Saturday, May 31, 2014

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Having your hair cut by Slightly Racist Derek

CITIZENS! Don't be a mug. Ask your barber for a "Young Generalissimo" - it's the haircut that's going places!

It was midway through my usual short-back-and-sides last Friday that Slightly Racist Derek the barber let slip that he had voted UKIP in the recent European elections.

"Good for you," I said, because I am a firm believer in two things. The first of these is the democratic right for anybody to vote for whichever party they like, no matter how much I disagree with their views. And the second of these is never to upset a large man holding a pair of incredibly sharp scissors to your head.

It transpired that mine and Derek's political views diverged several decades ago, I was cowed enough to sit and listen while he put the world to rights. After all, it made a change from the usual fishing talk, and I had run out of interesting things to say on that front several visits ago. Barbershop banter, it turns out, is not my thing.

I've never been one to spend a fortune on a haircut. I had a brief flirtation with a gents' hair salon in the late 80s, when jackets were white and if you didn't have a cut and blow dry you were nothing. But apart from that fashion debacle, I've never seen the reason why a man needs to spend more than a tenner to get himself scalped.

Back in the day, I went to a chap called Maurice the Mangler, who plied his trade in what can only be described as a corridor in Henley-on-Thames. For your 95p you got what you were given, and no arguments. Conversation was strictly limited to the fortunes of Reading Football Club and "Going anywhere for your holidays, sir?" which is exactly how it should be.

Down the years, I have always sought out any town's cheap clip joint, for if it's a military-style short-back-and-sides you're after, why pay more? And that's why I found this particular shop.

Our town went over the barber shop event horizon a long time ago. We have more barber shops than we know what to do with, and the trade is – oh-ho! – cut-throat. Derek's good for a nearby coffee shop, so everybody's a winner.

"I'll tell you why I voted UKIP," he said carving away at my barnet. "All those bloody Ukrainians."

"Don't you mean Romanians?"

"Yeah, them as well. You go up central London, an' they're all sleepin' rough in Hyde Park."

"Are they really?"

"All sleepin' rough in Hyde Park, nicking our jobs. Who's going to deal with that, eh?"

As the razor came out to shave the back of my neck, I agreed with every damn word that he said, instead of drawing his attention to a) my degree in European, US and Asia-Pacific politics, and b) the facts. But the narrative's all about the immigrants these days, and the here-and-now was an angry man with a large blade in his hand. Remembering my Henry IV and the words of Falstaff therein on discretion and valour, political opinion was for another time. 

"They biting up the lake?" 

I tipped him two quid, but left with slightly racist hair.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Kim Jong-Un looking at things

That look of terror on local officials' faces when they meet the boss.

You don't get that when David Cameron looks round a factory, do you?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Happy St Michael Thomas's Day

Twenty-five years ago today, Michael Thomas charged through the midfield and scored the goal that won Arsenal the league title at Anfield.

For any Arsenal fan, it still brings up the hairs on the back on the neck. Along with the late David Rocastle's cup semi-final winning goal at White Hart Lane, it's one of my favourite ever sporting moments.

And in other news: TWENTY-FIVE YEARS?! That's half a lifetime ago.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Megan Washington - Limitless

New one from Megan Washington, who I am not stalking.

....And the record company'sgone and put a geographical restriction on it. *golf clap*

Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Praise of Heinz Tomato Soup: The Food of Gods

Heinz Cream of Tomato soup. There is no other food quite like it, and I say this from four decades of experience of this veritable food of the gods.

No Saturday lunchtime of my childhood would be complete without opening a tin of that reddy-orange goodness, heating it in a pan, and gorging it down with about half a loaf of fresh bread. In fact, this habit grew into a source of conflict with my mother, who would buy fresh bread in the morning, and find it had all disappeared into my face-hole before she got back from work. In fact, I was urged to get "your own bloody bread", which I thought was fair enough and got me out of the house for long enough to work up an appetite.

I wasn't just a tomato soup fiend, though. When there was fresh bread in the house (and there's a theme developing here), I would sneak down to the larder and construct door-stop sandwiches which would be devoured on the spot. Rinse. Repeat.

On some days these would be tomato ketchup, but the greatest devastation would be caused with a bottle of salad cream. Salad cream sandwiches would be feasted upon until there was no more bread or salad cream, whichever was exhausted first. This habit couldn't last for long, and the day I dropped the bottle, causing an explosion of yellow goo and glass all over the kitchen was the day I was told to stop.

For this incident, I blame the sugar rush of necking neat, syrupy orange squash straight from a four-pint container until I was buzzing up on the ceiling.

But back to the soup. Heinz Cream of Tomato has attained an almost mythic status in my life, to the point that I've always got to have at least two tins on hand: One for now, one for emergencies. No other brand will do, because they are a BLASPHEMY and should be destroyed with fire, bombs and rabid weasels, as well as the shops that sell them.

And nobody tinkers with my Cream of Tomato. NOBODY.  Somebody who I was once married to thought it a "nice idea" to get Heinz Tomato "with a hint of basil". A HINT OF TURDS MORE LIKE. I do not blame the ex – but I do look accusingly to the boffins at Heinz for even thinking about such an ABOMINATION.

That's nothing  - NOTHING – compared to what happened to me one Saturday. My soup preparations were interrupted by the old man, who suggested that we turn my plain old tomato soup into "the best tomato soup ever". I begged to differ, for it was already the best tomato soup ever, but he brushed aside my protests and spent the next half an hour "improving" my lunch with added tomatoes, puree, salt, pepper, herbs and lord knows what else.

It was not the best tomato soup ever.

In fact, I would hazard to suggest that the old man didn't fancy it much either.

But ould I forgive him? Yes. Yes I did, because that's what you do with dads, soup-wreckers or not.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

So, I got a new phone case...

...and now whenever I make a phone call I have an owl flying out of my ear.

Hashtag: #WinningAtLife

Monday, May 19, 2014

In which I am asked to review phone cases

Out of the way, the Owl-o-Phone's ringing

"So," asked the very nice people at Mr. Nutcase – sellers of very fine custom phone cases, "would you care to review our product?"

Never one to pass up the opportunity of sampling stuff in exchange for a few kind words on these pages, I accepted.

Actually, that's a lie: I have turned down the opportunity to sample free stuff when the product was clearly dreadful on several occasions. This means that Mr. Nutcase are already winning because they sent me a new case for my phone what I designed myself and it is aces and has an owl on it.

Now, I'm not one to write a straightforward review that might contain words "positive customer experience", "Fully-immersive interface" and other phrases from the Big Book of Buzzword Bingo Calls. Mainly because that's the kind of low-hanging fruit we don't pick round here.

However, in these time-starved days where the average user navigates away from a website if they don't get what they want within the first six seconds, I'd be the first to praise Mr. Nutcase's positive customer experience and fully immersive interface.  Ah.

As I get older and wake up each morning to find a puddle of my IQ on the floor that has leaked out of my ear overnight, the design interface is the kind of drag-and-drop simplicity that even an idiot can use. I know, because I am that idiot, and even I could use it.

So. Phone and tablet cases for most makes, either with designs from their own collection or one you upload yourself. With pictures of owls, or without pictures of owls. Your choice. I went with owls. Ten percent discount if you click the link at the top and quote "thanku10" at the checkout.

That is all. Now leave me to gloat over my Owl-o-Phone.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Future Islands - Seasons (Waiting on You) & Megan Washington at TEDx

I made a vow the other week not to buy any music product during this month. It is being sorely tempted by the Future Islands.

Like most musical discoveries, this was made in the most roundabout way: I am indebted to the charming and wonderful Ms Megan Washington for drawing me to the original after she posted a cover of the song on her own YouTube channel. Like this, if you wish to compare and contrast:

And any post on Future Islands cannot go by without drawing your attention to lead singer Samuel T Herring's enthusiastic performance style. The Letterman Show performance may go down in legend.

Finishing off: Megan Washington's TEDx talk in Sydney. At the risk of going all Upworthy on you: What happened next will blow your mind.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A short lesson on the inevitable victory of death, destruction and disappointment

Another day, and another slew of contributions to Britain's funniest blog – Angry People in Local Newspapers.

And every now and then I get one that strikes a chord with me. This time it's one of the repeated themes that I see on the blog – school gets chickens, chickens go missing, kids are photographed looking sad.

These stories come round with depressing regularity, and it makes me wonder why is it that schools will invest in chickens if they're all going end up tortured by local psychos, casseroled by local crooks, or ripped to shreds by foxes.

Then I realised that this is the exact outcome that schools are hoping for. Yes, the kids learn citizenship, responsibility and how to care for something with the precious gift of life. But they're also taught to expect disappointment, betrayal and the inevitable victory of the cold hand of death.

This is the exact lesson I learned when our teachers set up a chicken run outside our classroom window, the lesson being "You will arrive in class one day to find a bloody and feathery mess after the chickens were eaten by foxes".

And so it came to pass that the chickens were eaten by foxes; and the run remained outside our classroom window for the rest of the year, a bloody and feathery reminder that the things you love will be eaten by foxes. It was a lesson deeply ingrained in my mind, reflected in my (rejected) submission for the year art project: Chickens Getting Eaten By Foxes, A Study In Red.

Chickens Getting Eaten By Foxes, A Study In Red (Medium: Poster paint on teacher's Ford Escort)
 And it was a lesson that rang true. For when my grandfather got a pet tortoise, my take-home lesson was this: "He'll end up dead and in a pie."

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Not a party political blog post

Whatever your political stripe: DEMAND TURDS ON 22nd MAY

With the European elections little more than a week away, the parties will be trying their hardest to secure your vote.

In the normal scheme of things, your friendly neighbourhood blogger might be making a few posts hoping to tell you which way to vote. You are wrong, because you should be voting for [PARTY NAME REDACTED].

That was a joke.

You see, in the early days of these pages, I could get away with telling you to support [PARTY NAME REDACTED] and not [PARTY NAME REDACTED] because my job was not in the public sphere. Now, however, I am employed as a journalist, and ethics demand that I report neutrally, and that means publishing no political opinion in either a personal or professional capacity in the run-up to an election, especially when it comes to my opinions of [POLITICIAN'S NAME REDACTED], who I believe to be the most enormous shit.

That's by-the-by because I have strong opinions on [POLITICIAN'S NAME REDACTED] (nobber), [POLITICIAN'S NAME REDACTED] (bell-end) and [POLITICIAN'S NAME REDACTED] (wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire) as well, which shows that I would be an equal-opportunities political commentator given half the chance.

Of course, I can be equally scathing of the policies held by [PARTY NAME REDACTED], [PARTY NAME REDACTED] and [PARTY NAME REDACTED] – not to mention [PARTY NAME REDACTED] who should be denied the oxygen of publicity as far as I care. Also, actual oxygen.

However, I love my job, and it would therefore be an act of spectacular folly if I were to tell you for whom to vote.

So, being careful not to abuse my position of trust, I urge you to use your hard-fought democratic right and get out and vote on 22nd May for whoever the hell you like. Just as long as it's not for [PARTY NAME REDACTED]. Or [PARTY NAME REDACTED]. And especially not [PARTY NAME REDACTED].

Monday, May 12, 2014

Book of the month club: Sharpe's Christmas

This week's charity shop find, along with Orbital's second album, Star Trek Into Darkness for two quid, and heap of Frankie Goes to Hollywood vinyl is a Bernard Cornwell "Sharpe" book that I never knew existed. This one, in fact, complete with your author's leg still in shot:

Half of me dying to know how much it was on eBay (bugger all, it turns out), I splashed out 50p to help out a local charity that gives out weapons to under-privileged muggers.

Assuming (quite wrongly, as it happens) Sharpe's Christmas to be the most tremendous tosh, I was delighted to find it is just six lines of verse. To whit:

"Sharpe's Christmas
I gave you my lance
And the very next day
You ran it through a Frenchman
This year to save me from tears
I ran amok with a sword at the Battle of Talavera"

Most people know Sharpe from the ITV dramatisation of the book series. Strangely unfulfilling, mainly because as each episode ends, the viewer is left confused as to why Sean Bean - Hollywood's best-looking corpse - is still alive.

And for those of you wanting to know if the book obeys Cornwell's Law Of Finishing The Book With The Title:
It was Sharpe's Christmas.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

This week I have mostly been listening to... HEAVEN 17

Heaven 17: Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry

Because there just aren't enough songs in the world with a musician's credit for playing the paving slabs.

See also Come Live With Me, even though Glenn Gregory was only 26 when he wrote the line "I was 37, you were 17", exposing the band as foul 80s electro-pop LIARS.

From The Luxury Gap album, which comes with the Scaryduck seal of approval.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Happy to help

It must be a soul-destroying job working for one of those South Asian companies whose entire existence is to phone potential marks in the UK and pretend to be the Windows help desk in a shoddy attempt to trick people out of their money.

In fact, any job where people routinely swear and curse at you can't be any fun, and - mindful of whether or not the call centre arrow-fodder care that they are taking part in an illegal enterprise if it puts food on their family's table - there is probably little fun to be had out of their working day.

One suspects that the only fun they get is the opportunity to call back punters who have annoyed them and throw a few swears down the line. My job, then, when one of these people calls, is to make their day and let them get it off their chest.

And so, the phone rings. I've been through this routine before, and probably written it on these pages on more than one occasion.

The caller ID says "WITHHELD INTERNATIONAL", so I have a pretty good idea what's coming.

The click. The satellite delay.

Followed by the fateful second where I can hear call centre noises in the background as the operator prepares to read from his script.

Now is the time. Jump in, like a ninja.

ME: "Hello, Windows help desk, how can I help?"

THEM (reading from their script): "Hello. My name is Williams David, and I am calling from the Windows help desk about the problem with your computer."

ME: "No. I'M the Windows help desk. What's the problem with your computer?"

Williams David (completely thrown): "Errr... My name is Williams David, and I am calling from the Windows help desk about the problem with your computer. He have detected a fault and..."

"ME: No. Wait. I'm the Windows help desk. You called me. What's the problem with your computer? I can keep this up all day, you know."

Williams David: "Fuck you."

And, two minutes later:

The phone rings. The caller ID says "WITHHELD INTERNATIONAL"

Williams David: "I said fuck you."

ME: "And your mother."

Williams David: "Fuck you."

He hangs up. My work here is done.

Monday, May 05, 2014

In which I am asked to review a book, and completely forget about it for four months

Review: Laff It Off - George Wallace

"If you're reading this, then I already got your damned money"
I'm not a great scholar of comedy, but – like everybody else – I know what's funny and what's not, and your opinion is wrong.

So, when I got an email from a PR company asking me if I'd like to review a book by US comedian George Wallace, I said "yes", and promptly forgot about it. And when they asked me several months later whether I had actually read the book or not, I had to admit that the download link had – in fact – expired in January, and could they send it again, please?

That means I finally have a copy of 'Laff It Off' not exactly in my sweaty paws, but in the solid state memory of my iPad, the slightly peeling corner of its newly installed screen protector reminding me that my ninja skills aren't quite as silky as I like to think they are.

I'm not exactly the fastest of readers, either, but I stuck to my guns and got the Wallace finished in 24 hours. My big problem with books is that I get several on the go at once (and 'Laff It Off' became the fifth on the current inventory), so this review make become mixed with two volumes of military obituaries, one of a niche erotica (also for review) and a tale of sword and derring-do set in the Hundred Years War. My apologies if this comes to pass.

Wallace is one of those comedians who is well known in the States, but is virtually unknown over here. He's a contemporary and friend of the great Jerry Seinfeld (who writes the forward of this number), and performs stand-up to packed houses. One of the reasons you might not have seen him in the UK is that seems to be doing just fine performing in residence in Vegas. That sort of gig does tend to give you one hell of a comfort zone.

Laff It Off, Wallace's book on his rise to fame from his days selling rags door-to-door, is one of those comedian's guide-to-life books that are ten-a-penny, but – and as a former salesman, he'd like the analogy – has the unique selling points of a) not outstaying its welcome and b) marvelous hand-drawn diagrams. 

The latter appeals to me, because I've been getting away with lo-fi comedy for years, and it's pleasing to note that there's money in it. Also, it's funny. For eg, this from page five:

 He is wrong, by the way. I am 48 years old and live for the day they cut a You've Been Framed Man-Getting-Hit-In-The-Fork Special.

But, as a 48-year-old, this one's just about spot on.

 The humour is very American, but we've been exposed to enough US comedy down the years for that not to be a problem. Wallace has made the most of a career in front of US audiences, and that - I think - is our loss. We just don't get to see much quality US comedy, and when we do, it's through the medium of cinema rather than veriety show, stand-up or sitcom.

The problem for UK TV audiences, mind you, is the reluctance of major networks to take a risk on American comedy (they barely take a risk on British comedy, come to think of it), so you do have to make an effort to find anything decent. I worship 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, but they're hardly mainstream, and my Ron Swanson wallpaper on my work computer is merely there as a test to sort the cool people from the people who are not cool. 
Are you one of the cool people? No. No, you are not.

Any exposure for decent US comedy like Mr Wallace is a good thing, and I'm not even being paid to say it.

And back to the chase as we reach the final reel of this blockbuster: As the British archers rained down death on the French men-at-arms at the Battle of Poitiers, I realised that I actually needed to finish Laff It Off because it was a Could-You-Review-This-Book-Please book that's actually good, and I had wasted the best part of four months not reviewing it, leading me to draw my own graphs to illustrate stuff.

I'll grant you that he is far better at drawing lo-fi comedy graphs than I am, but George has had plenty of practice. Kids these days, stuck in front of their computers and iPads - nobody's learning anything new. Nobody's got those graph-drawing skills the way an enormously successful stand-up comic has.

Laff It Off by the very funny George Wallace gets four hand-drawn graphs out of five, and my seal of approval. Buy it off the Amazon, and from shops that sell books made out of paper, an' stuff.
 So mote it be.