Friday, January 12, 2007

Exclusive U2 News

DUBLIN: International supergroup 'U2' have announced details of their long-awaited new album. The recording, entitled "U2 Unplugged", is in fact completely silent for the full duration of its 72 minute run time.

"All over the world, people stand together united in the desire to hear Bono finally shut his face for once", said Roberto Alberto Umbwebwe, CEO of U2's record company. "We believe this album will have strong crossover appeal even to non-U2 fans."

"Our research shows that most people would pay good money to be spared yet another one of Bono's tiresome lectures, and if there's money to be made, we want some of it." he added.

U2 has recently drawn criticism for moving their vast fortunes to an offshore tax haven. Fellow band member 'The Edge' commented "It's important that we don't waste a single cent of our hard-earned money on contributing to our national economy, paying for schools, hospitals, and the like, when that money could be better spent buying Bono a new pair of sunglasses to go stylin' in. It's an essential part of spreading the message to ordinary people that they can make poverty history. Of course it would only devalue the point if we were to reach into our pockets ourselves."

Critics have already heaped praise on the new album. "This album of silence is easily the best thing U2 has ever done," said Radio 1's Alex Smash. "Previous albums, while technically very accomplished, suffered by having the all-too-brief moments of genius silence interrupted by long, poorly-performed attempts at music. But since then, U2 has clearly matured considerably, very much focusing on what people want the most, and what the band is clearly best at - nothing."

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Big List Of Things That Are British

George And MildredIt’s a slightly depressing sign of the times that matters of “immigration” and “illegal aliens” are such hot topics in our society. It seems that there are altogether far too many people who spend their days reading the often criminally stupid newspapers, or watching the equally criminally stupid TV news. Anyone exposed to these for more than a few days would be under the impression that our country is awash with tens of millions of illegal immigrants who will take our jobs, and our houses, and perhaps even our beloved garden gnomes, unless this menace is stopped.

Needless to say I don’t agree. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to seek a better life in another country. It may not be long before anyone with half a brain cell gives up on our fine British nation and moves somewhere which still has some culture left. I hear that Germany is nice. No, seriously – this weekend I listened to “Bayern 4”, a radio station from the nice people at Bayerisches Rundfunk in Germany, which was playing nice Christmas music from around the world. The problem with Germany, and German radio stations in particular, is that of course all the speaking is done in a different language. But you can’t fail to be impressed by the class of a country where radio and TV stations routinely start any announcement with the words “Meine Damen und Herren” – My Ladies and Gentlemen. It must be nice to live in a country where the media treats its audience with that kind of respect.

But my point, and I do have one, is this. Part of the British Government’s plan to be seen as really taking a tough line on keeping out the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, is that future applicants seeking to become a British Citizen will be made to take a citizenship test. Today I was taking a look at some of the questions that visitors will be asked.

They come, very conveniently, in the form of multiple choice questions. A subject I know something about. Part of the way I used to (and in fact, just recently, still do) make my living is in writing quiz questions. I know a hard question when I see one. And the ‘Citizenship Test’ has lots of impossible questions which probably 80% of British Citizens (probably the same citizens who read all those stupid newspapers) would be unable to answer.

Try this. “How many children live with a single parent? 15%, 25%, 35% or 45%?”

The secret to writing good, enjoyable multiple choice questions is in making sure that you can eliminate a few answers by the process of elimination. So an obviously wrong choice like “100%” would be a good start in a stupid statistics question like that. But then again maybe this is not the sort of quiz you’re supposed to enjoy taking, enjoyment being a rather un-British pursuit.

“What percentage of the UK population is white? 68%, 74%, 85%, 92%”

I don’t know. Nor do I really care. Who wrote these boring, tiresome questions? Well, probably civil servants and politicians who think that the world revolves around them. Now, no disrespect to civil servants, I used to be one, and we always liked to think that we were pretty good eggs who tried to keep the country on its feet irrespective of which bunch of morons got voted into Government every four years. Even so, most of these questions just wouldn’t interest anyone.

“Judges are appointed by: A) The Home Secretary, B) The Prime Minster, C) The Queen, D) The Lord Chancellor.”

I live in this country and I don’t know that. I don’t need to.

I can’t help but think that they might have been having a bit of fun with some of the options in one question, though. Picking up on another subject which is frequently mentioned in stupid newspapers attempting to create a moral panic, here’s a rare opportunity to separate the informed from the uninformed.

“Is child molestation by strangers an increasing danger?

A) yes, because children play more often outside
B) only in Northern Ireland
C) yes, there is a strong increasing pattern
D) no, there is no evidence to support that claim”

Leaving aside the unflattering suggestion which this makes about the good people of Northern Ireland, the correct answer is actually D.

Nice to know, though, that there is even a seasonal question for this time of year. And I do enjoy the answers to this one:

“What is the traditional Christmas meal?

A) meat sausages with mashed potatoes and fruit salad
B) oatmeal with blueberries and apple pudding
C) roast turkey and pudding made from suet, dried fruit and spices
D) fish and chips, followed by tea”

The correct answer is C, although I should point out that you don’t eat the roast turkey and the pudding together, the pudding is actually for afters and should not be mixed up with the main meal.

I have to admit that I think bonus points should be awarded to anyone answering ‘D’, so delighted am I by the distinctly British suggestion of “fish and chips, followed by tea” for Christmas dinner. Any good quiz should always have one option that makes you smile.

With these things in mind, I thought it would be useful to compile a real world guide to things which are well and truly British, in order that future arrivals at this country can, instead of filling their heads with pointless statistics, instead be fully aware of what it means to wear Union Jack underwear at all times, as British people do. So, my Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, The Big List Of Things That Are British:

1. George And Mildred
There is absolutely nothing in the world more British than George And Mildred. George is a simple man with simple pleasures. Mildred is his wife, who yearns for the social status that she doesn’t quite have. They live next door to the Fourmiles, a family who actually HAS the status that Mildred doesn’t, but can’t enjoy it because their neighbours are so very lower class.

George & Mildred Roper actually began life as the people who lived upstairs on the equally famous British TV show, “Man About The House” which American viewers will know better as ‘Three’s Company’. And although both these programmes are quintessentially products of 1970s Britain, there’s enough London scenery in the Man About The House titles alone to teach you everything you need to know about how things are done round here.

2. Children’s TV
While essential Britishness is not all about television, you’re guaranteed to be able to keep a conversation moving with any thirty-or-fourty-something grown-up with the mention of some classic British children’s television. The Magic Roundabout, for example, is actually French, but this problem was eventually solved by the production of an English version which involved discarding the original French script entirely, and instead making it up pretty much as it went along.

Rainbow is also entirely British, despite featuring, as it does, a man wearing orange overalls, a pink hippopotamus named George, an adult-sized bear called Bungle, and an unidentified puppet called Zippy. Incidentally, every other ‘Rainbow’ clip on YouTube (they all start with Zippy peeling a banana and are usually 3:05 long) is not from the real series, but a joke tape made to entertain the TV crew one Christmas time. (This is known as a ‘Christmas Tape’, but that won’t be on the test unless you’re hoping to become a British Citizen AND work at a television company.)

Rentaghost could not be more British, being low budget and having an overall appearance of not actually beingvery good. But there wasn’t much to watch on TV in the 1970s and this would have to do.

By the 1980s, computers had been invented, but the spirit of British industry, as well as several major trade unions, continued to require that only skilled people with the appropriate safety equipment were allowed to operate them. Enter Chockablock, a programme for the under fives that was, as they say, chock-a-block with fun and learning. This clip shows ‘Chock-a-girl’ undertaking the essential heavy maintenance of the fun-loving supercomputer, but there was also a ‘Chock-a-bloke’ available if Chock-a-girl was otherwise engaged.

Can’t spend too long talking about this, but for further viewing, consider also Paddington, who despite being from darkest Peru was discovered at a major London train station, plus the always slightly sinister Bod, and the mighty Mr Men.

3. George Formby
In the thirty years between the creation of the universe, and the invention of music by The Beatles in 1967, there was only George Formby. Famous for his tune “When I’m Cleaning Windows”, he starred in nearly every British film there was, usually with jaunty titles like, “Mind the step, George!”. And speaking of films..

4. Carry On Movies
Carry On movies typically star one or all of the following: Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor, Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey, Bernard Bresslaw, and sometimes even Terry Scott. (See also: Dangermouse, a very British cartoon from the very British Thames Television, who also made George & Mildred and Man About The House. See how these things link together?) Sid James is also well known for his appearance alongside miserable British comedian Tony Hancock in the radio (and later TV) series ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’.

5. The Queen
The Queen is also British, despite all the people who suggest that she is actually German.

In the short time available to write this before bedtime, I have only managed to cover the top 5 British things which come to mind at this particular moment, but even armed with this knowledge, British Citizenship is guaranteed to anyone. There will be an advanced course offered at a future date, to register please send your name and address on the back of a postcard or stuck-down-envelope. (And we’ll also be explaining why postcards and the backs of stuck-down-envelopes are so British, too.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

King Of Postage

You know you're posting too much when your local Post Office gives you a proper mail sack with which to carry your packages next time. Such was the case today when I brought in a number of items, following a particularly heavy eBay session at the weekend.

I like to consider myself a considerate person. My local Post Office is small, and always has long queues. Therefore, I bring in all my post, pre-stamped. Because when you are the 'King Of Postage', like what I am, you know that these days it's really easy to print your own stamps online, with your computer. This is what I do. This way, I ensure that all my items are properly paid for, and that I do not unduly inconvenience other people who might be waiting in a queue behind me and my 12 differently-sized differently-weighted items.

Yes, I am the very model of consideration. Of course not everyone is so considerate. While I could just barge to the front of the queue and say "Excuse me, packages coming through. Hello Doris, pop these in the sack for tonight would you? Ta, sweetie." I do not actually do so. I take my place in the queue along with everyone else. This often means that I am forced to wait behind people who are misusing the Post Office for their own time-wasting needs. Such as renewing their Car Tax, or something else equally long-winded and time-consuming that usually involves lots of forms and explanation. Who are these people to delay me and my packages? Er, by which I mean, to delay the old ladies and busy businesspeople who queue alongside me?

On a couple of occasions I have found myself queueing behind pretenders to the throne. One chap, who had been given a proper mail sack some months before I was awarded the honour, was clearly a vigorous and energetic eBay seller. He had many packages, which he would, Santa-style, individually withdraw from his sack and pass over the counter for consideration, weighing and stampage. His packaging had style - nice grey mailing sacks, a type of which I am aware yet eschew the use of. He did not use adhesive labels but instead the luxury "DOCUMENTS ENCLOSED" see-through envelopes, into which he laboriously folded the PayPal receipts. He may have the glossy mailing paraphernalia, but he was not the King of Postage, spending more than 20 minutes occupying one of the two whole serving counters that my Post Office has open during busy periods.

Later, there was one bearded fellow who had brought a great number of packages in a washing bag. (I like to think I invented that fashion, but these days I prefer the sturdy Sainsburys reusable bags.) He too had many packages - again being handed over slowly, one at a time.. "Now this one.. is going to Luton.. and I think I'd like to send that.. hmm... yes, second class, and recorded delivery as well." - He had volume, but he too was not the King of Postage. Little did he know who was standing behind him.

As the window next to him became free, I made my move. "Hello, can I drop these in, please? I think you'll find they already have stamps on." The bearded man turns and can only look on in astonishment as the King of Postage fires package after package after package across the counter, swiftly, not stopping or even slowing down, ensuring that his business is conducted with speed, efficiency, and minimal delay for the remaining old ladies in the queue.

"That's fine, thankyou" smiles the lady behind the glass, pleased to have serviced the King. "Thanks, Doll. Don't go changing." says the King, offering a wink as he turns around, pausing only momentarily to glimpse at the bearded man, still waiting with his unstamped packages, before going on his royal way to the door and back out into the cool city afternoon.

"There goes the King", I'm sure the ladies were saying once I was out of earshot. And who could argue with that?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Age Brings Wisdom: The Mamas And The Papas

They say that age brings wisdom. I like to think that this is true. I've said before that it took me about 20 years to get a joke from 'The Two Ronnies' once. Which, incidentally, if you're wondering what joke it was, it was the one from "The Worm That Turned", the strange mock-serial thing they did one year, set in a world where women were all-powerful and men went around wearing dresses and skirts. The joke was that Mars bars were not called Mars bars, but "Pas bars".

This made no sense to me. Pas bars? What's that got to do with anything? Why was the name changed at all? What has a Mars bar got to do with women, such that it would make sense for it to be inverted for hilarious comedy purposes?

I never understood it. And indeed it was not until a long long time later, as I was walking to work, that eventually I got it. Mars. Sounds like "Ma's". Opposite? "Pa's." It made sense at last. Only took 20 years to work it out.

The weird thing is, it happened again the other day. In what I estimate to be something like 25 years since the original joke was first floated, suddenly a Benny Hill skit made proper sense to me for the first time.

It was never a particularly good joke to begin with. It all seemed to revolve around the title of a book, called "Please pass farther down the bus", which had inexplicably been typset onto two lines by placing a line break in the middle of the word 'farther'.

Thus, while the studio audience were busy killing themselves with laughter at seeing the word 'Fart' being written down, I was failing to see the humour. It wasn't a good joke because you do not spell Father like that. Father does not have an R in it, well, not in the middle, anyway, and since it was Father who was being passed down the bus (or at least some other people were being requested to pass him down the bus) it would at least make sense to spell the word properly. Shoe-horning the additional 'R' into Father was a forced and weak attempt at humour.

25 years on, the realisation arrived. There was no Father. He was not being passed anywhere. "Please pass farther down the bus" - please move further down. Further, farther... Not a person, but a direction. Suddenly the joke wasn't quite as laboured or unnecessary as it was before. (It was, arguably, still not very funny, but at least it made more sense now.)

Curiously enough it was at the train station on Thursday where this realisation come to me - which is literally yards from the street where I used to work, and the very spot where I had the Two Ronnies epiphany also. There must be something about that part of town.

It also occurs to me that both of these jokes are about - or not about - fathers. Spooky. Must be a comedy blind spot. It probably says something deep and meaningful about my youth. Or then again, perhaps it says nothing more than "Ed's a bit slow, you know..."

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Small things make me happy. And several things are causing me to feel happinated at the moment. Shall I list them?

1. I'm awfully pleased with myself for cleaning up the mess underneath my computer table. This brings me joy each time I put my feet down, as I am doing right now. Aah.

2. The discovery of the album "Don't Be Afraid: Get On" by Cooly's Hot Box. No, I've never heard of them before either. But it's one of those rare albums where nearly every single track is insanely perfect, and that's a feeling I haven't had since I bought the first Jamiroquai album back in 1993. Listen to two minutes just here.

3. The news that Clive James has released a new book, and there's an audiobook version, AND it's Book Of The Week on Radio 4 next week. I love Clive James to bits, not for his alluring body and raw Australian sex appeal, but just for the wonderful way he writes, how he can paint a whole picture with emphasis on just one perfect word, and the joyous delivery he brings whenever he opens his mouth. Clive has a website, and oh it's wonderful. Read this ancient television review he wrote. "Really driving those trucks.."

4. I read my gas meter earlier today. This in itself is not especially interesting, but I had to leave the house and go out specially to do it, on account of my gas meter being located rather inconveniently outside and down several flights of stairs. And by a detailed process of trigonometry (well, not actually trigonometry) I have determined that my annual gas and electricity consumption is of the order of 8.2 killowatt-hours. Each. This is probably no cause for celebration (not unless you enjoy spending £1,000 a year on utility bills, anyway) but at least I know that my electrical items are adequately supplied, and my gas boiler keeps me nicely warm and feeling suitably pampered.

5. The news that they're still making Blue Pepsi, even though you can still only get it in America. Blue Pepsi is definitely my favourite bright blue carbonated beverage, second only to Jolt Cola, which is not blue at all, and while both of these are out of stock at my usual supplier's, they are at least definitely still available. Joy! I've asked them to let me know when they have some more.

6. It's nearly Christmas! Oh I do like Christmas. Not for the presents, which really does seem to pale into insignificance when you get older, but just for the ambience of that time of year, when it is cold and dark outside, which makes the glow of brightly coloured Christmas lights all the prettier, and the warm feeling you get when wearing warm clothes all the more soothing. Those few weeks at work when everyone is in a festive mood, all looking forward to that little extra week-and-a-bit you can spend at home with your family, or even on your own. Unbeatable.

7. Thinking of the naughty little "e" suffix incorrectly appended on the title of Captain Sensible's track "Bruce Forsythe".

Elvis Costello only had three reasons to be cheerful, and today I have seven alone! Who wouldn't be delighted by that?

Monday, October 16, 2006

New Enemies Of Mailbox

Charles Dunstone, CEO of Carphone WarehouseOn this day, in this time and place, I regret that I must announce a new enemy of Mailbox. And I'll tell you why.

I like to think that there's not much that gets me annoyed. Generally speaking I try to not get stressed about too many things. But I've noticed I seem to have an exception to that. And that exception is.. door to door salesmen.

Of course, they're "not actually here to sell you anything", they're "not here to change anything", they're usually "just checking that you've registered for your discount" on your gas, electricity, phone service, etc. And you see that's where it starts to go wrong.

Call me stupid - I kind of take exception to people arriving at my front door and lying straight to my face. "I'm not here to sell you anything" - yes you are. "I'm not here to change anything" - yes you are, you're trying to swap my gas/electricity/phone provider. "Just checking you've registered for your discount" - no you're not, because you're not from the company that I already pay.

That's how it started today, when a chap in a cheap pin stripe suit arrived at my door. He is from Talk Talk (owned by Carphone Warehouse, CEO Charles Dunstone, top right.) "You do have a telephone, I take it?" - OK, not the best way to start proceedings. Having established that I do indeed have a BT phone line and not a cable one (because TalkTalk can't take over cable lines) he started off with his diligent checking to "make sure that I've registered for my discount." - strike one.

I shut him down. "I don't want to change, quite happy with what I've got, thanks."

He didn't take it for an answer. "I'm not here to change anything." - strike two. "I'm not here to change anything, BT won't let you change your phone company." - Interesting! Strike three.

"I've already got a cheap phone company, really not interested, honestly, thanks."

"BT won't let you change your phone company!" - He seemed hung up on this. This is where I made the number one mistake of being drawn into the conversation by even explaining how things worked, and that thanks very much, but I'm not interested.

Suddenly he's telling me that TalkTalk will pay me £1,000 if they're not the cheapest phone company. I'm fairly sure this isn't true, and I suggest to him that I bet he has no leaflets saying that.

"Don't carry no leaflets, mate." - Strike four. All salesmen say that. In fact so did the last salesman I had an almighty on-doorstep argument with. He was from Npower. I wouldn't recommend them either.

But eventually he looks in his folder and finds a laminate - "£1,000 if we're not cheaper than BT!". "Ah, cheaper than BT, not cheaper than anyone", I point out. He tuts and tries to suggest that his laminate must be out of date.

I re-iterate that I'm not interested. He's getting annoyed now, and tries some reverse psychology. "Well, you obviously don't qualify for these savings. You don't qualify." My mistake number two, because I'm not letting that one slip by. "What, you think you can turn me around like that, as if I'm going to say 'Oh no, I don't qualify! Please let me have your fabulous offer?'"

"You don't qualify! You obviously don't qualify." He's on the run but he is still annoying the hell out of me. Suddenly inspiration hits him. "I expect you're still paying for your broadband as well, then!"

I'm not quite quick enough to dismiss this one. "Yes!", I reply. At this point he actually starts laughing. I try reasoning with him. "Look, I don't mind you trying to sell me something, but take the hint - I'm NOT interested!"

"Well you don't qualify!"

"Then why are you wasting your time even talking to me? Get out of here."

"I'm just going. Are you really still paying for broadband? Ha ha ha ha.. You don't qualify."

"I'm glad you're leaving. And not nearly soon enough."

I read him the name off the front of his ID card, just to make sure I've got it right for when I complain. But he doesn't care, and you wouldn't expect him to, because he's just doing his job and while he hasn't made a sale, he's ticked all the correct boxes for conning people into swapping their phone service.

Meanwhile, I'm sufficiently furious that Charles Dunstone himself gets an email off me. Well, at least, his office does. But will they care either? Doubt it, somehow. After all, Charles himself is probably a little busy because in addition to owning Talk Talk, this week he just bought AOL UK.

Sorry Charles. Laughing boy in his cheap suit just bought you a free gift. You and all your companies are now enemies of Mailbox. And if you should ever get to have a word with salesman number one - his name is Paul - tell him Ed says hi.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lies My Parents Told Me, Volume 1

It takes me a while to work things out sometimes. It once took me twenty years to get a joke from The Two Ronnies - but, like most things I got there in the end. Adulthood brings wisdom, and suddenly things from your childhood tend to make lots more sense - or be exposed as the shabby deceptions that they are.

One of my favourite toys when I was about four years old was Tom, one half of the popular beat combo "Tom & Jerry", which, like the Bay City Rollers, was the style at the time.

Tom was made of some kind of bendy, rubber-type material, and was quite tall in stature - something like 12 inches tall I'm sure. And in the hands of a four year old, anything that bends is most definitely bent - consistently, and repeatedly. Such is the life of a hard-wearing children's toy.

Problem is, after a while, even the most resilient toy will start to show the strain. And after many years in my toy box, Tom was starting to come to pieces. This did not matter to me at all, but it was clearly a problem for my parents who were probably concerned at the possible hazards that a gradually disintegrating bendy toy could pose to someone so young. I was, after all, but four years old. And it was that blissful naivety that would be targeted in a most sinister operation.

Mumsie explained to me that my ragged old Tom was not well. I had not noticed this previously - there had been no signs of lethargy, no tell-tale coughs, nothing to indicate that my beloved Tom was under the weather. But it was true, and in order to make Tom feel better, he would need to go to the toy hospital. There was nothing to worry about, Tom would be well looked after, and would return once he had been made all better.

Poor Tom. Sad to see him go, I bade him farewell as Mumsie swept him away. I was sure that I would see him soon.

Time passed - quite some time, in fact, during which time I am sure that my constant enquiries as to Tom's status were nothing less than adorable. But eventually, one day, Tom came back.

Mumsie revealed Tom, all better from his trip to the toy hospital, and.. smaller. Much smaller. He still looked like Tom. Still that same smiley face. Still very bendy. Not quite soperished as before, so clearly the hospital had done a good job. But Tom was half the size he used to be!

Even a four year old would detect such a thing, and indeed I enquired as to why Tom was now so diminished in stature. But of course the answer was obvious - it was the hospital treatment and the medicine that had made Tom smaller.

Oh, of course. Because when you're four, an explanation like that goes down real smooth. Something so obvious is self-evident, once you think about it. After all, hospitals must be full of harsh abrasive medicines which would make people shrink like that. Such a thing seemed entirely plausible - common sense, in fact. And so, my curiosity satisfied, I accepted this version of events, and went about the busy life that four-year-olds tend to lead.

It wasn't until much later that I realised. Because you know.. I don't think there IS a toy hospital. And I think that was a different Tom!