Monday, June 29, 2015

Travel: Finny Dipping (Tampere, Finland, Summer 2013, part 2)

[The write-up for the first part of this trip is here.]

Warning: This story contains full frontal nudity.

The thing I really had difficulty adjusting to in Finland was the length of the days. Finland is north. Quite far north. In the summer, when I was there, it never really gets dark. It gets toward twilight until about 1am, and then it starts getting lighter again. The first night I woke up every hour expecting it to be morning already.

The following night I got out my emergency eye mask and slept a whole lot better, but would have been easy pickins for any assassins.

In winter it’s the opposite and barely gets light. Those long winters have the tendency to turn the good folk of Finland into Goths. I’ve never seen so many Metalheads, Goths and Emos in bright sunlight as I did that week. Over the summer, every weekend there is a music festival in Finland, and every single one seems to be Death Metal festival. I imagine every weekend, the average Finn throws off the work clothes, Goths up and spends the two free days in a field listening to the delicate strains of bands such as Deathbound, Torture Killer, and Impaled Nazarene.

Famous Finnish folk song.

I was in Finland for a festival. Not a death metal festival. My death metal days are so long ago and so dead, there are probably a dozen death metals songs about them. No, I was in Finland for an improvised comedy festival. For more information about my improv antics you can see the blog dedicated to that.

On the last night there was a party. It was the thing I feared the most. Okay I’m not afraid of parties, in fact quite the reverse. However this one was at a sauna.

I’m not a sauna person. I find them stiflingly hot and can never stay in for long. Plus the fact that the Finns sauna as God intended – i.e. as naked as the day he kicked us out of our mothers’ wombs – makes them especially unenticing.

For those of you who haven’t experienced it, which is most of you, naked I look like a frayed piece of string. Pale, fuzzy with sporadic bits flailing off. Although these days the string has a slight bulge in the middle like it’s a worm digesting a bead.

I don’t really have body issues, but I think people who have to encounter my body will have issues, so I try to keep it covered up. It remains quite covered up even when the sun is out because I can go from white to lobster-red in exactly no time at all.

The Finns have a system for saunaing (check this is the correct form of the verb). They boil their skin in the hot room for an allotted amount of time and then they jump in a frozen lake. Some of the real keen ones then birch themselves with bits of tree.

Well, I did that. All of that. I did it in the reverse order.

So that party was not as I had feared taking place inside the sauna, it was just that there was a sauna in the party location, which took some time to get to the lobster-boiling temperatures the Finns like. At some point someone rushed in and said there was a lake a short walk away. A party full of drunk improvisers, is going to find a lot of people who say “yes” to the craziest of suggestions, and so before we realised it, a group of us were heading down towards the lake with the intention to jump in.

So on the way to the lake, through the trees, someone pushed a branch aside that thwacked me in the face. I didn’t realise it then, but that was the start of the Reversed Finnish Sauna Ritual. I’d been birched.

There is a sting after a twig thwacks you across the flesh, but after that sting is the feint pleasure of relief as the pain ebbs away.

When we got to the lake, we threw off the raiments of mortal men and jumped. This act was dubbed Finny Dipping by international improv playboy Jstar Atlanta.

It was damn cold as you’d expect, but when you’re with a group of people all doing the same, you share that suffering. I was determined to not tough it out. I grimaced and watched as other people left the water until I realised the Finns were still in the water, and not only enduring it, but loving it. They were frolicking and splashing each other. It was time to leave. I was, however the last non-Finn to do so, so there.

When you get out of the water, the relief is amazing. It feels so good that the freezing water is no longer surrounding your lower parts.

People of the Lake. This is 1 am.

When we got back to the party, the sauna was at full furnace. Several Finns tried to convince me to get in. I told them it was not my thing. “I have been in a sauna before.” “A Finnish sauna?” “Well, no…” That was it. I could not convince anyone after than I knew what it was like because a Finnish sauna is different to other saunas. I assume the same way that a French firing squad, for example, is different to a firing squad from any other country. There is a clear difference to students of the whole firing squad ethos, but to the person being pointed at by all those guns, the difference is not apparent.

So I was convinced. I debriefed once more and got in. Yes it was hot. Way hotter than any sauna I’d been in before. The Finns like it hot. It explains that old classic movie, “Suomi Like It Hot.”

As soon as I was in, someone said, “okay, nobody leave for 10 minutes. It’s not warm enough.” NOT WARM ENOUGH!! It was the temperature of an angry sun in there.

But, I held out; I did my time and even went back for a little more, later.

Now, the feeling you get getting out of the steaming room into the (relatively) cool air is amazing. That relief is pure joy.

Finnish pleasure seems to be all about experiencing the extreme and then the pleasure you get from leaving it. I began to think that maybe the Finns don’t really like death metal. They go every weekend to a festival and listen to it for 3 days and then when the come back, put on the radio and listen to some cheery, cheesy Scandinavian pop it feels AMAZING.

The antidote to Death Metal?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Train of Thrones

Brussels isn’t really that far from Amsterdam. It’s an hour and a half on the fast train, and 3 hours on the cheap one which seems to stop at every farm on the way. In fact if a cow stands still near to the track, the train slows down in case it has a ticket.

Thalys is the service which runs the fast train. It’s French, so the ‘h’ is only hinted at or mimed and so it sounds like Talece, who I am sure was a character on Game of Thrones. The logo seems to be deliberately sphynx-like.

Thalys seems to massively oversell its tickets so much so that you can pay all that extra cash for the fast train and end up with no where to sit. The only warning you get about this is after they have taken your money. They add matter-of-factly, "oh, by the way you don't have a seat. Bummer." (I'm paraphrasing.) And I wasn’t alone. The train was full of people with refugee status. People who have to move on every time someone appears with a ticket for the seat they are in. They are made to feel like third class citizens in a second class carriage.

Why they have to be so duplicitous about it I don't know. Tell me before hand, maybe offer refugee tickets for a much cheaper price. But don't charge me full whack and do the internet equivalent of muttering under their breath.

It makes me wonder what sort of people ride the Thalys. Well, the answer is short people. The seats on Thalys trains all have foot rests in front of them, attached to the back of the chairs. Down, they reach half-way to the floor, and so are of no use to anyone over 4 foot. This would be fine, because the leg rest folds up out of the way. Except that it doesn’t fold up out of the way, it folds up but sticks out. It’s not in the way for short people, but tall people, such as myself, will have the this thing digging in their upper shins for 90 minutes. Or they can put it down and put their feet on it, but then have their knees in their face.

I don’t know who Talece was in Game of Thrones, but she is almost certainly a dwarf, hobbit or orc and, statistically, she was definitely killed of at least a season ago.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Great British Game Shows

The person who finds the next big game show format will be rewarded with great wealth and much public derision. Accepting that there will be derision allows you to dispense with shame and allow yourself to be inspired wherever you are. At some time, one keen production company bod was on holiday on the British coast and came up with Tipping Point. Tipping Point is a game show based on those annoying coin machines at seaside arcade; the ones when you drop coins onto moving shelves hoping to displace even more coins than you put in. It’s all made exciting by the soundtrack from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” which is a show based on an old Abbott and Costello routine.

Other popular British game shows are Deal Or No Deal (which is the dramatisation of those logic problems where you have to work out which is the best choice in a highly contrived situation), Pointless (which celebrates the knowledge of stuff everyone else has forgotten), and Countdown (which is officially the politest TV show ever, with a please-thank-you-to-minute ration higher than any other probably because the audience base was born in the 1940s).

So, I’m creative, I’m sure I can come up with a game show. Here’s my list of formats I’m working on:
  • Gin Rummy
  • Golf War
  • The Great Psychaedelic Cheesecake Badger Horse Challenge
  • To Bee or Not To Bee
  • Rape or Pillage

Look out one for these soon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Career Plan 9 From Outer Space

You have to feel a bit sorry for this guy. Gregory Walcott, who died recently at 87, was an actor who is pretty much only known for his role in the so-called worst movie of all time.

Walcott was in a few other movies, some of which you’ll (also) have heard of, and worked with some top directors, but on his way up, he reluctantly took one job that was to haunt him for the rest of his days. Normally when that happens the movie in question is porn or nazi propaganda or, worse still, both. But in this case it was neither, it was just another B-movie. Tons of such cheaply-put-together movies were made during the fifties. They still are being made to some extent. These are what used to be straight-to-DVD. Now they are probably straight-to-YouTube.

This is definitely a classic of the genre of terrible B-Movie. It is poorly written, badly acted, its production values are definitely shoddy, and it was made on the kind of budget you find down the back of a sofa. But what sets it a little bit apart is that it was the last movie of Bela Lugosi, who went from a top actor and heartthrob in Hungary to being king of terrible, cheap movies. In fact, this film is quite special in that Bela Lugosi was billed as the star even though he was dead before it came to be made. In fact the the movie was made around some footage shot for a different project before he died.

But let’s be honest, this isn’t really the worst movie ever made. It might be the most entertaining bad movie ever made, but there are worse movies. Basically because it isn’t boring. It has a zeal, which is one of the reasons it’s badness shines. It’s zeal comes because the director considered he was making a great epic picture. So much so, that the details of things such as wobbly sets and unconvincing dialogue could be glossed over. The greatness of the story is all.

There are movies I have switched off after no time at all because they are boring, I care about nobody and there is no entertainment value whatsoever. These terrible movies can still have high production values.

What is different about Gregory Walcott, is that it seems that most of the stars of an Ed Wood movie were on the way down on their career trajectory, but he was on his way up.

I think it’s a big fear for many performers to be remembered for the one thing you are not proud of. You see it often with musicians who are haunted by a big cheesy hit that is misrepresentative of them as performers. It haunts them. People demand they play it whenever they perform live. It’s the song that brings them the most riches, yet they resent it more and more each year.

Gregory Walcott certainly didn’t get rich from being in Plan 9 From Outer Space. He was talked into doing it and presumed it would disappear like so many other such movies. But it hasn’t. And it probably won’t. It’s one of my favourite movies in one of my favourite genres. Bad, 50s sci-fi B-movies were the movies I would sneak up late at night to watch, back in the days when you had to watch stuff when it was broadcast. Later I’d video them. Nowadays, I just search on YouTube - most of them are there.

I think the lesson here might be to be careful which projects you hang your name on, but that’s not always so easy to know. There are plenty of movies that looked like they would be great on paper, but the results were anything other. And any of those could become infamous. No, the lesson is more like, as Mr Walcott also acknowledged, that you have to be prepared that sometimes things outside of your control can take on a life of their own. You can only accept it. It’s a lesson the also recently departed Leonard Nimoy learnt over time with regarding his forever being identified as Spock. And at least the idolatry of Spock is nearly all positive; Plan 9 From Outer Space will not easily be beaten as the worlds most entertaining bad movie.

Anyway that’s what I think happened. In the words of Criswell, Plan 9’s narrator and psychic, “Can you prove it didn’t happen?” Yes, you probably can.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Travel Sweden Feb 2015 part 2: More on Uppsala and Television

It used to be, in the old days, you wouldn't leave the hotel for fear of hostile natives. Now you don't leave the hotel because you don't want to lose wifi. It's called progress. 
Uppsala is a small town dominated by a university and a cathedral.

University building: 4 people in this picture are statues.
Maths ball on top of university building.
Whilst the cathedral is big and impressive, the university has many buildings and some are quite intriguing. I’m not sure if the university and the cathedral have some sort of rivalry. It’s easy to imagine they do as they kind of represent opposing forces. Although they are both about receiving knowledge, how this knowledge is discovered is wildly different.
Something pink poking out of the undergrowth.
Also competing for dominance of the town is a large castle (or slott, as the very satisfying Swedish word for it is). It sits on a hill and tries to look all buff, but it's a bit too pink and phallic to be taken seriously. And not phallic in an imposing way, more of a comical way. It’s possibly a bit too short and squat to really do that dominance thing. How the castle really exerts is authority is by having six old cannons all trained on the church. It clearly isn’t worried about the university.
"Your move, God!"

Uppsala also has some theatres. But its rare for a city’s theatres to be the dominant force. The theatre I was there to play in (see my impro blog later for more details) was the Regina Theatre which is apparently famous (in part) because a well-known actor once died on stage there. I had always thought given the general state and intensity of most actors, that every stage everywhere had had some actor of note keel over on it at some point. Maybe it happens less than I expect. (As ever, Wikipedia already has a list of these things)

This relationship is clearly not working.
I think it seems a big thing for me because some big names in comedy history from my own country have died on stage or in front of the camera. Most notably Sid James, Tommy Cooper and Marty Feldman. If you don’t know who they are then I don’t know what they are teaching in schools these days.
Early attempt to create android.
From the theatre, one moves easily up or down (depending on your leanings) to the television. Sweden is like the Netherlands in that all foreign shows are subtitled rather than dubbed. It’s probably one of the reasons why Swedes speak English more good that what many of us does.

Every country has TV gems in the department of “what the hairy Jesus was that?” Sweden is no exception. The gem here is “Hasselhoff - en svensk talkshow.” If any of those words need translating, it’s “svensk” which means Swedish. If you need Hasselhoff translating, you have not been paying attention at all in celebrity culture classes, which is not necessarily a bad thing. So this show is exactly what you are thinking it is: a talk show on Swedish television hosted by David Hasselhoff. Now it sounds on paper like it could be a fun, kitsch idea, and its clear that this is what it’s meant to be. Unfortunately with its painfully flat jokes, lame pranks and just all around feeling of awkwardness, it’s not fun. At least based on the half a show I saw. Watch it here:

Not to suggest the Swedes are obsessed with kitch (as it’s me who’s pointing these things out and so that is probably where the problem lies) but the big thing on TV the weekend I was there was the Eurovision Song Contest heats. One of a series of 4 heats to determine which of the nation’s musical talents would go to represent them at the Eurovision Song Contest proper.

The Swedes are almost Eastern European in their appreciation of this event. Even for the heats, there were groups of people walking around town dressed up like British hen parties because they were on their way to a Eurovision party.

In the heat I saw, there was a broad selection: an old-style crooner; a young guy who sang country-infused guitar pop; a singer from the world of musicals; a nightclub soul singer;  a loud, blond woman who sang over the top of some 90s dance track; a band of cheeky, fresh-faced boys; and a man so obsessed with the 80s he could have been the very ghost of Limahl.

Some of them went through to the next round and one of them may have even won and can be seen at the Eurovision final. But as with football and porn, if it’s not happening right there in front of me, I really don’t care.

In case you think Sweden is kitsch and behind the times,
here is a poster I found in the theatre.
Now, I should really get out of this hotel.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Travel: Sweden Feb 2015 part 1: Where did you land? Arlanda in Sweden (and other Marx Brothers routines)

Stockholm's Arlanda airport is located amidst what appears to be a wasteland. Or perhaps any part of the airport land not directly used for airport business is basically neglected or worse still, dumped upon.
The airport is very biased towards people going to Stockholm. Even though it's closer to other places, such as Uppsala which is where I was heading. There are 3 ticket machines in the baggage claim hall of terminal 2, all of which sell tickets to Stockholm and no place else.
In fact it was only recently that you could get the train direct to Uppsala without first going to Stockholm, even though the former is a 3rd of the distance of the latter. It's called Stockholm Syndrome where a piece of land appropriated from one region becomes besotted with the area that appropriated it.

I took the bus to Uppsala. It takes as long as the slow train does to Stockholm, but it goes overground so you can see more trees than you ever thought possible to see in one day. It's also cheaper. It's expensive by worldwide standards, but cheaper than the train. From now on I will only use the comparatives "cheaper than" and "more expensive than." Assume everything is expensive in a general sense unless told otherwise.
Between the trees there are the occasional areas of industrial interest or green fields where crops of old style farmhouses have been planted. Sometimes a few houses pack together to protect themselves from wind and wolves.
There are patches of snow dotted about which I assume aren't permanent, but maybe that are.

The bus calls in at Uppsala Business Park on its way, which is another reason I like buses. They don't skirt the everyday parts of town where tourists don't go or put a gloss on it. Bus journeys of more than 20 minutes seldom leave you with the impression that a town is entirely quaint. Unless that's all a town is, in which case it survives on tourism and crime alone.
The centre of Uppsala is definitely attractive. It's wide but low old buildings and spacious streets give the impression of space. (Space, as in room to move rather than the place where the stars are. And by which I don't mean Hollywood. )
Architectural students will tell you lots about the types and styles of buildings you can see there, all I can say is "nice," and "they make pleasant things to walk around amongst." But I say the same thing about trees and vintage aircraft. Except that 15-year-old me could name every single one of those aircraft. 15-year-old me wasn't the hit with the girls you would have expected.

From memory of a glimpse of Google maps, I managed to find the hostel which impressed me. Uppsala was already easier to find your way around than the airport. I presume the airport takes after Stockholm rather than its closer neighbour (see earlier paragraph). I don't know yet as I haven't been to Stockholm. I'll hopefully let you know later.
The hostel is quite large for a hostel and definitely cheaper than Swedish hotels. But there are places in the world where the comparison between Swedish hostels and local hotels is not so favourable.
The beds in the hostel are some of the narrowest I've encountered. I think it's to stop the old backpacker trick of booking a single room and trying to sleep 2 (or more) people in it. They had better be supermodel thin and not mind waking up with foreign limbs in alien places.
With the rooms so sparse and the bed so small and basic, I knew if I stayed there too long without going out and seeing people, I'd start to love it there in that room and never want to leave. Because that's how Stockholm Syndrome works. Even in Uppsala.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Less of a Bite

Two days ago, a very polite older gentleman and his lovely assistant performed a conjuring trick in my mouth. They made 2 of my teeth disappear. By the power of magic. Well perhaps not magic. More by the power of pulling, sawing, cracking, pulling, sawing, cracking, pulling, pulling and more pulling.

The magic comes, I guess, from how tiny the tools are. Little,  mini drills and super-small saws. Well they seem small when you look at them. When you only sense them when they are in your mouth, with your eyes tightly shut to keep out the thought of pain, they feel huge. They are then like an enormous road drill with hammer action and a massive chain saw. And that suction thing is like a giant pipe connected to an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner. You wonder how all that can fit in your mouth. Then I recall my mouth isn’t the smallest on record. I come from Dartford, birthplace of Mick Jagger, it might be genetic. A drunk friend once told me it looked like I had a flip-top head. I still to this day have not thanked her. Or fully forgiven her.

The two teeth I had removed were wisdom teeth. These are the useless teeth at the back that exist only to be pulled out once you hit 35. I don't know if they are named because like wisdom itself you don't really know if you have it until it is too late. Or maybe they are named after Norman Wisdom, a British actor who played bumbling, ineffective characters who caused nothing but pain to those all around him. But most likely is that “wis” is the sound a tiny circular saw looming large in your mouth and the “dom” is the sudden sound a tooth makes when it’s cracked in two after being sawed most of the way through. It’s a crisp, nut-cracking sound that echoes throughout the dome of your mouth.

I’m now on some pretty strong, hippo-strength painkillers, so mostly my mouth is numb. It’s a good time for me to go and pick a fight, I reckon. Still get beaten, but won’t feel much. That is until the painkillers wear off.

I’ve been spending the time watching old videos of magicians. Now I know how they work, I’m looking to see that moment when David Copperfield, somehow without us seeing, pulled and sawed and cracked and pulled and sawed and cracked and pulled and pulled and pulled until the Statue of Liberty was nothing but a gaping hole in the gums of New York.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy New Year (contents may be different to those advertised)

Many of you might have read my diatribe against the Christmas song. I spent Christmas in the United Kingdom (which is barely united these days and actually a queendom, but whatever). I was confronted by plenty of Christmas songs during this trip. The UK (or 'U'Q as it should be called) is somewhat obsessed with Christmas songs. As a conglomerate of countries, we lap them up. I always assumed the US gets more obsessed with Christmas than we do, but in terms of the songs about the season, the UK is barely short of insane.

Every artists is compelled (possibly by law, I haven't checked) to release a Christmas song (or even album). It is, after all, the spiritual home of Sir Cliff Richard, the so-called Peter Pan/Dorian Gray of pop. A performer so apparently wholesome he could be called the Anti-Ozzy.

Cliff's last album was a croc.
There are some bands in the 'U'Q who find their career leads them down a path where they become known as Christmas bands and people forget anything they do or did that was not Christmas related. The archetype here is Slade, who are now only known for their Christmas hits, despite a previously extensive career outside of December. But then the step from big-chorused, glitter-fuelled glam rock to sing-along, tinsel-covered Christmas pop is not a big one.

So growing up, I heard a lot of these festive songs and learned to despise their near-manic cheerfulness. It doesn't help that my mum loves them all, especially if they are by the aforementioned Mr Richard, and loved to play them constantly in the run-up to the day itself.

Slade are not ashamed of their Christmas band status.
Not even slightly. Youcan try to make them ashamed
but they won't hear of it.

I missed Christmas Eve in the office, but apparently the office manager played Christmas songs all day. It's hearing things like that that make you realise why so many people go berserk in the workplace taking out a few colleagues with them. It was especially prevalent in the US post office, hence the expression "going postal" to mean to take a gun into work and decorate the place with your colleagues' innards. When you are delivering packages all year round it must feel like every day is Christmas, so you can understand it.

I was, however, in the office for New Year's Eve, and as a treat, the office manager promised to play New Year's songs for the last 2 hours of the workday. I was not looking forward to it.

I had assumed New Year's songs are like Christmas songs, although none came to mind. I spent the day trying to only think about work and secretly polishing my M16 assault rifle.

But I needn't have worried. New Year's songs are not the relentlessly chirpy songs that Christmas brings, they are an altogether different breed. They are far from chirpy, they are depressing. Which is great. I love depressing songs. Nothing makes me happier than a song about impending planetary doom or not getting over the fling from 17 years ago.

New Year's songs have lyrics like "So this is the new year / And I have no resolutions / For self assigned penance / For problems with easy solutions" – Death Cab For Cutie ("The New Year") and "What's another year for someone who's lost everything that he owns " - Johnny Logan ("What's another year"). Awesome.

Even Auld Lang Syne, the song traditionally sung at New Year's, especially in the UK, is basically a song remembering how great things use to be. In fact, the original poem by Robert Burns is about old love gone very cold. Remember that then 2015 decides to sod off and leave you all alone  in about a years time.

Abba did so much work in the 1970s to make people
aware of the plight of turkeys at Christmas time.
"But, hang on," people usually blurt out at this point in my rant, "what about 'Happy New Year,' by Abba." Well it certainly sounds like an upbeat song, but it isn't really. If Abba are the kings and queens of anything it might be making bouncy songs out of less than upbeat themes. For a classic example see "Waterloo" which is a very bouncy song but is basically equating love to one of the most famous battlefield defeats in European history.

Likewise, I defy you to get hold of the lyrics to "Happy New Year" (they're here), read them aloud as if it were a poem and tell me that is a happy song. For a highlight see: "Seems to me now / That the dreams we had before / Are all dead, nothing more / Than confetti on the floor."

So, in summary, this last month, I have learnt (a) of the existence of the genre of New Year's songs, (b) M16s are a lot heavier than they seem in the movies, and (c) I might have a secret soft spot for Abba.

The culmination of this paean has to be some classic Scandinavian on Scandinavian action, perfectly illustrating why Abba's lyrics are often simply in the wrong genre

So, anyway, Happy New Year! And you can take that any way you want.

PS as a bonus, here's the first draft of my New Year's song...

As the rockets shoot up,
My heart shoots down.
There are 20,000 people,
but you're not around.

Its the end of the year.
Another year without you.

There's a Chinese lantern,
Caught by the breeze,
Lost in the sky,
A dying light in the freeze.

Its the end of the year.
Another year without you.

And although I made up my mind,
This would be the year,
The year I'd pull through.
When you wish upon a million exploding stars,
There's no chance,
That any of your wishes will come true.

Its the end of the year.
A send off with a cheer
But it's the start of a year...
Another year without you.