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London Riots: Feeling Sick

August 9, 2011

The riots are currently in the minds of all Londoners. It’s left me with mixed emotions and more than a few questions which I’ll quickly share here.

I live in Holloway. It’s not a glamorous area but I’m rather fond of it. It’s certainly one of the poorer areas in the borough of Islington.

I’ve seen my high street change in the ten years I’ve lived here. The shopping centre has gone from a fairly useful area where you could, at a push buy last minute presents, to somewhere that only provides the core products of our consumerist culture: mobile phones and trainers. I think this is a shame.

These shops haven’t been looted yet. But who knows…

Speaking of looting: Some people have pointed to the wide spread presence of looting as proof that this is not protest, it is criminality. I’m not so sure. A lot of what I see in youth culture today shows an unhealthy preoccupation with brands. People define themselves not by what they do, but what they like. In those circumstances it’s unsurprising that a shallow youth culture that can only express itself with the acquisition of branded goods would steal the brands they like. If they’ve acquired those goods in a style they feel approximates an LA gangster, then all the better (I think they’d be fooling themselves in this regard).

So I look at Holloway in light of these riots. I see my local high street is full of products aimed at young people yet the local youth have no money (or credit) to buy them with. Looting seems kind of inevitable.

I can’t lie. I have always resented the invasion of the the trainer and mobile phone shops into my local area. I have felt that invasion exposes the lie of capitalism: you do not get more choice, just more of the same. So when I see trainer shops get raided on TV I experience some Schadenfreude. I know: I suck. It’s not the “right” way to feel but I can’t help it.

And then there are the Police.

Let’s go over recent events that led us to this unhappy situation. A man was shot in Tottenham. This may have been because the police bodged an armed operation. The man’s death is protested in Tottenham. The protest turns into a riot. This may have been because the police got heavy-handed with a young girl. This prompts looting in Wood Green. Which prompts looting and rioting in other parts of London over successive nights. The police find it hard to cope because they are under-resourced. In short it’s possible the police made some terrible mistakes that had major outcomes.

Some police have been keen to point out that proposing cuts to the police force in the current climate is insanity. They tell us they need more resources, not fewer.

I have sympathy with this view. Who wouldn’t?

But in the back of my mind is this other thought.

This is the same police force that kept very cosy relations with the tabloid press. Gave them the heads-up on the forthcoming arrests of celebrities. Turned the other way when voicemail hacking was endemic. And what did the Police get in return for this? Stories that helped their case. Whenever they wanted more funding or there was talk of cuts they could rely on their mates in the press to put a good word out there for them. And very often it worked.

I can’t help but feel resentful. I shouldn’t feel this way but I start to see the whole thing as some kind of scuzzy protection racket: “‘ello, ‘ello, ‘ello. Nice city you got here, be a shame if something ‘appened to it. How ’bout you leave a few million on that table over there and I’ll see it get’s looked after.”

Am I sick for thinking these things? Or is this a sick country that makes such thoughts possible in the minds of reasonable people?

Just one final thing.

I’m old enough to remember the Brixton riots although I was only eight at the time. My most enduring memory was a simple one.

I didn’t live in Brixton. I lived in Kilburn. Kilburn was quite a few miles away and on the other side of the river. Unlike Brixton it was predominately white but, like Brixton, predominately working class.

After the riots, almost overnight, every shop on Kilburn High Road had big metal shutters. We don’t even think of this now – of course shops have shutters. And yet it wasn’t always so. Without noticing, our high streets changed.

What will happen to our city after this week? Will more shutters go up? Will “security” change the face of our city?

Vetting My Veterinarian

August 29, 2010

Yesterday we took our cat to the vet for a check up. She’d been off her food for a few days which is what prompted us to take her in, but she’d recovered and had gone back to her usual healthy appetite. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get our little, furry chum checked out.

We could only get a nine AM appointment which was earlier than I would have liked and neither me or my wife’s brain was operating at full power. Carrying a howling cat carrier on public transport didn’t help either.

So we turned up at the vet’s a little frazzled and keen to get home.

Every time we go to this vet’s office we get a different vet. This time we got the most extraordinary vet I’ve ever encountered. He literally spoke like the wedding planner in Father of the Bride (here’s a clip). In tribute, I’m going to call him Fronk.

Our cat is called Poppy and as usual we got props for her excellent condition and the fact she’s the ideal weight (about 90% of cats are obese).

He asked us what we feed Poppy (probably looking for a hot tip on how we keep our cat so healthy). Wifey told him it was Iams. He looked very worried and then said “Ah-aaams iz naht verwy guuud. Wah wakamand zi-ance daah-t.” Ah, Science Diet – vets always recommend Science Diet. Well we felt a bit guilty what with Poppy’s recent stomach upset and so we bought a great big bag of Science Diet. He then recommended a bag of TD which is a feed to prevent tartar build up and said we should give her five or six kibbles of it per day.

And then we got to the next issue. Apparently our cat is mental. Now, I kind of assume that all cat’s are mental in that same way that all dogs are a bit stupid and goldfish are a bit forgetful. Well our cat is over grooming and so her tummy is a bit bald – this is apparently the equivalent of teenagers cutting themselves.

Great, our cat’s an emo.

Fronk said “We sull a daffooza thot waal-eesez farra-moons thot well colm ah dahhhn.” In other words they sell a diffuser that sprays pheromones that will calm her down.

Pheromones is a word I don’t like very much. They certainly exist but they get attached to so much bullshit that it sets my spider senses tingling. We clearly didn’t look keen on the £30 device and so he gave us a leaflet about the diffuser and we left it there.

In the end Fronk had sold us £35 in cat food and was also keen to sell us a £30 pheromone device. That’s a big wad of cash.

So here’s a question: was Fronk (unwittingly or otherwise) bullshitting us?

Let’s see.

Are Pheromones Effective?

Let’s do this one first. The device we were offered was the Feliway.

Here’s their description of their product:

Feliway® is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure.

By mimicking the cat’s natural facial pheromones, Feliway® creates a state of familiarity and security in the cat’s local environment.

As a result, Feliway® can be used to help comfort and reassure cats, while they cope with a challenging situation and/or help prevent or reduce the stress caused to a cat during a change in their environment.

Now I’m immediately struck by something in relation to my cat. My cat is an emo, she licks her fur off; she doesn’t piss in my slippers. Is this product really appropriate? I’m not convinced it is. This product is about reassuring a cat that the territory is their own so I can understand it being useful for cats that have moved home or are constantly weeing everywhere. My cat hasn’t moved home in six years, has never pissed anywhere other than her litter tray and, other than over-grooming, is a perfectly happy cat.

But let’s put my suspicions to one side. Is it effective?

If you start Googling this stuff you will find many happy users of Feliway and similar products. But that’s not good enough: there are many people who will happily recommend homeopathy for pets too and that’s clearly bullshit.

So where’s the evidence?

The only useful thing I could find was on a blog called SkepVet in an article titled Pheromone Therapy for Dogs and Cats–What’s the Evidence?. They refer to a systematic review of existing trials. It’s worth reading but I’ll summarise: the trials are of poor quality but out of seven cat trials none of them provided any evidence of a benefit. That’s the best evidence we have to go on and that’s good enough for me.

Was Fronk right to recommend the Feliway?

No. There’s no evidence that the device was an appropriate treatment even of it worked. And there appears to be no scientific evidence that it works for it’s intended purpose either.

The Science Diet: Better than Iams?

Looking around the web, this is clearly an emotive subject. One person says they feed their cat Iams and someone else will surely pipe up “that’s like feeding your children on Doritos every day!” Won’t someone think of the cat children?!?! Of course, nevermind that cat’s diets are not comparable to human diets or that cats now live longer than ever.

Is Iams the very best quality food possible? Probably not. I’m sure my cat would be delighted to be fed cooked chicken every day, but that aint gonna happen. I’m convinced that Iams is decent quality – after all, my cat has been eating nothing else for ten years and she’s fitter than you are, you slob.

There’s also the question of animal cruelty in relation to Iams testing practices. I haven’t looked into this although maybe I should in future.

But here’s the thing: we were told specifically that Science Diet is a better cat food than Iams.

Is that true?

I don’t think it is. I’ve now compared the ingredients of both products and I think it’s notable that Science Diet’s top ingredient is cereals, while Iams top ingredient is chicken. The nutritional values look broadly the same with Iams having the edge.

Seriously, next time you’re looking at dry cat food in a supermarket have a look at the ingredients list and you’ll see they’re all pretty much the same: most have corn or cereals as the top ingredient; a couple like Iams and Purina have meat at the top. Science Diet is basically the same as all of those supermarket ones, the only difference is it’s sold in pet stores and vets offices.

Am I saying that Science Diet is bad? Not at all, but I don’t see any reason to change from Iams as SD is clearly no better. My cat likes Iams, so why change?

Finally, here’s an article about the Science Diet from a dog care website in the US: The Science Diet Scam. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, I think Fronk has got it wrong again. Ho-hum.

In conclusion

I think vets are very good at cutting open your pet and and putting it back together again, I’m just not convinced they know jack shit when it comes to other stuff like nutrition and behavioural problems.

At the very least I have learnt the following:

  • Don’t buy anything from your vet that you can’t buy yourself elsewhere.
  • Do your research and don’t let yourself be guilt tripped into buying quick and easy solutions
  • If your vet makes an assertion then question it rather than accepting it at face value
  • Don’t let your cat listen to Fall Out Boy

ToneCheck: Language, Technology and Philip K Dick

July 25, 2010

There’s this product that checks the tone of your e-mails: ToneCheck

An example on the home page shows us how it suggests to the user to change “it has been annoying me for some time” to “it has been concerning me for some time”. Somehow that’s an improvement. Is concern really the same thing as annoyance? When we’re at work, are we only allowed to be annoyed as long as we bury that annoyance deep in our hearts where it’s likely to cause a coronary?

It reminds me of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. In this alternate history, the Japanese have taken over America after the second world war and citizens must remain polite at all times. The upshot is that civility is enforced so sarcasm and passive aggression are utilised instead.

I often feel that this is what businesses do to us now. They don’t expressly ban words or ways of talking, but it’s often implied that there is a correct way to talk and you won’t have much of a future if you don’t do the same.

As an example, I was recently asked to write a document that laid out for staff what they could and could not do. It was returned to me and I was asked to modify it so it was less “negative.” It had the word “not” in it a few times where I had listed what they couldn’t do. I think it’s worth noting that the criticism wasn’t that the document was inaccurate or hard to understand; the problem was it was too clear by far. The things I said we did not do, we did not do – I just wasn’t allowed to say so (or at least not in a direct and honest way).

And people wonder why the language of business is unclear and hard to understand. We can’t be direct because speaking directly is the enemy of PR and we’re all PR people now.

Anyway, back to ToneCheck and what I feared was the coming apocalypse of business language. Quite honestly I needn’t have worried.

I installed the application and ran it through a few tests. I tried :

You’ve got to be having a laugh.

Apparently that’s OK and is no way aggressive or impolite. But then maybe that’s a colloquialism and is an unfair test. So I tired:

You are a joke

That’s fine too. I tried this:

I’m going to come over there and cut you up!

That’s fine as well. In tribute to the Jessi Slaughter debacle I tried this:

I’m going to put a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy!

That’s fine too. How about this:

I slept with your mother last night. Her rates are very reasonable.

Fine and dandy. At this point I was wondering if the plugin was working at all so I just went straight out and said it:

Fuck off!

Ah, apparently that’s angry.

tonecheck angry.png

OK fine, let’s try something trully appaling that would make a viking blush:

I’m going to burn your house down and rape your children

That sets off the filter but not for the reasons you might expect: the tone of that sentence is Sad

tonecheck sad.png

I’m probably being unfair. This is a product aimed at business people not Mel Gibson.

But what if the product worked as intended. Could we look forward to this sort of thing monitoring what we put in our word processors? Is this what business desires?

It’s not hard to imagine a company using such an application to monitor their staffs outgoing mail. Their staff would be scored for tone and anybody who scored high for aggression could expect a meeting with their manager to explain themselves.

A chilling idea worthy of Dilbert or Office Space.

Let’s hope the technology remains totally useless.

Memories of Live Aid

July 22, 2010

So I was watching a BBC documentary about Live Aid the other day.  It was really rather good and a lot of fun.
But it makes me feel a little bit sad too.

Let me explain.  At that time I was about 11 and I was as crazy about music then as I am now.  Live Aid was a culturally significant event, but more importantly to me, a musically significant event.  I knew I had to watch it and I was very excited about it.

It was a fantastically hot day.  The telly went on and I remember having the schedule for the days events printed in that day’s Daily Mirror in front of me.  As I was doing so my dad told me we would be going to a wedding reception in a few hours and I shouldn’t get too excited.

This was the first I’d heard of it and it didn’t go down well with me at all.  Who’s wedding reception?  Why?  What sort of idiot would get married on a day like this?  (I didn’t realise at the time that most people spend more time arranging their wedding than Bob Geldof spent arranging Live Aid – 12 weeks apparently).  I begged.  I bargained.  I got nowhere.  I was going to miss the biggest gig the world had ever seen.

When I watched the documentary last night, various talking heads spoke about how it was like the Jubilee.  How the streets were empty.  How every television set was tuned to Live Aid and every window was open blasting out the greatest show on earth.  I honestly have no idea if it was like that.  I was stuck in a church hall, sitting on an orange plastic chair drinking lemonade watching a load of happy people being happy.  Humpf!

I hadn’t thought about this Live Aid debacle in a long time but after this documentary it suddenly struck me.  My parents never went to wedding receptions.  The couple in question weren’t close friends of my parents.  While watching this documentary I suddenly realised why we went to a wedding reception.  The couple in question were regulars in my dad’s local pub who probably realised with mounting horror that their wedding day was going to be usurped by Geldof’s big day.  They probably had images in their minds of a church hall that was empty and a wedding cake that now seemed bigger than necessary.

I guess people in the pub rallied around.  And because of this there was a good turn out and people seemed to enjoy themselves.  And we still gave money to Live Aid like everybody else.

Thanks to my parents (and others) a nice couple got to enjoy a jolly wedding reception.

My parents are nothing if not lovely.

But I still hate them!  Are you reading this mum and dad!  I hate you! Hate you! Hate you!  You destroyed my life that day!  Destroyed it!!!

Eulogy – A Magazine About Death

July 10, 2010

I was in Waitrose looking at the magazine racks when I saw something weird and unexpected wedged between The Lady and Fortean Times. A magazine called Eulogy. The front cover had the brightly embalmed face of Molly Parkin on it. Ms Parkin had barely crossed my mind until this moment so I had assumed she’d passed on; her face on the cover of a magazine about death would seem to confirm this, however they’ve interviewed her without the use of a medium so I guess she’s alive after all.

Eulogy Magazine Cover

The strap line of Eulogy is “To celebrate life and death”. When your main advertisers are Co-operative Funeral Care and Interflora it’s pretty obvious which part of that equation you fall on. Although there’s also an advert for vodka so I guess they do spirits too.

Inside we have celebrity interviews. They ask Mark Strong “what kind of funeral he would like to have” (as it turns out he favours cremation because he doesn’t like worms). Boy George talks about a dead friend. Mark Williams of The Fast Show talks about funerals. And an “empress of electro-pop” called Viktoria Modesta (no, me neither) talks about her favourite dead thing: her polar bear skin rug.

There are photos from Kensal Green cemetery of which this is my favourite:
Eulogy Stone
When I die I also want to be forever remembered as I am when I’ve just woken up and I’m trying to clear the mind-fog with a restorative cup of tea.

The aforementioned interview with Molly Parkin does feature a pull quote you might not expect to see in such a sober periodical as this:
I can ride into dawn on an orgasm
More tea vicar?

She also reveals that James Robertson-Justice sometimes visits her back garden in the form of a blackbird and pecks on her window. I would imagine if James Robertson-Justice was to visit anyone in avian form he’d be an owl beating on the door loudly with his wing demanding a bloody brandy right bloody now so he can wash the taste of field mouse out of his mouth.
JRJ Owl.png

If all of this is too emotional for you then at least there’s an article about The Samaritans with their helpline number displayed prominently.

And you’ll probably need it when you read about the book written for children so they can understand the death of a relative: it’s called “Someone Has Died Suddenly.” I find the “suddenly” part that title strangely specific. Does this indicate there will be a serious of “Someone Has Died…” books explaining confusing deaths to children. No doubt “..on the Toilet”, “…Alone, Owing Mummy a Huge Amount of Maintenance” and “..Mysteriously In Michael Barrymore’s Swimming Pool” are soon to follow.

I shouldn’t really trivialise the problems of dealing with bereaved children. But look at what they illustrate the article with:
Eulogy Bears.png
Bleugh! Where’s Goldilock’s? Sharpening her knife in preparation for a nice bear skin rug?

Anyway, the magazine is glossy and well designed. It’s probably about as tasteful as you could expect such a thing to be. But I really don’t understand who this magazine is aimed at other than the casual ghoul like me. I can’t help but think of Blanche from Coronation Street who made a habit of going to strangers funerals and reviewing them in the Rovers Return as if they were theatrical productions with catering. Of course the actress playing Blanche sadly died a few months ago so that’s one less reader.

If anyone knows who this is aimed at (particularly if the publishers have sent you a media pack!) I’d love to hear from you.

Fear of Books

March 22, 2010

I came across a book on my shelf the other day and it brought the memories flooding back. But first, let me give you some background.

My mum is very much the literary type. When I was growing up she had shelves groaning under the weight of books, everything from Shakespeare to Julian Barnes. So I guess it wasn’t very surprising that she took responsibility for choosing my books and reading bedtime stories to me. My dad on the other hand is more of a blokey bloke. He was captain of the local darts team and he’d often keep me rapt with tales of exotic pubs such as The Marlborough, The Drum and Monkey, The Done Our Bit Club. It was like having a dad in the navy telling me about all the places he’d been only he didn’t have to get the clap.

Anyway, at some point, when I was about seven years old I’d guess, my dad decided he should do more to bond with his son. I knew nothing of this but it seemed my dad was determined to read me a bedtime story. It couldn’t be anything I already had: the Mr Men weren’t his style and my mum did the voices for Winnie the Pooh which he wouldn’t be caught dead doing.

No, he was going to have to get something special that suited his style.

All three of us went out to Kilburn’s premiere discount bookshop. The shop was large, tatty and piled high with all the books that couldn’t be sold anywhere else. Their stock was peculiar to say the least. I once convinced my parents to buy me a book from there that in retrospect seems a bit odd. It was a Star Trek sticker book that contained loads of huge stickers you could peel off and stick on your walls. In your mind you’re probably imagining sticky back pictures of Spock, Kirk, the Enterprise and various hot alien chicks. It wasn’t like that. The book was in fact health and safety notices from the USS Enterprise; “Important: Keep arms and legs clear of the transporter while in use”, “Do not use communicators in the sick bay”, “Use of tribbles is forbidden at all times!” I had these stupid things stuck up all over my room.

So yeah, it was a weird bookshop full of weird unsellable books.

While I was browsing I looked over at my dad and he had a brown picture book in his hands and a smile on his face. Clearly it was a kids book and he was buying it. Huh? My little brain couldn’t comprehend why my dad was buying a book for me. Weirdly nothing more was said and I promptly forgot all about it.

Until bedtime that is.

Disconcertingly my dad was going to read me a bedtime story. OK, that was weird. “Winnie the Pooh please” I said. My dad then told me we weren’t going to do Winnie the Pooh because he’d got me a new story. He then produced the brown picture book I’d briefly glanced earlier. It was called “The Man from Ironbark”

Oh.

An explanation

The Man from Ironbark is a landscape shaped picture book with large dark pictures spanning double pages and very few words. It’s based in Australia at the turn of the century and all the events occur in a town not disimilar to your classic wild west movie set. It is clearly intended as a childs book yet it’s earthy tones and weird subject matter exhibit a questionable understanding of children. If Australian children are brought up reading this then it explains why Aussies are such a strange bunch.

Back to the story

So, here’s what happened when my dad read me the story.

The story is about a country yokel who decides to go into the town where all the posh town folks live (remember: it’s a wild west town in Australia so it’s not that fancy). While there he notices that most town men have well trimmed moustaches rather than the scruffy unkempt beard he sports. He pops into a barbers so he can get some of that trimmed ‘tache action.

This is where it goes wrong

Man from Ironbark Meets his Nemesis

I was immediately drawn to the evil look in the barbers eyes and the flash of the cut-throat razor. This looked pretty terrifying and the seven year old me was worried. What could possibly happen next? Nothing bad surely, this is a kids book!

Man from Ironbark Screams in Terror

ARGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!! ARGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

I was screaming my head off with tears rolling down my face. My dad then moved on to the next page to try to show me that everything was OK

Man from Ironbark gets all Chuck Norris

For some reason that didn’t really do it for me. A guy holding his neck together while strangling another man and doing god knows what to a cat (not pictured) really didn’t make me happy.

So the result was that I was screaming my head off and telling my dad to go away. My dad was frantically trying to explain that he hadn’t really cut the guys throat, that it was all a prank, but it was too late. I was terrified and freaked out.

Unsurprisingly my dad never read me another bedtime story again.

The Ironbark book sat unwanted on my bookshelf and I remember being terrified of it for years. It just seemed to be tainted with bad feelings and nightmares.

Weirdly it’s now the only original book I still have from my childhood. I destroyed the Mr Men books in a misguided attempt to decorate my bedroom. The Winnie the Pooh books disappeared into the loft and were never seen again. I haven’t even the first clue what happened to the Barbapapas.

The Secret Gallery

February 28, 2010
misdeed.png

Sometime ago I read about Room A at the National Gallery. It’s a gallery that not many people know about and is rarely open. In fact they only open it from 2pm to 5pm on Wednesday afternoon.

It’s almost like they don’t want people to see it. Well I love a challenge so me and the wife took a day off and went along.

We had a hell of a time finding the room. We went to the right floor. But we were on the wrong part of the floor. We asked for guidance at the information desk. “Room A?” she asked incredulously. I nodded. She sighed. She got out a map. “You need to go up these stairs, go through the central hall, through room 12, go towards room 29 and then towards room 26 and then go down the stairs.” When we got to the stairs they were roped off. Was it closed because of the staff’s industrial action? Wifey went and spoke to a guard, who spoke to another guard, who then let us through.

The room is harshly lit with strip lights. There’s the constant white noise of portable air conditioners as well as repeated buzzing from the over-sensitive alarm system. Hear a buzz and you’re too close.

The collection is a real jumble. There is some really fantastic stuff in there. There’s also some things that are so poorly rendered you’d wonder who paid money for this crap (there are so many poorly rendered baby Jesus willies I was starting to freak out. Is it blasphemous to misrepresent Jesus’s willy?).

There were too old dears who, when they weren’t discussing the merits of Morrison’s (the supermarket that is) were making criticisms such as “I think that painting’s too big”

There was a painting called the Toilet of Venus. There was An Allegory of Justice which was some dude riding a grumpy ostrich.

My favourite thing of all was a painting called After the Misdeed by Jean Beraud. The picture at the top of this post does not do it justice.

It’s well worth checking out, if they’ll let you in. If not you can see the virtual gallery here.

I Was at the C&H 100th Podcast

February 2, 2010

I was at the Collings and Herrin 100th podcast last night. It was very much a celebratory occasion.

I’m almost embarrassed that I’ve listened to over a hundred hours of this nonsense. I could’ve done something more useful and less geeky with that time. Like building a scale model of the TARDIS out of circuit boards.

I got the opportunity to ask a question in the Q&A. Before I got to ask my question Richard Herring compared me to John Lennon and suggested I might get shot. I’d heard Mark Chapman shot Lennon because he wanted to be famous; Someone would only shoot me if they wanted to become anonymous. Anyway, I asked how they felt about inspiring so many other people to do podcasts of their own. Unsurprisingly they wanted them all to stop. Fair enough.

(By the way, my shitty podcast is at http://abadidea.org/. Sorry.)

Now, for those of you who don’t know, at the end of each podcast Andrew Collins will take a picture with his MacBook to go alongside the recording.

I’ve now appeared in two of these – which could well be a record. A pathetic record, but I’ll take anything I can get.

Here I am in last nights photo:

C&H100.jpg

It’s not the clearest of pictures so here’s an arrow pointing me out:

C&H100mod.jpg

Here’s me in the photo for the 31st podcast:

C&H31.jpg

Again, just in case you’re wondering which one is me:

C&H31mod.jpg

I don’t know why I’m pointing this out. I feel ridiculous.

Strangely, while my wife was sitting next to me when both of these photos were taken, she doesn’t appear so I guess she was ashamed to be there and hid when the pictures were taken. Clever girl.

The Persuasionists: Cut Short and Cut Up

January 17, 2010

I tried to watch BBC2s new sitcom The Persuasionists recently and I only made it through 18 minutes before I had to give up on it.  The last time I couldn’t finish watching a sitcom it was the recent remake of Reggie Perrin which is interesting because they share quite a bit of common ground.  Although to be honest RP just made me sad and depressed that David Nobbs would allow such a horrible thing to happen to his finest creation.  If the writer of Men Behaving Badly asked to piss on my cat I wouldn’t say yes wholly on the basis that I get to join in.

Anyway…

Rather than just slag off The Persuasionists as being crap I thought I’d share my inexpert opinions about why it doesn’t work.

Firstly, a quick summary

The Persuasionists is based at an advertising agency.  There’s a perma-angry Australian boss.  There’s a creative played by Iain Lee. There’s a guy who pitches campaigns played by Adam Buxton.  There’s a ditzy blonde who does, uh, something.  Finally there’s a character who is best described as “comedy foreigner” – imagine something like Latka from Taxi played by someone with only a thousandth of the talent.  During the show this team is expected to pitch a slogan for a product called Cockney Cheese.

Here’s the title sequence:

With that out of the way, here’s why it doesn’t work

1. Nobody likes a smartarse

One feature of poorly written sitcoms is what I think of as the smartarse setup.  It often goes like this: smartarse is in a room doing whatever it is they do when one of the wacky characters walks in and says something stupid; smartarse then delivers witty put down.  End of dialogue.

This is the comedy equivalent of a strawman.  You set up a strawman just so you can easily beat it up.  The problem with that is that it’s lazy and it’s boring to watch.

Let’s make a comparison.  Let’s look at Father Ted.  The character of Father Ted is really Mr Average; he’s not especially intelligent or witty, he’s just kind of average like the rest of us.  Dougal walks in the room and says something stupid.  What often happens next is Father Ted then tries to explain to Dougal why he’s being stupid.  Dougal and Ted then get involved in a conversation that often results in Father Ted being unable to win the argument against an idiot and the idiot being just as confused as he was previously.

Most importantly though there’s interaction between characters, there’s conflict, and that makes interesting viewing.

Now some folk might say that there’s nothing wrong with the smartarse setup.  Surely that’s the classic structure of a joke: setup/punch, setup/punch.  Yes it is and I’m not saying it’s always wrong but once a sitcom relies on that structure for the bulk of it’s jokes then clearly the writers are not developing characters or developing interesting situations.

And that’s boring.

2. Get off your fat arse

I think Iain Lee’s character is meant to be the central character, the one we identify with most.  I say this because all the other characters are wacky caricatures.

Anyway, it doesn’t seem to be very well defined that he’s the central character but to me it seemed that he was.  It’s a poorly written sitcom so how the fuck should I know.  Anyway.

What I didn’t understand is why he’s so passive.  For the whole 18 mins he was sitting in a chair.

It really bothered me that the main character didn’t really move and all the other characters had to come to him. Think of the main characters in any other sitcoms and think about how much they move from place to place.  OK, The Royale Family are an exception.  Think about Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp, The Office.  Even Fletcher in Porridge moves about more and he’s in Prison.

It just seems all wrong to me.

3. Slogans are fun!

The writers have set the show in an advertising agency which gives them a tried and tested formula.  Several sitcoms have gone with a similar idea: Reggie Perrin had to work on marketing campaigns, Absolute Power had various PR shenanigans.  One of the irresistible things about this setup is that your characters can spout advertising slogans for fictional products.

This should be dead easy: create a product and then create a ridiculous slogan for it.

The writers mentioned three slogans in the eighteen minutes I saw and they were all unfunny.  The one that was the centrepiece of the show was a bit poor – Cockney Cheese – Leave it Aaaaat!!

Here’s some equally unfunny alternatives I came up with in about three minutes

Cockney Cheese – As old fashioned as being able to leave your front door open
Cockney Cheese – It’s rhyming slang for “that’s very nice”
Cockney Cheese – It’s rhyming slang for “Parkinson’s Disease” – which incidentally it also prevents
Cockney Cheese – Churned within the sound of cow bells
Cockney Cheese – duck and dive with some cheese and chive

Now all of those are shit.  But it only took me, a chronically stupid man, a few minutes to come up with those and I think they’re a tad more imaginative then “Leave it aaaaat!”  And let’s also remember that I didn’t suggest cockney cheese as potential comedy gold – the writers did and so you’d expect them to do better.  If they couldn’t come up with a funny slogan for cockney cheese then they could just come up with a different product.

Anyway, at one point the characters in the show are pushed to come up with an alternative slogan.  Maybe they came up with something hilarious later on in the show.  But during the eighteen minutes I watched they didn’t, Lee’s character suggested they just print it in a different font and put more exclamation marks after it.

Now that strikes me as a cop out because 1) the writers have dodged making another slogan and 2) we all know advertising doesn’t put loads of exclamation marks after a slogan which means that not only is it not funny but it doesn’t make any sense either.

4. Comedy Foreigner

There’s this character.  He has a foreign accent.  He is very loud.  He holds a very large pencil in his hand and suggests it’s like his cock.  He shouts suggestive things about sex.  He’s like a character from ‘Allo ‘Allo just without the existential angst.

If that sounds funny to you then you really don’t want to miss THE PERSUASIONISTS!

5. The Boss from hell

Sitcoms down the years are scattered with bosses from hell: David Brent, CJ from Reggie Perrin, Bishop Brennan from Father Ted, either Mr Reynholm from The IT Crowd, that dude with the moustache in Terry and June.  So this is another tried and tested formula it should be hard to get wrong.

Adam Buxton’s character is called in to the bosses office so he can roar at him.  The boss them roars at him.

And that’s it.

Once again this shows a tragic lack of imagination.  If he’s going to do demeaning things to his employees then why stop there.

He could demand that Buxton smear nutella round his face while singing I Should Be So Lucky.  He could ride Buxton like a pony while brushing his “mane” and calling him Doris.  He could get Buxton to clean a spill of his desk with his own shirt.  Again, these ideas are quite shit but that’s just what popped into my head just this minute and again that seems a wee bit more creative than what happened in the show.

Seriously, just think of this setup: boss calls character into his office and does something demeaning to him.

Now imagine something that could happen in that scene.  You’ve probably just thought of something funnier than “he roars in his face”

So that was pretty much where I decided that this show wasn’t going to go anywhere.  If you can’t think of something funny in that situation then you have no right considering yourself a professional comedy writer.

So…

Is it unfair of me to write off the show after 18 minutes?  Absolutely.  But then no one died and made me Judge Dredd.  I’m just a viewer and I don’t have to watch anything I don’t want to.  18 minutes was as much as I could stand and I’d thought I’d write about why that was.

I love sitcoms, it’s such a shame when they’re created in such an obviously slapdash manner.

My Top Ten Albums of 2009

December 31, 2009

Hey folks. Another year, another chance to look back over twelve months and see what’s been rocking my socks off. Now I should be clear: There’s a lot of music out there I don’t give a monkey’s about and so I haven’t listened to it. I haven’t listened to Lady Gaga because I’m a 35 year old straight man – she’s not aimed at me. Similarly most of the indie bobbins out there is aimed at people who go to Motorhead gigs ironically and then spend all night taking photos of themselves to post on Twitter – again, I’m not the target demographic.

So this is just the stuff I’ve stumbled across and liked. Maybe you’ll like it too.

In no particular order:

Touchdown – Brakes

This is probably best described as Indie pop with a touch of Country and the occasional blast of glam rock. The closest comparison I can make, with some reservations, is The Shins. The album starts with the pulsing Two Shocks, moves through chiming guitar pop, a gospel style hoedown and ripping off Roxy Music riffs.

It really is an album with a surprise around every corner and consequently it’s one of my favourites this year.

Watch Me Fall – Jay Reatard

Reatard seems to have a knack for pissing people off. There’s that awful name for one. He’s got into fights with his audience and angered his band to the point where they deserted him mid-tour. So it’s quite surprising to find that his music is not just snotty punk rock but fantastically skillful pop music with an undercurrent of psych. This album rattles through 32 minutes in no time at all and the quality is high throughout.

The Prodigy – Invaders Must Die

I wasn’t as disappointed with “Always Outnumbered” as many Prodigy fans, however even I can agree that this is a fantastic comeback. For this album they seem to have married the best elements of the first two albums to the punk attitude they discovered on Fat of the Land meaning they’ve pulled off a brilliant trick of invoking their past without repeating themselves.

Let’s Wrestle – In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s

And the award for the best album title goes to In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s! The album itself is pretty great too if you like Wedding Present-ish type stuff. I Won’t Lie to You was on of my favorite singles from last year and they really showed that it wasn’t a one off. The real star of this record is the lyrics where our protagonist is a loser but not a self pitying one.

The Wildhearts – Chutzpah!

Wildhearts albums have always been a mixed bag but this time Ginger and crew have really hit the mark. A collection of three minute pop epics in a variety of styles that never seem at odds with each other. While there are the usual air-punching singalongs there are also epic rock workouts like Jackson Whites and Tim Smith (a tribute to the Cardiacs main man who fell ill recently). While the Wildhearts sound might be too polished for some tastes, for anyone else this is as about as good as it gets.

Art Brut – Art Brut vs Satan

Eddie Argos is a cracking lyricist and he’s occasionally in great form here. Of particular note is Alcoholics Unanimous with it’s story of drunken misbehaviour. On top of that the tunes are great. Having said that there are a few tracks here that only just manage to tread water. I do have one pet peeve about this album though: I find the habit of making the chorus just a repeat of the title barked out four times in a row just a little tedious.

Still, Art Brut are great and I’m looking forward to the next album.

Bob Mould – Life and Times

Bob was on my list last year and here he is again. He’s still overly keen on that autotune/vocoder effect (come on Bob, your voice isn’t that bad) but his songwriting is terrific and really hits all the right notes with me. I think I’m Sorry, Baby, But You Can’t Stand in My Light Anymore is a Bob Mould classic that as good as anything else he’s ever written.

Spinnerette – Spinnerette

I must admit that I was only vaguely aware of Brody Dalle’s previous band The Distillers. I heard Ghetto Love and was immediately impressed. On this album Brody really shows us what a versatile singer she can be while the music is surprisingly ambitious, such as the jangling mandolins that suddenly appear in the middle eight of Baptized by Fire.

Therapy? – Crooked Timber

Therapy took a break before this album to regroup and try something different. This is certainly more experimental and while it occasional misses, it is a tremendously vicious listen if you’re in the mood for such a thing. Certainly, this is a band very much ploughing it’s own furrow, confident in who they are. This doesn’t sound like Troublegum and they don’t care.

Zoot Woman – Things Are What They Used to Be

This is fantastically well made electro-pop record. I must confess it hasn’t connected with as much as I thought it would however Just a Friend of Mine, Lonely by Your Side and We Won’t Break are fantastic songs.

Also…

A few albums came out in 2008 and I didn’t catch them until the start of 2009 so I thought I’d sneak them in here.

The Week That Was and School of Language were my most played albums of this year. In case you don’t know, the brothers from Field Music decided to go their separate ways and create their own records. School is very much the effort of a single person while Week is rather lavish. Both are fantastic albums and sit very well together. I highly recommend both of them.

Additionally I discovered You Slut!‘s album, Critical Meat. It’s instrumental rock music that is almost the opposite of post-rock. It’s frenetic, energetic stuff that sounds like an alien’s hurried interpretation of what all human rock music sounds like. Again, highly recommended.