Archive for the ‘Silliness’ Category

Wolves of London: Finding The Actual One

January 31, 2016

isysuttiePossibly the best TV comedy of the new century, Peep Show, ended last month. It was a bittersweet experience as a TV fan as I had followed the show from its first episode in 2003 – had grown up with Mark and Jez. In the last series you tend to lose sympathy for the El Dude brothers – as Robert Webb said: ‘It was a show about two young men sharing a flat and it’s become two middle-aged men sharing a flat, which is a different level of sadness. I think it was getting too sad.’ The madcap romantic-stalking schemes and defiant slackerism has a different edge. Always a reactionary outsider, Mark at this point comes off as a toxic individual who messes with people’s lives for personal gain. But at the end of the series his plans come to nothing and he sits in the ruins of another party with Jez on a nearby sofa going ‘I’m so tired’. Turning on the TV, Mark sees a feature about the reintroduction of wolves to Britain – yet another sign that the world is going to hell. ‘What next? Bring back smallpox? We all had fun with the smallpox, didn’t we? Is it time smallpox had a reboot?’ The show ends with an ominous wolf howl.

All this sounds like a roundabout way of talking about Isy Suttie‘s book. Sure, the comedian was in Peep Show and in the book she even repeats one of the show’s classic lines – ‘men with ven’ (plural for ‘man with van’). But it has a similar theme – the difficulty in staying young forever. You stop thinking in academic years and start thinking in financial years. Party shots fall off your newsfeed, and are replaced with endless pictures of misshapen-looking babies. Couples move out of the shared house and buy homes in charmless suburbs that their children will spend an adolescence trying to escape. When Isy Suttie’s best friends decide to get a mortgage and a family, she makes a bet that she will find a life partner – the Actual One – within a month.

That’s the premise, at least – the narrative itself is mainly a bunch of anecdotes loosely strung together, reminding me of Richard Herring’s Warming Up blogs, an exercise where you just start writing to get the creative brain in gear, drill down into any observational material and pummel concepts to death. It’s not a bad way to write, and Suttie makes it work – waiting at a GUM clinic, she sees some rowdy lads in their twenties: ‘It was like a youth club where one of them might have to inconveniently pop off and have his dick looked at in a moment, but soon he’d be back to merrily pelt Minstrels at a leaflet stand.’

In the book, she has just got out of a relationship with a man so insensitive he forgets, within days, about the giant papier-mâché penguin Suttie builds for him. She adds ruefully: ‘As it turns out, if you decide to make a papier-mâché penguin for your partner to try and save your relationship, the raw materials will cost approximately £180, and the reaction will be vague.’ Later she goes out with a man she meets at a party in Dalston who lives on a boat and speaks entirely in rhyme: ‘My name’s Joe, I live on a barge, you guys look like you like it large!’ There’s not a lot of dating and romance in here though – Suttie breaks off mid way through these encounters to tell a long anecdote from her childhood or student days.

More interesting are her memories of struggling to make it as a comedian and musician straight out of drama school. Doing the Edinburgh Festival on no money and no profile, travelling hundreds of miles for a few moments’ exposure, getting wrecked until 5am with squaddies in a Portsmouth drinking basement – these are fantastic passages and the book could have done with more material about making it in a classically male dominated world. The Actual One is funny, wise, discursive, even twee in places, but the howl of the wolf echoes through it none the less.



Fun with Tumblr

August 11, 2015

As part of an ongoing effort to get myself at least into the early 2010s I have set up a tumblr page. It’s based on the often bizarre promo emails from self and indie publishers that I get asking me to review various surreal titles.

The link is here, I hope you enjoy it, I hope also to update it as more emails come in (currently around a half dozen weekly): if you are a reviewer who also gets sent crazy spam promo review emails, please feel free to submit your own posts.

Watching Too Much Television

February 1, 2015

One of the quirks of contemporary journalism is to take an innocuous cultural detail and use it as a hook to explore deeper issues. For example, scrolling through the Guardian ‘Comment Is Free’ site I find articles like ‘What the vaginal steam tells us about Western civilisation’ ‘Why HP sauce is a product of rapacious Western imperialism’ ‘Why Sport England is a product of evil Western neoliberalism’ and – a classic from the NS – ‘Why Movember is gender normative and racist’.

As one of my new year’s resolutions this year was to revive this blog, I thought I would emulate the winning CiF formula and have a look at daytime TV, in the hope that, in writing about seemingly insignificant reality shows I will gain insights into modern society and the human condition.

Come Dine With Me – I used to think this was the ultimate mediocre TV show. I used to say that this would be the show that was on a loop in purgatory. I used to say that, when Tony Soprano goes to purgatory after being shot by his uncle, he should have to watch the entire series run of Come Dine With Me in the hotel bar to atone for his evil deeds.

However, after having seen a few more episodes, I’m starting to really like the show. You probably know the format – bunch of random people have to cook dinner for each other, alternating between host and houses – and, as well as exploring the British obsession with the rituals of food (such preparation and drama to create something that takes maybe fifteen minutes to eat!) works as a gentle satire on bourgeois manners and rules, in the spirit of Flaubert or Jonathan Franzen.

Even the celebrity editions are good. There was a Come Dine With Me featuring Christopher Biggins who absolutely stole the show, making a series of amusing egg-related puns when host Edwina Currie served dinner (‘egg-zactly’, ‘en-ouef,’ etc) and the other guests, despite clearly having no idea who he was, were genuinely blown away by his warmth and charm. If I ever have an ‘ideal dinner party’ Biggins will definitely make the guest list.

Four In A Bed – Now this is the show that is on a loop in purgatory. In fact it’s on a loop in hell itself. After all my diligent TV watching Four In A Bed is the one programme that I just ‘don’t get’. It’s basically Come Dine With Me but with all the humour and good spirit carefully removed.

The show works like this. Producers select random people who own B + Bs. They then have to stay in each other’s B + Bs and rate the service. Guests are able to pay the full price, or more, or less, depending on their opinion of their experiences at the particular hotel. The pivotal scenes are where guests sit down with the hotel owner and explain why they chose to pay less, or more, than the price charged.

You don’t have to be Adam Smith to realise that a) people will generally find something to complain about and b) people aren’t going to pay full whack for something when they can get the same thing for less or nothing at all. Because of this Four In A Bed consists mainly of long, bitter arguments about aspects of a hotel’s service – food, décor, bed linen, plumbing, etc – and because small business people tend to be quite negative anyway this makes for a thoroughly depressing viewing experience. It is like being locked in a room with the kind of people who write regular and one-star reviews on TripAdvisor.

Two other things about Four In A Bed that annoy me. In keeping with the creepy pre-Yewtree tradition of introducing risqué humour into absolutely everything, the show’s title functions as a double entendre even though the show itself is on in the daytime and has absolutely nothing to do with sex or sexuality. Also, there is a chirpy incidental music track that plays continuously and after awhile makes you feel like your brain is trickling out of your ears.

Extreme Couponing – This is a US import on a digital channel called ‘TLC’. It features low income couples and families who collect coupons from magazine flyers, local newspapers and elsewhere, enabling them to save money on goods and services. You have to understand that the thrift culture in America is a lot more advanced than it is here – in many supermarkets, there’s no limit to the number of coupons a customer can use: if you have enough coupons, you can walk in and buy thousands of dollars worth of groceries and drive away laughing, having paid only a few cents. Some Americans clip coupons obsessively, order coupons online from specialist coupon clipping services, and even dumpster dive for coupons. These are the ‘Extreme Couponers’.

The show focuses on one couple or family at a time. The extreme couponers are mainly working class people from obscure parts of the Midwest or the Deep South so the programme works as an exploration of post-recession rustbelt America in the style of George Packer’s The Unwinding. There is also a genuine drama that hooks you. Couponers spend ten or eleven hours filling trollies with groceries, enlisting various family members and friends, planning their supermarket trips like a military operation. (As the writer S J Bradley pointed out to me, there’s a tangible Cold War aspect to all this – shots of basements stocked with cans upon cans of preservable staples like some vast presidential bunker at the end of the world.) You can see why people get into extreme couponing. You can feel the buzz when they get to the till, leading a supply train of loaded shopping trollies: the total goes up to maybe three or four figures, then ratchets back down to just a few dollars when the coupons are fed into the machine. Sometimes there are scary moments when the coupons for whatever reason don’t enter into the till’s calculation. Sometimes there are problems with the till itself, and a manager has to be called. You couldn’t do this in Britain – the risk of social embarrassment would be far too great – but Americans being Americans just work something out.

Another thing is that extreme couponers pronounce ‘coupon’ as ‘cuoupon’ (kyoo-pon). You have to say ‘cuoupon’ to be an extreme cuouponer. I don’t know why.

Gogglebox – A show that has broken out of the daytime TV ghetto and gone mainstream. I love it, except there are disturbing moments when I watch drunken hotel owners Steph and Dom and realise that this will be me and my partner in twenty years.


 ‘I think I saw the couponing programme somewhere in the 600s’

Look How Far We’ve Come

October 8, 2012

I’ve just realised it’s more or less five years since I set up this blog. To mark the occasion I have gone back through the posts and I’m going to link to articles you might have missed, one from each year this blog has been live.

I think if you click through the links you will get some idea of the sheer weight of my contribution to English letters. (And thanks to Norman Geras who did a similar thing recently with his own blog.)

2007: Would you take fashion advice from Max Dunbar? Of course you would.

2008: Running out of ideas after just a year online, I resort to writing a post about cats.

2009: In a bold, radical environmental piece I argue for a common sense policy on climate change.

2010: Super Size Max – my blog takes on the ‘weighty’ issues of the day.

2011: Over at Julie’s blog, I expose a Blairite plot against new Labour leader Ed Miliband.

2012: We are all Eurasian hoopoes now: writing for Engage, I explore the controversy that erupted when the Morning Star’s weekly quiz included a reference to the Israeli national bird.

Thanks for reading everybody. Here’s to the next five years!

‘It is a real ‘downer”

September 27, 2010

Silliest censorship ever – MobyLives has a list of books that have been banned from American schools and libraries, ranked in order of the stupidity of the justifications:

1. ‘Encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.’ (A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstien)

2. ‘It caused a wave of rapes.’ (Arabian Nights, or One Thousand and One Nights)

3. ‘If there is a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?’ (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown)

4. ‘Tarzan was ‘living in sin’ with Jane.’ (Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs)

5. ‘It is a real ‘downer.’; (Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank)

6. ‘The basket carried by Little Red Riding Hood contained a bottle of wine, which condones the use of alcohol.’ (Little Red Riding Hood, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm K. Grimm)

7. ‘One bunny is white and the other is black and this ‘brainwashes’ readers into accepting miscegenation.’ (The Rabbit’s Wedding, by Garth Williams)

8. ‘It is a religious book and public funds should not be used to purchase religious books.’ (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, by Walter A. Elwell, ed.)

9. ‘A female dog is called a bitch’ (My Friend Flicka, by Mary O’Hara)

10. ‘An unofficial version of the story of Noah’s Ark will confuse children.’ (Many Waters, by Madeleine C. L’Engle)

I would love to see a UK version of such a list. (Via Book2Book)

For It Is He

September 16, 2010

Who is this masked man of letters?

There is no language he does not speak or read. Of the roughly 6,000 languages spoken on the planet, he can write in half of them.

He was, during his 20s, a professional hang-glider.

He coined the phrase, ‘But those aren’t my pants.’

It is said that a woman can become pregnant simply by making eye contact with him.

Roger Federer refuses to play him in tennis.

We need more coverage in the mainstream media to cover this boy genius who isn’t a boy anymore. Rather, he is a boy-man. Or perhaps man-boy. Or man-child. Or child of men, though not literally, as his biological parents were male and female.

Harry Flashman? Gore Vidal? Stephen Mitchelmore? Find out here! (Via Norm)

Monkey Tennis

November 20, 2009

‘It had to be a two-word pitch,’ Steve Coogan said, ‘that created an immediate visual image.’ He’s talking about the classic Alan Partridge scene in which the TV presenter, down on his luck and living in a TravelTavern, meets with BBC commissioning editor Tony Hayers with the aim of securing a second series of his chat show. After Hayers tells him straight out that this won’t happen, Alan produces a dossier of ideas for potential programmes that get weaker and sillier as he works his way down the list. An increasingly amused and bewildered Hayers turns down all these ideas as well. In panicky desperation, Alan pushes the folder to one side and starts pitching new titles off the top of his head. Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank, Inner City Sumo (‘If you don’t do it, Sky will’) A Partridge Amongst the Pigeons – all are rejected by Hayers. Finally, Alan gathers his thoughts and manages to summon up one final pitch: ‘Monkey Tennis?’

It’s a classic scene, one that still makes me smile when I think about it. Still, that icon of Middle England may have (needless to say) the last laugh. This week’s Popbitch features a list of real life upcoming TV shows. It may be bullshit, a mistake or a parody but somehow I doubt it. Here they are:

‘Maggot’s on a Mission’ – Maggot from Goldie Lookin’ Chain tackles environmental myths, dressed in a furry green suit.

‘Muslim Driving School’ – Hilarious tales of Muslim women learning to drive.

‘A Band For Britain’ – Sue Perkins gets to recruit a brass band!

‘Alan Yentob on Las Vegas’ – Cerebral BBC arts commentator wants a free trip to Las Vegas. Sorry, is obviously the right person to analyse Sin City.

Finally, there’s apparently going to be a reality show called ‘Clink Cuisine’ featuring cooking in prison – which was the exact title for one of Alan’s risible ideas. Apparently BBC One Controller Peter Fincham once quipped that he had ‘always said quite a few of those shows would have been commissioned’.

Boring Musical Facts

August 27, 2009

Have you ever found yourself listening to a couple of music enthusiasts having a very dull, long-winded conversation about tedious aspects of musical history? If you have ever felt left out of such a conversation, excluded and inadequate with nothing to add, then take a look at this collection of dull musical facts. With these at your disposal, you can contribute to boring muso chat sessions with confidence that your contribution will be both widely appreciated and completely devoid of interest. 

Here they are; suggestions always welcome.

  • In May 1965, driving from his home in Van Nuys to the band’s studio to record the definitive version of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, the Toyota of Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger sustained two flat tyres from a broken beer pitcher strewn across Highway 11. Luckily, the singer was fully insured and a mechanic arrived within twenty minutes. The tyres were replaced and Jagger was able to complete his journey and record the song as planned.
  • Despite using themes of intergalactic travel in his music, most notably in his 1972 concept album Ziggy Stardust, singer David Bowie has never taken part in a manned space mission. Expeditions in which Bowie failed to participate include the Vostok 1 mission, the 1969 moon landing and the aborted Apollo 13 mission.
  • The ‘Lady’ of Jimi Hendrix’s song ‘Foxy Lady’ was based on a Oklahoma file clerk with whom Hendrix enjoyed four non-consecutive episodes of sexual congress in the summer and early autumn of 1961.
  • In March 1986, driving from his home in Manor Grove to the band’s Dublin studio to record the definitive version of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, the Audi of U2 singer Bono sustained a flat tyre from a shattered bus station window strewn across Lord Edward Street. Although the singer was not fully insured, Bono was able to travel by taxi to the studio and record the song as planned.
  • Many successful artists have dark secrets in their past. For example, the lead singer of popular band The Arctic Monkeys was once given a fixed penalty notice of £80 after being caught urinating against Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre during the early hours of 29 October 2002.
  • The soul of murdered rap artist Tupac Shakur, in accordance with the principles of reincarnation, currently inhabits a twelve-year-old Auckland house cat named ‘Boris’.
  • Many successful artists have had to overcome great personal struggles to achieve their goals. For example, before becoming lead singer in boring rock band Coldplay Chris Martin suffered from a range of personal problems, including a credit card debt of £500, mild sexual frustration, and a small benign cyst in his armpit which was removed in a basic out-patient procedure. 
  • Despite his name, rap artist Dr Dre is not a qualified medical doctor. Oncology, haematology, urology, radiology and orthopaedics are just some of the fields in which Dre is unable to practice.
  • On the evening of 8 December 1980, popular singer John Lennon was walking back to his New York apartment when, at approximately 10:47pm, he had an inspiration for a song gained from the constellations in his immediate field of vision.  The composition, if written, would have featured a melody of such perfection, and lyrics of such insight, that it would have led to a total cessation of miltary warfare, an end to economic inequality and, eventually, a cure for human mortality. Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman at 10:50pm.
  • The Swiftcover car insurance firm promoted by Iggy Pop does not cover musicians.


Coldplay’s Chris Martin once struggled to meet minimum Barclaycard payments of as much as £17. 

We love Charlie Brooker

February 14, 2009

Here he is talking about the bizarre and sinister Sky One show ‘Noel’s HQ’:

A live Saturday night ‘shiny floor’ show with conspicuous altruism at its core, it’s essentially a cross between That’s Life, Surprise Surprise, and some unmade episode of I’m Alan Partridge in which Alan snaps and runs into traffic with his shirt off, smashing windscreens with a cricket bat.

Noel shouts about petty-minded local councils, and the studio audience cheers or boos and waves union flags and the whole thing starts to resemble a disturbing political rally.

Last week the show featured an item about a badly injured marine who, having lost both legs in Afghanistan, was denied planning permission for a specially adapted bungalow by his local council. It was a tale that would irritate more or less anyone – the guy’s lost his legs, so cut him some slack, for Christ’s sake. Following an emotive VT on the subject, Cheggers (Noel’s eternal sidekick; someday they’ll be buried together) read a statement from the council saying they were prepared to negotiate with the marine and his family.

Good. But not good enough for Noel, who wanted them there in the studio. Worse still, the council’s press officer, Jim Van den Bos, told a researcher that Wealden District Council wouldn’t talk to ‘an entertainment show’.

This was the cue for an astonishing three-minute down-the-lens rant during which Noel yelled that Jim Van den Bos, and people like him, were ‘at the heart of everything that’s wrong with this country’, while the audience cheered and yelled. He went on to suggest, via the medium of bellowing, that the people of Wealden should ‘have their say’ at the next local election – and that hopefully they’d be ‘advertising for a new press officer soon’. All of which slightly overshadowed the bit where he read a statement from Gordon Brown supporting the construction of the bungalow. Council policy aside, what really irked Noel, it seemed, was being dismissed as an ‘entertainment show’, even though: a) It’s listed on the Sky EPG under ‘entertainment’, b) The studio audience wear big foam gloves with ‘Noel’s HQ’ printed on them, and c) It opens with a theme tune that sounds like a pinball machine malfunctioning on a bouncy castle.

Highlighting the story would’ve been enough: instead, Noel stood before a baying TV mob calling for the instant dismissal of a press officer who doesn’t make planning decisions, had already issued a statement, was presumably simply doing what he was told, and possibly has a family to feed.

Noel reckons that ‘This show is not going to change society…. but it is a tiny step.’ Towards the nearest psychiatric institution.


Edmonds: saving the world through Sky

‘Brand of the bland’

October 29, 2008

I’ve been tickled by Alan McGee’s demolition of the Q Awards: a great insight into the complacency and smugness of contemporary music journalism. Coldplay are apparently ‘The Best Act in the ENTIRE WHOLE WIDE WORLD’ and Best Track award went to Keane – McGee theorises that Keane’s lead singer, who’s been in rehab for port addiction, is the Q equivalent of Pete Doherty.

Every line of McGee’s attack is laugh-out-loud funny but I’ll just quote the final paragraph:

If depression, blandness, and boredom would ever manifest itself in physical form, it would be the Q Awards. Someone actually said ‘there are no losers tonight, only people full of win!’. No, there is one big loser: music. The Q Awards are the meaningless musical equivalent of Homer Simpson ‘winning’ the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.