. Small graphic novels, normal graphic novels, and graphic novels the size of ancient religious texts that wouldn’t look out of place sitting on a lectern and lit by a single beam of light shining from a window high in temple’s dome.

I'm now at the point where I can’t decide if it’s the most perfectly engineered career or genuine talent that has got him where he is. I’m also dimly aware that Neil Gaiman might just be somebody very much like myself. His tastes seem to track my tastes almost exactly and that, for me, is a worrying thought… I’m beginning to think that everywhere I go, everything I look at, he’ll be there already, looking back at me and smiling as if to say, ‘Oh, so you’re into this, are you? Oh, I was into this a long time ago. So glad you could finally catch up.’

Monday, 19 August 2013


I didn’t manage a post yesterday and I’m late today, meaning a slight blog silence has inadvertently descended.

It’s just been a very busy couple of days. I worked late into the night on a two page comic strip which is nearing completion and I hope to post tomorrow, plus today I heeled my aging Doc Martens around Manchester University’s bookshop. It’s been a few years since I found myself in a proper academic bookshop and I’d forgotten how much I miss them. It also had a graphic novel section that would put many a Forbidden Planet to shame, by which I mean it was light on the crappy superhero comics but with plenty of strange independent writers and artists I’d never seen before. I’ve also never seen The Comic Journal in stock in a high street shop before, though, as usual with those doorstep thick volumes, well beyond my budget.

Anyway, I left feeling inspired with new ideas, plus grasping a copy of Martin Rowson’s ‘Gulliver’s Travel’, which I’ve been eager (perhaps even desperate) to own since I saw the original artwork on display at The Cartoon Museum in London. I’ve not even opened it yet because I want to soak in every millimetre of Rowson’s genius when I'm less tired.


I then walked down to Deansgate where I had a mooch around Waterstones before my train. For anybody interested in graphic novels and books of illustration, there are a few bargains going cheap(ish) in their ‘Last Chance to Buy’ sale. I really couldn’t afford most of the books that caught my eye such as ‘The Art of Tony Millionaire’. However, for not much more than I'd pay for a drink and pastie from Greggs, I snagged a copy of Drew Friedman’s ‘Too Soon?’ which actually made me gasp and mutter ‘holy shit’ when I saw it. I always search for Drew Friedman books when I’m shopping but I’ve never before seen one. How this copy ended up in the bargain bin of Manchester's Waterstones is beyond my understanding, let alone how anybody can ask a quarter of the published price for such a great book. The world has clearly gone mad.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The John W. Henry Cartoon

John W Henry comic strip cartoon

In honour of Liverpool's first win of the season, here's the first of my John W. Henry comic strips I've drawn for the LFC fanzine, Red All Over The Land.

Do Non-Smokers Really Play The World’s Smallest Violin?

A comment on the blog last night left me thinking. Not all of them do but this was a good comment and began with a quote from my previous post.
"And I’m tired of being forced to breathe in second-hand smoke,’ I said"

It appears you're happy to drive past, and close, to hundreds of cars pumping out carcinogenic fumes, however, the smell of a single burning leaf is enough to near kill you!

*plays worlds tiniest violin*

It’s a good reply but doesn’t apply to me or to what I’d written. The comment presupposed a few things about me that aren’t actually true. For example, as a small town cyclist, I don’t come into contact with hundreds of cars. Mainly out of cowardice, I generally avoid traffic by taking empty residential streets, paths through parkland, a road through a largely quiet industrial estate, and I very rarely spend any time sitting in traffic smelling engine fumes. The second mistake is to assume that my objection to cigarettes is based on their perceived harm. It’s not. I object to having smoke blown in my face because I find that the fetid hot breath of wizened nicotine addicts sickens me to my stomach. My argument would be the same if I was forced to smell raw effluent or the rotting carcass of a feral dog left tied to the bike stands.

Despite my primary objections to the comment, at the heart of the argument there was still a good point that needed exploring. Why should cyclists have a problem with smokers given the pollution they’re exposed to in the average cycle journey?

That question intrigued me, though I knew immediately that my reply would take me into morally dark waters. Having an opinion about smoking is like holding a position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no position from which you won’t annoy somebody and possibly need a deep bunker.

Yet I’ve never seen myself as a real anti-smoker. I don’t agree with pressure groups that turn these issues into territorial disputes so badge wearers can shake their fists at the rival camp. I like to think I’d defend people’s right to do whatever they want with their bodies, their lives, and their actions. My only restriction is that those choices can’t intrude on the rights of others to do what they want with their bodies, lives and actions.

Naturally, this tolerant approach leads me into some problematic areas, such as my belief that it’s wrong to outlaw any form of speech. Censorship of thoughts, however repellent, merely pushes people with extremist sentiments into the shadows where they eventually do more harm. Let the hate-filled bigots stand in the open where they can be addressed through rational argument, humiliated through ridicule, and revealed for the true louses these people are. Political Correctness, though noble in its aim, merely turns bigots into quiet hypocrites. Silencing people doesn’t make them change their attitudes but it can harden a prejudice into hatred.

I’m not denying that this liberal attitude doesn’t sometimes leave me gritting my teeth when I find myself defending the rights of people I find deeply repellent. Yet it also allows me to retain a defence for satire. Freedom of expression means that I also reserve the right to argue that the choices people make are dumb and where appropriate, mock them savagely for that, as I too can be mocked for the dumb choices I make and opinions I express.

So, although I’m not a smoker, I wouldn’t ban tobacco, as I wouldn’t ban alcohol or even drugs (again, this slides into difficult areas but I’d like to think that arguments against those perils outweigh any argument in their favour). It comes down to a matter of personal choice provided the context allows those individual choices to be made whilst not impacting on the identical rights of others.

Smokers rightly defend their activity by saying they have made a choice as individuals and the rest of us have no right to curtail their activities. And they are absolutely right. Yet the problem that smokers repeatedly fail to acknowledge is that this individual freedom/personal choice argument also works the other way around.

Again, my own objection towards smoking has nothing to do with the harm it might cause. If smoking were good for you, my argument would be exactly the same and it’s this: I have made a choice not to smell something I find repellent. Smokers believe that they’re victimised because they smoke. That’s wrong. They are only victimised when they take away other people’s right to choose and force them to share the consequences of their personal choice. It’s this that lies at the heart of the great Steve Martin joke that has one person ask ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ and the other reply ‘No but do you mind if I fart?’

Would smokers complain if a large section of the public, gifted with highly pungent arseholes, spent large portions of their day stinking out the entrances to every mainline station, bus stop, or, in the case of my post yesterday, supermarket? What about people who might enjoy standing in a bus queue making a high pitched whining noise? What about people who might have a passion for hosepipes or water guns? What if every time we walked through town we were suddenly doused with harmless water? What if it was tear gas? What if it was raw sewage?

My examples are ridiculous but no more ridiculous, to my mind, than people burning dried leaves and blowing the smoke into another person’s face. And this brings me to the difference between cyclists exposed to smokers and cyclists exposed to pollution: there is no difference except you don’t choose to be a cyclist so you can expose yourself to car emissions in the same way that you don’t choose to be a non-smoker in order to expose yourself to smoke. We can, however, we can do something about the former in the short term, whilst working to solve the problem of the latter.

And we definitely have the right to do something. It’s true that I could endure them like I’ve endured them for years. Perhaps I’m even making a big thing out of a very petty quibble. But don’t I have as much right to choose to avoid the stench of cigarettes as those people have the right to feed their craving? I’m not saying that I’m any better or worse than they are. I’m just saying that I’m different and I would expect others to respect my choice.

The world’s smallest violin? It’s only small if you perceive it as small.

Friday, 16 August 2013

A Small Town Cyclist Going Green At Tesco

There’s nothing glamorous about being a small town cyclist. There’s no talk about carbon alloy frames, cadence, or even how great my buttocks look in Lycra. I don’t wear Lycra. I cycle in my jeans, wear an old coat, a rucksack and a shabby NY Giant’s baseball cap. I have an old bike with twenty four gears but only sixteen that work. I don’t clean the bike as often as I should yet it can go at a good rate, climb some pretty steep hills, and occasionally overtake some recent convert to cycling dressed as a Wiggins and riding some spank shining new Claude Butler racer.

I’m the sort of cyclist that rarely gets talked about when people talk about cycling. I don’t cycle into cities and I don’t jump red lights or make taxi drivers shout obscenities about the Lib Dems. I don’t ride hundreds of miles a week, though I do cycle a few miles most days. I’m not a cyclist who wears a camera on his head and then gets featured on the BBC news moments before he goes under a cement wagon. I don’t have my articles published as part of the The Times’s 'Cities Fit For Cycling' campaign explaining why cyclists are victimised and how government transport policy is misguided. I think those things and believe The Times’s campaign one of the best things done by a major newspaper in a very long time but I don't live in a city. I also don’t have a bell on my bike and would feel too much of an enthusiast if I wore a helmet.

I’m just a small town cyclist, one of many you might recognise but not really notice. We don’t protest that we want more cycle lanes. We’d be happy if the local council gave us just one. Our concerns tend to be so meagre that they’re not considered newsworthy: less glass on roads, fewer dead hedgehogs by the curb. I’d like my council to leave decent gaps beside speed bumps and people to stop hanging plastic bags filled with dog shit from the trees and bushes along the routes I take. I’d like wide T-junctions to be properly marked for the safety of cyclists who are too often forced to stand in the middle of the road and are liable to be hit by the lazy bastards who confuse Murray Walker with the Highway Code and think they have his permission to clip the apex of every corner.

Most of all, I’d just like a safe place to leave my bike when I’m shopping at my local supermarket. And if this last thing sounds trivial, it’s also this crazy dream that has recently caused me to put in some serious miles on my keyboard.

If Tesco has perhaps unfairly gained a bad reputation for some things, then it’s probably equally true that we don’t give them credit for other things they do so well. Irrespective of what grievances we might have, Tesco’s dominance in the market is a sign that lots of people like the services they provide. I’ve always been of that mind myself. Like they do in many small towns across the country, Tesco own and run our main local supermarket. Even though we do have a small Morrissons, Tesco is where most people do their shopping. It’s ideal for those of us without a car, especially when I can go and pick up most things we need on my bike. I can cycle there three, four or five times a week and keep the cupboards reasonably well stocked.

Yet my local Tesco really hates cyclists or, at least, probably think we’re some kind of inconvenience. I suspect their local management think we’re overly demanding, indicative of a middle class attitude in this staunchly working class town.

At the front of our Tesco, benches line the taxi pick-up point. Most days, the benches are full of customers waiting for their rides and most of these customers are smokers sucking on tar-heavy cigarettes. Dead tabs lie at the feet of these people with their corrugated skin and voices like smashed accordions. And this wouldn’t concern me too much except Tesco, in their wisdom, chose this very same spot to put their bike stands.

Locking my bike usually involves a fair degree of second-hand smoke and my overhearing more than a few grisly tales of medical procedures. I got rid of my old combination lock so I could shave seconds off the time I have to spend listening to these old croaks explaining their last lung op. Packing my bags is the worst part. Ever listened to a lifelong smoker describe the variety of their morning mucus when you’re trying to stuff a loaf into an overfull pannier? It’s rare these days that I get to eat bread that hasn’t been hammered into a bag just so I get away from the gorier details.

If locating the bike stands next to the smokers wasn’t bad enough, Tesco have another way of showing their disdain towards cyclists. They don’t provide adequate cycle stands.

A year ago, my local store had three cycle stands. Three stands meant room for six bikes. That was just about adequate and you’d be unlucky to turn up and find all six slots being used. But then, without apparent reason or explanation, one of the stands disappeared. There was then only room for four bikes and most days it was a fifty/fifty chance if you’d have somewhere to leave your ride.

After the third stand disappeared, complaints were made. My sister was the first person I know to take the bull by the horns and send an email asking if we could have more bike stands. She was told that Tesco themselves agreed that the bike stands were insufficient and that the problem would be addressed at the store upgrade in July. So we waited and when June arrived, just to be certain, she emailed again. Yes, she was told. The bike stands would be improved.

Then it’s July and the store upgrade begins. On Monday, the store upgrade was complete.

I arrived there on Tuesday and discovered that little had changed. The same two inadequate bike stands were still in the same place but a new bench has been situated to the left of the bike stands, providing room for up to four additional smokers. On Tuesday there were only two women sitting there but hawking enough phlegm for four and puffing away between Eastenders gossip. They didn’t move when I tried to put my bike in the stand and they laughed as I cursed when I realised that the bench was about three inches from the stand and the gap too narrow for my wheel.

I hate confrontation and I rarely complain in person about anything. Yet, Tuesday, I found myself standing at the Tesco customer service desk explaining all this to a woman who was wonderful: helpful, polite, and sympathetic. She was exactly the kind of person you think should be working at a customer service desk. I’d nominate her for an MBE if I could.

I explained about the lack of stands. She nodded and noted the problem. ‘And I’m tired of being forced to breathe in second-hand smoke,’ I said. She looked aghast. ‘Then that’s a legitimate complaint right there,’ she said. I felt lifted. My complaint was being taken serious. She thought for a moment and said she’d go see if the person in charge of the upgrade could talk to me. She disappeared for a few minutes. When she came back, she looked deflated. She had a message from the guy in charge. The bike stands weren’t going to be changed. I would have to learn to put up with them. End of story.

I couldn’t have had a more indifferent response. The guy couldn’t even come out and tell me that himself.

The whole thing is now descending into farce. I complained by email and was told I’d get a reply by Wednesday evening. Wednesday evening came and went without hearing anything.

I emailed for an update again yesterday and received an apology but little by way of understanding of the situation. Every time I email, a new person replies. One reply implied that I’d misled them. They said I’d suggested there was only one bike stand when I’d actually said there were two but with only three usable spaces. More emails were exchanged and we are now on amicable terms again but I’m still left waiting to hear if anything will be done.

Yet isn’t this how it always goes? It’s not the customer service people in the middle I’m angry with. It’s the local store who make feel like I’m in the wrong asking them to move their bike stands out of the designated area for smokers and to provide enough stands so I can actually go into their shop and spend the small fortune I spend there every a month on behalf of myself and others.

It’s a typical trivial matter faced by small town cyclists everywhere. There’s no inherent drama in it. You couldn’t interest a newspaper in a story this boring. Yet the green agenda is too often about the huge world changing events: power stations in China and flatulent cattle. The green agenda should really be about quality of life. We shouldn’t pollute because it makes our surroundings unpleasant, not because science is having a high-level debate about consequences. We should be driven as much by common sense as by science.

I live in an area that is routinely listed as one of the UK’s worst areas for quality of life. In 2009, a nearby town, Warrington, was named in a government report as having the worst quality of life in the country. That was news to me. In these parts, Warrington has always been considered a classy place to go, with the best shopping (it has book shops!), a big library, museum, a rugby ground, and even (hold your breath) cycle lanes. If that was the worst place to live, I don’t know what government inspectors had made of my home county of St Helens, which has always been one of those grim examples of northern life.

And that’s why Tesco’s attitude is so galling about the bike stands. It’s these small things that can change the underlying nature of a town and help establish a better ethos and quality of life. Good bike stands encourage more people to cycle. Cycling promotes health. It takes cars off the roads. It encourages people to use the countryside and the council to improve cycle routes. I’ve seen more people cycling this year than I’ve ever seen cycling in my life. It’s probably why there are never enough cycle stands. I’ve even noticed the council making some small changes to help cyclists. In parts of the town, they have even painted whilst bicycles on the floor amid all the crushed glass. It’s almost like cyclists are welcome.

Welcome everywhere, that is, except at Tesco, where going green takes on a quite different meaning when some ancient shrew is blowing smoke in your face and cackling at your through walnut teeth because you didn’t think it funny that she tied her dog to your bike so she could enjoy a quick fag. Most days I’d laugh something like that off. Other days you just see it as symptomatic of a bigger problem that everybody recognises but nobody does anything about.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Wednesday Doodle

Bad Pun

Getting into Gaga: An Old Fart’s Guide to Loving the Lady

GagaThe Lady Gaga phenomenon sadly passed me by. I don’t know why or when or even what I was doing at the time. I was possibly clipping my toenails or buying new underpants and I just didn’t notice the world go crazy about this supremely gifted young woman and her music.

Now I think about it, I do recall seeing some pictures of her in the nude, though I don’t remember why I was nude. Probably something to do with my needing new underpants… I was, however, struck by her unusual fashion sense. In days of bland talent, Gaga seemed particularly spikey, though that was in no small part due to the enormous spikes she was wearing at the time, along with a bin bag, rubber talons, and fetishist’s rider’s crop with feather tickler.

That was as far as my interest went until now... The imminent release of Gaga’s new album, Popart, means that I finally have chance and reason to catch up with the rest of the world in appreciating this unique talent. I expect I’m not alone. There must be many of you out there in similar positions: intrigued by the enigma, wanting to know more, but unsure where to start. Well, worry no longer, my friends. I’m here to help. Grab my muscular arm (not the withered one!) and let me bring you up to speed on the phenomenon known affectionately to her fans as ‘the velvet aardvark’.

Let me just preface the following by saying that before I did my extensive research, I knew almost nothing about Lady Gaga. Thankfully, the internet came to my rescue. I now consider myself an expert in all things Gaga based on that impeccable source of information.

So, let’s begin our story at the beginning. It was March 28, 1986, one month before Chernobyl let off its radioactive poison cloud, when Lady Gaga was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in the back of a high class New York taxi cab. Her initials SJAG, honour the S-type Jag in which she took her first lungful of air and let out a caterwaul. Like Chernobyl, little is known about her life for the next eighteen years but she did attend Catholic school which inevitably led to her career as a barroom stripper. Working in burlesque, the young Gaga was exposed to many musical influences. Her precise dance moves she often attributes to the years she spent learning to kick her knickers across a crowded room without taking out somebody's eye. It was in the strip joint that she was first taught to play the harmonica by a one-eyed table dancer call Chloe. It was there that she wrote her first song ‘Poker Face’ about an old tassel hoofer whose facial nerves had withered after losing a bet in an illicit lemon sucking den in Harlem. Yet the event that changed her life and the course of human history happened one night in 2007. During a particularly nimble strip, her right suspender got stuck. Filling the time as she tried to unhook the clasp, she started to sing and that’s when famed record producer, Herb Spanish, heard her powerful baritone for the very first time. ‘It was like a visit to my proctologist,’ he later said. ‘That voice was both familiar and yet so very strange. I couldn’t sit down for a week after hearing it.’

A record contract soon followed and the Lady Gaga phenomenon quickly spread further than she could kick off her underwear, which is to say, a pretty long way.

But that was nearly seven long years ago. We are now about to embark on the next phase of her musical journey and her newest song provides some hints as to what we can expect. It’s called ‘Applause’ and the cover of the single is a certain giveaway as to this new direction.

[caption id="attachment_2800" align="alignright" width="361"]Clowns Click to enlarge[/caption]

The cover depicts Lady Gaga dressed as a clown whose makeup has run after what looks like a professional egging. However this modern take on the traditional commedia dell'Arte figure of Pierrot is Gaga’s way paying her debts to other musicians. Here she is clearly imitating the not-disturbing-in-the-slightest-way cover of the classic album, ‘Circus in Town’, by Merle Evans and his Circus Band. The direct gaze is reminiscent of Charlie Mingus’s clown album, whilst, perhaps the greatest debt of all is to Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits in which the great man appears on the cover striking a gong that has been cunningly disguised as a big bass drum.

In this sense, ‘Applause’ may be Gaga’s most intensely personal songs. Her debt to Pavarotti is obvious from the first line which strikes a powerful note.

‘I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong’.

What gong, you ask? The gong of public opinion, I reply. Like Pavarotti before her, Ms Gaga is using the gong-banging metaphor as a clarion call to modern youth, among whom gongs are apparently very popular since the worldwide Korean hit, Gongem Style in 2012. Go into any park on a weekend and you’ll see the youth standing around their newest gongs, made by fashionable gong companies such as Beats, Bangs, and Bongs. Yet to Gaga, the gongs are symbolic of talent shows where artists are cruelly judged on their musical ability.

‘To crash the critic saying, "is it right or is it wrong?"’

There’s no beating about the bush or, indeed, about the gong! We’re straight into the moral relativism that’s so clearly close to the Gaga heart. It reminds me of Nietzsche who first asked what is beyond good and evil? Well, Gaga is here to tell you…

‘If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear
Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here’

What lies beyond good evil? Now you know. It’s contorted syntax and half-rhymes. But let’s try to unwrap this wayward beast of a line and see what Gaga is really saying because she certainly doesn’t mean that fame itself would take its nutrients through a vein. Rather, she’s saying that she wishes that fame could be applied intravenously, because, if it could, she would plunge it into her arm so she wouldn’t need to go to the effort of entertaining people to make them laud her.

It is, I admit, a chilling confession, brought into sharp focus by the lyrics of the chorus.

‘I live for the applause, applause, applause […]
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me’.

What we have here is old school narcissism and it’s admirable that her Ladyship should share this with the world. It’s rare that people are honest enough to reveal their darker sides, even at the risk of their appearing utterly dislikeable. However, Gaga is apparently confessing the grubby truth that her art is less important than the fame. The music is merely the means to an end and she will do anything to get the affirmation of her adoring crowd.

Let’s skip a few lines which repeat the same things and look at the second verse. What psychological horrors honesty might that reveal?

‘I've overheard your theory / "Nostalgia's for geeks"’

I’ll be honest and admit that this takes the ring round around my comprehension. Why might nostalgia be for geeks? Aren’t geeks forward looking and excited by the future? Unless Gaga is hereby offering a new geekdom! Ah, perhaps that’s what it is… We’re not just looking beyond good and evil. We’re looking beyond geekdom too! She has become the Übergeek! The geek of all geeks!

‘I guess sir, if you say so / Some of us just like to read’.

It’s admirable that she’s promoting literacy give her evident difficulties with the written word…

‘One second I'm a kunst’

A ‘kunst’?

‘Then suddenly the kunst is me’

Like some staggering bilious drunk emerging suddenly from the gloom, the meaning now becomes clear! She does indeed love to read and having read the German word for ‘art’, she has also spotted an elaborate pun too filthy to explain. However, this is taking us straight into the meat of this ugly business…

‘Pop culture was in art
Now, art's in pop culture in me’.

It’s a magnificent observation, contracting all the themes of the song into one memorably image. Where previously pop culture had made inroads into the world of art, art is now a subset of pop culture. Yet Gaga also realises that the entirety of pop culture is represented by Lady Gaga herself. She might as well cry, ‘my name is Legion: for we are many’! Lady Gaga is pop culture but, moreover, all art is raised in her image and to glorify her being.

Is there no clearer meaning behind this song? In her pursuit of fame and applause, Lady Gaga no longer cares about the music. The arrangement of programmed beats and autotuned vocal meddling are a brilliant way of conveying the attitude of a singer completely indifferent to the business of making meaningful art. What we have, then, is merely an audio jingle for the cloth eared. It is music made by an already jaundiced system where expensive promotion can still indoctrinate shallow youth with a message that takes sexuality and turns it into a form of camp theatre, art into faux outrage, and fame into gaudy bubble, expensive to view but ultimately a shell encompassing the sheer banality of nothing.

Here, then, you have understanding. You have now graduated with honours in Gaga. Look forward to the album with this new knowledge. If you can, send her money without even buying the album. It’s what she’d prefer. Then laud her but don’t make her have to do anything.

Laud her loudly and long because, don’t you know, she lives for your applause.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Last night I sat down and listened to an entire Jonathan Coulton album

This whole complicated business began with the cricket. I’d logged onto The Guardian’s website to see if we’d won The Ashes. We hadn’t. Not yet, at least. In my disappointment, I suppose I lingered and… Well, I swear I don’t know how it happened. It must have jumped out when I wasn’t looking. One minute I was reading about Prince Charles’ political meddling, the next I was listening to Lady Gaga’s new single. In fact, I listened to it twice just in case I’d missed something like my sanity medication. Then I wrote the following comment.
Not made for me, not aimed at me, and won’t make a difference what I say. Therefore: polished, predictable, and completely lacking heart. An old sock hanging from iron railings has more artistic depth that this vacuous jingle for the drone army in control of this corporately controlled dehumanised world.

The last bit was probably laying it on a bit thick but I didn’t have time to make it pithy. Not that I really needed to. As is always the case: some people liked the comment and others hated it. One even put their grievance into words:
I think that's just the standard Guardian-reader response to something they can't be bothered to understand just because it's 'popular'. And i'd love to hear the music aimed at you, since you clearly know what music should sound like. Yawn.

The comment stirred some thoughts, not all of them to my credit, but I did wonder if I listen to too much of the same kind of music. I’d intended to spend the evening in comfort, drawing cartoons, and, as is my usual way, I was planning to plug in my iPad and listen to music as I worked.

My tastes are fairly varied but I am the kind of person who’ll listen to the same album a hundred times before I change it. Lately, it’s been Sparks on constant loop but tonight the comment put in the mind to try something else. My usual listening can be anything from Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, through folky territory with Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Suzanne Vega, Neil Young walking me into grunge and punk, so there’s also The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Talking Heads… That’s off the top of my head but there’s also Ry Cooder, Serge Gainsbourg, The White Stipes/Jack White, The XX, Frank Zappa, The Doors (especially ‘LA Woman’ which is my favourite album and song), David Bowie, Philip Glass, Jean Michel Jarre, Bach, The B52s… Okay, I’m now cheating. I’m just scrolling through my iTunes library but I could carry on like this for hours and no real pattern would emerge except you might notice that I don't like jazz and I’ve never bought into packaged pop. Whatever that ‘popular’ thing is, I’ve never been into it.

Not that I wanted to get into it last night. Lady Gaga: not now, not ever. I did, however, want to listen to something new and there was one obvious choice…

CoultonI’ve been meaning to listen to Jonthan Coulton for a very long time. He’s been lingering in the corner of musical periphery for years but something has always got in the way of my trying out the live album I’d been given a while ago. Sometimes being smart can work against a person and Coulton, I think, suffers more than most due to his association with a certain fan base.

Like many people, the first time I head his music was in the context of a computer game. Some years ago, I was hooked on a game called Half Life 2 on the PC. The end of the game involved a fight with a artificial intelligence which had achieved sentience. The masterful finale, now remembered as one of the high points of gaming, involved the defeated computer singing a song about cake. The song was called ‘Still Alive’ and remains much loved among geeks. This Youtube recording of the game’s closing credits has been watched over 18 million times. That’s eighteen million voices squeaking along to ‘aperture science…’

Even outside the context of the game, the song deserved to be a hit and still deserves to be better known. I remember researching the song at the time and discovering that it was written by a very well established musician called Jonathan Coulton. Yet something stopped me from going on and listening to more of his work. I like to think it was a lack of availability here in the UK but I think what really dissuaded me was that his songs were loved by a certain kind of American hipster, a rare and noble breed of geek that lacks the social awkwardness of their British counterparts. These American geeks had embraced their difference, formed themselves into huge communities in places like San Francisco, where they ran the entire internet whilst listening to Coulton. Actually, forget I said San Francisco. Coulton fans remind me of this great opening to the comedy series, Portlandia

Coulton seems to write, exist, and find his audience within that very specific subculture. Even the live album’s title (‘Best. Concert. Ever’) conveys Coulton’s spiritual debt to his audience and their idiom. Songs like ‘Code Monkey’ and ‘Mandelbrot Set’ aren’t something you’d find on even the most highbrow band’s album but Coulton is of that geek world and you sense that he really understands it. ‘Code Monkey’ may enjoy playing with the clichés of the programmer but he captures the nuances too.
Code Monkey get up get coffee
Code Monkey go to job
Code Monkey have boring meeting
With boring manager Rob
Rob say Code Monkey very diligent
But his output stink
His code not "functional" or "elegant"
What do Code Monkey think?
Code Monkey think maybe manager want to write god damned login page himself
Code Monkey not say it out loud
Code Monkey not crazy, just proud

Confession time. I was once a code monkey and my manager in my second job was called ‘Rob’. The only difference is that I enjoyed writing login pages. It was where I could stick all my silly easter eggs. The boring part was coding the functions that printed out reports... But I digress…

Even given my geekish background, it doesn’t make me an obvious Coulton fan. I loathe ‘funny songs’ after growing up in an era when the TV was filled with men who discovered that a failing comedy act could be rescued if they held a guitar and sang. Or they were failed singers who rescued their musical career by telling jokes badly. They were a strange hybrid capable of both sucking and blowing, perhaps years before their time, and yet to find a new life after Sir James Dyson has fitted them with plastic balls and the ability to vacuum the stairs. And Coulton might be viewed in the same light as those comic-singers except for two problems: his music is too good and his comedy is too beautifully observed.

I’m not going to review every song or quote too many long blocks of lyrics but this example from ‘Tom Cruise Crazy’ is typical.
Tom Cruise is so in love with Katie
At least all his people tell him so
And while he thinks that she's a very special lady
It's probably not the way he'd choose to go
But a lifetime of longing looks would cause too much distraction
Good thing that he's not gay anymore

The lyrics sound better on the ear than they do on the page. Coulton takes utterly bland things of everyday observations and pulls them sideways. The line ‘good thing that he’s not gay anymore’ is perfect example of his twisted wit. The common assumption is that Cruise is or was gay (not a viewpoint I share). However, Coulton is phrasing it ironically, knowing that we probably think the opposite, that Cruise is gay. However, the archness of the song comes from the delivery. This is a singer playing a role, that of the reader of tabloid gossip. It then becomes a geek’s response to banality, overlaid with wit and a kind of far seeing clarity.

And that is the cleverness of his writing that can be a problem. Is it too pleased with its intelligence or is he merely providing a recognisable voice for a generation that have removed themselves from that world? Before last night, I might have said the former. Now, I’m converted. The solo acoustic performance threw the emphasis on the lyrics. The entire album is filled with strong songs, best when they’re commentating on the banalities of life. These are outsider songs, reminding his faithful why they chose to be different. Highlights include the song ‘Ikea’, a hymn to perkily named furniture, and Coulton’s reinventing the Sir Mix-a-Lot song ‘Baby Got Back’, the lyrics given an additional twist coming from the mouth of singer who more likely to sing about the Madelbrot set than his love for the juicier rear.

It’s when he is singing about computers, though, that I begin to feel so oddly at home that I wonder why I never listened to him sooner. As a teenager, I tried to write code that could draw the Madelbrot set. I never managed it. I was lousy at maths and, even if I’d figured it out, the computers were far too slow. Or perhaps I didn’t have somebody to provide a better role model. Music was obsessed with singing about that simple thing called love. Perhaps I needed Coulton back then to explain things to me. Perhaps if I had, I’d have been a better programmer, living in Portland, and washing my yogurt maker whilst singing this algorithm from memory…
Take a point called Z in the complex plane
Let Z1 be Z squared plus C
And Z2 is Z1 squared plus C
And Z3 is Z2 squared plus C and so on
If the series of Z's should always stay
Close to Z and never trend away
That point is in the Mandelbrot Set


Monday, 12 August 2013


I didn't think I'd finish my little project today, four days earlier than expected, but last night, I worked into the early hours and realised around 1am that it was going to take me more than a week to finish the ambitious animation I had in mind. It was time for a rethink and a little sobbing into my pillow.

I decided to make a radical change, ditch what I’d worked so tirelessly to produce and to lower the technical difficulty. After about two hours, I had what looked like a pretty good 30 second promotional video that avoided the need for hand animation by employing a little more design. More tweaks this morning finished it and it now out of my hands.

It’s nice to be back to the blog and to see the first search term in my stats was ‘Chris Tarrant wig’. Does he wear a wig? Well, I guess you learn something new every day.

I’m now going to see if I can draw cartoon or two, so tomorrow I can get back to the hard work of trying to make the internet smile, or at least, look completely baffled.

Sunday, 11 August 2013


I’ve been asked to produce a small animation to demonstrate my computer skills, so it means the smallest blog update for today.

Working on a new animation after all these months reminds me why I never made any film longer than the few tests I uploaded here. I admire people who can do it alone, not simply because any team effort divides the labour but also because working with people provides a shared enthusiasm and a shared will to keep going. Alone, you have to find pleasure where you can in the smallest achievement.

The way I work is to think of the script/idea and find some music to hang it on. I upload the music into the video editing software I’ll use and then draw out the main scenes on paper. Scan then in and place them in the video editor and it produces a kind of storyboard set to music. Then it’s a matter of replacing those individual storyboards with animated versions either in 2D or 3D. Sound easier than it is. The music I’ve chosen is about one and a half minutes long, edited down from about three. I'm also working in 2D but the amount of work I’ll have to do to fill those ninety seconds is shocking compared to the effort it takes to draw even the most complex comic strip.

Yet at the same time, it’s quite fun. It makes a nice change from the comic strips and one panel cartoons, even if it means I haven’t got anything great to post here today. I hope the film will be finished in just a couple of days and then, hopefully, normal business will resume...

Saturday, 10 August 2013

What Reason To Believe The Frackers?

FrackingIf you travel down the west coast of England, on the rail line running from Manchester to North Wales, you’ll eventually pass through a long tunnel just beyond Runcorn East. I suppose in European and World terms, it’s a very short tunnel. Yet it’s uniquely a long tunnel in an otherwise flat part of the country and has the novelty of making your ears go pop. Travel through the tunnel lasts a minute or so and you emerge just before Frodsham where a view to the Mersey Estuary opens up on the right and stretches for miles across the sand banks that fill the wide mouth of the river to the point where the brown fresh waters meet the grey brine of the Irish Sea.

In the distant past, I worked a year at the cable company, BICC, in Helsby, one stop beyond Frodsham. When I was travelling there each day, Helsby station had just won some national awards for being the best kept station in the country and, to my eyes, it deserved the accolades. It was beautifully maintained with richly coloured abundant flower beds and old style railway buildings that looked like they'd been plucked from some episode of Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. Since then, it’s become unstaffed and much of it is boarded up; no doubt a  little money saved but for an incalculable loss of value…

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="384"] Helsby Hill (Wikipedia)[/caption]

Yet Helsby village itself still sits perched on the side of one of the few proper highpoints in the area, rising 370 feet over the surrounding land. Looking up the sheer rock face is dizzying, especially when it’s being climbed as it often is by people providing points of Lyrcra colour against the reddish grey rock. Walk to the top and the view is magnificent, with the misted mountains of Wales visible through the clouds to the west and Liverpool in the distant northwest where the Liver Building stands distinct and often glitters in the sun against the banks of the brown river. Directly to the north, you look across the runways of John Lennon Airport and the movements of planes make if feel like you’re watching a diorama of a functioning airport, perfect down to the infinitesimal scale. On a clear day, it’s an uplifting view and quite unique in that it gives a view of a huge swathe of the north, filled with remarkable things to see. Yet perhaps the most telling view is to be seen if you turn your eyes to the northeast and look at the eyesore of the petro-chemical industry that’s built up around Runcorn and Widnes.

The scale of the chemical works is something to behold and locals I knew would often talk about the problems they’d experienced living near such concentrated industry. I don’t know how true this is but I was told that one leak (chlorine, I think it was) meant the police ordered the residents to stay indoors. It was wise they did. Apparently, the leak even changed the colour of their windows and walls.

I always found it hard to believe that people could live happily with dangerous chemicals just a few gusts away, but then, closer to home, there was Warrington where climbing off the train at Bank Quay station, you would often be subjected to the smell of the soap works, the taste of washing powder on your tongue, and, at its worst, a mild burning sensation in your eyes and nostrils. I grew up in the shadow of a gasholder, when the full tank would block our TV reception, and I played for hours on the local ‘mountains’ which were actually industrial waste from the local vitriol industry which had dump its spoil there. I’m also far more used to the problems of subsidence, being born, raised, and living in one of the most heavily mined areas of the country. There are old local tales of houses being swallowed up in sink holes and my old school was eventually demolished because of subsidence but I remember its later years when the second floor listed so heavily to one side that it made it difficult to walk down parts of the corridor. Of course, as a child, you find that sort of thing funny, walking on something that resembled the walkway into a funhouse. As an adult you realise that the whole place was literally falling down around our ears.

Although tighter environmental laws mean that things have improved dramatically in recent years, having lived or worked in proximity to the chemical industry and mining subsidence, I’m wary of the promises made by the fracking industry and the assurances they give people about its safety. I worry when I hear another high profile head in the fracking debate suggest that shale fracking should be done in the north to save the industry from the kind of protests they’ve seen in the south. Up here, apparently, things are desolate and there isn’t as much to go wrong should deep fracking cause problems at the surface.

It’s odd that southern politicians and business men should talk like this, almost as though repetition of disputed facts make them more likely to be true. Perhaps they mean that protests will be ignored by the southern based media, which is certainly likely and, indeed, probable. The Times recently sacked their northern correspondent as part of cuts. That is clearly what we mean to those in London.

Perhaps they also mean that influential people won’t stand in their way if drilling is conducted beneath the homes of people with less political sway. That is also true. There aren’t that many rich influential land owners with connections to politicians living in these parts. That’s why the landscape around here is littered with examples of what happens when industry is left to tend to its own affairs.

Yet the perception that the north is desolate is one I don’t recognise at all. My experience of travelling between the north and south is that, except for the densely built area around London, there’s far more empty space in the south than there is anywhere in the North West. High up beyond Blackburn and heading towards the Lake District, things might get more desolate but there are huge swathes of southern England where you can also look from the horizon to horizon without seeing more than a few buildings. In the North West, there aren’t that many times you can look to the horizon and see only green. Industrial estates, new housing developments, towns, and villages seem to spread from Blackpool down to Southport, across to Preston, and down to the densely built belt running across the country from Liverpool in the West, through to Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield.

Energy independence is to be welcomed but while I’m not sure we need yet another dirty form of energy, I am positive that if this industry isn’t suitable for the fields of Sussex and the South Downs, then it shouldn’t be suitable for Merseyside, Cheshire,  Lancashire, and Yorkshire, where more than just a few people happen to live. The only case the government could make is that we really are the second class citizens they seem to believe we are.

Not that I suppose our protests would amount to anything. Not give the kind of casual ignorance demonstrated by those in power. Government thinking is rank with easy stereotypes, from their assumptions about immigration, the poor, the unemployed, all the way to their belief that bankers are victimised and underpaid. Or at least that’s how it appears when Lord Howell, George Osborne’s father in law, explained that he didn’t mean to insult the North East by suggesting it was desolate when, in fact, he actually meant to say the North West.

Given he represents a North West constituency, George Osborne’s recent encouragement to the fracking industry might have been a little surprising had he not already demonstrated a wilful disregard for the north. I just hope his constituents remember this the next time they have chance to stick a cross beside to his name as Member of Parliament for Tatton. Wilmslow, within his constituency, is one of the richer areas of the region, home to Alex Ferguson and many top Premiership footballers from City and United. It's strange how all those golf courses were never thought the obvious place to start the search for shale gas...