Tuesday, 31 December 2019

A Decade of Highlights

2010 seems like yesterday but now 2020 is upon us and it's time to look to the future. But, before I do, here are a few highlights from the past decade. It's been an extraordinary one for me.

In February 2010 I retired from a 30 year career with the Metropolitan Police. During those three decades I was quite badly injured several times, was set on fire twice during riots, and lost several wonderful colleagues. But oh, the highlights! Being at Live Aid. Meeting Freddie Mercury, several US presidents and a Pope. Being kissed by Diana. Being told to f*ck off by Prince Phillip. But most of all it was making a difference to people's lives by using problem solving, crime science and behavioural insights to prevent crime and disorder. It led to the publication of my second book of the decade One Step Ahead: Notes form the Problem Solving Unit in 2016 (although first published in hardback as Why Did the Policeman Cross the Road?)







By 2010, and anticipating retirement, I'd already been 'brought into the QI fold' by comic genius John Lloyd, creator of such shows as The News Quiz, Not the Nine O'Clock News, Have I got News for You, Spitting Image and many more (oh, and he also produced every episode of Blackadder and co-wrote two episodes of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy with Douglas Adams). My first book, Joined-Up Thinking, had been published in 2008 and had brought me to his attention. Consequently, I strated writing for the QI Annuals. Then I was given a shot at writing for QI's sister show on BBC Radio 4 - The Museum of Curiosity. That went well too (in fact, the show won a Rose D'Or in 2016). I then moved on to QI itself, first as a researcher and then as one of the eight main writers. And what a joy that was. Between Museum and QI I met some fantastic people, some f whom are sadly no longer with us such as Ken Dodd, Neil Innes, Terry Pratchett, Jonathan Miler, Clive James and David Frost. Best of all, I got to hone my comic writing and worked with some of the best comedians in the business. I even got to appear on the show two or three times - once in a prop gimp mask!




















Yes, that really was Buzz Aldrin in the red shirt three photos back and the young woman I'm with between the pics of Phill Jupitus and Alan Davies and Ross Noble is Polly Adams, Douglas's daughter who worked on the show for a year and was an absolute joy to be around.

Another highlight of the decade was working with my lovely friend Professor Sue Black OBE on her book Saving Bletchley Park. Sue led the charge on the campaign to save the codebreakers' HQ for the nation and succeeded! It meant several visits to the place, and the adjacent Museum of Computing. And it meant that we were there for the grand opening. I was very proud of that. Below are photos of an Enigma machine, Colossus - the world's first programmable computer - and the restored huts, including Alan Turing's Desk. Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, opened the event and I reckon I got a pretty good photo of her.







The 2010's (Teenies?) also saw the fulfilment of a long-held ambition for me - to get a novel into print. And I did, by the skin of my teeth, when A Murder To Die For appeared in 2018, followed by The Diabolical Club this year. I was delighted when Murder was nominated for two awards. The third book in the set, Cockerings, should be out in 2020 so, depending on whether you measure your decades by end of year or start, it may just come in under the line!


This has been the decade which saw publishing go into meltdown after the loss of major bookchains like Ottakars, Dillons and Books Etc. but has seen the rise of independent book shops. And the perceived threat of e-books came to nothing; sales are dropping while sales of physical books and, in particular, audiobooks are rising.

Podcasts are on the rise too. and after having to give up a radio show I did with the ever-clever Andy Aliffe (I just didn't have the time) I'm delighted to now be co-hosting a fortnightly literary podcast called We'd Like a Word with writer and BBC producer called Paul Waters. We chat to other writers about books and the process of writing. What could be lovelier?

Who knows what the roaring Twenties will bring? If they're half as good to me as the Teenies were then I'll be a very content man.

Happy New Year to you all.


Saturday, 9 November 2019

I want a Lexicograsaurus

If you ever wanted a non-biology based allegory for the process of natural selection, I reckon there are two good candidates.

The first would be fairy stories. As I wrote in this blogpost in 2008:

'With the exception of those that were popularised by Joseph Jacobs - and which now survive as pantomimes - most British fairy stories fell out of use through neglect. Instead of being told and retold and adapted and changed, they were preserved and archived by 18th century folklorists who collected and stored them away for posterity. It's good that they were not lost ... but the desire to 'preserve' them has left them as dry and dusty as pinned moths in a display case. To all intents and purposes they are dead, which is why our kids don't know any of them. How sad is it that young Cornish kids all know Andersen's Little Mermaid but don't know about the Mermaid of Zennor? Isn't it tragic that kids know all about Pocahontas but have never heard of The Wise Men of Gotham?' 

British fairy stories haven't evolved in the way that European tales have. Little Red Riding Hood has gone through many changes and so it endures. 95% of traditional British stories are pretty much dead.

The other great allegory is the English language itself. I love that it is fluid and plastic and constantly changing. It evolves. Words die and new ones arise; the fittest survive and the dinosaurs become extinct. That doesn't mean we can't love them and be fascinated by them though. We have a Thesaurus for synonyms and antonyms. Wouldn't it be fun to have something like a Lexicograsaurus to store all the extinct ones?

Here are a few that I love and which, like the stegosaurus and the pteranodon, I wish we still had around.

Aquabob: An icicle.

Beef-witted: Having an inactive brain, thought to be from eating too much beef.

Bibliobibuli: People who read too much; constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whisky or religion.

Bookwright: A writer of books; an author; a term of slight contempt.

Bumwhush: Ruin and obscurity. California widow: A married woman whose husband is away from her for any extended period.

Curglaff: The shock felt in bathing when one first plunges into the cold water.

Drumble: To move lazily or sluggishly.

Englishable: That which may be rendered into English.

Fubbery: Deceit, cheating.

Groak: To silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them.

Ilspile: A hedgehog. Other words include Cirogrille, used by medieval writers; echinus, the Latin; furze-pig; hotchi withcu, in Gypsy; hurcheon; irchepil; irchon; tiggy.

Jirble: To pour out (a liquid) with an unsteady hand.

Lunting: Walking while smoking a pipe.

Murlimews: The blessings and crossings that priests make with the holy water.

Nurk: The worst pig in the litter.

Peenge: To complain in a whiny voice.

Pussyvan: A flurry, temper.

Quignogs: Ridiculous notions.

Resistentialism: The seemingly spiteful behaviour shown by inanimate objects.

Sardoodledom: A type of play with a contrived and often melodramatic plot. It also describes plays that are well-written, but have trivial or morally objectionable plots.

Skybosh: A practical joke or tomfoolery.

Snoutfair: A person with a handsome countenance.

Soda-squirt: One who works at a soda fountain in New Mexico.

Special-Bastard: A child born to a couple that aren't married who then marry.

Spermologer: A picker-up of trivia, of current news, a gossip monger, what we would today call a columnist.

Swabble: To make a noise like sloshing water.

Tyromancy: Divining by the coagulation of cheese.

With squirrel: Pregnant.

Wonder-wench: A sweetheart.

Zafty: A person very easily imposed upon.

... and the wonderful ...

Queerplungers: Cheats who throw themselves into the water in order that they may be taken up by their accomplices, who carry them to one of the houses appointed by the Humane Society for the recovery of drowned persons, where they are rewarded by the society with a guinea each, and the supposed drowned person, pretending he was driven to that extremity by great necessity, is also frequently sent away with a contribution in his pocket.

Words found in The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten by Jeffrey Kacirk.


Halfway there!

Fanfare.


Cockerings is now 50% funded and about to smash through into the second half of its crowdfunding journey.

What good news.

If you haven't pre-ordered the book, why not? Just click here.

The story follows on from A Murder To Die For and The Diabolical Club and brings us up to speed with what happened to a certain disgraced police officer. And, as might have been previously mentioned, we get to maim some clowns.

By pledging your money, you will:

(a) help the book become a reality;

(b) get your name printed in the book as a patron; and

(c) get your book before it arrives in the shops or online. Yup, you'll see it before Bezos does!

To those of you who have pledged already - thank you!

To the rest of you ... what are you waiting for??


Thursday, 24 October 2019

Where have all the Monsters gone?

Remember this?


Or this?


Seen much of Nessie recently?

Nope, nor me.

I was lucky enough recently to chat to the extraordinary Colonel John Blashford-Snell, explorer, inventor of white water rafting and Operation Raleigh, and Honorary Life President of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. John has travelled all over the world in search of cryptids and has been successful in finding the fabled Andean double-nosed dog and the almost legendary giant elephants of Bardia, Nepal. He even had a go at finding Nessie a few times, including one using sonar aboard an airship floating slowly over the loch, but he didn't find the monster. We didn't have time to discuss it in any detail and he had no firm conviction as to its existence but it did set me off wondering ... where have all the monsters gone? By coincidence, this cartoon panel appeared on the always excellent XKCD webcomic site.



And it's true isn't it? Once upon a time there was a proliferation of fuzzy, indistinct photographs of UFOs, lake monsters, ghosts, yetis, sasquatches and bigfeet, and bug-eyed greys. And you can understand why; cameras were awkward, bulky. You had to load film into them and set f-stops and shutter speeds. And you had to focus the damn thing. It's amazing anyone ever got a photo at all. But, these days, we nearly all have point and click, autofocussing hi-resolution digital cameras and we all carry them around with us. They're even built into our phones, laptops and tablets. So there should be hundreds of new Nessie photos every year. And that's not counting CCTV, webcams and satellites photographing every inch of the loch from space. If Google Earth can get pics of Loch Ness like this ...


 ... pics so close that you can actually see the ripples on the surface ...


 ... why can't it capture a dirty great monster? Or monsters. After all, it's unlikely that Nessie, if she exists, is a lone example of her species. There must be a breeding population of these things.

The oldest possible 'sighting' of Nessie goes back to St Columba in 565CE who went out on the loch to admonish a 'water beast' that had killed a fisherman. Even assuming there was only a breeding pair there at the time, you'd have a pretty sizeable population by now, some 1,400+ years later. And even if that population had been denuded by pollution or changes in environment, those changes have happened only in the last 300 years, so the loch should have been swarming with the wee buggers in the centuries beforehand. To add to the weight of evidence against, we must also take into account that the most common theory about Nessie is that she's a 'living fossil'; a plesiosaur or some other long-necked animal that we only know of through the fossil record. As far as we know, the last of the plesiosaurs died out, along with their cousins the dinosaurs and pterosaurs, during the K-Pg Extinction Event. So, if a few survived and bred, they've had 65 million years to breed and multiply. Wouldn't the loch be teeming with them now? And surely they would have spread out? Loch Ness does connect to the sea and there's lots more food out there than there is in the loch.


Now, I realise that some people will point to the coelacanth, a bony-limbed fish that we believed extinct for 65 million years that turned up, alive and well, in 1938 and say, 'Aha!' But the coelacanth is a deep water fish whereas the sea reptiles were air breathers like whales and seals and had to keep returning to the surface. Surely there would be more than just a few odd, poorly described or recorded sightings?

Nope

The sad fact is that much as I desperately want there to be living prehistoric animals, all the evidence - or lack of it - amounts to a big fat nothing. Even with brilliant photoshoppers out there, no good photos - allegedly real or outright fake - have turned up in ages. And it's not as if the public's interest has waned - you only have to look at the press response to James May's Skegness monster hoax in 2012 to see that.

But let's not give up hope eh? We're discovering new species every year, some that we'd thought long extinct. Who knows what may turn up? Sadly, I doubt it'll be a plesiosaur. It's more likely to be something small-ish like the recently discovered Lord Howe's Stick Insect, one of the largest insects on the planet and believed extinct since 1930 ... until a small population turned up in 2001 living under a single shrub on the small islet of Ball's Pyramid, the world's tallest and most isolated sea stack.

Meanwhile, don't get me started on UFOs, flat Earthers and little green men ...



Thursday, 17 October 2019

Shake those Agitrons

As ya'll know by now, I love words. I frequently post lists of obscure words (like here, here and here) and, not long ago, I posted a list of words we might have been using if William the Conqueror hadn't conquered (the list is here).

I also love cartoons and if you put the two together you get strips, comics and graphic novels. Mort Walker was one of the great strip cartoon artists, most famous for his Beetle Bailey character.


But Walker was also a great teacher of the art of cartooning and someone who loved to play with language. In 1980, he wrote a deliciously tongue-in-cheek book called The Lexicon of Comicana in which he created names and bogus origins for all of the little graphic effects that cartoonists use in their work. Take, for example, the final panel in the strip above; the little clouds under the running soldiers are there to indicate movement. Walker called them briffits.


Here are some others:

Agitrons: wiggly lines around a shaking object or character.

Blurgits, swalloops: curved lines preceding or trailing after a character's moving limbs.

Dites: diagonal, straight lines drawn across flat, clear and reflective surfaces, such as windows and mirrors.

Grawlixes: typographical symbols standing for profanities, appearing in dialogue balloons in place of actual dialogue.

Hites: horizontal straight lines trailing after something moving with great speed; or, drawn on something indicating reflectivity (puddle, glass, mirror).

Indotherm: wavy, rising lines used to represent steam or heat; when the same shape is used to denote smell, it is called a wafteron.

Lucaflect: a shiny spot on a surface of something, depicted as a four-paned window shape.

Plewds: flying sweat droplets that appear around a character's head when working hard, stressed, etc.

Solrads: radiating lines drawn from something luminous like a lightbulb or the sun.

Squeans: little starbursts or circles that signify intoxication, dizziness or sickness.

Vites: vertical straight lines indicating reflectivity (compare dites, hites).

Every artist should have a copy and, I'm delighted to say, it's still in print. The book is brilliant and has been a constant joy to me since I first got my copy in 1985 in a now long-gone bookshop in London called Dark they Were and Golden-Eyed.

 Damn, now I'm feeling all nostalgic.

Add some lapsebeams around me.


Thursday, 3 October 2019

Here we Tingo

The English language is a glorious hodge-podge of other languages, which is why it's pretty much the only language that needs a Thesaurus. There are multiple words for almost everything. And individual words can have multiple meanings.

Just the simple word 'RUN' has 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months researching its many shades of meaning. It's now out-run (ouch) the previous record-holders 'SET' and 'PUT'.

But despite this, there are many situations and things that don't have a single English word to describe them. And that's why I suggest we look overseas and embrace our foreign chums. They have many of the issues sorted. For example:

The Japanese term Age-otori means to look worse after a haircut, and Tatemae and Honne mean what you pretend to believe and what you actually believe, respectively. Meanwhile, Arigata-meiwaku denotes an act that someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude.

Backpfeifengesicht is how Germans describe a face badly in need of a fist, and Waldeinsamkeit is the feeling of being alone in the woods.

In the Phillipines, Gigil means the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute and in the Congo, an Ilunga is a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.

For the French L’esprit de l’escalier - usually translated as 'staircase wit' - is the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it, and in Mexico, Pena ajena  is the embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation. 

On Easter Island Tingo means to borrow objects one by one from a neighbour’s house until there is nothing left.

However, it may be hard to get our tongues around such words. We suffer from the Japanese condition of Yoko meshi - literally ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language.

You can find many more in Adam Jacot de Boinod's excellent books, such as The Meaning of Tingo. Check them out here.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Pricks in Space!

Here's the most curious story I've ever read about Andy Warhol. There is, allegedly, a secret art show installed on a hatch on a leg of the Apollo 12 landing module Intrepid. And one of the artworks on display is Andy Warhol's cock.

Artist Forrest ‘Frosty’ Myers tried to arrange for a ‘Moon Museum’ - a small collection of artworks - to be taken to the Moon on Apollo 12 but NASA rejected the idea. He therefore enlisted the help of an unnamed engineer at the Grumman Corporation and did it as guerrilla art. Work by Robert Rauschenberg (a wavy line), Andy Warhol (stylised initials), John Chamberlain (a geometric pattern), Claes Oldenburg (a mouse), David Novros (a square) and Myers (a computer generated shape) were miniaturized and baked onto an iridium-plated ceramic wafer measuring just 3/4" x 1/2" x 1/40", with the assistance of engineer Fred Waldhauer at Bell Labs.


Waldhauer knew an engineer at Grumman - only ever identified as John F - who agreed to attach it to Intrepid. Consequently, it was then allegedly taken to the Moon where it remains to this day. It was only later that NASA discovered what had happened, and that the supposedly ‘stylised initials’ drawn by Andy Warhol were, in fact, a drawing of a penis. At least 16 Moon Museums were created, making it one of rarest of 1960s multiples. Here's a better image of the postage stamp-sized 'Museum' where you can see the details more closely:


So, is the story true? NASA has never confirmed it. But, in 2010, the US PBS TV network did a documentary about the alleged lunar artwork and tracked down Apollo 12’s launch pad foreman, Richard Kupczyk, who confirmed that it is indeed on the lander - along with plenty of other smuggled items. 'Apollo was something bigger than life, and we were all part of it,' he said. 'We wanted to leave a mark.' And Frosty Myers is happy to show people a telegram dated 12th November 1969 from 'John F' stating: 'YOUR ON A.O.K. ALL SYSTEMS GO'. And the event was reported at the time. Two days after Apollo 12 left the moon (and two days before they splashed down) Myers broke the story to The New York Times which ran the article accompanied by a photograph of one of the 'Museums' - with a strategically placed thumb over Warhol's contribution.


If it was a hoax, it has lasted remarkably well and no one has ever managed to successfully debunk the story. I guess we'll only truly know the truth when we return to the Moon and someone goes and checks. But I hope it's true. I really hope it's true.

One small cock for a man, one cheeky act for Mankind.