Monday, June 11, 2018

The Dad's Army Jigsaw Challenge

Watch my wife attempting to complete this 1970s original 400-piece puzzle, showing Mainwaring, Godfrey and Frazer looking a bit gloomy round the back of Jones's van.
It's not easy: there are lots of murky, Lucian Freudish patches of dark green and brown, and roughly a third of it is gravel.

So wish her luck....


Saturday, March 19, 2016

I demand a recount

Jennifer Love Hewitt can do no wrong.

This is a simple fact, easily proved with graph paper and a lead ball on a string.
After all, who else could turn a project like The Tuxedo - inept chauffeur gets mistaken for a superspy and saves the world with the aid of a futuristic jacket that enables him to defy gravity and fight off all attackers - into a surefire Saturday night favourite, simply by having her character wear a pair of sexy specs? ("Hewitt is incredibly obnoxious..." - Leonard Maltin)
Who else would not only cheerfully accept the offer to play Audrey Hepburn but would come out swinging with so fabulous an imitation of her voice that it's now difficult to watch any Hepburn movie and not imagine what it would be like with Jennifer doing it instead?
Who else wields the cinematic chutzpah to make you seriously contemplate giving over 0.0000032594 of your expected lifetime to a live-action version of Garfield?

And yet, despite all this, despite Heartbreakers ("wonderful performance by Hewitt's breasts" - Leonard Maltin), despite the romantic and clever If Only (filmed in London, like Sliding Doors only better), despite Shortcut to Happiness (a remake of The Devil and Daniel Webster, in which she plays the part Walter Huston essayed in the original), despite even the fact that she was once photographed on holiday playing tennis in a bikini and platform shoes, there are people in this world who enjoy nothing better than taking a pop at her.
I even discovered - gamely enough via her own website - that she is, statistically-speaking, the world's worst-reviewed actress since 1985 (this according to someone's idea of a website called 'Rotten Tomatoes'):

Hewitt has the rare distinction of never having made a single "fresh" (above 60 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) film. Her average score of 18.9 owes to such duds as Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (7 percent), I Know What You Did Last Summer (35 percent), I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (7 percent), and both Garfield movies (15 percent and 11 percent, respectively).

Because it measures reviews, this is all pretty misleading of course.
After all, by the same statistical method, the best actor and actress for the same period are those screen giants Daniel Auteuil and Arsinée Khanjian. The best American actor is John Ratzenberger, who is a terrific actor actually, but obviously makes it to the top of his tree because he had the sound financial sense to get his voice in every Pixar movie, not because he was magnificent as Cliff in Cheers.
Mike Leigh, meanwhile, probably isn't even his own mother's idea of the world's best director, but critics love to pretend they enjoy his silly films, so there he is too.

And since when did critics know anything anyway?
I thought that nobody could ever rival Fay Wray as a horror film heroine - until I saw I Know What You Did Last Summer and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, the sequel in which she gives, if anything, an even more impressive performance. Remember the bit where she almost dies in a self-tanning machine? Suddenly it was 1932 again, and Fay was still in the wax museum, and the rest of the twentieth century was just a madman's dream.
And what about her English accent in The Truth About Love? Didn't it just make you want to buy her a puppy with a ribbon tied round it? And the film was shot in Bristol for goodness sakes! Was Bullitt shot in Bristol? Was Midnight Cowboy shot in Bristol? Was Return of the Jedi shot in Bristol?
I think you'll find the answer is in every case no,

Like almost all of you, I expect, I own a copy of her book The Day I Shot Cupid, a kind of self-help dating guide cum autobiographical scrapbook, written in aphorisms that remind the reader irresistibly of Nietszche. "I really do think that both sexes are completely nuts and beautiful," she tells us fairly early on.
I read it straight through, twice. I even read the bit that's for female readers only ("the section where we truly bond") in which she speaks frankly about her varicose veins. It's a self-excoriating nightmare trip through every failed relationship Jen has ever had, and no detail is too revealing. She even confesses to the time she "spent three hours making his and her toiletry kits" and "never heard from him again." I now know that Jennifer collects miniature books, loves monkeys, gets turned on by office supplies and wears a tiara in the bath. And I'm assuming you all know about vagazzaling and don't need me to bring you up to speed there.

Now, for some reason, the book is not available in Britain and has to be ordered via Amazon, but this is not exactly difficult, and certainly not an excuse for not doing so. If you live in America it's even easier: simply stroll into your nearest Wal-Mart, or K-Mart, or K-Wal, or whatever it is you call corner shops over there, and pick up a copy fresh from the shelf. You won't regret it.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Why Moonraker is the best James Bond film ever made

Last new James Bond film I saw was Quantum of Solace. I've seen game show hosts less pleased with themselves. It practically walked up to you and asked you to give it a badge.
We don't really need new Bond films, anyway; there are plenty already, in all shapes and sizes, running the gamut from sillier than a hairless Egyptian cat to something close to genuinely good, they're not going to go anywhere, and if the history of ITV teaches us anything it's that there's no limit to the frequency with which we're happy to watch them over and over again.
Watching him in the present day, pretending that it is still James Bond, is too much like hard work for me, even with the sop of frenetic action scenes somewhat akin to glimpsing a succession of James Bond movies passing by the window of a moving train.
It's like these ridiculous updates of Shakespeare - that is to say every production of Shakespeare you are likely to see in any British theatre - designed to stress how relevant and meaningful the plays still are, that come off exactly as relevantly and meaningfully as you’d expect of any play about First World War soldiers or Wall Street traders discussing totally unconnected matters in archaic Elizabethan language. When in truth if you feel the need to start doing this sort of thing, it's time to give up. If you can't make Richard III come alive without making him the car park attendant of a West Midlands leisure complex during the Falklands War then it's a pretty fair bet the party's over.

Does Moonraker (1979) ask you to believe that the biggest threat to world security is the US government acting in concert with a shadowy organisation of scruffy transnational misfits with Absolutely No Agenda Whatsoever?
No, it does not. It gives Bond a foe worthy of him: a multimillionaire weirdo intent on killing everyone in the world with a deadly plague released from space so as to restock the planet with eugenically perfect replacements for reasons even he probably couldn't tell you.

Moonraker is by common consent the silliest Bond film ever made. Everything about it is silly, including its very reason for existence. Watch the end credits of the previous one, The Spy Who Loved Me, and you will see it say that 'James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only'. So what happened?
The answer, embarrassingly enough, is Star Wars. Sci-fi was the in-thing, again, but it takes a kind of visionary perversity on the part of producer Albert Broccoli to assume that therefore its generic staples can be grafted on to those of the Bond series to produce a hybrid satisfying to adherents of either tradition.
Would he have still made the attempt if there didn't just happen to be a Fleming title lying around unused that lent itself to such a crackers idea? (Aside from a villain called Hugo Drax the film has nothing in common with Fleming's excellent source novel.) It's impossible to guess.
And yet, for a film the whole point of which was to get on the George Lucas bandwagon, remarkably little in fact takes place in space. We go to France, Brazil, Venice, America and Guatemala, but it's an hour and a half before the rockets take off. But what cannot be denied, though it is often forgotten, is that's Broccoli's chutzpah paid off: it took $203,000,000 worldwide, and was the highest-grossing Bond film until 1995.

I don't have any trouble rationalising the fact that it is simultaneously my favourite Bond film and the one generally felt to be by far the worst. There is, after all, an obvious distinction to be drawn between one's favourite Bond film and the Bond film one considers the best. Moonraker is merely my favourite. The best, in my opinion, is The Man With The Golden Gun, ably described by authors Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall in the authoritative The Essential Bond as "the weakest of the Bond films to date" and "the series at an artistic nadir". To which I reply: Oh yeah? So which Bond film has got Christopher Lee making a gun out of a lighter, a cigarette case and a pen? Which one has the spooky wax museum? The little feller from Fantasy Island getting imprisoned in a wicker basket? Britt Ekland in a bikini? The car that turns into a plane?
They usually go pretty quiet after that, do Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall.

So here are my reasons for favouring Moonraker over all other Bond films.

Most importantly, perhaps, I'm reasonably certain that it was the first one I ever saw. It was certainly the first one I saw new, in a cinema. My grandparents took me twice, on two consecutive nights, because I fell asleep halfway through the first time. (It's still one of my all-time favourite films for falling asleep to; you know what I mean: when you know you're going to be asleep soon, but you need a comforting film on to help you over the threshold.)
Then for Christmas, 1979, I got this fantastic book: The James Bond 007 Moonraker Special.

("If you've seen Moonraker already you'll know we're not exaggerating when we say it's just terrific! And if you haven't seen it... Well, what are you waiting for?!")
As always with these annuals, it's the padding that delights most.
My favourite is the questionnaire Have You Got What It Takes To Be A Secret Agent? Here, anyone who nurtures the dream of becoming a spy when they grow up can discover that "the only advice you can give" to an agent who contacts you saying he is at risk of capture is "fight until there is no hope and then swallow his poison capsule", as well as learn the correct procedure when faced with the need to "cross an 18-inch deep lake which you suspect has been filled with a strong acid" using only "a very long log, a saw and a long piece of rope", carried with you at all times, presumably, should such an eventuality arise. This was always my favourite:

While abroad, you meet a very attractive girl and become rather attached to her. Then she tells you that she often goes to Russia and other Communist countries for MI5. Would you:
a) immediately suspect she was lying?
b) think she was rather indiscreet to mention it, but decide to ignore it?
c) think she must be very brave?
d) think nothing of it?

You meet a very attractive girl and become rather attached to her... Ah, innocent days.
I'm wallowing in autobiography here mainly to be upfront with you, and to accept, in theory at least, that some of my reasons for considering this my favourite of all Bond films may not necessarily be there for all to see in the movie itself. Nonetheless, when so many other films I saw in my early years are just titles to me now, whole chunks of Moonraker remain in my memory's private screening room, their intoxicating rush instantly revived whenever I watch it again. Which I do. Pretty much all the time if I'm being honest.
There's the fight inside the clock, for instance, lit spectrally blue. The eerie and brilliantly directed scene where Corinne Clery is killed by a pack of dogs running through a forest - look how Lewis Gilbert's camera fails to disguise the odd socks she's wearing all of a sudden to make the run more comfortable - and of course the free-falling pre-credits scene. Shirley Bassey's theme song is an unjustly neglected beauty. Then there's Bond dressed like Clint Eastwood, riding a horse to the theme from The Magnificent Seven, the gondola with inflatable air sacks that can be driven on land, and Jaws biting through a three-inch metal cable.
Jaws, of course, had been the most talked-about innovation in the previous film, a seven-foot assassin with metal teeth played by Richard Kiel. The name, obviously, was a nod to the success of the shark movie, and the point was emphasised by an impudent scene in which he is attacked by, and kills, a shark.
But, though a silly gimmick in essence, Jaws was actually pretty scary: he bit people to death, which is horrible; witness the scene set on the plateau of Gaza at night, where he chases a victim around the Pyramids before cornering him and coming in for the kill, Dracula-style.
He was so popular that an immediate return appearance was ordered, and for a while in Moonraker he's his old scary self (though not above a little slapstick comedy when his plans go awry). In particular there is a sequence set during the Rio carnival, where he is disguised as one of the revellers with a huge, papier-mâché head. We see him break away from the throng and down an alleyway where Bond's latest female assistant is waiting, unawares, as the grotesque figure lumbers slowly towards her... Brilliantly directed and genuinely frightening.
But in between films, Broccoli had been swamped with letters from children saying they liked Jaws, but couldn't he become a goodie and help Bond? And so, halfway through the film, that's just what he does, after falling in love with a pigtailed blonde in glasses who helps him to his feet after he smashes a cable car through a building and gets buried under the rubble. It's utterly ludicrous; Pfeiffer and Worrall call it "one of the most embarrassing sequences in the entire series" and the character - 'Dolly', played by Blanche Ravalec - "the most inappropriate character ever to appear in a Bond film".
Still, just think about what these people chose to do here! I mean, how breathtakingly uncynical! To make a mockery of their own invention purely so as to reassure nervous children. And why not? Popular culture used to be a bit of fun. Imagine the makers of Quantum of Solace being so sweetly, innocently good-natured in their weltanschauung!

Hugo Drax, the plague-happy looney, is my all-time favourite Bond villain (and number 5 in Heckler Spray's list of worst ever Bond villains).
He's desperately cool with his neat little beard, Lugosi hairdo and silky voice. And he has deliberately formulated his plague so that it kills humans only, and is harmless to all other living things - a thoughtful touch that put me firmly on his side the minute I learned of it. I honestly think Bond should have let this one go, actually.
He's played by Michel Lonsdale, the burly French actor who played the detective in Day of the Jackal, and will be familiar to Buñuel fans as the chap in Phantom of Liberty who invites hotel guests to his room to watch him get his bum smacked.
Moonraker also boasts two of my all-time favourite Bond girls: Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (number 8 in Entertainment Weekly's list of worst ever Bond girls) and Corinne Clery (formerly of The Story of O, who we enjoyed waltzing up a storm on Italian tv's Dancing With the Stars, and number 3 in Entertainment Weekly's list of worst ever Bond girls) as Corinne Dufour. My other favourite Bond girls include Maud Adams (number 10), Britt Ekland (6), Tanya Roberts (2, "totally miscast as a geologist with a vendetta") and Denise Richards (1).
Moonraker's screenwriter, incidentally, is Christopher Wood, writer of Confessions of a Window Cleaner et seq, so you know you're in safe hands.

Believe me, this film has got everything, even a couple of bits you'll swear afterwards you fell asleep and dreamt, like the scene where Bond sees a scantily clad damsel strolling through the jungle, and follows her into a fibre-glass grotto full of hanging plants, water features and other scantily clad damsels, whereupon the bit of rock he's stood on - and he really could have chosen to stand anywhere - rises up on a hinge and tips him into a rock pool, where he gets attacked by a giant underwater rubber snake. Resourcefully, he kills it with a magic pen, whereupon Jaws, who we had just seen a vast distance away plunging over a waterfall in a speedboat, picks him up out of the water by his head.

And still people go on about Sean Connery's films being best. 

Weird-looking Sherlock Holmeses (first in an occasional series)

Everyone likes a weird-looking Sherlock Holmes, so to get the bull rolling here's a picture I clipped out of a 1970s Look-In Television Annual many years ago.
It's a comedy double-act from the seventies ITV series Who Do You Do? whose names I have momentarily forgotten. Not Wayne and Shuster, because they were Canadian. But something along those lines.

To my mind, this is the picture that, more than any other, belongs on the cover of the Penguin Complete Stories.
Now, here's seventies starlet Luan Peters dressed mysteriously - to say nothing of half-heartedly - as Sherlock Holmes, as he might look if he had decided to take a beach holiday after completing gender realignment surgery. (Can't remember which of the books this story appears in; I think it might be His Last Bow.)

If you have any pictures of weird Sherlock Holmeses, send them to me at If we have enough, I'll do a competition and pick a winner. Please note that this competition is not open to people who believe in God, and only two schoolchildren may enter at any one time.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Help me lose my cheeks (or at least mislay them)

One of the few advantages to living in the last few moments of human civilisation is the excuse it gives for not worrying overly about one's health.
I don't know about you, but genocidal death cults flinging nuclear weapons about like Armageddon's going out of fashion hardly infuse me with the desire to get up at 5am and go jogging, suck mineral water out of teated bottles, or reverse my standard procedure when eating a supermarket sandwich and start throwing away the bread and cheese and eating the funny green bits.
The only problem is that while the ill-advised lifestyles of others result in an interesting, slender, dissipated look, I have a tendency to put on weight.

Now, as some of you may know, the wife and I have just managed to cobble together an offspring by the traditional means (us muddling through Britishly in the early stages with the assistance of Jane Russell movies; nature's strange alchemy taking over for the finish).
The result was a fine son called Edward, perfect in all ways except a bizarre tendency to burst into bitter tears whenever I try to wash him under his chin. However, my own memory of childhood is that it's difficult enough to negotiate at the best of times, and I don't want to add to his problems by landing him with a fat dad.

I can always tell when I cross the threshold between robust and dissolute: it's a simple little trick which you may wish to try for yourself.
Keep the head straight but roll the eyes downwards. (For some reason this hurts like hell first thing in the morning, but you should find that by noon the sensation is little worse than nauseating. This is your body telling you that it's time to start drinking again.)
Anyway, look down, and ascertain how much of your own face is visible. If you are in peak shape all you will be able to discern is your nose, which, by some quirk of vision, appears not to be attached to your face as such, but rather to hover in space an inch or so beyond its jurisdiction.
This proves either that there was insufficient evolutionary advantage in getting an accurate sense of of the position of one's own nose relative to the head by straining the eyes downwards, and thus no more realistic mechanism for doing same evolved than the plainly unsatisfactory one we're saddled with, or alternatively that the world's major religions are right, Darwin was wrong, the truth lies fundamentally beyond the grasp of reason alone, and we should forget about looking at our noses and get back to doing God's work (basically killing each other, interspersed with a bit of chanting).
But to return briefly to my point - that is to say, to continue to light a candle for the Darwinian hypothesis - once you've got over the fun of the old floating nose trick - and it is fun, be in no doubt of that - keep the eyes in the same position and check to see if any other facial components hove into view (as we nautical types like to say, but so rarely get a chance to).
Under normal circumstances, the answer is no. If like me, however, your face is carrying the evidence of excessive indulgence, you may dimly sense a strange blur under each ocular orb (or 'eye' as I prefer to call it).
What is it? A little grease on the old cornea? No; it doesn't rub away. Something left over from an over-enthusiastic Italian meal? No, not that either. (At least, I assume not. Certainly not in my case.)

Your guesses may well get pretty wild and desperate before the truth suddenly strikes you with the full, agonising horror of Bob Dylan's singing voice being dragged down a blackboard - that what you are in fact sensing are the hazy outlines of your own cheeks.
Now, obviously, these should not be visible. A man should no more be able to see his own cheeks unaided than it is possible to read the lyrics of 'Eleanor Rigby' without laughing.
But the terrible thing is that once noticed, these 'ghost cheeks' (as it were, and I think you'll find it was) never again quite go away. Throughout the day, you'll constantly find yourself trying absent-mindedly to brush them away. If you wear glasses, you'll keep taking them off and looking at them, try to clean the lens, perhaps make a mental note to make an appointment and see if you need a stronger prescription.
But all to no avail. They are always there, floating on the edge of your awareness, like the spirit orbs that follow Noel Edmonds about. (In fact, I wonder if what Noel mistakes for glowing balls of supernatural energy might not likewise be his own cheeks. Next time I see him I'll ask him if they float randomly about his person or always hover in roughly the same place. If the latter, then we shall know.)
So I owe it to my lad to lose sight of both of my cheeks before he's at the stage where he can look at his dad, then at other people's dads, then formulate the conclusion "oh for pity's sake, what a crap-looking dad I've got."
I have yet to decide, however, whether to get rid of both at once - what George Bush would call the shock and awe approach - or to tackle them one at a time, a trickier but less exhausting tactic for which George Bush has yet to coin a term. (I keep ringing his people but they fob me off with excuse after excuse.)
My hope is that if I merely work on, say, the left cheek, thus reducing by 50% the exercise I need to do and Saucy Bar-B-Q flavour Transform-a-Snacks I need to cut back on, the right one will see the game is up and shuffle off of its own accord. One enormous cheek reflects as badly on itself as it does on the bearer, and if my cheeks are anything they are, at heart, rational.

Incidentally, is it true that, while all animals worthy of the name have faces, only humans have cheeks? If so, what for? They offer no survival advantage, are not aesthetically pleasing and so play no role in the process of sexual selection, and they seem to serve no purpose other than to make you look like a tourist's plaster ornament of a drunken Franciscan friar whenever you climb more than three stairs in a row.
They are, to be perfectly frank, the very last thing I want to see mooning back at me whenever I try to look at my own face, and their days are hereby numbered.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Smoking is cool, and pipe smoking is even cooler

The picture below is of me on my honeymoon terrace in Venice, enjoying an early morning infumation.
Yes, friends, I am a pipe smoker.

By what path do things that were once ubiquitous become eccentric?
The odd, fogeyish reputation that pipe-smoking endures is an odd one, because in popular culture, right up until the 60s, the more rigorous and rugged the hero, the more likely it was that he would he would be a pipe smoker.
It can't be anything to do with the disfavour that all tobacco has fallen into for obscure health-related reasons, because cigarettes, however frowned-upon they may be, are not naff in the same way, neither can it be because of commercial pressure from cigarettes themselves, for the two co-existed for decade upon decade, and many people smoked both. (Sherlock Holmes, for one.)

I started pipe smoking seriously about five years ago. It's partly because I am susceptible to a weird kind of peer pressure. I couldn't care less what my actual peers wear/drink/watch/think this week, but if I'm reading an old novel or watching a thirties movie I'm irresistibly drawn to whatever the characters are having.
We went to see an Agatha Christie at our lovely local theatre the other week, and the characters kept ordering a gin fizz, and talking about ordering a gin fizz, and when one of them said he was going to have a whisky, another one said something like: "What? In this heat, old boy? No, what you want is a gin fizz." And a gin fizz has been my tipple of choice ever since. (Great play, by the way. Suzy Amy was in it, for one thing.)

And I had read so many books in which the heroes smoke a pipe, and it's always described with such sensual pleasure that I felt compelled to join in. (It's like when people really enjoy a drink in a film, and watching it makes you thirsty.)
I think, if there was any one thing that made me become a pipe-smoker above all else, it was this deceptively ordinary paragraph from William Addison's book The English Country Parson:

"The following morning I sat for an hour or so at the window of the fine old sixteenth-century inn where I was staying, smoking a meditative pipe and looking out across a paddock to the church again."

As soon as I read it, I knew that what I wanted to do more than anything else was to smoke a meditative pipe from the window of a sixteenth century inn while looking at a paddock.
Then there was a tiny little moment, easily overlooked, in a Bette Davis film from the early thirties called Ex-Lady. It's this shockingly progressive movie about a young couple who opt to sleep together unmarried, and there's a scene where Bette's getting the flat ready for her lover's visit. Obviously, they're as modern as can be, and so the flat is all white and silver and gleaming and sharp angles, and the whole atmosphere is of sex. And in preparation for this night of debauchery, as well as putting on slinky lingerie and buffing up the pillows, she lovingly gets his pipe out and puts it on the table. (I probably could have avoided that double-entendre there, but if you're partial to such things I offer it to you at no extra charge.) It's probably the only brown, cosy-looking thing in the entire apartment. And suddenly, if you notice it at all, your whole mental picture of this night they're going to be spending together changes, and instead of the tuxedoed young blade who does, in fact, come through the door, you're expecting someone like Gilbert Harding, in tweed plus-fours and a shooting hat. Such is the power of the pipe.

All these things called out to me, and the message was clear: a man is not a man without a pipe.
But 1930s peer pressure wouldn't be enough to compel me to stick at it after the initial curiosity had been sated. The truth is that Bulldog Drummond was right. There really is nothing quite so relaxing as a pipe: less frenetic than the fag, more urbane than the cigar, and irresistibly stylish, its aroma filling the room with echoes of cracked leather, linseed oil and Alistair Maclean paperbacks yellowing in the morning sun.

It took me a while to find my brand. I began experimenting with the ones I remembered from when I was a boy and you were still allowed to advertise it on the telly: Condor, Mellow Virginia, Erinmore.

Ah, them was the days.

But you'd be surprised how few brands even supermarkets now bother to stock. Some sell none. And I'm always the first person the staff have ever heard asking for any such thing.
Old-looking newsagents are always your best bet, but you should never go anywhere unprepared: some of the places I expected to find it most easily are among those where it proved most elusive.
I once made the mistake of not taking any on a holiday to a tiny village on the coast of Cornwall, just this side of Land's End, on the grounds that any neighbourhood comprised largely of grizzled-looking sailor folk, and where there was only one shop with shrimp nets piled up for sale outside, would unquestionably have a vast range of tobaccos on offer. Wrong.
They had Hello magazine but they didn't have pipe tobacco.

Then one year, as a novelty birthday present, I was given a tin of Sherlock Holmes tobacco, made in Dublin.
I loved the fact that it was in an old-style tin rather than a plastic pouch; it has a sweet, mysterious aroma befitting the name, and obviously it has that name. It instantly became my brand.
I used to get it by mail order, but on moving to Bath found that a local newsagent, the delightfully named Bog Island News, actually stocks it behind the counter, and many other tempting brands too, which I might one day sample should my complete and unwavering contentment with Sherlock Holmes ever pall.

This is me in my old London flat - oh the memories that old thermostat brings back - producing a billowing cloud of Sherlock so beautiful that it actually looks like it's part of the Hopper painting we had pinned to the kitchen door at the time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

(insert alliterative title)

Some more Mina magic for you, following the success of 'Bang Bang' a few weeks back, which according to the stats scored more hits in the first two minutes than the sneezing panda has managed in nearly two years.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bang Bang

I've already uploaded this sensational performance of Bang Bang by the great Italian songstress Mina at one of my other sites, but it's so fabulous I thought it belonged here too.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

More Italian sitcom magic

Following my post here on George e Mildred - aka George and Mildred dubbed most satisfyingly into Italian - here are two more seventies ITV treats given a touch of the old Rai Unos, as found on You Tube by my wife when she was supposed to be working.

First, we have Un Uomo In Casa, then Il Nido di Robin.
If you need to be told the original English titles of these programmes you've landed on the wrong island, pal.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Childhood in a bag

Scampi Fries, to be found occasionally in corner grocery shops and mini-mart garages, but naturally occurring behind the bars of pubs, hanging from the back of the door on a cardboard sheet, are one of the supreme luxuries of life.
Never having eaten scampi in my life, I can only speculate as to the extent to which they actually taste like these almost unbelievably delicious little cereal pillows, designed to recreate their complex, evolved flavour by purely chemical means.
But I find it hard to believe that anything in the natural world can be as satisfying, let alone something that has to be dragged out of the sea and killed first.
The flavour of the Scampi Fry to me, therefore, is not imitative but unique, to be judged not on the grounds of how accurately it duplicates the taste of something else but on the grounds of sheer inventiveness.
And on those grounds: how can it not delight?

I can remember where I was the first time I tried one, and - despite a cautious reticence upon which I can now only look back and smile - how instantly and completely they claimed me as a devotee.
I remember I had a copy of Scream comic with me at the time. Well, Scream comic is long gone, but the Scampi Fry marches boldly on, even as nations crumble and ideologies clash; it is, as Sherlock Holmes once described Watson, with an admiration equally applicable in this context, one fixed point in a changing world.

But the best thing about Scampi Fries is that they are not generally available, not guaranteed to be found in every corner shop, like those dreary usurping Walker's crisps (that through sheer market saturation and aggressive advertising pushed the infinitely subtler flavours of Golden Wonder, Smiths and, my favourite of all, KP out of the general crisp market and into the specialist nut and snack hinterlands.)
Scampi Fries are rarer, and so always a treat. They have always had a vaguely holidayish, special occasiony quality to them for me.
I suspect their magic would wear off if I had regular access to them, and so I note with joy and trepidation mixed that the Spar at the end of my road stocks them, along with their Son and Holy Ghost: Bacon Fries and Cheese Moments.

Loving Cheese Moments puts you in a truly discerning minority. How they have survived so long is a delightful mystery: nobody could love them more than I, and even I have no trouble appreciating why almost everyone finds them so totally disgusting.
The Moment can be seen as a response to the sole design challenge posed by the Scampi Fry. While the exterior of the Scampi Fry is far too delicious for this to ever be a disappointment as such, first-timers may be nonetheless surprised to discover on their initial crunch that it is hollow. The Moment solves this conundrum in the most ingenious of ways. It is fashioned, like the Fry, as a cereal pouch, tasting this time not of fish but of a strange, potent but fictitious cheese, somewhere between Gruyere and marmite. But this time, on crunching, the delighted consumer encounters not empty space but a bizarre, cheese-effect paste. The contrast between the crunchy exterior and soft interior is a most seductive one.
Moments go very nicely with red wine, whereas the Scampi Fry is best washed down with a lovely cold Chablis.

Did you know you can buy Scampi Fries on Amazon? Here's the link, and just look at the sincerity and passion in those customer reviews! I especially like the one from the army wife who can't stop eating them even though her husband refuses to kiss her after she's had a bag.

(In a possible follow-up post - The flavour sensation that is the Barry Norman pickled onion: how many can you consume at a sitting?)

Monday, January 16, 2012

The choice collection of good time well known songs on wax today

Picked up this fabulous LP recently.
Exactly as the cover implies, it's a collection of old pub standards delivered with bellowing, pissed-up imprecision by what would seem to be a genuinely assembled crowd of booze-crazed wastrels.
I'm not sure if the piss artists performing are the same ones saluting us from the magnificent cover, though I suppose it is unlikely. A shame, because they look like a great crowd. I particularly like the chap on the right, who resembles the actor Norman Eshley, and the one in the background, leering sinisterly from between the one that looks like a country solicitor and the redhead in the denim suit.
Also, though it's probably less striking in this scan than it is on the cover itself, the barman looks like, but presumably can't be, a cardboard cut-out.

The album dates from 1974, and 'Stereo Gold Award' is the name of the label, not an indication that it actually won any kind of award.
There's a slight possibility that it was meant to provide 'English atmosphere' abroad, perhaps for ex-pats or English theme pubs. The sleeve notes read like the instructions you get with Japanese stocking-fillers:

Young and old alike are invited to this foot tapping "glasses up" sing along party with the Rowdies. You pay yer money and you gets the choice collection of good time well known songs on wax today. Here's the ones we love to sing whenever happy folks get together. And if you're all alone, come as a solo it'll put a smile on your face and a bit of sing along magic in your heart.

These ones we love to sing whenever happy folks get together include Underneath the Arches, I Belong to Glasgow and Ilkley Moor Ba'tat. It's infectious fun for sure, but the thought of someone who really is all alone resorting to Sing Along With The Rowdies in order to put a bit of sing along magic in their hearts is a genuinely poignant one.

Strangely, though the album is generally cagey about naming those responsible - no producer is credited, and exactly who the Rowdies are is never revealed - it does tell us that the cover photo was taken by Julian Ruthven at the White Hart, Harlington, Middlesex.
This pub still exists, so I shall write to them to see what they can tell me about the Rowdies.

Watch this space...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Doctor, I have CD rot

Do doctors and dentists decide for themselves what magazines are stocked in their waiting room?
And if they don't, who does?

Reader, I am old enough to know that it was fact, not just a popular notion, that all doctors' and dentists' waiting rooms once stocked copies of Punch (and in some cases Country Life).
By my time they had become anachronistic and unloved, an unquestioned convention almost, and I was drawn to Punch in part by the pristine allure of the neat, untouched stacks of them one invariably found. (Hip to the streets even then, I became a fan, and Pick of Punch buyer, during the final years of Alan Coren's editorship.)

The new Punch is Classic FM Magazine. You get the feeling that this is as close as a doctor can get to the demotic but is an attempt to connect with the masses all the same: after all, it's not Gramophone; it's got Myleene Klass on the cover. Like Punch, the ratio of ill to healthy readers must be at least 4:1. The list of subscribers must read like the end credits of Casualty.

I've had to go to the hospital a few times lately, and can confirm that Classic FM Magazine is a hoot, well worth the kidney stones, in fact.
I especially like the little highlighted boxes containing soundbites from the station's presenters.

Simon Bates has ideas for how to keep the children entertained this Summer: "Why not enjoy Classic FM on your long car journeys?"

I was also diverted for many minutes by an advert for big wallets to store all your CDs and DVDs in, made by a company called Arrowfile.
Have you heard about this 'CD rot' business? It's apparently caused by plastic CD cases, and the only way to prevent it is to put your discs in big wallets made by a company called Arrowfile.
"It's a myth that CDs will last a lifetime!" screams the ad in big red type, above a kind of rubber stamp impression-type logo, that says: PVC FREE - Prevents CD Rot!
And there's testimonial from a grateful customer called Mrs Mae: "I am shocked to learn that CD cases may accelerate CD rot (rust), and surprised to discover that manufacturers recommend vertical storage to prevent this."

We're all shocked, love.
Is this true? Or do they just want me to buy the big wallets?
I've no idea but I'm now madly looking for signs of CD rot (rust) whenever I play one.
Is it visible to the naked eye? Can it be reversed or halted once detected? Or is a diagnosis already too late? Can it spread from CD to CD? Can it spread from CD to people? I can't sleep now. Damn you, Arrowfile!

Classic FM Magazine has invited its readers to email questions to Katherine Jenkins.
They want to know if she would wear a wig if she ever sang Carmen (maybe, but she has no immediate plans to), if she has any diet secrets (not really), would she ever "launch commodities under (her) own brand name - i.e. perfume or underwear" (no immediate plans to) and if she has any plans to visit Australia (no immediate plans to).
Next month: Russell Watson, probably.

Also making the headlines in the classical world is the theme music of the new Batman film (New Batman score goes Kapow!) and Natasha Marsh's version of Mozart's 'Queen of the Night' from The Magic Flute, specially arranged for ITV's coverage of Euro 2008. There's a picture of her in a ballgown holding a football. "I love football, and I love the passion, beauty and power that football and music share... Everyone's waiting for that moment, and everyone feels the goosebump factor."

Just time for some hi-fi equipment reviews.
There are things called i-Pod docks, which even I can see are just speakers for an i-Pod.
The review begins: "Unless you've been living under a stone for the past few years, you'll be all too aware of the ongoing digital music revolution."
Exactly the tone to take with readers of a specialist classical music publication.
It continues: "But listening to your music on an MP3 player or through a computer is only the half of it - what about listening to your tunes out loud?"
'Tunes'. Like it.
But isn't out loud the way we all used to listen to our choons, back in the olden days?
These reviews are crazy; surely unfair as reviews.
The Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere is good because; "Listening to tenor Andrea Bocelli sing the emotive 'Time To Say Goodbye', his voice sounds clear, strong and full of emotion".
Is that how you test them, then? Just don't buy the i-Pod docks where Andrea Bocelli comes out singing the emotive 'Time To Say Goodbye' like a girl.
Then there's this which, unless I'm wrong, means absolutely nothing at all:
"There may not be quite the same level of bass as delivered on other iPod docks but in terms of playing a tune, this Logitech is a class leader."
In terms of playing a tune? What is this maniac talking about?
Or there's the Griffin Evolve, ideal if "you want an easy, reliable way of sending music to different rooms".
Actually, since all three models under review have the same maximum star rating and are each labelled the best, albeit the best at different things, this is basically an advert.
The B&W Zeppelin is 'Best for looking good' (all-important, I have no doubt), as well as the one to go for if you "want an i-Pod dock to set tongues wagging".
(B&W's tagline, by the way is: 'Listen and you'll see'.)
But it's not just an odd-shaped black plastic thing of beauty. There's also the matter of sound, or "sonic prowess" if you will. And at £400, it's "worth the extra money if you crave something close to true hi-fi performance". Yep, that's modern technology. 400 smackers for something close to what you're looking for.

Ah, but what about defence against i-Pod dock rot? I don't know: the doctor was ready to see me at this point.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Library of Oblivion #1

Your last chance to see the books that no human eye will ever encounter again; that no charity shop, jumble sale, or car boot sale will ever again deem worth the effort of getting out of the cardboard box they rode into town on.
Any book featured in The Library of Oblivion can be yours free of charge. Simply drop me a line at explaining which book you are interested in, and why you want to give it its last chance. Don't forget to include a postal address, ideally not in Australia or something.

1. Football Daft, by Michael Parkinson

I picked up Football Daft in the 10p bin of a local charity shop. Not even the fact that the world cup was in full swing was enough to deem it worthy of placement inside the shop. In a wire basket on the pavement is last chance city for paperbacks.
I hate football, but I was strangely moved by the cover, which shows the Yorkshire-born chat show host wearing a wet weather coat and a small plastic novelty hat, waving a rattle and clutching a toilet roll.
When all is said and done, I warm to Parky; he has a few annoying traits, but it's hard not to be basically well-disposed to someone who began his interviewing career chatting to the likes of Bette Davis and Orson Welles, and ended it having to pretend to crack up at Sanjeev Bhaskar, OBE.
The book itself is a series of lightly comic articles originally published in the Sunday Times; some are wry meditations on actual football personalities and topics, others are Benchleyesque flights of fancy. The book is charmingly dedicated "To anyone who is football daft", and is a semi-follow-up to an earlier book called Cricket Mad. But though it speaks primarily to the confirmed fan, it also conveys useful information to the novice, especially one with a taste for a natty simile or two: "Goalkeepers, like things that go bump in the night, defy analysis"; "wingmen, like people who thatch roofs and make clogs, are a dying breed"; "Great inside forwards, like blissful marriages, are made in heaven", and so on.

Here is a sample paragraph:

"I don't know if you've ever considered the remarkable fact that bandy legs are an asset to most sportsmen. That they help people who ride horses is a thought too obvious to need explanation. But it is not generally known that they greatly assist cricketers also. I once played in a cricket team with a man who possessed the most splendid pair of hooped legs I have yet seen."

The phrase "I have yet seen" introduces an element of optimistic speculation to the sentence, as if he hopes that he will see an even more splendid pair of hooped legs in the future. Since the book was published in 1968, it is entirely possible that he has done so in the years following.
I certainly hope so.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Some things are simply not possible in an ordered universe, and Sally Geeson turning sixty is one of them

Sally Geeson is always Sally.
She is Sally, for instance, in Cry of the Banshee, a period dress horror film with Vincent Price, animated titles by Terry Gilliam, and a dog whose growling is obviously dubbed by a man.
She's Sally in What's Good For The Goose, in which she has an affair with Norman Wisdom and takes him to a nightclub where the waiters wear ties over bare chests.

She is Sally in Carry On Abroad, in which she pulls Bernard Bresslaw, playing a monk, and wears a bikini with 'This' and 'That' written on it.

Most of all she is Sally in Bless This House, the ITV sitcom in which she plays Sid James's daughter Sally. She later married the programme's producer, William G. 'Fifteen to One' Stewart. Her brother Mike was played by Robin Stewart. According to Robin Askwith's autobiography, he was perpetually late for rehearsals, and once attempted to excuse himself by claiming that his car had hit and killed a camel on the way to the studio.
I have a friend who knew an actress who took a small role in one episode. She said that Sid was delightful, but Diana Coupland, who plays his wife Jean, was a bit snooty.
The family's next-door neighbours are married couple Betty, played by Carry On stalwart Patsy Rowlands, and Trevor, played by Anthony Jackson (Mr Mumford in the first series of Rentaghost).

Sally remembered Sid as behaving very much like a father in real life. Askwith (who auditioned for the role of Mike, plays it in the film and appears in the series as one of Mike's friends) paints an evocative picture of working at Thames at this glorious, magical time. Imagine: Askwith and Sid swagger into the Thames studio bar, to meet Richard O'Sullivan, already there. "Awlright Richard!" says Sid. "You must be earning a bloody fortune, mate! You getting them in then?"

I love sitcom spin-off movies, and Bless This House (1973) is probably the best sitcom spin-off movie ever made. In the series Sally is your average squeaky teen with the average squeaky teen's interests. The film turns her into an ahead-of-her-time green extremist and proto-eco-Fascist climate change fanatic. There's a wonderful moment where she's in the garden in a bikini in what could well be November, reading a book with nothing on the cover except the fantastic title MANKIND IS DOOMED. She starts sniffing when their neighbour starts a garden fire and attempts to put it out with a hose, which Sid then tries to turn off in a slapstick sequence that requires the viewer to accept that he is both mentally and physically incompetent, has forgotten or never knew how to turn off a hose, and is incapable of pointing it in a different direction or getting it out from between two fence posts by lifting it up and out rather than pulling at it.
Later, she and some junior activists, chanting "No more non-disposable containers!" dump a ton of empty drinks cans outside the factory that makes them. The cans have all been specially made for the film and bear the logo of the fictitious drink they supposedly contain. It is called 'Fizzo'.
In a slapstick wallpapering sequence she steps in the paste with her big white boots on and starts screaming hysterically when Sid gets wallpaper on her head.

Anyway, if you are capable of believing it, the record claims that Sally turned sixty on the 23rd of June. She is apparently now a schoolteacher.

Vote for Sally!

Sally with a load of weird-looking old dolls and toys

The Geeson girls: Imagine growing up in the same street as them. You'd never get any homework done.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Goodbye, man about whom I know more or less nothing

Kenneth McKellar has died at the age of eighty-two.

I've always known the name, and had a vague idea that he was a Scotsman who sang traditional songs on tv wearing a kilt. But I'd never actually seen or heard his work until last year, and it's not until now that I learn from his obit in Gramophone magazine that he was a proper, well-regarded tenor who chose light ent over the operatic stage because he found the life "like living in a goldfish bowl."

He was a major cultural icon, particularly of Scottishness, in the sixties and seventies, his name coming readily to the lips whenever the subject of kilts or sporrans was raised. (All I can't say for sure is just how often the subject of kilts or sporrans was raised. If our household was typical: not all that often.)
Two references that always stick in my mind are the bit in The Burkiss Way when Chris Emmett goes to the doctor because his left leg is feeling a bit Scottish, and is eventually diagnosed with Kenneth McKellar of the knee by doctor Nigel Rees, and the line in the great Morecambe and Wise sketch where Eric, resplendent in platform boots and fake chest hair, announces he has "jumped on the pop bandwagon", but later admits that he has to get the tufts of fake hair back to the supplier by the end of the evening because "Kenneth McKellar's doing a Sunday concert and he wants them for his legs."
Bloody hell, that was a long sentence.

Anyway, when the scumbags of the BBC suffered a momentary lapse of uselessness a couple of years back and started issuing complete and unedited Morecambe and Wise shows, I finally got to see McKellar at work. He's charming, devilish handsome, has a laugh, and delivers this blistering rendition of one of my favourite howling songs If It Takes Forever, I Will Wait For You.
I have a jewellery box shaped like a little piano that plays this melody. It used to be my grandmother's. That remains the best version I know, but Kenneth is a close second. You'll notice he's got trousers on, but otherwise this is a faultless performance.

Godspeed ye on yer way, Kenneth lad.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pan's People are in noisy chainmail and all is right with the world

In my previous post, on the subject of Freddie and the Dreamers, I pointed out how in the clip of them performing Do the Freddie it was an especial treat to hear Garrity's feet banging on the wooden boards of the studio, something you rarely get to enjoy in the more professionally sound-recorded tv of today.
Well in just the few minutes that have elapsed since the piece went live I have been inundated with emails, and even one postcard - very quick work, there, Mr C. of Wolverhampton - from readers who share my love of this lost joy of the 'let's just have one big microphone and point it roughly in the direction the noise is coming from' age.
And all are agreed that the all-time classic example is the performance by Pan's People, from an early episode of The Two Ronnies, that you can enjoy at the end of this post.
As you'll see, the girls are all done up with long braids of chain-mail, and all the time, above the track, you can hear this constant swishing and rattling, almost hypnotic in its distracting intensity. And I think, although I can't swear to it, there's also the sound of their boots scraping on the floor to be enjoyed somewhere in the mix too.

Incidentally, were Pan's People supposed to dance completely out of time with both the music and each other, and not do very much anyway, as if conceding that the reason we are watching them has nothing whatever to do with what they are ostensibly doing? Because my girlfriend was wondering.

"Pan's People have a particular attraction for me..."
I don't know what it is, all I know is whenever I see them I have to go out and steal tape.
You and me both, Keith. One minute I'm watching them cavorting on The Two Ronnies, the next the clock has mysteriously jumped forward one hour and I'm waking up in the middle of the room clutching an Asda bag and surrounded by unopened rolls of sellotape. My girlfriend is starting to ask where they keep coming from and, let me tell you, I'm running out of excuses. There's only so many things you can tape to other things in an average-sized flat without it starting to get obvious that you're just looking for things to tape together, just so you can use up some of the damned stuff.
If Keith Jackson is still out there and reading this, please get in touch. A problem shared is a problem halved, after all.
More on Pan's People can be located here, but for now, on with the show.
You may want to put a sheet over the budgie's cage first.

Anybody want anything sellotaping?

Do the Freddie

I don't get nostalgic about pop music by and large. In fact I hate most of it.
Like the movies, pop music obviously goes into decline around the time of the Second World War, and the sound of Elvis Presley is the sound of nails being hammered into the genre's coffin. And don't get me started on the Beatles.
Actually do. When are people going to grow up and see these amateur twang merchants for what they are? They sounded bad enough at the time. Now they don't sound like anything at all; just a vaguely perceptible noise that seems to be coming through the wall from the house next door.
I left a comment on somebody's site a week or so back about the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup, explaining that though it is one of my least favourite Marx films, it's still a Marx film, and therefore I still enjoy it more than almost anything else in the universe, just not as much as most other Marx films. And the guy said, yeah, it's like Beatles songs: you have to look a long time before you find a bad one.
Oh, I don't know. There's Yesterday, for example, and that one about needing love. (There's nothing you can do that can't be done... So true.) There were a dozen or so on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band last time I heard it, including a real doozy called A Day in the Life. Still gives me a chuckle just thinking about it. Is John Lennon a genius? No. He's an ass. How profound are the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby? Answer: not at all. They're like a schoolboy wrote them.
Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. There are exceptions to every rule, and for some reason I must confess to an affection bordering on adoration for Freddie and the Dreamers. The late Freddie Garrity was one of the great oddballs of British culture, as well as one of its most refreshingly unpretentious. A friend of mine remembered his father, who worked with Freddie in the sixties, describing him as "an amiable former milkman from Manchester who couldn't quite believe the amount of sex he was suddenly getting." (One of the rules of being a pop star, I always think, is that you must never be pretentious, as you are making a great living doing one of the silliest, most trivial and least important things imaginable. Bob Dylan! Goodness me.)
Obviously, I love Freddie's stage presence, all that silly leaping around, and the man looks amazing with his big specs and curly hair: that much is obvious. But I also have a genuine affection for most of their songs. Some of the most interesting are to be found among their last, dating from that period of frantic activity when those big booby Beatles made pop even sillier by suddenly pretending to go all serious about it. Freddie and the boys obviously could never go po-facedly into the experimental age: their image forbade it. So instead, they briefly - all too briefly - took the Kinks route by way of Bonzos Avenue, and produced one of the greatest singles of all time: the fantastic Brown and Porters (Meat Exporters) Lorry, a song about which everything is perfect, from the title on.
Sadly, no film of them performing it seems to exist; it's odds-on they never got the chance to perform it again after the first recording. Their last single that had got anywhere near charting was Thou Shalt Not Steal, which reached the dizzy height of number 44 in 1965; Brown and Porters, in 1967, was their fifth in a row to not chart at all.
Freddie revived the Dreamers as a cabaret act in the nineties, though I'll bet nobody was shouting for Brown and Porters come encore time. I would have been, though. Now it's too late.
But here they all are again, with Garrity in exceptionally foolish form even by the man's own high standards, doing the Freddie in 1965. As well as great in itself, it's a lovely example of something you don't get with music acts on tv these days: the clearly audible sound of their feet banging on the stage.
Imagine no John Lennon. It's easy if you try.

Monday, May 10, 2010

No sadder sight

I’ve been finding out about pigeons.

Did you know that the feral pigeon is in fact the descendant of domesticated rock doves?
Or that they have 37 taste buds (as opposed to our 10000)?
Or that they cannot take a continuous drink from a pool of water, but must instead take small sips and tilt their heads back to swallow?

Actually, the urban pigeon has always struck me as the saddest thing in the world. Now, tragedy is presumably in the eye of the beholder. Things that seem tragic and sad to me may be hilarious to you - indeed, if you work for BBC Light Entertainment it’s virtually a dead cert.
But there is a case to be made for the proposition that, correctly understood, the pigeon shuffling its way through life is a sadder sight than almost anything: sadder even than the sight of Ronnie Corbett appearing on Little Britain. The lot of the pigeon is, I think, the ultimate symbol of the essential futility of existence, which is not a compliment I throw about lightly.

For some reason, the aesthetic joy almost everybody takes in birds stops short at the pigeon. True, they do not sing, though their cooing is far from unendearing. Neither are they beautifully marked, though their dappled grey giving way to green around the necks and piercing orange eyes are far from ugly. They waddle rather appealingly like ducks, their heads in constant absurd motion like chickens. Yet we seem to loathe them.

At least until a few years ago, and probably still, London’s Victoria Coach Station (which lines its every level surface with spikes in the hope that lost souls waiting in vain for the arrival of a coach that runs for longer than fifteen minutes without falling over might be diverted by the sight of birds impaling themselves) ran an endlessly looped tape message, warning that pigeons are “a potentially fatal health hazard”.
You could try writing to them to ask for the exact number of pigeon-related fatalities in England and Wales over the last century or so. Or you can just take my word that the answer is none and they won’t bother to reply anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of this commotion is a polystyrene tray containing three chips and half a kebab

“They’re rats with wings!” people say, a comment which isn’t true, wasn’t funny even the first few hundred times you heard it, and presupposes a shared low opinion of rats that finds no echo in my soul, I’m afraid. Rats are sensitive and charming mammals, as intelligent as dogs, and if they were kept solely as pets while dogs were allowed to breed freely in sewers and rubbish tips people would call pigeons ‘dogs with wings’ and it would be, if anything, an even stupider thing to say.
What pigeons and rats do have in common is that they more than any other animals have done the seemingly impossible: successfully carved a niche for themselves in the howling grey concrete and steel wilderness of human cities. Both profit from human wastefulness and are then blamed for their success. Their eat-anything policy pays off in all realms other than the aesthetic.
But the rat is secretive, flees from human contact and tries to avoid drawing conspicuous attention to itself. Pigeons by contrast are everywhere all the time, and their strategy for avoiding danger, according to one authoritative website I have consulted, is “keeping still and trying not to be noticed”.
Despite the manifest failure of this plan, they persist in stumbling about the streets, pecking at discarded cigarette ends, their feet often deformed, or missing, or trailing lengths of nylon wire, their lifespan a three to five-year cycle of being born, causing others to be born, eating crap off the pavement and dying – with never a second’s rest, peace or pleasure.
Yet in captivity they can live anything between fifteen and thirty-five years. So I just want to get hold of one of them and say: What are you DOING? You could live ANYWHERE! According to this website here you are excellent fliers and can reach speeds of 50 mph – so what’s with all this walking? If you can outmanoeuvre almost any bird of prey in the air, as once again the internet assures me is the case, why hang around on the ground where you can't even get out of the way when there's a truck coming? Why not fly to the woods, or the seaside, and rediscover the taste of wholesome insects and berries? You’ve got wings! USE THEM!
But do they? No they do not.

See - you can do it!

Far from inviting our derision and contempt, the lives of the pigeons should speak to us as deeply and profoundly as the lives of the poets. (More so, actually: when was the last time you saw a poet crushed under the wheels of a bus? As opposed to merely wanting to, I mean.)

I think we hate pigeons because we look at them and see ourselves.
They have freedom all around them, yet they choose enslavement. They could have beauty, and they choose ugliness. Theirs is the skies, but they choose the pavement. They have access to a world without limits, and they choose confinement. All for the sole and dubious advantage of comparatively easy pickings. And when those pickings take the form of human vomit that’s about as dubious as advantages get, I don't care how few taste buds they've got.
And yet that’s the point, isn’t it? They don’t choose. They don’t know they live lives of uniquely unnatural horror. They don’t know that if you don’t like your life you can change it. (H G Wells, to them, was just one more moving target.) They think the world they have is all there is.
That is their small tragedy: how much greater the tragedy, then, to know exactly what we are forfeiting, as we do, and still opt for the narrow, the easy, and the tenth-rate. Willingly eating vomit pales beside this insanity.

I’d hate for you to think that all I’ve been doing is finding out about pigeons. Here’s some of the other great stuff I’ve discovered this morning:

The copyright on the song “Happy Birthday To You” expired last year.

A man called Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby in 1939 that does not feature a single use of the letter e, and he died on the day it was published.

Pot Noodles have been around since 1977 and are made in the Welsh town of Crumlin to the tune of 155 million pots a year.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Kenny Everett Collectors' Guide #1

Kenny Everett's Ultimate Loo Book (1988)

The golden age of Everett-related collectibles was undoubtedly the Thames years: this highly desirable item dates from the other end of his tv career, appearing in the shops after his almost completely ignored fifth and final BBC series. (The cover shows him climbing out of a lavatory bowl with the severe, short hairdo he had sported since series 3.)

The book claims to have been written, like his 1982 autobiography The Custard Stops at Hatfield, by Everett and Simon Booker, which presumably again means that it was ghosted by Booker. Still, he gets Everett's tone of voice well enough, and makes a commendable stab at replicating the absurd wordplay that (I would guess) Barry Cryer had been responsible for on tv.

Billed as "the world's first paperback laxative", it hangs on a piece of red string so it can be attached to the toilet roll dispenser. (See photograph, taken in my own bathroom. My soon-to-be-wife allowed this on the strict instructions that it be removed again once the photo had been taken. For some reason, she questioned the merits of a Kenny Everett Ultimate Loo Book as a permanent bathroom fixture, particularly one that had been purchased second hand and thus had hung in close proximity to lavatories unknown for time periods uncertain.)

Taking the form of an almanac, the book is a mixture of 'on this day' type items ("Happy birthday to Margaret Thatcher; whatever your politics, she's a remarkable woman"), 'Bathroom Brain-Teasers' ('Q: Whose turn is it to pay for lunch? A: Nicholas Parsons'), Everett's Astro-loogical forecasts ("It's not often that you get invited to appear naked on prime-time television, and this week is no exception"), 'Loo Laffs' (very old jokes), and helpful hints, such as this one for ensuring the success of a dinner party: "In the middle of the boeuf en croute a la Marseillaise, reveal your hidden store of knowledge about flatworms - a rare breed of animal which reproduce by pulling themselves to pieces; each part then develops into a worm."
The back cover boasts, "All that remains now is to lock the door, assume the customary position and turn to the entry for today's date. Minutes later you will emerge wittier, wiser... and about two pounds lighter."

Collectors note: Before purchasing, check that the book still has its original red string attached. I have seen several for sale without any string at all, and even one that had been slyly renovated using new, white string. Buyers beware!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tremate, tremate, i Roper son tornati!

We all know that British sitcom travels with surprising success to some surprising places, but this has to be the winner.
If the bewildering range and quantity of them to be seen at those little newsstands you find on virtually every street there is anything to go by, Italy must be the world's biggest consumer of DVD partworks. But even allowing for this, to what force or process more local than chaos theory can we possibly attribute the fact that a partwork that builds into a complete collection of all five series of George and Mildred (or George e Mildred as they seem doggedly intent on calling it over there) is a viable Italian commercial proposition?
Curse fate for having birthed you anywhere but Italia!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chicks with hammers

To kick off my new blog, here's a picture of the lovely Glynis Johns, about to put a hammer through the skull of Terry-Thomas in that fine English film Vault of Horror (1973).
I re-encountered this picture, which comes trailing so many memories of hours of primary school playground time spent staring at the book Horror Films by Alan Frank, when researching a magazine article on Glynis recently.
It reminded me of one of my favourite artistic subjects: women who have hurt their thumbs with a hammer trying to put up a picture.
Here are three great examples. The first two are professional injured thumb models. The third is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The latter picture is one of a series in which Buffy re-enacts various of the calamities that are the average female's daily lot.
Here she points out the dangers of playing tennis in high heels:

Lastly for now, here's a picture of Norman Wisdom spooning ice cream out of a woman's top.