Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Vision On

For those of you who feel that the pictures of me on this blog just aren’t enough eye candy, you’ll be pleased to know that the website of the radio station where I ply my aural trade on Tuesday evenings now has a webcam; visit and follow the link.

I’m there between 8 and 10pm most Tuesdays, but a number of other people with faces which are suited only to the medium of radio will be visible throughout the week, and all of a sudden we’ll have to remember not to pick our noses whilst in the studio.

REVIEW: The Descent

This horror film is, pun inevitable and intended, pretty decent. A friend recommended I watch it late at night with as few lights on as possible to get the best effect, and I can see why.

It’s a simple enough tale – a group of female potholers find themselves in a perilous situation underground, and as they struggle to get back on course, come to realise that they may not be alone in the caves. The film’s got a good number of jolts in it, there’s some good dialogue, and the characters are all fairly well-written and acted.

My only gripe would be that though the film doesn’t outstay its welcome (the running time, according to the box, is 95 minutes), I found the supernatural threat element of it, coming so late in the film, was almost superfluous; there are some genuinely tense scenes of people in very claustrophobic situations, and they’re well acted and directed to the extent that when we start to get the idea there are creepy things in the darkened corners of the caves, it’s almost unnecessary, as the environment itself is threatening enough.

But it was worth a view, and if you do watch it at home, I’d echo the recommendation that you do so at night with little lighting, so as to emphasis the disorienting effect of events onscreen being illuminated solely by headtorches and emergency flares.

Names have been removed to protect the innocent (and to protect me from the litigious)

Some years ago, I was attending a wedding – of an ex-girlfriend, no less, and before the big day came round, I was talking about it to a female friend, who was also going to be attending.
“Wouldn’t it be funny,” I said idly, “if, when they get to that bit about ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’, someone cleared their throat?”
This wasn’t, I hasten to point out, said with any kind of malice. It was just one of those what-if things.
“I suppose so,” she said, sounding less than convinced.
"I mean, I wouldn’t do it,” I said quickly. “It’d be kind of funny, I suppose, but it would take the attention off the bride and groom, and that’s not fair - it’s their day, after all.”
As cheesy as it may sound, this is actually the way my mind works – for this very same reason, several years later, I refused to get into a slanging match with an ex who was attending a wedding; it wasn’t about us, it was the couple’s day.

Anyway, the conversation moved on, and I didn’t think about this again, until the day of the wedding, when at the appointed time, my friend – sitting behind me in the church – did indeed cough as if she was just about to say something.
I looked round at her, and I wasn’t the only one in the surrounding pews to do so.
She didn’t say anything further, though, and the wedding ceremony was completed, and as far as I know, the bride and groom (and, perhaps more importantly, the vicar) never even heard her cough. But I had, and at the reception, I spoke to her about it.
“I can’t believe you did that,” I said, meaning it.
“What are you talking about?” She looked genuinely bemused. “You dared me to!”
“I didn’t dare you! I said it would be funny if, not that I thought you should do it!”

…it was probably at this point in my life that I first became interested in how people’s memories of events can vary, or be malleable or just plain wrong. It’s something that fascinates me still; how we rewrite events, often to meet the emotional or intellectual needs of the present as opposed to reflecting the past. I do, I know, and have a sneaking suspicion that I’m partly doing it even in this retelling… though I like to think the facts are as reported.
But of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I ?

(She may have been right to clear her throat, mind; they’re no longer married.)

REVIEW : Rude Kids – The Unfeasible Story of Viz by Chris Donald

(At least, that’s what the title page of the book says; the spine and front cover, oddly enough, call it ‘The Inside Story of Viz’. No idea why.)

This is the story of how Viz went from being a photocopied comic sold by Chris Donald in Newcastle pubs to the one of the best-selling publications in the UK (beaten only by far less funny magazines like the Reader’s Digest and Radio Times).

Donald’s prose style is conversational and witty, and he manages to make topics such as distribution and merchandising deals seem almost interesting. I felt the book was at its best, though, when he was describing the thought processes behind the actual creation of characters, and thus later chapters – after his involvement in the comic has reduced, and he enjoys his early retirement on the proceeds of its success – were less engaging; I wish him well, and he’s certainly earned his money, but I found it harder to relate to the problems he was having with the restaurant he set up than the earlier descriptions of trying to come up with something funny. In all fairness, though, even those chapters aren’t dull, thanks to the generally affable nature of the writing (and, one can’t help but conclude, his general outlook on life).

On a purely personal note, I was amused to see the coverage of the launch party for the Viz competitor/copycat ‘Oink!’, to which Donald and other Viz creators were invited (and where they stole the cake which had been made for the occasion – shades of Malcolm Hardee’s ‘I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake’, I thought). I wrote a couple of items for Oink in my teens (as, more significantly, did Charlie Brooker), and Donald’s assessment of that comic, as well as the other competitors which sprang up as Viz approached sales figures nearing a million per issue, was interesting to see.

Definitely recommended if you’ve ever laughed at anything in Viz, and if you’re interested in how comics or cartoons are made, as well as providing another example of how acclaim and being paid very well for doing something you love don’t necessarily bring you happiness. Though I guess most of us will never actually get to find out if that’s truly the case, and so would probably be willing to find out the hard way rather than taking other people’s word for it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

This is the news. God, I wish it wasn’t…

Tonight’s Evening Standard headline board there.

Since there’s no mention of anyone else, I can only conclude that Mr Cruise has a fully functioning uterus. I guess this story’ll be covered in more detail in the New Scientist, so keep an eye out for that.

REVIEW: Kyro – Dingwalls, Camden, 18 April 2006

Yes, I’m writing this within a couple of hours of seeing the gig. Creative and prolific, and on a school night no less.

Anyway: the third Kyro gig I’ve been to in recent months ( does this make me a groupie? I rather hope not) and I think this was probably the best yet. There was a real sense of energy and enthusiasm about the set, with singer Ian charging around the stage and singing as if his life depended on it during the opening number ‘Killer’, but then slowing down by the time they got to the third track ‘Crazy’. The other band members, I noticed, were grinning to each other at various stages during the set, and the sense of fun was infectious; the music’s really strong, and the band and the audience alike were having a good time.

There was a great lull towards the end of their closing track ‘Rockstar’, where it seemed that they were almost done, and Ian thanked the audience for coming, but then the guitars and drums crashed in again and the chorus was back, and it all felt natural and unforced, and most importantly it sounded damned good.

As I’ve said before – and I hope I’ll soon have little need to say many more times, as events really should make it unnecessary – Kyro are very good indeed. There’s not a weak link in the band, and all the songs have something to savour about them. If you haven’t already done so, go to Napster and download their recent EP, so that when they make it big (as they rightly should), you can irritate your friends by saying you were into them before everyone else.

Monday, April 17, 2006

TRAVEL: Oh, water night

Several years ago, in a tent high in the Himalayas, I woke to the sound of running water.
In itself, this wasn't strange, as my party of trekkers had camped next to a fast-flowing river. But this wasn't the gentle white-noise background of the river; it was something else.
I lay there in my sleeping bag, not moving, trying to figure out what it was... and realised what it reminded me of: the sound of a milk bottle being filled from a tap. You know that noise ? It's a kind of flat, glassy note, and as the bottle fills higher, so the note goes up the scale..
I opened my eyes and saw a vague, hunched form to my left, and guessed what it must be.
The man I was sharing a tent with was urinating into a bottle.

In the mountains, altitude sickness is a very real danger, and can make you do strange things.
As you get higher up and the oxygen level in the air around you decreases, so your lungs have to work harder to compensate, and red blood cell levels drop, and all sorts of other unpleasantness can hit you; sleepless nights due to a tightness in the chest or nightmares, headaches like a band of metal shrinking round your temples, constipation or diarrhoea, and of course the fatigue born of the fact that you're trekking for six or seven hours per day.
And this, in theory, is a holiday. Yes, yes, I know, why would a person do this when they could be a on a beach somewhere, sunning themself and reading chunky novels like everyone else ? Well, if you know me, you'll know that the idea of being like everyone else invariably makes me leap the other way. It's a kind of predictable rebellion, and I'm sure it's this belief that I'm so very different which makes me exactly the same as anyone else.

But I digress; we'd flown from Kathmandu to the small mountain town of Lukla late that morning. The small plane looked like the one from the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (though to be fair, the nice folks from Yeti Airlines [no, I'm not kidding] did lay on barley sugars to help us keep our ears from popping as we flew into the mountains), but I have to say the landing was better than in the film. We touched down into the small Himalayan town of Lukla, essentially several dozen shops and lodges gathered around the landing strip which literally brings in most of the town's trade and tourism, and after receiving a warning about the dangers of altitude sickness (the importance of taking things at our own pace, not overdoing it and drinking at least four litres of water a day), we set off trekking.
We stopped and camped about four hours later, around teatime, and I was allocated a tent with a chap in his sixties. He was a nice chap, decent and friendly, and I admired the fact that he'd chosen to do this as a holiday - trekking for over a week in the mountains, to be rewarded with a fairly long-distance view of the peak of Everest, isn't everyone's cup of tea, after all.
Speaking of cups of tea, they were plentiful at the nearby lodge where we ate our evening meal before retiring to our tents; weak and milky and sugary, but the tea was always available, and the Sherpas would grin as they said the word 'tea' to us, perhaps knowing of my feelings towards it.
So we'd drunk several litres of water that day, and several cups of tea. I guess I can see why my tentmate decided to pee into a bottle instead of going out into the cold at 2am or so to the toilet tent. But it wasn't the way I would have chosen to be woken, and thinking about it now, the sound that woke me was more like a glass or metal bottle being filled than a plastic one, though I can only hope he wasn't caught so short that he decided to pee into his Sigg water bottle or similar... no, as I say, he was a decent chap, and I'm sure he wouldn't have lowered himself to do that... would he ?
As I say, altitude can make you do strange things.


I consider myself a rational, intelligent type, not given to flights of insane fancy or making decisions based on spurious notions or beliefs.

And yet... I've read about Chaos Magick and sigilwork and dabbled in them to an extent, infrequently do tarot card readings on the deck I own, have a couple of different translations of the I Ching which I consult now and then, and was grateful to receive a Solar Return Reading which a good friend of mine, an astrologer, recently gave me as a birthday present.

Occasionally, these things influence the way I think and act, and I could (with little notice) provide tales of precognitive dreams or other experiences I've had, deja vu moments, and the like; most people I know are similarly sceptical, and yet could tell tales of things which have happened to them which fall in such categories, and which defy satisfactory explanation using logical or scientific method.

What, then, is the explanation for this ? Is it that the experience of living is just the tip of a vast iceberg of things which we don't yet have abilities to grasp, and that there is indeed 'something more' out there? Or is it that even the most rational of minds will occasionally fall prey to the belief that there is something paranormal or supernatural going on because, for whatever reason, there's a part of their mind that wants to think such things could be true, and is on occasion willing to over-estimate the evidence to make it appear so ? Or something else ?

I genuinely have no idea, and - as ever - invite your suggestions...

REVIEW: V For Vendetta (original comic)

This graphic novel (aka big chunky comic) by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, despite being over a decade old, remains a perfect example of why anyone who maintains all comics are for children is, quite simply, wrong.

It's complex in its story and ideas, the art and colouring is a million miles from simple linework cartooning, and some of it is deeply moving (the Valerie chapter, for instance).

It's about ten or twelve quid to buy, but it's well worth the money, being the sort of thing you can return to over and over again, and find something new.

Recommended for anyone who says they like a good story, and isn't hidebound by limited notions of genre and/or medium limitations. Which, I would hope, is anyone reading these words.

REVIEW : V For Vendetta (film)

It's been a few weeks since I saw this film, and I've been mulling over my reaction since. It's very much a mixed bag, really, and my feelings towards it are rather coloured by the fact that Alan Moore (the co-creator of the comic) has strongly expressed his distaste for the changes made in the transition between the page and the screen. It's tempting to make this review into a 'the good/the bad' semi-list, but I won't.

Oh, and here be spoilers, so look away now if you don't want to know the results.

There are fundamental problems in the film, many of them inevitable given that a comic of something like 200+ very dense pages has been reduced to a film of about two hours. There are huge leaps in the action which don't necessarily make sense, the character of Finch has been horribly reduced (would have loved to see his Larksmere visit filmed), and the character of V has been changes, as has Evey.

But... there are some bits of the film which work surprisingly well; the Valerie sequence is about as well filmed as it could be, and is really rather moving, and Stephen Fry's character, whilst very reliant on the likability that Fry as a person brings as welcome baggage to the screen, is effective in both plot terms and as a performance.

Speaking of performances, Weaving as V is pretty good, though the problem with having heard V's voice on and off in my head for nearly two decades inevitably means that that his voice isn't quite what I was expecting (oh yes, that sentence looks mad out of context, but you know what I mean). Natalie Portman's not bad as Evey either, though she's slightly less sympathetic as a result of plot changes such as during the scene with the Bishop where she tries to betray V.

The general consensus about the film is that the bits which are faithful to the comic work well, and that the newly invented bits don't, and whilst the former aspect of that is certainly true, the latter isn't entirely the case; the end sequence wiht the crowd and the barricades - despite its mob tendencies going rather against the anarchist principles of the original story - is quite effective, and the threaded together bits with the dominoes works pretty well. To my amusement, as well, I actually thought that it was Christopher Hitchens playing Lewis Protheroe, though I was (unsurprisingly) wrong (it was Roger Allam).

So, a not-bad film, though certainly not a great one, and for people who haven't read the original work it'll probably be pretty entertaining, though viewers familiar with the original will almost certainly spend a lot of time missing what's not there, and umm-ing and ahh-ing about the new material. And some of the ideas in the film remain timely, such as the line about how governments should be afraid of the people, and not vice versa...

Is this a cautious recommendation? I think it is. Maybe wait for it on rental if you're not sure.

The bold and the beautiful

Came across a quote recently (attributed to Goethe, but I have the feeling it may originate elsewhere):

“Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

Has been running through my mind recently - in a good way.

A flat of one's own

It's not necessarily something of note, but it occurs to me that this month marks four years since I moved into my flat in East London (I'd call it 'mine', but let's be honest and say that I have an amicablearrangement with the building society). A friend of mine cautioned me that as soon as I moved in, I'd “start to hemorrhage money”.

Kind of true, and I frequently find myself on the receiving end of bills or other charges which I wasn't expecting, but more often than not, I find myself sitting on my sofa, writing or reading or watching a film and sipping a cup of tea, and stopping for a moment; catching myself grinning at the way that the place feels like home, and how comfortable I am there.

And it seems like one of the best decisions I've ever made.

REVIEW: Cyrano by Geraldine McGaughrean

This novel - which I think is aimed at teenagers, though it's far from clear - is a straightforward prose retelling of Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac. I'm a fan of the original play, to the extent that I've watched various incarnations of it on stage and screen, have read the play in various translations (and even in the original French; yes, that's right, look impressed, and feel slightly aroused by my erudition), and have even listened to the opera.

So I know the story, and was looking forward to the novel. But I was very disappointed - the description of places and people is slight (I don't think it's made clear that Cyrano has a big nose until a page or two after his first appearance, when it's meant to be a defining feature of him in literal and figurative terms), and the expanded page count isn't matched by expanded detail in the scenes, or in the backhistory of the characters (explaining why De Guiche hates Cyrano so much, for example).

Perhaps the most notably absent element is that of the romance scenes; when Cyrano's standing beneath Roxane's window, speaking in place of Christian, and wooing her, we're told she starts to tremble and swoon, but the lines he's speaking just didn't seem substantial enough to me to elicit that effect. Maybe I just take a lot of seducing*, but I thought it seemed more like Roxane was being swept away by the words because the plot demanded it than due to the power of the words being said to her.

As I say, I have the idea that the novel may be aimed at teenagers (I found it in that section of the bookshop after a friend had alerted me to the existence of this prose version), but in all honesty I think they'd find it a bit unlikely as well; even when I was most awash with hormones and teen angst and uncertainty I doubt I would have been convinced by a lot of the stuff in this book, so I think it's definitely a wasted opportunity.

If you want to read Cyrano, I'd recommend the Christopher Fry translation; if you want to watch it on screen in its original period setting, the Depardieu portrayal is about as good as it gets, but the modernisation of it by Steve Martin in 'Roxanne' is impressive, not least because he writes and stars.

And when I think about it, I first saw the Steve Martin film version when I was in my teens, and it worked for me, while I'm certain McGaughrean's novel would have left me feeling distinctly unmoved.

*I'd love to put a footnote to this confirming or denying, but thinking about it I don't think I can be so conclusive in a couple of lines. Feel free to e-mail in your agreement or disagreement (this invitation applies to women only. Sorry chaps).

It's your vote that counts

I didn't get a chance to post about it here last week, but many thanks to those of you who voted for me whilst I was one of the listed acts on It's much appreciated.

I didn't make it through to the next round, but it was gratifying how many of you did take the trouble to vote, and also that the panel's comments (which, like my act, may well be archived somewhere on the site) all struck me as perfectly justified; I'll take them into account and get back on with booking myself to do more comedy in the immediate future. And of course I'll be sure to provide details of them here...

Stray Thoughts, as Stray as the wind blows

1. This Easter, despite being a godless infidel heathen, I received eight large chocolate bars, two smaller bars, and an Easter egg. Is it any wonder that I was recently asked if I'd gained weight? I love my friends and family dearly, but they're being staggeringly literal in the way they're going about ensuring that they see more of me.

2. I don't normally watch soap operas, but have seen some whilst staying at my parents' house over Easter, and can't help but note that the dialogue in Coronation Street appears to be much better than in Emmerdale or EastEnders. By 'better', I particularly mean 'at least half-similar to the way people actually speak', as EastEnders is notable in how much fun the script writers and actors are clearly having with the lines, but is equally notable in how little it actually resembles real speech.

3. Free DVD alert: if you haven’t already seen it, Morgan Spurlock’s certainly-worth-a-watch ‘Supersize Me’ is free with The Guardian next Saturday.

Late post

Well, once again I added a few more paving stones to the Road to Hell last week, for a variety of mundane reasons; mainly because I was away from an internet connection, but - obviously - I'm back now. And playing catchup, as you can see...

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A plague(-iarism) upon both your (random) houses*

Yesterday, the case by two of the three authors of ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ against Random House, their publishers, alleging plagiarism in the novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (coincidentally published by the same people) was thrown out. The Judge, apparently, said there was no obvious or solid plot in HBHG which had been lifted for DVC.

That’s fairly accurate, I’d say, as – and yes, I have read both books – HBHG purports to be a work of historical investigation and revelation, and DVC purports to be a thriller. Neither is at all successful, to my mind – the ‘non-fiction’ book is highly spurious, its research and methods most definitely built upon a pyramid of sand and far too reliant on ‘is it not possible that..?’ thinking as opposed to ‘therefore it seems almost conclusive that…’, and the DVC is full of inaccuracies (the frontispage claims it’s accurate, when it simply isn’t), poor pacing (characters stop for long expositional chats when they’re being pursued by killers), and staggeringly bad dialogue and writing generally.

So I was faintly perplexed as to why the authors of HBHG would want to claim there’d been some lifting, as the ‘facts’ that appear to have been lifted have been pretty well debunked over the years (the Priory of Sion, for instance, is generally held to be a hoax created by Pierre Plantard and French journalists in the 1960s and 1970s). So if I’d been the authors of the book, I would have kept quiet about it – sure, they’ll get some sales out of it, but the association with Dan Brown’s inexplicably popular novel is certainly not going to be good for them in the long-term, and certainly won’t do their already in-question historian credentials much good.

A nice comment on it from Howard Jacobson in one of the papers today: “Charging Dan Brown with plagiarising your work is like arguing with the referee for not crediting you with an own-goal. There are some things you should be pleased to see another person get the plaudits for.” Very true.

And oddly enough, the report on the case in yesterday’s Evening Standard referred to Brown as the world’s richest author, which seems a bit of a speedy rise; I thought that Jackie Collins or Stephen King (or even the more recent Joanne Rowling) would be more likely to hold that position? I’m ready to be corrected, but I’m similarly ready to pit my gut feeling about this against the Evening Standard’s fact-checking skills.

*Oh, stop wincing, we both know you wish you'd thought of this first.

Six Feet Under DVD Unlock Codes

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the post will mean precious little, but for those of you who DO know what I’m on about, it’ll hopefully perform a useful social service.

The unlock codes for the DVD given away with the Evening Standard are 347229 and 866314. Key them in and enjoy a healthy dose of Fisherly goodness.

And if you found this by Googling or similar: welcome. I’m John. How are you?

Truly a capital city

This was the view as I strolled across St James’s Park the other night.

The kind of sight that I almost take for granted, but which I recently realised that tourists pay large sums of money to enjoy for brief periods of time, whilst I see such things on a daily basis.

And people ask me why I like living in London.

These Stray Thoughts walk into a pub, and ...

  1. I recently finished reading the fifth book in Stephen King’s epic (and it well deserves that description; decades in the writing, and huge in scale) Dark Tower series. I enjoyed it, and some of the ideas in it are staggeringly imaginative, but … well, the thing is, King’s style has changed so much in the last decade or so that the last couple of DT books almost feel as if they could have been written by someone else. I’d hate to think that might be the case, and in fact I suspect it’s because I haven’t read many of SK’s books in the last seven years or so. The chances are high that his writing genuinely has become more elegant and impressive, and that I just haven’t seen the various stages of that evolution. Certainly hope that’s the case, as the DT series deserves to be seen as a classic of imaginative fiction, though as it’s fantasy, I’ll wager it’ll be ignored or overlooked on a critical and academic level.
  2. On the tube last night, there was an attractive woman; her facial appearance was a kind of mix of Joanne Whalley and Katie Holmes, though with a darker skin hue which suggested a foreign origin, and she was casually but stylishly dressed. But then she ruined all this by producing, and then starting to read, a celebrity gossip magazine. Tch.
  3. It suddenly occurred to me the other day that I lived in the South of England for 10 years, then the North for 12 years (off and on), and now I’m back in the South again. And I have to say that until I moved to the North, I was utterly unaware of the North-South divide in the way that it’s often perceived – after I moved to Sheffield, people were often keen to point out my southern origins to me, and a girlfriend’s father even made some remark to the effect of my family moving North to be richer, or to exploit some economic benefit, or similar nonsense. And it was often portrayed as if the South of England spends all its time thinking of ways to plot the demise of the North, and to find more ways to move everything to London. Not only is this simply not true, but the – equally unappealing – fact of the matter is that many people in the South of England don’t even think about the North; they’re utterly oblivious to it in terms of their everyday thinking. Whereas a startling number of people I met in Sheffield were actively anti-South almost as if it was a matter of personal pride. All very odd.
  4. I like Toblerone, but it’s one of those chocolate brands that I never think of in ‘everyday’ terms – it’s either offered at half price when I buy a magazine, or I’m buying it at an airport to get rid of local currency. It’s an international brand, and it’s been around for as long as I can remember, but it somehow always seems to be on the fringes of the chocolate market, for reasons I can’t adequately explain.

REVIEW : Kyro - Half Moon, Putney, 22nd March 2006

Once again, Kyro put on a great show, and their new bassist Max seemed like he’d been there for ages. Nary a bum note to be heard from any of the band, and the use of keyboards and samples is really coming into its own.

Five great songs in their criminally short set, any of which could easily be a single (and indeed they should be), and it would be insanely unfair if they didn’t see all their talent and hard work pay off.

And I won’t even mention the fact that Ian, their lead singer, was pogo-ing so energetically at one stage that he almost landed on top of the drum kit. He’s a good friend, and it would be unkind to bring it up.


Men and women like different kinds of book shock!

Ladies first:,,1369764,00.html

Second class male:,,1747821,00.html

The general tenor of the news reports is a bit funny, I feel - dismissive of the male reading as pubertal, and somehow damning of the women's choices as if they should all be by Gloria Steinem... if anything, the results kind of suggest the gulf between academic and industry understanding of reader's tastes and the reality, I think.

Did you miss me ?

Well, I’m back now. Several updates today, and at least three more planned in the next couple of days. Get yourself a cuppa, and read on.

And please keep the comments and e-mails coming in; it’s gratifying to know people are reading this stuff and taking the time to compose responses.

Certainly makes a pleasant change from the usual e-mails I seem to get offering me Viagra or penis enlargement methods… which I presume are the usual contents of spam e-mails, right ? I mean, it’s not just me who gets this stuff, surely…