Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Keeping the dream of Santa Claus on life-support for another year

My niece and older nephew are frankly a bit too old to be writing letters to Father Christmas, and were adamant that they weren't going to do it this year. At the last minute they relented and decided that they would leave their lists by the fireplace in the lounge, along with the customary mince pie, half glass of milk and carrot for the reindeer.

As the person who assumes the role of the beleaguered present giver, and writes the replies to their letters (something they are well aware of, although we do not discuss it) I was rather caught off guard by their eleventh-hour about face. I briefly toyed with the idea of writing them a letter, allegedly from Richard Dawkins, informing them that the universe is a black amoral void where all your hopes and dreams die. 

Instead though I wrote this:

Dear Beth, Jack & Stellan,

The reindeer have been selling clippings from my beard on Ebay. This has been going on since July apparently. I have been too preoccupied with the business of getting everything ready for Christmas Eve to notice.

My new workshop lies along a route to the North Pole that is popular with Arctic explorers. Only the other day a party of Norwegians knocked on my door and asked whether they could borrow some milk. I gave them some of Donner's. She insists that all reindeer milk is green. I think that she may have a cold.

It was my wife (who is called Deborah Claus – not Mary Christmas as many seem to think ) who first remarked on my mysteriously shrinking beard and complimented me on how youthful it made me look.

When I confronted the reindeer on this matter they were all adamant that my beard was the same size that it had always been, and that I was imagining things. As they very seldom agree on anything, this immediately roused my suspicions.

It was Dancer who proved to be the weak link, blurting out “It was all Rudolph's idea!” and confessing that they had spent most of the money they had made on moisturising antler glitter.

You can use it too if you want,” said Blitzen weakly, as I stormed out of the shed.

~

Tonight, as I take a five minute break from my deliveries, and put my feet up on your uncle Tom, who is snoring soundly on the spare bed in your front room, I feel a great sense of nostalgia for a more innocent time, long before you were all born. Back then the worst that would happen on my rounds would be a child awake long past his or her bedtime, catching a brief glimpse of me through bleary half-closed eyes.

These days it is common for families to lay out Santa traps: Cameras disguised as Christmas baubles, triggered by tripwires and light sensors; their intention is to catch me in the act of delivering presents and sell the incriminating photographs to Hello! Magazine. I suppose if I were to trip and fall over, as I sometimes do, video footage of the event would invariably appear on You've Been Framed.

In the last hour, I have been forced to cut my way out of a weighted net that dropped down from the ceiling after I picked up a mince pie that was positioned suspiciously in the centre of an otherwise empty room (A handwritten sign on the door read: Please put presents in here). I don't know what these people imagine they would do if they were to successfully capture me. Maybe they want me to entertain their children while they watch Eastenders and the Queen's speech.

Your street is particularly bad when it comes to this kind of behaviour. I have been left with no option other than to issue stern written warnings at many of the houses. The attempts by one family (I won't say which one) to trap me made me so angry that I instructed Rudolph to lick all the icing off their Christmas cake.

It comes as a great relief that you have welcomed me into your home as an honoured guest. I drank the milk and ate the food that you left out, and shared the carrot with the reindeer, who, I must admit, do look rather splendid in their antler glitter.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Dictated but not read

Santa Claus (Father Christmas)

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Why are bags always empty in films?

I have been terribly bored of late. Consequently I have been posting fake answers in the Notes & Queries section of The Guardian website. They closed the comments before I could add the following  response:

Why are bags always empty in films?

 

As is generally the case with Hollywood, one must separate the prosaic reality from the glitter and bullshit myth that becomes received wisdom by virtue of repetition.

The reality first:  An unforeseen consequence of the 1937 Deary Labour Laws was that actors and extras in films and stage productions, who were required as part of their performance to lift a weight equal to, or over, 5kgs, were re-classified as manual labourers and eligible for additional payment from their employers. A further inconvenience (from the point of view of the studio bosses) was that labour unions began to actively recruit actors into their ranks. Union representatives started turning up unannounced at theatres and film sets, with portable weighing scales in tow, and disrupting shoots and rehearsals. Some corrupt union officials would also attempt to extort additional  fees from productions that were known to be on a tight schedule. It is not surprising that eventually the industry collectively threw up its hands and emptied all the boxes, bags, and cases. In the words of the director Dennis Oritz to one of his extras: “Act like you've got the body of your overweight twin in that trunk. It's what I'm paying you $5 a day for.”

Around the same time, the actress Betty Landes was shooting her part in the musical comedy – A Lion Named Harold (directed by Jake Barby). There is a scene in which she and her on-screen husband (the poker-faced James Vale, miscast in the role of the Cecil Frobisher) pull up outside the Rushton Hotel & Zoological Gardens, in uptown Manhattan. Cecil bounds into the foyer of the building, leaving Betty's character to lug a pair of heavy cases out of the trunk of their car and then stagger inside with them. John Ashley who was the lighting director for the movie remembers the scene well:

“Jake wanted Betty to really struggle with those cases, which was partly because he wanted the scene to be as realistic as possible, but mostly because, at the time, he and Betty weren't getting along. She would make a point of turning up late on set because she knew that she had him over a barrel. So this was Jake's opportunity for revenge. He had the prop manager fill the cases with as many heavy objects as they could lay their hands on. There was even a small anvil that they swiped from the set of Robin Hood. If you watch that film [Robin Hood (1938)] you can see that an anvil goes missing from the sheriff’s castle halfway through a sword fight. That's because we took it.

“On the day we shot the scene, Betty couldn't get either one of the trunks out of the car. Finally, after the third take she said to Jake:

'Jake, I've decided that from now on I'm not lifting anything heavier than a Tom Collins.'

Then she breezed imperiously off the set and we didn't see her for three days.”

Production on the film resumed with both cases nearly empty: Barby in a moment of pettiness had shaken the following items from his satchel into the topmost one:

- A blue pencil
- A slip of paper from a fortune cookie, bearing the message: 'You will shortly embark upon a great journey'.
- A hasty pencil rubbing of the George Linzell memorial plaque from the Seals Building on Wall Street.
- The key to a locker at Grand Central Station.
- A 'liberty head' dime dating from 1932.
- A Washington quarter from 1935.
- A small blue-black ball of lint (allegedly mined from Barby's bellybutton)

Betty Landes returned one of these items to the director at the end of the shoot, along with a card that read: 'Dear Jake. You know what you can do with your blue pencil.' As  Ashley recalls: “Watching Jake and Betty sparring with each other was funnier than anything in the movie. We should have turned the cameras around and filmed them instead.”

The incident was forgotten about until 1970 when it was repeated as an anecdote in the first edition of Robert Lovelock's comprehensive Encyclopedia of Californian Film and Theater. (Henceforth known as Lovelocks, the encyclopedia  was updated and republished annually up until 2011. It now exists as a website, most of which lies behind a paywall.

Michael Pilgrem (who was filming the espionage thriller - The Leningrad Affair ) was amused by the story and had a number of 'Barby Bags' made up, each containing the same items as Betty Landes' case. The practice spread through the industry, first as a kind of in-joke, then later one of those things that is done for good luck, and finally as a Hollywood tradition. Modern prop stores will keep large supplies of the seven items in stock (the coins are specially minted / the locker key is an exact replica but there is no longer a matching lock at Grand Central / the ball of lint is just fluff and is not harvested from anybody's bellybutton).

It also became common for aspiring actors and actress who journeyed to Hollywood from out of state, seeking fame and fortune, to include these items among their travelling possessions as good luck charms. Jimmy Darwin – a former detective who investigated some of the murders committed by the serial killer, Glenn Keep, in the late 1970s recalled: 

“We kept finding the bodies of these blonde girls. They all had their throats cut. In all but two of the cases they had these identical miscellaneous items among their personal belongings. First off we thought that they were calling cards left by the killer, mainly because of the fortune cookie message. Later we realised that the victims were young girls from the sticks, fresh off the bus and hoping to make it big. In fact Glenn Keep picked up most of them at the bus terminal. But it was this realisation that was instrumental in helping us to crack the case.”

There is another sad coda to this story: Betty Landes, who had since retired from acting, found herself inundated with blue pencils, which were sent to her by fans and pranksters. An interview given to 60 Minutes by her daughter, Ariel Penton, paints a distressing picture of the effect that this had on her:

“At the end of her life, my mother suffered from Alzheimer's  Disease... People were sending her blue pencils through the mail, thinking it was funny and that it was the first time anyone had  thought to do it. Some days she was getting anywhere between ten and a hundred envelopes, all containing blue pencils. She was a fiercely independent woman, struggling to maintain a grip on reality, and this became a great source of torment for her.”

When Betty Landess died, in 1985, over 20,000 blue pencils were found in her New York apartment. To this day her former address, along with that of her agent's, regularly receive blue pencils in the post. These are donated to local schools and education projects.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A dream of two houses

Early on Saturday morning I had a vivid, lucid dream. It seemed more real to me than anything in my waking life, and still does:

The house where I now live had relocated to an inland cliff, close to the sea but not adjacent to it. I was moving to the property next door, which was one of those futuristic-looking buildings from the 1960s: A dumpy, upright cylinder, of approximately three stories, attached to gracefully-meandering, curved wing, that gradually deceased in height as it tapered off.

The exterior was a grubby white colour. It was bordered by a rectangular wall, four to five feet high, that had obviously belonged to a much older, more conventional house that must have once stood on the site. That were odd gaps in the wall that probably accommodated long gates, however these had been removed. Because of the size of the current property there was no real garden to speak of. 

Inside, the layout was a labyrinth of short, narrow corridors leading to bedrooms and bathrooms, of which there were a  great many.

Initially my bedroom, which was in the wing, facing towards the sea, had no windows. When I returned there later, the room had divided itself and was now split level, with a small lower section approximately three feet in length, at the bottom of a carpeted six foot drop. There was a long narrow window along the base of this level. Above it, and projecting outwards, there was a much larger leaded pane. Neither seemed to let in much light. 

One bathroom I entered was carpeted with dirty white lino that was curling over along by the walls and in the corners. Positioned horizontally across the back wall there was a blue-green bathtub. Side by side, directly in front of it, there was a pair of similarly-coloured foot baths, comparable to the ones that you used to get in public swimming pools. The room was dirty as if soil and leaves been allowed to blow in from the outside.

I could hear Flap – the very first budgie I owned - who has been dead for almost 23 years, calling to me. I walked through the house searching for him. In one of the bedrooms I saw my chameleon, Schubert, who died in August, 2012 - Just the back of him, disappearing behind a bedside chest of drawers. I pulled it away from the wall but he wasn't there. All I could see was the thin, bare-wood back panel, lightly spattered in the lower corner nearest to me with flecks of white paint.

I woke up disorientated and went downstairs to the kitchen. The Aga had gone out and was cool to the touch. I don't know how to relight it.

When I returned to bed I slipped back into the same dream. I was carrying a small cardboard box of my possession over from the old house. I looked down at it and thought: 'Why I am doing this? I don't need this stuff any more.'

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Postman's Park Memorial (transcript)

The tiled memorial at Postman's Park, just up the road from St Paul's Cathedral, commemorates ordinary lives lost during acts of extraordinary heroism. You can read more about its history on Wikipedia 

The following transcription dates to Monday the 11th August 2003, when I evidently had nothing better to do other than stand in the park for an hour writing it all down.

I have tried to preserve the original line structure of the memorials although, in some cases, this has been difficult because the text is poorly laid out and words have been sandwiched into small gaps between the lines.

Although the size of the text varies from line to line, and from word to word, I have kept it uniform, in order to make it easier to read.

On some of the memorials the letter ‘V’ is used as a substitute for the letter ‘U’.

Arthur Regelous and Alice Maud (panel 6, bottom row) are also commemorated by a very ornate drinking fountain which can be found in Museum Park, near Bethnal Green Underground station in East London. 

Left to right

1st Panel
Top Row

ALFRED SMITH
POLICE CONSTABLE
WHO WAS KILLED IN AN
AIR RAID WHILE SAVING
THE LIVES OF WOMEN
& GIRLS
JUNE.13.1917
(Note: This memorial is decorated with a policeman’s helmet design.)

Middle Row

THOMAS. GRIFFIN
FITTERS.LABOURER
APRIL.12.1899 IN A
BATTERSEA SUGAR REFINERY
WAS FATALLY SCALDED IN
RETURNING TO SEARCH
FOR HIS MATE

WALTER.PEART DRIVER
AND HARRY.DEAN FIREMAN
OF THE WINDSOR.EXPRESS
ON JULY.18.1898
WHILST BEING SCALDED & BURNT
SACRIFICED THEIR LIVES IN
SAVING THE TRAIN

MARY.ROGERS
STEWARDESS OF THE STELLA
MAR.30.1899
SELF SACRIFICED BY GIVING UP
HER LIFE BELT & VOLUNTARILY
GOING DOWN IN THE
SINKING SHIP
(Note: This memorial is decorated with an image of a sinking galleon in the bottom left corner and an anchor in the bottom right, both in green ink.)

GEORGE.STEPHEN.FUNNELL
POLICE.CONSTABLE
DEC.22.1899 IN A FIRE AT
THE ELEPHANT & CASTLE, WICK ROAD
HACKNEY WICK, AFTER RESCUING
TWO LIVES, WENT BACK INTO THE
FLAMES, SAVING A BARMAID
AT THE RISK OF HIS OWN LIFE

Bottom Row

JOSEPH ANDREW FORD
AGED 30. METROPOLITAN FIRE
BRIGADE. SAVED SIX PERSONS
FROM FIRE IN GRAY’S INN ROAD.
BVT IN HIS LAST HEROIC ACT
HE WAS SCORCHED TO DEATH
OCT.7.1871
(Note: The memorials in postman’s park were manufactured by Doulton Lambeth., however this is the only memorial in the park to have the name of Doulton Lambeth printed on one of the tiles)

ANGELA KENNEDY
AGED 19
DIED IN TRYING TO
SAVE HER SISTER
FROM THEIR BVRNING HOUSE
IN EDWARD’S LANE STOKE
NEWINGTON. OCT.18.1871

EDMUND EMERY OF
272 KING’S ROAD CHELSEA.
PASSENGER
LEAPT FROM A THAMES
STEAMBOAT TO RESCUE A
CHILD AND WAS DROWNED
JULY 31.1874

WILLIAM DONALD OF
BAYSWATER. AGED 19
RAILWAY CLERK
WAS DROWNED IN THE LEA
TRYING TO SAVE A LAD FROM A
DANGEROUS ENTANGLEMENT OF
WEED. JULY 16.1876

Panel 2
Top Row

P.C. HAROLD FRANK RICKETTS
METROPOLITAN POLICE
DROWNED AT TEIGNMOUTH
WHILST TRYING TO RESCUE
A BOY BATHING AND SEEN
TO BE IN DIFFICULTY
11.SEPT.1916

P.C. EDWARD GEORGE
BROWN GREENOFF
METROPOLITAN POLICE
MANY LIVES WERE SAVED BY HIS
DEVOTION TO DUTY AT THE
TERRIBLE EXPLOSION AT
SILVERTOWN.19.JAN.1917.

P.C. PERCY EDWIN COOK
METROPOLITAN POLICE
VOLUNTARILY DESCENDED HIGH
TENSION CHAMBER AT KENSINGTON
TO RESCUE TWO WORKMEN
OVERCOME BY POISONOUS GAS
7.OCT.1927

FREDERICK MILLS.A.RUTTER
ROBERT DURANT & F.D.JONES
WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN
BRAVELY STRIVING TO SAVE
A COMRADE AT THE SEWAGE
PUMPING WORKS. EAST HAM
JULY 1ST 1895

Middle Row

ELIZABETH BOXALL
AGED 17 OF BETHNAL GREEN
WHO DIED OF INJURIES RECEIVED
IN TRYING TO SAVE
A CHILD
FROM A RUNAWAY HORSE
JUNE.20.1888

HERBERT PETER CAZALY
STATIONER’S CLERK
WHO WAS DROWNED AT KEW
IN ENDEAVOURING TO SAVE
A MAN FROM DROWNING
APRIL 21 1889

.HERBERT MACONOGHU.
SCHOOL BOY FROM WIMBLEDON AGED 13
HIS PARENTS ABSENT IN INDIA, LOST
HIS LIFE IN VAINLY TRYING TO RESCUE
.HIS TWO SCHOOL FELLOWS WHO WERE.
DROWNED AT GLOVERS POOL, CROYDE,
NORTH DEVON. AUGUST.28.1882

SAMUEL RABBETH
MEDICAL OFFICER
OF THE ROYAL FREE HOSPITAL
WHO TRIED TO SAVE A CHILD
SUFFERING FROM DIPHTHERIA
AT THE COST OF HIS OWN LIFE
OCTOBER 21.1884.

Bottom Row

FREDERICK ALFRED CROFT
INSPECTOR.AGED 31
SAVED A LUNATIC WOMAN
FROM SUICIDE AT WOOLWICH
ARSENAL STATION.BUT WAS
HIMSELF RUN OVER BY THE TRAIN
JAN.11.1878

HARRY SISLEY OF
KILBVRN.AGED 10.
DROWNED IN ATTEMPTING
TO SAVE HIS BROTHER.
AFTER HE HIMSELF HAD
JUST BEEN RESCUED
MAY 24.1878

JAMES HEWERS.
ON SEPT.24.1878
WAS KILLED BY A TRAIN
AT RICHMOND IN THE
ENDEAVOUR TO SAVE
ANOTHER MAN.

GEORGE BLENCOWE
AGED 16.
WHEN A FRIEND BATHING IN
THE LEA CRIED FOR HELP.
WENT TO HIS RESCUE
AND WAS DROWNED
SEPT.6.1880.



Panel 3
Top Row

DAVID.SELWES AGED 12
OF WOOLWICH
SUPPORTED HIS DROWNING
PLAYFELLOW AND SANK WITH HIM
CLASPED IN HIS ARMS.
SEPTEMBER.12.1886

WILLIAM.GOODRUM
SIGNALMAN-AGED 60
LOST HIS LIFE AT KINGSLAND ROADBRIDGE
IN SAVING A WORKMAN FROM DEATH UNDER
THE APPROACHING TRAIN FROM KEW
FEBRUARY.28.1880

MRS.YARMAN WIFE OF GEORGE.YARMAN
LABOURER AT BERMONDSEY
REFUSIN (the corner of this tile is damaged) TO BE DETTERED FROM MAKING
THREE ATTEMPTS TO CLIMB A BURNING
STAIRCASE TO SAVE HER AGED MOTHER
DIED OF THE EFFECTS
MARCH.21.1990

ALEX R. STEWART BROWN
OF BROCKLEY
FELLOW OF THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF SURGEONS
THOUGH SUFFERING FROM SEVERE SPINAL INJURY
THE RESULT OF A RECENT ACCIDENT DIED
FROM HIS BRAVE EFFORTS TO RESCUE A DROWNING
MAN AND TO RESTORE HIS LIFE
OCTOBER.9.1900



Bottom Row

ERNEST BENNING.
COMPOSITOR.AGED 22.
UPSET FROM A BOAT ONE DARK
NIGHT OFF PIMLICO PIER.
GRASPED AN OAR WITH ONE HAND
SUPPORTING A WOMAN WITH THE
OTHER. BVT SANK AS SHE WAS
RESCUED. AUG.25.1883

THOMAS SIMPSON.
DIED OF EXHAUSTION
AFTER SAVING MANY LIVES
FROM THE BREAKING ICE
AT HIGHGATE PONDS.
JAN.25.1885

WILLIAM FISHER.
AGED 9.
LOST HIS LIFE ON RODNEY
ROAD WALWORTH WHILE
TRYING TO SAVE HIS LITTLE
BROTHER FROM BEING RUN
OVER. JULY 12.1886

GEORGE FREDERICK
SIMONDS OF ISLINGTON
RUSHED INTO A BURNING
HOUSE TO SAVE AN AGED
WIDOW. AND DIED OF HIS
INJURIES DEC.1.1886

Between this and the next panel is the small wooden shrine, commemorating the creator the memorial – George Frederic Watts. On the lintel of the door is the inscription “The utmost for the highest”
At the bottom there is a further inscription:

“In memoriam
George Frederic Watts
Who desiring to honour
Heroic self sacrifice
Placed these records here.”

Panel 4
Top Row



RICHARD. FARRUS LABOURER
WAS DROWNED IN ATTEMPTING TO SAVE A
POOR GIRL WHO HAD THROWN HERSELF
INTO A CANAL AT
GLOBE.BRIDGE.PECKHAM
MAY.20.1878

GEORGE.LEE FIREMAN
AT A FIRE IN CLERKENWELL
CARRIED AN UNCONSCIOUS GIRL TO
THE ESCAPE FALLING SIX TIMES
& DIED OF HIS INJURIES
JULY.26.1876

WILLIAM.DRAKE
LOST HIS LIFE IN AVERTING A
SERIOUS ACCIDENT TO A LADY
IN HYDE.PARK
APRIL.2.1869
WHOSE HORSES WERE UNMANAGE-
-ABLE THROUGH THE BREAKING
OF THE CARRIAGE POLE

ELLEN.DONOVAN
OF LINCOLN.COURT
GREAT.WILD.STREET
RUSHED INTO A BURNING HOUSE
TO SAVE A NEIGHBOURS CHILDREN
AND PERISHED IN THE FLAMES
JULY.28.1873

Bottom Row



SAMVEL LOWDELL.
BARGEMAN
DROWNED WHEN RESCUING
A BOY AT BLACKFRIARS
FEB.25.1882.
HE HAD SAVED
TWO OTHER LIVES

WILLIAM FREER LUCAS
.M.R.C.S.L.L.D. AT MIDDLESEX HOSPITAL
RISKED POISON FOR HIMSELF
RATHER THAN LESSEN ANY
CHANCE OF SAVING A CHILD’S LIFE.
AND DIED. OCT. 8TH. 1893

EDWARD BLAKE.
DROWNED WHILE SKATING
AT THE WELSH HARP
WATERS. HENDON
IN THE ATTEMPT TO
RESCUE TWO UNKNOWN
GIRLS. FEB.5.1895

EDWARD MORRIS.
AGED 10
BATHING IN THE GRAND
JUNCTION CANAL
SACRIFICED HIS LIFE TO HELP
HIS SINKING COMPANION
AUG.2.1897



Panel 5



ALICE AYERS
DAUGHTER OF A BRICKLAYER’S LABOURER
WHO BY INTREPID CONDUCT
SAVED 3 CHILDREN
FROM A BURNING HOUSE
IN UNION STREET BOROUGH
AT THE COST OF HER OWN YOUNG LIFE
APRIL 24 1881 (?)

JOHN CRANMER
CAMBRIDGE
AGED 23 A CLERK IN
THE LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL
WHO WAS DROWNED NEAR OSTEND
WHILST SAVING THE LIFE OF
A STRANGER AND A FOREIGNER
AUGUST 8 1901

G GARNISH
A YOUNG CLERGYMAN.
WHO LOST HIS LIFE
IN ENDEAVOURING TO
RESCUE A STRANGER
FROM DROWNING AT PUTNEY
JANUARY 7 1885

JOHN CLINTON
AGED 10
WHO WAS DROWNED NEAR
LONDON BRIDGE
IN TRYING
TO SAVE A COMPANION
YOUNGER THAN HIMSELF
JULY 16.1894



Bottom Row



GODFREY MAULE NICHOLSON
MANAGER OF A STRATFORD DISTILLERY
GEORGE ELLIOT AND ROBERT UNDERHILL. WORKMEN
SUCCESSIVELY WENT DOWN
A WELL TO RESCUE COMRADE
AND WERE POISONED BY GAS
JULY.12.1901

SOLOMAN GALAMAN
AGED 11. DIED OF INJURIES
SEPT.6.1901 AFTER SAVING
HIS LITTLE BROTHER FROM
BEING RUN OVER IN
COMMERCIAL STREET
“MOTHER I SAVED HIM BUT
I COULD NOT SAVE MYSELF.”

JAMES BANNISTER
OF BOW. AGED 30.
RUSHED OVER WHEN AN
OPPOSITE SHOP CAUGHT
FIRE & WAS SUFFOCATED
IN THE ATTEMPT TO SAVE
LIFE. OCT.14.1901.

ELIXABETH COGHLAM
AGED 26. OF CHURCH PATH
STOKE NEWINGTON.
DIED. SAVING HER FAMILY
AND HOUSE BY CARRYING
BLAZING PARAFIN TO THE
YARD. JAN.1.1902



Panel 6
Top Row

SARAH SMITH
PANTOMIME ARTISTE
AT PRINCE’S THEATRE
DIED OF TERRIBLE INJURIES RECEIVED
WHEN ATTEMPTING IN HER INFLAMMABLE DRESS
TO EXTINGUISH THE FLAMES WHICH HAD
ENVELOPED HER COMPANION
JANUARY.24.1863

ROBERT. WRIGHT
POLICE CONSTABLE
OF CROYDON
ENTERED A BURNING HOUSE TO SAVE A WOMAN
KNOWING THAT THERE WAS PRETROLEUM STORED
IN THE CELLAR – AN EXPLOSION TOOK PLACE
AND HE WAS KILLED
APRIL.30.1893

HENRY.JAMES.BRISTOW
AGED EIGHT – AT WALTHAMSTOW
ON DECEMBER 30 1890 – SAVED HIS LITTLE
SISTER’S LIFE BY TEARING OFF
HER FLAMING CLOTHES
BUT CAUGHT FIRE HIMSELF
AND DIED OF BURNS AND SHOCK

JOSPEH WILLIAM
ONSLOW
LIGHTERMAN WHO WAS
DROWNED AT WAPPING
ON MAY 5.1885
IN TRYING TO SAVE
A BOY’S LIFE

Bottom Row



ARTHUR REGELOUS
CARMAN (“LITTLE PETER”) AGED
25. WHO
WITH ALICE MAUD
DENMAN. AGED 27.
DIED IN TRYING TO SAVE HER
CHILDREN FROM A BURNING HOUSE
IN BETHNAL GREEN. APRIL 20. 1902

ARTHUR STRANGE.
CARMAN OF LONDON. AND
MARK TOMLINSON.
ON A DESPARATE VENTURE
TO SAVE TWO GIRLS FROM A
QUICKSAND IN LINCOLNSHIRE
WERE THEMSELVES ENGULFED
AUG.25.1902

JOHN SLADE.
PRIVATE 4TH . BATT.ROYAL
FUSILIERS OF STEPNEY
WHEN HIS HOUSE CAUGHT
FIRE SAVED ONE MAN. AND
DASHING UPSTAIRS TO ROUSE
OTHERS LOST HIS LIFE.
DEC.26.1902.

DANIEL PEMBERTON
AGED 61
FOREMAN. L.S.W.R.
SURPRISED BY A TRAIN WHEN
GAUGING THE LINE. HURLED HIS
MATE OUT OF THE TRACK.
SAVING HIS LIFE AT THE COST
OF HIS OWN. JAN.17.1903



Since I made this transcript a further memorial has been added to the wall, dating to 2007 and commemorating the heroism of Leigh Pitt.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Luke Haines vs Imaginary Newsprint-Era Jazz Nazis


The truth was self-evident to all who cared to open their eyes and embrace it, as one might embrace an estranged uncle who has been cleared of embezzlement charges, or a bedraggled, wild-eyed cat who has finally returned home, having been missing, presumed dead, for several days:


In 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, high-ranking Nazi officers who had been reluctant to submit to the wrath of the encroaching Russian forces, and who were similarly unwilling to surrender to the Americans, had assumed false identities and fled to Britain in their thousands. Here they concealed themselves en-masse among the oikish ranks of junior music journalists – a workforce over 100,000 strong, which had been mobilised by Churchill to meet the insatiable public demand for record reviews and opinion pieces concerning the latest hot youth trends.


By 2010 many of these individuals had risen to the slightly less junior position of staff writer at their respective publications. It was in this role that, with methodical Germanic precision, they had conspired to undermine the strength of Great Britain's mighty pop navy, penning divisive rhetoric against the nation's best and brightest bands, to whom they would mete-out disdainful 3 star / 6 out of 10 reviews. It was these same writers who had turned a blind eye as a rag-tag parade of shiftless tossers ambled onto the front covers of The NME and Melody Maker while, inside these journals, their plodding deviations into lumpen glam rock were routinely awarded 9 out of 10.


Luke Haines had once shared his conspiracy theory with a man who he had assumed to be a kindred spirit. After a few minutes the target of his monologue (an indifferent Matt 'the hat' James, who played the drums in a band called Gene) had managed to break free from the hypno-coin-induced trance that Haines had placed him under, and had sloped away in search of lager.


At the time Haines was riding high in the UK hit parade as the denim-clad front man of a pub rock combo called The Auteurs. The heads-down, three-chord, bar-room boogie of the band's debut album - Good Times All The Time - had literally set the UK album charts on fire, resulting in the destruction of a mediocre Eric Clapton record, while many other albums had to be evacuated to music charts in France and Luxembourg.


The Auteur's creative spark had proven bright enough to rise above the smouldering ashes of Britpop where it was carried on the winds of change to set fire to a new music scene and enthuse a new generation of bands: The Stereophonics were duly hailed as “the welsh Auteurs,” while the arena-straddling post-modern, pop colossus, U2 ,were retrospectively dubbed “the Irish Auteurs.” A candidate for the title of “the Scottish Auteurs” had yet to emerge. Although he could prove nothing Haines suspected that the machinations of the former Undertones lead singer and solo artist - Feargal Sharkey - had played some part in this oversight. After all, this was a land where members of one of the few contemporary bands of note – Mogwai – had been forcibly branded on the buttocks as “the punk Runrig.”


18 years after Haines' disastrous attempt to recruit Matt 'the hat' James to his crusade, his wife, Sian Pattenden, had arrived home and, not for the first time, discovered their front parlour resembling an exhibit from the Imperial War Museum, with the chesterfield pushed up against the far wall, and the carpet barricaded with sandbags and loosely-coiled razor wire.


“Is it the Imaginary Jazz Nazis again?” she asked him, not unreasonably.


Haines regarded her with an expression as fixed as the bayonet attached to the business end of his Lee-Enfield Rifle.


“They have taken Antwerp,” he said dryly, as if the awful reality of his words had yet to fully sink in.


Pattenden allowed herself a few seconds to process this new information and consider the effect of the news on her husband. Antwerp was the main producer of liver sausage – a comestible that, when combined with sliced white bread in the form of sandwiches, imbued Haines with his formidable song writing talent, as well as the more recent power to communicate with ferrets.


“They shouldn't have done that.”


She picked her way through the razor wire to where her paints were set up in the corner of the room. Mounted on the easel was the preliminary sketch for a new artwork depicting Jimmy Pursey from the punk band Sham 69, re-cast as Chas Mcgill from Robert Westall's novel The Machine Gunners, attempting to bring down a Messerschmitt in a hail of automatic gunfire. In the background Lt Jim Morrison from The Doors looked on in approval.


“Do you think that Jim Morrison's father is proud of him?” enquired Haines.


“I should think so. Look, he's supervising a counter attack against a German fighter plane. He is obviously a very brave young man.” 


The prospect of a reduction in axis air power appeared to molify Haines.


“We will crush them,” he said.


Sian nodded. She squeezed a pale grey worm from one of the paint tubes. It was to form the base colour for both the German fighter plane and the machine gun that was in the process of attempting to shoot it down.


From behind the wall of sandbags her husband had more questions for her:


“When we win will we make them sign a non-aggression treaty?”


Briefly she pondered her answer. As she did her eyes were drawn to the tip of the brush as it sloppily blended red and grey paint together mixing tray.


“This time there will be no treaty. This time they must learn the true cost of their aggression.”


With the prospect of brutal vengeance assured, the colour began to return to Haines' face. In his mind he was already formulating a new concept album. This one would consist of ten songs. It would be based around a bare-knuckle boxing match between Oswald Mosley and Paddington Bear, who would be revealed as the reincarnation of the writer George Orwell.


“We will paint the world that we want live in...” said Pattenden “...Then we make our enemies live in it.”

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Five nifty tips for the aspiring home-maker

Turning a house into a home is not a task for the fainthearted, that's for sure! You can put your heart and soul into stitching Victorian lace trim onto all your cushions and making your kitchen smell like fresh-baked gingerbread 24/7, only for the Home-Making Inspectorate to descend unannounced on your domestic idyll, wave their scientific doo-dahs in the air and pronounce it 39% home/61% house (with a 0.4% margin of error) when you jolly well know that it's at least 45%!

To add insult to injury, if you complain or challenge their decision you risk an on the spot fine, a caution by the police or, in extreme cases, a long sentence in the dreaded Home-Maker Internment Camp outside Blackpool, where you will be forced to work on a production line manufacturing hand-carved rolling pins for the lucrative metropolitan baking market.

But don't throw your away your dusters and join the underground resistance movement just yet. At least not until you have tried the advice in these five handy, tips which are sure to put you on the road from house-keeper to home-maker.


Silverfish can be powerful allies

Silverfish are small silver-grey insects that resemble earwigs. The species was invented by William Painter (who also invented the bottle cap) in 1891 as an item of jewellery to be worn on a charm bracelet. In modern times silverfish are rarely made from pure silver. Instead a silver/copper alloy called billon is used.

Silverfish can survive without food for a year, but did you also know that they can also be powerful allies for the home-maker? Their flat bodies are able to fit through tiny cracks making them perfect for a spot of underfloor dusting. They can also be employed to run errands, such as locating the biro cap that you were fiddling with, and subsequently dropped down the side of a cupboard, while you were on the phone with the bank.

What's more, the majority of silverfish are happy to be paid in hair and dead skin cells making them a thrifty option for the home-maker who is counting the pennies. Who would have thought that having dandruff would pay off!


Save your teacups!


When I was young there was a man who rode around our town on a horse and cart, ringing a small hand bell as he bellowed “Brihhouhhyuurcuhs!”

Whenever he appeared on our street my mother would run out with her used teacups which she would exchange with him for dusters. She would also keep a carrot handy for the horse.

The man sold the cups to the local council who broke them up and used them in community mosaics.

The horse and cart may have gone but the man (or possibly his son) still comes around in a pick-up truck. Like my mother before me I still trade my used teacups with him in exchange for dusters. Since the horse is gone he gets the carrot too. The moral of this story: Never throw away used chinaware. Dirty dishes (or in this case cups and saucers) = dusters!


The strange man in your daughter's bedroom is probably Doctor Who

The Doctor is a renegade time lord from the planet Gallifrey. In addition to his criminal activities, to wit – the theft of one time machine / suspected genocide, enacted across time and space, he also displays a complete lack of respect for personal boundaries. He will happily enter private property uninvited and befriend any young girls who happen to live on the premises, often while the supervising adults are either away elsewhere, or have been eaten by space monsters. (Note that in the latter case the Doctor, despite being a time traveller, will delay his entrance until after the space monsters have finished their meal).

A common ploy used by the Doctor (pronounced 'Doc-TOR' by many of his enemies) during his interactions with teenage girls, is to react as if their very existence is an enigma that even a twin-hearted, 900 year old alien intelligence such as himself cannot fathom. The mystery can only be unraveled by the pair spending time together inside his mysterious unlicensed police box, which will de-materialise the moment he closes the door only to reappear somewhere far far away, such as the planet Skaro in the 1920s. On occasion the Doctor may attempt to make the girl feel special or unique by conferring upon her a nickname such as “the girl who cannot be” or “paradox girl.” In this regard he is like one of those creepy secondary school teachers who run off with one of their pupils.

Parents of teenagers who are legitimately concerned that this kind of behaviour borders on grooming can be reassured that the Doctor has no previous history of molesting or intentionally harming any of his 'companions' and is constantly being friend-zoned by them. That said, he is likely to place them in perilous situations and may eventually abandon them in a parallel dimension that resembles Western Super-Mare in January, with former teen popstar Billie Piper.

Fortunately methods now exist to ensure that your daughter will never encounter the Doctor and run the risk of having their life scripted by Mark Gattis.

A life-size cardboard Dalek (available from most comic book stores) can cast a menacing silhouette and act as a suitable night-time deterrent. For those who are unafraid of direct confrontation, a sonic saw, sonic hammer, or sonic 2x4 with sonic nails hammered through one end, will prove more than a match for the Doctor's sonic screwdriver and will soon send him packing.

 
Celtic fertility gods favour Spiderman wallpaper


For reasons that have been lost in the swirling mists of time, patterned wallpaper depicting Spiderman in various action poses, shooting blasts of sticky web fluid, is a big hit with ancient Celtic fertility gods. These pre-Christian deities will repay you for your act of piety by ensuring that the garden of your home sways with a bountiful crop of wheat and that the boughs of your trees are laden with fruit.

Home owners who decorate with Batman wallpaper can expect their abode to fill with thousands of bats.

Superman wallpaper will cause the interior of a room to drip lukewarm, cream of tomato soup during daylight hours, which can be a lifesaver if you are on a tight budget. When you leave home in the morning simply line the skirting board with paint trays. In the evening, carefully siphon the soup into a saucepan and heat up the contents for a simple, yet delicious meal.


500 people in the UK disappear weekly during games of hide and seek

It's hard to believe but over 500 people in Great Britain go missing weekly during innocent games of hide and seek! That's almost three times as many people who vanish as a result of cabaret magic acts gone wrong.

Admittedly a small proportion (okay 75%) of these missing persons will have been horribly murdered by family members, with the game of hide and seek being invented after the killing as an alibi to throw police off the scent.

Others stumble through portals into alternate dimensions while hiding in wardrobes. This is more common in cheap, poorly-made bedroom furniture, where the back panels have not been properly grounded in one reality.

Some get caught on coat-hangers where they often remain for years. Many who suffer this fate are only discovered after they have been erroneously donated to charity shops.

Some simply begin new lives among the coats and shoes, or in the small space behind the tied-back curtains.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Foundation for the Advancement of Literacy in Internet Spammers (FALIS)


The Foundation for the Advancement of Literacy in Internet Spammers (FALIS)

Only this morning one of my friends on facebook was bemoaning the appalling standards of literacy among internet spammers. This is particularly troubling as the success of a spam email is entirely dependent upon the ability of the spammer to establish confidence in his or her mark. This can easily be undermined by a poorly-spelled piece of written correspondence.

- A Nigerian prince is likely to be a cultured, well-educated gentleman. In writing to request a small upfront administration fee so that he can gain access to Saddam Hussein's secret bank account and split the proceeds with you, he is unlikely to misspell basic words.

- Similarly a worker for UPS is unlikely to write 'parcel' as 'parsle.'

- It can be hard to place much faith in a pharmacist offering medication that will transform you into a god-damn sexual python if their grasp of basic syntax is found to be wanting.

Spelling errors are costing hard-working spammers millions of pounds every day of the year and that includes Good Friday and Christmas Day!!!!!!!

!

To combat this scourge upon 21st century living, it is with great personal pride that I announce the formation of The Foundation for the Advancement of Literacy in Internet Spammers (FALIS). Our noble aim is to improve the standards of writing in spam email, Underlying our program of vigorous physical exercise, savage arbitrary beatings and superficially unrelated tasks, such as painting my fence or doing my weekly grocery shopping, are the twin founding principles of good spelling and sound grammar. Why not sign up today and learn the secrets that really shit English teachers don't want you to know!

I have allotted 45 seconds for questions. If you have any enquiries about this service then please make them now.

Q: This sounds great. How do I sign up?
A: It couldn't be easier! Simply withdraw your life savings from your bank account and then bring the cash, along with any items of gold in your possession, to our next seminar.

Q: I can't get to the bank until Thursday. Can I pay you then?
A: Our next seminar isn't until Friday so that will not be a problem.

Q: You are so awesome. If I take your course is it possible that one day I will be as awesome as you?
A: While it is unlikely that you will ever be as awesome, there is certainly scope for you to be more awesome than you are in this present moment. Our tried and tested teaching methods and rigorous examinations will bring you closer to achieving this goal.

Q: Shit the police are outside! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! What do I do!?
A: When they bang on the door, keep still and be very quiet. They will think that you are out and will eventually go away. From now on do this every time they call.

Okay, that's enough questions. Even though FALIS has only been in existence for a quarter of an hour we already have testimonials from our millions of satisfied customers:

I can't believe that I was spelling 'you're' as 'your.' What an absolute numpty! Since applying the lessons I learned in your grammar module, the penis enlargement business, which has been in my family for five generations, has increased in size by over 3 inches!”
- Mr I.M. Made-Up (East Narnia)

Until taking your course I was blissfully unaware that my online sexual come-ons were written in the archaic style of a Victorian prostitute, employing outdated, corseted terminology such as“improper” and “dalliance.” Now I know how to compose sexy spam mail that appeals to the modern man. Word up.”
- Shaunese (Tehran)

Do U want 2 Meet SexY Young Italian sluts covered in spaGHetti sauce made to a traditi;nal Tuscan recipe? Of course u do. Who wouldn't? Also you're lessons really helped even tho I grduated bottom of the clas. Ha HA! I now make $7325 /hour woking from home. Ask me how!”
- Carlos Danger (Perth)


The Foundation for the Advancement of Literacy in Internet Spammers

Tu dignus diploma!


Sunday, 1 September 2013

A handy FAQ that will help you to determine whether any items you own contain manganese

Manganese is a brittle, silver-grey, paramagnetic metal with an atomic number of 25. Its chemical symbol is MN. 

A question that I am often asked is: How do I know if something I own contains Manganese?

To assist you in answering this, I have developed a fun questionnaire. Remember, the more times you answer “yes,” the more likely it is that the item contains manganese. Why not make a game of it with your friends and see which of you has the most manganese. Then take all the items that contain manganese, and bury them in a deep hole, and salt the earth around it so that nothing may ever grow there.

How do I know if something I own contains Manganese? (A Questionnaire)


1. Is the item a big piece of manganese?

2. Is there a label anywhere on the item that lists ingredients or components? Tell-tale signs to look out for are the words: “This item is made exclusively from manganese,” “Contains manganese,” or “May contain trace elements of manganese.”

3. Do you have any spoons in your home that were manufactured before the year 2011? If so, they are likely to contain manganese. You can determine the age of a piece of cutlery by counting back five years from its 'best before' date, which is usually stamped somewhere on the handle.

4. Has the item ever formed the radioactive isotope 55Mn?

5. Are you forever having to stop the item from forming covalent bonds with your other possessions?

6. Have you ever left the item near a stack a books, and then returned later to find that all the books have been read? 

7. Is the item worshipped by an unusually large number of spiders? 

8. If you hold the item up to your ear, are you able to discern faint whispers encouraging you to engage in evil activities, or open portals to alternative dimensions? 

9. Was the item gifted to you by a wild-eyed man whose last words before dying were a plea for you to destroy it, before it consumes all of humanity? 

10. Has your home recently been the target of a burglary by tattooed cultists whose sole intention was to steal the item or die in the attempt? Note: This is unlikely to occur if the item in question is made of diet manganese. 

11. If you are still in education, has your chemistry teacher recently vanished under mysterious circumstances? 

11b. If you answered 'yes' to the above, is your replacement chemistry teacher Cthulhu, Satan, or Yog-Sothoth?

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Boardgame review II: “It's not a real penguin, Jack"

Antarctica - Summer at the South Pole! - Cooperative board game
Sunny Games
Ages 10 and up
2-5 Players

Go For Broke
MB Games
10-Adult
2-4 Players

Last year various members of my extended family gathered around a coffee table to collaborate on a board game, in which players must work together to save penguins and seals from hunters and the tangible effects of global warming. These good intentions culminated in an incident in which my nephew, Jack, made a miscalculation that resulted in either the death, or at very least, the serious inconvenience of an innocent penguin. Jack is a sensitive young man and was mortified by the thought that, through his hasty, ill-judged actions, he had caused harm to an animal and let down the rest of the team.

It's not a real penguin, Jack,” I assured him, from the comfort of an armchair which offered me a commanding view over a portion of the North Yorkshire Dales. (I refuse, on a matter of general principle, to participate in board games that do not allow me the satisfaction of either crushing, or being crushed by, my opponents).

Jack could not be consoled so easily: A fictional penguin had suffered and its imaginary blood was all over his tiny ten-year-old hands. In the absence of a competitive element to the game that would have produced a clear winner and a pool of losers plotting some dastardly real-world revenge, his fatal misstep had given rise to a deep sense of shame that isolated him from his fellow eco-warriors and their minor victory.

Overlooking this potentially emotionally-scarring episode and its long-term psychological repercussions, Antarctica - Summer at the South Pole! does at least attempt to convey a positive, educational message about the importance of teamwork and the need to live in balance with our environment.

In comparison Go for Broke's contrarian philosophy can be summed-up as: “We're all going to fucking die, so fuck everything.”

The ability to fecklessly splurge cash and the compulsion to gamble at every given opportunity, are vices that players must wholeheartedly embrace if they are to triumph in this truly reprehensible game, whose values are embodied by an archaic cartoon on the box, depicting a man dressed in a top hat and tails, gaily scattering paper money from a satchel.

The object of Go For Broke is to lose a million of the game's worthless currency. Each flimsy, large-denomination bill is labelled as a 'specimen' in several different languages, so as to minimise the possibility that somebody might mistake it for actual money and accept it in exchange for a lobster dinner or a Ferrari.

No explanation is given as to why the players would willingly choose to charge headlong towards a life of penury by forfeiting such a huge slab of money: Is the game a re-enactment of a boorish stunt by members of the Bullingdon Club? A money laundering scheme? Some last ditch attempt to claw back good karma? It is never made clear.

Nor is any light shed on what the winner gains from bankrupting themselves. On the face of it, the losing players, who retain at least a portion of their fortune, seem better off.

My assumption that I would easily win the game by investing the entire sum in an ill-conceived government I.T. project was soon dispelled by a cursory glance at the instructions, which are printed on the inside of the box, and offer a formulaic range of options when it comes to divesting yourself from your bothersome savings. These are based mainly on bad luck, rather than bad judgement. As such, Go for Broke allows only limited opportunities for smug political satire or social commentary.

As if to raise the game's inherent cuntishness to near-intolerable levels, players are represented on the board by miniature champagne bottles with removable plastic corks. Like Monopoly these game pieces are locked into an erratic clockwise orbit around the fringes of the board, where the only variety comes from occasional detours to the racetrack, the casino, the stock market and a sleazy back-room dice game.

A raised plastic dais, in the centre of the board, houses the cogs and wheels of Go For Broke's crooked financial system: a roulette wheel, three hexagonal tumblers representing a slot machine, a wheel that determines the outcome of horse races and a spindle that simulates the ups and downs of the stock market. I have successfully used the latter to predict rises and falls in real world shares and am now a billionaire who engages in white collar crime by day, and fights blue-collar street crime at night.

It is possible that both the skill-set and the lassiez-faire attitude towards the economy were learned by the architects of our current financial crisis from childhood games of Go For Broke. Rigorous scientific studies are needed to determine whether there is a correlation between prolonged exposure to the game, and being one of the hand-picked arseholes who appear on The Apprentice each year.

In summary: Antartica: Summer at the South Pole! preaches to the converted, who will enjoy the game's emphasis on cooperative play and its morally wholesome message. Everybody else will be reminded of the Modern Parents comic strip from Viz.

Go for Broke ably predicts, and then gleefully celebrates, our fuck-witted descent along the slippery slope towards personal debt and national bankruptcy. It is a bleak message – one that is hard to swallow, which is why I recommend that every roll of the dice should be accompanied by a hearty swig of gin. None-the-less I applaud MB Games for their staunch commitment to realism. More please.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Boardgame Review: Game of Life

MB games
10-adult
2-8 players

Last week I was coerced by my niece and nephew into playing the Game of Life.

Despite billing itself as an accurate representation of a human life (from the sweaty, anti-climatic grind of conception, through to the foggy no-man's land of end-stage dementia) this nauseatingly optimistic game omits any possibility that you will develop an incurable disease, that is likely to kill you before you reach the age of 50. Furthermore there is no option to die in a joint suicide pact because your cunting Victorian parents have made you so ashamed of your homosexuality that you cannot live with yourself.

When will MB get up off their arses and design a game that accurately represents both my lifestyle and the lifestyles of my prematurely deceased friends? Does our demographic count for nothing?

The cars in which you undertake your monotonous, materialistic trawl towards retirement resemble the Lincoln Continental stretch limousine that John F Kennedy was assassinated in. I like to think that this is a comment on the death of the American dream. There were times during the Game of Life when I prayed that Lee Harvey Oswald would shoot me from the 6th floor of a book depository in Dallas.

For some fucking reason, dying alone in a dingy, one-room apartment, reeking of cat urine is not encouraged in the Game of Life. The pegs used to portray yourself, your tedious spouse and your insufferable brood of children, are featureless and unremarkable. What MB Games seems to be saying is that there is nothing to separate you from the other 7 billion souls who are currently clogging up the planet. Your lives are meaningless and god is dead.

Dice are too real for this game. Instead your progress around the board is determined by a plastic wheel, bordered by some kind of fake rock garden, which is presumably there to protect it from being rammed by players who have decided to take their cars off road.

In the interests of providing parental guidance, I explained to my niece and nephew that if the Game of Life was real, then every few turns somebody would sweep the board and all its contents onto the floor. You would have to crawl around looking for them, occasionally banging your head on the corner of the table. By the time you had put everything back the way it was, you would be 30 and all your hopes and dreams would have died.

In summary: Go fuck yourself MB Games.

Next: I review the Barbie Fashion City Board Game - a fun and entertaining game for all young Barbie fans, aged 5 and up!

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Spanish Jigsaw Puzzle

Spanish Jigsaw Puzzle

by Mark Sadler


Yesterday evening, in a moment of boredom, exacerbated by a lack of anything even remotely interesting on TV, I broke the cellophane on the jigsaw puzzle that has occupied the lower tier of our coffee table for the past two decades. If memory serves I won it in a raffle at a church fĂȘte in 1993. The photograph on the box depicts Queen Elizabeth II (dressed in a pale green woollen coat and hat) and her husband and Prince Philip, staring at some zebras in a paddock at Whipsnade Zoo.

As soon as I removed the lid, the reason why the puzzle had been donated to the church became clear: The jigsaw pieces were in Spanish. Neither me, nor my wife, speak more than a few words of the language and we found ourselves unable to fathom how they fitted together. A rudimentary translation, courtesy of google, enabled us to match a few of the edge pieces, however we quickly became frustrated with it and decided to go for a walk instead.

Before we went to bed that night I swept the puzzle pieces back into the box. When I go for my doctors appointment on Wednesday, I will drop it off at the charity shop near the surgery.

This morning my friend Roger dropped round while we were having coffee. He mentioned a former work colleague who orders Swedish jigsaws over the internet. Apparently the pieces make very good fishing lures.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Tonight, I will fight a Giant Owl!



Tonight I will make myself available to fight, bare-handed, against a giant owl, should there one be available.

1. The window for the fight will be between 9pm and 11pm. If no owl challenger has emerged by 10:30pm, I will open myself up to challenges from members of the audience who have come dressed as owls.

2. Any giant owl wishing to challenge me must be no less than eight cubits in height. If you are wondering why giant owls are measured using the same biblical scale that was employed during the construction of Noah's Ark, then you clearly know nothing about the sport of Giant Owl Fighting.

3. Although, technically, I will be fighting bare-handed, I will be wearing my owl fighting gloves.

4. If a fight is still in progress at 11:00pm, it will be declared a draw.

5. The fight is for display purposes only. The outcome will have no effect upon my standing in either the UK Giant Owl Fighting league, or on The International Over-35's Circuit.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Curse of Vilem Franke

The Curse of Vilem Franke

By Mark Sadler

My former Oxford classics professor laid the blame for his permanent loss of erectile function on a reading of the collected works of the 19th century Czech author, Vilem Franke. When I visited him last year he was a shadow of the man who, in his academic prime, would stand atop his desk and recite Larkin's jazz reviews and passages from The Conference of Birds. He wept into a tweed handkerchief, patched at its centre with a leather oval, and confessed that even high doses of Viagra had done nothing to rouse his “little prince” from his slumber. My suggestion that a kiss from another handsome prince might do the trick at least raised a smile.

Earlier this year, I attempted my own Vilem Franke reading marathon: In the space of only a few months, I managed to clear an impressive, 150 page trail trough the dense, tangled prose of his first novel - The Obdurate Wife. It was around this time that Mrs Seven (who is actually my fourth wife and anything but obdurate) remarked upon a noticeable decline in my sex drive and a general loss in the vigour of my thrusting. Of course, I ended my experiment with Franke there and then and, unlike my poor classics professor, appear to have had a lucky escape: My wife assures me that since I returned to safer reading material I have regained my previous “tip-top form” in the bedroom.

I have since resigned myself to never finishing The Obdurate Wife. Even the section of this novel's wikipedia entry that provides details of the plot, tails off halfway through the narrative. I wonder if anyone has ever reached the end of it.

On Monday I happened to be in a branch of a popular book seller (one that rhymes with “Fresco”) and saw that they had on display various Vilem Franke novels. For some unfathomable reason, there was also the option of obtaining a sturdy cardboard slipcase, containing three of the writer's better known works, for the sum of nineteen pounds and 99 pence.

As long as the danger posed to the male libido by these novels is overlooked, I imagine that they will continue to undermine the sex lives of middle-aged, pseudo-intellectuals like myself. I strongly suspect that this was Franke's intention all along. He was a bitter, puritanical man, who was obsessed with the population levels of the mice living in his cellar, which he believed mirrored the rises and falls in the population of his native country.

Last year, at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, I took part in a panel titled: Whatever is to be done? My fellow panel members were people who, like me, cut themselves off from the wider world for long periods of time in order to write novels. Over the course of three hours, we brought to bear our in-depth knowledge of fictional worlds on an array of complicated, real-life global issues. I attempted to raise the danger of Franke's literary canon as part of the discussion and it was grudgingly added to the bottom of a list of things that we should all be worried about.

We parted company later that day, with each of us making a vague commitment to sign any e-petitions that we forwarded to one another, via twitter or facebook. I note that very few of my literary peers have supported my impassioned formal plea to have Vilem Franke's novels banned. Writers and academics are, for the most part, liars and frauds. I can understand why Franke didn't want us to breed.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Music of Monday (For Harkive)

Today (Tuesday 9th July, 2013) Harkive.org will gather accounts of the different ways in which people listen to music. Mine is below: 

Monday 8th July

8:00: Home

"What's the name of the band you're seeing tonight - The Duckworth Lewis Model?"

It's The Duckworth Lewis Method. My mother has asked me the same question at least 20 times this week, but has trouble remembering the name of the group.

"They play cricket-themed songs."

My sister-in-law is not familiar with their canon and slouches against the aga in her dressing gown, singing the "I don't like cricket" line from 10cc's Dreadlock Holiday.

9:05: Thorpe Bay Railway Station.

A man in a fluorescent yellow jacket informs me that I will be unable to board the front carriage of the incoming train, as it is reserved for Southend Choir.

I am listening to Five Leaves Left on my red iPod nano – one of the older, rectangular models. Me, Nick Drake, and any of the other passengers who are unable to sustain a convincing soprano, cram ourselves into the remaining cars.

10:30: London (City)

I am walking north from Fenchurch Street railway station, following a sketchy, mostly improvised route in the direction of King Cross. I am looking for a shop called Bookends. I can't recall the address and have only the vaguest idea of its location.

I am listening to the new Kurt Vile album – Wakin On A Pretty Daze. He's a kind of Lou Reed for the 21st century. A lot of thought and hard work probably went into creating this half-arsed soundtrack to my half-arsed life.

12:00: Holborn

I've found Bookends and have moved on. When the Kurt Vile album finished, I played my favourite track (Too Hard) three times in a row. After the third time I let the album run on to the end.

14:00: Soho

I am flipping through the racks of CDs in the darkened cavern-like interior of Sister Ray – an independent record shop on Berwick street. I've left my want list at home; that's a good thing too, because I am between jobs and can't afford to go mad.

I walk out with the deluxe reissue of Marianne Faithfull's Broken English, which I've been searching high and low for. I also purchase a reissue of Sleep's Dopesmoker album. Matt Pike, from the group, is now in High On Fire – a stoner doom band whose music sounds like the sky crashing down on your head.

17:00: Regent's Park

I am reclining on the grass beneath the shade of a small tree. Periodically, a man lying on his back nearby will play Flight of the Bumblebee on a flute. This goes on for a couple of hours. It's rather soothing and takes the edge off my annoyance at a quartet of Cocker Spaniels who have been allowed to run amok and seem determined to get inside my rucksack.

Flute man leaves, and is replaced by the intermittent tune from a distant ice cream van, which drifts across the park; the sound of my childhood calling to me down through the decades. 

19:45: Regent's Park

My brother and his family drove down to Southend from Glastonbury at the weekend. On the way they stopped off at Stonehenge. I am probably thinking about this when I catch myself whistling the folky interlude from Spinal Tap's Stonehenge to some geese.

21:30ish: The Thomas Lord Suite, Lord's Cricket Ground:

The Duckworth Lewis Method are on stage. Neil Hannon's Adam Ant homage/bold fashion statement (mixing a braided military jacket and a pith helmet) loses something in the translation.

Thomas Walsh is dressed sombrely in black, with a top hat that he keeps on throughout the performance, despite the heat. He resembles, either a character from a Dickens novel, or a funeral director relative of Slade's Noddy Holder.

I have made a careful study of the two Duckworth Lewis albums and have concluded that 50% of their songs are heartfelt homages to cricket. 25% use cricket as a metaphor to comment on global or personal issues. The other 25% are excuses to revel in filthy, cricket-themed innuendo. If Sticky Wickets is about anything other than unbridled wanking, I'll eat Mike Gatting.

Mixed in with the glam rock and obvious debt to ELO, the band show off some unusual influences: Hannon's repetitive, deadpan delivery during Line & Length brings to mind Kraftwerk backed by INXS.

In between the songs there are excursions into the back catalogue of 1980s Liverpudlian pop group - China Crisis, an unconvincing Ian Anderson (from Jethro Tull) impersonation. and an on-stage mutiny in which the band temporarily break away from Hannon's control and begin improvising songs about dairy products for a mooted cheese-themed album.

00:30: East Tilbury

The train back to Thorpe Bay is taking the meandering scenic route home through darkest Essex. I don't listen to music on these late night services, preferring to keep my eyes and ears open. To pass the time I peruse my earlier record purchases. My inner teenager informs me that the sleeve art for Dopesmoker (an alien caravan trudging in single file across a barren red desert) both rules and kicks arse. My older self concurs.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Wrong grass

Wrong grass

Me and the builder (who described himself a 'landscaper') were standing on a freshly-laid, crazy paved pathway that ran approximately halfway along one side of the garden. At an arbitrary point it joined with an older path which dated to the early 20th century and was badly cracked. Adjacent to us, where the new path turned a corner, was a small parallelogram of grass that was several shades darker than the surrounding lawn.

A last minute change in the layout of the paving had left this unusually precise, acutely-angled rectangle of bare earth. As a gesture of goodwill the builder (who described himself to my wife as the equal of Cicero in his powers of oratory and lovemaking) had scattered some grass seed on it. That afternoon a trio of his assistants had arrived at our home. In between drinking mugs of tea and eating all of the dark chocolate digestive biscuits that we felt obliged to put out for them, they performed a number of rain dances.

The rain arrived the following morning and lingered for the remainder of the week. My wife and I both watched in horror from the kitchen window as wrong-coloured grass began to sprout in weedy clumps from the bare ground, as if to openly mock our long-cherished vision of a garden lawn that was a uniform shade of green.

I summoned the builder (who in a recent article in the local free paper had claimed co-authorship of the Bob Dylan song – Mr Tambourine Man) back to our home to explain himself.

“The grass is always greener...” he mused when he was confronted with the end result of his half-arsed attempt at gardening.

It has become common practice among builders to nudge any mistakes that are made during construction out of the physical world, where they would be held accountable, and into the nebulous realm of the metaphysical, which lies beyond the influence of mortal men and their laws. However, I was wise to this trick:

“Look, don't try to weasel out of this by conferring the status of proverb or metaphor on what is blatantly a patch of the wrong kind of grass, cast upon the bare sod by your own calloused hands and that of your indolent nephew, Colin, who was doing work experience with you. I demand that you pay me the sum of 18 pounds so that I can hire a professional with the requisite skills to rectify your most grievous error.”

Aware that I was no fool and that no amount of clever semantics or entreaties to Platonic forms would convince me that the parallelogram of grass was an either an allegory or an omen, the builder (whose childhood companion was a toy tiger stuffed with Elton John's hair) pondered my words carefully and then chose a different tack:

“When elephants fight, it is the grass who suffers.”

I stared down at my ruined lawn and then back at the builder.

“Do you happen to have a pair of elephants?”

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Postmaster at Hy Kota

Teseney, 23/03/04

It was a warm Tuesday night in the fly-blown, Eritrean border town of Teseney. I was making my way back to The Luna hotel where I had been living while I recovered from a short illness. The hour was approaching midnight and the part of the town where I was walking had bolted its doors and shuttered its windows. I moved along darkened, unpaved streets, where the only noise was the sound of my footsteps and the occasional sharp drone of a mosquito as it grazed past my ear.

I had spent Sunday night wracked by a sudden fever. As I lay in the dark convulsing, the thin top sheet, which was made from some slippery artificial fibre, slid off me in a torrent of sweat. I shook so hard that my body went completely rigid and I passed out. When I came to, I could feel an immense pressure bearing down on my chest, as if a heavy weight had been placed upon it. The pain was so intense that I could hardly breathe.

I gradually became aware that the source of my discomfort was an emaciated barn owl that was perched on my chest. It was a sickly looking specimen. A thin layer of feathers plastered its scrawny, malnourished frame and there were pinkish blood stains around its beak. Its talons, which were grotesquely out of proportion with the rest of its body, were buried beneath my skin like tree roots. It stared down at me through slitted eyes. I lost consciousness soon afterwards. When I awoke the following morning, I was so weak that it was past midday before I could stand upright and stagger, like something newborn, to the tap in the courtyard.

~

There was a short-cut to The Luna along a rubble-strewn street. I always went that way, not because I wanted to save time, but because it was familiar to me and I knew that there was no chance of me straying off course. Teseney is a small town, but one where I found it very easy to lose my bearings.

Halfway along this street there was a one-storey circular house with a conical roof. It closely resembled the mud and stick huts that are the traditional dwellings in the desert villages in this part of Africa, though this replica was roughly three times the size and made of concrete. An ornate, but rusting, old-fashioned postbox, possibly dating back to the time when Eritrea was an Italian colony, was cemented into the wall.

Using the weak beam of my pen torch I plotted an improvised course between the broken chunks of masonry that littered the ground.

I had just passed the round house when I heard a man shout something from behind me. At first I assumed that he was addressing somebody else and I ignored him.

He called out again. Even though I could not understand what he is saying, there was something in the tone of his voice that amounted to a challenge, or a barked order, I paused and slowly turned around to confront the human silhouette that was framed in the darkened vista at the far end of the street. For a few seconds we both stood completely motionless, as if we were each attempting to fathom the other's intentions. Finally I broke the deadlock with a dismissive wave of my hand:

“U-we, U-we.” (“Yes, Yes”)

I pivoted on my heel and carried on walking. This seemed to anger the man who shouted at me again. Once more I turned around. This time I began to walk toward him. In response to my advance the silhouette raised an object in his hands to shoulder height.

It was at this moment that a human figure darted from the round house and positioned himself between the pair of us. He spoke words in Tigrinya that appeared to pacify the man in the shadows. All three of us converged in a pool of light outside the building, at which point our situation became clear: The man who had been shouting at me was a soldier. My rescuer and mediator was called Michael; it turned out that he spoke very good English.

“I am the postman. I saw you walk by and thought I would help you,” he said

He told me that the street upon which we were standing was “forbidden.” I countered that I did not realise this and meant no harm or disrespect. Michael translated what I had said for the soldier who appeared satisfied by my explanation. We all shook hands and there was an all-round palpable sense of relief.

I asked Michael if he would guide me back to my hotel.

“You can come into my house and rest for a while,” he replied.

Michael's home consisted of a single, sparsely-furnished round room. It contained a pair of beds, a portable black and white television, a chimney stove, and some small tables and chairs. Besides the two of us, the three other occupants were Michael's wife, a two month old baby boy who occupied one of the beds, and who would cry periodically, and a slightly older boy, aged 18 months.
“I must put my trousers on,” Michael said, as we entered.

I realised that, in the confusion, I had failed to notice that he was dressed in nothing more than a shirt and a pair of boxer shorts.

~

At the time of our meeting, Michael was 24 years old. He was the postmaster at Hy Kota, which lies a short distance outside Teseney, along the road to Barentu. It's a 20 minute journey from his home that he makes either by motor scooter or by bus. His family fled Eritrea in 1974, during the Ethiopian occupation of the country. He was born and grew up in a refugee camp in The Sudan. In 1997 he returned to Eritrea.

I was about to say my goodbyes when he asked me whether I would like to join him for coffee. I accepted the invitation, to unspoken annoyance of his wife – something that I only picked up on later. Michael disappeared briefly to tell the soldiers that I would be staying with him for a while. In his momentary absence, and despite the lateness of the hour, his wife began to prepare a meal that consisted of chopped poached eggs, tomatoes, onions, bread rolls and a bowl of salt. There was also some kind of brown paste which I avoided.

The older of the two children seemed delighted by the unexpected company. He toddled around the circular abode, throwing a large metal washer into the air ahead of him and then running over to retrieve it. When he became bored of this game, he hid the washer under the pillows on the unoccupied bed. He ran over to Michael with his palms stretched-out in front of him, while turning his head from side to side in an exaggerated fashion. Having established the absence of the washer, he ran back to retrieve it. When he returned to us, Michael kept him amused by tracing our names onto his left hand with his on the finger. This seemed to delight the boy who willingly offered up his other hand and both feet.

Later, he became over-excited. He spilled the bowl of salt and careened into a pile of bottles, hurting his foot.

After this, his mother, who, despite her generous hospitality, was clearly irritated at being kept up so late, began assembling the framework for a mosquito net over one of the beds. I took the hint and readied myself to leave.

“It's very late. I thank you and your family for your hospitality but I should go.”

Michael offered to accompany back to the hotel. We had walked a short distance when he paused and looked apprehensive.

“I have left my ID card.”

“You might get into trouble. Do you want to go back.?”

“No, it's okay.”

Outside the Luna we exchanged addresses.

“Thank you for helping me.”

“Send me English stamps,” he said as he walked away.

Upon my return to England I wrote to Michael twice. I never heard anything back from him. I hope that both him and his family are well.