Saturday, February 28, 2009

On encountering Jehovah’s Witnesses this morning

Halfway through doing the washing-up comes a knock at the front door (literally: we don’t have a doorbell but a brassy knocker, old skool). So roll-sleeved and soapy-armed I open up and there stand two unmistakeable Jehovah’s Witnesses. Proper archetypes, ie. they look like Philip Larkin but shorter.

Now in the past I might have employed some Pavement Panto™ to extricate myself from their conversational clutches (I’m on an important phonecall, my wife is in labour, the kitchen is on fire etc), but having identified that tendency, I want to rise above it. So it was a question of fronting up, vague but firm, polite but distant, certainly I’ll take your magazines and I thank you, now we conclude our business.

I wanted to, but didn’t quite, bark “Good day to you, sirs!”, which is how I imagine a confident Victorian gentleman would dismiss such fellows.

It worked, too. And now I’m not going to say anything snarky about the Witnesses or their strange magazine about Intelligent Design and birds flying into buildings (there is a quite a lengthy and interesting article on the latter, funnily enough). It’s a bit like trainspotters. Once I might have laughed with scorn, but we’ve got beyond that, haven’t we? No it takes all sorts in this world, I’m not going to knock them. As St Bono put it, we’re One, but we’re not the same and we get to carry each other, carry each other.

And at least it keeps them off the stre-... all right, at least it gets them out the house, then. Sorry this wasn’t a bit funnier.

Friday, February 27, 2009

It occurs to me...

... that I would be quite happy to go for the rest of my life without hearing another RnB artist urging me to throw my hands in the air ... like I just don't care.

I mean, come on - that one's getting old.

Rhyme Jockey update

Nb: those loveable loonies who have been following Brit's poetic 'career' may find the following post of some interest. Everyone else may prefer to skip down to the ones below.

To see if there was any mileage in them, I recently sent a cross-section of my whitey doggerel off to the Poetry Society’s Prescription service. This is where you pay some squids for a professional poet to rip you apart/proffer constructive criticism.

I got the results back yesterday and they were… interesting. I mulled the comments over last evening with Mrs Brit as we sat in a curious restaurant called Giraffe. (We are working our way through a host of upmarket chain eateries in the new Cabot Circus complex. You can get loads of 2 for 1 vouchers for schoolnights and also everyone tells us we should make the most of these precious last few pre-sprog months. (So far Café Rouge is the clear winner, but that might be because I had steak frites, which really can’t lose. Steak and chips is surely one of the great achievements of human civilisation. I had an enchilada thing in Giraffe (the menu of which is a very odd ethnic mix, sort of Tex-Mex-Carib-Afric-Vietnamese, well, that’s 21st Century England for you) and it was nicely done but as soon as a chap nearby had his steak and chips brought out I coveted it, and wondered, not for the first time, why I don’t just order steak and chips whenever possible.))

But I multiply digress.

I really didn’t know what to expect from the Poetry Prescription, but what I got back was, frankly, brilliant. Which is to say: thorough, honest, brutal, wise, occasionally as painful as a sharp kick in the knackers.

I deliberately sent a cross-section, and as I dimly suspected, my poems can be divided into three categories.

The full-on whitey doggerel such as Gymnasium and Ghosts of Christmas is, essentially, humorous light verse and has less chance of finding publication than an 800-page debut novel all about athlete's foot. My poet identified these as ‘fine performance pieces’ but otherwise kicked them to death. Well, I knew they weren't exactly W H Auden, but I wanted to know what they were, and now I know. They're performance pieces. The critic did suggest changes, principally: less rhymes, break up into stanzas, cut by 50%, less jokes, less, less, less. In other words, make them like the kind of poem that gets published and they might get published. To do this would, I feel, be a category error, destroying their essence. Their torrential, exhaustive rhyming nature is their raison d'etre. If that's unpublishable, I'm quite content.

More happily, a second, small and more serious category is, apparently, ready for mainstream publication now if judiciously placed.

The third category contains works which, with a bit of rather painful hacking, could make it into the second category.

In summary, if you dabble in poetry yourself you could do a lot worse than send them off for a similar critique. The advice is wise and, in some cases, brilliant. But it sets the bar absurdly high, eg. comparing my rhyming patterns unfavourably with works by the mighty Geoffrey Hill, amongst others. Well, duh.

There were some very tough comments, and some of the praise was mildly depressing because it essentially translates as: you are a rhyme jockey, the world’s least fashionable kind of artiste (“using less obvious forms might work to your advantage as you obviously have a talent for rhyming”; “Because of your facility [for rhyme and composition] it might be useful to look at the set forms. Whilst they are not popular [sic!], poets like Dale with his sonnets….”)

But I am somewhat heartened to say that the overall message was that there is some mileage in some of them, I have a clear way forward for new material (rhyme jockey stuff goes on the internet, sensible stuff does not), and the upshot is that I’ve accordingly taken down some of the Likely Candidates from the Think of England poetry site, leaving that as a pure and unsullied sanctuary for the unpublishable whitey doggerel you’ve come to know and love.

Thanks for listening.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Advanced Gun-Sticking

I feel we’re just scratching the surface on Pavement Panto™. Peter B comes up with another superb PP (Primary Class) U-turn routine, which also enables you to get out of the double u-turn (and possibly the triple as well).

Keep ‘em coming, please. There’s a sidebar feature in this, I can feel it. Hoodie gang passing techniques, for instance, are surely a rich vein.

For the moment though, I’ll just tell the story that thrust itself to the forefront of my mind following the delightful tale of Mrs Malty attempting to remotely unlock the wrong car at Tesco.

Similarly it concerns women and cars (nothing sexist, just a coincidence (Probably.).). The story involves a young lady, an ex-colleague, at the time new to the Bristol area. She went for an evening out in the town centre and parked up, as many people do, in Queen Square.

Queen Square, in case you don’t know it, is a reasonable-sized public expanse of green, surrounded by a cobbled road and various 18th century listed buildings. Car parking spaces are all the way along the cobbles and it used to be £1.60 for parking all night (now gone up to two bloody fifty of course, but that’s not pertinent to the story). The Square is very symmetrical and has various exits and entrances, at the corners and midway along the sides, making it potentially a little bit confusing for newcomers.

Anyway, the young lady parked up, went off for her meal with friends, returned somewhat later and lo and behold, the car was missing. She searched about with increasing franticness, then got a taxi home and called the police to report it stolen.

Typical plod investigation, then two days later she gets a call. Good news, they’ve found the car! Even better news, it’s completely undamaged! And where did they find it?

Parked in Queen Square and covered in parking tickets, of course.

What makes this story really intriguing, is not so much that she made a classic dumb blondeism (she was blonde too, as it happens), but that she absolutely, categorically REFUSED to accept that she might just have forgotten on which side of Queen Square she parked the vehicle.

No, she was quite adamant that the car had been stolen during the period she was at the restaurant, and then later returned and left neatly, and with no sign of break-in, in a parking space. Upon being challenged to explain the accrual of the parking tickets, she simply ignored the question. (I believe she quietly paid the fines though).

Even several years later, when surely the tale could have been a very useful laugh-at-yourself dinner party anecdote, she refused to accept that the car had not been nicked.

This brand of superlative pokerface acting isn’t exactly Pavement Panto™, I don’t think, but it certainly takes sticking to your guns to a virtuoso level.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pavement Panto™ 2 - Deeper into the mime

I have to admit that the Pavement Panto discussion immediately below has had me chuckling throughout every waking hour since, and possibly some sleeping ones as well (sleeplaughter is one of my habits, it seems. I once shocked Mrs Brit awake with a loud guffaw and some unconscious mumbling about turtles).

The one that really got me was Ben’s U-Turn routine:

My favourite action when I need to perform a U-turn on the pavement, is to suddenly look at my watch, pretend to be surprised at how late it is, portray with a facial expression that I don't have time to do what I was 'going' to do and then smartly switch directions.

I find this very funny partly because I’ve employed that ruse myself, and partly because I think this must be Pavement Panto in its purest form.

It is Pavement Panto in its purest form for the following reasons:

1) It is such a laboured am-dram rigmarole, such absolute ham acting. In reality, it surely rarely or never happens that you suddenly decide to look at your watch, are shocked, shocked at the time – having been hitherto completely unaware of the hour - and have to completely revise your plans there and then.
2) It is played out to a completely imagined audience. That is, based on a vague notion that people are watching you and might laugh at you if they realised that you were just walking the wrong way for reasons of absent-mindedness.

In the second respect it contrasts with other, less pure forms of Pavement Panto, where there really is an audience and your acting is employed as an escape or masking mechanism. So we can subdivide Pavement Panto into two classes:

Pavement Panto™ (Primary Class) – indifferent or imagined audience
eg. U-Turn mimes, fake texting while dining out alone

Pavement Panto™ (Secondary Class) – audience-specific
eg. Big Issue Salesman/Chugger avoidance techniques; Stephen Fawcus’s pretend phone call to avoid sharing a lift.

It occurs to me that there could be a Tertiary Class, though, which involves situations where there is a definite audience, but you’re not sure about their degree of indifference.

Take bodily functions. An example mentioned on Adam and Joe was the farting chair. If you sit down in public and your chair makes an outlandish raspberry sound, it is customary to employ a bit of Pavement Panto shifting and squirming in an attempt to recreate the noise and thus 'prove' that it didn’t emit directly from your person the first time.

Likewise surreptitious staring. You might want to look at a person a little longer than would normally be considered polite (either because they are attractive and possibly semi-clothed, or conversely, interestingly ugly or deformed), in which case a good PP stratagem is the old ‘pretend to be a bit lost and looking for something’ ploy, allowing your gaze to sweep across the object several times.

And I haven’t even touched on small awkward shops, particularly quirky boutiques or remote second-hand bookshops, where a bewildering array of PP techniques is required to remove yourself from the store, under the hopeful gaze of the owner, without making a purchase (disappointed wallet-pocket patting, mumbling about ‘getting some cash’, asking if they ‘are open tomorrow’ etc).

I’m tempted to go into town on Saturday and position myself near a Big Issue seller just to take note of the variety of PP avoidance methods.

Yes, there’s plenty more mileage in this one, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pavement Panto™

Ageing scallywags Adam and Joe had an amusing feature on their radio show the other day about a peculiar area of human activity. They didn’t settle on a name for it so I will coin the term Pavement Panto™.

Pavement Panto refers to those contrived actions one performs to mask, disguise or somehow ‘cover for’ any public behaviour about which one feels awkward or obscurely embarrassed.

An example mentioned on the show involves the business of making a 180 degree turn in the street. Sometimes when walking it becomes necessary to stop, turn, and walk back the other way. This might be because you have walked past the shop you meant to go into, or you’d forgotten where you parked the car. In extreme cases of absent-mindedness you might even have strolled dozily past your own front door.

Now for some reason it’s hard to perform this U-turn without covering it with some sort of Pavement Panto. One might, for example, stop and pretend to look with interest at a shop window for a few moments, and then, when a reasonable time has elapsed, walk back the other way as if the original direction of the walk and the stop were all part of your plan.

An alternative technique (and one which I favour) for the U-Turn scenario is to go to the other extreme and over-exaggerate the realisation that you’ve gone the wrong way. I will frequently raise my right arm with forefinger extended in an A-ha! sort of gesture, waggle my wrist as if remembering something vital and then about-turn with military smartness, shaking my head and tut-tutting at my own forgetfulness. For whose benefit I perform this unnatural and hammy routine I cannot say. But somehow it is necessary to deflate the perceived embarrassment of erring by drawing attention to the error. Very odd.

One Adam and Joe listener described how he will carry on walking even after realising that he is going the wrong way, but then pull out his mobile phone and pretend that he’s received a text message. He will then feign surprise and annoyance, indicating that the message commands him to go back from whence he came. This is expert Pavement Panto, but surely much too elaborate to be rational.

The prevalance of Pavement Panto raises many interesting questions about social paranoia and self-consciousness. Why do we feel this need to cover our petty and extremely common mistakes? Are we worried that onlookers will laugh at us? Ha ha, look at that idiot, changing direction! Oi, changey-direction idiot, you’re an idiot!

The rise of the mobile phone has surely done wonders for the phenomenon, being the perfect Pavement Panto prop. Pretending to answer text messages is an ideal way to mug through such self-conscious experiences as dining out alone or waiting for your wife outside the underwear fitting rooms in Marks and Spencer.

Pavement Panto can even take place in the car. In traffic jams I have sometimes been laughing heartily at the radio or singing away lustily to a CD when I’ve glimpsed another driver looking at me. My Pavement Panto reflex will immediately kick in and I have been known to fake an amusing hands-free telephone conversation, even to the extent of mouthing ‘Goodbye’ and pressing an imaginary hang-up button.

This is clearly nuts. But then, we are nuts, aren’t we? Until I heard that radio show it had never really occurred to me that everyone else might have these same little lunacies. Now I suspect that Pavement Panto makes up a huge proportion of the human activity you see every day. What a piece of work is a man.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Princess Mononoke

Eboshi and her ishibiya troops are responsible for the cursed iron bullet in Nago which eventually affects Ashitaka. She shoots the Shishigami's head off, causing it to turn into a God of death and sending forth a dark liquid that kills anything it touches. The liquid falls on Moro's body, separating her head from the body. After Eboshi throws the Shishigami's head to Jigo, Moro's head resurrects long enough to bite off Eboshi's right arm. This event redeems her and she decides to rebuild Irontown not as an industrial center, but as a modest settlement.

That remarkable passage is taken from Wikipedia’s page about the Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke, which Mrs Brit and I watched last night. As a synopsis, it is a fair reflection of the bemusing logic of Japanese animated films in general. In Japanese animated films, having one's arm bitten off by the disembodied head of a wolf-goddess is exactly the sort of thing that prompts a chap to rebuild an Industrial Centre as a Modest Settlement.

We have built up a good collection of Studio Ghibli films. Spirited Away is still the best, but they are all satisfyingly beautiful and strange.

The key thing about them is that they are not bound by any of the traditional Western storytelling conventions. Plots meander and splinter all over the place, being more one-damn-thing-after-another than a coherent arc.

And this lack of a defined plot arc liberates the characters. Their actions are driven by whim and circumstance, rather than by the fact that they are goodies or baddies within the story. Motivations and loyalties are fluid and malleable; they do good things and bad things. Villainy and heroism are contingent, as in real life. Great big ferocious demons turn out to be sympathetic and sad. The main characters are curiously Christlike – rather than slaying monsters, they tend to favour psychoanalysing and then forgiving them.

You can watch the DVDs with English actors doing the voices, but we always prefer to watch in Japanese with English subtitles since this preserves the required level of disorienting weirdness. At one point in Princess Mononoke the two protagonists in a swordfight yell the following at each other:

“Why can’t Irontown and the forest gods live together in harmony?”
“We always want to control everything between heaven and hell, it is the human condition!”

They do cartoons differently in Japan.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tragic as the son of a superman

We'll never never play the harp,
and we'll stick like sick on the stars...

That little couplet popped into my head the other day as I jogslogged manfully away at a gym treadmill. It’s good isn’t it? Bit disgusting and I’m not sure what it means exactly, but as Enderby and I always say, don’t worry too much about meaning, the words are all that matter.

Anyway, the couplet nagged at me for a few moments until I remembered that it comes from Moving, a song on Suede’s eponymously-titled 1993 debut album (eponymously-titled albums by bands with one-word names were very much the thing in mid-90s British indie music. It was a time of great One Word Eponymosity).

In the sixteen years* since it was released, I must have listened to Suede by Suede approximately, oooh, ten thousand billion times. However, the distribution of those ten thousand billion listens over the sixteen year period is not an even one; far from it, a scatter plot of my Suede listening would show a huge concentration of dots in the period 1993-1996, and increasing scarcity thereafter fading to just the occasional spot on an otherwise perfect blankness, as rare and lovely as skin-blemishes on the huge bony back of Keira Knightley’s character in the film Atonement.

Suede consisted of vocalist/lyricist Brett Anderson, guitarist Bernard Butler and two other guys who don’t really matter. They were not the only mid-1990s One Word Eponymisers to plunder the best bits of Ziggy-era Bowie and Strangeways-era Smiths but they were definitely several cuts above the rest.

They had a handful of absolutely belting tunes. They had a strong sartorial style which lent itself to tribalism and copycatting (I never got the hang of either but I remember that my university contemporary Danny Robins, who has gone on to achieve a modicum of success mainly as a radio comedian, was the exact spit of Anderson and cultivated his floppy side-quiff to emphasise this fact). Above all, Anderson’s lyrics conjured up a weird, elusive but internally coherent world of sleazy suburban nightmares and dirty glamour, perfectly designed to appeal to repulsive, greasy British teenagers up and down the land.

We shake shake shake to the trumpet
And through the slippery city we ride
Skyline swine on the circuit
Where all the people shake their money in time

There’s another bit of brilliant Anderson nonsense that’s been sloshing around my head for a decade and a half. You can’t overestimate the importance of these things in your formative years. They linger and cling. The noughties decade has glided by, one year blending seamlessly into the next, and I can never remember whether things happened in 2003 or 2006 or whenever. But the years 1993 to 1998 are very clearly distinct to me, each with its own colour and flavour.

It didn’t work out in the long run for Suede (an excellent EP Stay Together, then the partly great but absurdly pretentious Dog Man Star. After that Butler left and the replacements made fairly routine pop, with Anderson’s lyrical mojo deserting him and the songs finally descending into self-parody; auto-generated combinations of 'diesel' and 'gasoline' and 'supermarket' and 'glitter'. Butler is now the force behind sub-Winehouse warbler Duffy).

Nonetheless, I doubt I’ll ever shake off that first album.

I was conned by a circus hand,
Tragic as the son of a superman...

Marvellous. Superman is sad enough – how tragic would his son be? When, after I’ve won the Nobel, an interviewer asks me who my poetic influences are, I shall say: “W H Auden and Brett Anderson”. I will look Kirsty Wark dead in the eye and dare her to laugh.

*dear God. Sixteen years, eh? Tempus fuggedaboudit.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Tao of Broken, Extremely Long Fingernails

On Saturday the BBC brought us this vertiginous story:

An American woman listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the world's longest fingernails has had them broken off in a car crash.

Lee Redmond from Salt Lake City, Utah, had not cut her nails since 1979. Their combined length was more than 28ft (8.5m), with the longest nail - on her right thumb - measuring 2ft 11in (89cm), Guinness said.

….Her nails were "damaged beyond repair", according to the Guinness World Records website. The organisation said she had been a "fantastic ambassador" for them, and that her nails had been "a fundamental part of her life and unique character".

What is your reaction to the story of the lady who was, until very recently, Lee Redmond, Fingernail World Record Holder from Utah, and is now just plain Lee Redmond from Utah?

Select one or more from the following:

A) A burst of cruel laughter
B) A wave of sympathy, possibly accompanied by a sense of guilt for your initial reaction (A)
C) A gloomy philosophical reverie about what it means to be a human and the quest for meaning and identity in a vast, anonymous universe
D) A calm acceptance of the implacability of fate

My analysis would be as follows:

A is a natural human reaction, so don’t worry about it… unless you didn’t subsequently make it to B, in which case you are probably a psychopath. If you went straight from A to C then you are a narcissist and if straight from A to D then you might well be an Elberry, which is unusual.

The healthiest sequence would therefore be A then B then C. Making that last leap from C to D will require years of Zen training.

The final stage E is, of course, Enlightenment. For this lesson we thank you, former world record fingernail lady.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Read Mike Nelson you swines

The excellent US comic and blogger Michael J Nelson, has sent a relative blizzard of comedically-advanced readers to this dusty little corner of the blogscape (specifically this post), so if you’re one of those, welcome. What you will find here will baffle, astound and somehow fail to quite satisfy.

For the rest of ToE’s small but discerning audience, Mike was the star of a long-running US television show called Mystery Science Jamboree Big Top Theatre 3000, or some such. I confess I’d never heard of it, but Youtube has allowed me to catch up and realise that British TV did us a grave disservice in not broadcasting it here (or if they did, it was so low-profile I missed it – perhaps someone like Ali, who knows most things that are worth knowing and many that aren't, can enlighten me).

The idea is brilliant in its simplicity: Mike and his mates watch terrible movies and make snarky comments throughout. This worthy enterprise is now continued in the Rifftrax project, which I heartily recommend for a good and very reasonably-priced belly laugh.

Being a dedicated and secretive Think of England reader (the best kind), Mike is a man of impeccable taste and eccentricity. He is also, however, halfway though a month of eating nothing but bacon. I don’t know how his body is faring during this ordeal – I prefer not to think about it - but psychologically he’s clearly disintegrating.

His latest post ends with the grim and terrifying declaration “I love you bacon. I love you so much.”

Now I’m no shrink, but that looks suspiciously like a sort of dietary Stockholm Syndrome to me. Mike has fallen in love with his cured pork ‘prison’. He’s going to need some serious help come March.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Richard Stilgoe in da house

Dreadful moment of self-realisation this week. Nige posted something about Australians writing ‘Onegin stanza’ or ‘Pushkin’ sonnets. So as is my curious proclivity, I had to bang one out myself as follows:

Drinking twelve tinnies a day
counts as practically teetotal
in Australia, they say,
(though that's purely anecdotal),
But it's true they like a bet,
And keep crocodiles as pets,
And they've never heard of rain,
And they all cry "Bowling, Shane!"
And they're never heard to whine
(unlike the bloody pommies,
who all cry for their mommies
and cheat with Bodyline),
Now since it's an Aussie poem 'n all,
It must end in a rising terminal?

(Technical note: The Onegin stanza rhyme scheme is aBaBccDDeFFeGG, where lower-case = feminine rhyme (penultimate syllable stressed) and upper case = masculine rhyme (last syllable). Eagle-eyed readers will observe that the above goes AbAbCCDDEffEGG where the last couplet is actually dactylic (antepenultimate syllable) so it’s far from a perfect Pushkin, but then it did only take 20 minutes so some slack can be cut for chrissakes).

Bish bash bosh, press post. Ha ha aren't I clever. But it was upon reading it back a few hours later that the terrible realisation occurred. Consider Flanders and Swann, of whose work this Aussie sonnet is more than a little reminiscent. They were basically a poor man’s Noel Coward (and Noel Coward was a poor man’s WS Gilbert.) Richard Stilgoe was a poor man’s Flanders and Swann and I am a poor man’s Richard Stilgoe. So the chain goes: Gilbert, Coward, Flanders/Swann, ..... Brit.

Yep, I’m a rhyme jockey. If I was black I could possibly get away with being a hip hop free-stylist along the Biggie Smalls line. But instead I’m a half-arsed operator in the most unloved, unsexy and unfashionable art form known to man: whitey doggerel.

Take The Blogger’s Lament. It pops up every now and again – Andrew Sullivan linked to it not long ago – but only as an ‘amusing’ commentary on what bloggers think it’s like being a blogger. But dammit, nobody has ever mentioned the only thing that’s really worth mentioning, which is the technicality of the internal/external rhyme scheme, eg.:

His skill: to find the perfect snippet,
To metaphorically paperclip it
To another view or bent,
Find the balance of the argument,
Then, with his pithy comment, tip it.

It was a right old headache making that work, and for such a feeble pay-off. That's rhyming for you: a preposterous imbalance in the effort to reward ratio. No wonder everyone writes free verse.

Now Duck, on the other hand, really did appreciate a rhyme jockey. If there’s any doggerel anywhere with a rhyme-scheme more headachingly intricate than Do it Yourself, I’d love to shake the author by the hand, for we are the sub-Stilgoes, the literary brotherhood of the laboriously banal. And we need our Ducks. Like David, I resent this one, and more than makes sense.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

This post contains a post

The airline packet of peanuts adorned with the warning “May contain nuts” is getting old now – both as a joke for stand-ups about how stupid people are, and as a mouth-foam prompt for rants about the Nanny State and Health and Safety Culture and Political Correctness Gone Mad and what have you – so I don’t want to bang on in either of those veins.

And I also know there are some pretty daft people in this world. For instance, there are, I suppose, people who fall for those Nigerian email scams.

….Amazingly persistent, those Nigerian email scammers, aren’t they? Dear friend, someone has left you $10 million in their will… They’re particularly keen on Mrs Brit’s Yahoo account and sometimes there are five or six of these inexplicably generous and wealthy benefactors bequeathing fortunes to her in a single day. You’d think that by now nobody, but nobody, could be sucker enough to stick up the ten grand demanded under whatever unlikely pretext it happens to be, but still the Nigerians send these things out, and it must be worth their while or they wouldn’t bother. For all I know, email scamming might be one of Nigeria’s major industries, a key contributor to the country’s GDP. They probably have Email Scamming degree courses in Nigerian universities. It might be considered a very respectable career choice, along with doctoring and lawyering (both of which are far more respected than they ought to be of course). In fact, it may well be our duty to fall for one of these scams every now and again to help keep the Nigerian economy healthy…

But I digress. The point is, that even allowing for maximum daftness, and even allowing for maximum Nanny State-age, I was taken aback to find this warning on my box of Sainsbury’s Family (why Family? I know not) Free Range eggs:

That’s right, it says “Allergy advice: Contains Egg”.

Upon spotting this, I was immediately sent into a dizzying metaphysical spin. In what possible circumstance can it be necessary to inform the purchaser that his egg contains egg? Surely the basic levels of intelligence required for someone to be able to read and understand the words “Contains” and “egg” would negate the need for the warning?

Could it be a warning that the box itself contains egg? You’d think that the desire to have eggs would be the very reason for the original purchase, but perhaps Sainsbury’s are thinking of a buyer who just happened to like the look of the box for its own sake and bought it without investigating the nature of its contents. But again, the fact that it contains eggs is advertised in much larger letters on the top of the box…and of course upon opening the box the rather obvious presence of six actual eggs would surely come to the attention of the purchaser before he spotted the warning about the box containing eggs. I mean there they are, as plain as day, very hard to miss.

So it must be a warning that the eggs themselves contain egg. But is this really possible? Can a table contain a table? Can an egg contain an egg? Isn’t this a tautology? Not, perhaps, if it is a reference to a Platonic essentialist philosophy of forms. So just as a table contains ‘tableness’, so the eggs contain ‘eggness’ to a degree that is, while large, not quite as perfect as the Ideal Egg.

I don’t know. The egg box poses far more questions than it answers. I struggle to hold on to any strong theories these days; it’s becoming a problem.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Beethoven was deaf

... is the name of a Morrissey concert album. Like many of the best things in life, Morrissey operates in that strange place between the serious and the ridiculous, where criticism is irrelevant and laughter is as appropriate a reaction as applause.

However, calling an album Beethoven was Deaf is a fine demonstration of his unique and razor-sharp aesthetic. It’s almost the perfect album title. So much is in that short sentence; it could be a full and argument-stopping answer to all sorts of questions about human wonder and tragedy.

Another fellow with a unique sensibility is James Lileks. If you don’t read at least some of his Bleat now and again, you’re missing out. He is far too prolific, mind. Impossible to read everything he writes and he gives as much prominence to his eccentric retro-obsessions as to his masterful, insight-clogged writing. Spend five minutes perusing his output however, and I guarantee you will find a good handful of gems.

For example, here he is writing about aliens and the possibility of them visiting Planet Earth:

Life elsewhere is one issue; life that gets off the rock and goes elsewhere is another. One of the snarky objections that annoys me: Why would they care about us? Lowly smelly violent apes. I don’t know. Maybe they never knew they had the capacity to appreciate beauty until they got out of their neighborhood, and once they saw what other rocks were up to, well, they were changed. Earth would be crack to these guys. Music. So much music, pouring out of this green globe without effort. They couldn’t stay away.

There’s not an argument against it that doesn’t sound like hubris; there’s not an argument for it that doesn’t sound like wishful thinking.

How good is that?

For every day when all seems to be discordant clashings and dirgeful gloom, there are ten more days of so much music, pouring out of this green globe without effort.

Why would aliens not want to visit? Why would anyone want to get off before their stop? It is inexplicable; the imagination draws a blank. This is, after all, the planet where Beethoven was deaf, where Puccini gave us O Mio Babbino Caro and Dylan went electric. OK, there's also tinnitus and James Blunt. But, never forget, this is where Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King. It's got to be worth sticking around.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Superman wept

Well, how bad is this financial crisis? Should we be merely worried and fretful, or actively praying and soiling ourselves? So far we’ve lost Woolworths, though I can’t really see that that is evidence one way or the other. Woolies was surely a dead shop walking. The merest puff of recessional wind should have been enough to knock Woolies down, never mind the hurricane that’s supposed to be hitting us. Perhaps it only becomes a crisis when your personal pay cheque fails to arrive. Anyway, the media has worn me down and won; it has finally disturbed my equilibrium.

There is a state between wakefulness and sleepfulness. You might call it ‘dozing’, though I prefer Mrs Brit’s description of it as ‘when your thoughts turn silly’. This is the ideal place for the 20 minute afternoon nap (any shallower and there’s no benefit; any deeper and you wake up feeling rotten), and it was in this postprandial condition on Sunday that a strange and terrible vision came to me…

…The world’s leaders, in despair at the impending financial doom, have called upon Superman to save the day. So Superman duly arrives, swooping into the international summit with his usual aplomb. They sit him in front of a huge computer and say “Help us out of this one, please.”

So Superman considers, looks pensive, and addresses the keyboard. And what, exactly, can Superman do about the worldwide implications of the Credit Crunch? The answer is… absolutely nothing. He is useless. Sure, give him a collapsing bridge to support, or a malfunctioning plane to carry safely back to earth, and he’s in his element. But untangling the gargantuan woolball of global finance is another matter entirely.

And the full extent of his impotence begins to dawn on Superman as he taps away hopelessly – though very rapidly –at the keyboard. He mentally runs through his inventory of powers: lifting very heavy objects, flying very fast, the red zappy eye thing. All quite useless. He is a dumb, physical brute, a meathead, good only for chunks of manual labour.

Worse than that, Superman suddenly realises just what an appalling abdication of responsibility his career thus far has been: hanging around Metropolis - a city which already has perfectly adequate emergency services - rescuing Lois Lane over and over from her stupid self-inflicted perils just because he fancies her, while across the globe, disease, drought, war and famine lay waste to millions. The amassed, interwoven miseries of Planet Earth, home of the wretched human being, are much too vast for a Superman. We leave him, head buried in the crook of his muscle-pumped arm, weeping hot acidic Super-tears.

Meanwhile back in England, the FA, desperate to win some cheap national pride, have drafted their number one hero into the football team in a bid to win the 2010 World Cup. They’re playing James Bond 007 up front, tucked into the ‘Sheringham role’ just behind Emile Heskey. How can we lose? Bond never fails. But come the first friendly against Spain at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Seville, disaster strikes. Bond, after running furiously around for 10 minutes, showing no semblance of positional awareness, is red-carded for killing centre-back Carlos Puyol with an expert karate chop to the solar plexus.

At half-time the epistemological philosopher and former Aston Villa midfielder Andy Townsend sums things up on ITV.

“Heroes are only heroes in context,” he explains. “At the end of the day, these fictional supermen operate in a closed environment: we only give them defined problems that we know they can solve, however difficult, and then they move on to the next episode. That’s why there are no superheroes in real life. The world is too complex, problems are part of bigger problems and the solutions only make more problems. That’s why it was never going to work bringing Bond in as an out-and-out striker. If anything, play Gerrard up top alongside Rooney and try 007 on the left.”

“And he’s definitely deserved the red card there, you can’t raise your hands in the modern game, especially in Europe,” adds Robbie Earle, ex-Wimbledon player and leading Spinoza scholar. “The manager will be disappointed with that. Unknown unknowns don’t exist in fiction, but in real life they’re all we’ve got.”

And then I woke up. Or rather – because I wasn’t fully asleep – my thoughts became less silly and I went to make a cup of tea.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Last Laugh

Well, we must carry on, if not quite as before.

2009 is closing in, or opening up, depending on your disposition. At least half the time, I’m an optimist. And happiness can be as profound as sadness and they’re often the same thing. Mrs Brit, who is diminutive in stature and four months pregnant, has developed a waddle.

Thick, sticky snows coat Bristol’s streets and make driving unsafe. Apparently the country is all out of salt as well as money. My office sits at the top of a hill in rural farmland on the border of South Gloucestershire and North Somerset. It is accessible only by a steep, wending and narrow country lane, which means that today it is inaccessible. Most of us made it in yesterday – just about – and we had a terrific snowball fight at lunchtime. Revealing things, snowball fights. Very political, who throws at whom? People are wary at first, but I find that they’re usually grateful if you chuck a good fistful of freezing water in their faces; they melt. It becomes a very cathartic and unifying experience, like a good blog argument.

Duck said that Roxy Music’s More Than This was one of his favourite songs. It is a bit of an atheist's hymn, hovering on the verge of the Maudlin but staying the right side of it. For some reason it’s even more beautiful when Bill Murray sings it really badly.

Duck also liked his poems to rhyme – he was pretty firm on that point. I was flicking through the collected Betjeman when this little one, quite unexpectedly, choked me up.

The Last Laugh

I made hay while the sun shone.
My work sold.
Now, if the harvest is over
And the world cold,
Give me the bonus of laughter
As I lose hold.

We won't be having snowball fights at the office today – it’s positively Siberian out there so we’re hiding indoors and pretending to 'work from home'. No such luck for Mrs Brit, who works in the centre of town. She has waddled bravely in.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

For Duck

Robert Duquette, aka Duck of The Daily Duck, died on Saturday.

There is no prescribed protocol for such situations in this strange world of pseudonyms and comment threads. But I knew Robert through blog posts, so I will remember him in a blog post.

In truth, Robert Duquette and Andrew Nixon knew each other only obliquely. Duck and Brit, however, knew each other very well, in their world. They bonded over interminable arguments about religion, evolution, morality and, occasionally, more light-hearted matters such as what constitutes a proper sport, and the degree to which each other’s musical tastes were ‘maudlin’.

The Daily Duck was the cornerstone of the ‘post-Judd Alliance’ and, for a few years in particular, when there were four of us posting regularly, it was an absolute riot – providing the ideal, uncensored outlet for a motley bunch of amateur intellectuals to engage in ferocious debate, ribbing, one-upmanship and all the other things that prolix but intellectually-frustrated men love to get up to in their spare time. The infamous limerick war was particularly memorable.

Inevitably, things eventually ran out of steam somewhat, some of my views began to diverge from his and I left the Daily Duck over the kind of trivial point of principle that seems important at the time.

I am sure that most of us have oscillated between two utterly opposed views of blogging. On a good day, it seems to be one of the best parts of life. At other times it seems absurd – to spend so many hours and to invest so much brainpower in argument with a pseudonym and an arrangement of pixels.

But humans are humans, and even in an anonymous argument about evolution, our humanity can’t help but finally peek through. That’s when pixel rivals begin turning into something resembling real friends. As well as combative, Duck was generous, warm and funny. We all argued a great deal about morality, but nobody could doubt that Robert was a profoundly moral person, who thought deeply and seriously about what it meant to be good.

When emailing, Robert and I used our real names to correspond. I don’t know why this is, the rules are obscure. He frequently talked about coming to England to visit; I promised to take him to a cricket match and explain the even more obscure rules of that game. In the end I never met Robert in the flesh, and now I never will.

But the archives are still there. Robert’s sister has told me that she finds comfort in being able to read his posts and comments now that he’s gone. There must be thousands and thousands of his words floating around in this little corner of the blogosphere. In a certain, small way, Duck is immortal.

Robert designed my little Brit picture. He still owes me a case of beer for a poem he asked me to write about the frustrations of DIY.

RIP Robert. We won’t forget you. In a way, some of us will always be ‘Duckians’.

Monday, February 02, 2009

An incident in a public shower

OK, I think I’ve just about recovered from the death of Bearders. Man, that was a Black Swan and no mistake.

Over on Thought Experiments Susan B told us off and heaped on our heads terrible platitudes (Geoffrey Hill would not have approved):

“Everyone dies, everyone. Why this sense of shock? We are all going into that great goodnight and the only lesson to take from it is that you need to enjoy your life NOW” she proclaimed, eyes a-rolling and fingers no doubt a-wagging.

Talk about missing the point. Of course, from the perspective of the projected life-story of Bill Frindall, that it would at some time or another end in his death was highly predictable.

But for us ordinary citizens, going about our business and just trying to make it through January, the sudden bombshell that we now live in a Bearders-free world was a devastating and unexpected blow. It's the punches you don't see coming that knock you out. Unknown unknowns: they’re all the rage, they're everywhere. Rumsfeld was right all along. Who, for example, would have thought that “Now For Change” would end up being the slogan of the Conservative Party?

It’s been a strange old January. Take the other week. An incident occurred to me in a public shower which could have been very embarrassing.

In the event I resolved not to let it embarrass me and survived it by being in a determined mood – that is, ‘determined’ in the philosophical sense of causal determinism, not in the everyday sense of having one’s mind set on something.

It happened at the gym. Naturally, after spending empty energy on meaningless exercise, I like to take a shower. But when I got to the changing room I found an awkward queue of cross-looking betowelled men and a sign indicating that: (1) only one of the showers was functional; and (2) an alternative was available in the form of the poolside disabled facilities.

So rather than add my person to the awkward queue, I dripsweatily gathered my belongings and headed out to the front desk. Here the receptionist explained that the poolside disabled facilities were also out of action, but that if I went back into the gym I could use the disabled toilet/shower there.

Back I moistly plodded, knocked a warning on the disabled toilet door, turned the handle and went in. Well, this is a stroke of luck, I thought. A big, roomy cubicle, blistering hot water and all to myself. Off went the kit, on went the shower and soon I was working up a good lather and singing away lustily; I believe it was a medley of Jam songs (Strange Town, Town Called Malice, The Bitterest Pill) followed by a daring encore of Bowie’s Starman.

I’d just got to the second verse (I had to phone someone so I picked on you hoo hoo, Hey that’s far out, so you heard him too hoo hoo) when the steamy air was ripped by an intolerably loud and shrill siren-sound. I leapt from the scalding wall of water and grabbed my towel. Outside, the pounding feet of panicked fitness staff, then bangs on the locked door. I opened it a crack to face a gaggle of them looking back at me, all flustered and accusatory.

Out of the confusion it emerged that the fire alarm in the disabled shower was highly sensitive to steam (brilliant design that, really well thought-out) and that my lengthy ablutions had triggered it. Not only that, but the whole fitness centre was rapidly emptying and none of the staff present knew how to switch the alarm off.

“I see,” I said. “Well you could have warned me.” And with that I closed and locked the door, calmly dried and dressed, then walked out and into the car park, looking neither left nor right. I felt like Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men when he stalks nonchalantly through the chaos of the pharmacy, having ignited the decoy carbomb.

As I drove away the alarm was still shrieking at a hideous volume, the staff were still running around aimlessly and people were still evacuating in rage or amusement as their character determined.

I chuckled like a naughty schoolboy who’s just got away with the big one. Maybe Susan was right: the only lesson to take from it is that you need to enjoy your life NOW.

In platitudo veritas.