Archive for the ‘Silliness’ Category

With Hilarious Consequences

June 30, 2019

I wondered why Blackadder was trending today, and learned that the original team are planning a fifth series of the hit comedy. Like most people I think it’s a bad idea, and indeed from the report it seems this wasn’t much more than a boozy lunch in Soho House. It may well come to nothing.

I belong to the last generation of Blackadder bores – people who grew up with four terrestrial channels, with scheduled catchphrase comedy shows that I would absorb and then bellow the catchphrases in school the next morning and then at the office. There are plenty of ageing comedy geeks like us out there and I assure you that we have bored colleagues almost to the point of physical violence by repeatedly going through routines from Blackadder, Fast Show, Red Dwarf and dozens of other classic shows. I think that cheap streaming services and multichannel sets have killed this variant of the comedy geek forever (although Ricky Gervais satirised it very well in the character of David Brent, a sitcom star who annoys his colleagues by bellowing ancient sitcom lines at every opportunity).

Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, had a go at the last series because he said it gives a too pessimistic view of World War One: ‘The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’ I’ve never studied the Great War at all, so I can’t comment on the slanders perpetuated – so Gove says – on the reputation of Field-Marshal Haig: although I have read enough history to know that the Blackadder view of the nineteenth century imperial wars was a bit simplistic, to put it kindly. (And Blackadder took a shot at the great pacifist war poets, too: ‘War’s an horrid thing/So I sing sing sing/Ding-a-ling-a-ling…’)

It also seems to have been popular with actual soldiers, as well. Richard Holmes, in Dusty Warriors, his book about the Iraq war, includes an account of the show’s impact on military humour:

With Y Company being older, longer serving and therefore the most cynical, part of the battle group humour was particularly fatalistic. The natural choice obviously is Blackadder, of particular significance as the soldier sees himself hard done by by the sardonic Blackadder. His less than proficient peers are the witless Baldrick, and the dash and doubtful-do of Lt George is perfect for ridiculing the commissioned officers. The main protagonists of this were Cpl Chris Mulrine and Sergeant Clint Eastwood (fire controller turned water engineer). Chris would slope around crying ‘Deny everything, Baldrick’ or ‘Don’t forget your stick, Lieutenant’ at the most inopportune moments, and on special occasions (usually on the eve of one of the big ops) he could be found muttering to himself ‘Fine body of men… about to become fine bodies of men’ and ‘Ice cream in Berlin in fifteen days, or ice cold in No Man’s Land in fifteen seconds.’ His timing and application of quotes were carried out with understated style and panache.

We have wandered a little way off the trail. It is not in the scope of a half-hour show to give every nuance and shade of a complex international conflict. What the show does do, very well, is bring history home. I remember watching ‘Goodbyeeeee’ with my family, when it first aired. It took us completely by surprise, the first three series were historical romps with silly endings – and now, the fire, the smoke, and then, the field of roses. Blackadder is part of the lost kingdom of communal TV, and you don’t have to be Paul Morley or Dominic Sandbrook to realise that past that era, the show can’t possibly have the impact it once had.

I also query the premise of the potential new series. The Blackadder family has always stayed close to power and, though the politics and HR of a university no doubt provide opportunities for all sorts of cunning plans, I don’t see that the old rogue Edmund would settle for a lectureship at a college market town. Richard Curtis is quoted as saying that ‘The thing about Blackadder, it was a young man’s show criticising older people, saying how stupid those in authority were. So I did once think, ‘If we ever did anything again, it should be Blackadder as a teacher in a university, about how much we hate young people.’ It would be a shame to see the dynasty end in six episodes of weak lashed together jokes about student protest and safe spaces.

That’s my take on it, anyway. Now, if you’ll excuse me, a lorryload of paperclips has just arrived.

Books Do Furnish A Room

January 19, 2019

Marie Kondo says you should only have 30 books at home. I literally have no idea who Marie Kondo is. I know Marie Kondo’s name because she has been quoted all over social media, often by people who don’t understand the full context of her words, saying that you should only have 30 books at home. I can’t really be bothered to watch the Marie Kondo show or read whatever interview where she says you should only have 30 books at home, and I understand that this makes me one of the people who bang on (without understanding the context) about Marie Kondo saying you should only have 30 books at home.

My friend Scout had the best take on this. Scout mocked the sometimes hysterical reactions to Marie Kondo’s point: how can Marie Kondo have only 30 books? Who is this unlettered philistine Marie Kondo? I should simply die if I did not have a house stacked on every available surface with books: Marie Kondo makes me want to drown in a bathtub of books! Scout’s point made me laugh because it touched on the odd fetishism that British intelligentsia has for the physical book.

I remember in the early 2010s people flapped about the impact of e books, and worried that kindles would kill the physical book. That didn’t happen because readers love the physical book. Publishers often (quite reasonably) market books as physical artefacts rather than stories and ideas. In Lena Dunham’s Girls Hannah Horvath is on contract to write an e book. Another publisher offers her a deal to write a physical book. Hannah is a product of the digital age. Yet she accepts the second offer with much more enthusiasm. Why? Because the physical book has authority.

So I can’t really laugh at the twee bourgeois lit world, its cooing and fluttering over the physical book, because I share that fetishism for books as objects and artefacts. My home is full of books. It just happened. My gf says, in jest of course: ‘You have filled our home with books! I feel like they’re closing in on me.’

‘Books do furnish a room,’ I’d say back.

On occasion, when I’m at work, and my gf working from home, she will send me a text with a picture of a box or package that has come in the mail, and ask: ‘Max! Have you been buying BOOKS!?!’

‘Books do furnish a room,’ I text back.

I do try. Sometimes – given energy enough and time – I’ll rearrange the books. I’ll even give books away. I can be stern with myself. I’ll happily give away duplicates, or books that have been discredited, or books that are just plain bad. But then it’s like: if I’ve got two or three of the same book, which edition do I give away? I have a copy of John Cheever’s Falconer which I accidentally ordered in French. I can’t read French so that one should probably go. Still, it’s not a bad looking edition. Also, some books can’t be donated (ask your local charity bookseller how much worthless crap his shop gets in every day). Also, a bad book is as special as a good book. I may need to refer to the bad book in passing at some point, in some customary throwaway witticism. You can see the bind I’m in.

Christopher Hitchens wrote about this, of course much more elegantly than I can, in his short piece ‘Prisoner of Shelves’. He found that despite living ‘in a fairly spacious apartment in Washington, D.C…. for some reason, the available shelf space, which is considerable, continues to be outrun by the appearance of new books. It used to be such a pleasure to get one of those padded envelopes in the mail, containing a brand-new book with the publisher’s compliments. Now, as I collect my daily heap of these packages from my building’s concierge, I receive a pitying look.’

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve lived in my current home longer than I ever lived anywhere since I left my mother’s house (which is, since I come from a family of readers, filled with books). As an adult I mainly lived in rented accommodation, sometimes moving several times a year. I didn’t care much about the physical book then. I remembered Robert Heinlein’s maxim – that you only truly own what you can carry on your back when you’re running from an angry mob. That was my credo then. Still is now to some extent. There’s a feeling when life is well that you’re gonna be hit by catastrophe at any moment. The sound of a plane somewhere, on a summer’s day. You prepare yourself mentally for homelessness and disaster. You’re packing the go-bag in your mind. Or is that just me?

You only own what you can carry on your back, running. You never really own anything. You can’t take it with you, and the world’s a volatile place: for all of us, sooner or later, the great comedy of ownership will end. So it’s kind of ridiculous to fill your house with books. But I don’t care. Why? Because life is impermanent, but clutter is human.

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.