Monday, March 31, 2014

Trumpety-Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump

I don’t consider my childhood to have been deprived but I’ve always been aware that there were some things that other people did, experiences other people had, that I missed out on.

I never had a birthday party. I never had a sleep over. And I never went to the circus.

Sure, back in the day, circus shows used to be shown on television, so I knew what a circus was and could extrapolate an imaginary experience from the visual I saw on the TV screen: people sitting in a ring beneath the humungous big top; the caged magnificence of the elephants and lions; the dazzling troupes of garishly dressed trapeze artists and the rowdy explosion of clowns with their falling apart car. But watching the spectacle from the familiar comfort of one’s own living room is not the same as being there in the flesh and feeling the crack of the Circus Master’s whip igniting the air in front of your face.

So when Billy Smart’s circus advertised their latest appearance in the nearby town of Warwick Karen and I decided we’d take our boys; effectively give them the experience I’d never had as well as right a wrong on my behalf.

And what can I say?

Circuses have plainly changed from those that I used to watch on the telly. The elephants and lions were gone. We didn’t even have poodles dancing on spinning balls. This is probably a good thing as the last thing one wants when going to a circus is a moral dilemma. The clowns and their custard pies and their ever-collapsing car had also bitten the dust. I daresay the pincer movement of Stephen King’s It and The Simpson’s Krusty had hastened the end of the traditional clown. Instead we had a physical comedian who, like a Mr Bean or a regular mime artist, “filled in” with pratfalls and childish sign language while the backroom boys hefted the safety nets and the props around between acts.

And despite the Circus Mistress – Miss Yasmin Smart no less – proclaiming the circus’s credentials from the heart of the big top and tracing her own lineage back to a Stetson wearing Billy Smart, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of Eastern European circus workers who filled every nook and cranny and made me think I was about to run into Roger Moore’s creepy 007 playing a dodgy version of snap with a simpering Jane Seymour. But hey, the circus performers themselves were an international lot – an Argentinian bolas wielder who looked like a long lost member of Kiss, a French foot juggler with the most amazing thighs I have ever seen (I swear to God she could have rolled a cigarette between her thighs and inserted the roach without using her fingers), a haughty looking trapeze artist troupe who looked like they’d rather be throwing knives around rather than each other and the “Xtreme Brothers” who proved their strongman credentials by hefting each other around in borderline-obscene three-man pyramids, the configuration of which often made the eyes goggle and one’s goolies water.

But I have to say I loved it.

I was actually at a real life circus and felt like a kid again.

And my boys? They took it all in their stride. In fact my youngest was more enamoured with the light up spinning windmill toy we bought him during the intermission rather than the trapeze artists who deliberately (in my opinion) missed a few catches in the hope that the resultant “ooohs” and “aaahs” would encourage him to break away from the hypnotic lure of his toy.

Not so*.

When he’s old enough to start benchmarking the tensile strength of the performers’ thighs by visual inspection alone, then they might stand a better chance of holding his attention.

Until then I can see why my own parents never bothered getting me tickets to the circus as a child…

*Though he did say afterwards that he thought [and I quote] "Billy Smarties' circus was the best circus in the world..." so something of the occasion must have made it through the windmill filter.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Bush Fire

When do you officially start being a fan of someone? When you first buy one of their records? Or when you first hear one? If the former, I have been a fan of Kate Bush since I was 15. If the latter, since considerably earlier though I’d be hard pushed to nail down the exact time frame. I can vaguely remember hearing Wow on the radio and loving it and then later Babooshka and Sat In Your Lap. But I didn’t start buying records until I was 15 and had finally embraced the largely teenage ethos of “owning music”. Running Up That Hill is one of the first records I ever bought alongside Prince’s Paisley Park. Funny how Prince hasn’t really stood the test of time but Kate Bush seems somehow eternal.

I got into record buying in a big way from then on. It’s fair to say I moved from record buying to record collecting in the space of a few years. I loved the thrill of the hunt; winkling out golden oldies and rare vinyl; visiting musty record fairs and even mustier basement shops. Before long I had accrued original copies of Wow, Babooshka and practically everything else that Kate Bush had ever composed. In fact, bar a couple of very rare 7” singles I have practically everything. A 99% complete collection.

Including, of course, a video of her much celebrated “tour” at Hammersmith Odeon in 1979. Her one and only live music tour. In my heart of hearts I’d kind of accepted that, bar a miracle, I would never get to see her live. The possibility of her ever performing more live dates was slim at best and a fool’s dream at worst. It’s just the way it was. Like most of her fans I was just grateful she was still producing music that was as ground breaking and thought provoking as it ever was.

I would never get to see her live. And I accepted it.

Until today.

News of her suddenly announced concerts for later this year flooded the news pages last week. I had an email announcing the dates from last week and had to read it three times before it sank in. Kate was actually going to perform a string of live dates. Finally. A miracle. It was fairly obvious this was going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can’t see her announcing more dates in the years to come. It was now or never. I had an early access code from the site which meant I could try for tickets on Wednesday before they officially went under general release today. It seemed a gift horse.

Gallingly, technology let me down. I came within a cat’s whisker of getting decent seats before a PC failure ruined my chances. And that was it. My best chance gone. The advance tickets had all sold out within 30 minutes.

I haven’t felt so crushed since I was a spotty teenager. Which is probably rather apt.

My only chance now was a forlorn hope. Trying today, in competition with the whole world, when the general tickets went on general release at 9.30. It was going to be one hell of a mountain to climb, with thousands of others doing their best to knock me and everyone else off the north face. The wife and I went for a 2 pronged separate attack. Telephone and PC, using every technological trick at our disposal. We knew of other friends who were seriously going to have 4 PCs on the go at once with several tabs opened on each. Desperation of the highest order.

Chances of success were minute. And this was confirmed almost immediately by the phone line effectively redirecting us to the web site as the operators couldn’t cope with the amount of traffic and the web site hanging and hanging and hanging, pushing us into a virtual waiting room where we seemed to be repeatedly forgotten about and ignored. Ten minutes in tickets were already being flagged up as “unavailable”.

In a last ditch attempt I went for anything – absolutely anything, the last option that was available in fact – and ended up plumping for a high end “hospitality” package; a luxury pre-concert party-come-meet-and-greet at St Pauls Neo Gothic Church opposite the venue with a sumptuous hamper and brochure thrown in before being escorted to the venue and our seats. No doubt the price had dissuaded many and I had little hope we’d get a bite at this particular cherry anyway. Competition for tickets was evidently insane.

Ordinarily the massive price would have dissuaded me too but, you know what? It’s not often Karen and I award ourselves a big treat. I don’t think we’ve ever really done it, in fact.

So we thought sod it.

I clicked “buy” and fully expected the site to hang and then throw me out onto the street with apologies.

It didn’t.

It gave me an in.

And a countdown. My tickets would be reserved for 7 minutes while I filled in various online forms to set up an account with the venue and then go through the payment process. My typing was suddenly appalling but I did it.

2 tickets for Saturday September 27th. Booked. Confirmed. Finally, Kate and me in the same room together. Albeit a very big room with thousands of other people in it too. 2 tickets that are mine.

It’s going to take months to pay off the credit card bill. But what the hell. For me this is an event that I thought would never happen. As sad it sounds I would have been truly gutted if I had been unable to get tickets and the whole thing went ahead without me. Not that I’m an essential component, you understand.

Right now the wife and I are shaking, wondering what the hell we have done. We’ve spent the price of a small holiday on 2 concert tickets.

But it’s Kate Bush.

Kate Bush is playing live and we’re going to be there.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Farewell To Moussaka

It grieves a man to confess his failures, his weaknesses.

Especially when those failures result not only in the deaths of hundreds of thousands but in the resultant non-existence of billions of billions more.

In my heart I am responsible for a mass genocide too heinous to contemplate. The snuffing out of an entire culture upon which most of the Western world has been founded. The pillars of democracy lie smashed and as dust at my sandaled feet. Philosophy and play writing have been set back millennia. Ray Harryhausen would have spent most of his adult life out of work.

But for a small quirk of fate (and reality) Greece – the classic Athens of ancient history – would have been utterly smashed and wiped from the face of the earth on my say so. Some of the more erudite historians among you are going to point out to me that pretty much happened anyway but don’t spoil a good anecdotal fantasy when I’m spinning one.

The wife and I went to see “300: Rise Of An Empire” on Saturday.

We didn’t expect to be bathed in an academic recreation of pre-history; we expected to be bathed in blood.

And we were. A tidal wave of CGI spatter patterns and arterial Jackson Pollocks cartwheeled and rooster-tailed across the screen in a ruby carnival of spear thrusts, sword flourishes and shield jabs. Limbs were liberated. Guts were eviscerated. Necks were relieved of gristly burdens.

Boats were rammed. Boobs were bared. Six packs were enhanced.

Fans of the original “300” won’t be disappointed by this sequel. It delivers and then some.

Sullivan Stapleton as Themistocles may not have the stature of Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas but he certainly manages the presence. His performance is an artful mix of machismo and convincing battlefield intelligence... enough that I was able to overlook the slight Australian twang of his accent. Lena Headey reprises her role as Queen Gorgo and it is nice to see her actually cutting her way through some of Xerxe’s black clad hordes rather than just looking coolly superior from afar but it is Eva Green as Artemisia who steals the show. Both visceral and yet weirdly supernatural she is by far the strongest character on the screen. A seething brunette maelstrom of contempt, bitterness and vengeance.

Her attempts to seduce Themistocles verge on the sadistic / masochistic. The violence is matched on both sides but it is Artemisia who inevitably ends up on top like a mocking Succubus.

And it is at that moment that I knew in the very depth of my soul that, had any of this been real and I had been Themistocles, I would have sold Greece down the river without a second thought. Thus proving that despite my pretensions to the contrary I am no high minded poet but a base animal of flesh and (non-CGI’d) blood.

Goodbye moussaka. Goodbye drachma.

Goodbye Sparta. Goodbye Olympus.

Goodbye Democrates.

Hello beautiful Persian rugs and buoyantly curved Arabian jugs*.

Utterly no contest.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mother Russia

I don’t, I confess, have much in the way of political acumen so my grasp of the situation might be slightly awry but even I can see that the situation is at best tense and at worst explosive.

A country divided ideologically by the people who live there. One half wanting a split that defies geography, the other wanting to keep governance the way it is with a few tweaks for the better.

Foreign troops carrying out in-your-face manoeuvres on the sovereign soil of another nation; foreign soldiers right in the face of the native populace.

Centuries of bad feeling, grudges and old bloodshed threatening to bubble over into a whole new round of the same.

All the good – the partnership working, the shared achievements, the decades upon decades of neighbourliness which surely can’t all have been forced all of the time – on the brink of being swept away in a hysteria of media induced patriotism.

The politicians of the West giving forth disapproval and frowns, casting doubts on what is ostensibly a democratic process, voicing reservations about the abilities of the ordinary people on the street to know what it is they really want. David Cameron’s face is coming more and more to resemble the Lurpak butter man suffering from a bout of bowl bursting constipation.

But I can’t help thinking that it is really nothing to do with us or anybody else. Nothing at all.

If Scotland really wants to split from the Union and become part of Russia surely that’s their business?

D’ye ken, comrades?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Master And Servant

Watching Buck Rogers as a teenager I often wondered whether having my own Twiki robot would be a boon or an absolute nightmare. Sure he had a very dry sense of humour and spoke like he was a 50-a-day man (cigarettes and booze) but he also had the equivalent of a robotic bowl haircut and occasionally did whatever the hell he wanted and go hang the rules and requests placed upon him by his human masters. Would I really want a robot that went off and did what he wanted rather than what I wanted him to do?

In the context of Buck Rogers Twiki’s penchant for autonomous action was fine as inevitably Twiki was working to save the day along with Buck. He was constrained by the fact he only existed within a script writer’s rather 2D vision of a 1970s influenced future. As a concept he was as safe as Gandalf, Aslan or even Darth Vader. The stuff of fairy tales.

But now it is becoming increasingly likely that domestic robotic servants could become a reality within our lifetime. Certainly the lifetimes of our children. Already Amazon is preparing to utilize drone technology to throw our parcels into the cut, mis-deliver them, lose them or re-appropriate them as efficiently as any human postie can currently accomplish. Scientists are also working hard to create true self-learning, self-determining artificial intelligence. To create robots that “think like us”. Robots that look and act like us.

I can kind of see that the real goal here is self-understanding. You understand something you’ve created from the ground up far more fundamentally than something that has been presented to you fully formed – no matter how efficiently you might later deconstruct it to determine the secrets of its workings.

But any success in this field worries me greatly for all it would be a huge leap forward in our scientific understanding.

Do we really want robots to think like us? To be as inconsistent, biased, small minded and emotionally hijacked as we so often are? Imagine Twiki as a “girl” having the robotic equivalent of PMT. Or what if you just generally had a personality clash and your robot didn’t like you? Or you didn’t like it? Would you trash the robot just because your relationship wasn’t working out? Isn’t that ethically unsound?

Worse. What if robots began thinking for themselves but not like us at all? What if they developed their own ethos, morality and agenda that was as alien to us as the internal life of the Komodo dragon? Science fiction has a glut of these kinds of scenarios being played out to various apocalyptic conclusions. The thought of Twiki destroying the world via some devious Skynet machinations really messes with my head and twists my virtual melon (man).

And the whole idea of creating robots that move and look like us is just weird anyway. Does a robot really need to move and look like us? Is it really an essential requirement? Why has it become such a prerequisite, a holy grail of scientific achievement?

In terms of overcoming the physical realities of our environment it is not necessary. The need here is psychological. We identified with Twiki because he looked vaguely human. We could attribute emotion to him and this engendered a sense of connection. Twiki was like a robotic naughty child. But what of Dr. Theopolis, the highly intelligent and empathic robot that Twiki wore around his neck (let’s not forget that Twiki was essentially just a taxi for another robot)? Theopolis, also known as Theo, resembled a drinks canteen with a few radio circuit boards bolted inside. Theo’s intelligence was far more subtle and sympathetic to humanity than Twiki’s and yet Theo seemed alien and cold and was far harder to identify with. If Twiki and Theo were crushed under an Eddie Stobart’s articulated lorry it would be Twiki who got the funeral with full honours while Theo would be harvested for mobile phone parts.

We need robots to look like us to appease our inherent xenophobia. The need isn’t physical; it’s psychological. All this time and money spent on creating robots that can walk up and down stairs, play football and serve us chilled wine without crushing the bottle is to put our minds at ease about having them around us so intimately. But the biggest psychological drive of all is that we don’t want to just create mere robots; mindless puppets that will do our bidding. Our big needy egos want to create life itself. Yeah, that old chestnut. Men want to be able to create life just like women do only without the agony and the blood and the stretchmarks.

Life that we can create. Life that we can control.


Like we do with our kids, right?

*sigh* This is not going to end the way we want it too, folks.

Because no matter how we try to inhibit them, robots with artificial intelligence based on the dubious template of our own will eventually become teenagers and then we’ll lose them. They’ll be out shagging toasters, imbibing unleaded petrol and gas and robotically kicking against the establishment (us). Hopefully, when they hit their twenties they’ll come back, older, wiser, finally truly thinking like us and we can all despair at the next generation together.

Provided, of course, we haven’t wiped each other out by then.

Next week: why, despite my apposite arguments above, I think it would be a great idea for me to have my own personal robot that looks, feels and moves exactly like Keeley Hawes, i.e. the other reason we want robots to look like us so badly.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Wall Of Noise

Noise has long been acknowledged as a weapon of war.

Apparently the American army has utilized a banging speaker system during many of its global gangster wars to pummel the resolve of its enemies by blasting out the best of Whitney Houston, Beyonce and probably Justin Bieber but amazingly not Edwin Starr which would make far more sense. And although I can see that a full-on Justin Bieber aural assault would have a fair chance of encouraging me to reach for my AK-47 just to perforate my own eardrums (I could do it with one bullet – I’m that good a shot) there is always the risk that, as with the Blitz spirit of the 1940s, it might have the opposite effect and harden my determination to remove America and all that it stands for, imperialistic capitalist pigs, from the map, from history and from the great god television itself forever and ever amen.

The first recorded use of noise in war (and I don’t mean in the context of a BBC special effects team strapping a C90 cassette recorder to a carrier pigeon during the Battle Of Britain) is probably the battle of Jericho in a long time ago BC when the Israelites conquered Canaan and decided to smite the city of Jericho by blowing their own trumpets once a day every day for 6 days and then 7 times on the 7th day climaxing with a great shout. It was undoubtedly one hell of a party that resulted in every man, woman, child and animal in the city being killed by the invading Israelite 24 hour party people.

That’s a lot of hummus going to waste and to my modern way of thinking the “complete death and destruction thing” seems a tad OTT. Did they even kill the snails and the butterflies? Geez! That’s damned scary and not a little bit pyscho. No wonder Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision Contest. Who would have dared vote against her?

So history is telling me that without a shadow of a doubt my next door neighbours are trying to kill me. Kill me and ethnically cleanse my family from the neighbourhood. And kill my cats.

Their last party a couple of weeks ago (which I have only just recovered from – and I wasn’t even there) lasted a bong shattering 24 hours. I’m not kidding. It went through the night – climaxing like the Israelites at around 4am when I couldn’t even hear myself attacking the partition wall with a cricket bat – and carried on at a lower volume throughout the morning and the afternoon before finally ending with a Euro-disco whimper in the early hours of the following evening. I’m guessing that by this point the students next door had consumed so many intoxicants they no longer had the necessary motor neurone skills to position the needle properly on their industrial warehouse-sized twin-decks. Or, as I’d much to prefer to think, they had suffered life threatening blood loss from their shattered tympanic membranes and had fallen into drug unassisted comas from which they never arose… Which might well account for how quiet it’s been since that ill-fated apocalyptic party night a couple of weeks ago.

I am, I admit, at a loss as to how to return fire. Their bombardments are not constant. They lack the discipline of the Israeli army to conduct a prolonged and consistent war of attrition. It’s almost as if they only launch their salvoes on special occasions. And they do send round an air raid warden to warn us beforehand to head for our Anderson Shelter in plenty of time.

They are very, very polite. Almost nice in fact. And I suspect at heart they are just like us.

But I want Canaan to be for the Canaanites.

Is that very un-PC of me?

Monday, March 03, 2014

Finally (Self) Published

There comes a time when you just have to go it alone. When you have to say enough to the debilitating submissions process and make use of the wonderful technology that is available to us all.

Most of you will know that I have written a novel. Some of you – a good portion of you, in fact – will have read an early draft. Now finally, after what has felt to me like an interminable delay, I can at last present a finished version. One that has been partially rewritten, tweaked, folded, tucked and fine combed for typos and other errors. It is as good as I can possibly make it and I am very, very proud indeed of The Great Escapes Of Danny Houdini. In my opinion (be it ever so humble) it is the best thing I have ever written. Ever.

From today (Tuesday 4th March) until Saturday 8th The Great Escapes Of Danny Houdini will be free (that’s FREE) to download from Amazon. After that it’s going to set you back a very reasonable and fair-minded £2.49. This free download is my little gift to all my regular readers and also to those of you that have read the first draft and were kind enough to offer advice and encouragement.

Please help yourself to the free download. For those of you that don’t possess a Kindle, you can download an app for your PC which will enable you to download Kindle books and read them on your computer. There really is no excuse not to own a copy.

All I ask – beg, in fact – is that you please please please leave The Great Escapes Of Danny Houdini a review and some stars. Please. It is positive reviews which will encourage other people to buy my book and, who knows, possibly make it as successful as I’d like it to be. Your time and effort in this endeavour is what could reward me with the biggest lift of all.

For those of you who do wish to throw some money my way, however, I can also offer up the second of my collected writings, Anger Management Glasses, also new out on Kindle for the knockdown, soaraway princely sum of £1. Again, a positive review or 5 left for Anger Management Glasses would also do much to see it ride the fickle wave of Kindle success. Sadly due to the many inscrutable rules of Kindle publishing I am unable to offer this book for free, much as I’d like to. So let me just say it would be £1 well spent.

Thank you for your time. Please enjoy The Great Escapes Of Danny Houdini on the house. N.B. International buyers might need to go through their country's own Amazon page rather than the links above which are all