Monday, 30 March 2015

The Spine Election Podcast Episode 1

This took longer than it should and I'm not convinced that I shouldn't have ditched the idea. My voice is utterly buggered and some parts of this aren't the best but are simply the best not punctuated by coughing fits. I've been wanting to do a podcast for a while, after the great Elberry suggested I give it a try. Typically, the time I thought I would do it is first time I've ever caught a viral throat infection. So, please be kind. I might do more. This might go down as one of my noble failures. If I were feeling better, I'd be bright, funnier, and lest liable to rushing, which I do throughout this. It's a bloody miracle I could record anything. I'm currently coughing on every other breath.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Feeling As Hoagy As A Carmichael

Another bad night's sleep but this time no drawing. For some reason, my heart hasn't been into it. For a few days (perhaps even weeks, if I'm honest) I keep starting cartoons and I find that my energy just isn't there to finish them. I blame this throat infection, which feels a little better in so far as it now feels more like a heavy cold but also makes me feel worse because it's now more like a heavy cold. The Strepsils have been working but I'm not convinced they don't give me mild insomnia. I find I'm full of energy at about 5am.

Another bad night's sleep and a lost hour due to the clocks going forward means that I'm behind with everything and especially the news.

Interesting to see the Tory infighting has already started with IDS suggesting the Cameron will be forced to quit early. I thought Cameron's 'no third term' an odd confession to make but because of one point that I've not seen mentioned in the media. If Cameron doesn't intend to stand for a third term, there's nothing to stop him promising the earth at this election. Politicians are programmed to ensure they never box themselves in. They hate to rule things in or out lest it come back to bite them when next they need the public's vote. If this really is Cameron's last election, can it be any surprise that he's already promising us a 7 day NHS when the 5 day NHS is broken to buggery?

Loved how gloomy and literate 'Spectre' is looking: 'You're like a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond'... Great writing. Hated the media attacking Sir Roger Moore for saying something that I believe many Bond fans would say. I think it's a sign of a largely white paranoia about issues of race that nothing can be debated without immediate accusations of bigotry. It's precisely why UKIP already have such a strong hold in politics.



I'm sure the first black Bond will come and perhaps he/she will be a revelation. I've never been a fan of any Bond who looks unlike the Fleming model which was Hoagy Carmichael. Much as I love the Craig movies, the blond Bond is not really James Bond in my eyes. So, given I've watched and enjoyed movies that have moved away from the canon, would it matter if they changed his ethnicity or even his gender? Hamlet was recently being played by a woman in Manchester and it was supposedly a great success.

I feel too ill to argue otherwise. I'm too ill to argue why we should cherish our cultural icons. Would it matter if in the next adaptation of Sherlock Holmes the BBC turned him into an Eskimo woman? Perhaps not. It depends on the execution but, really, even if it were great (and, oddly, I can imagine it might be great) it wouldn't be Sherlock Holmes. It would be a pastiche of Holmes, something like Sherlock Holmes but very different to Sherlock Holmes. It I were a fan of DC Comic (I'm not) I'd probably be shocked by the New 52 relaunch of their major titles in which they've changed everything, turning Thor into a woman and Superman into an angry young man. The market will ultimately decide these things. We live in a mash-up culture and nothing is sacred except the mighty dollar.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

How Ed Miliband Would Win The Election

My fevers, aches and coughing fits finally eased last night so I finally had the energy and concentration to sit down and watch the Sky News/Channel 4 interviews with the leaders of the two main parties.

The first thing to say is that I thought David Cameron won on the night but it was a hollow victory. All the interesting things that need to be said are about Miliband. Miliband might have come second but that's purely a political score. If it were a football match, Cameron was Stoke City parking eleven players in front of the net and going through on away goals. Miliband was on the losing side but he played the better football. If you were to follow a team based on just this performance, glory seekers might support Cameron. Fans of good football would want to follow the red team.

But let's begin with Cameron. Even if the novelty wore off years ago, I'm often surprised at how personable David Cameron can be. He says warm friendly things with such a practised conviction that you'd be forgiven for forgetting that he's been in charge of the government for the past five years. Over that time, the Tories have lost none of their 'Nasty Party' vibe and, in fact, they seem to have enhanced it. In a sense, it's an amazing skill to develop. I'm not quite sure how Cameron, the Prime Minister, managed to somehow distance himself from the government of Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne. He is, I suppose, the velvet glove disguising the iron fist. I read recently that he considers himself a One Nation Tory yet his idol was Baroness Thatcher. That is a big clue to the man and perhaps explains what has happened to the nation under his watch.

On screen, he's the smiling face, well groomed hair, with compassionate answers which you know he's practised ad nauseum in the mirror. He's one of those politicians trained never to point but to use that strange thumb to knuckle gesture that irritates you once you spot it being used. He's another politician who believes that his family shouldn't be used to make political points yet he's another who happily uses his family to make political points. He also plays the One Nation Tory so well. He's the Etonian toff who wants to dedicate a few years to the national service of 'saving the nation' before he goes off to make his fortune. The reality is that he's a Thatcherite at heart; the leader of a deeply radical government that believes that the market is the best arbiter for government as well as business. He is the merciless opponent of real standards and that 'closed shop' mentality brought about by such 'outmoded' concepts as professional qualifications or experience. His government repeatedly helps the rich and uses the poor as the red meat to feed their braying constituency. Paxman's question about zero hour contacts was the best of the night but the consequences of that weren't taken to their logical conclusions, exploding the reality of the 'them' and 'us' culture of government and (I suppose) the media. Miliband is regularly attacked because of the proposed 'Mansion Tax' that might hit the super wealthy but Cameron rarely has to defend the real 'Bedroom Tax' which is already hurting poor people. Instead, the charm of the man carried him through the evening. He laughed and smiled and said we're all in this together and let's jolly well get the chuffing job finished! At the end of the hour, the audience knew no more about him or what the next five years might truly entail.

One of the only things to really note about the first half of the show was that Kay Burley was too sycophantic to the PM. She has a track record, of course. Her career at Sky News has been marked by repeated examples of her allowing her impartiality to slip. She often gives authorities an easy ride, her saccharin interviewing technique landing many one-on-ones with people in power. Yet, to anybody disadvantaged or protesting against the status quo, it's a quite different style that emerges: she becomes combinative, bullying, hectoring, her interviews laced with tart asides and last word quips, usually all followed by a knowing look to camera once the interview is over. She channels the Fox News spirit into a British sphere and it's wholly unwelcome. Given her past history, there wasn't a presenter I thought less suited to this debate and so it proved as she punctuated the Miliband session with editorial judgements such as 'that's a politician's answer' and the moment she interjected 'let's not talk about the conservatives, let's talk about what you do. I'm sure members of the audience remember about [...] the note that was left behind'. Why Sky chose Burley just baffles me when they also have the wonderful Anna Jones.

By the time Miliband appeared on stage, my feeling was that Cameron had set the bar pretty low. Miliband only needed to turn up to win an easy victory. Only, it didn't turn out like that.

His preparation was Miliband's undoing. He had a deliberate strategy, which was clearly the product of whatever awful 'people' people the Labour HQ are currently employing. He's clearly gone through the media friendly drills: ask the audience member their name and preface every answer with little lead in phrases such as 'let me explain why'. It made for a polished performance but, really, it stripped him of his personality. He was attempting to play the game by Cameron's rules and highlighted the strange dichotomy that exists between what we want of our politicians and what we probably deserve.

There's a phenomenon in current British politics that's barely been explained. The rise of the New Right is not simply a seismic shift of political allegiance. UKIP membership is not simply the far right of the Tory party. If it were, they wouldn't command 20% in the polls. Instead, they've eaten into Labour and Lib Dems support. The shifts are fluid, of course, and go many ways. Some Lib Dems might have moved to Labour but a surprising number of old Labour supporters now throwing their votes towards UKIP.

UKIP's success, I would argue, isn't merely about a current concern with immigration. It's surprising to see many people professing their support for UKIP when previously they'd have been staunchly Labour. The explanation is that it's not simply about policy. UKIP are more Tory than the Tories and many of their votes would never have voted Tory in their lives. Instead, it's about language and the nature of British political debate which started with Tony Blair. Iraq might be the legacy that most people associate with Blair but, for me, it was the neutering of the political arena. Blair's government were master manipulators of the message. They used the techniques of PR to convince people that they were right. Ministers were told to remove beards and use key phrases. It led to a bastardized politics that remains to this day. It's the politics of the coming election when argument will be replaced by billboards, sound bites and cheap smears. We already hear the key phrases such as 'long term economic plan' and 'for hardworking people'. It's Pavlovian politics, whereby you repeat an untruth enough times that it takes on the permanence of a truth.

It's a political strategy that suits Cameron immensely and he plays it supremely well. David Miliband would have also played it well but brother Ed is not suited to the game. In fact, not only should he not play it but not playing that game might be his greatest strength.

I contest that UKIP's success is primarily down to the figure of Nigel Farage, an odd looking man, often seen standing in a pub his huge ugly teeth on show as he laughs open mouthed. He's graceless, without much sense of fashion. He's exactly the opposite of Cameron and, here's the important part, people love him because of that. His virtue is that he's not cut from the same cloth as David Cameron or Tony Blair. He's a throwback not just to a bygone England but to a former political style. He appeals to many people who simply feel that politicians talk over them, in cleverly rehearsed rhetoric which never answers a single question. Farage is popular because he's one of the few alternatives to vanilla party politics. Yet on the basis of last night's performance, Ed Miliband is about 90% of the way towards having a similar common touch. It's just that 10% of polish which gets in the way.

For example, at one point, Paxman demanded that Miliband set a figure for the potential population of the UK in the coming years. 70 million? 75 million? 80 million? Miliband tried to play the game. He refused to provide a number and instead tried to move the debate on to the question about our membership of the EU. 'I haven't mentioned the European Union,' waited Paxman. 'You're making up questions yourself'.

It was the lowest point of the evening as the audience sniggered. Having been the subject of enough schoolyard bullying in my life, I recognised it for what it was. Somebody asks you to name your favourite band and no matter what you answer, you become a laughing stock to a crowd all too ready to follow the example set by bully. I've always liked Paxman but I thought he went too far. Perhaps he knew that himself given that we could faintly hear him ask 'Are you okay, Ed?' as the credit's rolled.

Yet oddly it was the bulling that seemed to break Miliband's nerve. His temper frayed and Miliband rose to another level. The last five minutes of his interview had more conviction than the rest of the show. Had he been that passionate and informal in the preceding mannered minutes, the night would have been his.

What struck me about the debate was that perhaps Miliband's greatest virtue might be that he's nothing like Cameron. Large portions of the electorate are turned off politics because politicians don't answer straight questions with straight answers. Miliband could turn that to his advantage. John Major did exactly that when he deployed his stupid crate of oranges that everybody thought a ridiculous ploy until it connected with the nation in an odd but meaningful way.

I'm not sure if Miliband need a crate of oranges but I think he simply needs to find that edge. He needs to stop listening to his 'people' people and stop being so damn nice. He's not going to out-nice Cameron. What he could do is galvanise an electorate who are sick of political sock puppetry. He could talk to a nation largely unrepresented by an Etonian elite running the country from the heart of a city that feels ever more remote to the rest of the nation. He should turn the debate from the questions the media want to ask to the questions that the rest of the country want to hear answered. You do not win the country simply by winning London. The only question is how Labour go about doing that. If they play the election on Cameron's terms, they won't been seen as a viable alternative. They should instead play the game as Farage plays it: with self-deprecating humour,  spontaneous moments of genuine character, off the cuff encounters with common people even if that means having those 'media' moments with dissenters. I caught just a hint of it last night but for the first time I realised that Miliband's lack of polish and willingness to engage the electorate might be the very thing that just might win him the forthcoming election. It's only a matter of whether Labour have the wits to realise this.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Sickbed Doodles, Sickbed Logic





I drew this one at 5.30am when I'd finally given up attempting to sleep and decided that I might as well do something more productive with my time. I'm not going to claim it's satire or art when it's really just the feverish scribbling of a man stick of listening to the dawn chorus. I think I should have spent more time on the chin. It's too fat, though that's what I wanted but not to this extent.

All I can say is that at least there are no spelling mistakes. It's a sign of how little sleep I had last night that the heading to my previous article was 'Becow' instead of 'Bercow'. Sounded more like an abbreviation Bart Simpson might use...

The oddest thing about it is that I actually quite like Prince Charles, though I know you're not supposed to mutter such confessions too loudly. It's the old Jeremy Clarkson syndrome: I know I should have plenty of reasons to dislike the man but there's something that holds me back.

My attitude to the monarchy swings with every argument that's made. My mind tells me that I'm a Republican because I don't like systems in which elites hold an advantage at birth. Yet, at the same time, I'm not so naive to assume that all Republics are without their elites. America, our supposed great model of egalitarianism, is regularly ruled by dynasties at all levels but the Roosevelt, Bush, Adams, Kennedy, and Clinton dynasties are the most memorable. A constitutional monarchy feels like a good compromise. If we're going to have a ruling dynasty, we might as well stick with just one and strip them of all power. You could argue it's a cruel duty to impose on somebody but, really, there are far more cruel duties that life imposes on all of us.

In that sense, I'm generally in favour of our monarchy and the alternative would be a dozen times more irritating. It's rare the Queen does anything to piss us off and even if Charles is a little too quick to offer advice to governments, it's a damn sight less headache inducing that having a system like America where there'd be an elected second trough around which we could line up twice as many high-priced pigs.

Even if you accept Charles' meddling, there are other reasons to dislike him which I'm sympathetic to but largely choose to ignore. His support for holistic medicine is one. Another is the nonsense about defending all faiths, given that half the world is in flames because of faiths contesting for the soul of every Joe Pigfarm scraping a living out of the land.

So, yes, Charles is a somewhat bonkers relic of an outdated system which perhaps doesn't represent a modern nation. Yet human life isn't always run by logic alone. There should always been room for a little craziness in the world. We all have to take a one too many nips of the cough syrup and start to draw pointless things at 5.30 in the morning. Charles is anti-modernity, he's never been hip in his life, and he wants to be highbrow and believe in highbrow things. He's a bit like Clarkson: likely to piss of a lot of people who don't believe in his values. Yet it's good to know that there are people who still believe in certain things like British engineering and a kind of rebellious swimming against the tide. It might make us uneasy to defend people like that but he alternative would be a rush for the bottom and a wholesale ubiquity.

A Bercow/Hague Cartoon





I drew this in the time it took me to watch Question Time last night. I wish Question Time had been longer, though it was nearly 3am by the time it finished. I was up for another five hours, unable to sleep because of the strange sensations going on in my throat. Sleeping sitting up never works for me so I ended up watching random things on the BBC iPlayer. I didn't have any means of watching the leader's 'debate' otherwise I'd have watched that. However, I understand it was pretty bad (though Paxman was good) and that Kay Burley did her usual stunt of sucking up to the rich and powerful and going all in to hammer the relatively weak or powerless. I have to see if I can find it online. I simply forgot it was on last night. (And, in fact, I was about to delete the comment about Kay Burley since I didn't see it myself and it was sister (politically pretty neutral) who told me and was really indignant about it. Then I saw this and figured it sounded pretty typical.)

Away from politics, I'm pretty certain I know what's been wrong with me.  I thought I had a cold. I'm now sure I picked up a viral throat infection at some point in Chester. I've had all the symptoms and an absence of cold and flu symptoms. It's still not turned into a proper cold and I don't feel as bad as I'd usually feel with a cold and an almost total absence of solid sleep. More amusingly, my Barry White voice has gone because I can no longer string more than two words together before it leaps into the higher octaves, only audible to dogs and Liberal Democrats. Not sure if this is now technically laryngitis but my family think it's highly amusing.

Anyway, I hit the websites looking for cures. Green tea and honey was supposed to be good. I'm sure it is if you stomach the stuff. The slowly brewed yeast off a mouldy old badger wouldn't have tasted so bad.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bercow

Still a little under the weather but trying to get my eye and hand back into the game. Not entirely sure how to feel about today's vote in the House of Commons. I'm tempted to write to Kate Emms to ask what she thinks I should think. Ever since I mentioned Kate Emms in my review of the Commons documentary, the name 'Kate Emms' has eclipsed all others when it comes to bringing visitors from Google. I'm still not convinced there isn't another Kate Emms who is a shadowy member of One Direction...

Anyway, William Hague's ploy did seem a little underhand but it's Cameron I really despise for trying to destroy Bercow simply because the Speaker dare stand up to the Prime Minister. It's precisely the same flaw in the PM's character that has been exposed by the debate about the leader's debate. Power seems to have corrupted him to the point where he can't bear to hear dissent but dissent is usually the best barometer of a democracy.

Today's proceedings did, perhaps, explain why Hague had been moved to Leader of the House in the last reshuffle. Previously, I couldn't understand the move. Had Cameron planned this all along? If so, it was a nasty little business to pass off to Hague whose career had, thus far, deserved something better. I have no idea why Hague is quitting but that too seems odd except he's another (like Portillo) whose status increases the further he gets from power. He would have made a fine Prime Minister and would have been Prime Minister had fate not given him that head with that voice. I think exactly the same is true of Ed Miliband as I've said before. It's cruel but a fact about large portions of the voting public who are led almost as much by looks as they are by policy.

As for Bercow (note to self: must draw him for tomorrow), I don't know what to think. He seemed genuinely moved when the 'No's won and that means I was genuinely moved. In his favour, the backbenchers seem (or perhaps tend) to like him. However, I can't get over the fact that I probably wouldn't like the man and he can sometimes strike me as a grade 'A' pillock, with pomposity his worst (and greatest) quality. He's pompous to the point that my family spontaneously burst into laughter whenever he comes on TV, strutting alongside the great, good, and powerful. However I don't have to deal with him and I imagine dealing with him on a daily basis is like trying to manhandle a greased sealion into a golf bag.

Old Man River... That Old Man River...

The distinctions between colds and flu seem to be terribly arbitrary. I'm pretty sure that I've had a cold, though it's been an odd cold that hasn't developed how most of my colds develop. I'm not at all snuffly, though I'm now talking with a Barry White voice. Oh yes, baby! You heard me. I say Barry White... Ooh yeah!

Sorry, though I'm not really that sorry. I love my 'cold voice' because it usually drops a couple of octaves and I spend my days singing 'Old Man River' for no reason other than I can.

Old Man Riveeeeeeer....

But as I was saying... I think I've had a cold yet all the literature about colds say that you don't get aches and fevers. That's probably why I get zero sympathy. I tell people that I have a cold and they go: oh, right, well keep away from me. No note of sympathy or anything.

However, at 1am this morning, I was curled up in bed feeling really achy, freezing cold and generally crappy. By 3am I was really hot. I didn't take my temperature for fear of frightening the crap out of myself but I felt hotter than I've ever felt yet I wasn't sweating. Not sweating was the thing that worried me so I knew the best course of action would be a couple of paracetamol to induce the sweating, even though I knew it meant I wouldn't sleep for a few hours. So, 3.30, I stuck 'Anchorman 2' on (yet again) and settled in for the inevitable.

Half an hour late the sweating began and by 4.15am I was wet through. The pillows were wet, the sheets were wet, even the wallpaper was beginning to curl at the edges. At some point, I did finally fall asleep and the sweating continued profusely, to judge by the soggy mess that awoke some hours later. I'm amazed I didn't wake up a rake; the reverse Captain America process except replace the well honed body of the Captain with my slightly less well-honed body.

Anyway, when I did wake up, I felt better. The aches have gone and my energy is back. Still no obvious cold (a slight cough and feeling a little under the weather) which makes we wonder what the hell I've had. I nipped to the corner shop and bought myself some Lucozade, a throwback from my childhood give that illness in the house was the only time we ever bought Lucozade. I want to get back to my cartooning, though I'm a bit worried about my beloved tablet. A sign of how ill I was last night, I accidentally dropped my tablet and watched it bounce down a full set of stairs. It seems to work (no cracked screen, thank god) but I've not fully tested it. Losing my tablet would be the spectacularly cruel end to a momentously bad month.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Man Flu

Christ! I feel rough. I'm told I have 'a cold' but I think it's technically called 'man flu' by we sufferers. I get zero sympathy from the women in my life.

What I don't understand is that a cold isn't supposed to make you feel so achy or give you such low energy that I'm struggling to even type this. I have both, though my sore throat of last night has eased and I feel the usual symptoms of a cold building in my head. It's not (as far as I can tell) flu because the really bad symptoms aren't there. Hence my diagnosis of 'man flu'.

Anyway, a tip of my slightly infected hat to the BBC executives. I didn't think they'd do it but they of course had no alternative but to sake Jeremy Clarkson once a bloodied lip entered into the picture. Having a high moral stance it what we want of our national broadcaster, yet I can't help but feel that something has been lost and lost to Rupert Murdoch.

Here's my prediction. A new Clarkson/May/Hammond vehicle (no pun intended) will launch on Sky, obviously helping increase Sky's subscribers and bringing vast amounts of money into the Murdoch coffers which would have previously gone into the BBC coffers where it has been helping them produce more innovative and marginal TV than the old 'Top Gear'.

Meanwhile, the new BBC 'Top Gear' will probably carry on much as before. Against most people's expectations, I think the BBC will try to keep the jaundiced grumpy middle age vibe, with just a few less racial slurs. It will probably do okay and the Sky one will do okay. I expect to hate the new show because they will cherry pick the most annoying presenters, taking them from my well circulated list of 'people who make David hiss with fury'. Chris Evans, Danny Dyer, and Stephen Fry. How much more toxic could they get? Oh, I know. They'll make one of them a woman and the woman will be Caitlan Moran, who I insist hasn't a funny bone in her body. Of course, the moment you say that, there's always somebody who'll say 'oh, but you're bound to say that because you're the kind of man that dear Caitlan has been mocking for all these years.' To which I'd reply: sod you. I have man flu, remember. I'm not likely to remember my language.

Anyway, I feel too rough to lament Clarkson's lot in life. How the hell does a man so well off seem to feel like the world is as wrong as he claims. He's one of life's winners. He was't to come view life from this end of the long shit stick.

Pardon my language again. It's the man flue.

Besides, in a few years, we'll probably we watching Clarkson, May and Hammond (five years older but looking ten years younger) migrate back to the BBC where the whole ridiculous circus will begin again.

And just what was James May thinking about when he wore that hat for the camera's today. Made him look like an effete Tommy Trinder.

trinder

My March Jinx

My internet's back after about 36 hours of moderate hell trying to figure out the problem. It's why I resorted to attempting to use my Samsung tablet with an Apple bluetooth keyboard last night. I hate technology. Never works how it should...

The internet always seems to go at the most inconvenient times. Yesterday, I had a really important job to do when it flaked out and it all came down to a frayed cable which, like most bad cables, was in about the most inaccessible place. That's bad at the best of times but I'm being assaulted on two fronts. Firstly, I had work outstanding from last week which I couldn't do because of somebody being deliberately obstructive because they refused to communicate with the company I occasionally work. The company I occasionally work for had landed a contract which this person had previously won, meaning he refused to hand over any of the relevant passwords. I watched it all from afar but it's amazing to see how childish businessmen can behave.

The second assault has come in the form of a last minute gift from Chester. I was in the crowds on Saturday and Monday night I started to feel like I'd caught another cold, which, for me, is typical of this time of year. I read somewhere that you're less likely to get a cold during spring and autumn, but my experience is that I *always* catch a cold as the weather changes from/to bitterly cold to/from moderately mild.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Dumb, the election is beginning to warm up. I watched with mild incredulity the interview that Cameron did for the BBC or (more accurately) his old Eton chum, James Lansdale. I can't remember the last time I've seen such sycophancy trying to pass itself off as real journalism. Yet, five minutes later, the BBC were reporting on some small scam at a company training bodyguards, ending with the guy operating the scam running down the street being perused by reporters wielding hard questions. Obvious, the scam was bad but it impacted so few people that nobody cared how much they chased the grifter. Cameron, on the other hand, seems to get away without any hard questions. I'm pretty disgusted that we're not getting proper leaders debates, especially since Cameron was a beneficiary of them at the last election. I was no fan of Gordon Brown (though I have found myself warming to him since he left office) but at least Brown had the balls to stand in front of the nation, knowing, as he surely did, that it could (and probably did) become his Nixon moment. No Prime Minister had fewer personal skills than Brown but he stood up when it mattered.

I'm not sure what we'll make of the coming election. This far out, I suspect it might be a pretty dull one, with Cameron doing Tony Blair's old trick of only appearing in front of heavily vetted audiences. At the moment, I'm feeling too rough to really rouse my anger or to draw a cartoon. March has been a really bad month and I'm feeling spiritually as well as physically under the weather.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Api fun...

Slightly absent, today. I've been racking up the hours programming the eBay API with the result after about four days that I can now create listings. Given that this work was meant to be a little project to help our a friend, it's become something else. I really need to stop allowing my enthusiasm to take over. I've not had chance to write or draw properly since my slightly overlong critique of Chester. I don't have time to write now. I'm using my Samsung Note with an Apple Wireless keyboard, which I thought would make a great laptop replacment allowing me to blog tonight. However, I've just discovered why I didn't do this before. The Note seems to have a bug with its Bluetooth which means it keeps disconnecting the keyboard every minute or two... That wouldn't be to... Long pause as the keyboard reconnects... too bad if I could anticipate the disconnections but I can and it's already driving me mad.

Monday, 23 March 2015

A Question about the Post Office

I was in the Post Office, posting a parcel so I walked up to the desk.

'Can I send this second class, please,' I ask, putting the parcel on the scales.

The woman looked up at me. 'And can I ask what in the parcel for security reasons?'

'It's a book,' I answer, cursing myself that I didn't plump for one of the 'funny' replies I always have ready. It's not just the obvious 'yes, you can ask me what's in the parcel' or even the pedantic 'there's nothing in it for security reasons'. I mean the answers I have like 'some frilly underwear that was chafing me when I bend over' or 'the Big Book of British Soup'.  There are a few more vulgar that always tempt me. I sometimes wonder what they'd say if I replied 'a partially masticated butt plug' or 'a pair of prosthetic buttocks'. If I could sit down (on my prosthetic buttocks), I'm sure I could come up with some pretty imaginative answers but I haven't and so I didn't. Instead I just added a bland:

'I keep thinking I should give you a silly reply.'

'Oh,' said the woman. 'We get loads of them.'

'Really?' I ask, a little surprised.

'Most people say it's a bomb.'

I did a double take.

'Did you say bomb?'

'Yes,' she smiled. 'Most people just say they're sending a bomb.'

'Don't they get into trouble?'

'Oh no,' she laughed as she affixed the label. 'Good job we don't take them seriously!'

Which made me think. The Post Office are always asking us what's in the parcels for security reasons, to make sure that it's not a bomb. Yet when you tell them it's a bomb, they don't take it seriously. Which begs the question: what kind of reply would make them really suspicious?

[Addendum. It suddenly struck me that perhaps bombs aren't actually on the list of objects you're prohibited from sending through the post. They keep showing me the list and I'm not sure that I've ever seen a bomb of that sheet. Perhaps it should. I'd even suggest that it should be at the top of the form.]

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Why I Despise the City of Chester

Chester is a city which doesn't exactly feel like how a city should feel. It's small, condensed, and in a very good way, totally haphazard. To describe it best, I could quote Gormenghast:
Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll’s hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs … And darkness winds between the characters.

Yet it's also a city that announces its age at every opportunity and, unless you travel there for the heritage, that heritage can sometimes plainly wear on your nerves. I think of it as a city that wants to play me for a fool; where the price of everything is inflated to maintain the mock Elizabethan standards.

The moment you step out of the station, you're greeted by paralyzed history. The arch over the entrance to the Queen Hotel car park proclaims 'Carriages & Post Horses For Hire', whilst across the road another hotel, one of the city's many listed buildings, is proudly titled the 'Town Crier'. Everything wears history but it's a history that only a naive fool (or American) would believe is real. Wikipedia dates the building to only 1865, originally titled either the 'Queen Commercial Hotel' or the 'Albion Hotel', whilst the role of the city's town crier it itself a recent re-innovation, reappearing sometime in the 1990s. None of this really matters, of course. Not to the tourists.

I've never been a tourist. I've visited Chester so regularly since childhood that I no longer have any sense of its novelty. At one point, I was hoping to get a lecturing job in the English department at the university (I didn't) and at another point I was working on the city's outskirts, often travelling into the city on my half-days to enjoy the shopping. It's distant enough to be only an occasional day out but close enough to be completely familiar.

There was a time when English towns retained some distinctive quality but every town in the UK resembles every other town and Chester, despite its pretensions, is still really more town that city. There are the ubiquitous shops and anything more is usually worth disregarding or cherishing intensely. Whether it's the self-important town criers, the struggling actors dressed as Roman centurions, or the old fashioned open-topped bus that carries tourists around, Chester is different and yet, for people who aren't tourists, there's also something about it that feels wrong. It's a veneer of special which really doesn't run that deep. This is that vintage England which you're not entirely sure is real or an illusion.

Because, these days, my visits to Chester are usually to support my sister who makes occasional visits to see a consultant there, we often use Abbey Taxies on Foregate Street. It's a small office, wedged between a couple of cafes, Argos and a Bargain Booze across the road, all the buildings like much of the city centre: a mixture of styles but with the popular black and white timber the dominant theme. Inside there's a cattle-pen turnstyle arrangement, which I assume is for weekend use, where drunks probably stack up for their taxis home. However, it's always empty during the day and you walk straight through to an office at the rear, ask for a taxi, and you are then directed through the building towards the street at the back. You emerge in an alley that resembles grubby backstreets everywhere and the city's Tudor spell is immediately broken by the endless red brick. The timber history, you realise, was skin deep and the real history is to be found elsewhere in the Roman ruins dotted around the outskirts of the city centre.

Yet, the illusion is not entirely why I never enjoy visiting Chester. It's hard to criticise any place that tries to be different in these days of mass produced shop fronts and, despite my cynicism, I know much of the history is real and I always feel a thrill when I remember that my favourite poet, John Donne, attended the funeral of Sir Thomas Egerton at the Cathedral. What I suppose I dislike is the ethos of the place. There was a time when there was a free bus that ran from the station into the city centre. Manchester has that and I think many other great cities have the same. It's a small thing but it makes you feel welcome. Chester now charges visitors for this honour and I begrudge the £1 you have to pay for each five minute journey on the cramped bus, four additional pounds for the two of us in addition to the already exorbitant train fare. It means that right from the moment you leave the station, Chester doesn't feel welcoming and it gets no better once you arrive in the city centre.

For the average person, Chester flaunts both its wealth and your lack of it. It's the only place I know where I feel genuinely poor. On Eastgate Street, in the shadow of the famous clock (erected 1769, or so it says in the Latin pressed in gold onto the red sandstone), stands the Chester Grosvenor Hotel. It's the kind of hotel that has men in uniforms guarding the entrance with a rigid smile and ex-military menace. It offers an eight course 'Tasting Menu' for 'just' £59 per person, with a 'Tasting Wine Menu Selection' for only another £45. If I'd wanted to stay there tonight, the cheapest room is £195 for the 'Classic Bedroom' or £455 for the 'Deluxe Suite'. I'd have to hope they also offer a 'Standard Broom Closet'.

I know there's no reason to begrudge the rich their privileges but the problem is that Chester makes that ostentation so public. Because the hotel's entrance opens right onto the main shopping thoroughfare, the wedding parties often mix with the tourists and locals in a strange blend of real wealth and absolute poverty. You can quickly find yourself walking through a wedding shot or pushing past some huge Rolls Royce or horse-drawn cart thick with garlands. Handsome people are daily seen posing in their perfect lives at perfect weddings you suspect will end in a messy divorce six months later. Often the confetti (every piece cut into a heart shape, no less) sticks to your boots, in the lapel of your coat, in the creases of your hat. Today, there was a bright red Jag, a stunning F-Type Coupe, pushing its way through the crowds; it's deep throated roar clearing a path. I've never been so close to one as I was when its exquisite nose nudged me out of the way.

Yet for all the money, the pretty people in their fashionable clothes and their clipped accents, Chester has very little class. Get there late in the afternoon and you discover that most places close at five PM and the local baristas (the friendliest people in the city, especially those in the two Neros on the streets Eastgate and Foregate) tell me that the city is pretty starved of culture at night. Anywhere that stays open is catering to the stag parties or muscled gangsters hot on their winning streaks from the racetrack. At night, Chester is a place where women wear very little very brazenly, where there's as much wealth on show as there is flesh. Often, the clothes are of the leopard skin variety, as bereft of ideas as the wearers are bereft of manners. Today, I'd just emerged from Waterstones (I'd found a Kliban Cat calendar dumped in the bargain bin for £1) and I was walking along the Rows, which if you don't know Chester, are a raised pedestrian area a level up from the street, forming a continuous walkway cut into fabric of the buildings. It's all carved timber like the innards of the Mary Rose, winding and rising and falling as the constantly unique architecture changes from shop to shop. It's probably one of the city's great attractions, the stuff that makes Americans boldly declare 'quaint'. Yet it's also extremely unfriendly for anybody infirm or pushing a pram. So, at one of the many old well-heeled stone steps you find at the end of the Rows, a woman was standing with a baby in a buggy. She was trying to figure out how to get her pram down the steep steps. I was a good distance away, so I knew somebody would stop and help before I got there. In a city like Liverpool -- supposedly a tough working class city but the reality is that it's about the friendliest city you'll find anywhere -- somebody would help her in an instant. Yet that didn't happen today in Chester. It was some time before I reached her yet I found her still struggling. I stopped and helped her carry the buggy down to the street and I say that not because I'm particularly virtuous because I'm not. But it's what you do when nobody else will stop and help and Chester doesn't feel like a place where people help each other very often.

People are rich and with wealth comes a certain attitude which pervades the place. In reminds me of London in the way that people shove each other out of the way, rarely signal for you to go first and instead take every space as if it's already their own. On my rare visits to London, I've felt like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, smiling at unfriendly strangers and apologising should I step in their way. Hold a door open for somebody in Manchester or Liverpool and people usually smile and say 'thank you'. Hold a door open for somebody in London (or Chester) and they assume you're there to hold the door open for them. It's not deliberate. Taking you for granted is a habit of mind.

The same unfriendliness is carried over into the shops. Chester is the only city where I've ever been physically thrown out of a bookshop. It was some years ago now. I was about to go back to university to study English and I was in the classics section of W.H. Smith. I remember I was trying to figure out which edition of Shakespeare's collected plays to buy. If you've ever studied Shakespeare seriously, you'd know it's an important decision not to be made quickly. A young assistant came up to me. He asked me what I was doing. I said I was browsing the books. 'They have libraries for that,' he replied.

'I'm sorry?'

'If you want to browse books, you should go to the library.'

'But I'm looking at these books intending to buy one.' I'd been stood there about five minutes and with student loan money in my pocket to buy my copy.

'Yes and we've had a lot of trouble with people like you...'

And then he escorted me out of the shop, despite my protests and requests to speak to the manager. I know I should have stood my ground but, also knowing Chester, I'd have probably ended up in the nick. I was too far from home to make a scene, plus, I guess, part of me felt like he was right. I didn't belong. A stinking letter to W.H. Smiths' head office did nothing. I suspect they'd mistaken me for somebody else. I never did find out. It was years before I even used that W.H. Smiths again.

Yet that's Chester. Despite the charm, there's a tricky undercurrent to the place. Walk the Rows and peer into the shops and you often see unfriendly faces looking back at you. Or, perhaps, just at me. I know the problem is partly how I look. I am shabby. I wear the clothes of my profession: lifelong student, writer, cartoonist, programmer, naive dreamer. And I know I dress a certain way because I want people to misjudge me because I also know that the suits and the tans mean very little in life. Or they mean very little to me. I want to be judged for who I am and not how I look. Yet the irony is that many of the shops contain the things I cherish. I now don't even bother trying to enter the few antiquarian bookshops. I stick to the charity shops. I don't enter the art galleries and I don't even go into the Cartoon Gallery, which is up on the Rows on Watergate Street. It should be one of my favourite places in the North West but I stopped visiting. Whenever I've gone in there in the past, I felt so out of place. Not that I've ever been made to feel out of place. The owners smile at me but I somehow know it's not for me. It's a shop made for golfing executives and their wives, not for would-be cartoonists only there to look at all the Bill Stott originals and, besides, Bill Stott gave me one of his originals. He's a good man. I suspect all cartoonist are, as I bet Albert is. Albert the Punch cartoonist who sits working at his desk at the back of the shop.

Yet I don't really know why I feel apart in the place I should feel most at home. Perhaps it makes me bitter to think that the guy there to buy an expensive cartoon for his den wall can't identify a Stott from a Bestie, a Mike Williams from a Bill Tidy.

And perhaps that's why I always leave Chester feeling disappointed. I know it's not really the city that disappoints me. I guess the disappointment is with myself. I realised this today.

We all go through life occasionally glimpsing lost souls, somehow outmaneuvered by fate. I saw a couple today, walking past me. They were obviously a couple and both wore glasses with extremely strong prescriptions. The boy looked cumbersome. The girl was attractive but in a slightly forlorn way and you know that she in no way would ever think herself attractive and you know that's one of life's small tragedies. She had a prettier face than many of those caked in fake tan and lip gloss. You might say the couple were a perfect match, each of them so ever slightly odd, and  that forced me to mutter a lament of 'poor buggers' as they walked past. Yet Chester also makes me realise that I'm another of the 'poor buggers', only there because my sister needed another hospital appointment because she continues to be extremely unwell, continually failed by the NHS, having just endured another six months of suffering because the local GP managed to lose two blood samples she'd given without informing us, meaning that, six months later, we had to face a consultant explaining how the important blood work hadn't been done and she'd have to do it again, involving another six month wait... Two poor buggers in Chester and never a lucky break between them.

And that, I suppose is the problem I have with Chester. Chester really makes me hate myself and makes me hate my life, which is unforgivable. I can't think of another place that ever makes me feel so utterly abject, glad to be home but also sad to be home. It's not simply the fraud of the history, the wilful ignorance of the people. It's the sense that life really is a lottery and some of us can afford the great suits, the expensive hotels, the bright red cars, the cartoon originals, the first editions, and, most of all, the private healthcare. The rest of us are stuck with shit luck, the NHS, and the knowledge that no matter how hard you work, how kind you are, how noble your dreams, or how generous your spirit, you can still be heeling along at the bottom wondering when life will give you a break.

'Antiqui colant antiquum dierum' is the City of Chester's motto. 'Let the ancients worship the ancient of days.'

As far as I'm concerned, the ancients are welcome to them.

Friday, 20 March 2015

World Poetry Day

As you will no doubt know: it's World Poetry Day. I know. Exciting!

I woke up really energized by the prospect and I immediately logged onto the World Poetry Day website. Today is the day when we can exchange our poetry for coffee!

You might know that poetry is my secret shame. I spent years studying it in academia and though I don't read much modern verse (I'm more of a Shelley, Pope, Donne, Byron, Yeats, Stevens, Hughes man), I do occasionally write poems which I send to be rejected by poetry journals. I have a 100% record of having my poems rejected by literary journals and I'm extremely proud of the fact.

However, today was going to be different. Today my poetry would earn me something: a free cup of Joe! My bag was packed and I was ready to head to whichever cafe was participating in this clever scheme to bring poetry to the masses. Naturally, I expected to travel a little distance. Perhaps as much as twenty miles to find a place to get free coffee for my verse.

You might say I was a little disappointed when I saw the map.





200 sodding miles! That's how far I'd have to travel! 200 sodding miles!

So, here's a poem I'd picked out which I was going to donate to my local coffee shop. I wrote it a few years ago and I should warn you that it's rather powerful stuff. It deals with my love of coffee and the effect it has on my body. It's part of the Stan Archives and didn't make the cut of my finished book so I might as well post it here so it might live on. Donations for a cup of coffee gratefully accepted.

Ode to My Bladder by S. Madeley (poet)

After John Donne

Deceitful ounce of flesh! The trickster God called Bladder,
Always waits until I’m in a lift or perched atop a ladder,Or just when I’m dozing and Vanessa Feltz fills my dreams,Up or down I go, urged on by unreasonable streams;That Horlicks taken lastly with the ITN News at TenOr that early cup of Java meant to help renew my strength.Oh curs├Ęd God called Bladder, unfaithful and cruel,You are the geriatric version of a Lord of Misrule.Why do I have a bladder small? Just who do I thank?Wish I for a leak-proof tap or suitably appendaged tank.

Not had you enough of my poetry? Well have a refill. It's my tribute to my cat.

On The Death of Sandhurst (Cat)

Goodbye Sandhurst, you were my favourite cat,
Born of the union of Miggles and Tabitha Black,
Who was a friend in her day, but nothing quite like you,
So placid since you were neutered at the tender age of two.
Oh, I’ll miss you, Sandhurst! There’s no doubt about that!
Sad it was to see you lying there, so round and so flat.
For five long weeks you were a constant source of worry.
Why did you cross the path of Asda’s refrigerated lorry?
I doubt I’ll love another, you really were unique;
But I’ve bought myself a kitten. I think I’ll name him Squeak.

The Asymmetry of Hugh Edwards

It was good to watch last night's 'This Week' since I'd been mildly annoyed at the BBC on Wednesday. Their Budget coverage was in all respects a typical 'Daily Politics' except they'd dropped Andrew Neil in favour of Hugh Edwards and I never really understand the point of Hugh Edwards.

Somebody inside the BBC clearly believes that Hugh is the new David, the old David (or previous Hugh) being David Dimbleby. It's not that I hold any particular grudge against Hugh but he doesn't have that devilish edge which elevates him above the mere average. His chief quality is an asymmetry which he does well but I've never really cared (literally) one way or the other about asymmetry. Nor have I ever been much of a fan of an Elvis lip. Hugh definitely has an Elvis lip, which he usually combines with his asymmetry to produce the Hugh Edwards effect, which makes women swoon and men wish they could swoon.

Perhaps the BBC think Andrew Neil lacks the glamour to front a national event and they replaced him with Hugh in order to satisfy their occasional viewers. News compulsives would be watching irrespective of the host but Hugh Edwards would calm the minds of those who occasionally dip their toes into politics, perhaps to see if a few pence would be knocked off the price of beer. An asymmetrical Elvis lip will always calm that kind of fear.

Hugh is also a safe pair of hands. His hands, I suspect, are as unlike Jeremy Clarkson's hands as you could possibly go without adding extra digits. I also think the BBC like Hugh because he's Welsh. I know that doesn't sound like a reason to hire a man but I suspect the BBC find ways to fulfil their regional quota without going the full dialect. Hugh is a bit Welsh but the kind of Welsh that doesn't have hair on his knuckles or become too impassioned if you speak English west of the Wrexham. The Welsh are a proud and sometimes fierce nation. I don't live all that far from the Welsh border and I know that their language dominates our public transport as far as Manchester (or 'Manceinion' as our local trains announce it) and beyond. Perhaps it's that proud sense of nationhood that the BBC fear. Hugh is Welsh enough to count without disturbing the marmalade brigade in Hertfordshire.

But, I digress. 'This Week' wasn't as feisty as last week's episode but probably a more solid show. The standout performances were by Nihal Arthanayake from the BBC Asian Network and the always wonderful Anne McElvoy. Abbot and Portillo were good but they're always good. I'm never quite sure where Portillo would sit on the Conservative spectrum but I more often than not find myself agreeing with him. Perhaps that's why he's no longer an MP. He's not ideological enough and has broadened his mind to the pleasures of common sense.

As is also usual with 'This Week', I usually zone out during the final ten minutes, which was this week dominated by another comedian with nothing particularly interesting to say and even less to say that was funny. I suspect it's just me but I've had other 'This Week' fans assure me that it's not. They need to think of a new format for the last ten minutes. I might have to give it some thought and summarise it in a letter... Perhaps Andrew Neil should consider more asymmetry and getting himself one of those Elvis lips.

Talking About Isis

There's 1,400 of my words over yonder about Isis and technology which I hope you'll go and read.

Here, I want to write something longer in a minute. In the meantime: the eclipse was a bit of a non-event. I was promised at least 90% coverage this far north but it barely got darker than a slightly dull day. I was hoping for birds falling out of trees and other portents of doom. This was the view seen through my slightly grubby window. I suppose I should really clean the buggers now it's officially spring...


Thursday, 19 March 2015

A Long Hastily Written Defence of Jeremy Clarkson

So many things I could write about this morning, including this gloriously beautiful spring morning. The only downside to spring is that it's a sure sign that summer is looming and I despise summer with a passion. However, I'm trying to remain upbeat. It's sunny and cold: my favourite combination.

I could also write about the lamentable services provided by foreign web hosts. Without getting into too much detail, I've been moving a website for people I do occasional work for. The site is going to be hosted on a new server and the operation takes about three days. I had the nameservers changed last night, which is a bit like asking the Post Office to stop delivering mail to your old house and to forward it to your new house. In computer terms, it means asking the 'internet' to stop sending traffic to your old computer and send it to you new machine. Like moving house, just because traffic is going to a different destination, it doesn't mean that your old house no longer exists. Except, in this instance, it does. Some birdbrain at the old web hosting company decided that changing the name servers meant deleting everything from the old server, which amounts to a previously undocumented form of madness. During the migration process, parts of the world can still have the old address, meaning that emails are getting delivered to the old place. Normally, after the migration is finished, you pop over to the old server, collect any outstanding files, and upload them to the new place. This time, I can't. It also means a headache for me and my not looking forward to this gloriously sunny spring day. Say what you like about working in a global market but cheap does not always mean good. My experience of working with companies in some countries is that it would be easier just to put your valuable company data in a large bucket, pour paraffin over it and dance wildly around it waving a match.

Sigh. And now Word just crashed but thankful came back with this document still intact. I think it's going to be one of those days.

Speaking of World Stupidity, I've not spoken about Jeremy Clarkson but, really, I wish the whole ridiculous story would end. I've heard two suggestions in the past two days which make me go grey. The first is that the BBC are planning to offer the 'Top Gear' job to Stephen Fry. It's the kind of news you hear and there's no deep breath deep enough to allow you the oxygen needed to explain why it's such a bad idea.

Clarkson is a prat but anybody with eyes can see that he's deliberately a prat. About 80% of his shtick is just that. Watch the earliest episodes of 'Top Gear' and I think you'd be astonished at how he's changed. I know I was, having just watched the very first episode again. His voice is different(he was so damn posh), his manner is different. What you realise is that he has carefully crafted the character of the big prat who believes in certain things which might or might not be completely wrong. Clarkson is, effectively, 'Top Gear'. His humour is also mannered and very well honed. You know what Jeremy Clarkson will say. He uses the same comic tropes over and over until, frankly, you want to take them behind the shed and shoot them in the head with a Glock automatic. And, yes, that was a typical Clarkson trope. It's called hyperbole and hyperbole can be a lot of fun. In fact so much fun that if you do it too much, your head will explode.

It also doesn't bother me that he speaks to a large portion of the country who, frankly, aren't in tune with current BBC policy. I admit, I'm not in tune with current BBC policy. I also quite like 'Top Gear', though I occasionally go through periods when I don't watch it. Steve Coogan was correct when he criticised 'Top Gear' for their Mexican adventure. There they went too far and it was around that time that I stopped watching. However, I've drifted back and I've found the show has been much improved. Sometimes they still do go too far but, damn it, there should always been room for people to go a little too far. It's the nature of comedy. Similarly, the BBC take their license fee from the entire nation. Not just from those people who enjoy 'Strictly Come Dancing' and the 'Graham Norton Show'. I happen to dislike with a deep intensity both 'Strictly Come Dancing' and the 'Graham Norton Show'. Yet I also enjoy 'QI' but find my Stephen Fry tank is rarely far from brimming over. I really don't want any more of him. I definitely don't want him anywhere near 'Top Gear', which people seem to forget, brings more into the BBC than the BBC spend paying Clarkson all that so-called 'licence payer's money'. Also, even if he was costing the taxpayer, I'd rather pay Clarkson than about 100 other chancers I could point at on the BBC books... Cough. Winklewoman.

This is turning into an unstructured ramble but forgive me. I have time to write quickly. Haven't time to write anything shorter.

The other dumb suggestion (though it's not so dumb as it is essentially redundant) is to give the job to Alan Partridge.

On the face of it, it's not a bad idea. Except we'd be changing one largely fictional 'character' with another. The only difference is that every offensive thing that Partridge does is done with a sense of postmodern irony. I'd argue that the same is true of Clarkson but I suspect not everybody thinks it's an act. Yet that's the joy of 'Top Gear'. You never know how much of it is real or staged. One of their best episode was when they drove a hover van through Stratford Upon Avon. They seemed to upset people drinking on the banks of the river (the van threw spray everywhere) but it was impossible to tell if people's response was real or staged. What's more, it really doesn't matter. The bloody thing was fun and funny. If you don't like it, it's easy to turn off.

I think the main problem is that Clarkson is too successful (and good) at what he does. Too many people seem to think he's the character he plays. I don't believe he is. Take, for example, the way he writes for the Sunday Times and the way he writes for The Sun. You wouldn't think they're the same man. Yet even if he is that same man and he is, in the words of James May, 'a knob', then I really don't care. Also in the words of May: 'I quite like him'. That's about the most sensible thing that's been said about this whole stupid debacle.

Clearly, somebody at the BBC wants him out for political reason and, I'd surmise, Clarkson is bringing this long simmering argument to a deliberate boil. Well, sod it. I've written enough times about the right of people to enjoy the things that make them happy. If you enjoy watching three white middle age prats fool around with engines on a Sunday night, then that's also fine by me and most weeks I'll join you. Just don't force the 'Top Gear' three over to Sky where they will become year another fragment of our nation reduced to a pay-per-view basis. Not everybody who watches Top Gear is a UKipper but the very fact that many in the media suggest otherwise is precisely why UKip exists in the first place. Keeping Clarkson would show that we're actually comfortable with our sense of nationhood. Getting rid of him would, I think, show how bad things might have become.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Problems of Drawing Bibi




After a questionable vegetable pizza early in the evening (something I rarely eat but, for once, made an exception when one was offered), I spent the rest of last Tuesday night in the company of my growling guts which didn't put me in the mood to be funny. I instead found myself doodling the above picture of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitch McConnell and contemplating the thorny problem of anti-Semitism and, in particular, the even thornier problem of George Galloway.

I drew last week's Galloway cartoon entirely tongue in cheek. For what it's worth, I find Galloway as entertaining a presence on the British political stage as I also find him a somewhat creepy and fairly repulsive comedic turn. Occasionally I find myself agreeing with him but more often than not I think he's plain wrong. Yet he's often wrong in a very convincing way. He argues in favour of the underdog (which is honourable) but often does so by praising vile extremists who just happen to side with the underdog. He is rhetorically gifted but the rhetoric is often in the service of the wrong camp. He claims to be on the side of the angels but too often keeps the company of devils.

Despite all of that, I don't consider Galloway to be an anti-Semite, though perhaps you'd expect me to say that given that he's currently suing a number of Twitter users who suggested otherwise. 'Anti-Semite' is an unfortunate term which is thrown around too easily given that it historically has a looser meaning that many would wish or want to admit. Although the term 'anti-Semite' is generally accepted as a term meaning 'hatred of Jews', the word 'Semite' can also refer to people of Arab descent.

Yet even if the term didn't have this slight doubleness, it still wouldn't mean that Galloway is in any way an anti-Semite. He's clearly not. Galloway is too much of a political animal. He thinks in terms of politics and argues in terms of politics; politics that often blind him to larger truths. Galloway is anti-Zionist, which is where the problem really lies. Many inside Israel believe that Zionism is itself integral to the Jewish identity. It's at the very core of their belief and so, they would argue, to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Semitic. That's why the Question Time studio a few weeks ago was filled with so many angry voices shouting Galloway down. It's the same as you see in America, with Jon Stewart only last week accused of being anti-Israel simply because he didn't agree with the policies of their government.

The whole debate is deeply divisive, nuanced to hell and back, and for that reason, that's as far as my thinking, knowledge and (frankly) my interest takes me. The semantics of language becomes as unhelpful as unpicking the history of those troubled lands. They both lead you deeper into the political mire and provide no helpful way of turning away from all the brutality and hatred. All I'll say is that from the perspective of somebody without Jewish roots, from a good distance away, and with no political allegiance to either side, I feel great sympathy for both sides. It disgusts me when Hezbollah fire missiles into Israel but it also saddens me to see the plight of people inside Gaza. Finding common ground between the two sides is, I fear, an impossibility given that both have claims to that 'common ground' based on ownership, political treaties, religious texts and untold amount of blood already spilt.

What I did want to write about was the problem of drawing satirical cartoons, particularly caricatures, around these hostilities without falling foul of people who search for offence. Watching Peter Brookes' interview on the Times+ the other night, I was surprised when he expressed a concern that has been troubling me. For Brookes, the problem was drawing Obama. He was concerned about drawing features which could lead him to be accused of racism. It's a very difficult area. Offence is so easily taken and extremely hard to avoid in every instance.

Cartooning without any offence is impossible in the sense that offence is often taken when none was intended to be given. When Gerald Scarfe drew his now infamous picture of Netanyahu building a wall in which Palestinians were trapped inside blood coloured cement, he was accused of deliberately repeating the 'blood libel' which (justifiably) offends many people of Jewish descent. Now, I hadn't myself heard about the 'blood libel' until the controversy occurred. However, I know that Scarfe is particularly fond of the colour red and blood features heavily in many of his cartoons. You only have to see his bloody Blair or baboon Bush standing beneath a US flag dripping with blood (both, below) to realise that the Netanyahu skit is a relatively mild one. What's more, I know as a cartoonist how my own mind would work and I know that had I the talent to come up with that image of innocents trapped inside a wall of Netanyahu's building, it would have seemed sensible to make the cement red. That is just what you'd do when drawing a cartoon to attack the Israeli Prime Minister.





In a sense, the Scarfe Conundrum is one all cartoonists face when they sit down to draw a cartoon that attacks a strongly help political or cultural viewpoint. Yet even inside Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is a divisive figure and satire has an important part to play in commenting on divisive figures. All a cartoonist can do is to the best of their ability avoid the tropes that will cause the most offence. Cartoonists won't always know enough history or have enough cultural sensitivity to recognise the perils but there's a whole literature on 'reader response' theory to explain why that will always be the case.

However, what interested me the other night was how simply trying to draw Netanyahu led me to some difficult problems.

Type 'Netanyahu cartoons' into Google and you get an interesting selection of cartoons of which (I would argue) Scarfe's example is still the greatest and most potent. However, the majority of the cartoon are not in any sense 'good'. With perhaps the exception of one example penned by the genius hand of Brookes, the majority of the Netanyahu cartoons don't attempt to caricature him. They instead choose to draw him, which is something else entirely. I'd challenge you to type in the name of any other world leader followed by 'cartoon' and see how many of the cartoons contain caricatures. There will, naturally, be many that are more illustrative than grotesque but not to any great degree. Why is that? It Netanyahu particularly hard to lampoon or just too easy to draw accurately?

I'm not sure which it is but I'm willing to hesitate a guess based on my own approach. When I started, I felt deeply self-conscious that I didn't want to draw anything that might be construed as anti-Semitic. I felt that not because I was afraid that people would take offence at this blog. I'm simply too unknown and unimportant for anybody to get upset by anything I do unless, of course, I insult Harry Potter and then all hell is unleashed upon me. I simply didn't want to draw anything that could be construed as anti-Semitic because I would hate anybody to think of me in that way. Last week, I simply wanted to draw a cartoon that simply expressed my thoughts about Netanyahu's hawkish speech to the US Congress.

So how would you draw Netanyahu without falling foul of accusations of anti-Jewish propaganda? Any guidebook to caricature tells you certain established rules, such as exaggerating a person's most obvious feature. That is difficult when that person has features that are strongly indicative of their nationality.

I phrase that carefully. Here I have to talk about racial stereotypes which are, I think we would agree, a bad thing. However, if you study any amount of critical theory based around Structuralism, you would  know that certain elements crop up repeatedly in human history. If you look at the myths of most civilisations, even civilisations so remote and ancient that they could not have communicated with each other, you will find, for example, myths involving gods made to suffer at the tops of trees or placed upon crosses. Certain myths are deeply rooted in our identity as human beings. Bad guys commonly wear black because we, as a species, are a species who operate in the day and generally fear the night. I used to bang my head against tables so many times when teaching structuralism to undergraduates because, at least once a semester, one would self-importantly declare 'I think it's wrong that Darth Vader is dressed in black because I personally consider that racist'.

It's an easy, lazy, but understandable leap of logic to wrongly equate the cultural trope of 'black=evil' to the struggling emergence of a multicultural society. We have to be more sophisticated in our thinking and to recognise that there is a telling difference.

The same is true when dealing with caricature. For example, I'd suggest cartoonists have to be careful when drawing Netanyahu's nose but, at the same time, can't ignore it. He has a great nose, full of character but cultural sensitivities mean that you have to draw it in a way that doesn't remind the viewer of anti-Semitic tropes. It's at the root of my defence of Scarfe, who admirably managed to pull Netanyahu's face apart and reconstruct it in a way that bears absolutely no similarity to anti-Jewish propaganda. Yet that's a difficult trick to accomplish. Just a twitch of the pen at the wrong point and you are liable to offend.

The fact that people can be offended so easily is, I guess, an expression of how deep the hurt and how long lasting the suspicions. It's too easy to say 'no offence was intended' because anybody with the wits to see should realise they are walking a path through a battlefield where too many lost their lives. Yet that doesn't mean that cartoonists shouldn't try. The problem is we quickly find ourselves defending the indefensible. How, for example, can I write 1400 words explaining why I'm cautious about drawing a picture of Bibi Netanyahu but I would defend the right of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to draw the Prophet Mohammed?

The answer, I could speculate, is one of prohibition. Yet no sooner have I written that than I realise that it's simply not true. Scarfe was not expressively forbidden from drawing a 'blood libel' cartoon, even if that was what he drew. Yet when he did, he was widely criticised and even Rupert Murdoch apologised. So, with hindsight, we realise that it is forbidden and rightly forbidden. So why don't we share the same cultural sensitivity to Mohammed?

Some would argue that there's a form of doublethink going on. We believe in the absolute freedom of expression except when that expression is forbidden by some but not by others. Yet I don't believe that's true. The most essential difference is the difference between mocking a belief and mocking a people. It's where all this navel gazing began. It's right to mock Netanyahu for what he believes; it's right to mock his person; it's not right to his family, his, nation or his people. Ideas and individuals are the rightful objects of our scorn. Anything beyond that should rightly remain taboo.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

On Martin Honeysett

Christ, I feel like I'm down with a cold. My head feels heavy and my ears feel full. Last night's sleep was rotten too. I had a programmer's sleep which you might know about but you might be lucky enough to have never programmed a computer in your life. If you ever do much coding late at night (and that's always been my habit), it's often followed by a sleep in which your whole dream feels like it's trapped inside DO...WHILE loops. The entire thing might be about something else but it's set to the structure of computer logic. You wake up feeling more exhausted than when you went to sleep.

Last night, I couldn't stop dreaming about glue sniffing vicars, which, if you know your Punch cartoons, was one of the best ever drawn by Martin Honeysett. Cartooning was on my mind because it was late last night that I read that he'd died just a few weeks ago aged 71.

Honeysett was one of the Punch regulars who had become a staple of Private Eye but his style remained that of a better age of cartooning. His pictures remained beautifully crafted whilst others became more measly. As a cartoonist with a nice pile of rejected cartoons from Private Eye, I suppose it's only natural for me to sometimes pick it that fortnight's edition and think 'mine were better than that'. Yet I never ever thought that when looking at a Honeysett cartoon. He made me realise how far I still need to go.

In that way, a Honesett cartoon always stood apart on the page and was immediately recognisable by the mixture of oddly shaped men in huge bulbous suits and the lovingly drawn details. His lines were sublime, his figures like those of Searle but warped by a Steadman filter. They were the kind of cartoons I can stare at for hours on end. They draw you into the gag, rather than encourage you snort once and then move on. They also stood apart because of the density of ink on the page. It was a style that also reminded me a little of Ed Koren, who draws for The New Yorker. Yet Honeysett's humour was far darker, admirably twisted, and of a Britain that exists best (and perhaps only now exists at all) in cartoon form. Cartooning has genuinely lost another of the greats.




Speaking of great cartoonists, The Times have an excellent video talk (1 hour 22 minutes no less) in the company of Peter Brookes. The video is for subscribers only (and thankfully, I know a subscriber) so I watched it over the weekend. Highly recommended. Brookes makes everything look so damn easy, especially to bad cartoonists.

Speaking of bad cartoonists, I've been deep in programming. I've (hopefully) nearly finished the little project I've been working on for a friend. I've not done much drawing over the weekend, except for my hastily drawn Putin cartoon, late Sunday night. I've been adding quite a few features to my Gag Machine which I might put into an update if I'm satisfied they work without problems. I'm going to try to write more this week. It's too easy to find reasons not to blog and then, before you know it, there is no blog. So, I'll try to write more, even when I don't feel like writing, even when I feel like I need my ears syringing. Even when I'm coming down with a cold.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Review: This Week (12/03/2015)



This Week* remains, for me, the best show on TV. The current brouhaha about Clarkson would pale compared to my reaction should Andrew Neil ever receive the BBC poleaxe. The virtue of the show is that it's rarely about policy. The various issues of political debate are rarely highlighted as much as the debate itself. The show is really about the meat and bones of Westminster: the personalities, the strategic calculations, and the great machinations of state.

The show is at its best, as it was last night, when the nasty underbelly of politics is exposed and tickled. This week, that nastiness arrived in the form of Michael Gove's wife, Sarah Vine, who also happens to be a Daily Mail columnist with a particularly vile line in acid. Both Michael Portillo and Alan Johnson attacked her strongly for the astonishingly vicious piece she recently wrote about Ed Miliband's wife. If anything, their visible anger didn't go far enough but what we had was a riveting exchange and a highlight of my week.

If This Week has a failing, however, it's always the final segment when they try to broaden the appeal of the show by inviting somebody from outside the political sphere to contribute to the debate. It's often some uber hip member of a reality TV show or the saxophonist from a 1970s supergroup who has since moved into organic truffles. Last night it was an astonishingly irritating nineteen year old who swaggered into the studio with an attitude that wouldn't be out of place in a prime ministerial address to the nation. It wasn't just the nascent sideburns struggling to stretch from his ears to somewhere beneath his puppy fat chin. Nor was it the black cravat he was wearing. It was the sheer banality of his views that made me sit up and wonder how the hell Tyger Drew Honey has come to the producer's attention. He proceeded to give the 'yoof' view of social issues and offered such a bland summary of life's problems that it would only endorse a view that people under twenty one don't really know enough about anything to have an 'opinion'. Yet, good guys to the last, both Portillo and Johnson patronised him with their favourable words. He was 'opening their eyes' to issues but, really, had they not been aware of those issues, then you'd question their place on the sofa.

'Tyger' came out with, frankly, feeble nonsense such as 'I know a lot of adults think that kids have the intelligence not to do these things, but I think that's ridiculous because put yourself in the position when you were a teenager, when you knew something was wrong, you'd still try to get away with it'. That wasn't true when I was a teenager and it's no longer true now. Yet, I guess, I can't speak for everybody. He then proceeded with this gem. 'I think we need to think about educating moreso the adults in the above generations as to what precautions you can put in place to actually stop my generation from being able to do certain things, on the internet especially'.

In other words, parents should keep any eye on what their children are doing and watching. Astonishing. Quite the novel idea. Not sure where I've heard it before...

It is only with hindsight that his words become particularly ironic and are the reason I'm writing this now. Wondering who the hell I was watching, I went onto the internet to research 'Tyger Drew Honey' and to understand why the producers of This Week thought his views should matter. I didn't have to look far. Thankfully, Wikipedia has all the answers. It all begins here:
Drew-Honey was born in Epsom, Surrey, the son of pornographic actor and director Simon James Honey and adult actress Linzi Drew.

Following the father's link, takes you to:
Simon James Honey (born 23 May 1956 in Sittingbourne, Kent), better known as Ben Dover, is an English pornographic actor, director and producer

Follow the mother's link, you discover she was:
'a Page 3 girl, stripper, glamour model and porn actress and was at one time the editor of the British edition of Penthouse magazine'.

She was also, incidentally, on the cover of Roger Water's excellent album, 'The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking', a cover designed by Gerald Scarfe.

I know the sins of the father aren't those of the son but I find it telling that in the supposedly egalitarian society of modern Britain, it's the son of the man who made 'Ben Dover's British Anal Invasion' (1997) and 'Ben Dover's Soccer Sluts' (2003) who is sitting on TW's sofa telling us that it's the older generation who should be our moral watchdogs. By the looks of things, it's his elders who have largely contributed to the moral degradation of our society, earning a small fortune in the process and funding his education at Epsom College (Patron H.M. The Queen) where fees range from £7,335 to £10,730 a term, a privileged start to life which has now helped launch him into a career in TV punditry.

You couldn't make this stuff up and, as great a show as it is, it makes me wonder what kind of researchers are working on This Week. Andrew Neil, Michael Portillo, and Alan Johnson deserves better because, last night, knowing what I now know, their responses looked mildly ludicrous to a Tyger who did not burn particularly bright.

* That's right. The title of the show is 'This Week'. Anybody who'd call it 'The Week in Politics' clearly doesn't know what they're talking about. However, it's an easy mistake to make. There are so many of them: The Daily Politics, The Sunday Politics, Strictly Come Politics With Andrew Neil. It's easy to get confused...

Thursday, 12 March 2015

eBay

Looking at it from the cold end, today resembles a total waste of my time.

I've been asked by a friend to help with a little eBay project they're working on. I said I'd take a look at the eBay API and see if I could connect to it. After an initial moment of panic and my walking/running away (the eBay system is so archaic that barely any link, tutorial, or page still works) I came back and found some useful sample code. After about an hour of work I'd managed to figure out how to connect to the sandbox and I'd started to exchange data. That should have been the hardest part. From there, I started to build a new interface. However, some time after 4pm, the eBay sandbox went down. Not that there's a status page to say as much. There's not even a proper developer's forum where such things can be discussed. I'm now at the point where I might just abandon this as a bad idea.

For a company as big as eBay, the situation for developers is frankly appalling. It's like they've made their money and don't really care if others can write code that can communicate with their system. It's been an absolute waste of a day; a day that I could have otherwise spent on other work. I have three new cartoons which will become another batch to submit to a magazine. I'm trying to create one batch of cartoons a week but two if possible. This will be my second if I get draw another cartoon tonight, which I will if eBay don't fix their sandbox.

Meanwhile, in server hell: my site keeps disappearing when I'm not looking. I think it's a memory issue, even through I've moved up to a 1Gb server. I won't be moving higher so I have to figure out the problem or resign myself to rebooting the server every few days.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

How Has Adam Savage Customised His Toilet?



I've become about as obsessed with Tested.com as a man can get without actually buying a subscription. Not that I wouldn't buy a subscription but life isn't exactly great at the moment and 'cash' and 'surplus' are words fitted with opposing neodymium magnets. I just can't get the little buggers to stick together.

Yet even as a non-premium member, I confess that I'm utterly addicted. Never before have I found a website which is so like an electrified needle pushed straight into my man-lobe, should there be one and I have no doubt that somewhere deep in my brainbox there is such a lobe controlling my love of manly things.

I have no idea how Tested.com came into existence. My devote atheism denies a role for divine inspiration but, without that, I can't believe evolution would produce something so perfect. Tested is a place for makers (that is, people who make things). I'm not a maker myself in the sense that the things that I do make aren't anything other than digital, or occasionally, ink and paper. However, I'm fascinated by people who are.

I think it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that if I had to name the greatest human being currently living on this great soggy globe of ours, I'd probably name Adam Savage. Savage, for those of you who haven't been enlightened, is the more talkative host of Mythbusters but he's also one of the stars (maybe *the* star) of Tested.com. He describes himself as 'a maker of things' but that really doesn't do him justice. He's really King Nerd, the guy the rest of the world should really look up to instead of all the grifting shysters and semi-evolved rappers. Savage lives his life in the zone that people like me just consider home.

Example the first: he's just build a replica of the maze that Jack Nicholson looks over at the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's Shining. The videos that accompany that build are just manna for anybody like me who loves Kubrick. (Speaking of which, I highly recommend, if you can find it online, Jon Ronson's excellent documentary about Kubrick's boxes.)

Take, another example: Savage's current obsession with flying drones.

I've written before about my concerns about drones but I'll admit right now that the more I see what they can do, the more the bloody things excite me. I know now that I'll never own one or get to fly one but that doesn't mean I can't live vicariously through those people that do. But even my sheer excitement about new technology is different to the joy I get from watching Savage work. When body augmentation kicks in, I expect Savage to lead the field replacing his buttocks with something more functional and contain compartments to keep his wood glue. Until that day arrives, I'm satisfied watching him making all manner of things for his new toys. His 'One Day Builds' on Youtube are worthy of any TV station and, I'd say, are better than 95% of the stuff on the BBC. If they had a 9pm slot on BBC2, they'd become a worldwide hit. They're simply that good. They're an example of what intelligent people can do when given the resources and the freedom not to chase profit.

Whenever I complain about the degradation of society and culture, I should really parenthesise all that and say that in some ennobled places in the world, culture is still on the rise. Noe Valley in San Francisco seems to be one such place. It's where Tested.com has its home and where Savage brings order to the chaos. His has to be some highly evolved form of autism: a delight in order and arrangement. Yet it's more than that. What excites me about Tested.com is that the thing is so damn friendly. It makes you feel that human beings aren't so bad when they can work as a community to share a passion. I can't recommend it enough.

Having said all that, in his latest video, Savage and Norm (Norm's great) look at the tools and gadgets that help Adam fly his drone. Just the attention to detail is something I admire. Yet the attention to detail didn't go so far as shutting the bathroom door behind them.

First thing to note: Savage keeps his toilet seat up. Of course, that's the way to go from a practical point of view but perhaps this is a small detail which distinguishes the amateur operation from the seriously professional. However, in the absence of Jeremy Clarkson from our TV screens, this is the next best thing men are going to get to 'manly TV' for a little while. I tried not to look into the bathroom but I did begin to wonder about what is in there. If Adam Savage likes to customise everything in his life, how the hell might he have customised his toilet?

I've been giving this far too much thought and I now believe that the first thing I'd do is to counter-weight the toilet seat. I've often wondered about that before today. Why should it be the obligation of men to put the seat down? Shouldn't it be the obligation of women to leave the seat up? Or solve the problem entirely with a simple weighted solution to make toilet seats like seats you find in a cinema.

But knowing Savage, I suspect a counter-weighted toilet seat wouldn't be enough. I can only conclude that he has magnets on his flies and that there's some kind of floating truss in there which connects quickly to his lower regions. The truss takes care of the handling leaving his hands free to do more valuable things such as spray paint a model or drill some MDF. I thought I also spied a foot mechanism to control the flush but I might be wrong. All I know is that the possibilities are endless. Perhaps it will be a future video. If so, I'll be hooked. In the meantime: feed your inner nerd and check out Tested.com.