Thursday, January 30, 2014

Return to the Haunted Holiday

Several years ago I wrote a blog post about a family holiday we took way back in 2001 in which we were convinced that the cottage we had rented was haunted.

In fact, so convinced were we of the presence of ghosts, spirits and malevolent vapours, that we upped sticks and left several days early.

I admit that I was going through a bit of a Fox Mulder stage at the time, and would probably be convinced of anything, as long as there were blurry photographs or eyewitness accounts from the local village idiot. In fact, I had recently joined a UFO group, and was convinced – amongst other ridiculous claims – that body-snatching aliens live in a cave under Colorado and that I had a radio in my head controlled by Fidel Castro.

Now, older, wiser, I thought it time to revisit this most ridiculous of weeks through the lens of my own ham-fisted skepticism.

The thing is, I've never seen a ghost, even if I claimed I had before. Not seen one. The dead have remained obstinately invisible to me.

So, what happened on those dark, scary nights in Devon? The fact of the matter is that I don't know. The kids (primary school age at the time) claim to have seen a ghost in their room. The (now) ex-wife claims to have seen a ghost in the house as well. I didn't. I thought I had at the time, but that was a glimpse out of the corner of my eye that could have been just about anything. A shadow, a car driving past, look-at-the-red-light-on-the-end-of-this-device-sir because it might as well have been marsh gas reflecting off the planet Venus.

Granted, I was scared out of my wits, but we were told up front that the place was "haunted", and any noise or shadow was amplified by our confirmation bias. We scared ourselves, and believed what we wanted to believe. If visitors had been told that a fifty-foot Michael Jackson would come out of Brixham Harbour singing Thriller on the foggiest night of the year, I dare say people would have claimed to have seen it happen.

As much as we want to rely on our own anecdotal evidence, it's dangerous to take it as accurate simply because people see what their brains tell them what they want to see. We wanted to see ghosts. We saw ghosts. Or rather, we thought we did. People do it all the time. Faces in trees, Jesus on a loaf of bread, Elvis shopping in Tesco on a Saturday night.

I was convinced there were ghosts in that house in 2001, just as much as I am convinced now, in 2014, that there were no ghosts there because they do not exist. I dare say family members will swear blind to the opposite, but that's their opinion, and they're welcome to keep it.

One of the questions that we should be asking these days is this: Why – if everybody has a good-quality camera on their person just about 24/7 – don't we see more photographs of ghosts? Or evidence of UFOs. Or of Bigfoot? Evidence appears as elusive as ever, and far better skeptics than me are expert at debunking claims as they appear in the local and national press.

Where does that leave the evidence of my own eyes? The answer is "open to new ideas". I've been to happy-clappy church services is my years as a religionist, and came out believing that the lady at the front waving her hands to heaven really was speaking in tongues. Now, I'd probably think she was a very bad actor, caught up in her own self-delusion. Or a nutter.

The skeptic in me still wants to believe, but now I want the evidence, and the evidence just isn't there. And no, stage psychics don't count.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Joys of IBS

An ideal spot for heads on spikes
Last year, I was diagnosed with IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome to you and me. This is essentially doctors saying "Yes, we know there's something wrong with you, with stuck cameras down both ends and in the middle, and we can't find anything. Takes these pills and bugger off."

This means that I take those pills, go to the toilet a lot (perhaps the first case of a man turning into his blog), and watch what I eat. This is because – for example – that if you stuff your face with the mother of all Sunday roasts and half a tub of Ben & Jerry's finest ice cream, you're going to pay the price the next day.

In my case, it's (yes) going to the toilet a lot, but also dreadful acid reflux. And there's nothing like red-hot vomit to make you really feel alive.

So, Monday morning after a fulsome Sunday repast, and I am feeling great. I leave for work half an hour early to miss the traffic, and I'm not five miles down the road before the acid hits me. Nasty, but I'll live.

However, it's as I hit the A33 dual carriageway into Reading that I hit ALL the traffic. It turns out a crucial set of traffic lights on the motorway junction have gone wrong, and nobody is going anywhere. With nowhere to U-turn, it took (and I'm not kidding) two-and-a-half hours to find a suitable escape route.

By that time, the acid reflux had really started, and I'm sure the surrounding cars wouldn't mindd me getting out for a moment to puke against my own wheel arch.

Also, down my leg.

And once I got back in the car with pukey jeans, it was game over.

I was car-sharing, dear reader. Car-sharing with Huey and Rolf. "HUEEEEEY!" I said. "ROLLLLLF!" I cried.

Then, reeking, I bullied my way to a (legal) right turn, went home, and went to bed.

Now, I know how to handle my illness. For eg: Watch what you eat and all will be relatively well, and even on the odd day it doesn't quite work out. My insides have a life of their own, and some days you win, some days you drive home smelling like a tramp's blanket.

However, I'm a reasonable man, and I fully expect some comeback on the two-and-a-half hour traffic jam. If there aren't heads on spikes by Junction 11 in the morning, I'm going to write a strongly-worded letter to the local newspaper.

I might even post it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Shamelessly cross-posted from APILN:

I'm delighted to announce that Angry People in Local Newspapers has been nominated in the competition to find the UK's funniest blog. Of course, it's a huge honour to be recognised for the second year in a row, and I could really use that top prize (not the tablet - the beer fund).

So! If you love pictures of angry people pointing at dog turds, and think I should be named the UK's funniest blog, skip along here and vote for me. As an added bonus, should I win, I will endeavour to make an appearance in the Fleet News and Mail pointing angrily at something.

If I don't win, I'll send Sausage Lady round your house.

Thank you for your support. I will wear it always.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On preparing for the very worst

Basingstoke, earlier today

Important news from the world of local government! It appears that the small village of Overton (just to the west of the seething metropolis of Basingstoke) is preparing an emergency plan in case the very worst should strike the community.

Happily, I am in a position to affect the outcome of this conversation, as my mother-in-law is currently on the village council and was – for a glorious year – mayor of the aforesaid seething metropolis and much respected in the field of civic governance and the like. Also, the trains ran on time.

So, what can I offer to a small Hampshire village should the very civilisation we live in collapse around our ears? Recent events (for eg flooding, God's wrath) have shown that our society is just a fa├žade that could tumble down at any minute, and should the dead rise from the grave, somebody's got to be in the front line.

That's right: Zombies. If Overton Parish Council is to have an emergency plan, it's got to be one that deals with tens of thousands of undead lurching down the road from Basingstoke in search of fresh victims in the surrounding villages.

I've read a book on two on this, and I've also lived in Dorset, so I consider myself an expert. I'll be advising the good people of Overton to get in a good supply of sharpened entrenching tools (Zombies, for the decapitating of), target rifles (Zombies, for the blowing the brains out of), and gallons of fine single-malt whisky (Because if you get infected, drunk zombies are funny). And if it all goes wrong, leave an escape route that takes us out the back roads to Watership Down, and we can all pretend to be rabbits until it all blows over.

If we play this right, Overton will be a beacon of civilisation amid the chaos of the coming Great Zombie War. You – Overton Parish Council – will be seen as gold-plated heroes by literally several hundred registered voters.

Now, let's talk about the Gozer the Gozerian threat to North Hampshire. Got a plan for that?

Friday, January 17, 2014


A tale of mirth and woe.

A quick duck into Waitrose simply to pick up a pint of milk ended up in what could be described as a small-to-medium shop as I was lured by the frantic pricing down of crates of Christmas biscuits in the seasonal aisle.

I hefted my booty to a vacant till, only to be beaten by a chap and his pre-school daughter.

"Don't forget your toy rabbit, Charlotte," he said ominously as she helped with the packing. Of course, she was so beguiled by a handful of those green Waitrose coins that we will one day be using as currency come the collapse of Western civilisation, she did exactly that.

I chased after them, dear reader. I chased them down with my dodgy ankle, carrying armfuls of discount biscuits, a pint of milk, and a toy rabbit.

"Is this ... argh me foot ... is this your rabbit?"

And for the first time since the great mid-nineties Paedogeddon panic, I received hearty thanks from a dad, and a sheepish "Thank oo" from a small girl.

Smugness, your name is Alistair.

Of course, the yin and yang of the universe has to stay in perfect balance, and it couldn't last for long.

In fact, it lasted as long as I could pay the car park, drive down the exit ramp and drop my parking token as i went to put it into the machine at the barrier.

Naturally, I had drawn up too close to the machine to get the car door open, so I had to climb across to the passenger side, get out, root around under the car until I found the lost token, climb back in through the passenger side, and hoist myself behind the wheel in the most undignified manner possible.

As I climbed back in, I clocked the queue that had built up behind me, and raised the lost coin to the driver of the first car, by way of explanation. A middle aged woman, her mouth was a lipstcked gash in the universe betraying the thoughts of painful death inside her head.

"Dropped it," I mouthed.

"Arsehole," she said.

Which was fair enough.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

If this is Wednesday, this must be Bristol

So, I'm doing this lecture tour.

Not much of a tour, to be honest. More of a trip around pubs in the south and west of England talking to Skeptics' groups about what's going on in North Korea.

[Executive summary: I don't know, but here's a video of a Korean pop band doing the theme from Rocky]

I'm enjoying it. I like doing the talks, and I love the question-and-answer sessions in the second half, and even my canine accomplice (renamed Kim Jong Bone for the duration) seems to enjoy going to strange towns and crapping on their local landmarks. Sorry about your Roman Baths, Bath. Most of it came off.

But the thing that totally destroys me is the driving. It's only a three-night tour, but Portsmouth and back, followed by Bath and back, followed by Bristol and back – it's killing me.

What amazes me is that there are whole armies of people like me – lecturers, speakers, actors, musicians, stand-up comedians – doing much the same, diving length and breadth of the country to entertain audiences of various sizes.

After this mini-tour, I'm just about ready to bump off the next driver that overtakes me in the rain on the M4 motorway, pulling in too soon and giving me the benefit of a wall of spray. I will round up and lock into a room without any electricity all the kids running amok at Membury Services.

But most of all, if it wasn't already part of my phone, I would stamp on my SatNav, set fire to the remains and feed whatever's left over to a gibbon.

Satellite Navigation, I find, is all well and good on the open road. But stick it in a city centre on a rainy night in January and you will curse the day you ever downloaded the AllFreeShiteNav from the Apps Store.

Take Bath. I saw enough of it last week to write a reasonably good tourist guide. The SatNav took me town the same street twice, and past the Abbey three times in a failed attempt to get out of town. Having said that – and despite my "all well and good on the open road" comment, it also tried to take me 80 miles home via back roads, so I obviously have a Tool Of Satan in my car.

As I finally made it down the M4 in a wall of rain, I wondered: "Surely there must be a better way? Surely there must be some way of beaming entertainment into people's homes so they can see interesting stuff on a screen in their living rooms?"

Then I realised it'll never catch on. 

The last night of the Alistair Coleman North Korea lecture tour is at Smoke and Mirrors in Bristol, Wednesday 22 January. 7.30pm start, free admission

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bizarre Gift Flashback: The Goth Years

Everybody gives or receives bizarre presents at least once in their life.

I should know, because one desperate Christmas, with no funds to call my own, I bought my mother a hairnet, and wrapped up three walnuts in a piece of old newspaper for my sister.

However, I don't think I'll ever get my head round the present my father gave me in my late teenage years.

First, you have to understand that my father's musical tastes aren't just merely traditional, they would have been a bit left-field in the early seventeenth century. He's a confirmed Radio 3 man, and listening might range from early monastic chants to the Pipes and Drums of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

He's a professor of serious medical noodling, and just does not do popular music. At all. Not even Abba.

So, one evening, he came home from work, found me up to some technical gubbins in my bedroom, and handed me a small bag.

"I got you this, son. I thought you might like it."

It was a record by Northampton-based miserablists Bauhaus.

To say my gob was smacked would be an understatement.

He had somehow dug into my psyche, burrowed past the light tinkly-pop acts such as early Depeche Mode and OMD, and found my brooding, dark heart, yearning for jangly guitars, sweeping synths and doom-laden vocals.

I would like to say I've still got the disc, but I believe my sister took it off my hands after she went to university, turned weird and started to listen to bands who dressed in black and had big hair (or, in the case of Bauhaus, the Gothic businessman from Hell look).

Der Alte has never bought me another record. But for his one attempt, I dare say it was a 100% success rate.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


"Look, Alistair," said the leader of our Scout troop, leading me to a quiet corner away from prying ears. I blinked, not knowing what to expect.

"It's like this... we've decided not to promote you to patrol leader this time round. We didn't think your performance on the weekend hike showed the right kind of skills, and everyone thinks you need a little bit more time to grow into the role. Hope you're not too disappointed." 

That's how it should have been done, but the repressed memory of that occasion came back to be with a sickening thud last week, so much so that I sat on the edge of the bed gasping for air, the forty-seven year-old me vowing retribution in the name of my fourteen year-old self. Against who or what I didn't quite know – the man responsible is either very old or dead, and what would I say to the man that made me think my lot in life was to settle for second best anyway?

It's true to say that I wasn't at my best of the particular weekend hike. I was fourteen, an assistant patrol leader in the Scout troop, and a vacancy had arisen to lead Hawks patrol after one of the senior lads left the movement. The hike started at some unearthly hour with a 6am rendezvous at the station, followed by a train to Swindon, then a bus up to the Ridgeway. Being 14, lacking experience in the long-distance walking game, I had eaten all my chocolate rations before lunch on the first day, and spent much of the afternoon bowking rich, brown vomit all over Oxfordshire.

Then ill-fitting walking boots took their toll, and the load on my back was shared around the adults, poisoning my waters when it came to future promotion hopes. On the second day, as we staggered into Streatley-on-Thames, they were probably glad to see the back of me, and the chap parachuted in from America and touted as "one of the best Scout leaders" in the world had well and truly marked my card.

He wore cowboy boots and a huge Confederate flag belt buckle and had the hairiest hands I had ever seen. Straight from the start it was clear he knew about as much about leading youth groups as Gandhi did about Formula One motor racing.

So, it was down to Hairy Hands to tell me with all due care and kindness that I had been overlooked for promotion. And this is how it happened:

Parade night at the Scout Hut, and the evening's fun and activities are running down as the entire troop lines up in patrol order for the lowering of the flag. As usual, all the parents are there, waiting on the sidelines for the boys to be dismissed to their homes.

And Big Chief Hairy Hands announces that he has made up his mind about the new Hawks patrol leader. So, he marches over like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from the film Full Metal Jacket, leans into me so we are face-to-face and shouts so that the whole hall could hear what he has to say. 

"You, Coleman. You let me down badly on the route march. You'll never amount to much, so I'm promoting your brother instead of you. Let that be a lesson." 

He turned on his heals, crossed the hall, and pressed the PL's stripes into my younger brother's hand.

It should be pointed out at this moment that my brother showed his leadership skills that weekend by going to the Middle School Disco. Bu everyone agreed - I had let myself down badly in front of the Greatest Scout Leader In The World, and even doing nothing was better than that.

I don't blame Nigel for one second over what happened. In retrospect, he showed the kind of lust for life that I was sadly lacking, and prioritised the pursuit of girls and throwing some shapes in a darkened school hall over spending a freezing February night in a tent overlooking Didcot Power Station.

I was in Upper School. I didn't have a school disco to cop out into.

Nige had just about had enough of Scouts by then, and left to join his school friends in the Air Cadets. Hairy Hands mysteriously left soon after, and was replace by a bloke who drove a British Telecom van who drank meths on parade nights, and I soon got my PL stripes as head of Kestrel patrol, and copped off with a girl from Luton at the following year's camp, which was probably the high point of my life to that point.

By the time I mixed my metaphors and jumped ship for the Air Cadets, Nige was already a corporal and having far more fun than we ever had in a draughty Scout hut made of asbestos and string. But the stuffing had already been knocked out of me by Hairy Hands. I knew I was no good. My beret didn't fit properly, my boots wouldn't shine, but I was in with the right crowd and that's all that mattered. I eventually got my stripes, turned up for every cadet event they organised, and ducked out of school discos.

And three decades later, I shudder myself awake, sweating, telling myself that I'm not useless, that I don't have to settle for second best.

I'm a patrol leader, so screw you Hairy Hands. Screw you.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

On not having a New Year hangover

Pretty much how the inside of my head feels, and LIFE'S NOT FAIR

So, I go into this New Year with a virus that comes with all the symptoms of having a hangover, only without the joy of drinking alcohol in the first place.

This is the sort of thing that goes to prove that a) there is a God, and b) he's a big fan of making life as miserable as possible for us atheists.

Also, everything I eat tastes and smells of fish, which probably means some kind of hideous neurological disorder, rather than the more likely outcome: Using my hands to dole out the dog's fish-and-rice dinner which he eats only as a last resort.

The only problem with this is that the not-hangover arrived on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, and settled in rather nicely, meaning that I was absolutely unwilling to join in with the festivities even if I wanted to.

Alas, for the stay-at-home types, New Year's Eve television is more of a punishment than a celebration, and the end-of-year viewing is a toss-up between Gary Barlow and Jools Holland's Hootenanny. Music's Mr Dull vs a guarantee of a piano being played in a honky-tonk style does not a Happy New Year make.

It's been years since I had a proper wanton New Year celebration. OK, decades. It's not that I've grown old and boring, it's just that after the events of (I think) 1987/1988 and the week-long recovery that entailed, my body has developed an allergy to the last day of the year and invents illnesses that mean I am physically unable to take part in any booze-fuelled celebration.

Most years, this manifests itself as a can't-be-arsed lethargy and an entirely logical revulsion at fancy dress costumes. Only recently has this become actual illness. My total Christmas alcohol intake – for the record – has been a selection of fine wines over the festive period, and a rather good, peaty single malt courtesy of the in-laws.

If only I had taken regular infusions of this impressive whiskey, I might have burned out the badness and considered roaming the streets of Fleet dressed as Dr Harold Shipman.Which I do most nights of the year anyway. It's a hobby.

So, woe is me.

The consolation is that things can only get better. I have not yet been sick in my own shoes so far in 2014, for example, so I've still got that one over 1988.