Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Ain't Superstitious*. (* - restrictions apply)

I am not superstitious; I’d like to make that clear. I will happily walk on the cracks in the pavement. I would be fine living on the 13th floor. I have no problem walking under a ladder – unless, of course, someone is up there painting, in which case you’d be an idiot to walk under a ladder.

I’ve always thought of myself to be far too intelligent or worldly or whatever you want to call it for superstitions. This is what I thought.

The moment I realised I wasn’t too intelligent or worldly or whatever you want to call it happened on a long flight to Singapore. I was writing, which is what I liked to do on planes back then. This was during that time shortly before planes gave everyone their own video screens – or, if you were lucky enough to get on a plane where everyone had their own video screen, more often than not the system stopped working 2 minutes into the flight. So to pass the time, I’d write, or read or stare jealously at all those people who were able to sleep.

So in the middle of this flight, I’m writing – about flying as it happens: inspiration for me is always very close at hand. Very close. So I was writing about flying and possible things that can happen to a flight and I came to a point in the sentence where I had to write the word “crash.” And I found I couldn’t write it. I simply couldn’t. It felt wrong. It felt like writing it would somehow jinx the flight and make it more likely it to... that word. It’s clearly ridiculous and is exactly the sort of woolly-headed thinking that I would mock regularly. But here I was, an intelligent or worldly or whatever you want to call it guy, doing exactly that very thing that I’d been mocking. It was weird to realise I could be like that.

I spent the rest of the flight writing about superstition – such are the mysteries of inspiration – and only once the flight had landed, taxied and come to a complete stop could I go back a few pages and fill in the small blank with the word “crash.”

From that point on, I was on the look out for any other superstitions I might have. I observed myself closely for signs of other similar behaviour. But this seemed to be my only one. If I spilled salt, I didn’t throw it over my shoulder, if I did anything I would brush it on the floor. Black cats could walk in front of me if they liked, I didn’t care. If they get too close, I might kick them, but that’s not for luck, that’s just how I feel about cats.

I was really pleased to find out I only had this one superstition. This one tiny bit of craziness or naivety or whatever you want to call it.

And even that has now gone. I found myself on a plane recently reading Macbeth, that most superstitious of plays. And I realised if I can read this play in a flying plane, why can’t I write the word “crash”, so I got out my pen and on the top corner of the page I wrote the word “crash.” And for the next 20 seconds, I sat there in utter dread. Because if that plane had started falling out of the sky right then, I would have been screaming – not because I was going to die, but because everything I had ever believed about the way the universe worked would have been utterly wrong.

As you can guess, nothing happened. I mean, a baby cried, four people sneezed and someone called for the stewardess instead of turning on the light, but nothing unusual for a flight. I was cured. I went back to reading Macbeth. I even said the name out loud. “Macbeth.” Wrote the word “crash” a few more times. Nothing.

I was cured of my one single superstition. I should have been happy, because now I was 100% sane or worldly or whatever you want to call it

But I wasn’t. It was like I’d taken a step away from being human; like I was slightly less interesting.

And then, I thought, “surely ‘believing that being illogical is what makes you interesting’ is a form of superstition.” And I told myself, “Yes it is.” And I was imperfect and interesting again; and always will be. Touch wood.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Viva Foreboder: How the end of the world continually fails to spoil Christmas

I, like many of you, was bitterly disappointed that the world didn’t end on 21st December 2012 as the Mayans would have had us believe. I was mostly disappointed because it meant now I still have to go through Christmas. I’m not a big Christmas person. Three things I hate very much in this world are shopping; songs that are relentlessly happy; and anything that twinkles. Christmas is clearly not for me.

Mayan Calendar
Mayan calendar taken with an Aztec camera

But we’re not out of the woods yet, in terms of world destruction. Because not only did the Mayan calendar run out this week, but my Spice Girls calendar runs out on 31st December 2012. One of these has to be correct. They can’t both be wrong. So if it is not the mighty wisdom of the Mayans that prevails here, it must fall to the collective acumen of the Spice Girls to predict the end of the world. After all, does not the Bible refer to the great prophecy of the “five girls of spice?” (Quick check. No, it doesn’t seem to. Maybe it was the King James edition.)

I love that whenever it’s the end of the world, people always stock up on two things: Food and ammunition. Neither of which is going to be any use. It’s the end of the world! You’re not going to be saved from the total destruction of everything just because you have 20 extra tins of oxtail soup in the cupboard.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The Four Horsemen as prophesised in The Brick Bible
And you can’t shoot the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They’re powerful, skeletal and mythological. Believe me, if there is a quartet you don’t want to piss off, it’s the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They are called Famine, War, Death and Pestilence. They ain’t going to take being shot at too lightly. Famine, War, Death and Pestilence. Four powerful, spectral figures whose sole purpose is to lay waste the land astride their mighty steeds, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen. (I might be mixing my myths a little here.)

As for me and Christmas, with the help of e-commerce, an ipod and special polarised glasses that reduce twinkles to a slow pulsating, I am ready to face it. And once that’s done, I can prepare myself for the next end of the world. So for all of you out there, have a bearable Christmas and, if the Spice Girls turn out to be as reliable as the Mayans, Nostradamus, Harold Camping, Jehovah's Witnesses, Sun Myung Moon, Pat Robertson, Pope Sylvester II, William Miller, Sabbatai Zevi, Yearolopolies 2K and all the others who have disappointed me, I wish you a wonderful 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

That’s the Spirit: My Search for Spirituality in the Holy Land

Some time ago, I spent a few months working in Israel. For a software company, as it happens, not on a kibbutz. Although fellow employees assured me the canteen food was pretty much the same as Kibbutz food. In fact, it gave me the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some corkers. But, this story isn’t about my stomach. It’s about my soul.

Before I went, my mum said to me, “It must be so great to be amongst all that spirituality.” The great thing about Israel, and part of the problem with Israel, is that it is the holy land to a lot of religions. Mormons and Scientologists are two modern religions who have solved this by placing their promised lands elsewhere. Respectively, Utah and the planet Sklurpink.

As an Atheist, I miss a lot of spirituality in my life. I miss that calm and deep contentment of knowing something beyond my comprehension cares about me; and will always care about me. It’s a really pleasant thought. I wish I could believe it.

So I made it a point of that trip to see if my mum’s Church of England view that Israel was “full of spirituality” was true.

I immediately realised on arrival that Israel is not my promised land. It’s too hot. Whoever made my skin didn’t make it for sunny climes. It made it for rain and caves.

But I still felt that whilst not being my promised land, it should have some spare spirituality to offer. I explored: I went on tours; I wandered around holy sites; I visited diamond factories. I left no holy rock unturned. Obviously, I didn’t turn over the holy rock - that would have upset people. But metaphorically, that’s what I did.

I visited a church in which was a smaller church which was carved out of the cave Jesus was supposed to have been buried in. I got caught in the throng at chucking-out time at one of the holiest of mosques. I saw segregated wailing against the remnants of an ancient temple. I peered into a small hole at an excavation that quite possibly could have been of the stable where Jesus was born. I walked along one of the suggested routes that Jesus might have taken to be crucified. A route made unlikely given that the city itself had been destroyed and rebuilt 3 times since he died. I saw a nun who was so beautiful, I couldn’t believe she was a nun and that she had to be an actress playing a nun. Or a very high class stripogram.

I saw the mount from which the dead will rise come the end of days, and I reeled at how much it costs to be buried there.

I walked all over various cities. I saw the most northerly gun emplacement and the much desired heights of Golan. I floated in the saltiest of salty seas. I saw walls; I saw protesters. I saw teenagers out on the town but still on national service duty so that they had with them a gun as big as they were.

I ate falafel; I stood in queues for nightclubs and saw lots and lots of writing that for a good while I was convinced was simply English written upside-down and backwards in an odd font. It’s not.

Hebrew alphabet
Hebrew alphabet
I experienced all this. And although I saw much to fascinate me anthropologically, I hadn’t had anything like a spiritual experience. I’d seen others have them, but not me. Until one day, just before the end of this trip.

I was wandering around Tel Aviv which isn’t a very spiritual town in itself, unless that’s how you feel about golden sands and girls in bikinis.

After a good long walk about the city, I rounded a corner and there was something that nearly made me drop to my knees. It was a sight that made me so overjoyed and also made me realise what it is I value in life. It was a big, well-stocked branch of Tower records.

It made me realise that the places that I went into religiously were record shops. And to find a branch of one of my favourites there was a real “aaaAAAaaa” moment.

I realised that music to me is the one thing that is like a religion in my life. It is mysterious and I feel passionate about it. I would go on pilgrimages to find obscure records. (Or at least I did before the internet made the obscure commonplace.)

I don’t remember what I bought there, but I know I did buy something. Back then, I never went into a record shop without buying something. They’re like my Ghurkha knives. (Once unsheathed, you have to draw blood.) I’m sure I would have bought something by a local band, possibly covering classic songs with a local flavour, but now it’s got lost in all the many, many other CDs from many, many other shops.

But what hasn’t been lost is that realisation that music, done right, has a more uplifting effect on me than pretty much anything. Comedy comes close, but comedy isn’t mysterious and unknown to me like music is. Comedy is more like my politics. Music is my religion.

And that was the spiritual message I brought back from Israel. That and the mental image of the hottest nun you’ve ever seen.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lego What!?!

Lego have long since realised that the market for their products is broad and diverse, but nothing highlights this more for me than this...

It's absolutely clear that no kid in his right mind is going to want to build a town hall. No way. Even for anyone under 57 this is going to be an odd choice unless they are a small-time evil genius with designs on town-domination. The only vaguely cool circumstance to buy and build a Lego town hall is if you have a huge aquarium and are recreating a post-environmental disaster scene. In fact the only people I really see as buying this are robbers who are planning a heist on a building that looks just like this. So I can only assume this is all part of a police sting operation, and people who buy it are automatically followed and suspected of criminal intent. If they have a huge aquarium, they can be assumed to be innocent, but anyone else is either a well-prepared robber or a low-achieving evil genius.

My only flaw in the plan is that any criminal planning a heist or take-over of a city district after an environmental apocalypse will fall through the net and will be free to carry out their dastardly scheme once civilisation as we know it has been all but destroyed. I fear for our future, sub-aquatic children

Monday, August 20, 2012

My new book published

Since my pimply youth, I've been writing. Long things, short things. True things, made-up things. Things with rhyme and things with reason. Lots of things, basically. So given that it's never been so easy to foist these things on a poor, unsuspecting public, I decided to take some choice pieces and bundle them up. The result is my first collection of short stories, entitled "Most Enigmatic Title and Other Stories." It's out now in Kindle format in a matter of hours, and other formats will follow soon. Exciting, huh?

And what's more, because you guys are awesome, for the three days (21-23 of August) it'll be absolutely free. So, please, go ahead and download it to your kindle or kindle-emulating app. Then, give it a five-star, glowing review. And then, if you have time, you can read it. Okay, you can juggle with the order there; I understand. And also the number of stars. But I'm basically hoping for some good positive reviews to help spread the word.

 Also, if you have facebook or a facebook-emulating app, you can like the book's page and share it with what I like to call your friends.

 Enough from me, here's the link to it on a couple of the Amazons.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Exeunt Pursued by 2 Bears

So if you ever wonder in a fight between you and a bald guy, whose side God would be on, you need check no further than the Bible, book "2 Kings," section 2, verses 23-24.
23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!”
24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
I think that makes it pretty clear.

 Source: El Bible (New International Version) via

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Music Industry

The Music Industry

People have asked me to explain the music business to them, here is an explanation as I best understand it.

All over the world, teenagers are putting the money their parents spent on piano lessons and/or computer equipment into making music. Some because they like the feeling of creating something with or without other people, and others because they want to be famous.

Some have a natural talent for it, others a strong belief in themselves, and some don’t care, they just want to be famous. Those with a natural talent but no belief in themselves, will probably end up just being hobbyists. Those with a natural talent, but belief will end up being bitter session musicians or worse stuck in a covers band. Those who want to be famous will probably end up being disappointed.

However, there is the chance of success. This depends on a number of factors: 1) Luck. 2) Persistence. 3) How attractive you are.

For good-looking, talented people, a break-through can be found by writing one catchy song. Even if your usual style isn’t for catchy songs, you will still need to do this once to get success. This of course, in the future, will lead to much bitterness when this song becomes the only thing people want to hear despite the fact it is unrepresentative of your work and generally very irritating to you.

For good-looking, untalented people, success can be found by hooking up with the right producer, befriending the right executive or marrying the record label boss.

None of this applies to geniuses. For geniuses, they still need luck and persistence, but they can get away with not being good looking. In fact if you are good looking, you will never be labelled a genius.

So what happens when success comes? Well, you go from working hard to get the right people to hear your songs, to working even harder as the record label tries to get the most out of you before your shelf-life expires.

Good-looking, talented people will get exhausting tours playing gigs to as many people as possible.

Good-looking, untalented people will get exhausting publicity tours, appearing on as many TV shows as possible.

There are many ways to measure success. Record companies prefer the measure called “record sales” as this is an indication of your profitability and is easily distorted. When a record makes it big, the band is said to have gone platinum. This is because at this point in a band's career, all their girlfriends (and boyfriends) are blond.

There are many ways to cash in on success. Some are listed here:
1)      Follow-up singles: these are songs released shortly after a huge hit that are very, very similar to the last hit in theme and sound.
2)      Remixes: Take the song, change the tune, up the volume of the low frequencies and add film sound-bites.
3)      Multi-Singles: Where the same song is released in several formats. E.g.: Single Version (featuring 2 songs that were not good enough for the album), Bonus Live Single (features the original song and 2 ‘live’ tracks which are other songs from the album with cheering dubbed onto them); 12” DJ Remix (the same song doubled in length, plus 2 other versions also twice as long but with all nuances removed); Japanese Import (exactly the same as the Single Version but with a different picture and a little piece of card on one end with Japanese writing on it. Costs four times as much as the original Single Version).

So, what happens next? All bands have a shelf-life. The clever ones split at their peak, but most carry on for much longer than is necessary. There are 4 basic types of band / singing careers:
1)      One-hit Wonder: you have one hit and can never follow it up. Eventually you return to whatever job you did before to be reflecting or bitter as is your wont. You will be asked from time-to-time to do interviews if the song was particularly memorable.
2)      Right-Here, Right-Now: You are immensely popular for a brief period. A lot of money is made (hopefully by you, but usually not) but 2 years later you seem dated and people can even remember the names of One-hit Wonders before they recall you. Wise investment can lead to a happily-ever-after. More normal is some form of addiction.
3)      Medium Career: This is when you manage to sustain a good long career of even up to a decade before you fade out, retire, come back, retire, die and have another hit single.
4)      Long Career: A long career will span decades. There are two forms of this:
a.       In and Out: You accept that you will have many years where you are considered passed it or uncool, but keep at it, after a certain period it will be decided you are in fact cool again or just the right sort of kitsch / retro.
b.      Constantly Changing: Every few years you develop a completely new look / sound / face.


Pretty much every path in the music industry leads to bitterness, some of them lead to a lot of money, but most don’t. If you don’t care so much about the music, but are pretty, lucky, persistent and prepared to do anything for fame – particularly if you a penchant for well-fed, middle-aged men in pony-tails – you have a chance of becoming a One-hit Wonder or even Right-Here, Right-Now. If you are a bit smart, you can go on a bit longer but you have to remember you are at the whim of fickle teenagers and middle-aged men desperately trying to please fickle teenagers. But if you stick with it with blind persistence, these teenagers will become middle-aged and happily spend €150 on a ticket to see you from ¼ mile away.

[Originally written in 2006]

Monday, July 02, 2012

Football vs Shoes

After a tense month of country squaring up to country, passions enflamed by old rivalries and a need to restore national pride in these ailing times, Europe is getting back to normal. Obviously I'm talking about the football (that's "soccer" in the pidgin of North American.)

And when I say, "getting back to normal," I mean except for those people who understand the appeal of tennis or link their country's worth based on getting gold medal in synchronised swimming or stick throwing.

It's fair to say synchronised swimming doesn't enflame the passions like football does.

Football tends to divide people into two camps.

There are some for whom as soon as the championship starts, they dress up in extra large versions of their team's uniform, they paint their face like a flag and wake up chanting "Olay olay-olay-olay!" or something equally meaningful.

All of which shows people can be proud of where they come from and/or the country that has given them somewhere to live.
Greek Tragedy. Source:

At the other end of the spectrum, you have people who say. "It's only football." "It's just 22 overpaid men, who love themselves a little bit too much, kicking some air wrapped in leather up and down what could be a perfectly good car park."

All of which are fair points. I've been told, during halftime, Cristiano Ronaldo has his hair styled. This may or may not be true, but doesn't seem ridiculous.

However these people will always let themselves down by having something they, themselves, irrationally get over excited about. Often it's shoes.
Shoes of the type people wear on their feet. Source: flickr/uggboy/ 

They see a new picture of a pair of shoes on the internet, designed by Jimmy Shoes or Patrick Socks or Christian Leggings (or one of those fellers), and they scream, "Oh my god Oh my god Oh my god! A new type of shoe! Olaaaaay!"

Failing to get the irony that "they're only shoes." They are small strips of leather you stretch over your feet to help protect them. Designed by an overpaid fetishist and made by scared, starving children.

My favourite sight during the world cup is often seen in bars showing an England match. There'll be at least one big, big guy. He'll be wearing the largest official top they sell, that comes to half-way down his belly. He'll have a huge beer in one hand and some sort of meaty, fried snack in the other. He'll be breathing heavily from standing up for 20 minutes and he'll be shouting at the screen at a player who has run the whole length of the pitch only to lose the ball to two very aggressively determined defenders, "Get off! Get off the pitch! You're unfit!" Right.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

'Til Boredom Do Us Part

One of the surprising things about the Dutch civil wedding ceremony is it's choice of words for the vows. Where I'm from, and where Cath's from, the marriage vows last "'til death do us part." The only way out is in a box.

The Dutch vows apply "for as long as you love and respect each other in this relationship." It took us aback when we heard it. However, it is a bit more realistic. And has the added benefit of not putting the fear of God in you.

The problem is, now I worry that the marriage will end without us wanting it to? Does it automatically dissolve if we stop loving and/or respecting each other? What happens on those days when you wake up annoyed after a poor nights sleep or during an argument? What happens when you do not, for a moment, feel that love or feel that respect? Is it over? In many ways this is even more of a worry than "'til death do us part." Because with "'til death do us part" it's only a problem when the marriage is not going well, but "for as long as you love and respect each other in this relationship" means as long as you want the relationship to continue, you have to be on your toes. You can't let that love slip or that respect slide. That may well be the effect they were after.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Going, Going, Gone to the Chapel

So I tied the knot. Got hitched. Clasped on the old ball and chain. Said goodbye to the single life. Threw away the little, black book. In short, I got married.

Many friends who have known me a long time have mentioned things I may have said some time in the past to the effect that in no way would I ever tie the knot, get hitched, etc. Well, I probably said something similar about Motown and muesli. It's fair to say some of my views have mellowed.

Our original plan was to tie the knot in a simple, cheap ceremony with only a couple of witnesses and a member of the local council trained in performing the relevant ceremony. But the best-laid plans o' well-laid mice often go quite agley. But ours went agley in the best possible way.

Firstly, you should know the Dutch allow keen but poor people to get hitched free of charge. Albeit on a Wednesday morning at 9 am and in the offices of the local council. You don't quite have to take a number and queue, but it isn't, on the surface, much more romantic.

Secondly, my parent's decided they would like to be there to finally absolve their responsibility for me. This meant the whole organisation needed stepping up a bit. Catherine spent a long time finding a dress that was suitable yet multipurpose and in her size; and I had to iron a shirt.

So, we had a small, efficient ceremony, attended by 4 witnesses, my parents and our official filmmaker. The registrar (or woman from the council) kindly did the whole thing in English so my parent's could follow and we could say, "I do." The Dutch equivalent is "Ja," which has the disadvantage of being such an everyday expression that it's hard to say with any true meaning. I have heard a "Ja" delivered with crippling sarcasm, but not during a wedding ceremony.

After the ceremony, we reconvened at our flat to celebrate with the cats and then threw the house open to a select few of our friends. Selected until we knew the house would be full, rather than to include everyone we would have liked, which would have filled most of the flats in the building.

We stopped inviting people not because we ran out of people we liked sufficiently, but because we realised we had reached the limits of our flat. But those we could invite and who could make it filled our place and made the whole day something much more special than we had ever planned. Seriously, you want to find out how awesome your friends are, get married.

Our flat thronged with friends, neighbours and their kids. In fact I'm sure the flat has never had so many children in it. I counted 7. They outnumbered the cats, and so it was apt that on the day when I did the thing I said I never would do, the things I said I'd never own and the things I said I'd never produce would square up and fight for territory. The cats, of course, won, because the cat's owners didn't have to leave.

After a few hours of fun, conversation, good company, bubbly alcohol and a splendid cake, the bride and groom were alone (apart from the cats) and performed their first act as a married couple. They went to Blokker to buy household wares. Who says I'm a changed man?