Tuesday 28 February 2012

Never dissect gossamer

Having discussed this topic yesterday on Twitter, I know it to be a divisive one, but this is my blog so I am in charge and am going to argue it regardless. Psychoanalysis of cultural whatsits. I don't like it. I'm OK as long as people are just studying the thing - the film or book or album or picture or whatever - but there seems to be this irresistible temptation to use your assessment of that work as a jumping-off point to try and make great statements about the being and mindset of the person who made it. I reserve particular bile for people who write record reviews and take the lyrics line by line, trying to shoehorn them in to the overarching plot of the personal and private lives of the songwriter in question, which are already festooned around the news and glossy magazines.

Frankly, I don't care. What I care about is the thing. I believe it is damaging, in fact, to know too much about how anything was made. A song, for instance, could mean something different to anyone who hears it, but once the story of its inspiration becomes known then the risk is that only that particular reading of it becomes possible. So I try and avoid finding out about what motivated an artist, a writer, a singer or a film director wherever I can. What matters to me is the end product, not the process. We all know that it is the grit that irritates the oyster that produces the pearl, but at the end of the day you don't try and make a big splash at social functions by wearing a grit necklace.

I raise this point because one, it KEEPS ME AWAKE AT NIGHT WITH TEETH-GNARLING FURY, but that also two, it has given me a way in to discuss a film that I've been wanting to write about all through my Flim 2012 series but haven't yet worked out a way to do it.

As I said, I generally try and avoid finding out about the creative process. I am more interested in the creation itself. During the discussion of this I had on Twitter yesterday, my friend Lolly - who regular Dotfans may well remember from her guest posts last year on this actual site - asked me, "so unless whoever made the thing you are looking at is there to tell you about it, you think "nice" or "not nice" and move on?". Without wishing to explode all of your ideas about me as a great culture vulture, that is in fact a pretty accurate summary of my feelings on the matter, yes. Come the time that I do find out about how something came together, I generally try to not let it effect my view of the finished object, and instead merely serve as a little companion to it.

It usually works, thanks in no small part to my mule-headed stubbornness and relentless lack of imagination. However, there is one very notable exception to this, and it still hurts me every single bloody day. JFK.

JFK is pretty much a film which could have been designed entirely for me. Based on real historical events, pregnant with drama and filled with conspiracy. It's everything I could ever have possibly wanted! Time was when I used to be able to watch it at any time of the day or night and always be guaranteed to get something good out of it. However, films like this live and die on historical accuracy, and there was an incident.

In 2003, for the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, there were a series of documentaries about the subject. One of them set out to reclaim the facts of the case from the JFK juggernaut. It began a fairly galling but nevertheless necessary transformation in me from JFK conspiracy nut to reasonable young man. With the help of that film and the interworldwidewebnet I discovered that JFK had fired an amalgamated porridge of 30 years of all available conspiratorial thinking - a hodgepodge of the plausible, the unlikely and the completely insane - through a prism of film drama, rather than being a hand-on-heart piece of accuracy and a call for justice. If only William of Ockham had been the director of JFK then none of this would have happened. For those of you less familiar with the case than me, essentially what I am saying is: that no matter how tempting and shocking and glamorous it is to believe that the Cuban Mafia shot JFK from the grassy knoll whilst disguised as Marilyn Monroe, the reality of the situation is that it just didn't go down that way.

The film itself remains the same. It is a terrific film, too. But I just can't feel the same way about it any more. A little bit of knowledge has shunted it into the fantasy genre, with all the rest of the wizards and warlocks and people with all-over body hair. In November next year, of course, it will be the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Maybe the time will be right then for a new paradigm-exploding documentary which will prove that JFK was gospel truth after all. But sadly, it will by now need to do a lot of convincing me.

The old truism that it is better to print the myth may have been the death knell for print journalism, but generally it has served cinema so well. Except, it seems, in this case which is such a shame. I understand why Oliver Stone did it the way he did, and there is no denying that the story he tells is a magnificent one. But it aims so much higher than that and nowadays I always feel a little let down.

My own film: Lee Harvey Oswald: Portrait of a Nutter, opens on 29th June this year.

Sunday 26 February 2012

The America Project - Missouri

Missouri (MO) size 69,704 sq.m population 6 million

Bordering states Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee (8)
State capital Jefferson City
Most populous city Kansas City
Other notable places St. Louis, Springfield, Joplin, Cape Giradeau, Columbia
Notable landmarks and natural features Gateway Arch, St. Louis; Goldenrod Showboat, Kampsville; Liberty Memorial, Kansas City
Statehood 10th August 1821 (24th)

Ten famous Missourians
Robert Altman (film director; born Kansas City, 1925-2006)
Maya Angelou (poet and writer; born St. Louis, 1928 -)
Burt Bacharach (composer and songwriter; born Kansas City, 1928 -)
Scott Bakula (actor; born St. Louis, 1954 -)
Chuck Berry (musician; born St. Louis, 1926 -)
Martha Jane Burke (aka Calamity Jane) (frontierswoman; born Princeton, 1852-1903)
Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) (writer and humourist; born Florida, 1835-1910)
Walter Kronkite (journalist and television presenter; born St. Joseph, 1916-2009)
Harry S. Truman (politician, 33rd President of the USA; born Lamar, 1884-1972)
Dick Van Dyke (actor; born West Plains, 1925 -)

Three important events

1. 1838 Mormon War (6th August  - 1st November 1838)
Religion can complicate matters. So when the Church of the Latter Day Saints was formed by Joseph Smith Jr. in 1830 and he announced that, after the impending Second Coming of Christ, the new Zion would be located near Independence, MO, there was bound to be trouble. Members of the Mormon church, believing it was their divinely-ordained destiny to inherit that area of land, became increasingly difficult to reason with - particularly if you happened to be one of that place's current inhabitants. Tensions rose, with Mormons moving into the area and being chased out by anti-Mormon groups, until a blanket expulsion of Mormons was ordered by the governor of Jackson in 1833. Oddly, this served to only inflame things further. Come State Legislature election day in August 1838, several candidates stood on an anti-Mormon footing and mobs were formed to prevent members of the church from voting. Scuffles soon escalated to an arduous 3 month cycle of pitched battles and massacres, until the State managed to regain control and the Mormon church agreed to vacate the disputed lands. 22 people - 21 of them members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints - were killed.

2. Hyatt Regency Walkway collapse (17th July 1981)
During the building of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency there had been some significant structural failures, but this did not dissuade anyone, least not the 1600 people who packed into the atrium to compete in and watch a tea dance contest in July 1981. With dozens of people stood on the suspended walkways, at about 7 p.m. the fourth floor walkway collapsed down onto the second floor, which then itself crashed into the lobby. 111 people were killed instantly and a further 216 hurt, three of whom later succumbed to their injuries. It was the single most catastrophic structural failure in terms of loss of life in the history of the United States up to that time.

3. 2011 Joplin tornado (22nd May 2011)
Missouri is in the United States' tornado alley, but the storm which hit on 22nd May 2011 was particularly savage. Rating at 5 (the highest number) on the Enhanced Fujita Scale (over 200 mph, peaking at between 225 and 250 mph), the twister had multiple vorteces and at its height the funnel of the tornado was a mile wide. It struck at 5:34 p.m. in Joplin itself before crossing Interstate 44 into Jasper County and Newton County, dissipating at 6:12 p.m. In that 38 minute period, it killed 160 people and caused $2.8 billion worth of damage. The storm claimed a further victim during the clean up, as a police officer was struck by lightning. It was the third tornado to hit Joplin since 1971, but by far the strongest - the 2011 Joplin Tornado is the single costliest in US history.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Immaculate levels of stress

Hello. I sort of don't want to be the kind of person who says LOOK AT ME, HERE I AM but at the same time I've been updating this blog with the kind of regularity that old-time Dotfans will have been barely able to believe and I suppose I just wanted to give people a heads-up that this may not be the case for a while.

Basically, there's a lot of stuff going on in my life at the moment. Some of it is nice things and the sort of stuff that if I were talking to you I would probably point upwards to indicate their positive aspect. Others are horrible things which are making me not want to bother looking when I cross the road and, if I were talking to you, I'd probably point downwards to indicate their negative aspect. Sadly, there's very little going on in the middle.

I like the middle. It's the nice squishy inoffensive bit which is classic Dotcountry. However, the world has currently decided that I am not allowed to occupy such hallowed ground and as such I am quite a knotted up and stressed little bunny at the moment. I lurch from happiness to unhappiness without much respite and I am therefore fairly desperate to cling onto anything which makes me feel nice and average. All unnecessary sources of stress need to be vanquished.

This is where we come to this blog. I've started to feel a bit like it owns me. Every day I wake up and think, "oh god, I need to put something on my blog" rather than enjoying it. Every day I look at the stats and wonder, "what can I do to get more hits tomorrow?" These are the two single worst reasons for doing a blog which is basically supposed to be fun for me and hopefully fun for you to read as well.

In days of old when I was bold (and a TOTAL self-sabotaging cretin), I would just delete the whole thing in a fit of madness. Luckily, I'm not the kind of man to make the same mistake four or five fucking times. However, I am going to try and only update for the forseeable future when I really want to, rather than trying to do it every day. So that's the reason why the pace is slowing down, and this is the post I will link you to when you tweet or email me to ask why I've not updated the site for 18 hours or suchlike. And as you read it I will probably be crying and thinking about blocking you.

Right? Good.

Monday 20 February 2012

I need older ears

If you are reading this, then you are probably alive now. And being alive now is a pretty desirable state of being really. Not only are you alive now, but you also are reaping the benefits of being around at the absolute most recent moment in creation, with all its myriad layers of technological, cultural and scientific progress.

However, it's not all such a good thing. New technology spoils the old and changes your way of life, for instance. Anyone can get by without smart phones or Sky Plus boxes, of course. You can do so indefinitely without ever even feeling like you're missing out. But should you ever have one, that's your lot. There's no going back. Technology has ruined you.

Culturally, too, we live on thin ice. However much you might enjoy a film or an album, nothing exists in isolation. As new things emerge, they make what was once revolutionary and brave appear to be commonplace, reducing the impact of the great and the good.

My friend Ed has a revolutionary theory of child rearing. Should the day come that he ever has a child, he says, he plans to raise them exactly how he was raised - just two channels on the TV (no commercial television allowed), terry nappies and a mangle instead of disposable, lard - the works. This, he argues, is the antidote to the kind of maniacs who bring up their children to have everything that they did not or could not have themselves. I like Ed's theory. I think it is far superior and simply bound to reduce the number of - in his words - ghastly, spoilt, children with their own Formula 1 racing unicorns and Maori face tattoos.

I think I would like to embrace it myself were I ever to father some sort of small version of me (god help everyone). But I would like to focus particularly on the cultural. I would, specifically, like to use it as an experiment. Because I have too-new ears. When I was born, the 1960s were already a decade in the past. Not for me listening to groundbreaking music and thinking "where the HELL has that come from?". When I first listened to something like Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example, my thoughts were, "what a good record. I like those songs". It's cultural importance and impact, all its revolution and innovation, ruined by decades of progress.

Damn you to hell, progress. You make everything worse, sometimes, kind of.

I would raise my child on a strict diet of music from the 1950s and early 1960s. Maybe even some dreary old toot from the 1940s too, why not. Then, I would slowly and at the same pace that things developed in the real turn of events, introduce things like Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. A few years on, The Beatles. I want to see their eyes light up and their brain neurons firing in all different directions agog at the new possibilities.

I know that The Beatles are not a lot of people's cup of tea. But I wonder if perhaps this is because their innovation has been undermined by every single imitation and technological advance since. They can't have the same impact any more.

This is not to say that they are not still important. I believe history will record that The Beatles are the only thing rock 'n' roll ever produced that genuinely changed the world, whether you like it or not, whether it was based on acceptance or reaction against. And luckily, I am still capable of imagination to try and listen to their records (I really am only interested in the records, that is their legacy) in some kind of context. I'm still able to have mindbending moments of clarity where I can envisage the kind of explosion from SPACE they must have been at the time. Luckier still, some of the records are even still a mile ahead of anything that has come along in the 45 years since.

Which brings me on to Revolver. Revolver is the album that frequently tops favourite album polls, not just of the Beatles catalogue, but of everything ever. I have always been unwilling to rate it as such, simply because I just can't accept the song Yellow Submarine (which has always annoyed me) being on the greatest thing ever made. However, on New Year's Day this year, walking to Hove through the human wreckage and the rain, I had something of a brainwave. A brainwave of such power that it's even made me think I should try, somehow, to learn to love the song Yellow Submarine.

Because the first four songs on Revolver are simply extraordinary, the most dazzling thing you could ever really consider from a pop group. A baffling array of funk, orchestral quartets, hazy folk and traditional Indian music. A magnificent collection of lyrical wit, verve, sadness, druggy psychedelia and mysticism. These things shouldn't work together but they do. It is bewildering and frighteningly magnificent. That's just the first four songs... there are 10 more (nine of which I like), culminating with John Lennon rewriting the entire rules of what was possible (and, potentially even expected) of popular music as an artform with Tomorrow Never Knows. Remember, too, that at the time they recorded this that the oldest member of the group was just 25 years old and that the studio technology just analogue four-track magnetic tape. It defies belief.

That it happened at all is wonderful, a spectacular series of fortunate happenstances. That I was born afterwards and therefore was able to hear it all is an extra stroke of good fortune. Mind you, it doesn't stop me wish that I had slightly older ears, mind you. Even if it were just for 35 minutes.

Sunday 19 February 2012

The America Project - Mississippi

Mississippi (MS) size 48,434 sq.m population 3 million

Bordering states Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama (4)
State capital and most populous city Jackson
Other notable places Gulfport, Biloxi, Tupelo, Greenville, Southaven, Hattiesburg, Meridian
Notable landmarks and natural features Mississippi River, Natchez National Park
Statehood 10th December 1817 (20th)

Ten famous Mississippians
Sam Cooke (singer and songwriter; born Clarksdale, 1931-1964)
Bo Diddley (musician; born McComb, 1928-2008)
Jim Henson (puppeteer and filmmaker; born Greenville, 1936-1990)
Medgar Evers (civil rights activist; born Decatur, 1925-1963)
Morgan Freeman (actor; born Memphis, Tennessee (grew up in Charleston), 1937 -)
James Earl Jones (actor; born Arkabutla, 1931 -)
Elvis Presley (singer, musician and actor; born Tupelo, 1935-1977)
Tennessee Williams (author; born Columbus, 1911-1983)
Oprah Winfrey (actress, producer and television host; born Kosciusko, 1954 -)
Howlin' Wolf (musician; born West Point, 1910-1976)

Three important events

1. Assassination of Medgar Evers (12th June 1963)
Medgar Evers was a civil rights leader, awakened to the cause after returning from active duty in the army during World War II. He was particularly occupied with his campaign for the desegregation of the University of Mississippi. By the time of his death he was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Mississippian secretary. On the night of 12th June, the same day that President Kennedy had delivered a televised address in favour of the civil rights movement, Evers was gunned down with an Enfield rifle after returning home from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Byron De La Beckwith (a member of the White Citizen's Council) was arrested for the murder, but not convicted of it until 1994, having lived as a free man for the three intervening decades, during which he'd also joined the Ku Klux Klan. Evers' assassination was commemorated in Bob Dylan's song Only A Pawn In Their Game and in Nina Simone's Mississippi Goddamn.

2. Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964)
Mississippi Freedom was a movement to try and get as many black Mississippians as possible to register to vote. Mississippi had the lowest number of registered black voters of any US State, at just 6.7%. The overall effect of the Freedom Summer was a positive one, although it did not run smoothly. The State remained deeply divided on racial issues, an overhang from the Confederacy and the Civil War and was a major base for the Ku Klux Klan. Over the course of the summer, 4 civil rights activists were murdered along with three more black supporters of the cause, in addition to church, house and business burnings, physical attacks and nearly 2000 arrests.

3. Hurricane Camille (17th August 1969)
The Category 5 Hurricane Camille was one of only three storms of that magnitude to make landfall in the United States in the 20th Century. It arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River on the night of 17th August, with winds gusting up to 190 miles per hour. Combined with heavy rainfall and widespread flooding, virtually everything along the coastal border of Mississippi was completely destroyed. 259 people died and the total cost of the hurricane's damage was $1.42 billion (modern equivalent: $8.51 billion).

Saturday 18 February 2012

Scrag ends

On Thursday (you must remember it, surely?) I wrote about portmanteau horror films and assembled my ultimate portmanteau film from my five favourite stories. Today, I get even more creative and tell you about my dream portmanteau horror film and everything that it would (will) contain. Don't think you are safe from me actually writing this, because you're probably not (you probably are).

FILM TITLE: Barn of Nightmares

FRAMING SEQUENCE: five people interested in buying a barn descend on the property at the time appointed by their barn agent. Whilst they're waiting for the barn agent to arrive, they tell each other about the dream they had last night.

STORY ONE: Very Safe Sex
A man who is down on his luck with women meets a mysterious hooded stranger in a pub. The stranger sells him an enchanted packet of three. The prophylactics make him irresistible to women. But when he puts on the first condom, it makes his willy fall off into the Thames where it is eaten by a cod who immediately becomes irresistible to women. Vengeful, he starts to chain-eat fish and chips, laughing maniacally, until one day he chokes to death on a condom in one of his battered cods. His corpse immediately becomes irresistible to women.

STORY TWO: Head in the Sand
A family's pet ostrich discovers a portal in time and space in the attic floor. When the ostrich puts its head into the hole, it finds itself in Revolutionary Paris, 1790. Guillotined on suspicion of being bourgeois, the headless ostrich destroys the family home and all the family members one by one, believing them to be Cardinal Richelieu.

STORY THREE: Laughter in the Basement
A woman who buys her first house in the countryside find the entire cast of an unsuccessful 1970s situation comedy continuing to live out their lives in character, complete with a studio audience, in her basement. Slowly she gets involved in the plotline, as the comedy slowly morphs into a gritty Scottish detective drama with horrific consequences.

STORY FOUR: Jackdaw the Ripper
A husband and wife inherit a fortune from a long-lost great uncle's will, on the condition they look after his pet jackdaw until it dies. A spate of gruesome murders in the village, however - coupled with family tree research revealing that the great uncle was one of the key police suspects in the Jack the Ripper case - make the couple believe that the jackdaw is responsible. They set out to stop him.

STORY FIVE: Fucking Awful Garage
A man opens his garage and it's full of zombies and werewolves and Draculas and all that.

TWIST ENDING: The barn wasn't actually for sale. When they look down, the agent has stolen all their trousers.


Friday 17 February 2012

Never underestimate the wolf shirt

For reasons of coldness and cheapness, I found myself in Primark in Brighton on Saturday, buying a pair of gloves with the structural integrity of a tramp's underwear. Still, they only cost a quid and now the cold snap seems to have ended, so I am currently smug.

Smug AND full of knowledge, as a trip to Primark can teach you a lot about fashion, particularly things which could well have been in fashion within the last decade or so. One item I saw, however, transcends the fleeting fads and trends of clothing fashions. It is simultaneously fashionable and not, having always been and never having been at the same time. It is the wolf shirt.

The wolf shirt gained some internet notoriety following a slew of joke favourable reviews on sites like Amazon and Wolfmaxx. These meme had it that the wolf shirt made the wearer sexually desirable to the point that you might well have to start carrying a stick with you at all times. However, in spite of that - or maybe, in the meta-meta-meta-├╝bercool 21st Century, because of it - wearing a wolf shirt remains a potent statement and a powerful look. Who's to say that the wearers are not, in fact, up to their gills in fuzz?

When considering jumping someone who is wearing a wolf shirt, I think one must first consider whether or not the wearer is doing so as a conscious gesture of wry self-aware appreciation or just out of a strongly held conviction that the wolf shirt makes them a love man. The former is just as likely to be a dreary hipster twit who works in the games industry and thinks that Margaret Thatcher ruined their life (although they were born in 1991) as the latter is likely to be a musky, wolf-obsessed weirdo with an old Norton motorbike on his living room table.

For the wolf shirt is, after all, just an item of clothing. The wearer will prove to be as unique a person as any - all with their own foibles, talents, hopes and dreams. The danger of making the (admittedly tempting) decision to hit on anyone wearing a wolf shirt should be clear for any rational person to see. Never judge a book by its wolf cover - even if it is a book about wolves - and never judge a person by their wolf shirt. Even if that wolf shirt is a mint green fleece worn by a female pensioner in Hove. Be careful what you wish for, because that wish could just come true. And turn up at your wedding on a Harley Davidson wearing a wolf shirt.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Odds and ends

I have touched on portmanteau horror films here before, so let me assure you that I am only doing it again due to my profound belief in and dedication to them and also because I never have any new ideas. Today's and tomorrow's posts about HORROR and WOLVES have also been partly inspired (i.e. nicked) from Megan's awesome love-in for The Wolf Man at the weekend. Read her blog. Do it!

Why does the portmanteau format lend itself so well to the horror film genre? Well, principally because, I think, there's only so much meat on any horrific bone. The best spooky tales are usually short, told around the campfire or as bedtime stories to a nephew you don't particularly like. One has to remember that the classic horror films - Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and their ilk - are usually little over an hour long, and even they are mostly censor-friendly drawing room discussions about morality and vol-au-vents.

A certain amount of that is necessary, of course: it establishes mood and an air of normality. Modern day horror films forget about that and just go straight to the horror. Horror, horror, horror, blood, spurt, murder, scream, horror horror horror. Keeping your actual scaries short and to the point has been forgotten by a lot of filmmakers recently. Forgotten, too, is that figurative or imagined horrors are actually far more effective than watching a man have his knees cut off with a Flymo.

The portmanteau horror is perfect in this regard. Often the segments are no more than 20 minutes duration, building towards a climax which is fundamentally more in the viewer's mind than on the screen. This has the double-barrelled benefit of leaving an imprint on the viewer's mind as well as pleasing the studio accountant. A bloke who used to be a baddie in a James Bond film being approached by two hairy hands. Fade to black.

This week I have been watching portmanteau horrors - mainly those of Amicus Productions, the fabulously schlocky British company run out of a shed by two American film writers and producers in the 1960s and 1970s, who specialised in the genre - until nothing I saw any more looked normal to me. I had to eat my dinner with a long handled spoon, lest the peas gained consciousness twixt plate and mouth. Then the idea struck me. I should do a blog post about my favourite portmanteau horror films!

This is a daft idea, as I should actually do that for Chop's Top Fives, which specialises in such things. So instead I decided to pick my five favourite segments and assemble what would be to my mind the ULTIMATE PORTMANTEAU HORROR FILM. Oh mamma.

This is already the ultimate portmanteau horror film, if I'm honest with you.

Story 1: ...and All Through The House (from Tales From The Crypt (1972))
Joan Collins, as a total bitch, thinks nothing of murdering her husband by running him through with a sword on Christmas Eve while their daughter sleeps upstairs. Gathering his magnificently orange blood in a sherry glass, she stages the thing to look like an accident whilst also admiring his life insurance policy and listening to Christmas carols on the radio. But! This programme was interrupted to reveal that a homicidal maniac had escaped from prison dressed as Father Christmas. Actually he looks like Frankenstein's monster after a night on the Stella dressed as Father Christmas. The inevitable ensues.

I find this one particularly effective as it plays right into several of my most enduring fears, namely escaped homicidal maniacs and also strangers appearing at the window at night. If you're not afraid of these two things, I think you are brainwrong.

Story 2: Creeping Vine (from Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964))
Alan "Fluff" Freeman's young family return from holiday to find a particularly aggressive (and sentient) vine has taken root in their garden. Having resisted all attempts to be dug up, it then emphasises its claims to the house by killing Fluff's pet dog and also a Ministry of Agriculture scientist sent to investigate. Eventually, the family find themselves trapped in their house, entombed entirely by the greenery.

I have picked this story not for its particular scariness or for its brilliance, but for its effect on my imagination. I first saw this film aged about 15, and I can honestly say I have not seen a bramble, a vine or a piece of bindweed since without thinking about it. It makes me the most particular, ferocious and unrelenting gardener since Agent Orange.

Story 3: Wish You Were Here (from Tales From The Crypt (1972))
Another pick from my favourite portmanteau of them all. A wealthy, if ruthless, businessman loses everything including his life. Luckily his wife is on hand with an enchanted statue and three wishes, which she uses to particularly gormless effect.

This choice is a nod to the more traditional horror themes. Most portmanteau films feature at least one of the old horror film faithfuls - vampires, werewolves, zombies - but none of them feature in my list. However, this reworking of the old tale of the monkey's paw and its three wishes is a good replacement. I particularly love the scene where the man catches a glimpse of the grim reaper (riding a motorcycle) in his rear-view mirror.

Story 4: Drawn and Quartered (from The Vault of Horror (1973))
Tom Baker, well cast as a mad artist, finds that his art dealer, agent and a noted art critic (art critics festoon portmanteau horrors) have conspired to devalue his art so they might buy it cheap and then sell it dear whilst he is in Haiti. Haiti, people, Haiti. So, Tom tootles off to the nearest hut to "purchase some voodoo". Painting his own voodoo portraits, he then extracts his revenge on the wrongdoers back in London, with fairly scant regard for his propensity to paint self-portraits until it's rather too late.

This story has everything. Voodoo. Tom Baker saying the word "voodoo". Splendidly-OTT acting. Gory scenes - a man chopping his hands off with a paper-trimming guillotine being a particular highlight - and some more figurative scenes of horror left to the viewer's own imagination. Jackpot!


Story 5: Ventriloquist's Dummy (from Dead of Night (1945))
Michael Redgrave plays a particularly gifted ventriloquist with a perhaps rather-too-sentient dummy. That dummy is always getting him into scrapes. Not least when he ends up shooting and wounding a fellow ventriloquist and being sent to prison. When he gets a visit from an old friend (the kind with a wooden head), all kinds of psychological fun and games commence!

No portmanteau collection could be without this story, the most famous from the film that is the grandpappy of the entire genre. The acting is first rate and the story memorable enough that it's fair to say it's probably accountable for the majority of phobias of ventriloquist's dummies that have followed it.

* * *

(Special mention: Poetic Justice (from Tales from the Crypt (1972))
Peter Cushing plays a man who the local residents association think is bringing down the tone and value of the neighbourhood, so begin to oust him by a regiment whispering campaigns, bullying and psychological torture. Following his suicide, a year to the day, Zombie Cushing has his revenge.

This is perhaps the most powerful story in any portmanteau horror that I know of. So powerful, in fact, that I could never include it in my ultimate film compilation. Peter Cushing was the godfather of portmanteau horror stars, and his performance is magnificent. Magnificent to the point you're more likely to cry than scream. Especially once you remember that Cushing was reeling from his wife's death at the time the film was made and is playing a lonely widower. It tears your heart out. Which, given the turn of events later in the tale, is pretty ironic.)

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Valentine's Lion

Think yourself lucky you didn't receive this yesterday, for it is surely a portent of doom.

And yes, sorry ladies (and gentlemen), this does mean that I am off the market. You all had your chance with me, admit it.

Sunday 12 February 2012

The America Project - Minnesota

Minnesota (MN) size 86,943 sq.m population 5.3 million

Bordering states North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin (4)
State capital Saint Paul
Most populous city Minneapolis
Other notable places Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, Winona
Notable landmarks and natural features Eagle Mountain; Lake Superior; Fort Snelling, Hennepin County

Statehood 11th May 1858 (32nd)

Ten famous Minnesotans
BIll Berry (musician; born Duluth, 1958 -)
Ethan Coen (writer and film maker; born St. Louis Falls, 1957 -)
Joel Coen (writer and film maker; born St. Louis Falls, 1954 -)
Bob Dylan (musician, singer and artist; born Hibbing, 1941 -)
Terry Gilliam (cartoonist, animator and film maker; born Medicine Falls, 1940 -)
Tippi Hedren (actress; born New Ulm, 1930 -)
Walter Mondale (politician, 42nd Vice-President of the USA; born Ceylon, 1928 -)
Prince (musician; born Minneapolis, 1958 -)
Winona Ryder (actress; born Olmsted County, 1971 -)
Charles M. Schulz (cartoonist; born Minneapolis, 1922-2000)

Three important events

1. The Dred Scott Decision (1857)
Dred Scott and his wife were kept as slaves by John Emerson, a noted bastard, at Fort Snelling and kept there although it was in a county where slavery had been abolished. On Emerson's death in 1843, Scott was handed down to the next occupier as one of Emerson's possessions. Scott argued that as he had been kept in places which were free territory, he should now no longer be considered a slave. In 1857 the cuddly US Supreme Court considered the case eventually siding with the slave owners. The decision proved controversial and a talking point across the United States. Within years, the American Civil War had ignited.

2. The Dakota War (1862)
The Native Americans have always been well-served by the American government and hardly ever treated like shit at all, so when the Dakota argued that they would all die of starvation without government assistance, the politicians kindly awarded them a 10 mile strip of land to grow food and punch elk in the face on. With crop failures and financial problems, the Dakota were soon forced to sell the northern half of this land. With things getting desperate, four Dakotan men shot a family of white settlers while out hunting. Dakotan elders decided to push on, ramping up the attacks to try and drive the settlers out of their territory. A 6-week long conflict ensued, spreading across the State. 425 Native Americans were put on trial at the conclusion, with 303 sentenced to death. After appeals for clemency from Bishop Henry Whipple, all but 38 of the sentences were commuted to prison terms. On 26th December 1862, these 38 men were hanged in a mass execution at Mananko, which most likely put a crimp on their Christmas. Afterwards, many Dakota were rounded up and forced to live in prison camps, where over 300 died of disease.

3. 3M (1902)
In the 20th Century, Minnesota began to turn away from its traditional industries of milling, textiles and mining and into new forward-looking avenues. Many of America's first computer companies were based in the State, whilst Northwest (now Delta) Airlines was formed at Saint Paul in 1926. One of the more enduring and visible success stories was the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, founded at Two Harbors in 1902. Originally manufacturing sandpaper, the company soon spread out into plastics, resins, adhesives, tape and roofing materials. Now based at Maplewood, MN, 3M have become one of the world's largest manufacturing conglomerates, in 2010 posting a net profit of over $4 billion.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Woke up this morning, did a riot

Last summer I lamented that one of the saddest things about the 2011 riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester (and also in Tiverton, where someone threw a scone at a park ranger's Land Rover) is that there was almost no chance at all that we'd get any good pop music out of it. There's no future for our ears, to paraphrase Mr. J. Rotten.

I remembered this today as I was listening to a song inspired by a riot which took place over 40 years ago. But the song - and the riot - was a lot better than anything we have nowadays. So, feeling inspired and too tired to do a riot, I thought I would instead share five of my favourite popular songs inspired by social unrest with you. Any riots which begin as a result are entirely your own responsibility.

The Mothers of Invention - Trouble Every Day (Inspired by the Watts Riots, Los Angeles, 1965)
Frank Zappa wrote Trouble Every Day in Echo Park, LA during the Watts Riots. It's a song that has stood the test of time particularly well, largely I think because its focus on sensationalist news coverage makes it peculiarly modern in its outlook - as if Charlie Brooker sang the blues. Also touching on themes of racial politics, social inequality and injustice, it is one of the more eloquent songs about the confused chaos of 1960s America.

Had to be done
Sam and Dave - Soul Man (Inspired by the 12th Street Riot, Detroit, 1967)
Rioting was all the rage in America in the late 1960s, one of the most tumultuous decades in its history. Isaac Hayes and David Porter's song, whilst not dealing explicitly with themes of social unrest, is perhaps the most interesting in this list from a political standpoint. At the time, black militant groups were growing in size, power and influence. They were as mad as hell and not going to take it any more. Hayes and Porter themselves were both born and raised in Tennessee - also home of Stax Records - and had witnessed segregation first hand all through their lives. During TV coverage of the Detroit Riot of 1967, Hayes noticed that black people wanting their homes and businesses spared from being burnt or looted painted the word "soul" on the door as a gesture of solidarity. Soul Man, therefore, is a song about black solidarity and pride and honkies can all just get bent. Although they presumably didn't tell Steve Cropper this before he played guitar on the song, even getting a mention in the vocals. POP FACT: Isaac Hayes couldn't read or write music (he is perhaps the only Academy Award-winning composer not to be able to) so he would orchestrate all the horn and string parts in his songs by humming the required tune.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - House Burning Down (Inspired by widespread rioting in the USA following the assassination of Martin Luther King, 4th April 1968)
Along with Hayes and Porter and Sam and Dave, Jimi Hendrix is the only other black artist to appear in this list, perhaps surprising considering that four of the five riots that inspired these songs were race-related. However, it must be remembered that Jimi Hendrix was something of an Anglophile at this point - he'd just spend two years living in the UK and making it big in England before being exported back to the USA, just like The Muppet Show - so he could perhaps have been forgiven for being somewhat taken aback on his return home. Despite last summer's shenanigans, riots are a fairly un-British thing to do. This is a country where political leaders are not assassinated but instead have eggs thrown at them. House Burning Down is a song of shock and sadness at the state of affairs: "why do you have to burn your brother's house down?". It's a good question, let's be honest.

The Beach Boys - Student Demonstration Time (Inspired by the Kent State Massacre, Ohio, 4th May 1970)
Didn't have to be done, did it anyway
This is probably my favourite in the list, although not as a song. The Beach Boys are one of my all-time favourite bands but also they are possibly the least likely group ever to make a song about social strife. Indeed, Brian Wilson always hated it, saying it doesn't sound like a Beach Boys song. It doesn't really, but at the same time it couldn't be by anybody else. What can I say, the incongruity of it all delights me. The 1960s had taken a very serious toll on Brian Wilson's mental well-being, so all of the other members of the group were finally now able to stick their two-penn'orth in. Where Dennis and Carl Wilson's songs tended to be notably similar to their elder brother's, Al Jardine kept it folk and Bruce Johnstone specialised in whimsy, Mike Love tended to go LOUD. And what could be louder than The Beach Boys singing about the National Guard shooting four students for protesting about Vietnam, social injustice and anything else you've got? You know what students are like.

The Clash - White Riot (Inspired by the Notting Hill Carnival Riot, London, 30th August 1976)
Punk rock being a straightforward sort of music, this song is very straightforwardly about a riot. The word riot is even in the title, look. But as with many of Joe Strummer's songs, it's deceptively thoughtful and meditative. I always felt that The Clash's first album should have been banded with 5 minute gaps after each track, to serve as contemplation time. As Strummer later pointed out, this is a song about being involved in a riot that, as a white man, "wasn't our riot". The song touches on social unrest, injustice and racial inequality, all in one minute and 57 seconds and features (on the album version at least) a "1-2-3-4" introduction. This is my favourite one of the songs on this list. By miles. And I really like Trouble Every Day. A lot.

It made me want a riot of my own. In fact, I'm having one right now. In my pants.

Friday 10 February 2012

F is for fox

Today's alphabetical animal is F-F-Fox. In some animal alphabets the fox's letter x is exploited for highly dubious purposes. But not here! I am a very anal man.


If you would like to download a printable A4-sized version, you can find it here: CLICK

Thursday 9 February 2012

Justify your pathetic fears

I hate sequels too
Those of you concerned the about the inevitable failure of my manful attempt to be a man by facing my completely pathetic and improbable fear of The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town will be pleased to hear that on Tuesday evening I completed my Herculean task. Including the seventh part, which turned out to be the one which scared me so rather than the eighth.

I must really stress here that this isn't a joke. It scared me to a point where I was afraid to move and worried about what might be lurking in the shadows. But facing my fear was, I think, probably an ultimately positive thing to do. It's certainly better out in the open than being a dim and distant memory in the recesses of my brain. Mind you, unlike a lot of things, I really did remember it very clearly - the reality on the tape was pretty well exactly what I had stored in my brain. And no, it wasn't as scary the second time around. Maybe this is because I have a greater plane of life experiences to draw on now, or that I am now nearly 32 years old. Could be the last one. But that one doesn't stop me being scared of shop mannequins, so who knows.

But maybe it's because this is the first time I saw it in colour. My family are a bit like me - we're always the last to adopt anything. Modern day whippersnappers will probably never believe this in a million years, but we didn't get a colour TV until about 1988 or 1989, when I was 8 or 9 years old. And as I saw the offending episode of the Phantom Raspberry Blower at my nan and grandpa's house, well - I could have seen it as late as about 1996. I'm not sure my grandpa ever owned a colour TV set in his entire life, in fact.

Black and white is scarier than colour. For one thing, it leaves more to the imagination. For a second, it is other-worldly. We do not experience life in black and white, so seeing TV and films in black and white just ramps up the sense that something is different. And I fear different things. I fear phantom raspberry blowers, too. So it all adds up.

Luckily for you, I have made some visual aids to back up my point. Here are the two particular shots which were so emblazoned in my mind, more or less exactly how I remembered them. In the first, Inspector Corner of the Yard (wearing nothing but his underwear) has thrust a garden fork into the lid of a coffin that moved, causing what turns out to be crushed raspberries to ooze out:

figure 1: my terror
Just look at it. Someone tell me that the black and white image isn't scarier and more foreboding, and I will tell you that you are a big fat liar whose pants are, most likely, on fire. Which brings us on to the next one. The first full-frontal appearance of the Phantom himself. This one still haunts my nightmares and lurks in every dark place when I am alone. Brace yourselves.

figure 2: my crippling emotional pain
I actually can't look at it.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Beverly Hills Cop II: ultimate 1980s film

The simple fact of the matter is, Beverly Hills Cop II is the ultimate 1980s film. Its 1980s-ness grows more potent with every passing year. Once an accurate reflection of how we were all living back then on the streets of Toxteth and Brixton, now it has taken on a whole new role as an historical document to be studied by the decades to come. Those of us fortunate enough to remember Eddie Murphy in a purple rubber suit must, while we can, be the wise old sages to these coming generations.

You've probably been thinking for some time now that I'm an idiot and everything I think, write or say is demonstrably false, if not also downright ignorant. But I have to assure you that I am sure as sure can be about my rectitude with regards to this particular matter. I now present a comprehensive list of reasons why Beverly Hills Cop 2 is the ultimate 1980s film.

A Comprehensive List of Reasons Why Beverly Hills Cop 2 is the Ultimate 1980s Film

1. The soundtrack
Axel F! Harald Faltermeyer! Powerful, glossy, upbeat synthpop ballads!

2. It's a sequel
What could be more 1980s than a sequel? Its fundamental concern is not art, or to tell a story, but to cash in.

3. Eddie Murphy is in it
4. So is Paul Reiser
5. So is Brigitte Nielsen
6. So is Gilbert Gottfried

7. Casual swearing
As late as the 1970s, swearing was still something of a big deal in the cinema. By the 1980s, everyone was saying fuck and cunt and fuckwind and cuntwubbler, even in family films.

The Tall Blonde Ladykillers

8. Ostentatious wealth
Even in Detroit, people are living high on the hog and wearing mink stoles

9. People being moved to traffic duty
What is the worst job in the world? Well, of course, it's traffic duty. In the 1980s, people realised that and being moved to traffic duty became the go-to punishment for any infraction at work. Even for people who don't work for the police.

10. Two-colour Gridiron team jackets worn with jeans

11. Stupid intransigent white police chief playing politics
12. Furious, hypertensive, foul-mouthed black police chief
These are the two main type of authority figures that existed in the 1980s, and they are both on display here. Margaret Thatcher was of the latter type, for reference.

13. Casual jokey references to advertising slogans of the time
14 Spirited product placement
Because money talks and bullshit walks.

15. The movie poster
Look at it! It is ideal as a VHS cover, or a film poster, or even a video game box. The 1980s was when people realised that multi-formatting is what made the Baby Jesus happy.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Face your pathetic fears

In which your hero watches The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town to exorcise 20 years' worth of demons and it doesn't go so well.

A sight simply bound to send me to the lavatory
As a child, there was one part of the week that I really didn't particularly care for, and it was the 8-odd minutes that we spent watching The Two Ronnies whilst their ongoing The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town (first broadcast in 1976) was on. I was terrified of it. Literally rigid with fear. To this day, even seeing little clips of it gives me the shivers. I think that it is genuinely evil.

I'm nothing if not a contrary old bird, though, and I have to admit that a lot of the visual style and themes of The Phantom Raspberry Blower have led me to a lifelong love of studying the Jack the Ripper case and other dark history, as well as a broader love of historical documentaries. I think that it is genuinely true to say that without spending an hour of my life in a state of cataplexy watching the Phantom, I would not be so interested in them.

Watching and reading about Jack the Ripper scares me, too. Which is daft, since as a 31-year old male artist living in 2012 by the coast in West Sussex, I am significantly outside his target group of female prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888. Dafter still: Jack the Ripper scares me because it reminds me of The Phantom Raspberry Blower.

On Twitter today, my friend posted a link to a full playlist of the 8 episodes which made up the near future science-fiction strand The Worm That Turned, also from a later series of The Two Ronnies, on YouTube. This, in something of a running theme, also scared me as a child. But it reminded me of the Phantom, and knowing that he too would be lurking on YouTube somewhere that it could be a good time to face my fears.

Like The Worm That Turned, The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town was made up of eight episodes of about 8 minutes duration. It was written by Spike Milligan, as some indication as to the level of lunacy that was the target of the series, rather than a gritty psychological terror. So yesterday evening I did some Googling and then watched it.

Well, almost all of it. I watched the first 6 episodes - which I think have stood the test of time reasonably well, aside from some grindingly cheap casually racist and anti-Semitic jokes, which I increasingly find festoon much of Milligan's work - but then I went to the kitchen to get a drink. Seeing that dark corridor to my right brought it all back. I was a petrified child again. I could feel my heart beating in my ears.

Me, yesterday
I had sort of hoped that this blog post would end in my personal redemption and I would rise like a moronic phoenix from the ashes of my own gormlessness. Predictably, however, it ended in me hiding in a well-lit room, too scared to go back outside of it. I may yet try and watch the remaining 20 minutes of the series and achieve some sort of closure (or some sort of seisure). But seeing as I seem to recall the final part of it terrified me to the point that I had screaming nightmares for the rest of the week, I don't hold out much hope.

Honestly, BBC... you were still making new episodes of The Two Ronnies until 1987. What on earth were you doing, repeating stuff from 1976 in the late 1980s? So in a way it's your fault.

Monday 6 February 2012

On why I hate humanity (today, at least)

The most dispiriting thing about the news that the Archbishop of York has received racist emails following his comments about gay marriage is that you could have seen it coming a mile off. Presumably, a lot of these emails come from homosexuals, but it's reasonable to assume that a proportion of them would just come from people who are pro-equality. Pro-equality racists. It's a brave new world.

Racism is creeping back into British life and it disgusts me. British culture is a big melting pot of a thing which should be celebrated. In many (I wish I could say most, but I'm really not sure any more) quarters it is. It seems to me that some people have reached their tolerance with tolerance. Something had to give. Can fucking pricks only tolerate a finite number of potentially divisive issues before they have to sacrifice one? "Margaret, a family of gay black Muslims moved in next door and now all of a sudden I'm pro-fox hunting again, fetch the hounds".

The ideal person to ask, ironically, could be John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. He is one of the nation's leading fucking pricks. Well, no, that is unfair. He is an intelligent and learned man. You can't rise to such a position of authority without a great deal of intelligence, academic and otherwise. So, the Archbishop of York is not a fucking prick. He merely says the exact same things that a fucking prick might, hence the possibility for confusion.

Archbishop Sentamu continually irks me with his statements and opinions. Some of the things he says make me want to stick knitting needles in my ears and just be done with it. But the fact there are some knuckle-draggers out there just waiting for him to give them a pretext (by, let's say, saying something fucking prickish) to complain about the thing they find intolerable about him makes me angry beyond anger: angry sad. Resigned angry sad. Sangry.

So, here I am. A sangry man. God's sangry man. Pricks to the left. Racist pricks to the right. Sangry in the middle. Sangmund.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Full online integration

It would be rather remiss of me to not point you in the direction of my sidebar, so that you might have a look at my links. I am often adding new ones, but even the old faithfuls are there for a very good reason. The one I am particularly keen for you to try out this week: Versus Sexboat, the venerable home of the podcast that I make in varying states of consciousness with 5olly and Betsy.

Today saw the excitement of the release of our second podcast, and it's even better than the first! If you can even imagine such a thing being possible.

Also this week, why not give Megan Belcher a visit, and have a look at her new series about great movie monsters? This is a rhetorical question, as I am sure you will all do this.

The America Project - Michigan

Michigan (MI) size 97,990 sq.m population 9.9 million

Bordering states Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin (3)
State capital Lansing
Most populous city Detroit
Other notable places Grand Rapids, Warren, Ann Arbor, Flint
Notable landmarks and natural features Porcupine Mountains; Sleeping Bear Dunes; Lake Michigan; Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, Detroit; General Motors Building, Detroit, Hitsville USA, Detroit

Statehood 26th January 1837 (26th)

Ten famous Michiganders
William Boeing (aviation pioneer and businessman; born Detroit, 1881-1956)
Francis Ford Coppola (film director; born Detroit, 1939 -)
Hawley Harvey Crippen (convicted murderer; born Coldwater, 1862-1910)
Leon Czolgosz (Presidential assassin; born Detroit, 1873-1901)
Henry Ford (industrialist; born Dearborn, 1863-1947)
Berry Gordy (record producer and businessman; born Detroit, 1929 -)
Charles Lindbergh (aviator; born Detroit, 1902-1974)
Madonna (singer and actress; born Bay City, 1958 -)
Mitt Romney (businessman and politician; born Detroit, 1947 -)
Stevie Wonder (musician; born Saginaw, 1950 -)

Three important events

1. Model T Ford (August 12th 1908)
The American automotive industry is almost exclusively based around Detroit. In 1903, Olds and Ford both opened factories in the city soon followed by General Motors, whilst Chrysler are based in Auburn Hills. The early leader was Ford, established by Henry Ford, a revolutionary industrialist and peculiarly unsavoury man. Ford did not invent mass production on factory lines, but it's arguable to say that he was one of the people who perfected the system. The thing that set Ford apart in the early years of motoring was 1908's pioneering "car for the great multitude", the Model T. So advanced were the mass production techniques - at their peak a single Model T could be assembled from scratch in just 93 minutes and total daily production approached 10,000 cars - that it was not until 1972 when the Volkwagen Beetle overtook the Model T for the title of the most produced car in history, a full 44 years after Model T production had ceased. The car was cheap, too: in the 1910s, an assembly line worker could buy a car with four month's pay, but by the 1920s the price had dropped to just $290 (equivalent to $3,300 today). As such, the car became ubiquitous across the globe.

2. Motown (April 14th 1960)
Motown records, another form of production line altogether, was formed by Berry Gordy in 1960. Best known for its soul, funk and rhythm and blues records, smash hit after smash hit was produced from its Hitsville USA building on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard. Recording and creation took place round the clock, with the impetus coming from Gordy as well as some of the top writers of the time: Holland-Dozier-Holland, William "Smokey" Robinson and, in time, Marvin Gaye and the precocious Stevie Wonder. By the time the company left for Los Angeles in 1972, they had produced 110 top 10 hits, as black music made the leap into the American mainstream pop charts with acts like Diana Ross and The Supremes, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, Mary Wells and Gladys Knight and The Pips.

3. 12th Street Riot (July 23-27 1967)
The 12th Street Riot erupted on 12th Street, Detroit on July 23rd 1967 after a police raid on an unlicenced after-hours drinking hole called The Blind Pig. The running battle between the police and the bar's owners and patrons - over 80 people celebrating the safe return of two locals from the Vietnam war - quickly spread in the tinderbox environment of late 1960s America, becoming a riot that lasted 8 days, claimed 43 lives and caused $25 million worth of damage. To this day it is the third-most destructive riot in the history of the United States. By the second day, Governor George Romney had called in the National Guard, on the third President Lyndon Johnson had sent in the army. By the time the riot subsided, in addition to the 43 dead were 467 injured, 7,231 arrested (the youngest aged just 4) and 2,509 stores and buildings destroyed by fire or looting. It was even worse than a Saturday night in Croydon.

Saturday 4 February 2012

I am five

I am in a celebratory mood this morning for a variety of reasons, and at least one of them I can share with you now: today I have been on Twitter for five years.

Five years! I am rather proud of this. It means, for one thing, that I signed up to Twitter within about six months of its launch, which is an act of completely unprecedented foresight on my part. Normally I only join anything long after its best years were behind it. Like a man marrying into the French royal family on 13th July 1789.

But what I am really proud of, in an uncharacteristically serious way, is how many new friends I have made because of it. I could have used it to try and hawk my wares. It's arguable that I should do that more often. But Twitter for me is a reminder of my growth as a person and an example of my positive investment in myself, even if that investment is just time spent rattling out aphoristic bursts of grumpy, nonsensical bobbins.

In five years time I hope I will be posting here to celebrate my big 10, by which point I will be damn near completely intolerable.

Friday 3 February 2012

Grocery acquisition and its role in class consciousness

I'm not sure where Margaret Thatcher did her food shop so that she could so confidently proclaim that we "(are) all middle class now", but I'm pretty sure I've not been there. Whether or not you subscribe to traditional theories of the British class system or feel that the modern world has led to an erosion or a convergance, it's hard to deny that social strata are still alive and well in supermarkets.

I'm not going to claim that people rigorously stick to their class in terms of supermarket, or that there is aspirational upward mobility - the majority of food shopping choice comes down to geographical convenience, economic circumstance and product range, after all - but there is still a very real sense of class lining our supermarket shelves.

Tesco and Asda. They're your working class shops. The food is cheap and cheerful. Nothing too peacocky (and certainly no frozen oven-ready peacocks) or anything with a flamboyant garnish that would end up with you getting nutted in the car park at The Rat and Trumpet later on. Offers on powerfully strong lager are plentiful and very generous, so as to keep the patrons in enough of a fug of drunkeness that they never achieve class consciousness. Clientele include careful pensioners, 15-year old mothers of two and children called Jayden and Candis who climb the shelves in the Kosher food aisle and throw Matzos at everyone, whilst shrieking like apes.

Morrisons and the Cooperative, that's your lower-middle class supermarket. They have low enough prices because you're probably saving up for a conservatory that will look out of place and probably won't ever be finished or the roof will leak. But it's also the sort of place where you feel a step up from Asda. Yes, you can still get 24 Stella for a tenspot, but you can also buy chorizo and mascarpone for definite.

Sainsbury's, there's your middle class supermarket. The biscuits come in boxes and are delicious but ironically the clientele are more likely to set your teeth on edge than those in Morrisons or the Co-op. The people who shop there have one eye on improving themselves and for the most part make their children behave or tie them up to a lamppost outside. In Sainsbury's people are largely happy with their lot. They (badly and staggeringly thoughtlessly) park their Lexus across two parent and child spots and then let little Tarquin and Poppy run around, pointing at the poor and eat grapes that haven't been paid for yet and NEVER WILL.

Waitrose is the upper-middle class supermarket. The food is excellent. You even know for sure that the fruit is going to be good, because they source it right. It's the sort of shop where you can get artisan cheese and venison and bulgar wheat as impulse buys by the checkouts. But the people in there are just the worst kind of hempy, superior, Margot Leadbetter titwitches. The majority of the women in there take a footstool to facilitate looking down their nose at you, and are likely to assume anyone not wearing a mink stole is on the staff. Their husbands, still virtually moribund from a solid decade of marijuana and acid in the 1960s and 70s, made their fortune by being Status Quo's road crew but now can barely speak and shuffle behind obediently. Even the people on the checkout think you're an escaped convict unless you've got a micro pig in your bag for life. They don't sell large sizes of anything because they wouldn't go with the Smeg fridge and no-one who has ever shopped there realises that a chicken even has wings. Upside: no-one who shops regularly in Waitrose has children, even the married couples. Some of whom may even have sold theirs.

Marks and Spencers is your upper class supermarket. You can't get proper brands, you have to get their own which, in true upper class style are more expensive and worse. Most of the fruit in there is pre-prepared so as to save the houseboy a job. But the clientele are nicer than the Waitrose lot, as are the clientele in any shop where the fact they would rather that you'd die is largely absent from their facial expressions.

There are other shops but I'm either too posh or too common to have been in them. The end.

Thursday 2 February 2012

E is for elephant

Get your trunky crackers round this one. E is for elephant. And, indeed, for excrement.


If you would like a downloadable A4-sized elephant (that's almost lifesize, let's face it), you may find one HERE.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Dangerous times in east London's Benelux magazine collecting community

Did you know that the first ever edition of Private Eye magazine is worth £1 million? It is also small, the size of a Mr. Men book. However, when money like that is involved, you know that magazine collecting Dutch gangsters won't be far behind.

My source of information was a former Belgian track athlete, whose family had emigrated from the Belgian Congo in the 1950s. He was in Whitechapel in hot pursuit of the magazine, which he was planning to acquire from the less financially-aware and then sell at auction. However, he was not that familiar with the mean streets of London's east end. This is where I come in.

Thanks to my intimate knowledge of the Jack the Ripper case, I was the ideal candidate. Especially seeing as I never do any bloody work and therefore wasn't busy. We tracked down the volume in a small shop (I am not sure where exactly, in reality I don't know London from the arse end of a donkey) but that was where our trouble started, as well-organised Dutch gangsters and magazine enthusiasts descended upon us on high-performance motorcycles. They knew exactly what they were looking for.

Fortunately, perhaps the last remaining broadsheet copy of The Independent was lying discarded on the pavement, principally because London is a filthy hole that needs cleaning (vote Ken Livingstone, folks). Concealing the valuable magazine within the newspaper I was able to saunter away unsuspected.

We crossed the river and went to my Belgian contact's riverside flat in Thamesmead. It was a strange issue of Private Eye. Although smaller format, it retained much of the modern day structure: political journalism followed by more satirical pieces. However, vast swathes of the back of the issue were dedicated to a multiple page Garfield comic strip adventure set at the Battle of Rourke's Drift. Luckily for me, my decisive action was rewarded by my Belgian partner, who agreed that without my quick thinking the magazine would have been lost to the Dutch - many of whom were trying to phone us to pinpoint our location - and agreed I should receive 75% of the proceeds from selling the magazine at auction.

The risk, of course, was that we would again have to head out onto the streets away from the safety of our hideout to get the sales process in motion. Good fortune struck again, however, and I woke up before I had to go through any of that. Although my pillow was gone.


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