Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Google Zeitgeist, and why we are doomed

Google recently released its so-called 'zeitgeist list' – the top ten search terms for 2013. Let's have a look at the results for the UK portion of the exercise and consider the implications:

  1. Facebook
  2. YouTube
  3. Google
  4. Hotmail
  5. Ebay
  6. BBC News
  7. Amazon
  8. Daily Mail
  9. Argos
  10. Yahoo
And the main implication is this: Society is doomed.

The top five results on this list can all be found simply by adding .com to the name. But it's clear that many, many people do not know this and get to their Facebook accounts by Googling for Facebook.

Saints preserve us, nearly as many people look for Google by Googling Google, a practise that risks an infinite causality loops that could actually bring about the end of the universe. And every now and then, the site they want isn't the top result. Which means the "I'm feeling lucky" crowd end up further away from their Farmville or Candy Crush than they thought, and all hell breaks loose.

Yes, I realise that some browsers now have a url bar that doubles up as a search engine input, but this only encourages stupidity and must be stamped out forthwith.

And yes,  also realise this post is nothing but a stream of techno-snobbism aimed at those who are less computer literate than I. Guilty as charged, and the sooner they bring back the written exam for the internet the better. 

And also yes, I realise I illustrated this with that Batman meme, which probably makes me the worst person on the planet.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


My name is Alistair Coleman. On first meeting, some people will immediately ask me the question "Any relation?"

If they're of an older generation, they're asking me if I'm related to the film actor Ronald Colman, who is without an 'e' and therefore a blasphemer.

Otherwise, I am being asked if I am related in any way to David Coleman, the sports broadcaster who died recently.

After a short period of denial, I decided to pick it up and run with it.

"Why, yes," I would reply, "David Coleman is my uncle."

The lie is only an off-shade of white. While my uncle is David Coleman, he just isn't THAT David Coleman. My uncle Dave worked in an oil refinery, was a damn fine artist and once rebuilt an old school house with his own hands, turned it into an art gallery, before selling it as a community art project. He's a damn fine man, just not the most highly esteemed sports commentator of our times.

Like most great lies, it would eventually come back to bite me on the backside.

Jesus Geoff, for example. He was called Geoff, and he had a friend in Jesus. he was one of my best friends when I worked at the Ministry of Cow Counting, despite the none-less-fashionable jacket/tank top/mullet combination. Unfortunately, once the David Coleman connection was made, he simply would not let it lie.

What didn't help was that David Coleman was pretty much a fixture on Spitting Image at that time, and the latex Coleman was often seen with a finger to his ear-piece letting forth with a Chris Barrie-voiced "Errrrrrr..... quite remarkable!"

You could hear it from a good fifty yards away. The Ministry of Cow Counting's offices were HUGE, and when I walked in through the doors by the lifts in the morning, Jesus Geoff would be nothing but a mulleted speck in the difference. But the "Errrrr....quite remarkable!" could be heard halfway to Edinburgh.

The "Errrrrr....quite remarkable!" would follow me everywhere. Even several years later, having fled the Ministry of Cow Counting for a life in public service broadcasting that didn't involve contact with our bovine chums, a trip to the local big hypermarket resulted in this exchange, at a range of about thirty yards:

"Errrrrr.... quite remarkable!"

"Oh, why don't you just f... Geoff! How you keeping?"

Geoff was fine, so was Mrs Geoff (for whom he converted to Jesusism in order to pursue her romantically), but his quite-remarkabling still left a lot to be desired.

However, top points to me for remembering not to call him Jesus Geoff to his face. No points for him for chasing me half way across Savacentre* doing a bad impression of someone doing an impression of David Coleman.

And now he is gone (Not Jesus Geoff - as far as I know, he's still with us), commentating on the great Olympic Games in the sky. Nelson Mandela's just won the shot putt final with a record heave. Errrr... quite remarkable!

* Nobody - but nobody - in Reading calls the big Sainsbury's in Calcot Sainsbury's. It was opened as 'Savacentre', and it will remain Savacentre long after the bulldozers move in. Ditto the so-called Broad Street Mall. It's The Butts, and will be called that forever, arse connection or no arse connection.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Scarytale of Blue Pork

To B&Q to spend an improbable amount on a new bathroom, my attention drawn away from the salesman by the low quality in- store music.

Now, I've written about B&Q's music before, specifically how they take medium sized hits and album tracks and throw them to a covers band to make almost-but-not-quite soundalike versions which are inflicted on the general public. The result is a cross between "Hey - I know this song. But that's not The Verve, is it?  Is it?"

"The Verve? More like 'The Bloody Nerve'. Am I right? Eh? EH?"

So, as the chap was trying to find the second cheapest bath taps on the computer system, the immortal opening line came from the speaker system: "It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank...

Jane: "That's not actually The Pogues, is it?"

Me: "Can't be. He doesn't sound like he's been gargling with gravel and vodka"

Jane: "That's not Kirsty MacColl either. More like WORSTY MacColl" 

Poor, dead Kirsty.

Then came a version of Merry Christmas (War is Over) that made you want to start a war.

Never change your music, B&Q, it's a conversation starter.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


The march of progress waits for no man, and after ten years it is nearing the time to say goodbye to The Haunted Brick.

You see in the picture above my MP3 player, a 40GB Creative Zen Touch, bought after several weeks of comparing-and-contrasting, having discounted the cheaper (and better) iPod on the first day of deliberations on the grounds that iTunes was evil. It probably was - and still is - evil, but the truth of the matter is that The Haunted Brick with its disc drive containing actual moving parts was pretty much obsolete the minute it came out of the box, what with the entire industry going off in the direction of flash memory the second I hit the 'order' button on Amazon.

However, The Haunted Brick has served me well down the years, being the home to the best part of 5,000 tunes. But now is the time to knock it on the head like an unwanted Christmas puppy and leave it stinking the place up like so much carrion.

Its downfall was not down to any mechanical failure, unless you count that of my previous laptop which killed itself completely to death rather than be used by me a few weeks ago. Sadly for The Haunted Brick, the new machine runs on Windows 8 and the two devices talk to each other much like the way I tried to ask a taxi driver to drive me to the American Embassy on a visit to South Korea (nice Kimchi restaurant round the back. Nothing dodgy going on). We both used the same words, but somehow I made no sense at all.

The whole episode of buying The Haunted Brick is one that has been repeated at regular intervals throughout my life. In a world of consumerism, I see something that I want to buy, carefully weigh the options, the features and the value. Then I buy the worst one on the market. It's not necessarily the cheapest one - I spent weeks reading camera reviews, eliminating the best candidates through a Robot Wars process of style, control, damage and aggression, before buying one with the battery life of a damsel fly and a refusal to stay in focus. It's still in a box, under my bed, sulking.

Ill-advised purchases? Tell me about them...

Before the MP3 came the portable CD players (one with an encoding system that NO OTHER model ever used), the cars (Fiat Strada, anybody?), the camera tripod that wobbles in a light breeze, and the not-Sony Walkmen which went back to Argos the next day because the door fell off. And so did the door on the replacement, making one believe that the door-off thing was actually a product feature of Argos own-brand door-optional Walkman-a-likes.

So, what this lifelong decade journey has told me is that it doesn't pay to compromise, you tight-fisted moron. Even the football team I support under-achieves, so I suppose it's something engraved on my psyche. I also drive a Nissan Micra.

[An aside. Actual phone call when I was getting it insured recently:

Salesman: Does it come with an immobiliser?

Me: It's a 1997 Nissan Micra. I can leave the keys in the ignition in the centre circle at Wembley on Cup Final day, and nobody's going to touch it.

Salesman: Fair point]

So, my mind is made up. I'm getting an iPod, ten years after everybody else.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas in Fleet

To the local Co-Op for a pint of milk and a quick scan of the "Reduced to Kill" shelf, and the glow on the horizon as I approach resolves itself into the house opposite the shopping parade:

I'm pretty certain you can see this tastefully-decorated abode from space, and residents know when they switch them on when all the lights in the rest of the town dim.

But! Inside the shop we go, and find out that the Christmas edition of this red-top scandal magazine is not a fake that's been doing the rounds on Twitter as I thought:

A Happy Christmas of murder, death, doom, destruction and horror. But the good news is that you get a £5 turkey feast. It's probably a live turkey that comes round your house and pecks your face off.

No, you can't have it. Get your own copy.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hey! It's Geoff Vader!

So, a few weeks ago, there was a loud pop and my old laptop decided that it was - in the words of the late replicant Roy Batty, time to die.

Well, I was having none of that, bought myself a disc caddy and spent a weekend on the long, laborious task of changing file permissions and transferring the content over to my new machine, which is as evil as the Windows 8 system on which it runs.

Among the files that I found was this thing I made of the boy Adam's 16th last year, which I may or may not have posted on here before.

Obviously, I'm insanely proud of this and my l33t photoshop sk1llz.

I'm open to commissions. Graphic design? Piece of piss.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A new hierarchy for chocolate selection tins

Lack of Quality Street, more like
A trip into the heaving metropolis that is Basingstoke for Christmas shopping, and I suddenly become aware of the hierarchy surrounding that essential purchase: The Christmas chocolate selection tin, one per family member.

And it appears from the pricing that certain supermarkets are also aware of the fact that some brands are more desirable than others, millions of tins of Quality Street (the chocolate selection box for your granny and the tell-tale sign of a last-minute present purchase), clearly priced to clear at a I'm-still-not-buying-that £3.50.

If there was a league table of chocolate selection tins, it would be the Johnny-come-lately Manchester City-types leading the way, with the old brands threatened with the drop


1. Celebrations
2. Heroes
3. Roses


4. Quality Street
Get you act together, Quality Street, or you'll find yourself in the second division with the supermarket-own brands and the Matchmakers.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


TL;DR version: Jane says that this makes me look like she's married a former Blackshirt. I say that I wasn't that bad, and I grew up, eventually.

The death of Nelson Mandela last week got me looking back at what one might like to call my political awakenings. My story is no epic tale of struggle against oppression and injustice, more of one young man's struggle against being an appalling twat with dubious political views.

For example, in my teens, I held what can only be seen as furiously offensive right-wing views, going as far as voting for Margaret Thatcher at the first opportunity I got (worse, my MP at the time was John Redwood, so I was getting two for the price of one), and being chummy with one of the instructors at our Air Cadets who held rather forthright views about the situation in South Africa. 

As a journalist, Jon covered defence issues, and in particular South Africa's intervention in Angola, in which they essentially sent large quantities of exploding things to kill communists and people who rather disliked the apartheid regime. His colourful descriptions of air raids sent to kill "gooks" rather appealed to me, and fitted my world view at the time that military might was good, and people to the left of Margaret only had themselves to blame when the bombs started dropping.

I never said I was a pleasant person. I wore a combat jacket, all the time. I read The Sun and agreed with its plain-talking editorials (but was repressed enough to be embarrassed about looking at page three on public transport). I agreed with Norman Tebbit that all newspapers should be like the Daily Express. Yes, I was an utter lunatic. Incurable, too.

But on the bright side, I learned to hit a target the size of a gnat's left bollock at 300 yards with a target rifle, a skill I still have to this day. I can also identify any military aircraft, ship or vehicle when it's the size of said gnat's right bollock in the distance, a skill that I actually get paid to use on occasion.

When I was much younger than that - just after we had moved out of London - we used to drive down the M4, across the capital and out the other side on a regular basis to get to my grandad's house in Essex. On a bridge just short of the Chiswick flyover somebody had painted the words NO BOKS in paint five feet high.

The NO BOKS sign intrigued me. Nobody ever made the effort to paint over it, and I looked out for it every time we drove past, my mum's lead right foot to the floor, our Renault 12 just nudging light speed. One day, I just had to say something.

"They can't like school that much. They can't even spell NO BOOKS."

Mum tried to explain it to me in terms a seven year old can understand, by the intricacies of apartheid, sporting boycotts and the 1970 Springboks tour were rather too complex. But some people came over to play rugby, some other people didn't want them to play rugby, and they painted NO BOKS on the bridge. Stupid rugby. It was all lost on me before long - as we drove through the East End, GEORGE DAVIES IS INNOCENT was painted over just about everything.

"Mum? What did George Davies do?"

The South African struggle, then, was something that happened to people a long way away, for them I cared not. In my late teenage years, and in an effort to impress an unspeakably posh girl I knew at college and wanted to see with very few clothes on (preferably none at all if I'm going to be honest about it), I accompanied her on an organised coach trip up to London for a political demo outside South Africa House in London.

Oh, yes, I can hear you say - a political awakening at last. Yeah, about that. I was with the Young Conservatives, who were effectively going up there to Jail Nelson Mandela. As things took a turn for an ugly, I took a step to one side and struck up conversation with another combat jacket-clad nerk who was just as terrified as I was.

While not a Road to Damascus conversion, a leaflet pressed into my hands make me question for the first time that - perhaps - the Sainted Margaret might have actually been wrong about South African sanctions, and one or two other things I had held dear up to that time.

Also, Eleanor never spoke to me again, which might have pushed me back from the abyss.

There was no sudden change, no sudden desire to vote for Neil Kinnock or even consider a different political opinion. I still thought the miners' strike was the worst thing ever and I was into my twenties before I even noticed a slight drift to the centre, and I've voted for just about everybody between the end of the eighties to the present day. Because I have learned (and the political machine is yet to embrace the fact) that you are allowed to change your mind. And it helps if changing your mind makes you a better person rather than deciding to hate somebody.

What really changed me was getting a job. A year working at the Dole Office at the back end of the eighties, and being told by the ministry to fiddle the count figures so they'd look better in the papers really does concentrate a young mind toward human suffering and the callousness of the ruling classes.

It's a difficult thing to admit when your current job relies on you being neutral, so neutral I remain on many things. But it's hard to believe that the boy in the 1980s would support equal marriage; hate racism, sexism, homophobia, religious extremism, and discrimination in all its forms. My job gave me a world view, and my world view is that - all things told - it's far better to be kind to people than to blow them up. My knowledge of war, weapons, the mechanics of tactics and violence, the politics of extremism is encyclopaedic, but know that blowing people up is A Bad Thing.

You still have hate, but you need to aim it at injustice turn it into something useful. No, I'm not perfect. Never was, never will be. But as Mandela said: "I'm not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying". Also: "I once ate 27 doughnuts in one sitting."

Nobody ever checks quotes.

Monday, December 09, 2013


"Paint me Jack. Paint me like one of your French dogs"
And while we're here:

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Wisdom of Spock

Undefeated Galactic Champion in the game 'Spock, Paper Scissors'
One cannot fail to be impressed by Spock, the Vulcan character in various versions of the Star Trek franchise, and his other-worldly words of wisdom.

For was it not he who told us the famous Vulcan idiom: "Only Nixon could go to China"?

But that is not the end of Spock's erudite turn of phrase. Other sayings which have been heard throughout the series include:

"Only a Romulan breaks wind in a revolving door"

"A bird in the hand in worth two in the reverse-polarity plasma phase array"

"A Klingon's honour isn't worth a second-hand snot rag"

"Logic dictates that one of us in this room is a liar, am I'm not wearing frilly panties"*

"Your mum's so fat, she's in orbit around Ceti Alpha IV"


Wise words, indeed.

* Saying does not work if you are wearing frilly panties.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


Samuel Cody: Went up in planes. Died.
When I live in any particular area, I like to find out - almost as a courtesy - a bit about the local history. Because it's nice to know about where you live.

That's why I found out, when I lived in Caversham, that Paul McCartney and John Lennon played a couple of pre-Beatles gigs in my local pub in 1960, and quite coincidentally the chip shop next door is called Wings.

When I lived in Weymouth, I was utterly fascinated by the Civil War battle for the town, in which locals took one side, while residents of the Isle of Portland took the other, resulting in a lot of nastiness, and the unfortunate bombardment of what is now a public toilet.

Now I'm in North East Hampshire, and while Fleet itself appears to have a dearth of local history, we live on the border with Church Crookham and it's long association with the Gurkha Rifles. The town itself can claim to be an Olympic venue, as it's a little-known fact the the rather run-down Tweseldown race course on the outskirts of Fleet was the venue for the equestrian events in 1948.

The only thing that Fleet's actually known for these days is Fleet Services on the M3, to such an extent that it's the first gag that visiting comedians crack at Fleet comedy club. It's getting to the point that I'm suggesting a QI-style klaxon for any mention of the services on a comedy night, because we've heard it, a lot. Or an old-fashioned tarring-and-feathering, it being the only language these curs understand.

In fact, unless they work there, Fleet Services is the one place in Fleet people from Fleet never go. I mean, what's the point? We have shops and greasy spoon cafes without having to nip down to the next motorway junction and pay extra at our own services. There's rumours that you can get onto and off the motorway through a secret locals-only road through the services, but why would you want to? Now that I've even mentioned that it exists is probably enough to have me declared an enemy of the town.

But Farnborough next door is where it's at. We live under the flight path for Farnborough Airfield, used mostly by Middle Eastern royal families, Tony Blair and rich business types to park their executive jets. Every two years the place becomes one of the word's largest arms fairs, but since the RAE gave way to Qinetiq, there's rarely any pointy planes roaring overhead with big bombs attached. Just the frankly massive Vulcan that nearly took our roof off last year, that's all.

You see, the place is steeped in aviation history. In the last years of the 19th Century, an American showman called Samuel Cody came to these shores, having assumed the same surname as his idol Buffalo Bill, and doing rather well out of the subsequent confusion. On thing led to another, and in 1908, he achieved the first powered flight in Britain at Farnborough, not a couple of miles away from where I'm typing this.

Whittle Jet Engine: Just a little something a bloke knocked up in his garage near here
Like many in the early days of aviation, powered flight would be the death of Cody, and so it proved in 1913, when a prototype broke up at 500ft, killing him and his passenger, the cricketer William Evans. Over 100,000 turned out for his funeral in Aldershot, and to this day, large parts of the Farnborough area have the name Cody in his honour. There's also a statue, and a replica of his first aircraft in the aviation museum, well worth the visit.

Then you've got the Frank Whittle connection, the development of the jet engine, the 1952 Farnborough Airshow disaster, and roundabouts with FRICKIN' CAR PARKS IN THE MIDDLE. Also, any town with an area called the Invincible Industrial Estate is doing it right when it comes to naming things. All Fleet's got is Hampshire's largest freshwater lake, which probably powers Farnborough's toilets.

Oh, and Johnny Depp was once seen in a pub in Hartley Wintney. That's historic enough for most people these days.

Monday, December 02, 2013

My EXCELLENT James Bond idea

With the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special now behind us, with a climax that featured all twelve thirteen Doctors, I'm certain that other entertainment franchises could take heed and try out this idea for themselves.

To this end, I've written to Eon Productions with my spunker of an idea:
Dear Eon,

Please be like Doctor Who and make a James Bond film featuring all six regenerations of 007. That would be totally awesome.
With the world under threat from an unstoppable Robo-Blofeld, 007 needs to recruit all five of his previous incarnations to bring SPECTRE's ruthless plan to destroy the global economy to its knees. In an adventure across space and time, helped and hindered by both M and Q, he teams up with half a dozen Pussy Galore clones to track down Robo-Blofeld to an undersea base or something. Before blowing it up, or something. You can do the details.

Only Q knows Bond's dreadful secret – the secret agent is a clone dragged out of deep-freeze as each incarnation is "retired" and supposedly destroyed. But why are all six Bonds still on active service? And am I the only Q?

Of course, nothing can possibly stand in the way of Connery, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig and the other one, victory is assured and the merch sales go through the roof.

A win-win for everybody, I think you'll agree.

I am not mad.

Your pal,

Albert O'Balsam (Licence to Kill)

PS To reflect the current reality within the security services, the final 45 minutes will comprise nothing but Daniel Craig Bond doing paperwork and filing his travel expenses.

This is going to be the cinematic event of the century, mark my words.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Great Flat Tyre Mystery

Riddle me this, oh great internet hive mind....

On my way to work yesterday morning, I drove past a car in a layby. It was jacked up on a monster sized jack of the sort you see in garages (not the weedy space-saving one you get with your motor), one of the wheels was off, and the boot was wide open.

Of driver and companions there was no trace.

OK, fair enough. Somebody's got a flat tyre and they've got to get help.

Except two miles down the road was exactly the same scene - car in the layby, up on a ridiculously huge industrial-sized jack, exactly the same wheel missing, boot open, no driver.


Is this a scam or trap of some sort?

If you stop to help, will some hairy-arsed robber come along and nick my car? (Not that they'd want to)

Or, is the unlocked boot an invitation to try to steal something, and a hairy-arsed copper's going to leap out of the undergrowth and nick me good?


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Al Murray and the Soviet War Machine

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had fallen under the thrall of Mr Alastair (Can't spell Alistair) Murray and his book Watching War Films With My Dad.

(Mini review: Entertaining memoir with potted history of vital parts of the Second World War serving to illustrate how we look at history. Also, massively confusing for anybody expecting Pub Landlord blokeness)

It's a book that caught my interest because we're about the same age (he is a mere youngling, born two years later than I), and – it turns out – both our fathers have an interest in military history that they passed onto their sons, unwittingly or otherwise. In young Mr Murray's case, it was in the form of weekend afternoons in front of the television, disassembling war movies for the historical blunders and inaccurate kit.

In my case, it was a study wall stacked from floor to ceiling with books on every kind of warfare from ancient to modern, delivered a month at a time by the Military Book Society.

The Military Book Society was (until it was entirely killed to death by Amazon) one of those myriad book clubs that offered you five-for-a-pound each on the back of the Radio Times, before sending you a full-priced book every month until Hell froze over or you remembered to cancel your subscription. I gave The History Guild a bit of a go in its dying days, but it wasn't the same as the Big Daddy of them all: The Military and Aviation Book Society.

What actually killed off my membership was the opening of a discount book store in the centre of Reading that traded solely in the returns from the WH Smith book societies for about a quid each. Clearly the forerunner of The Works, which is a feature of every High Street now with its piles of remaindered stock from the big chains, you could pop into this scrappy little place up Smelly Alley and grab yourself the previous month's editor's choice at a knockdown price, as long as you didn't mind it looking like someone had kicked it from the floor of the warehouse into the back of the delivery van.
Oxford Histories: Missing in action
On the down side, you had to wade through shelf after shelf of utter pap that was offered by groups (and I'm going to have to riff on this) such as The Large Print Romantic Fiction Society, The Crap Autobiographies Of People You've Never Heard Of Club, and The Rip A Book In Half And Send It Back Guild, so you often had to spend hours at a time in there to pull out something decent. Over the months, I pulled out almost the entire set of the Oxford Histories of England series for a fraction of the cost. Last seen going into a loft space in Weymouth, heaven knows where they are now.

My dad's membership of the Military Book Society (he had pips on his shoulder as a Lieutenant Colonel in a Territorial Army medical unit) brought me a lifelong interest in the world of warfare. While the young Al Murray was brought up on World War Two, I allowed myself to be terrified by the Cold War. 

The old man was expected to be at the sharp end if and when the Cold War became hot. An avid reader of military analyses posted through our door every month by TMABS, I fully expected this to come at any time during the early to mid 1980s. In fact, as 12th September 1981 came and went – the day I confidently thought Armageddon would come – I felt thoroughly cheated. Every summer, he and his unit were carted off to somewhere in Germany for two weeks, where they were exercised in what to do when the Soviets came rolling over the border. Put bandages on everything, then try not to get killed, I suppose.

My contact with his TA unit was usually sitting bored outside the officers mess at either Chelsea Barracks or somewhere in Harrow, being brought an Indian Tonic Water to drink because "it's all they had". Boredom would then give way to a huge game of hide-and-seek around the Duke of York's barracks, usually until some massive sergeant shouted at us for arsing around in a military facility when the Russians were about to turn up and kill us all. As the offspring of an officer, we got away with an awful lot that's probably horribly illegal under some knee-jerk post 9/11 legislation. Hey - a little bit of politics, there...

So, part way through Mr Al Murray's description of Operation Market Garden, known to everybody else as A Bridge Too Far, he throws in a mention of one of the influential protagonists, (then) Brigadier John Hackett who (and I quote) "wrote a doom-laden book about the Third World War."

BLAM! General Sir John Hackett's so-called future history called The Third World War – written in 1978, but set in 1985 – did it's very best to scare the utter shit out of me. Hackett – a war hero who rose to become Deputy Chief of General Staff – can be safely assumed to know a thing or two about military and political strategy and how a conflict between east and west might pan out. With these credentials, he wrote a book mixed with realistic military and political manoeuvrings, mixed with diaries from those on the ground as the Soviets, in one final throw of the dice, hurled a nuclear device at Birmingham.

Now, there are people out there who would say the Sovs were doing us all a favour re the Birmingham unpleasantness, but in my teenage mind the realism of the situation and the fact it could (and very nearly did on several occasions) happen paralysed me throughout what were supposed to be my formative years.

A second book – The Soviet War Machine – helpfully expanded on Hackett's point by illustrating, in handy pie-chart form, exactly how large the Soviets' nuclear warheads were, and how many more of them they had than us, and – frankly – how keen they were to use them against we quivering lick-spittles of the American capitalist dogs.

The Soviet War Machine was published in 1976, and came with loads of big pictures of tanks (of which they had many, many more than us); big, fast spiky-looking jet aircraft (ditto); heavily-armed ships and submarines (ditto) and loads and loads of nuclear missiles with names like Scud, Satan, and Savage. We were – according to The Soviet War Machine – utterly fucked.

So, thanks to Murray's passing reference, I sought out The Third World War and The Soviet War Machine on Amazon and bought them both. Evenings are now spent half laughing at the puny backwards state of 1970s military technology, half terrified that when the Chinese invade, I'm going to be sliced into very small pieces by a third generation killer robot.

On the bright side, both books cost a penny each, plus a £2.80 delivery charge. In your face, bargain bookshop up Smelly Alley.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Hey everybody! Doctor Who is here!

This materialised in the Bummy Woods behind our house, and is posing a mystery for fellow dog walkers.

Is it a TARDIS? A TURDIS? Is there a dead body inside?

The door was wired shut, but I managed a look through a crack. It's shitter on the inside, and no dead bodies, the local constabulary will be pleased to learn.

So, it's surely the property of the 12th/13th Doctor (whichever method you're using to count) Peter Crapaldi.

And that's all my Doctor Poo toilet jokes exhausted.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


It's the TV talent show for the easily pleased that's sweeping the world! But did you know...

* According to the laws of music, if Louis Walsh tells a contestant that they've "made that song your own", all other versions immediately cease to exist. Bad news if you're Celine Dion.

* The programme was rocked by a scandal several years ago when a band turned up for the auditions with their own instruments and several songs they claim to have written themselves. After the crucifixions, the incident was never spoken of again

* Among previous X Factor winners entirely forgotten by the British public is the boy band Freshly Shaved And Oiled Hunks. They were last seen headlining a jumble sale in a church hall.

* The Dutch version of the programme is the all-nude XXX Factor, and make up your own punchline

* The X Factor is just a diversionary tactic by the shadowy Illuminati organisation to divert the public's attention away from the issues that are properly important. All the real action goes on in The Y Factor.

* Shocked at falling ratings, producers will probably drop the unpopular Al-Qaeda Week next year.

* Simon Cowell's absence from the show this year is being cited as a reason why fewer people are tuning in. However, he dare not set foot in the country after being indicted by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal for inflicting Jedward on the British people.

* The studio audience aren't screaming because they're excited by the occasion. They've been locked in the studio since the first show in 2004, and are appealing for somebody, anybody to come to their rescue.

* The North Korean version of the show is called The Kim Factor, and has been won by Kim Jong-un for the last three years, after all his rivals mysteriously died in separate and totally coincidental bear attacks.

* To spice up ratings next year, "Deadlock" is to be replaced with "One-on-one battle to the death with a bear".

Let's hear it for The X Factor!!!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Seventies Things That People Thought Were Normal

Chatham Street (on a good day)
My drive into work takes me through the concrete abyss that is Reading's Inner Distribution Road, a well-intentioned attempt at town centre management that turned out to be quite the ugliest scar on the landscape ever deposited on Planet Earth.

The fact that they ran out of money in the early 1970s and left it half-built for the best part of fifteen years just made it worse, the road ending abruptly with an unfinished flyover looming over the bus depot that became laughingly known to the people of Reading as the ski jump.

A huge crane looming over the deepest part of the roadway betrays the fact that time is catching up on it, and the hideous grey-slabbed buildings that the council saw fit to build along its length. Disappeared at last is the Chatham Street car park and shop complex, an awul example of architecture that went beyond "brutalist" and into the rolling vistas of "smacking you around the face with a cricket bat with a breeze block nailed to it".

It must have seemed a great idea at the time, but within months of its opening, the complex stunk of tramps' piss and everybody hated it. It is now an enormous block of executive flats, which everybody will hate within a year, if not already.

By the Chatham Street complex, already a dreadful seventies idea in itself, house something that could only - by anybody's standards - be classed as really quite bizarre. The Renault Weldale restaurant.

It was - in short - a gourmet restaurant in a Renault car showroom in Reading. A gourmet restaurant underneath a large multi-storey car park that eventually had to be demolished because the stench of tramps' piss became ingrained into the concrete. People would genuinely dress up, and go to a car showroom filled will decidedly average French cars (and I should know, because our family were their best customer) and have prawn cocktail and rump steak in a large room that smelled of car, and nobody thought it was unusual in the slightest.

The colour theme was 1970s orange, you sat in booths that looked like vintage cars, and that tells you everything you need to know.

Claims that the 1970s were the years that taste forgot is now more or less passed on the nod, and for pretty good reason. My childhood memories may be getting fuzzy around the edges, but they certainly remember that this is about the time when towns decided to give up on the traditional shopping street, demolish whole swathes of their town centres and building monstrous shopping centres in their place.

Reading built one, and called it the Butts. Realising that "butt" is a slang term for "arse", there was a frantic re-branding. The whole area is St Mary's Butts, and the Butts it remains to anyone but puzzled incomers who have no idea what you're sniggering about.

See that red column thing? I've been sick on that.
Of course, the operators of the Butts knew they couldn't have a proper shopping centre experience without the de rigeur luxurious addition: The Shopping Centre fountain. Every shopping centre had to have a fountain, and the Butts had three, which fired water about forty feet in the air up the mall's central hall.

I'm not entirely sure what happened to it. One day it was there, the next the basement pub was taken over by bikers, then closed, and the fountain got concreted over. These days, it's where they put Santa's grotto, so bear that in mind when you're unwrapping your pound shop colouring book set.

We once went to a shopping centre somewhere off the King's Road in London, and their water feature appeared to be based on the Trevi Fountain in Rome, only without the class, the wow factor or loved-up couples trying to recreate famous movie scenes. But it did have a Sainsbury's and multi-coloured underwater lamps, so up yours, Italy. No restaurant in a car showroom though, so up yours too, London.

Now I come to cast my mind back, there were two 1970s town centre shopping centres in Reading. The second - where I worked for a time collecting trolleys for a dreadful discount supermarket - is now used as a zombie shoot-out venue, where you blast at the undead and bewildered former Presto customers with paintball guns to your heart's content. A fitting end, but then it didn't have a fountain.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The relentless search for a better rectal thermometer

I go to publishing industry trade fairs every now and then, and every time I'm drawn like a magnet to the stand run by the British Medical Journal, the nation's number one publication aimed at doctors, medical researchers and the kind of person paid to stick a camera up your bottom.

I'm not a doctor, I don't work in the medical profession, and I've got no real interest in stealing their promotional pens and drink coasters, but it's a fanboy's instinct that drags be endlessly toward them, because – dammit – I heart the BMJ.

With both my parents working in medicine – my father as a doctor, retiring as a professor; my mother as a State Registered Nurse in the days when it was actually about the patients and not hitting performance targets – every week brought something new through the door.

Mum subscribed to Nursing Times, a weekly magazine filled with hideous skin complaints and there caring thereof. Dad got The Lancet ("the world's leading general medical journal") and the good old BMJ. The front cover of the BMJ invariably had a photograph of something hideous, which doctors were urged to identify as some sort of Nauseating Disease Of The Month Quiz answered on the following pages.

Comedian Al Murray's recent memoir "Watching War Films With My Dad" tells of how he gained his obsession with wartime history from his father's influence. Much the same, I'm into military history – particularly Cold War – thanks to my old man's membership of the Military Book Society and an impressive bookshelf of tomes about interesting ways of killing people. I could tell what make and variant ANY plane is - whether NATO, WarPac or otherwise - when it's the size of a fly on a ceiling; and I'm fully versed in tanks, ships, submarines and how to make a nuclear weapon. I once won a trophy for aircraft spotting without really trying, which was the smuggest moment in my life. Thanks, Dad.

But also, it's the medical stuff that's grabbed me for life in the same manner. Which is weird, because I had absolutely no intention of following my parents into the medical profession, hate the sight of blood (anybody's, but especially my own), and will insist on being out cold if I am to be the victim of any medical procedure.

The fact, then, that the so-called sedation for my recent colonoscopy left me fully conscious came as a bit of a shock, for I have no curiosity to see my insides, especially not on a 42-inch widescreen television just feet away from my face. The only thought going through my mind as my bumhole hove into view in glorious high definition was this: "What if they're piping this across the entire hospital, just for a laugh?"

"Are you piping this across the entire hospital just for a laugh?" I asked Dr Singh as the rusty sheriff's badge assumed frightening proportions on the screen in front of me.

"No, but we'll be selling DVDs in the cafeteria later. This won't hurt."

He was wrong. It did hurt, the biggest injury being to my dignity. I never want to see my arse, and especially not the inside of my arse, on the television ever again.

What it boils down to is this: I've got an interest in medicine, its research and its application, just as long as it doesn't apply to my no-longer bullet proof body. And, damnation, I thoroughly dislike it when people are wrong.

That's why I'm obsessed with the quackery that is increasingly influential these days. Expertise is a much-maligned thing these days, so I am a huge fan of science-based medicine with no patience and very little tolerance for the type of anti-vaxxers who – despite the overwhelming landslide of evidence to the contrary – still think that the MMR vaccination causes autism (It doesn't, you twats, and I won't even engage you in discussion if you think differently).

I've also got no tolerance for people who go for faith-healing (it doesn't work), homeopathy (it doesn't work), reiki (it doesn't work), remote reiki (it doesn't work, no matter how far away you are), and remote reiki for pets (because you're taking the piss now). 

But back to the trade fairs.

"I think you're really great. Can I have a biro?"

"That's not a biro. It's a promotional rectal thermometer."


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Miley Cyrus FACTS

She's the new face of the global market in vapid pop music and shameless marketing who is adored by millions of easily-pleased, slack-jawed, tight-trousered morons. But did you know...?

* Miley plans to place a camera between her buttocks (pointing outwards) and create a unique TV documentary on the effects of twerking

* Miley also plans to place a video camera between her buttocks (pointing inwards) and create a unique TV documentary on the state of pop music

* In France, due to European legislation on the standardisation of units of measurement, Miley is known as 1.603-Kilometry Cyrus

* Miley invented twerking trying to dislodge a piece of toilet paper that got jammed up there after a particularly vigorous wipe whilst simultaneously searching for a lost contact lens

* Born completely mute, she was only able to talk after pioneering surgery gave her a tongue that once belonged to a giraffe

* Despite her massive global fame, Miley hasn't given up her day job working as a sports mascot. Here she is at a recent game:
* Miley's identical twin Hannah Montana is now locked in a Colorado correctional facility after being declared an enemy of the state

* Miley's current fame comes as a result of a family bet to "Go on, I dare you to make something worse than Achy Breaky Heart", which she won

* Nelson Mandela refused a recent request to be twerked by Miley because of "ill health" and "who the shitting hell are you anyway?" Instead, publicity hungry spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has stepped up to the plate

* Miley's huge international hit "Wrecking Ball" is about a dream she had where she kicked Adolf Hitler in the nut

* Miley understands what's going on in Homeland
Let's hear it for Miley Cyrus!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bleedin' Obvious

The Beatles: Were quite cool in their day

We are indebted to value-price clothing retailer Primark for publishing a handy, content-free guide to the bands that appear on the retro T-shirts in their stores.

Now, in case you had never heard of The Beatles, you'll learn that "They’re the best selling band of all time in the US. How cool is that!"; and that Fleetwood Mac are sometimes called (by nobody, ever) "The Macs".

Thanks for that, Primark.

Hopefully, they'll now follow that up with a further series of breathless posts on other stuff that their customers really ought to know, but don't.

Born: Christmas!
The look: Hippy chic, socks and sandals
Fun Fact: Died, but came back to life! Coolio!!

The look: Jumpsuits, dead on the toilet
Fun Fact: Known as the King of Rock'n'Roll, even though he wasn't an ACTUAL King!!

How to do it: In... out... easy now... in... out...
Fun Fact: If you stop breathing, you'll die! Deffo NOT cool!!!
Discovered by: Albert Einstein
The look: Big hair
Fun Fact: Measurements of various quantities are relative to the velocities of observers, meaning space and time can dilate, particularly around strong gravity fields. However, the speed of light remains nonetheless invariant, the same for all observers.WOWSERS!!!

I'm more of a TK Maxx person these days.

Friday, November 08, 2013


My arch-nemesis: We meet again, only this time I am prepared for your lies
I still remember where I was when I realised I was a gambling addict. It wasn't - as members of my family suspect - at the age of 11 when I spunked my entire two-week holiday savings in an amusement arcade on the end on Cromer Pier. I was addicted then for sure, but I didn't know it then.

Cromer Pier, you see, is just about the most boring place on the planet, and combine it watching my dad fishing off the end of said pier, a hobby which I have only ever shown the most grudging of enthusiasm - an eleven year old realises very quickly there are only so many times he can tour the lifeboat station in one day. Turn that one day into an entire week, and you might realise why the flashing lights and the cunka-chunka-chunka of coins coming out of fruit machines lured me in.

My gambling was not a reaction to the needless death of fish. It was a reaction to having money and an illogical need to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

When I'm at my meetings, I sometimes tell the rest of the group the story of my worst ever bet, and the realisation that I might have something going on that was out of the ordinary. I was fifteen, and on my first ever holiday that didn't involve parents or siblings - two weeks playing golf with my grandparents in Northern Ireland. I had somehow failed to appreciate the measures that people had taken to get me there in the first place - I was flown out there, on my own, via the special don't-be-a-terrorist lounge at Heathrow Airport, and given special golf club membership at the local links for the duration of my stay.

The thing is, I had money. Lots of it. Okay, twenty pounds, which was a bloody fortune to a teenager with his bed and board paid. I went straight out and made - simultaneously - my best and worst ever record purchases from a shop in Bangor. New Life by Depeche Mode, along with Wunderbar by Tenpole Tudor. The shopkeep must have thought me mental. But that marked just the start of my self destructive attempts to spend as much as I could in one go.

Tenpole Tudor: What the hell was I thinking?
Down on the sea-front was an amusement arcade. For some reason or another (but being Northern Ireland, a furious unforgiving God was probably not far away from the decision-making process), gambling for money was not allowed, but fruit machines were, as long as they were fixed so they would never pay out. You could put money in, but all you could win was more credit, which would sooner or later become exhausted. And play I did, gambling on a game which was biased toward the house by exactly 100%. It was as I repeatedly stabbed the "Spin" button, that I glanced across at the woman at the next machine along, doing exactly the same thing, with a wild look in her eyes. I assume I looked much the same, only fifteen years old, a terrible haircut (95p at Maurice the Mangler of Henley-on-Thames), and with no fashion sense.

Spending all your money on gambling in one sitting is known in the fellowship as "Doing your bollocks", and I done my bollocks that day, and on many occasions since. Doing my bollocks was not just confined to gambling, as I had a bollocks-doing habit that extended to shopping, not least to music and books, which were often never listened to, or never read.

I might point out that as far as I know, nobody else in my family exhibits this self-destructive behaviour. I'm the only person among us who liked to give all their money to fruit machines, Amazon and eBay, and when I didn't have any money, I'd get my ammo from credit cards with impressive-looking credit limits.

Ah. The credit cards. Wish I hadn't done that. You haven't experienced stress until you've tried to balance four maxed-out credit cards, and learning when and where to intercept the postman so that statements never arrived at the house. And working 110 miles from home, that was a feat of organisation of which any sane person would have been proud. Shame I was utterly bonkers, then.

Normal people know when to stop. Normal people know that when you run out of money, that's the end of your money. People with addictions don't have this switch, and you plough straight on through without regard for the damage you're doing, or how you're going to pay for it. You don't just pull yourself together like normal people pull themselves together. You think you're the greatest liar in the world. In fact, you're about as good a liar as you are a gambler.

It took me until 30th August 2007 to stop. It took me five figures of debt and a threat to go to the police. It took irreparable damage to my marriage. Gamblers Anonymous, then, came as a bit of an education.

I had never been one to make friends, or even make contact with other people. All of a sudden, I learned that blokes shook hands with other blokes, and showed them respect in what can only be called a blokey manner. GA involves a lot of shaking of hands and a lot of respect. The average GA meeting might mean you shaking hands at least 30 times, more than the Queen on an average day. Brought up in a not-blokey culture, it taught me a lot about things, the most important of these being the right time and place to unleash the Cockney accent.

Actually, there's a lot of good that comes from our GA meeting. First, there's free tea and biscuits and sometimes cake. Second, it's held in a church, so there's a never-ending supply of hilarious leaflets from obscure religious groups ("Bringing God's word to Britain's motorway service stations") to keep the atheists amused. And third, everybody else in the room has spent as long as you have - if not longer - royally messing up their lives, so you get some sort of camaraderie from being amongst fellow bell-ends. Between us, we have centuries of experience in being the most awful liars and shits. Having been brave enough to admit this, we should be running the country.

Also, it stops you gambling. It stops you being a dick and turns you into a normal people who can carry cash in their wallet without wanting to spend it on no-win fruit machines. And what they call "therapies" I call ten minutes of decent stand-up and a captive audience. The only trouble is everything you say stays in the room, so my reviews are terrible.

I never thought I was any good at gambling, and the compulsive spending never seemed to offer me any sort of fulfilment. It was, in the end, just something I did, and just something I couldn't stop myself from doing.

It has, to be honest, been a right old shitty waste of time. My advice to anybody who is considering a lifetime as a compulsive gambler, is not to be a compulsive gambler. 

(If you've been affected by any of the issues in this post, dial 0800 I AM A TWAT)

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

In which an out-of-town hick journalist gets to visit headquarters

 Headquarters being Broadcasting House in London.

 Correction: Headquarters being New Broadcasting House in London.

 This is All Souls Church in Langham Place, not long after I was trampled underfoot by screaming fans of Taiwan's Number One Boy Band.

 When it got dark, I made my excuses and headed back to the sticks. But did I get to see the Doctor Who stuff?

 Damn right I did, puny earthlings.

And so, my lift home arrives

Monday, November 04, 2013

Things To Do In Your Local Retail Park If You're Bored

Bored? Why not take yourself down to your local DIY warehouse, ask loads of pointed questions about the relative strengths of different makes of plastic sheeting and negotiate trade prices for several sacks of quick lime.

Then leave your shopping list lying around on the counter.

Escape before the distant sound of sirens gets louder...