Sunday, 27 February 2011

Fishy Regime Change

One of my friends tried to plant a seed of discomfort in my mind last night by suggesting that the current uprising in the Arab World could be this generation's shooting of the Archduke or appeasing of Hitler.

His worry is that amid the jubilation of removing hated dictators, the countries will lurch even further towards radicalised Islamism and intensified hatred of the West, not least because of the West's sponsorship of some of the more unpleasant dictators in order to serve their own strategic needs. With more extreme leaders in charge they may form a unified bloc against Israel (remembering, of course, that Mubarak was a key ally of the Jewish state) and exert pressure on it and, by proxy ourselves, America and the rest of Europe. As oil prices sky-rocket and tension levels reach breaking point, it will only take one lucky punt by an Iranian missile or a piece of over-confidence by the Israelis for bedlam to be unleashed in a mushroom cloud.

So the apocalyptic thinking goes. But then we both took a sunnier view, that perhaps this Arab Spring could turn out to be the start of a joyous domino effect across the region. That maybe over the next few years dictators will be toppled across the whole Middle East, into Central Asia and all the Stans and finally, miraculously, up to the Far East. North Koreans will celebrate the birth of liberal democracy by growing their own David Dimbleby in a lab and you will finally be able to read the BBC website in China without fear of having lit matches stuck under your eyelids.

But I hope the sweep won't finish there. There are other terror regimes and brutal monarchies that urgently need to be swept aside. Once the wave of democracy surges east I hope that it keeps going past China and into the Pacific to remove that most hated of royals, King Neptune of the Deeps. For centuries he has presided over a rule marked by vanity, overuse of power and a lack of basic rights for krill. The large piscine majority has been brutally suppressed for years by the mammal-shark alliance who deplore the diversity of life they display. Although there were many dolphin and shark led genocides, these vicious creatures soon learned that even such heavy-handed behaviour couldn't make a dint in the numbers of fish, not even with the help of the similarly piscacidal (to use the correct term) humans and their taste for fish flesh. The most heinous act of these violent henchmen of Neptune has been the enforcing of the law that insists squids must hide themselves with ink at all times, so as not to display their suggestive form to the wider ocean. Some more extreme factions even wanted to extend this ruling to all cephalopods, but after the Oysterbank threatened to wreck the Pearl Standard in protest, there was a back down.

However, emboldened by the rumblings of discontent on land, fish are beginning to rise up against this heinous state of affairs. Communicating via sonar and Plaicebook, whole shoals of fish have been engaging in civil disobedience against Neptune. With the recent shift of power seeing barracudas and giant lobsters join in this grass roots (ok, seaweed stem) revolution, more and more fish have become confident of change. A series of suicide bloaters attacking Neptune's palace in the past few weeks have scared enough of his followers away that he is currently protected by his own elite SAS (Seriously Angry Sharks) and there are reports of former Neptune henchmen handing themselves in to Seaworlds the all over the American Western Seaboard.

One hopes it will only be a matter of time before we see a Republic of Fish declared and Neptune's body appearing in some terrified trawlerman's net. Once that happens the world can turn its eyes onto Lapland and the vile Claus gangster family and its naughty and nice protection racket. Vive la Revolution!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Double Summer Time

A report commissioned by David Cameron has come out in favour of Britain adopting Double Summer Time, meaning that we'll move our clocks forward by two hours in the summer to come into sync with the Continent. It will lengthen afternoons, lower accidents and gently boost the deckchair industry. But what I'm most charmed about is that the name - Double Summertime - sounds like the most magical place imaginable.

Somewhere east of Marioland and west of Ambrosia, it will contain the near endless joy of sticky wooden tables outside pubs, long shadows in the park and the gentle fuzz of sunstroke tempered by cider. A place where everybody looks louche and happy, the sun becomes a blazing lollipop at midday and clouds morph into the shape of ice cream whips, raining down hundreds and thousands upon cheering gingerbread citizens. Double Summer Time will shine with the glow of a million childhood afternoons spent playing in a paddling pool.

Now before I go overdrawn in my whimsy account, I fear that a bit of reflection is necessary. This blessed window of idyllic opportunity isn't, sadly, being created so that Britain can live a more continental lifestyle of alfresco dining, but for productivity. Woe betide that we the British people take this extra hour gifted to us by our benevolent Coalition overlords and waste it on anything as fleeting as fun and relaxation. No, we must use this extra hour of summertime daylight to squeeze out those extra precious percentiles of G, D and P to get this country out of its sorry mess. This isn't a free period children, it is lunchtime detention on the warmest day of the year. You think you're getting iced tea and Beach Boys, but it is actually going to be sticky tar and Magic FM. In roadworks. With the air conditioning broken.

The more I think about it, the more the name seems less enticing, less full of childlike wonder. It's almost Orwellian - we may be in austere times, inflation may be rising and jobs decreasing, but don't worry, this summertime's going to be twice as good - it must be, the clue is in the name. We should get incredibly worried if Cameron tries to tempt us with Half Winter, Triple Spring and Pi Christmas (the number keeps going on forever and so will the holiday. Terrifying.)

Who knows, in a few years time he might move on from the seasons to the months: Smilevember, Daveuary and, that most totalitarian of months, March. Hours of the day will be given different personalities too: ten to freight, quarter to war and half-past tax, not for getting the all important social inclusion five minutes of twenty-five past fun. By the time Uncle Dave has bamboozled the nation with his mastery of our clocks he will have become some sort of wizened Tory Father Time, manoeuvring the fourscore and ten of every citizen until it matches a carefully calibrated flag chart designed by George Osborne. Or as he’ll be known by then - as Cameron’s temporal sidekick – Minutes.

We thought that the austerity coalition was going to destroy our lives by removing benefits and public sector jobs. It’s far worse – they want the very seconds of our lives.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Cricket, eh?

With the Ashes safely in the bag, the England cricket team have reverted to their true role of providing amusement in the most unlikely of places, this time by sneaking a victory against those giant redwood's of the game, Canada.

It seems as though every few years an unexpected new nation appears on the international cricketing roster, each more unlikely than the last. When I was a young boy, the sight of the Irish or Scottish rocking up to the crease, looking as though they had got lost on the way to hurling practice, was enough to make me do a double take, but now they are proudly followed by the Dutch, the Afghans and the Namibians. At least the last two here can claim the excuse of having great cricketing nations as there neighbours, but the Dutch's inclusion in cricket looks to have been based solely on the fact that their accent has been perfectly designed to say the word 'googly'.

So now we can add the friendly Canadians to this merry band of willow-thwacking minnows. In many ways, it is a more charming list than that of footballing small fry (as appealing as Lichtenstein against Andorra sounds, the reality is just a bunch of unemployed skiing instructors kicking lumps out of each other) and there must be a genuine love of this bizarre game to encourage them to take it up, rather than just a desire to chase after Wayne Rooney's shadow and then have an asthma attack. But what is so beguiling about our friends from across the Atlantic joining in is just that - they're from 5000 miles to the west. It's confusing enough having the Argies wanting to play a bit of rugby, but now there's a desire for a Mountie XI.

Obviously, cricket was the sport of the Empire, and was embraced by both Britain's jewel and its mass prison, as well as its diamond quarry. All of these places took up the game with one aim in mind: beat the bloody Poms. But there has never been particularly bad blood between us and the Canadians and they already have the highest standard of living in the world, so why the desire to beat us? The cricket pitch is a place renowned for top class, acerbic banter and I can't imagine these bland, uber-polite people will get the hang of sledging either - "Hey Strauss, you're wife's lost weight! Good job, eh!", "Pietersen, have you been working out, eh?" "Beautifully ironed creases in your whites Swanny. Eh."

To be honest, the match I'd love to see would be Canada vs. Holland. The most polite team in the world against the most laid back. It would just be under arm full tosses from the Canadians which the Dutch were too chilled out to bother aiming at. Over in ten balls. Almost the perfect innings to some cricket-haters.

But who's going to be next? Cricket and rugby have always been fairly aligned in the nations that take part, so soon we might be blessed with the sight of some tubby Samoans wobbling up to the crease. Maybe Canada's neighbours will get in on the action, although the thought of a game being played for five days and then ending in a draw could be potentially fatal to most Americans. No, I think the next team to join the cricketing pantheon must be the Falkland Islands - they're part of the Commonwealth already, they can knit their whites from their flock of sheep and if we can beat them we get to keep them. Forever.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Great Artefacts of Literature

Divers off the east coast of America have just discovered the remains of the Two Brothers, the ship captained by the man who inspired the character of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. This is completely amazing as far as I'm concerned. It's like discovering a gravestone with the name Magwitch on it, the remnants of a Wellsian tripod or even that classic object of great fiction, the Ark of the Covenant.

After doing some basic research, I have found evidence of more great objects from literature than have been discovered in recent years and humbly present top five:

5. The Chrysalis of the Very Hungry Caterpillar - This fascinating piece is hidden away somewhere in the bowels of the Natural History Museum, delicately stored in a tiny glass phial and kept under close guard by the Caterpillar's estate. The charming autobiography of a titan of the insect world has gone on to entertain many a young and enquiring mind, but not many people know that this book was actually about a dreadful eating disorder. The caterpillar in question may have made light of his voracious appetite in this volume, but his later works based on his own life - The Worryingly Obese Caterpillar, Self-Image Problems in the Chrysalis and The Butterfly Special Effect - Plastic Surgery for Red Admirals - suggest an insect mind in turmoil.

4. The Hat of the Cat in the Hat - This is a hat with a great history. Originally belonging to one Mr.M.Hatter, he bequeathed it on his deathbed to his friend the Mr.M.M.Hare. Sadly, Mr.Hare was a figment of the Hatter's mercury-addled imagination and so was buried with him in his paupers grave. Several decades past and the gorgeous green felt and velvet hat remained buried six feet above ground with its now deceased owner (this was Wonderland after all). However, word had got around to the currently hatless Cat, that there was an item of headwear that could propel him to worldwide fame.

Having struggled for years on the variety circuit as the Moggy in the Mac and the Pussy in Pyjamas, the Cat finally decided to hunt down what he thought would be the key to his success. Under the cover of darkness the Cat left Dr.Zeuss' Late Night Cabaret Bar and Gentleman's Club and took a cab out west to Wonderland. Having paid off the driver with $50 in unmarked bills and watched his lights disappear into the darkness, like two glowing cherries on a never-ending black forest gateau, the Cat headed to the site of the Hatter's burial-(above)-ground. Soon he found it. Suspended a full six feet above ground, preserved as perfectly as a pickled Inca-mummy but for a gentle casing of dust, was the titular Hatter and his velveteen hat.

The Cat quickly assembled his portable step ladder and gently removed the hat from its original owner with all the care of a neurosurgeon ensuring that he doesn't make his patient awaken to speak fluent chicken. He descended the latter and placed the hat, his hat, on his head. The moment it covered his ears of serrated catflesh he felt an overwhelming sense of lunatic joy and was simultaneously knocked flat by a cacophanous sonic boom. Luckily, being a cat, he landed on all fours. As he dusted himself down he looked up to where the hatter had been and saw a gently fading purple and puce afterimage of his body, dopplering away into nothingness. The hat was now his and the rest is now history.

3. Yossarian's Draft Card - If you go to the Museum of Congress in Washington and know the right person to ask you can find all sorts of artefacts far more surprising than anything hidden in the Nevada desert: a protoype for Bradbury's Hound, transcripts of Phillip.K.Dick's dreams (complete with drawings of android sheep), judges scorecards from the first Fight Club. But the most poignant piece of history contained within is this draft card. Battered and careworn, with what appear to be teeth marks all around the edge, it shows the picture of a bright, happy and optimistic young man, taken sometime in 1940. There is a twinkle in the eye that suggests he knows how to seduce the broads and a sharpness to the pressing of his uniform that can only mean promotion is close by. Sadly, we know that the war had a dreadful effect on this potentially wonderful human being and that is reflected in the code scribbled and stamped over every last patch of the card, like some sort of administrative tattoo: C-22. C-22. C-22.

2. Original Manuscript of "There and Back Again" by Bilbo Baggins - Never has a re-discovered folio caused greater contention in the press. At first dismissed as yet another Hitler's Diary, then lauded as a greater discovery than Love's Labours Won and finally confirmed as proof of Tolkein's stunning ability as a cross-dimensional war correspondent, this tattered 254 page vellum booklet is a remarkable piece of literary history. Discovered concurrently with Tolkein's diaries which confirm his use of the cellar of the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford as the hub of his dimension-jumping adventures, this manuscript, tells of one brave hobbit's travels around his idyllic village as the first rumblings of the Great War of Middle Earth began to stir.

The layout of the work is fascinating, with each sheet divided in two: one half showing Baggin's scratchy runic recounting of his adventure, the other showing Tolkein's more elegant hand translating and annotating. Littered with crossings out and amendments, one can really see the thought process as Tolkein's mastery of Hobbitian is pushed to the limit as he tries to translate Bilbo's vernacular into a cohesive narrative comprehensible to the human mind. Just as the North Sea arms race between Britain and Germany at the start of the 20th century can be seen to prefigure WWI, so Bilbo's encounter with the dragon and trolls can be seen in the light of a shift in political power to the rogue state of Mordor.

This piece is not to be confused with the shambolic and ill-conceived fake manuscript bandied around Oxford at the same time by the charlatan Lewis, who claimed to have found a Lion, a man-goat hybrid and some sort of autistic Scandinavian royalty in his digs. It was later revealed that a mix of jealousy and an addiction to mildly psychedelic loganberry port had addled Lewis' mind beyond repair, and his work made him the laughing stock of British Academia. The nadir came at the ceremony of Tolkein's investiture into the Brotherhood of Trans-Dimensional Journalists (previous members including Mr.H.Bosch, Ms.M.Shelly and Mr.W.Blake) when a clearly disturbed Lewis turned up sporting a giant unkempt beard, a Viking helmet and some homemade angel wings, hollered "Aslan's alive!" and passed out on the top table.

1. Scrooge's Christmas Turkey - Now owned by that famous gastro-historian, Dr.H.Blumenthal, this huge skeleton is the only proof we have that Dicken's great fable is in fact based on truth. Historians were first alerted to this possibility when burial records in Victorian Islington showed that a rich man by the name of Abanazar Scrounge had been laid to rest in the main cemetery in Angel. Scrounge was a remarkable character - the grandson of a grand vizier of the Moorish court, his father moved to London at the turn of the century and caused a great stir by converting to Christianity. At first not accepted by the uptight Victorian establishment, Scrounge Senior won them over with his years of philanthropic work.

His son, however, grew up a conflicted man. Torn between the homeland of his forefathers and his adopted country and weighted down by his fathers great name, Scrounge became an embittered spendthrift. Convinced that his father had been a fool to forgo his family's birthright of a powerful place in the Moorish court in favour of tending to the undeserving poor, Scrounge's years as a young man about society were marked by bitterness and sniping. He longed to return to the land of the Moors, but knew that as a man brought up with the manners of an English city gent, would never fit in. Rather than follow in his father's footsteps he remained tight-fisted and sour-faced, until the famous episode with the three ghosts as recounted by Dickens.

Clearly his father's generously-spirited genes could not be denied, and in his later years Scrounge - or Scrooge as he became in the story - threw the grandest and most opulent of Christmas feasts. The carcass of this turkey shows it to have been a whopping 23 pounder and electro-imaging techniques have discovered that it was stuffed with quail, ptarmigan, pigeon, coot, goose, duck, chicken and starling, though probably not in that order. This turkey was so symbolically loved by Scrounge that he was eventually buried with it. The turkey had a separate coffin and was interred by Scrounge's side, and is hopefully now gobbling away up in heaven along with this great man.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Disobedient Mind

I have an extremely disobedient brain. Ask it to assist in the performing of the simplest of social interactions and it starts misbehaving like an overexuberant St.Bernard in the hands of a geriatric owner.

Here is the basic instruction I gave my brain today: do not stare at ladies' cleavages. Now, I don't want you to think I'm some sort of mammary-obsessed lech (no more so than any other owner of a fleshy gearstick), but because I know that the socially-accepted, polite norm is to look a lady in the eyes whilst talking to her, my brain automatically focuses them about 10 inches south. I don't do it out of lust and base impulses, I don't do it because I think women enjoy my leering, I don't do it because I'm a slavering, testosterone-heavy beast with no control over my libido. I do it because my brain knows I shouldn't. And because my brain knows I shouldn't, I don't do it overtly, just the mere flicker of a retina suggests that my brain has been disobeying its direct orders. But they know.

If only it were just these simple occasions on which my noggin stepped out of line. But it always sends the wrong orders to the rest of my body. I burp really loudly in public. Again, this is as much to do with me being uncouth as staring at ladies' airbags has to do with my unbidden libido. I love a good sonorous burp in private. I'll pretend to be some sort of deep-sea troll calling to his mate whilst burping away in the shower. But I appear to have got so atuned to doing this that they just rattle out of me at any old time when I'm walking along. For similar reasons, I happily hum, sing, whistle, buzz and warble in time to my I-pod as I walk down the street. That, interjected with my weapons grade burping and the odd impression of whatever silly voice is in my head must make me sound like a Stravinsky Suite scored for One Man Band with Tourettes.

So, when I'm not accidentally checking you out, I'm quite likely to be merrily polluting the atmosphere by detonating my belly-bombs orally. I think my brain needs to be trained by some sort of Crufts training. Maybe I can get some sort of neurological strict spinster to shout appropriate instructions to my cerebral cortex to make it sit up and obey.

Monday, 7 February 2011

On the Edge of Dreams

"How can you deny the existence of God when the Ark of the Covenant is downstairs in the garage?" says my Dad.

"It's not the real Ark", I reply "it's a fake made out of cardboard and tinfoil. Please don't twist things Dad, you're as bad as those Seven Day Adventists I met on the Great Wall of China earlier this afternoon."

"I'm sorry son, but this is the real world, now get down and pray or I'll..."


And then I wake up.


Why do the dreams you have at 8 in the morning, after the first chirruping of your alarm clock, but before you achieve full consciousness, have to be so bizarre, yet so vivid and in some small, twisted way, so plausible? It's almost as if this small window back into the land of the id is giving you the DVD extras of your dreams: the visions they tried to ban - to hot for midnight. It's a dreadful thing to spring on your mind just before you take on the real world. Maybe it's an evolutionary protection system, your brain saying: "you think today's going to be bad? Think you can't handle a Monday morning hole-punching 754 memos? Well here's how fucked-up the world could be - get up, get on with it and thank the lord that existence isn't scripted by David Lynch."

I wonder whether people on this planet with truly wretched lives have similar pre-waking dreams. What could their minds possibly concoct that was worse than they had to deal with. Maybe all the starving, the tortured, the dispossessed, in the moments before they achieve lucidity, see nothing but a constant re-run of the 1986 Scottish League Cup Third Round highlights. Poor bastards.

I'm told by friends of mine who own dreamcatchers in all seriousness and are able to keep a straight face whilst using the term 'spirit guide', that the best thing to do in these situations is to try and steer the dream. Lucid dreaming it's called. Apparently the trick is to realise you're in a dream without realising so much that you actually wake up - a trick almost as hard as making love to a beautiful woman whilst simultaneously trying to imagine that you're de-lagging the pipes in your old house, so as to stave off climax. (I use the classic 'lagging-the-pipes' Tantric technique here, so as to intrigue the initiate in the ways of sexual force. Safe to say, I currently use methods far more advanced to maintain my sexual prowess, including visualising untangling the laces of old walking boots, peeling PVC glue off my hands and Eric Morecambe.)

Once you're in this state of lucid dreaming, on the flightdeck of your imagination, you can start to actively interact with the plotline the little Stephen Moffat in your head has decided to give you, and gently guide it to where you want to go. Now, this is all well and good in practice, but the male psyche is an unsurprisingly simple beast and no matter how much you try to guide it towards revealing cosmic secrets, it will invariably head Due Libido. And so this is why the last image I had in my head before I emerged from sleep for the second time this morning was of a naked and unfeasibly hot lady bursting forth from the Ark of the Covenant like a stripper from an over-sized birthday cake.

I hope no one ever finds the black box from the wreckage of my wrecked dreams.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Royal Rumble

I am currently sat on my sofa watching England make a hash of beating Wales at rugby union. On Wednesday I completely ignored Newcastle failing to beat Fulham. And on Sunday morning I was slightly disappointed by Andy Murray painting the entire tennis court black and shouting at the crowd about how they didn't understand him and he was going to sulk in this room.

But all these great sporting occasions (quiet there at the back, any visit of Newcastle to Craven Cottage is a great sporting occasion) paled into insignificance compared to what I witnessed early on Monday morning: the Royal Rumble.

Even if someone was able to restage Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey using Thomas the Tank Engine figurines to the theme from the A-Team, it wouldn't inflame my nostalgia glands in the way that watching a collection of pituitary stereotypes bludgeon each other out of a ring for an hour and a half.

The oddest thing that struck me about it was how life-affirming it was: there were all kinds in the ring. True, muscle-bound egomaniacs in tight speedos were in abundance, but in what other arena would you witness men both seven and a half feet and three and a half feet tall compete? Unless the basketball court in 2012 gets double-booked for the Olympic and Paralympic teams. Where else would tactics of 5-on-1 be encouraged, never mind allowed? Where else would you find joyous names like Diesel, Hornswoggle and good old William Regal?

I think that the Royal Rumble could be used to solve all sorts of disputes. No more penalty shoot-outs - if a game finishes in a draw, stick all 22 players in the centre circle, last man in there wins. No more hung parliaments - turn the whole Commons chamber into a wrestling ring, lock the doors and whoever has the most MPs left in there at the end of 24 hours gets to stay in power (Egyptians are currently trying an extreme version of this in Tahrir Square.) I think you could even solve relationship disputes with it. Why bother with a divorce lawyer? Turn litigation into a full-on, in-house, family feud. Each member of the marriage selects five of their hardest family members into the house in dispute, all possessions are weapons and yet again, last man standing wins.

The simplicity is joyous. Who knows, in the apocalyptic future, with the world's resources at a premium, the entire human race could be drawn into a worldwide rumble, loading your opponents onto spaceships and slinging them over the top rope of the ozone layer and into oblivion, ready for the Wrestlemania prize that is the survival of the species.