Sunday, September 18, 2005

Grim Up North

The draft of a piece that appeared in the Torygraph on May 27 2005.


Britain is no longer crap - at least according to the new guide to the country from Lonely Planet. Anyone who believes “it’s grim up North” should think again, according to the backpackers’ Bible. The authors even say that they like the UK so much that they’ve now added the word “Great” to the title of their tome about the place for the first time.

Leeds, we learn, is “the Knightsbridge of the North”. Glasgow, meanwhile, has “a contagious energy”, Birmingham “is new and improved”; even Liverpool has thrown off its reputation as a city “full of smart-arse scallies who would as soon nick your car as tell you a joke”.

I just don’t agree.

Before proceeding, however, I should perhaps nail my colours to the mast. As the editor of two books about Crap Towns that contained entirely contradictory entries for all these places, I have a vested interest in proving the Lonely Planet wrong. I’d hate people to think that Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool aren’t a “city of random shouting and violence”, “a dreadful shite-hole”, “menacing, intolerant and highly strung” and “ruined.” That would ruin my books sales and destroy my credibility!

But, even when I factor in my obvious bias and try as hard as I can to “think again” about the North I just can’t see it. Nope. The North’s still grim. And I’m not writing this as a ferret-fearing “Southern git”. I was born and brought up in the North of England, I love it, and I’d prefer to live there still. However, doing so would effectively end my career. There’s no work that I could do around my way. (Unless, of course, one of the faux glamorous chrome and glass bars that’s taken over Leeds were to open and I could serve beer to professionals with real jobs escaping London for the weekend… )

I do at least partially agree with David Else, the Lonely Planet guidebook’s co-ordinating author, when he says that “when it comes to great destinations, the North-South divide is a myth” - but only because they’re both equally crap. If you like a country where every high street looks exactly the same and contains the same bland selection of brands and corporations, the same bored teenagers (who are only outside anyway because they’ve been banned from all the malls for wearing ‘hoodies’) and the same fake heritage black iron dustbins and street lights - then, yes, visit Britain. It’s especially “great” if you’re the kind of traveller that gets anxious about missing important sites. All such anxieties disappear here, because, if you’ve seen one town outside of London nowadays, you’ve pretty much seen them all - give or take a castle or two.

It’s only when you get out of the centres and into the suburbs, slums and industrial wastelands of the North that you can really tell how much inequality there still is. John Prescott, who few would credit with knowing anything more than the painfully obvious, is fully aware of this geographical disparity. That’s why he’s planning to demolish upwards of 200,000 perfectly good homes in Northern cities (20,000 of which are in Lonely Planet fave Liverpool - including, tragically, the terrace that ex-Beatle Ringo Starr grew up in). This divide also explains why big John P’s megalomaniac schemes to burden the country with vast unsustainable estates of new houses are all based in the South.

Still! Enough of this relentless of negativity. I’d heartily recommend that anyone takes a Lonely Planet with them when they go on holiday. I had one with me in Italy last summer and it helped me have a far better time than I would have had kicking around at home. Besides, I don’t disagree with everything in the new Great Britain guide. There are a few things that seem to me to be spot on. I concur that London can feel "dirty, polluted and overcrowded", that the English Riviera is a "rather optimistic" term to describe the Devon resorts of Torquay and Paignton and that the Yorkshire spa resort of Harrogate “has not changed much since Agatha Christie fled there in 1926.”

I especially liked the description of John O’Groats:

“If [John O’Groats] were a person, he’d be a second-hand car salesman or a gerrymandering politician. How else to explain the seedy tourist trap that has grown around the lie that it is the most northerly place in Britain? It’s not — that title goes to Dunnet Head, further west.”

Now that’s what I call travel writing. Maybe I should buy the book after all. I’m due a holiday.



Appeared in 2000 in the late 'Mosquito' magazine

Yoga is the new cocaine. The high of choice for Madonna, Goldie Horne, Kirk Douglas, Christy Turlington and all the other beautiful people. And why not? A little spirituality might not go amiss. We're all smoking the polluted roach end of post modernism. The last new thing was Retro, reality TV is better than life and life has been sold to the oil companies. The decade is tired and jaded in its second year: we have to look for something.

And the worship of Siva, high lord of yoga is inherently fascinating to western eyes. His followers, the Sadhus have symbolised the pure ascetic ideal - living chaste lives of contemplation in pure Himalayan isolation - ever since Alexander the Great reached the Ganges. It's cool, uplifitng and doesn't give you nose bleeds or turn you into a heartless gibbering wreck.

Individual Sadhus can often be literally incredible, achieving unbelievable feats of endurance and privation: sitting in the same place, unmoving for 20 years, keeping one arm raised for so long that it atrophies, walking on shoes lined with nails or tying their own bodies into yogic knots. And after more than 2000 years, the their tri-annual festival [Dixie, is this right??] the Kumbh Mela ( where 10s of millions of holy men descend on one small town to bathe in the Ganges) - is still one of the most awe-inspiring sights on the planet.

However, going off on a luxury retreat, saying 'man' and thinking about karma is not even half the story - being a true Sadhu is a hard and disciplined life and a very extreme life choice. Their god, Siva is renowned as being one of the naughtiest gods in the Hindu canon. He's a contemplative ascetic alright, but he's also the terrifying god of fire and eventual destroyer of creation, spending his whole time boxed on weed and draped with penis jewellery. So many Sadhus are deeply holy, peaceful and perhaps even saint like, but most would probably be sent straight to jail if they were unfortunate enough to end up here.

For charlatans (and there are many) it's an easy, idle and greedy life. Public transport is free, it is legal to smoke marijuana, the majority of the Indian Hindu population either fully respects you or is afraid of you, you have a license to beg as giving alms to a Sadhu is considered good Karma, and you live outside the law. The 'sadhus' that western tourists encounter are quite likely to be free loaders - as the genuine holy men are hidden in the mountains [needs clearing up]

There are also many aspects of genuine Siva worship that westerners find difficult to come to terms with. A common facet of Siva worship is the belief that enlightenment and escape from earthly passion can beat be achieved by passing through every extreme. So some sadhus will gorge themselves on everything they can get their hands on for long periods of time (in rare cases including human flesh) followed by sustained periods of fasting. Some will do everything they can to get off their gourds for as long as they can manage.They can also often be seen lifting stones with their dicks or balancing huge weights from them in an attempt to destroy their erectile tissue.

Even for non extremists, initiation into the full Sadhu life, and rejection of earthly desire, is not to be taken lightly - one of its major ceremonies involves crushing the penis three times with a very heavy rock. After this they face a life which is for many undoubtedly rewarding, but is necessarily full of discipline and devotion.

Karma is never instant and never easy.


First published in the Idler, 2003

Ovid was the consummate ancient idler. He happily turned down an influential, financially rewarding, and unpleasantly strenuous career to dedicate himself to a life of sex and poetry. He wasn’t afraid to laugh at the foolish policies and ridiculous arrogance of the most powerful man in the world, and (to declare a personal interest) when he was eventually banished, he took the opportunity to invent Crap Towns.

Unfortunately for the lazy Ovid, he lived in a very hectic era. He was born in 43 BC, the year after Julius Caesar’s assassination. His boyhood was spent under the shadow of the bloody civil war that followed. The three most powerful men on earth, Lepidus, Marc Antony and Octavian battled it out for the control of Rome with a viciousness that has rarely since been equalled. It’s hard to put any exact totals on the numbers of people that suffered: no one was really counting. However, their decimation of the upper classes in one year, 43 BC, when they oversaw the execution of 300 Roman Senators and 2,000 ‘equites’ (the two highest strata of society), gives a pretty good impression of what happened to everybody else.

After more than a decade of furious bloodshed, Octavian emerged as the victor. He crushed his enemies with all the shock, awe and overwhelming force the non-nuclear technology of his era allowed. The final act of the war was the battle of Actium in 31 BC when he sank every single ship in the navy of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. He renamed himself Augustus and became the absolute ruler of Rome, with more unrestricted power than any one man had ever had before – or has had since.

Antony and Cleopatra’s infamous double suicide was definitely the most sensible response to their unenviable situation after Actium. Only the very bravest - or maddest - crossed Augustus, and nobody got away with it. Not even his own daughter Julia was immune to his wrath, as she discovered when he banished her in 2BC for breaking his stern moral laws on adultery. Equally, only a fool or a hero would turn Augustus down if he offered them a position in his spectacularly powerful inner circle – but that’s exactly what Ovid did – before devoting a considerable part of his career to making fun of the image obsessed dictator.

Ovid, together with his brother, was selected by Augustus because he was looking for someone from their home town, Sulmo (which was about 90 miles from Rome), to help him build up an administration that represented the regions as well as the capital. The young poet managed to skive out of the military service most young men in his position were subjected to (unfortunately, nobody now knows how he managed this) but he didn’t avoid being put on the ‘cursus honorum’, the fast track to political power in Ancient Rome. Augustus made him an ‘equites’ at the tender age of 16 and he was packed off to law school. Ovid went along with this, mainly, he later said, to please his beloved father. And it seems that his traditionalist dad also put considerable financial, as well as emotional pressure on the young poet, ominously warning him that “even Homer died poor.”

Luckily Ovid eventually managed to convince the old man that he just wasn’t cut out to face what he termed “the burden of power” or any of the “worries of ambition”. In fact, he was happy to admit that he “had neither the body, nor the mind” to put up with any kind of work at all. Instead, he loved “otium” (the most evocative Latin term for idleness, our word ‘negotiation’ is its direct opposite). He managed to win the protection and encouragement of the powerful Roman litterateur Messalla, and stepped off Augustus’ fast track to dedicate himself to sophisticated city life, getting as much sex as he possibly could and writing fantastic, dazzlingly witty poetry.

Ridiculously, the most common complaint about Ovid’s poetry from ancient and modern critics is that he patently didn’t suffer for his art. It all came too easily to him. “Whatever I tried to write was poetry,” he once complained. He practically thought in verse, the speeches he composed at law school were really all just poems, and as a boy he was even said to have promised that he’d never write another poem to his anxious father - in a perfect elegaic couplet. He enjoyed writing: and jealous puritans have suggested that this devalues his work. However, while it’s true that you can never really take Ovid seriously, this doesn’t mean his work is without feeling, and it doesn’t make his great skill any the less impressive. It’s always an easy pleasure to read Ovid, his irrepressible sense of fun bubbling over into everything he wrote. What’s more, his poetic gift was incredible, his felicity with language unrivalled until Shakespeare. Words were toys to him, delicate shining baubles hung to perfect effect on the verdant branches of his poetry.

Augustus was accustomed to taking such talents under his ‘protection’ and coercing them to write in praise of his reign. Vergil’s patriotic epic The Aeneid is the result of this pressure, as are Horace’s dreadful military odes (he came up with the old lie “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” to please Augustus). However, not only would Ovid not work to serve the state, he wouldn’t even serve the state with his poetry. Instead he dedicated most of his life to singing the praises of the idle life.

Although Ovid found writing poetry so incredibly easy, he didn’t actually write that much of it. In fact, until the age of 40, he averaged just 500 lines a year – just under two lines a day, or about 10 words. He could happily finish a day’s work while dozing in bed before breakfast, and still be confident that he’d done enough to earn himself immortality. He was able to dedicate the rest of his time to research: relaxing in his orchards in the countryside, going to fashionable dinner parties and the chariot races, drinking the finest wines known to humanity, visiting the theatre, staying out until the early morning (when “the cockcrow shatters poor workers dreams”) and arranging dangerous liaisons.

He jokingly called himself the ‘praeceptor amoris’ – best translated as “Dr Love”. In The Amores he wrote declarations of love and lust for women all over town, celebrating their many trysts and bemoaning the fact that his conquests usually had to go back to their husbands afterwards. The Art Of Love meanwhile is guide to how best to go about seducing (invariably married) members of the opposite sex.

Ovid gives himself the persona of a brilliant, witty seducer: virile, passionate, tender occasionally sad, but most often amused. And he finds no one funnier or more ridiculous than himself. He may brag about his ability to seduce anyone, and display the “finest cockmanship” , and he may boast that he’s been able to bring his mistresses to orgasm with a game of footsie, but more often than not we see him completely unable to take his own advice or live up to his self-image. One of his funniest poems is about an attack of impotence that destroyed all his careful arrangements for an adulterous arrangement. His would-be-mistress eventually abandoned him in a huff, splashing water on the bed so the maids didn’t get the impression that nothing happened. Similarly he undermines his own passionate avowal of fidelity to his most frequent muse, Corinna. She thinks he’s been having an affair with her maid, but Ovid fervently declares his innocence asking “What kind of gentleman would fancy making love to a servant?”- especially if he knows how faithful she is, and how likely to give him away. The next poem is addressed to the slave-girl in question, berating her for blowing the gaff and cheekily asking her for more sex to make up for it.

But Ovid didn’t just direct his wit at himself. Augustus was obsessed with promoting old fashioned virtues in his subjects. Ovid delighted in knocking them down. Augustus encouraged ‘virtutes’ – manliness - and the tough military life, Ovid made fun of it in an elaborate metaphor with a salacious punch line: “Every lover acts like a soldier,” he claimed. “A commander looks to his troops for gallant conduct, a mistress expects no less, a soldier lays siege to cities, a lover to his girl’s doorkeepers… Night attacks are a great thing; catch you opponents sleeping and unarmed… lovers too will take advantage of slumber (her husband’s) and thrust home his advantage when the enemy still sleeps." Augustus encouraged his followers to look back on the example of Rome’s ancestors for a guide to moral conduct, the ‘mos maiorum’, exemplified by the early Roman tribe the Sabines whose women faced death rather than betray their husbands. “In the old days things were different,” agrees Ovid. “Those Sabine women stuck to one husband apiece. But then,” he tells us, “they didn’t wash.”

In fact, Ovid’s whole project was an affront to Augustus’ draconian laws against adultery. These laws were more honoured in the breach than the observance – not least by the hypocritical Augustus himself, a well known philanderer who had himself written poems on the subject so disgusting that even the famously dirty Lord Byron claimed they made him feel nauseous. All the same, Ovid’s decision to republish his poems on the joys of adultery, the Amores, and to issue The Art Of Love, his guide to successfully committing adultery in the same year – 2BC, the year that Augustus banished his own daughter for her indiscretions – was provocative, to say the least.

Lots of critics have seen his subsequent work as an attempt to back-peddle and write some more serious poetry in a desperate attempt to make it up to the “injured emperor”, as Ovid later termed him. He even states in his introductory lines to The Metamorphoses, that he’s deliberately chosen to write in the epic hexameter, and is going to write on one serious theme for the glory of Rome. The work he actually produced, however, was more like a Popbitch of the divine world, a light-hearted account of the misdeeds of the gods, that often had hundreds of themes in the space of as many lines. It’s a work of genius, effortlessly intertwining a wealth of mythology and folklore, ingeniously inter-linking the endless variety of stories using the idea of metamorphosis. Characters are turned into birds, fish, insects, plants, flowers, rocks, trees, rivers, fountains, men are turned into women and vica versa, and they all lead seamlessly on from each other. It’s our main source for classical mythology and has been plundered for stories for centuries. No lesser writers than Chaucer and Shakespeare make free and easy use of it, and in their famous renditions of the story of Pyramus And Thisbe they borrow more than a little of Ovid’s irreverent tone.

Predictably, this impressive enterprise did not please Augustus at all, not least because Ovid mercilessly ribbed him once again. Ovid’s comparisons of the newly deified Augustus to the king of the Roman gods, Jupiter, (who like Augustus holds his councils on a “divine Palatine Hill”) should have been warmly received, were it not for the fact that Ovid’s Jupiter is a priapic fool, lustily chasing women (and cows) all over heaven and earth, fearfully avoiding his outraged wife Juno, and siring bastard children and man-bull combinations wherever he goes.

Ovid never got to see his masterpiece published in Rome. In AD 8, he was banished. The reason for the exact timing of this has been lost in the mists of time. It may have something to do with the fact that his long-standing friend and protector Messalla died in that year. And perhaps it’s just too much of a coincidence that “Dr Love” was banished in the same year that Augustus once again exiled a member of his own family (his granddaughter, also called Julia) for committing adultery. Ovid himself only ever said that it was due to "carmen et error" - his poetry and some unspecified mistake.

The outraged emperor chose the most exquisite torture for this dedicated urbane idler. He sent him to a crap town. Ovid was made to go to Tomis, a remote Roman outpost by the Black Sea, where nobody spoke the same language as the talented poet and he was even made to put on a helmet and fight against the barbarians who constantly threatened its borders.

All the same, and despite the two books of poetry he wrote begging to be taken back to Rome Ovid seems to have relaxed into it his situation, teaching himself to do a bit of fishing, and even composing in the odd poem in the native Getic. And, although, in my vainer moments I like to flatter myself that I came up with the idea for Crap Towns, I’m forced to admit that Ovid for one beat me to it by a good 2,000 years.

“I have to live among barbarians” he said, in one of many harrowing descriptions of his new home. “The snow lies continually on the ground, neither sun, nor rain melts it…sometimes it stays for two years. The natives keep out the evils of the cold with skin and pelts, of the whole body, they only dare expose their face…Exposed wine stands upright, retaining the shape of the jar and everyone drinks, not draughts of wine, but fragments! …I’ve seen fish fast-bound in the frozen sea…the barbarian enemy…[uses the frozen rivers as an opportunity to attack], and with his far flying arrows, deprives the locality of its populace… Even when there is there is peace, everyone’s terrified of another war and nobody bothers to do any plowing… the soil here is lifeless, abandoned in stark neglect. There are no grapes, no fruits. There isn’t even any paper. All you can see are naked, empty plains; leafless, treeless. This is a place – damn it – that no fortunate man should visit.”

Tomis incidentally, is in modern Romania. It’s now called Costanza, and by all accounts it’s still pretty awful. Although Ovid wasn’t best pleased to have been sent to such a miserable place, he must have been secure in the knowledge that, as ever, he was going to have the last laugh. His jokes are still funny after more than 2,000 years. His brilliant poetry has won him immortality while drawing an everlastingly ridiculous portrait of his nemesis Augustus. And, most importantly, he’s an example and inspiration to idlers everywhere.

Wit and wisdom of Publius Ovidius Naso

da requiem; requietus ager bene credita reddit - Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.

video meliora proboque deteriora sequor - I see the better way and approve it, but I follow the worse way.

in medio tutissimus ibis – Moderation in all things

bene qui latuit, bene vixit - One who lives well, lives unnoticed.

cui peccare licet peccat minus – The person who is allowed to sin, sins less

exitus acta probat - The end justifies the means

gutta cavat lapidem, non vi sed saepe cadendo - The drop excavates the stone, not with force but by falling often.

omnia iam fient quae posse negabam - Everything which I used to say could not happen will happen now.

nil homini certum est - Nothing is certain for man.

parva leves capiunt animos – Small things please small minds.

Paucite paucarum diffundere crimen in omnes - Do not blame the masses for the crimes of the few.

fas est et ab hoste doceri - It's right to learn - even from an enemy.

saepe creat molles aspera spina rosas - Often the prickly thorn produces tender roses.

leve fit, quod bene fertur, onus - The burden carried in good spirit is made light.

rident stolidi verba Latina - Fools laugh at the Latin language.


Published in the Idler 2003

Practical Idler

Cheese Review

Grandma Singleton’s Extra Tasty

The soft gold colour, and yielding crumbly texture belie the hidden strengths of this singularly assertive cheese. Unless you intend to blight your afternoon with meetings, this pungent date-killer is strongly recommended as a fortifying lunch time snack.


The cheese gives off the kind of honk that the cartoonists from the Beano indicate with wavy green lines, fainting dentists and gasping kids with pegs on their noses. However, in the same way that a damp Labrador’s head or your oldest trainers are strangely pleasurable to sniff, so the ripe blasts from a slab of Grandma Singleton’s quickly become delightful, evoking feelings of warmth, comfort and potent vitality.


Initially delicate and mellow, like a good farmhouse cheddar, becoming increasingly fruity and intense. Just when you’re beginning to feel that the cheese has bitten you rather than the other way around, a warm whisky-like glow spreads round your gullet, and life seems suddenly kinder.


Strong brown tea, red wine.

Best eaten with

Thick brown bread, tomatoes.

Best tried in

Lancashire, South Cumbria.

Sam Jordison

Moon's bookshop

Published in the Idler. 2003

Michael Moon’s Antiquarian Booksellers & Publishers

19 Lowther Street, Whitehaven, Cumbria

Few visitors to Cumbria and the Lake District ever make it as far as the isolated west coast town of Whitehaven. In fact, few residents of Cumbria go there, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the biggest towns in the county. This is a shame. Whitehaven is full of character, and, within its unique grid-pattern 17th century streets (designed by Christopher Wren and said - by locals at least - to be the inspiration for New York), it contains one of the best bookshops in the country, Michael Moon’s gloriously eccentric ‘Literary Emporium’.

It isn’t just the fact that there are loads of books that makes Moon’s so appealing. It’s the atmosphere that really sets it apart. An ambience of appealing shabbiness, comfortable yet intellectually charged, immediately grabs you. The room you first enter, leading in from the attractive but unremarkable shop front, is average sized and rectangular. The only physically unusual feature of the room is a large desk at the far end to the door, laden with books and scattered papers, but it quickly becomes clear that Moon’s is a browser’s paradise. It’s in the air.

Further exploration reveals that the shop is huge. At the back of the first room, there’s a flight of stairs leading past a wall of splendid first editions (in an only slightly dusty glass cabinet) up to a large room, crammed with shelves. Doors lead off in two directions from this room, both directions leading up and down rickety stairs and round corners to a bewildering number of other rooms, all full to bursting. It’s comes as no surprise to learn that there’s almost a mile of shelves, and that nobody has any idea how many books there are on them.

Close inspection reveals that many of the books are fascinating. All thoughts of quickly finding a specific volume have to be banished, however, because, aside from a few divisions into fiction, biography, history etc, there is no filing system, alphabetical or otherwise. The owner Michael Moon is proud to say that he hasn’t fallen victim to “the tidying disease.” The only way to approach the healthy chaos in his shop is with an involved, prolonged browse. You’ll probably never find the book you originally intended to buy, but you’re guaranteed to walk out with at least three more you probably didn’t even know existed.


Michael Moon’s personality asserts itself in more than just the determined lack of order. The esoteric collection of books clearly follow his interests and areas of expertise and the intriguing labyrinthine building might just as well be an extension of his own cavernous mind. When I visited the shop with my fellow Idler Dan Kieran he charmed us with stories of Whitehaven’s often hilarious, often tragic swashbuckling industrial history, as well as with his own career in publishing and bookselling. He seemed to take as much delight in his failures (like running a huge print run for a book that sold less than 10 copies), as his triumphs (maintaining one of the finest bookshops in the country for more than 30 years).

We ended up talking to him for almost two hours, meaning that had to Mr Moon keep the shop open a good hour after closing time. And he didn’t even realise that we had any kind of professional interest, until Dan found an 18th Century edition of Johnson’s Idler, just before we left and blew the gaff (we were there to research a follow up book to Crap Towns – and no Whitehaven definitely isn’t crap). I’m now more than happy to repay his benevolent eloquence by recommending that all Idler readers visit his shop.


Records Of The Week

I used to write Record Of The Week recommendations on my favourite was about Dusty Springfield. Sadly this entry, and most of the others have been lost. Here are the survivors:

Collis Browne’s Jamboree by The Chap Collective

Like us humans, insects can demonstrate what seems to be complicated, intelligent activity. A bee for instance, if it comes across a dead lava in the hive, will break open the wax of the hexagon that contains the lava and throw it out. Two separate activities beneficial to the whole community that one bee will carry out on its own, after assimilating a specific signal. Clever bee.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the bee is thinking for itself, or that it has any kind of free will, or indeed that it can learn. Genetic researchers have successfully bred the necessary DNA codes out of bees and stopped them from doing anything about dead lavae, even after they’ve witnessed their fellow bees deal with them.

Thinking about this too much is not good for the head. It has frightening implications. Is the only reason that they haven’t proved the same kind-of thing for humans that it would be illegal to do the experiments? Could we be the same? Does this mean that we’re just obeying our own double-helixes, rather than our soul? Is our complex society just a hive? Are you just reading this piece on the prompting of a series of neuron firings you will never understand? Are those neurons themselves just following some undiscoverable route to ensure the perpetuation of your genes? Christ.

No. It’s ok. There is proof that we really do live in a civilisation of the mind, that individuals are masters of their own destiny and that it will always be better to be a human than to be a bee. For only the most sophisticated intelligence, only the most willful indulgence could have come up with the exquisitely useless art form, dandy-ism.

And only the delightfully dressed members of The Chap Collective could have translated the sartorial so successfully into song. If brogues could sing, this is what they’d sound like. Decadent, witty and determinedly smart. Excellent for kicking the behinds of pompous oafs.

It’s Record Of The Week. You can buy it by clicking here:

Sam Jordison

Michael Franks – Art of tea

This is one of those records that always seems to pop up at jumble sails or
in those dusty cardboard boxes jammed under the main record shelves in smoke-filled side-street jazz shops. I got my copy for 50p. I could have used the
money for a bag of chips, but I decided that anything with such a kind looking man on the cover, and which has a reference to the tea sacrament in its title, has to have something going for it.

There isn’t actually any mention of tea in any of the songs, but there’s definitely something about its gentle jazz sound and Franks’ playful soft-voiced vocals that makes it the perfect accompaniment to a mellow, smoky pot of Lapsang Souchong. Everything about it suggests comfort, warmth and easy afternoons.

A friend of mine tells me that this is his Mum’s favourite record and has been for more than 20 years. Now she only listens to it on her birthday, so it stays fresh and she’s in the right mood to hear it every time. She understands The Art Of Tea completely: it’s an indulgent treat.

Van Morrison – Saint Dominic’s Preview

by Sam Jordison

Van Morrison recorded Astral Weeks, perhaps the best love and loss album of all time. Now he’s into weird skiffle music and swears a lot. “ah feck it” Cool.

This album’s great as well. Two of the tracks are particularly astounding, and since this was the early 70s, delectably long. In the first, ‘Listen To The Lion’, the mad haired troubadour instructs us to listen out for the lion in our souls. He even tells us how it will sound: “Rrrrr. Rrrrrr. Rrrr”. If it was anyone else, it would be laughable, but Van Morrison was touched by genius, and it’s beautiful.

The second, ‘Almost Independence Day’ sounds disconcertingly like Pink Floyd’s finest seven minutes ‘Wish You Were Here’ . Only it’s better… and it was recorded first. Any attempt to describe it is doomed to collapse into a heap of pathetically keening adjectives. It’s too good for words.

Failed revolutionaries

Space fillers from an Idler magazine about revolution


The Paris Commune

In the spring of 1871, Paris came under the control of a revolutionary commune. This unusually democratic, working class and left leaning body was formed thanks to the chaos after France’s crushing military defeat in 1870 when the national government abandoned the city. Karl Marx for a while believed that it could signal the start of the international workers’ revolution.

The most striking aspect of the communards was their relaxed nature once the usual authority figures had disappeared. The city became the stage for what was described as “a festival of the oppressed”. Observers stated that it had all the signs of simply being on holiday. This lasted for almost two months until government forces broke through the barricades once more. Even on the day they got into the city, there were large crowds in the Tuileries gardens listening to one of a series of concerts given in aid of the wounded widows and orphans.

Many Parisians chose to die rather than lose their new society. Horrifyingly, by the time the government had re-established control, its troops had massacred between 20 and 30,000 communards, including huge numbers of women and children.



Machine wreckers

1780 - 1816

The originators of the word ‘Luddite’ are so poorly regarded that the word has become an insult. It’s an ineffectually mocking term, implying a hopelessly reactionary nature and a quixotic opposition to the tide of technological progress. The group of Nottinghamshire knitters that claimed to be led by ‘King’ Ned Ludd and went around destroying knitting machines in 1811 – and all the other machine wreckers of the early industrial revolution that are usually lumped together with them – are by implication history’s losers.

Yet, the Luddites weren’t indiscriminately fighting technology, they were
were fighting social injustice. They were trying to protect their way of life and individuality rather than being forced to work on a production line under factory rules. It was the machine in the hands of the capitalist, not the machine itself they were after, There are well known cases of machine wreckers (like the Lancashire wreckers of 1788-80) only attacking large spinning jennies suitable for factories, preserving the small ones that could help them. Attacking mill owners’ property was also one of the only bargaining tools available in early industrial disputes. Organised gangs like the Luddites often brought about improved conditions and can even be seen as progenitors of the Trade’s Union movement. It was this success that doomed them. A government bill of 1816 declared machine wrecking a capital offence. It was vigorously enforced.


Picture of the leader of the Luddites here;

Interestingly, no-one knows what happened to King Ludd – or if he ever existed at all.



Giordano Bruno


Giordano Bruno wanted to start a revolution in the head. He was a scholar and a vociferous and recklessly brave opponent of the repressive practices of both the Protestant and Catholic church. If his ideas had been accepted, they would have turned the beliefs of the Renaissance world upside down.

Most of Bruno's theories now seem weird; a bizarre combination of magic and science. Some still have resonance, however. As well as writing too incredibly arcane tracts of magical theory, he suggested that the earth revolves around the sun, that the stars in the sky were actually suns like our own and that the universe might be infinite. He also claimed that the Bible was not a strictly historical account.

These ideas were deeply unpopular with most of his contemporaries. He was expelled from his position as a Franciscan monk, and condemned to a life as a landless wanderer. When the Catholic Inquisition caught up with him, they were predictably nasty, but Bruno refused to recant his beliefs even after torture. He was burnt at the stake in 1600.


1000BC – 100 BC

Helots in Sparta

The ‘helot’ slave class in Ancient Sparta attempted to gain more of an equal footing with their masters in a series of bloody uprisings. Their reward was the formation of the famously tough Spartan military system, and centuries of tradition designed to oppress them. One of the choicest rituals was sending groups of teenage boys out to hunt and kill
randomly selected slaves.





During the tumult and upheaval of the English civil war, the magnificent libertarian Gerrard Winstanley lived in Walton-on-Thames. He herded cows and wrote religious pamphlets until he had a vision in a trance instructing him that “the earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood, without respect of persons.” Gathering a band of followers, he began to dig up the common land on St George’s Hill near Kingston-upon-Thames and invited all England to join him. It was the world’s first socialist commune.

His manifesto ‘The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced’ is one of the finest pieces of socialist polemic written, rightly revered by hoary old campaigners like Tony Benn. It was one of the first works to advocate the rights of man and can be seen as a direct influence on Thomas Paine and the American Declaration of Independence. His egalitarian, communist society was, of course, a model for the USSR. Most importantly many of his ideas and thoughts are still moving today. Who could dislike a man who “would have none live in beggary, poverty or sorrow,” and allow everyone to “enjoy the benefit of his creation” ?

All the same, he was little better than a laughing stock in his own lifetime. He was brought before the fearsome roundhead General Fairfax who had been alerted to the ‘Diggers’ activity by the complaints of the horrified Kingston gentry who dismissed the Diggers as harmlessly mad. Within a year they had been forced off their hill and dispersed by the local gentry. Winstanley faded into obscurity. No one has any idea how, or even when, Winstanley died.




Not all revolutionaries are left wing libertarians. Catiline, wanted to replace the Roman Republic with a dictatorship. According to his main (victorious) opponent, the orator Cicero Catiline was a feckless sybarite, given over to indolence and voluptuous indulgence. His main recruitment method appears to have been holding massive grape-fuelled orgies and rubbing the young men of Rome up to such a pitch of excitement that they would die in his name. Having failed to take over the state by guile, with a few well timed, (but hopelessly unsubtle) assassinations he tried to take it by force. The army he raised was crushed in its first battle and killed almost to a man.


James Naylor

James Naylor was an early Quaker and political radical. He fought on the Parliamentary side in the civil war for 8 years but felt they failed to “set free the oppressed people”. He was a convincing and popular speaker who gathered a large body of support in a remarkably short time. In 1656, he entered Bristol on a donkey with women strewing palms in front of him. This was probably meant to be symbolic (though plenty of people at the time did have Messiah complexes – like Arise Evans who told the Deputy Recorder of London that he was the Lord his God), as Nayler believed it was possible for any man to achieve what he saw as Christ’s perfection. It was, however, just the opportunity Parliament needed to nail him. M.P.’s devoted six weeks to denouncing him and had him branded and brutally whipped. He died three years later, a broken and considerably quieter man.

Some digests

Pilchard Teeth was a strange magazine designed to advertise playstations.

I wrote some digest sections in the back directing readers to products relating to the general theme of each issue in 2001/ 2002 (i think)

Not sure if these make sense without the pictures, but I guess if you've scrolled this far down the page, you're interested enough to want to read them.

Film props


Beh-beh-beh. What’s going on behind those beady eyes? Beh-beh-beh. Why does it need those horns? Beh-beh-beh. It looks like Satan! Beh-beh-beh. Beh. Beh. Beh.
If well looked after, the goat will also prove to be a good source of milk and cheese products for you and your cast..


As seen in: ‘Race With The Devil’



“Sing hymns make love get high fall dead
He'll bring his perfume to your bed
He'll charm your life 'til the cold winds blow
Then he'll sell your dreams to a picture show
Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary
Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary
Cadillacs, blue jeans, dixieland playing on the ferry
Cadillacs, blues jeans, drop a glass full of antique sherry”

King Crimson


As seen in: The Exorcist




Donning these dungaree overalls instantly lowers the wearer’s genetic viability, and greatly increases his chances of being turned into a zombie in the third act.
“We ‘bain’t seen your type round ‘ere before. Arr. You’ll be seein’ more of us no doubt. Ooh -arr. That your wife?” Etc.

Dungaree overalls


As seen in
Straw Dogs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre


Carnal desires

Save cutting yourself and your actors up. A box of organic meat, a little imagination and some camera trickery should answer all fleshly cravings. Contents include one whole leg, 1kg of lean mince, one loin joint, one best end joint, 1kg lean diced casserole, half a shoulder and some sausages.

As seen in ‘Blood Feast’

Organic meat boxes




“I saw something nasty in the wood shed!”

As seen in: “Cold Comfort Farm’





The Devil’s weapon of choice. Looks particularly good silhouetted against a setting sun in the hands of a Hick.* “I jus’ cem buy to fix your roof. I didn’t disturb you did I? Where’s your wife tonight then?” Etc

As seen in: Brain Dead




What’s happened to Dolly’s head? Who’s taken her body away? Darling, darling where are the children?

As seen in: Chuckie



An increasing rarity in the age of computers and white boards, chalk is still unbeatable when it comes to drawing pentagrams and weirdly significant symbols. It can also be used when crushed to replicate the advertising profession’s narcotic of choice, and to add that much needed ghostly gothic pallor to the faces of your cast.

As seen in:

Sleepy Hollow, Scarface



The Lacnunga (or Leech Knowing) is an Anglo-Saxon spell book containing all manner of advice on how to deal with elves, get rid of wen (by making them smaller than a worm’s hip- bone) and what to do when faced with a dwarf. It will look superb in the hands of an old bearded fellow, and if you can get him to read from its pages in a tremulant voice it should add some much needed gravitas to the proceedings.

As seen in:

The Lord Of The Rings
The Magician Of Gore

Picture here




It’s only when you realise why it’s smiling that this rabbit becomes truly terrifying.

As seen in:

It, Donnie Darko


Musical Instruments


A common site in medieval times, along with tapestries, peasants and festering wounds, the Bladderpipe is a reed instrument connected to a large pig’s bladder. This bladder provides a reservoir of air used to produce sufficient pressure to work the reed. Care must be taken when storing.


As featured in:

Pasolini films
Concerts by The Antiquatian Funks (

Sounds Iike:
A helium fuelled Scandinavian orgy



The Vocoder has been around since the 1939 when it was developed for the encryption of speech for the military. More recently its been used to make guitars talk and make singers sound like robots.

Price: £400

As featured in:
Kraftwerk records.
Daft Punk records
Sparky The Magic Piano

Sounds Iike:
Stephen Hawking
[Pics at]



The theremin was invented in 1921 by soviet Scientist extraordinaire, Lev Sergeivitch Terman. As you wave your hand around the antenna, it produces sounds of varying pitch. This is singularly satisfying – it’s as if you magically cast the sound – and it produces music of unsurpassed strangeness. The only drawback with this lovely piece of equipment used to be that it was as big as a desk. Now it comes in this handy potable size. Great.

As featured in:

1950s sci-fi.
Good Vibrations - the Beach Boys
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin
The theremin was also very popular with Lenin himself – who used to play one of his favourite tunes, The Skylark, on it.

Sounds Iike:

The future.

Price: £99



Usually the preserve of large sweating men in leather britches, the blacksmith’s anvil has a lesser known, but long running career as a musical instrument. It couldn’t be easier to play – the whole of the technique is to bang it as hard as you can with a large hammer – but it is slightly cumbersome, weighing about 300lb. However, once you’ve exhausted the anvil’s limited musical capability it makes a superb stand for your TV.


As featured in:
Wagner’s ring cycle.
Verdi’s anvil chorus.
Norse god Thor banged one of these when he wanted to make thunder.

Sounds Iike:
A giant slab of heavy metal



When blown, this produces a deep resonant moan and induces a feeling of euphoria, well-being and gratitude. Skilled players will find it helps their careers immensely.

As featured in:

Deep Throat

Sounds Iike:
Barry White

Price: £10



Known in unpleasantly PC circles as a ‘Jaws Harp’, this instrument is held against the teeth and plucked with the fingers to produce a sound. It’s a mouth guitar. It rocks (quietly).

As featured in:
Scottish and Jewish traditional music

Sounds Iike:

A bee





Bones can lay claim to being the oldest instruments of all. The modern versions are usually actually made of Rosewood or Ebony, but the principle hasn’t changed for millennia.

As featured in:

Tom Waits – The Pale Rider
2001: A Space Odyssey

Sounds Iike:

A bad day on the piste

Price: £5.95



More fun to play than to listen to, the kazoo is the simple inbred cousin of the harmonica. While they may not be easy on the ears, kazoos are as cheap as chips and there is something deeply satisfying about emptying your lungs into it and letting off a tremendously loud parp.

Price: £1

As featured in:
Embarrassing childhood memories.
The Blues.
Grateful Dead records. (NB What does a Grateful Dead fan say when he runs out of drugs? This music’s shit.)

Sounds Iike:
A cow giving birth



A large version of the bagpipes, using almost a whole cow to provide its airbag. The Chaucer Greatpipe more than lives up to its name, producing a huge stonking noise. Watch out for it at Slipknot concerts in the near future.

As featured in:

The Canterbury Tales
“A bagpipe wel he koude blowe and sowne,
And funkilie he brought us out of towne” (I 565)

Sounds like:
A cross between a clarinet and bagpipes, amplified.

Price: £800



Let the mothership land in your pants

£Free – to those that can afford it

As featured in:
The collected works of Funkadelic

Sounds Iike:
You’ve been taking too much acid



Remote controlled rat

Pest control??

Recent research has shown that there are now more rats than humans living in Britain. If you live in London, you’re never more than five metres from one. They were the cause of bubonic plague. They were the original and the worst fear in George Orwell’s Room 101. Their teeth can chew coiled steel.

Why anyone would want anything to do with the little bastards is completely beyond me. All the same, for less than £20, you can own this horrific model and, with the aid of a remote control, send it scurrying across your floor and spinning round in strange circles.

Alternatively, move to Hackney, where you will quickly find yourself in possession of several genuine rats at no cost at all, and have the added pleasure of seeing them pissing in your cupboards and attacking your pets.


Pregnant Doll

Foetal Attraction??

Once it was impressive enough to have a doll that cried. Then they brought in dolls that shat, which were, by any reckoning, pretty damn cool. But they’re nothing next to a doll that’s been knocked up.

There’s a little key that you can use to inflate and deflate her stomach, and there’s an accompanying baby, wrapped in swaddling. It’s really weird. And it’s not just any doll either, it’s Licca Chan, the Japanese Barbie, a huge seller for the last 35 years and the star of countless manga and anime comics. Ken now seems like far less of a sissy, but the other implications are disturbing.

Asian news source, AWSE news, reports that young fans of the doll are reported to have been “really surprised” by her new proportions. All the same, tens of thousands have already sold.

Is crack-whore Barbie next?

(Image on


Death Row Marv

When you flip the switch, on the elegant Death Row Marv, the little man vibrates in his seat and shouts "Is that the best you can do, you pansies"? Parents, teachers, politicians and Amnesty International have called for the toy to be banned. Unsurprisingly, it’s now an extremely sought after item, especially since manufacturers McFarlane toys have done the decent thing and decided to stop manufacturing it. There are still a few thousand out there though, just waiting to be smoked out.

(Images - - look up marv)


Bearded prophet

This post-modern, faux ancient toy cocoons all its users in a warm glowing layer of knowing irony. Designed by James Jarvis (World Of Pain), the beautifully crafted Bearded Prophet comes with 12 sign stickers and is available with green, purple or orange hair. It’s suitable for ages 21 and over, and according to the packet, it "moves in mysterious ways".


The Stone

The stones, shaped (significantly) like pyramids are supposed to be displayed or worn around the neck on a piece of string. Each one has six symbols inscribed on the side. The pattern of these symbols is replicated on only one other stone in the world. Using clues spread around the internet, your task is to track down the owner of the stone like yours. They become your ‘stone-mate’. The rest is up to you.

(Image at:


Putt Putt steamboat

These lovely little boats will turn any bath into an orbit of nautical delight. Using no more fuel than the stub of a small candle or a few drops of olive oil, they will chug around at surprising speeds for hours. And all to the accompaniment of a deeply satisfying "putt-putt" sound.

Alterntively known as ‘Pot-Pot’, ‘Pom-Pom’, ‘Put-Put’, ‘Phut-Phut’ , ‘Toc-Toc’ or ‘Steamboat Billy’, the boats were invented in 1891 by an Englishman called Thomas Piot. They were hugely popular until the 1920s, but since then they’ve been largely forgotten, surviving only in a few musty physics labs where they’re dragged out once a year to demonstrate the expansive power of steam and something called a Helmholtz Resonator.

Finally though, thanks to the internet and a few enthusiasts dotted around the world, they’re making a well-deserved comeback. They’re fun again.


Night Vision Monocular

Now you’re stalking

They think that you can’t see them. They think that you’ll never know. They think that the darkness hides them. The fools.

(image at:

Jesus Action Figure

“I don't care if it rains of freezes
'Long as I got my Plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car.
Through my trials and tribulations
And my travels through the nations
With my Plastic Jesus I'll go far.

“When I'm in a traffic jam
He don't care if I say "damn"
I can let all my curses roll
Plastic Jesus doesn't hear
'Cause he has a plastic ear
The man who invented plastic saved my soul.”

Ernie Marrs

Friday, September 16, 2005


This is just a test.

My full blog can be found here.