Saturday, July 28, 2007

Matri moany

I'm just in the process of buying something from the gift list for my friend's imminent wedding. All was going fine - and it's great that I don't actually have to make any effort to buy them something they genuinely want - until I got to the "special message" bit.

Having to type something original, heartfelt and clever is nigh on impossible when you're faced with a small text box on a John Lewis homepage. Even in a word document it's difficult. So naturally, I Googled it. Then I realised that's what everyone else would do, so when I nicked something from a forum discussion page, I'd probably end up using exactly the same message as someone else. So I decided to put some thought into it. At first, I came up with this:

May your marriage be like War and Peace: long and interesting.

But the groom isn't a literary type (I'm not sure about the bride), so it could be misconstrued as an incorrectly capitalised desire for their marriage to be like a battleground. Then, I remembered that they like going to the cinema, so I thought of this:

May your marriage be like a monthly direct debit pass to UGC cinemas: practical, fun and financially sensible.

Hmmm. Not very poetic. They'll be expecting more from a "creative" like me. A different approach is called for. As I'm getting them a lamp, how about a film quote?

I love lamp. I love lamp. And I hope you do too. Best wishes for the future.

That just sounds mental. If we're going to do crazy, perhaps:

Best wishes for the future. I love you both. I really do. So much so, in fact, that your marriage will tear me apart inside until my mind slips from the flimsy tarpaulin that holds it aloft into the molten reservoir of madness beneath. DON'T DO IT, I BEG YOU.

Wow, that's really scary. But that's not what we're trying to do here. Perhaps try sticking to what you're best at: puns. Maybe a well-placed pun will make my message stand out from the crowd.

Have a great day. Don’t get tangled up in wed tape!

Ouch. That's awful. I give up, I'm just going to put "to a happy future" or something crap like that.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Taking the piss

I went to the greatest toilet of all time last night. Then I took a picture of it. The walls were covered in black and white Kama Sutra cartoons, above these beautiful olive green tiles. This is what the toilets will look like in heaven.

The greatest toilet of all time

Celeb slap slop

My Paddy Ashdown encounter has been blown out of the water twice in recent days by two friends, who shall remain nameless, but who've come out with:

"Did I tell you I met Matt Groening the other day? We had a lovely chat..."

and, via text message:

"See what happens when i leave the pub and go work at the lumi? I meet grace fucking jones, that's what!"


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pad reaction

You'll never guess who came and stood next to me in the lift at Kennington tube this morning. Only Paddy fucking Ashdown! I played it cool by totally ignoring him, but what I wanted was to say, "You were great in Bosnia!" and give him a massive hug.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lost for words?

Here are ten words. Using these in your writing will transform you from someone who has written a book into A Slightly Pretentious Real Novelist. Good luck!

  • Crepuscular
  • Serpentine
  • Etiolate
  • Sempiternal
  • Dyad
  • Transient
  • Turbid
  • Senescent
  • Lapidate
  • Signal (but only if you use it to mean 'out of the ordinary')

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Three great American comedians

Kaufman, Murphy, Hicks. Wow, all of them. Contains profanity, natch.

"I trusted you..."

"That shit ain't funny motherfucker."

"Borrow a gun from a Yank friend..."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Don't pic it

Just some pictures from back home in April. No particular significance.

Experts + opinions: John Zarnecki

[Originally published in Total Spec magazine, June 2007]

If you're ever bored in London's Victoria and feel doing a bit of breaking and entering, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) is certainly worth a look.

The all-pervading glass walls should make the job quite easy, and once you're inside, you can marvel at the numerous NASA-white beams and ride up and down the kind of see-through elevators that would've seemed impressively futuristic about 20 years ago. total:spec did, of course, come in legally. We're just sitting on the third floor, hypnotised by the yo-yoing elevators, when our reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Professor John Zarnecki.

Describing his work, the 57-year-old space scientist says, "Ultimately what I want to do is deliver instruments to interesting places to make interesting measurements." Also an Open University professor, Zarnecki's major piece of work was on the Cassini-Huygens mission, a collaborative effort between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI); he led a team which provided scientific instruments for a probe which successfully landed on one of Saturn's moons, Titan two years back. The magnitude of this is perhaps best illustrated by one fact: give or take a few clicks, Titan is 3.5 billion kilometres away. Zarnecki also had a part in the Beagle 2 Mars mission, led by fellow Brit Colin Pillinger (who he's just come out of a meeting with downstairs). That foray was unsuccessful, but, a self-professed "starry-eyed optimist", Zarnecki's not the type to let himself get discouraged. Anyway, it's both lunchtime and interview-time. He peels a banana, and we begin.

The main thing is something called Exomars, which is a European mission to Mars, due to be launched in 2013. I've got a couple of instruments that are looking at the ultraviolet radiation, which has never been directly measured on Mars. I'm also part of a team looking at going to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Some people say it's the most likely place for life elsewhere in the solar system. It's a ball of ice, but there's very strong evidence that below the surface there's a global ocean. There are various scenarios you can dream up – perhaps there are bugs swimming around in this warm liquid?

Me and my team provided one of the small instruments for the mission. I was working mostly on Cassini-Huygens at the time, so it was almost a side activity, but it was still a desperate disappointment, the first failure I've had.

I'll never forget that Christmas day: we were sitting there at the terminals, waiting for our data. We waited and waited and nothing came through. I felt really dreadful. We went and had a very late Christmas lunch at a friends' house and got absolutely hammered, drowning the sorrows in the traditional way. Mars is a tough place to land on - sadly, we'll never know if that instrument would've worked. Having said that, we're already using some of the know-how we got out of it in the Exomars mission.

The big project I was involved with for 15 years of my life was Cassini-Huygens, and that came out of a failure. It all started for me in 1988 when I was working on this mission to land on an asteroid. After a year of research, we went to this big meeting in Brussels. The great and the good had to select one of five candidate missions and we were confident they were going to pick ours. But the bastards chose some crazy mission to go to Saturn and Titan. I remember coming back to the lab the next day – I was a young man then – and thinking "Oh God, have we wasted the last year?" I sat down with some of my colleagues over coffee and I said, "What's this Titan place, where is it and what sort of measurements would one want to make?" We literally started with a blank sheet of paper, brainstormed and realised there were a whole bunch of things we could measure and knew how to. And on January 14 2005, we landed on Titan.

I don't have the words to describe it, I really don't. We'd all invested so much emotion in it. In the control room in Darmstadt in Germany – that's Europe's version of Houston – the atmosphere was so charged. It was a time I wish I'd been Italian or French, because they were all in tears and flinging their arms round each other and I was trying to maintain this stiff upper lip. But actually I went into the corner and had a little cry. All this data started coming in – one of my instruments was the first part that touched the surface of Titan as the probe hit the ground. It was uncanny: we got a nice signal that looked like the simulations we'd done in the lab. You get to know these instruments, because you'd been playing with them for years but I had to pinch myself because suddenly we were getting that trace on the screen from 3.5 billion kilometres away. It was absolutely unbelievable.

Yes. You've got to have balls really, some of these ideas are really quite crazy. I can still remember the room we were sitting in for that first meeting – we were young and naïve enough to think that this could happen. We're looking at a return to Titan, but that won't happen for 20 years, way after I'm retired, possibly even dead. I've been in this so long, that I'm fairly used to projects being long term, but it is strange to be working on stuff that you know you will never see through.

Personally, I think the reason is that the Chinese announced they were going to put a man on the moon; it's a geopolitical thing. However, there really are scientific reasons for going. I use this expression "The moon as a museum." We've lost all record of the early history of our planet because of all the geological activity, but there are likely to be fragments preserved on the surface of the moon from early Earth and - this is a real longshot – there may even be fossils of ancient Earth life there. There's lots to do on the Moon.

I was a schoolkid in north London when Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, suddenly became the most famous person alive. He embarked on a world tour and the first place he went to was London. In those days every visiting Russian dignitary would have to go to Highgate cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried. I was at school just round the corner and we were given the day off so we could go – that's how famous he was. Most of my mates went off to play football, but for some reason I decided I had to go along. I ended up standing about 10 feet away from him. He was wearing this big Russian uniform with a massive cap and standing in front of this big mausoleum, saluting. I just thought, "Bloody hell, this bloke has been around the world in 93 minutes". You can't imagine how mind-blowing that seemed – the first person to leave the confines of the earth. I didn't really understand what it was all about – I was 10 years old - but I knew that it was what I wanted to do.

I think there has to be. There's either only us, or it's everywhere. We're now finding exoplanets, planets around other suns. We've found about 200 now, which means planetary systems are quite common. Once you accept that, and accept that life is a chemical or biological accident, you just need the right conditions. What you've got to appreciate is the size of our universe; it's communicating with them that's going to be the problem. You'll send out signal saying "hello", wait 25, 30, 40 years and get a "hello, how are you?" back. By the time you've sent your reply, you're dead. It's going to be a weird and stilted conversation.

Yes, but it's bizarre because it becomes part of your everyday work and existence. Sometimes I worry about that, because you should be amazed that today's question is, "Are we alone in the universe?" Well yeah, but that's the question before coffee. After coffee, it's, "What is the ultimate fate of our solar system?" and after lunch it's, "What happened before the big bang?" People tell us we don't know how lucky we are to be discussing these things. We'll stop and realise, yeah, we are lucky.

Friday, July 20, 2007


With the 50th anniversary rerelease of Bergman's The Seventh Seal, notable for its iconic opening, this week The Guardian did their top 10 film beginnings.

I've had a dig around; here are some I'm particularly fond of. (I would've had Manhattan in there, but it ain't online.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sched fool

"The first Big Brother programme went out five days after they’d gone in the house, was half an hour long, and was shown at eleven at night."

As pointed out by Peter Briffa

Monday, July 16, 2007

Fakes and pains

I have perpetrated a fraud against my friends.

It was supposed to be all in the interests of curiosity and experimentation, but now I just feel guilty. Basically, all I did was change my listed birthday on Facebook to Thursday 12 July (it's actually in April). Unfortunately, I'd underestimated how much people now rely on Facebook for truth and fact, and the birthday and anti-birthday messages started flooding in.

"Happy birthday!! (I admit, I wouldn't have known if facebook didn't tell me!!)" wrote one on my wall. "Fuck off is it your birthday" added another. More abuse/congratulation followed.

Then it started getting worse - the messages moved away from the enclosed sphere of social networking and into the 'real' world. An old school friend now living in Australia appeared on Instant Messenger and wished me numerous happy returns. My old flatmate Jamie sent a birthday text (even though he had offered to buy me concert tickets for my real birthday just a few months before). The next day, my mate Dan emailed with some "things to do before you're 30" advice. Then my boss came up and told me she'd made a trip to WHSmiths the previous evening and bought me a card, before remembering she'd bought me one back in April too.

I started 'fessing up. Jamie texted back, "You are a sick fuck. Tho a sociologically interesting one, I grant you." A work colleague admitted on IM that she found out late in the day, then "went home and thought 'you utter shit, you didn't do anything' and felt really guilty". Dan emailed: "dam, can't believe i fell for that one, i knew when it was, how schoolboy of me, didn't even think to question it."

Oh dear. Sorry everyone. In my defence, all I can say is this: if Facebook told you to jump off a cliff, would you?

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Just finished reading Jeanette Winterson's 1985 classic Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Great book, and a striking cover too, despite it being a "NOW A MAJOR BBC TV DRAMA" edition.

However, I was rather taken aback to find that on the final, blank, page of the book - this was a second hand copy, which Sarah picked up from a Brixton charity shop - a previous owner had scrawled this:

If you think that sleeping with me...

Loud and clear. It's clearly not a comment on the text; why was it written? Who by? And for whom?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Film review: Molière

Originally published in Total Spec magazine, June 2007

The 17th century French literary biopic – now there’s a genre guaranteed to keep da kidz away. Particularly when the hero has the kind of bitter, scrunched up face more suited to a League of Gentleman character than to the flowing Byron hair that pours from his head and the flouncy Russell Branded garb he prances around in.

Molière storms grumpily through a field of flowersIn order to shoehorn this film into existence, writers Laurent Tirard (who also directs) and Grégoire Vigneron have conveniently located a hiatus in the biographies of France’s most feted playwright when he disappeared for several months – disputed by some academics, but hey, fuck them. This gap also coincides with the beginnings of Molière's greatness. Perfect! This gives them the chance to do some Shakespeare in Love-style theorising along the lines of the question: what if Molière's plays were based on his own experiences? And so the playwright finds himself planted right at the centre of a series of events resembling one of his own plays.

We begin with both the success and frustration of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Romain Duris), aka Molière. The playwright is famous and loved, but dreams of elevating his art to a higher level. How to escape the typecasting rut? As he struggles with writer’s block, and before we’ve really found our footing, we’re plonked back to 13 years earlier - and it’s here we stay for almost all of the film. An audience are cracking up at a performance by the young Molière, but for all the wrong reasons – his ponderous tragedian is bloody awful. When a pair of bailiffs turn up, Molière gets the crowd on side with a display of artful buffoonery. Unfortunately, he also gets chucked in a debtors prison. He’s fished out by eccentric but loaded aristocrat Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), who's attempting to woo local sharp-tongued diva Célimène, a sort of cruel, ginger Lauren Laverne for the 1600s - and behind his beautiful wife’s back. Bungling Jourdain promises to pay off Molière's debts if the writer helps him stage a play, designed to dazzle Célimène with its brilliance. Molière, disguised as an inept priest called Tartuffe, stays at the mansion and, as he falls for Madame Jourdain, finds himself embroiled in the kind of farce he would end up writing…

The humour all sounds quite dated – all cuckolds, pratfalls and dowry-chasing scoundrels – but when it comes to laugh-out-loud moments, Molière actually succeeds in bringing home the comedy bacon. It's not always quite as funny as it thinks it is, with Duris's clowning missing the mark at times, but pitch-perfect performances from the cuckold and the cad (the toothy Luchini and a devious Edouard Baer) save it from its surfeit of slapstick and sentimentality. There are a few good moments of pathos, most memorably Jourdain's physical fall as he discovers that his wife has cheated on him; a heartbreaking minute that lifts him from the status of bumbling fool to the level of real human being.

Overall, however, the film's general notion – that Molière's experiences in the Jourdain household show him how to elevate his writing from mere silliness to a new comedy of human suffering – doesn't quite work, because the events we see acted out are mainly farce and don't plumb the depths of profundity.

Too many laughs, then? That was probably the last thing you were expecting from a 17th century French literary biopic.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Rhet off the bat

With yesterday's Live Earth concert going on yesterday, Lauren Laverne and Zane Lowe were on the graveyard shift, presenting Auntie's T in the Park coverage on BBC4.

This in no way quashed Laverne's zeal; you do really get a different class of presenting when she's in town. I'm thinking of this bit of seemingly spontaneous dialogue, in particular:

Laverne: It's been a fantastic day for rock, and indeed, roll, here at Tea in the Park.
Lowe: So we've established that it's two things or one thing? I'm confused still.
Laverne: It's a hendiadys, technically.
Lowe: It's a what?!
Laverne: A hendiadys - two disparate concepts expressed in one unified idea. So Calvin Harris was amazing, Klaxons were brilliant, CSS were fantastic...

[she continues as Lowe mutters to himself, looking a bit ashamed]

Friday, July 06, 2007

Pun of the century

...and it's all mine. Seriously, I think this may have been my greatest moment.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Pun of the week

Cracking advert from the Weetabix crew - the stunning pun appears right at the end. It's worth the (26-second) wait.


"Identify young men and then penetrate them."
PC Pat Mercer suggests the solution to the terrorism problem on Newsnight

Spotted by Jon T.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The joy of Saxon

A renaissance man for the 21st century, with more achievements at his young age than most people fit into several lifetimesAHAHAHHAHAHHAAA! Look at the side-splitting trick I'm playing on Sarah!

When she gets home and looks through the kitchen window, she'll think I'm advocating a vote for Harold Saxon, the epitomy of evil and the man who wants to enslave the entire human race!

I think the only way to describe me and my role in the world now is by using the phrase "an hilarious prankster". Yes, "an".