Saturday, 30 November 2013

Empire of Austria-Hungary Advent Calendar

Mathematicians amongst you will probably now have finished your calculations and concluded that next year is 2014, a full one hundred years since 1914 and the beginning of The Great War. The Great War was something of a red letter day for my favourite of all the empires, Austria-Hungary. So much land, so much history, so much culture, so little coastline. Not for them, the weekly chore of chasing the seagulls off of the bins. Within just over four years of the commencement of hostilities in July 1914, this once great union had been shattered into its constituent parts and Franz Joseph had to get a job in McDonald's.

It's hard to be too sympathetic, mind you. Commiserating with the leadership of Austria-Hungary about the cataclysmic consequences of the Great War is akin to rushing to get a wet wipe for your next door neighbour who, upon finding that your cat had pooed on his finely-manicured lawn, attempted to throw it back over the hedge only to have it blow back into his eye. As strategic blunders go, it was a bit of a shocker.

But never mind, a century on and it's all still there. Better still, the vast majority of the peoples who would formerly have fallen under the aegis of the imperial system now find themselves living in smaller, thriving, modern democracies. It is arguable, therefore, that the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo all those years ago are somewhat heroic figures. The people who argue this are, of course, wrong-brained idiots. But I salute their freedom to argue it.

I also salute the Empire of Austria-Hungary. A great bunch of lads. In order to begin the remembrance of the hundredth anniversary of a monumental year in the history of humankind, I thought I would mark the build-up to Christmas with an AUSTRIA-HUNGARY ADVENT CALENDAR. You heard. Twenty-four notable people born in that imperial dynasty (1867-1918). Maybe you will learn something. Maybe it will just keep you together until the inevitable post-Christmas suicides begin. Either way, keep your eyes pointed in this blog's general direction for the next three and a half weeks. Literally a minute (total) of entertainment awaits!

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Scottish independence, a cryptozoological perspective

The Slightly-Less United Kingdom: the shape of things to come?

I've not given the Scottish independence debate an awful lot of thought, really. Beside my standard response to any prospective ripple of change disturbing my own little pond - which is fear and panic, of course - I've largely been of the viewpoint that in the case of any referendum taking place over 400 miles from where I live and in which I don't get a vote probably isn't really anything of my concern. Aside from a few procedural queries - what would happen to the Union Flag? Will I need a passport to get into Scotland? What now for shortbread? - I remain admirably placid.

Until today, that is, when I realised that the United Kingdom would be losing its only cryptid of note to another sovereign nation. This is a complete disaster and it needs to be addressed in parliament as soon as possible. The Nessie question.

Loch Ness: goodbye to all that

The Loch Ness Monster is possibly the most famous cryptozoological creature in the world. Only our hairier cousin (or less hairy cousin, if you come from Dorset) the Bigfoot can hope to rival it. It is by far and away the most important possibly-exigent creature in the UK today. A Union without Scotland would have to completely revise what it believed in.

Because, to put it simply, the Loch Ness Monster exists whereas all of the middling British cryptids that skulk in her shadow are probably don't. There is every chance, indeed, that they are in fact merely the fevered imaginings of people who are quite deeply unbalanced in some way. The question of what would give a Scotland-less Union its air of magical mystery is a difficult one to answer. Britain is an ancient land and it relies on its essential cryptid economy for its very survival. It is, perhaps, going to prove the final irony that it was only in killing the last remaining dragon that St. George was able to found the first English settlements.

Nessie: voting YES on Scottish independence

It is certainly an issue important enough to begin to address now, rather than waiting on the results of next year's vote. Britain's most senior post-Nessie cryptid must be decided ahead of time. There cannot be any sort of cryptozoological interregnum in this sceptred isle; that would be a breeding ground for panic, dissension and claimed sightings of all manner of three-headed goats. I don't for a moment claim to be clued-up enough to be able to predict the likely outcome of the Scottish independence referendum. All I do know is, it's not something that those of us to the south of Hadrian's Wall can afford to make assumptions about or adapt to on the hoof. Nessie herself is probably pretty much in the "pro" camp. A lot like Sean Connery, with the additional benefit that she actually lives in Scotland.

To this end, I have been dredging up all the peculiar beings that England, Wales and Northern Ireland have to offer, in order to find a potential replacement for Nessie should one become required from 2014 onwards. Here are the front-running candidates.

THE OWLMAN OF MAWNAN

Advantages: For a start, just look at the thing. The power of flight is also a significant bonus after a century of a rather more geographically-limited Top Cryptid. Also, the Owlman is a known sheep attacker, an always welcome Cryptozoological meme.

Disadvantages: The capacity for flight is a double-edged sword. Defections to Ireland or France remain a possibility, making the Owlman an unreliable choice. There's also the troublingly likely possibility that it's just a Cornish malcontent wearing feathery pyjamas, working through a series of highly ritualised but ultimately unsuccessful suicide attempts.

THE BEAST OF BODMIN

Advantages: In addition to a name which is guaranteed to capture the imagination, the Beast of Bodmin Moor is also much more fierce than the Loch Ness Monster ever was, and more proactive. Unless Nessie starts to pull sheep from the banks of the Loch, the beast offers a far more tantalising mortal threat.

Disadvantages: Let's not beat about the bush, it's probably just an escaped big cat. Or a nutter. Or nothing.

THE TUNBRIDGE WELLS BIGFOOT

Advantages: Unlike the Owlman and the Beast of Bodmin, who are both of a more bucolic disposition, the Kentish Apeman brings a frisson of cryptozoological terror into the more densely populated English home counties. With fewer sheep to bother, this Bigfoot will surely have to start preying on dogs, cats or teenagers with paper rounds, a welcome trope in the study of mythological creatures.

Disadvantages: Very badly lacking in any real caché, an English bigfoot would only add to the already swollen tales of hominids from throughout world folklore. The only potential for originality would be in naming the beast, so that it might be distinct from its hairy brethren the Saquatch, Yeti, Hibagon or Almasti. Also, knowing Kent it's probably just a hairy bloke.

GENAPRUGWIRION

Advantages: From Abersoch, this Welsh condender could possibly give off enough of an air of inclusiveness that would prevent another country buggering off because they hate English people.

Disadvantages: At just a foot long, a skulky brown insect-eating lizard is hardly likely to set any pulses racing. However, this could be the ideal cryptid for home pest control use during the hot summer months.

SHINY THE CAT

Advantages: Fierce, massive, violent, psychopathic and terrifying. Also, its definite existence and ease of location are both a serious boon, after a century of pilgrimage to Loch Ness.

Disadvantages: Perhaps a little too commonplace to really be outstanding, Shiny the cat's key excluding criteria is in fact the high probability that he will fuck you up. Nevertheless, a leading candidate.

SPRING-HEELED JACK

Now we're getting somewhere.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

My favourite photograph and the glacial creep of world evil

The other day the wife was looking at a thread on Reddit. She said, "have a look at these, it's a thread about people's favourite photographs".

Every single one was donkey porn.

Nevertheless, it gave me an idea for something I could potentially address you peasants about, because I was able to quite quickly think of a number of photographs that fit into that category for me.

Every single one is donkey porn.

In fact, they are not. I do not find donkeys particularly appealing sexually. Even really good-looking donkeys with great big gopping arseholes or big wangers or anything. However, a number of the photographs that I thought about instantly are probably just as unappealing to some people, if for slightly less bestial reasons. This is because, as you will all probably be aware, I have rather morbid tastes in things. Or rather, things that are rather morbid hold a particular fascination for me.

And so we come to perhaps my all-time favourite photograph. I think it is one of the most dramatic pictures ever taken, full of action and yet crystallising the last seconds of innocence on a day that changed the world forever. It was taken nearly 50 years ago by Associated Press photographer Ike Altgens in Dallas. It was 12.30 p.m. on Friday 22nd November 1963.

(Click it, it will go bigger)

It mesmerises me. There's an awful lot going on, yet at the same time it is so still. In four seconds time, the President of the United States will be dead. And yet here is the moment just before that, frozen for all time. Some people clearly realise there is something untoward going on, others are still wrapped up in the excitement of seeing Kennedy in the flesh. Every single person in this photograph is about to have the most dramatic story of their lives to tell forever.

As with the majority of the pieces of documentary evidence concerned with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, over the past half-century this photograph has variously been used to definitively establish every single possible argument and theory, particularly those which are diametrically opposed to one another.

From my point of view (as a sane man), I think it very clearly proves that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin from his window on the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository. All the people concerned with safety surrounding the caravan are looking over their shoulder to that location, having obviously just heard a sharp sound. In the Presidential limousine itself, we are clearly able to see Kennedy and Governor John F. Connolly have both been hit by Oswald's second shot, the one which conspiracy theorists term "the magic bullet".

My particular favourite conspiracy theory surrounding this photograph in particular is The Man In The Doorway. If you look almost immediately behind Kennedy in the limousine, you can see a gaggle of people stood in the entrance to the Texas School Book Depository, probably mostly on their lunch break and deciding to watch the parade. But some have claimed that one of their number is Lee Harvey Oswald, the Book Depository's most famous ever employee, thus establishing his status as the ultimate patsy for the most brazen conspiracy ever perpetrated.


There he is, look!


Could this be the world's most infamous political assassin, making a dramatic last-gasp bid for a not guilty plea? Or is it, as many other researchers have argued, another employee of the Texas School Book Depository? It would certainly seem to make sense, especially as Oswald was otherwise occupied at the time elsewhere in the building. Furthermore, the man in the doorway doesn't half resemble one of Oswald's colleagues, Bill Lovelady:


Compared to the more angular features of Oswald, it does make a compelling case:


However, the beauty of all these conspiracy theories is that they are born out of an inability to find absolutely definitive proof, so everyone can continue to idly speculate for as long as they like. What do you think? Lovelady or Oswald? Let's have another look:


Oh hold on, it can't be, surely? IT IS!


We've seen this face before:


It's Cher, from the front cover of the single Walking In Memphis, the worst ever rendition of the worst song ever written! Thus definitively establishing the link between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and World Evil.

No room for conspiracy theories there.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Does God exist?

Evidence for the non-existence of a God or any similar form of benevolent higher power

If God existed, when the inspectors checked the tickets on the train they'd look at how much the ticket had cost you, tut and say, "it's bloody shameful isn't it? I can only apologise".

Evidence for the existence of God or any similar form of benevolent higher power

The song Space Oddity by David Bowie.

Everything else is still firmly filed under "grey areas", I'm afraid.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Government Ministers with a soul patch

The Rt. Hon. Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The Rt. Hon. Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education

The Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Health

The Rt. Hon. George Osborne MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Second Lord of the Treasury

The Rt. Hon. David Cameron MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, First Lord of the Treasury
and Minister for the Civil Service

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Compelling television

I've had an idea for a television series. I think it could prove to be one of the great spectacles of our time. It would be entertaining, provocative, must-see viewing for the general public as well as ticking all kinds of favourable boxes with television folk. Put simply, my idea is this: people with the same surnames as famous serial killers recreate their namesake's crimes.

It's easy to be dismissive of ideas as pungently brilliant as this one, but give it a little thought and the full spectacle of this programme should start to crystallise in your mind. This isn't just straightforward television designed to shock and appal, or to subtly reduce the number of immigrants and poor people in a way that would no doubt find favour within certain departments of our beloved government. This programme would instead run the full gamut of emotions and experiences craved by the increasingly sophisticated and choosy television viewer of the digital age.
Fred and Rose:
been there, done that
For a start, it would be a gritty psychological study. These people may not even want to do these crimes. They are only doing so because they are being filmed for television. The moral, emotional and psychological cost would be documented with video diaries and analysis by specialists.

Then, there's the educational aspect. Serial killers pock mark our history and any society's shared experience of life. We are fascinated by them and appalled by them in equal measure. They are us but different from us. Like gorillas. Each featured serial killer's story would be explained in both historical and sociological detail, to try and give the viewer a rounded view of the individual pathology as well as contextualising their actions within the time in which they lived.

The crimes themselves would, of course, be the main feature. These would be re-enacted as faithfully to the original deeds as is possible. They would be shocking, enthralling television. A genuine event with cultural resonances to be felt like ripples by the generations to come. Like the Coronation, but with an increased chance that someone involved might have earned it.

These would then be accompanied by sequences explaining how the evidence was disposed of and how the perpetrators will try and evade justice in order to kill again.

Because the police will not be party to these goings on. While this does rather hinder the possibility of there being a second series, the advantage in terms of narrative tension far exceeds its pitfalls. A television crew would be placed at the appropriate police force's headquarters under the aegis of making a fly-on-the-wall documentary series. From here we will see the investigation from both sides. As viewers, we'd be both the pursuer and the pursued. It would be above and beyond every thrilling finale or cliffhanger ending ever seen on television before.

Samuel and Timothy: lives about
to become complicated?
Of course, the exciting part would be in the casting. Celebrities with the same surname as famous serial killers would of course be attractive: father and son actors Timothy and Samuel West could recreate the crimes of Fred and Rosemary West, or the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas could live the life of the matricidal one-eyed drifter Henry Lee Lucas. Steve Wright could be Steve Wright. But there's just as much value in letting members of the public be the protagonist (or antagonist - the programme would never be predictable). Indeed, there's even the delicious possibility that, in the cases of serial killers with rare or unusual surnames, that members of their own family would have to step in and fill the breach.

Television as demanding, ambiguous and real as this programme - working title "Naughty Namesakes" - comes along perhaps once in a lifetime. Innovative, enervative television. It would make Breaking Bad look like King Rollo.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A moustache for Roger

Roger Federer: cold top lip?
Can Roger Federer do it?

The greatest tennis player of all time is after a record eighth Wimbledon Men's Singles title this year and most learned commentators seem to be of the opinion that if he manages it, it will be his greatest achievement at the All-England Club to date.

This is due to a quirk of the ranking system: Rafael Nadal has spent much of the past 12 months with his knee elevated somewhere on a fishing boat in Mallorca recovering from leg surgery and, as such, is only the number 5 ranked player in the world. This means that, going by seeding alone, to win an OctoWimbledon Federer's path saw him having to beat Nadal in the quarter-final, Andy Murray in the semi and world number 1 Novak Djokovic in the final. An incredible challenge.

Of course, in sport things are wont to change. Yesterday the bookmakers had Federer out at 7-1 to win the tournament. I rather suspect his odds will be somewhat shorter this morning. The headline news was that an out-of-sorts Rafael Nadal fell at the first hurdle to an inspired Steve Darcis in straight sets, but equally noteworthy in my book was the thunderous masterclass delivered by Federer on Centre Court earlier in the day. Up against Victor Hanescu, the Romanian player who is ranked the 48th best tennis player currently on Earth, Federer rolled back the years, playing shots of power, accuracy, grace and invention. His service, meanwhile, peppered the lines of the box, giving his opponent no realistic chance at all. It was a privilege to watch.

But there's still something missing. The answer, nevertheless, is close at hand. Sat in the Royal Box watching, in fact: it was Roger's dad Robert Federer, the silver fox in a smart suit, sporting his trademark moustache. It was a strong look. Roger is definitely a chip off the old block as far as his appearance is concerned - he and his father look very alike. And then it struck me.

The last few percent of any sporting success are always in the mind. That little spark of self-belief and confidence that can carry one competitor over and above another competing at an identical physical level. Roger Federer's path to history remains fraught with huge challenges, but I believe Roger Federer with a moustache would be unflappable and, more significantly, unstoppable.

I have to admit that I would like Andy Murray, the plucky Brit with a heart of gold, to win Wimbledon this year. But I can never begrudge Roger Federer another title at The Championships, he is a magnificent sportsman and my admiration for him grows exponentially. If it came to it, I'd have to cheer on Andy Murray in a Murray-Federer semi-final. But a moustachioed Federer? No contest.

Now, I am a reasonable man. I am, it's true, demanding that Roger Federer grow a moustache, but that is not to say that I will not be giving the great man options. Five options, in fact. Which style he decides to go with is up to him (or, indeed, you - democracy could well win through if you would like to leave a comment with your preference). But nature and reason and all the gods in their heavens have surely spoken: Roger Federer must surely grow a moustache. And then we'll have world peace.

ROGER FEDERER MUST GROW A MOUSTACHE

Option 1: Robert Federer Junior
Simple, classic lines. Will make his father proud all over again.

Option 2: Easy Rider
Is it hot as hell in here, or is it me?

Option 3: Terry-Thomas
I say!

Option 4: Freddie Boswell
Lilo Lil = tart

Option 5: Ron Mael
This just made my soft parts go hard and my hard parts go soft.

Come on Roger, do it for all of us.

(You can follow my campaign in real time on Twitter when I remember, just watch out for the #RogerFedererMoustache hashtag.)

Monday, 17 June 2013

The powerful influence that American involvement the Vietnam War had on the history of popular music

America invented popular music. It was on a Tuesday. The entire history of pop can be traced back to traditional American music at the turn of the 20th Century. However, if you read any learned books of learned history, you could be hard-pressed to guess that this is the case. This is all because of The Beatles, who by a trick of fate were born in Liverpool, England instead of Liverpool, Ohio and therefore were not required to fight in the Vietnam war in the 1960s.

That's right, Britain stole a march on popular music in the decade that proved to be the most pivotal in the history of the genre and has scarcely relinquished its primacy ever since. American musicians could very easily have pushed the limits of their creativity just as far as their British contemporaries but as soon as they got a groove going they were legally obligated to go and rain hot death on the Viet Cong. It's hard to reinvent rock 'n' roll music when the hot breath of the American Senate is continually on the back of your neck, noisily wondering why it is that, instead of going electric, you're not busy killing Charlie.

I am always reminded of this state of affairs when I listen to Friends by The Beach Boys, an album which I love. In the title song, there is a line: "I talked your folks out of making you cut off your hair", which I have always believed must be a veiled reference to the continuing US involvement in the Far Eastern conflict. Indeed, I think it could even refer to the youngest of The Beach Boys' Wilson brothers, Carl.

"We've been friends now for so many years, brb raining ideological death war on innocent Asian families"

Carl Wilson was drafted into the US Army aged 20 in 1967 but applied for deferment on the grounds of conscientious objection. After a lengthy battle through the courts, the US Government agreed that Wilson would not have to fight overseas as long as he performed free concerts for hospitals and prisons in lieu of national service.

Fans of The Beach Boys will know that this was a pivotal year in the history of the group. The year before the band had released their seminal Pet Sounds album and headed into 1967 in a creative summit duel with their great contemporaries The Beatles to see who could redefine the terms of pop music forever first. Of course, we now all know that The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in June of that year while The Beach Boys spellbinding and ambitious Smile project collapsed in a fug of mental health problems (Brian Wilson) and in-fighting within the band (Mike Love). They were never really the same force again, especially after the patchy and disappointing Smiley Smile was released that September - a watered down and unfinished collection of what had promised to be the most remarkable songs ever committed to tape.

Having a Sword of Damocles hanging over the continued involvement in the group's activities of one of their number was, of course, by no means the be-all and end-all of what caused the breakdown of the group's position at the absolute vanguard of the pop movement. But there's little doubt in my mind that it would not have helped. Carl Wilson's influence within The Beach Boys was growing rapidly. By 1968 he would be their de facto  leader as big brother Brian drifted off into a world of his own. The idea of this rather gentle soul possibly having to go and destroy world communism was anathema to everyone concerned.

But, and here's the key thing, I can't help but feel that it would actually have been brilliant. For a start, it would have won The Beach Boys a whole new legion of more mature fans and other veterans of foreign wars, flushed with admiration that finally one of these floppy-haired, lily-livered rock 'n' rollers had finally had the balls to stand up to Marx. This could not have served the group badly: their output up to that stage was exceptional enough that any new listener would surely be converted into a fan and, therefore, record sales.

Then there would be the immeasurable impact of Wilson's return to the fold, both from the point of view of publicity but also in terms of his new life experiences informing all sorts of new directions for the band's sound. George Harrison playing sitar with Ravi Shankar would suddenly seem old hat, compared with the sprinkling of genuine Laotian folk music now peppering The Beach Boys albums. Perhaps they could even have roped Lon Nol in on bongos. I can't be the only Beach Boys fan who would absolutely have relished the idea of a now one-legged Carl Wilson, wearing an eyepatch, singing a furious song about the 4 Vietnamese soldiers he bayonetted never solved anything.

Of course, it could just be that they had a friend whose parents wanted them to get a haircut but they talked them out of it.

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