Monday, December 31, 2012

Reviewing the weirdest stories of 2012

If you have a taste for the oddball, I hope you'll enjoy my survey of some of the weirdest news stories of 2012. I've put together three short audio files which talk you through everything from Silvio Berlusconi's chat with Hosni Mubarak about Ruby the Heart Stealer through to the German visitors to Yorkshire who encountered people dressed as SS officers. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Let's hear it for the maverick coroner

"I'm with the Coroner's office..." The Big Q always stood up for the little guy.

‘Gentlemen, you are about to enter the most fascinating sphere of police work: the world of forensic medicine.’

As hardened LA cops tumbled to the floor, we knew we were about to launch into another episode of the cult TV show Quincy ME, in which actor Jack Klugman played a coroner whose inquisitive nature and burning sense of injustice consistently got him into trouble with his boss.

One of the sure signs of middle age is finding that people immortalised in obituaries tend to be familiar figures from your childhood or teenage years. Learning about the 90-year-old Klugman’s death over Christmas made me feel genuinely sad. It also made me ponder a very important question: who the hell would perform the autopsy? Would it be Sam, Quince’s worthy, but rather plodtastic assistant? Or Aston, the smooth-talking bureaucrat whose career had taken him from the mortuary table to the boardroom table? Either way, the result would be unsatisfactory. Sam would follow the textbook, but miss something important. Aston would spot something important, but not want to rock the boat.

Quincy followed a weird plot structure, steeped in dramatic irony, in which the viewer knows whodunnit right from the get-go. In this format – perhaps most associated with Peter Falk’s Columbo – the opening scenes would show a villain going about his dastardly deed. So when Quincy rolled up in his Coroner’s Office station wagon and flashed his badge, we knew that he was talking to the murderer, even though the murderer would have some plausible alibi.

Again, following the pattern of Columbo, the perp would become more and more tetchy as the questioning went on. It wouldn’t be long before the intrepid LA Medical Examiner was accused of harassment and having no legitimate grounds for continuing his investigation. Maybe Aston was feeling the heat from someone at City Hall. Quincy would be well advised to let the case drop. Take a vacation, perhaps.

In later episodes, Klugman used the show as a vehicle to highlight pressing social issues in the United States. Everything from gun control to bizarre state regulations over the practice of midwifery. His character became a crusader who was later to star in a spin-off movie called Go Fight City Hall to the Death. Quince was the kind of guy you’d want on your side if you were in a tough spot. Exasperated by excuses and red tape, he wasn’t afraid to raise his voice on behalf of the little guy. Maybe just a slice of Klugman’s own early life – being chased by debt collectors and forced through poverty to sell his blood at five dollars a shot – came out in the impassioned performances.

I have an image of Quincy today – still dressed smartly by Botany 500 – questioning each new arrival at the biggest Coroner’s Office of all. Are they certain it was natural causes?

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A window on life in south-west London

I can't help but notice that the biggest advertisers in The Richmond Magazine - a glossy freebie distributed to households in the prosperous London suburb - seem to be private schools, lingerie shops and divorce lawyers. I'll lead you to draw your own conclusions as to what this tells us about the lives of the readers.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Who'll put Sue Ellen in the sanitarium now?

I gave up on Dallas after the series in the mid-80s when Bobby woke up to discover it was all a dream. That did shatter my illusions. Up until then, I’d been convinced the show was some kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary of life in oil-rich Texas. I had even glossed over the absence of Barbara Bel Geddes in one season and her replacement with another actress. (Can this stunt have been pulled in any other TV show? It’s a bit like taking June Brown out of Eastenders in the 1990s and telling the audience that Felicity Kendal would now be playing Dot Cotton.)

Although Larry Hagman had starred in some other TV shows and played movie roles, he of course became synonymous with the scheming JR Ewing. Just as the UK’s George Cole is forever Arthur Daley or, I guess, Sofie Gråbøl will always be Scandanavian sleuth Sarah Lund, some parts are just bigger than the luvvies who play them. Actors probably never know in advance where a particular role is going to lead them.

Hagman’s strength was to give JR enough comic-book characteristics that we could actually laugh along with his evil plotting. He was dastardly, but in a way that left us smiling, rather than clenching the arm of our sofa. As a result, I reckon St Peter will grant him membership of that ethereal Cattlemen’s Club which lies several miles above Dallas. The female angels had better be on their guard though.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Mrs W has had a smart idea, which may just have legs.

We were talking about the foods that are packaged up for cats. They tend to be things like 'Chicken and Rabbit Terrine' or other weird combinations of meat and fish.

But what about the stuff that cats really want to eat?

There must surely be a market for 'Rat and Squirrel Supreme', 'Magpie and Pigeon Delight' and so on. It's just a question of sourcing the ingredients, setting up a production line and coming up with a name.

Mouse-based food might be branded 'Hickory Dickory', for instance. 'Wings of Desire' would be a strong name for any range involving sparrows, blackbirds and other avians.

Fresh from the garden. All the nutrients your cat needs, without the mess.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

With friends like these...

One of the weirder aspects of the Jimmy Savile story (and I admit there have been plenty, including the former DJ's supposed role as a marriage guidance counsellor to Prince Charles), has been the sex pest's involvement at Broadmoor. While swanning around the top-security hospital, he seems to have struck up a friendship with the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. Let's face it. Before all the dark and seedy stuff started tumbling out about the Jim'll Fix It star, it would have been a pairing that seemed quite preposterous.

Celebrities from very different walks of life do, however, seem to have a habit of forming unlikely relationships. I'm thinking particularly of Richard Nixon's fascination with Elvis Presley , the rapport between Burmese politician Aung Sang Suu Kyi and British radio presenter Dave Lee Travis and the flying visit Lady Gaga paid not so long ago to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Which celebrities do you secretly hope will get together? The weirder and more improbable the better. Philip Schofield taking tea with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, perhaps? Are You Being Served's Frank Thornton reading poetry on stage with Britney Spears? Let's hear your suggestions.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Old-style policing

I bumped into a retired CID officer recently and he was talking to me about his early days in the Met back in the 1970s. As a novice 'woodentop', he'd been attached to a sleepy suburban nick, where crime rarely intruded on the working day. First thing in the morning, the officers would arrive for parade and would be allocated their tasks. One guy would be sent for bacon, a second for eggs and a third to get a loaf of bread.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Grunting, squeaking and squawking with the animals

You wait years to encounter a talking animal and then they arrive like buses.

No sooner had we heard about a whale called Noc, who seems to emulate human speech patterns, he was being challenged for his celebrity status by an elephant in Korea who likes nothing better than to chat away to his human visitors. No need for a Dr Doolittle to provide interpretation. The giant herbivore’s diction is so good that he’ll soon be able to place a trunk call all by himself.

It makes me think that Hitler wasn’t entirely barking up the wrong tree with his plans for a so-called ‘Woofen SS’ unit of dogs who could read, write and speak. Maybe the Nazi dictator just happened to pick the wrong species. The war could have ended so differently if talking whales had been linked by radio to U-boat commanders.

‘Achtung, Herr Korvettenkapitän! Ze British are poised to attack!’

‘You haf cracked zerr code?’

‘Nein. Wir haf just had a call from Villy ze Vale!’

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The scoop on pet poop

Under great pressure from one of the mini-Ws, I agreed a couple of months ago to provide shelter for an abandoned cat. The feline in question is a spirited character, who has made short work of our carpet and gets through mountains of chicken and turkey terrine. I guess I must have a soppy, sentimental side.

Of course, it's a short step from being a pet owner to shelling out for pet insurance. People are quick to warn you about exorbitant vets' fees. And once you sign up to Petplan, you become a proud recipient of Pet People - a magazine packed full of exciting advice for animal aficionados everywhere.

In the current edition, I have an opportunity to win a TransK9 'Space Saver' Dog Transit Box, one of seven 'pawprints lockets' or 10 sacks of Burgess Sensitive Scottish Salmon and Rice. For pet owners worried about their pooch being seen on a dark winter's night, 15 high-visibility, reflective dog jackets are on offer. But it's the obsession with excrement that really gives the magazine its unique flavour.

It's true that I can walk into any newsagent and find plenty of magazines that are full of s**t. But none of them are a patch on Pet People.

"We settled Sally, my Bearded Collie, in the car while we joined acquaintances for dinner in their immaculate house," writes Beverley Cuddy, editor and publisher of Dogs Today. "When I checked on her, I found she'd done the most enormous poo on the velour car seat. Too embarrassed to share this with my hosts, I grabbed the only item I could find - an old T-shirt from the boot. Only when when we were back home did I realise that I'd left the soiled shirt on their hedge."

Well, Beverley, thanks so much for sharing your 'real-life toilet tale'. It will certainly be a talking point the next time we invite you over to Woodford Towers for supper.

Not to be outdone, Dave Nightingale chips in on the PetplanUK Facebook page. His wife made an apple crumble ten years ago, which his cat mistook for a litter tray.

What these troubled owners need is Poopsta, 'the world's first one-push poop scoop'.

"Do you hate the feel of dog mess through the bag when you pick it up?" asks the promotional blurb. "Are you tired of carrying bagged poop until you find a dog bin?" Poopsta has a 'patented single-push action', which 'transforms a rubber band and biodegradable plastic bag into a four-in-one poop scooping system'.

I fear that I'm not yet quite the Pet Person that Pet People thinks I am. But I also fear the magazine may become a regular guest publication on WARTE.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Father Christmas' red and white army

Great excitement in north London today, with the official launch of Arsenal Snow Globe Christmas Ornaments. A full-page ad on page 69 of The Metro showcases these tasteful Yuletide decorations, which retail at £4.95 - 'a price you may never see again'.

The editorial team at Viz should note that the concept of parody was pronounced dead on 20th September 2012. 'Officially approved by Arsenal,' gushes the copywriter, 'each ornament features an intricately sculpted festive character cheering on the Gunners inside a snow globe.'

These characters, disappointingly, are not intricately hand-crafted representations of Walcott or Wenger. We are treated instead to Santa Claus, Mr Teddy and Frosty the Snowman.

Just one shake and watch it "snow"!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Off with their clothes!

In the middle-class suburbs of London, where I grew up, people had a name for girls with a penchant for getting their kit off in the open air. And believe me, it wasn’t princess.

Amid all the debate about privacy and the hullabaloo about the recent antics of Harry and Kate, we shouldn’t lose sight of the reality. In the real world, respectable blokes don’t cavort around naked in $5,000 Vegas suites with hen parties, much as they might secretly like to. And respectable young women keep a lid on their exhibitionist tendencies, confining striptease to the bedroom.

Yes, I’m afraid I take the old-fashioned, clearly outdated, liberal view of people’s personal lives. I’m generally pretty tolerant of what people choose to do in private. But the overlooked grounds of some French chateau are not private, if you’re a figure known on the world stage. And your luxury hotel room is no longer private when you open the doors to your minders and a bunch of starstruck party girls with mobile phones. What is it about the members of the Royal elite which means they still believe they’re exempt from the rules which apply to the rest of us?

The spin doctors want us to believe that Kate is some kind of ‘victim’ like Princess Diana. I suppose this reflects the ascendancy of her sons in the Royal hierarchy, as it still seems very strange to hear the outcast’s memory evoked in official press statements. But was Diana really a victim? I see her as a pretty accomplished self-publicist who revelled in media interest. And even if you view her as someone who was hounded by the paparazzi, surely this is something which had a cumulative impact over a number of years? To claim that Kate’s one run-in with the media is remotely comparable is disingenuous in the extreme.

I’m sure that Wills and Kate will win their court case in France. On past precedent, however, the damages are only likely to cover a week’s partying for Harry when he next needs a break from Helmand. The Leveson Inquiry may well recommend more statutory control for the press. But I suspect what we actually need is more statutory control of our pampered royalty.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dirty Harry

Does Prince Harry's little game of strip billiards with a Vegas 'bachelorette' troupe really matter? His friends in the media have been quick to offer all kinds of bizarre justifications for his behaviour. The most ludicrous of these - which I read quite soon after the news of his escapade first broke - was that His Highness needed some R&R after the Olympics.

Err... excuse me?

Was he actually involved in the competitions? I don't remember his challenging Mo Farah for the tape in the 10,000 metres, do you? In which case, we're talking about the need to recover from a succession of jollies, where he lapped up the sporting action from the best seats in the house. Poor diddums. It must have been tiring.

The next argument is that he's an army officer and about to ship out to Afghanistan shortly. If we had to fight the Taliban like him, so the argument goes, we too would be spending thousands of pounds a night on a luxury suite and inviting an excitable hen party to join us.

What a load of horses**t.

I'm sure that soldiers are inclined to let their hair down between tours. But your average squaddie is downing pints and chasers in a pub in the back streets of Andover. My hunch is he's not jetting half way around the world with minders in tow, picking up a group of hot chicks who like nothing better than discarding their clothes after a game of pool.

Now, one of the Prince's rich pals is trying to put the blame on the girl who took the pictures, describing her behaviour as 'despicable'. Really? If I'm in a position of responsibility and do something irresponsible, can I honestly say it's 'despicable' when someone who lacks my own massive wealth makes a bit of cash out of my behaviour?

What this whole episode reveals is a culture of hedonism among supposedly well-educated and cultured young men, who have a great deal more money than sense. There seems to be no embarrassment about the way in which police bodyguards are compromised by having to tag along for strip billiards. Even their bosses seem to think that the whole thing's ok. But the average British taxpayer is entitled to ask what the hell is going on. And pray that one day a lottery win may take them to their own Vegas hellfire club.

Monday, August 20, 2012

How strange can the Assange story get?

Personally, I feel pretty ambivalent when it comes to the case of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. In principle, it's great that the hypocrisy of world leaders is exposed, but it's a shame the whistle-blowing website has seemingly alienated a number of its erstwhile supporters. And while I have no idea whether any of the personal allegations against its founder hold water, I think the Swedish authorities are unlikely to be part of an international CIA-inspired conspiracy.

What can't be disputed is Assange's capacity for generating headlines and disconcerting his enemies. From his political bid for the Australian Senate through to his grandstanding from the balcony of London's Ecuadorian embassy, the guy is a showman who wants to be remembered as a world figure.

Although pretty much anything could happen in this bizarre, unfolding story, the smart money surely has to be on Assange staying in his embassy bolthole for years. In 2030, he may still be there, long after everyone's forgotten who he is or why he was granted asylum. Perhaps this will prove the ideal time to sneak him out of the country in a large diplomatic bag.

I've been particularly intrigued by his living conditions. From what I've read, it's not quite an Anne Frank scenario, but still rather less luxurious than the posh embassy setting would suggest.

For a while, there was a blow-up bed for the puffed-up Wikileaker and it's only recently that the ambassador has managed to find a mattress. On the other hand, Assange works out on a treadmill (explaining his trim physique) and has a cable connecting him to the Internet (big mistake).

Over time, I wonder if his little room might take on more character. A handful of nick-nacks and mementos perhaps? A signed photo from the Ecuadorian president.

Embassy staff could smuggle in a few luxuries, such as a pot or two of Vegemite. Gradually, his room will take on the character of a prison cell occupied by one of the 'big' lags, who calls the shots on the wing and has the screws at his beck and call. Assange might become Grouty in a South American remake of Porridge.

Visitors welcome. As long as they're not from the tactical firearms unit of the Metropolitan Police.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Closing an account? It should be child's play...

Mrs W has had a real battle with NS&I - the UK's state-owned investment and savings organisation - over her attempts to close accounts for the two mini-Ws. You'd think that closing an account and getting your money out should be a pretty straightforward affair, but not with this particular arm of government bureaucracy. It involved form filling and phone calls on a scale not seen since Leonid Brezhnev asked the KGB to register all the establishments selling vodka within a 500-mile radius of Moscow.

Anyway, after about three months of going backwards and forwards, the money did emerge and Mrs W was offered some modest compensation. We can forget it all and move on.

As a footnote, however, it's worth flagging up one complete and utter absurdity of the way NS&I handles accounts for children. It seems from Mrs W's correspondence and conversations that any kid over the age of seven, who may nominally be an account holder, is required to give permission for their parent to act on their behalf. Mum or dad phones up the call centre and tries to close down the account they opened for little Johnny, only to find the operative at the other end of the line wanting to speak to the lad himself.

'Is it ok if I talk to your parent about something you've never heard of and don't understand?'

The minis are quite a few years older now, so Mrs W was able to brief them. But if your kid really is seven or eight, the whole procedure is a farce. The youngsters are surely not capable of understanding what it is that they're consenting to. And if they fail to say 'yes' - perhaps because a Lego tower needs completing or Barbie's having her hair done - then their parents are up a well-known creek without paddle.

Now the accounts have been closed, NS&I have written to each of the mini-Ws separately, explaining the outcome of their investigation into mum's complaint. And here's where it starts getting stupid again. The letters are written in an a language that would bewilder any youthful recipient still awaiting formal admission to Mensa.

'As the account holder, I am writing to you directly due to our obligation to customer confidentiality...'

Let's leave aside the grammatical glitch here which suggests it's the writer of the letter who holds the account. Why would they expect any child to understand the notion of 'customer confidentiality'?

They then use phrases such as 'mishandling of correspondence' and 'discrepancy in our records', before going on to explain that the 'warrant' sent in compensation is just like a crossed cheque. My favourite sentence reads as follows: 'Our requirements should have been consolidated into one single letter instead of the multiple requests that were sent.'

Poor kids. They are being compensated for the failure of an organisation to cough up money they probably didn't know they had. And they're being told about it in a way which would leave them none the wiser.

Never mind though. If they're not happy, they are entitled to refer the matter to the Financial Ombudsman.

Twice as Nice

Although Nice Airport is France's second biggest, the facilities beyond passport control are a little on the limited side. In terms of eating and drinking, passengers have a choice between a small convenience store which rejoices in the name of Ouishop and an Irish bar called Murphy's.

The two establishments interconnect through supermarket-style gates that swing open and shut, so perhaps it should have dawned on me that the shop and the pub were, despite very different facades, one-and-the-same business. In fact, this connection only became clear when I looked at my receipt and saw that it was headed Murphy's-Ouishop.

I feel Murphy's-Ouishop is a brand name with real potential for extension across multiple markets. Irish enough for Dublin and French enough for Paris. A place you might expect to find crackers, as well as a healthy serving of craic. To be sure, it has a je ne sais quoi about it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lasting tributes

This is a family blog, so it's with some trepidation that I turn to an ad on page 67 of the Metro newspaper, which promises men 'longer lasting' love-making. To take advantage of the incredible oral spray being promoted, I need to phone for a free consultation with a specialist doctor. It's a little difficult to imagine how this conversation might go, but the customer testimonials seem to give us a clue as to its likely frank nature.

Mr MH of Luton tells us that he... wakes up somewhat... err... aroused, shall we say, in the mornings now. Indeed, he proclaims, the very thought of this arousal alone is enough to get him going all over again.

Ray Phillips of Redcliffe is so happy at being able to last 20 minutes, he's prepared to give us his full name. Mr H of Bedford, meanwhile, is very precise in his time measurements. He's clocking up 12-15 minutes extra every time he hits the sack.

Too much information already, gents. Mr PW of London has lasted a full 17 minutes with this ad. And that's valuable time he really can't afford.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Fantasy Olympics

The London 2012 torch procession has been great entertainment. It seems that if you want to carry the thing, your best bet is to claim that you're a stalwart of that much-admired community organisation The B-List Actors' Guild. Unless, of course, you've been picked by a corporate sponsor or transported from overseas like that unfortunate American lady whose tattoo artist couldn't spell Olympic.

Yesterday, after a brief intervention by uber-luvvie Patrick Stewart - 'Make it Glow, Number One' - we were transported to the fictional world of Walford, where real-life cops were paid to protect make-believe Eastenders characters from a potential attack by a deranged extra. 'Tell 'em to hurry up, guv. We got to be up west in three quarters of an hour...'

In many ways, this blurring of truth and untruth could be a metaphor for the whole Olympic adventure. Real-world stadia protected by imaginary G4S security guards.

The opening ceremony is rumoured to be a kitsch £27m celebration of the British countryside, while farmers blockade real-world dairy distributors in support of the outrageous demand that they be paid more for their milk than it costs to produce. Perhaps, as Mary Poppins swoops over the rustic East London set, she can dispense a spoonful of sugar to help ease their pain.

If we don't win many real medals, never mind. I reckon we could conjure up a pretend podium or two at the closing ceremony and bring in some celebs to hand out the prizes. Has anyone checked the diaries of Alan Partridge or Borat?

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The race for bogus Olympic stats

Of all the dubious statistics thrown around in relation to the London Olympics, the claim that there are '47 tube journeys in central London that can easily be walked' is surely one of the most misleading. I suspect it is based on the relative proximity of one station to an adjacent one. Embankment is walking distance from Temple. Charing Cross is a stone's throw from Leicester Square.

But what exactly is a 'tube journey'?

As I've understood it - and I'm only going on three decades' experience of using the network - it is a journey that takes you from any one place with a tube station to another. My journey from Leicester Square might take me to Charing Cross, but it might also lead me up the line to Camden Town or down south to Morden. In fact, from any one tube station - thanks to the wonders of interconnections - there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of options available to me.

Now, I don't claim to have a PhD in mathematics, but the number of potential tube journeys is astronomical, isn't it? You would need equations and a head bigger than Sebastian Coe's to work out all the permutations. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?

Of course, it's always good to know we can easily walk 47 of them. But I would be entering the 800m Stupid Race if I believed this figure had any significance.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I don't know why I even looked

The Belgravia Centre is a place which helps guys like me. People whose gorgeous, thick head of hair isn't quite as gorgeous and thick as it once was.

Their ad on the tube at the moment says that if I visit their website, I can 'view the world's largest online collection of hair loss success stories'.

My mind is immediately racing. This must mean there are other collections of hair loss success stories out there, but they're lightweight in comparison. Perhaps just one or two blokes half-heartedly saying they think there's a bit more body to their barnet these days.

Could it be that there are offline collections of hair loss success stories? Pop-up exhibitions, perhaps? 32-page brochures?

I can't quite bring myself to explore further. Too personal. Too close.

Sleeping ladies and prophetic archbishops

A lot of the stuff I'm handed in the street is poorly written, but it very rarely leaves me completely and utterly flummoxed. I'm looking right now at an A5 flier, folded to A6, which features a picture of an attractive, sleeping woman.

'Do Dreams Come True?' asks the headline. 'THIS ONE DID!'

Intrigued, I turn inside. What can the pretty lady have dreamt?

Actually, it turns out that she didn't have the dream at all. It was a bloke called James Sharp. In the North East of Scotland. In 1613.

The leaflet tells the story of how Sharp predicted in a nocturnal vision that he would become minister of Crail, be subsequently consecrated as Archbishop of St Andrew's and eventually murdered at Magus Muir.

Fascinating stuff, but what conclusion am I supposed to draw? Well, it's not entirely clear. Instead of explaining or interpreting the story, the people responsible for the flier launch into verse.

Are you going to Heaven or Hell,
When life here is ended and time's rung its bell?
Will your soul travel upward to regions of bliss,
Or depart to the depths where all joys you will miss?

Five further stanzas follow, along similar lines.

My conclusion at this stage: it's religious.

Surely everything must be clarified on the reverse? I turn over to read 'The Sinner's Prayer' and see a coupon which I must return to Northern Ireland. I have a choice of requesting a Holy Bible, a 'helpful Christian book', 'assorted literature' or - perhaps the hardest one to package up at the Post Office - 'further spiritual help'.

Perhaps I should trade the spiritual assistance for some kind of advice and guidance on how to write a leaflet? The pretty girl on the front was probably where they should have left things.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Brand's Buddhist Buddy

In Manchester this week, funnyman-turned-filmstar Russell Brand gets to introduce the Dalai Lama to an audience of local youngsters. One suspects the eccentric comedian might be rather more familiar with His Holiness than the Buddhist leader is au fait with Katy Perry's ex-husband. On the other hand, it's important to remember that Aung San Suu Kyi was sustained through her years of house arrest by listening to the Hairy Cornflake, Dave Lee Travis. Sometimes unlikely partnerships are forged.

Watch out for the Dalai Lama saying how much he enjoyed Get Him To The Greek and passing over a copy of 'My Booky Wook' for an autograph.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Welcome to the UK - the world's village idiot

If you were holding your breath, it's at last possible to release you from your suspense. The £27m opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics will be a recreation of the English countryside. Complete with farmyard animals clucking and oinking their way around the stadium and 10,000 volunteers turning in cameo performances, presumably as milk maids and scythe sharpeners. Danny Boyle, the man responsible, says that he plans to involve NHS nurses in the show and will give them their own special role. Distributing anti-nausea medication to the British public, perhaps.

This mind-boggling spectacle of rustic kitsch - polished with some kind of post-industrial, quasi-environmental veneer - demonstrates a real poverty of ambition. Instead of embracing the Olympic Games as a platform for promoting the UK's future, we use them as a way of projecting an imaginary and idealised past. Let's not pretend this is the Britain that anyone recognises today or believes is going to emerge in the coming decades. It's a pop-up-book parody of times gone by, when families supposedly picnicked and rambled their way across meadows.

We are actually one of the most urban of European societies in 2012 and agriculture plays a very small part in our economy. The countryside is an ever-shrinking part of people's lives - a fact long recognised and condemned by those who still work hard in rural areas to earn a living. While there are many reasons for believing our urban focus to be a regrettable state of affairs, it seems pretty damn stupid to deny it as a fact.

Let's remember that the games go under the name of London 2012. Note to organisers: that's London, as in historic metropolis. The absolute antithesis of everything the opening ceremony represents. Fill the stadium with a pea-souper smog, me old china. Let's have a thousand Eliza Doolittles learning the Queen's English from a thousand Professor Higginses. You can keep the kitsch by all means. All we ask is that you lose the country.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Dead proud

Everyone in the UK has their own way of celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, I guess, but this funeral director's in Fulham, west London, has created a fairly unique tribute. What do you reckon they'll do when Her Majesty finally hands over her crown to St Peter?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Deep water

Is there a closet republican involved in the sub-editing of The Richmond Magazine? In the latest edition of the glossy south-west London freebie, the diary column reports on both the visit of Her Majesty The Queen to Richmond Park and the inauguration of a new freshwater habitat in the park by local resident Sir David Attenborough.

On the contents page of the mag, these stories are summarised as follows: "Her Majesty in Richmond; new pond life."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Love is like a butterfly

Just looking at another of those embarrassing ads for on the London tube.

'He texted me before the date and my tummy got the good sort of butterflies.'

I'm glad to hear it.

If it had been the bad kind of butterflies before you'd even met the bloke, perhaps that would be a clue you shouldn't be giving your mobile number to randoms you met on the web.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A challenge to WARTE readers

Can you find a video on the web that is kitscher than this Neil Sedaka extravaganza? I think you'll agree that I'm setting the bar pretty high.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Let's celebrate! The Trondheim Carrots torch procession is coming!

I had a flash of inspiration this morning.

Working with marketers in the UK, I've encountered quite a few frustrations from people who feel they are unable to talk about a certain sporting event which is planned this summer. Due to legal restrictions, designed to protect the official sponsors, no one is allowed to mention the name of said event. Or the year in which it is taking place. Or the main host city, which lies somewhere on an axis between Bristol and Leipzig (but a bit nearer to Bristol).

Ok, so my flash of inspiration is this. What if we developed codewords to describe the things that are unmentionable? No one could be prosecuted, but everyone would know what they really meant.

The name of the event is The Carrots. The year is 3000. The city is Trondheim.

Now, marketers have previously unimagined freedom.

We can launch a new red, white and blue cereal which openly proclaims that it's celebrating Trondheim 3000. It's time to get crunching with a patriotic fervour every morning over breakfast, because the Carrots are just around the corner!

They won't have time to pass new legislation. This surely has to be a winner.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Too much information, Jim!

I hope Emily isn't Jim's secretary. Or Jim's Mrs will start questioning how her high-powered executive hubby keeps himself busy.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Time to be a spoilsport

Hell, no one likes a party pooper. To question the way the Olympics are being organised in the UK is still a little bit of a taboo subject. But the closer we move towards the world's greatest sporting event, the more Londoners are beginning to worry about the competence of the people in charge.

The decision to station multiple Rapier missile batteries around the capital, for instance, has raised a couple of million eyebrows. The fact that the weapons may not work in bad weather shouldn't worry us unduly, as we all know that it will be sunshine all the way in London during August. The weather was great, after all, during last year's riots. Rather more unfortunate is the recognition that we haven't had this kind of anti-aircraft protection since the Luftwaffe bombardment of Britain at the start of the 1940s. It does get people scratching their heads. I think your average Londoner is beginning to realise that the carry-on surrounding the Games is out of all proportion to the value they actually bring.

The full extent of the potential transport mayhem is now beginning to reveal itself. Our border agency is unable to cope with passenger flow at London Heathrow, leading to ugly scenes in the immigration hall. We're also becoming more aware of the road closures and potential congestion on the tube system that will potentially disrupt ordinary life in one of the world's greatest capitals. (Satirical website The Poke has even suggested that transport chaos is going to be turned into an official event.)

To cap it all, some strange court of arbitration ruled this week that we're not allowed to ban drugs cheats from Olympic sport for life. This means that people who tested positive in the past may soon bring an altogether negative vibe back to the Olympic Park this summer.

If we're being fair, the missiles and the transport fiascos and the doping decisions are not necessarily the fault of the Olympic organisers themselves. Security agencies, transport authorities and courts are merely responding to the issues that get thrown up by a jamboree on this kind of scale. But when it comes to music, the organisers have struck some seriously flat notes.

First, there was the bizarre decision to invite Keith Moon to perform at a high-profile concert. This was a lovely idea in principle, but unfortunately the former Who drummer was unable to attend due to his death in 1978 from an overdose of the sedative clomethiazole. Still alive and kicking - and no doubt as hungry as the wolves they once sang about - are the members of 80s pop band Duran Duran. Imagine their surprise to hear they would be headlining as the 'English' act on a bill that includes Snow Patrol and Paulo Nuttini. Of course, if there's one band which epitmomises the English music scene in 2012, it has to be Simon Le Bon's troupe of dashing new romantics. Are the people who made the phone call actually living on Planet Earth?

This may yet turn out to be a spectacular British success. We'll forget that the athletes can't get tickets for their families. We'll forget the fact that the families probably wouldn't be able to get there anyway unless they could ride in the specially-designated road lanes reserved for officials and participants. We'll just sit back and relax. Safe in the knowledge that Britain would never bite off more than it could chew. Would it?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Err... Ken, what about that tenner I lent you?

I don't want to get too carried away with the London mayoral theme, but YouGov asked a fantastic question of voters recently. Which of the candidates would you feel most confident would repay you if you lent them money?

24% opted for the incumbent, Boris Johnson, 18% for former police commander Brian Paddick and just 17% for the former mayor, Ken Livingstone. A whopping 26% couldn't envisage their cash being returned by any of the leading contenders.

My personal view is that bumbling Boris would intend to give the money back and be quite well intentioned, but would almost certainly forget. When prompted, he'd look concerned and promise to take you out for a slap-up meal at some unspecified point in the future.

Paddick probably wouldn't accept your loan without a lot of paperwork to document the transaction.

Ken would refer you to his accountant.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Boris, your generosity knows no bounds

I've just received the latest piece of propaganda from incumbent London Mayor, Boris Johnson, in the run-up to the election on May 3rd.

The Tory toff tries to help me navigate the complex voting process. 'Vote for Boris Johnson as your first choice by marking a cross in column one,' he advises. 'This is essential.'

But then what? There's going to be a second column, Boris. What are my options?

'Then, if you wish,' continues the former Bullingdon Club eccentric, 'vote for your second choice by marking one cross in column two. Your second choice vote is up to you.'

We can rest easy, knowing that democracy is thriving in the heart of the UK's bustling capital. I have permission to vote for ANY candidate as my second choice. They could only dream of freedoms like this in places like Bahrain.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Inject something new into your holiday plans

I couldn't quite believe my ears the other day when an ad on the music-streaming service Spotify invited me to visit Flu Camp.

The commercial spot was sponsored by a company called Retroscreen Virology Ltd, who are looking for volunteers to earn up to £3,000 staying in a hotel or 'other comfortable facility' for up to a fortnight. Their website promises all mod cons - ensuite bathrooms, wireless internet and Playstation - as well as three square meals a day and a mystery room mate.

By signing up, you're helping develop new vaccines and getting yourself a free medical check-up, which I suppose is not to be sniffed at. They're perhaps pushing their luck though with the claim that it's a place to make new friends and catch up on work and study. So is my local café. But when I visit the café, I don't expect to be offered the nasal sprays, pills, injections or drips which are mentioned on the FAQ page of the Flu Camp site.

There's only one thing that I can't quite glean from the online promotional material. Would I need to be given the flu before I was given the cure for the flu? And if so, would this put me off my three meals a day, work catch-up sessions and new friendship opportunities?

There's probably only one way to find out: a visit to Flu Camp. Unfortunately though, I already have a prior engagement at the Chicken Pox Country Club. I go there every year. Lovely spot.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Talking of rubbish

I've noticed an ad campaign from the Mayor of London on the tube which encourages people to recycle newspapers on the grounds that they block doors and cause delays.

I feel a Freedom of Information request coming on. How many recorded instances are there of newspapers causing delays on underground lines?

If it were real, it would have been used as an excuse in announcements. 'We apologise for the delay, ladies and gentleman. This has been caused by our inability to unwedge a Metro.'

Friday, March 16, 2012

Dating was so much easier in my day

When I first courted Mrs W, the Internet was a strange thing that techie-type people connected to via a 28k modem. We met the old-fashioned kind of way and although we didn't know much about each other at first, we uncovered it gradually through romantic walks and candlelit dinners.

If I'm to believe the current campaign on the London tube, serious research is now required before an initial date. Jon in Wimbledon listens to the favourite record of his potential future partner before he's even clapped eyes on her. That way, he'll understand why she likes the album so much.

What a smooth b*****d Jon is. He plans small talk about the girl's favourite band, probably giving the impression that he too is a fan. How dreamy, she thinks. I've met a guy who's perfectly matched to me. He even likes the same tunes!

Someone should tell this lady that Jon is just playing a game. And while they're at it, they should mention that he listened to the band on vinyl. So he's either a complete geek who thinks that digital music doesn't give an authentic sound or he's aged about 70.

A right royal nightmare

Details of the UK's Diamond Jubilee celebrations are gradually seeping out. If you were expecting class, you'll be sorely disappointed. Think Klass instead. The Standard's Chief Arts Correspondent, Louise Jury, informs us that the family festival planned for the Jubilee will be hosted by former Hear'Say member Myleene.

TV impressionist Jon Culshaw will be there to keep her company. What's more, we are promised 'an appearance by the equine stars of War Horse' and some show featuring the stars of Strictly Come Dancing, led by Craig Revel Horwood.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the jamboree is sponsored by Sainsbury's.

Do you think when George VI died he could have imagined the tawdry world which awaited his elder daughter some six decades on?

The future of Oxbridge

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read that an inner-city school in London had recreated the study of an Oxford don to help prepare its students for interviews at the elite university.

The deference to Oxford and Cambridge in the UK is quite extraordinary. Rather than impose reform on the anachronistic institutions or encourage young people to have broader horizons, we seem to believe that social mobility revolves around getting a small number of working-class kids to 'share' in the experience enjoyed for centuries by an elite.

The recreation of the room did, however, get me thinking of a possible future for the snooty Oxbridge colleges. They could be reinvented in a theme park, perhaps somewhere like Chatham or Romford. Local people and foreign tourists alike could share in the educational experience for a day, attending mock tutorials with animatronic academics. This way for the seminar on the Sturm und Drang proto-romantics. Down the escalator if you want to get plastered on daddy's allowance and smash up some local restaurants.

St Asaph? We need new rules asap.

The news this week that the town of St Asaph has been granted city status in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee celebrations left many Brits bemused. Err.. St Where? The consensus seems to be that there had to be a Welsh place on the list. Maybe they were the only ones bidding? In which case, you have to hand it to the burghers of the sleepy hamlet (population 3,600) for having the chutzpah to claim the crown.

As a lifelong Londoner, I tend to believe that the capital is the only place worthy of city status in the UK. Alright, maybe Birmingham at a pinch. But I think it's time we had a clearer set of criteria for deciding on these things. Here's my suggested checklist. If you can meet all the requirements, you're in.

1. Do you have a population of five million or more?
2. Are you always within a two-minute walk of Starbucks or Pret?
3. Have you ever had a riot which spiralled out of control?
4. Are your buses red double-deckers?
5. Are you hosting the 2012 Olympic Games?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Perfect perfume for a Pontiff

We all want to look our best when we welcome a delegation of visiting cardinals or pop out to deliver to a sermon to a crowd of 50,000 people. It's hard, therefore, to begrudge Pope Benedict some sharp schmutter. But according to recent reports, the aged Pontiff likes to smell right too.

The Vatican's numero uno has commissioned his very own eau de cologne from a lady called Silvana Casoli, who has previously mixed up some fragrances for the likes of Madonna and Sting. The blend of lime tree, verbana and grass will no doubt help to cover up the stench created by so many of the allegations against the Catholic hierarchy in recent years.

Am I alone in thinking that there could be a market for a perfume blessed by His Holiness? I'm picturing the ad now in GQ or Esquire. A double-page spread with a background of velvet in a deep Papal red. The bottle resting alongside a rosary and other accoutrements of office. A splash of the Holy See.

Syrian tyrant takes the biscuit

The Guardian newspaper claims to have uncovered a whole load of emails from Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. The threads reveal little at a political level we couldn't already guess, but they do shine a light on the Russian-backed dictator's lifestyle and tastes.

While his troops are bombing Syrian civilians to hell, Assad is downloading stuff on iTunes. Like Harry Potter movies and tributes to Cliff Richard. He's also sending round quick messages to aides with links to YouTube videos. One of his favourites depicts the rapidly deteriorating situation in Homs through toy cars and biscuits.

Say what you like about the bloke. Deep down, he's just like us. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he likes to dip into Washed and Ready every now again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hard times

I passed by a phone box in Baker Street today and saw a card advertising the services of a transsexual. The £60 fee for unspecified services was described as a 'recession special'. What he was making in the boom, we can only guess. Or she.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Expect the unexpected

On a packet of Quorn: 'Pieces can be cooked straight from frozen - good to know for when the kids bring home unexpected friends for tea!'

Who might these unexpected friends be, I wonder? Children from a circus troupe which happens to be passing through town, perhaps?

'Yes darling, I have plenty of Quorn. Are your strange new friends vegetarian?'

Friday, February 17, 2012

The big, fat problem at the heart of reality TV

There was an understandable backlash against the Channel 4 posters promoting the latest series of Big, Fat Gypsy Wedding, one of which I saw prominently displayed yesterday over busy road junction by Vauxhall Bridge in London.

The copy simply read: 'Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier.'

There certainly is a casual racism here, as we would never allow a similar jibe at another group which had its own distinct ethnic and cultural identity. I've been concerned in recent years by the readiness of younger people in the UK to use the term 'pikey' to describe someone or something perceived to be chav-like, trashy or dirty. Many probably don't realise that it's a racist and derogatory term for a gypsy.

There's another problem revealed by the bigger, fatter, gypsier line though and it's this: reality TV shows have to raise the shock bar with every new season. If the show weren't 'gypsier' than before, maybe we'd tire of it. It's the promise of something more extreme, more outrageous and more in-our-faces that is supposed to have us returning for another hour under the sunbed.

Remember Kim & Aggie, who cleaned up people's homes? They started with individuals who were dirty and untidy in season one and worked their way through to people who were clearly extremely unwell. Their participants needed support and medication rather the prying of TV crews and a splash of Dettol.

Gillian McKeith loved to demonstrate to people exactly how much junk food they were eating. Her early participants were shown their weekly intake laid out on trestle tables. It was shocking. But not quite shocking enough for later series. That's why she laid out 'dead bodies', constructed out of pork pies. And it's why she stuffed coffins full of ice cream. The ante needed to be upped if viewers were to get their fill the next time round.

And so it goes on. Big Brother, for instance, with more extreme and dysfunctional characters recruited each year. God knows what it's like now that it's moved channel.

I've watched these shows, so it would be rich for me to say they are exploitative and should be banned. But what starts as something mildly voyeuristic and within the bounds of decency can quickly become exaggerated and extreme. There is a boundary to be drawn somewhere. And it's probably between gypsy and gypsier.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The free market delivered to my door

A glossy leaflet arrives through the letterbox at Woodford Towers from advocates of a new 'free school' in my local area. This is inspired by the crackpot policy of the Tories and their Lib Dem pals that lets any group of parents club together and start educating children at an institution they create themselves. The founders can take over a disused office block, for example, and teach the kids transcendental meditation, if that's the vibe they dig, man. (If you think I'm joking, I've already seen the ads for a local meditation school.)

Leaving aside the obvious political and philosophical questions - why I should be allowed to set up a 'free' school, but not a free hospital or police force, for example - the policy initiative seems to have created a playground for the under-employed middle class, whereas it was originally trumpeted as a way of raising standards in tough, inner-city areas.

Commendably, the instigators of the free school proposal in my area want the new establishment to be open to 'all children...regardless of faith, ability or gender.' I think that's what's usually called a comprehensive, isn't it? And given that we're talking about an affluent area of the London suburbs where there are a couple of pretty good secondary schools already and a couple more really good secondary schools, it's difficult to see what this new institution will add. I'm told little about its ethos or proposed curriculum and the main argument in its favour seems to be about meeting demand in an era of growing school populations. Couldn't we do something boring and predictable like providing cash for the local authority to expand provision? No. That's too socialistic, I guess.

What fascinates me is the way in which the proponents are trying to galvanise support for their 'campaign'. I am supposed to 'like' them on Facebook, sign up at their website etc. Sheer numbers of supporters seem to determine whether a project gets a green light or not.

This will all end in tears. Kids schooled in a particular environment and taught a non-standard curriculum are part of an experiment. How will employers value their education and qualifications in the future, do you think?

A future generation is being condemned to a world of dog-eat-dog education where the value of their school is measured in thumbs up on a social network.

I'll keep you posted on the marketing material I see and issue a challenge. What's the weirdest 'free school' proposal you've encountered to date? Email me the info and I'll feature it on WARTE.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Seeds of doubt

Don't you think there's a danger of this loaf being overtaken by other brands?

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Hold on a minute... 70p, boss...

I've long been fascinated by the way in which British newsagents are always conducting a phone conversation when they serve you. Often they're talking in one language on the eau de cologne while dealing with your purchase in English. Could it be that they're all connected to the same, never-ending conference call?

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Beware the puff that goes with the pastry

Pie in the sky: blarney on the packet had me fooled

What could be tastier than a traditional Irish pie? To be sure, it's a treat that has been celebrated over countless generations from Adare to Youghal. So when I saw in Sainsbury's that it had been revived by a brand called 'Six Hungry Sons', I naturally licked my lips. Pieces of chicken in a rich gravy with a shortcrust pastry base and a puff pastry lid and no punctuation.

This is nothing less than Michael's Chicken and Gravy Pie. I'm not sure who exactly Michael is, but I wonder if I'm looking at his picture in the aged sepia vignettes which have been lovingly dropped into the packaging? This is clearly a pie from the old school.

As an enchanting story begins to unfold, I get the sense that Michael might not actually be one of the little lads pictured. He sounds more like a roving gastronomical expert, travelling to the corners of the earth to uncover age-old recipes and revive them for countless others to enjoy. (Mainly people in the suburbs of London like me, who will gladly pay that little bit extra for olde worlde packaging and a slice of culinary life from the old country.)

The tale is a heart-warming one. An Irish lady called Kathleen sets a fine table and as the author puts down his fork and spoon after a satisfying supper, he can't help but ask the secret of her pie-making prowess. We learn that it's been passed down three generations over the course of more than a century. Which is just as well, as Kathleen has - wait for it - six hungry sons to feed.

As a sentimental tear rolls down my cheek, it falls just below the main body copy, where a disclaimer is printed in smaller type.

Made in the UK using Thai Chicken. By W A Turner of Tunbridge Wells.

Michael, my world is falling in around me. There I am thinking your man is selling me an old-school pie and it turns out to be more of an old-school Thai.

Meanwhile, in a supermarket on the outskirts of Limerick, there's probably someone picking up a green curry made to a traditional recipe passed on by a lady called Pen-Chan.

Copywriters, eh? My mum always warned me about them.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Bob before Blockbusters

It's not surprising that social media chatter about the death of TV and radio veteran Bob Holness has focused on the popularity of children's quiz show Blockbusters. But as the much-loved host positions himself on the hotspot for perhaps the ultimate in gold runs, it's worth remembering that he had a career before he started playing alphabetti spaghetti.

For me, Bob is forever associated with my childhood growing up in London. As a precocious ten or eleven-year-old, I was addicted to the major commercial radio stations, Capital and LBC. My sex education came from Anna Raeburn and the Capital Doctor on 194 metres medium wave and was supplemented by Philip Hodson on LBC, who hosted a show on 'sexual, marital and emotional problems'. Politics was debated on air during endless phone-in shows, the most famous of which was hosted by the irascible Australian Brian Hayes. The guy was a legend back in the late 70s and took absolutely no prisoners. Unlike current shock jocks who like to wind people up and enter into ding-dong shouting matches, Hayes would just cut callers dead in mid sentence and move to the next line. You called 01 353 8111 at your peril.

Bob Holness started out as an eye-in-the-sky traffic reporter, but soon ended up hosting the AM show with Douglas Cameron, a veteran of BBC Radio 4. They were a great double act and created the kind of show that you just struggle to find anywhere now. Something which gave you serious news, but with a real sense of pace and a complete lack of pretention. There is actually a halfway house between Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live.

Perhaps more than anything, I remember the jingles and commercials.

'On 261 metres medium wave and 97.3 VHF in stereo, this is LBC. Where news comes first.' News, in fact, didn't come first. Because before the news at the top of the hour, there was always the 'early morning call' from Harrods. Other memorable advertisers included the futuristic sounding double-glazing company, Interseal 2000, and Goldrange, who sold clothes from 'the big red building in Petticoat Lane'.

God knows how many radio commercials I heard during my childhood, but I remember getting a job in an ad agency in 1994 and being told in my first week that I had to go to a studio and help produce a radio ad for the retailer Debenhams. I'd never written or produced a radio ad at that point, but I knew EXACTLY what one should sound like. All those years tuned in under the covers had finally paid off.

On Twitter today, a local journalist was making an appeal for anyone in his area who'd been on Blockbusters to get in touch. 'Local man recalls gold run rush,' I joked. 'That's exactly the story I want,' the newshound replied.

Well, there's a story that goes back a little bit further. So if you're interested, here's Bob's partner, Douglas Cameron, recalling their years together on LBC.

I'll have an R and an I and a P please, Bob.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The hard man who's all heart

Chest joking: British actor Vinnie Jones asks his mates for a dead body to revive

The latest advice for amateur first-aiders is to forget the kiss of life. It's all a bit complicated and too many of us are scared of picking up germs from the unfortunate cardiac victim. As a result, the British Heart Foundation recommends that we should concentrate on chest compressions instead. To promote the message, they've enlisted the help of hard man actor Vinnie Jones, who demonstrates the technique on some geezer he seems to have killed earlier.

It's a funny little commercial, but the thing that intrigues me most is this business of doing the chest compressions to the tune of 'Staying Alive' by the Bee Gees. I'd find it quite hard to get into the right frame of mind quickly enough. I would be starting with that funky guitar riff intro. As you can see from the video below, it's just way too slow to have much effect.

On the other hand, it's probably better than 'Hello' by Lionel Richie. Last time I tried that, the bloke was gone before the paramedics even arrived.