And so the poor coward never saw the dragons under Matlock

I am cautious.
This is a polite way of saying, I am a coward.
I have never been keen on physical jeopardy. There are so many ways of dying that I have no desire to increase my chances by going up high things or crawling through crumbling limestone without a purpose.

I could understand potholing if I was told, “and after crawling through the ribcage tearing, elbow shattering enclosed, pitch black cavities, we come across the vast opening where the underground rock lions live”, but not if it’s “we crawl through ever tightening spaces and, after what seems like days, we get out the other side of a hill”.
Even some stalagmites and stalactites of breathtaking geological beauty wouldn’t have quite enough allure, I think I’d need there to be dragons.

I have never liked any form of spinning thing or rackety coaster that allows my mind to conjure up a variety of images of gruesome death. I know they should be safe and the vast majority of people do not die on end of pier rides or cavern expeditions, but with no hope of heaven in my head, I’ll keep trying to cut down the death risks to those that are most essential.
I did a mini potholing trip on my son’s weekend activity outing. I looked at the diameter of the pipe, rued the day I hadn’t become clinically obese and thus found an alibi of girth, and stood by as the 6 year olds put on their safety helmets.
“I want you to come, Daddy”
And with that, a parent’s fate is sealed. A refusal to partake in crawling through concrete pipes now could lead to a lifetime of my child going through Freudian psychoanalysis.
Actually, it was fine. Uncomfortable, and with one tight squeeze where the angle of turn seemed to require a folding pelvis, but I remembered not to swear.
After the crawl, I imagined a longer potholing expedition or prison escape scenario, where the man in front of you suffered a heart attack and the convict behind died too. Trapped in the tunnel, no way forward and no way back, the man tries to tear the corpse impediments into smaller pieces. He then thinks that cannibalising them will mean he can squeeze through, but with the act of eating, he becomes too swollen.

And it is those kind of thoughts that stop me doing proper potholing.
I had something akin to a near death, or at least witnessing a near death, as a toddler, and it has made me a cowardy custard ever since (that is what my homunculus therapist who lives near my parietal lobe told me anyway). I risk smashing my ego to pieces every night on stage, isn’t that enough. My risks are doing highly unsuitable TV shows when offered them and then fearing Germaine Greer’s derision.

Put me in an MRI for a brain scan anytime, now that I like. And yet I meet people who had to press the panic button. I like the sound of magnets far more than the heavy breathing of crawler.
So I won’t be parachuting for charity quite yet, but I’ll make you a cake if you ask nicely.

I am on tour – Aldershot to Newcastle, Nottingham to Belfast, Barton upon Humber to Cardiff and many more. dates HERE

latest DVDs HERE

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A Huckster in the Science Tent Writes…and Don’t Trust A Word

We don’t hear the phrase, “and when I say that, I should make it quite clear that I have no idea what I am talking about”.

Last night was the British Science Association dinner and they were kindly giving me a certificate for making jokes about Charles Darwin and the Large Hadron Collider.

Everyone who took to the stage at the British Science Festival dinner seemed to declare their impostor syndrome one way or another, so when it got to my turn, I didn’t bother. Hopefully I have openly declared my ignorance for long enough though no one could believe I was there under false pretences.
Earlier in the day, I had been interviewing Alice Roberts, and her eyes had widened and mouth lifted into a shape of mockery and outrage when I said that I had no science qualifications.

I never promise to impart knowledge, and I would soon flame war my eyebrows if I returned to a bunsen burner, or haphazardly gunk up an accelerator with a clumsily dropped bagel if asked to help out at CERN.
I am an idiot and an enthusiast, a potent combination of ‘skills’ that has somehow turned into a career. Twelve times a year, my job is to put the brakes on Brian Cox, “I think you might have lost some of the people at quantum entanglement”.
He looks quizzical, “surely everyone is running at the same speed as me with non localities and hidden variables”, he thinks, “but I’ll explain more for the benefit of this idiot on my right.”

I try to ensure that no one trusts my opinion, and if they do find something interesting in what I’ve said about the occipital lobe or Schrodinger’s flamboyant trousers, they seek some source material afterwards. I am a reader, an echo of more interesting people.
I know most of my limitations, that includes rock climbing and knitting.
(it is around here that this post could go off on a tangent about the importance of teaching critical thinking in schools, colleges and pubs)

I have to be alert that I will be drawn to ideas that please me and confirm the worldview that I hope is true. Our critical thinking pales every time we find out we are wrong.
When I was drawn back towards science, initially via sceptical examinations of pseudoscience, I started to become suspicious of books offering a view of the world without offering me footnotes and references that would allow the inquisitive me to at least know there was a place I could go and check their statistics or slurs if I wanted to.
“As we all know”
“As has been often chronicled”
“It is truth universally acknowledged”
I am sure it is, but for the benefit of someone who hasn’t been paying attention enough, can you show me where you found this incendiary/startling/disconcerting statistic or anecdote?
(This is why you just can’t trust me, I don’t think I can always show my working out).

Before the start of this year British Science Fair, the new president, Paul Nurse, bruised and horrified a few passers-by with language that made their eyes pop with indignation. Sir Paul asked scientists to be attentive to public figures who use inaccurate information or cherry pick data to make their points and support an ideological, political or financial standpoint. He urged the forming of relationships with those who may be misled or misleading so that they would feel ashamed to misuse scientific evidence. Should these people continue to ignore the science and misuse what there was for their own ends, and here is where the pugilistic words entered the arena, they should be “crushed and buried”.

The newspaper reports are Here (Guardian), Here (Independent) or (Daily Mail) Here

Some seemed quick to misunderstand the point (or at least the point as I see it. I hope I haven’t misunderstood too, but I did start this post flaunting my shortcomings).
This is not a call to treat science as dogma, “there can be only one truth, bow to your Nobel messiahs”, but to say that if you wish to challenge the scientific consensus, you need to have evidence for your position, and if that evidence doesn’t pass muster, then this might involve the uncomfortable, sometimes tortuous, manoeuvre of changing your position.

Is it censorship to combat misinformation?

I am often wrong, and the older I have become, the easier I find it to be told, “you’ve not understood this theory, law or concept”. At the time, this is not a happy occasion, my stomach is less knotted during the correction, and afterwards I am relieved that I will no longer be piggybacking on the shoulders of the giant that turned out to be a teetering man on stilts. If I was peddling bad science, and I have, I would want someone to approach me and tell me I may be considered to be entering an arena of nincompoopery. It is quite a regular occurrence at my gigs, and I thank all those who have approached me after gigs to update me or challenge me, though please bring references too, so I can check the footnotes of your conversations.

In The Lightness of Being by Frank Wilczek, he writes of how “discoveries of Newton, Maxwell, and many other brilliant people greatly expanded human imagination”. Those who are prepared to peddle falsehoods or misunderstandings, and maintain their cocksure stance whatever the better information they face, help stagnate and congeal that human imagination. Whether the trite anti-evolutionary arguments of “how can there still be monkeys if we come from monkeys” and “how come the eye just appeared?” or matters that concern our life and existence – from vaccination to climate change – the human imagination is strengthened and broadened by deeper understandings of science and evidence, rather than propaganda and shift media sidesteps to secure narcissistic ideologies and bankrupt wishes.

“I want to believe this, now if I can just cherry pick and make up what I need to secure this position”. Is your version of “the truth” the best available, or the most amenable to your ideology or financial desires?

Well, that’s what I think, but beware my paucity of footnotes and lack of appendices.

I will be corrected in bars across the UK, Ireland, Norway (and eventually US and Australia) over the coming months – from Manchester to Belfast, Nottingham to Goole, Leicester to Aldershot, and on and on. Dates HERE

The latest, and lengthiest, DVD is HERE

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Vague Sentences of Optimism

(not really a blog post, just some sentences that leaked out)

I believe there has been some research into why the onset of middle age can lead to a sensation that the world has gone awry. The sensation that things really aren’t as good as when you were young and listening to vibrant culture while wondering if you would ever be kissed or kissable. It is a feeling I fight with, but I am sometimes floored by.
Is everything shallow now?
Has everyone swapped their sapiens for consumerism?
Does pop music fail the Turing test?
Is the television by committee a vacuous, stumbling mediocrity, shouting and shooting to less and less effect?
If I had been middle aged in the 1980s, and sometimes I was, would I recall the sixties and how the blue pills and Vespas were so much more invigorating than the Smiths and Lowenbrau? If I was middle aged in the sixties, would I talk of Orwell, powdered eggs and Vera Lynn as the peak of human endeavour.
Middle aged in 1690, would I hanker for that jolly man in hessian who tinkled his bell and heaped your pustulous, cold mother on that cart?
Musically, I haven’t yet entered that stage of angry nostalgia, with both Anna Calvi and Kate Tempest nominated for the Mercury award, all seems good in brave new tin pan alley.
Sometimes people seem ruder than I think they used to be, but I reckon if I think hard enough, I will remember some brutish cads on the Metropolitan line, coming back from ransacking the stock exchange in brogues made from the skin of Peruvian farmers.
Oh the 1980s.
And I think of the workers’ libraries of the 20th century, when I dream that every miner and tram driver, Earl and hop-picker was reading Darwin and joining Lunar groups, but the sods and the brawlers were pissing bitter somewhere too and punching a librarian in specs of their bicycle. For all my fear that people may be contentedly ignorant, I think of the variety of faces I see at live events with Brian Cox, they might come for the smile, but they stay for Planck’s constant.
Why all this optimism?
I saw Utopia (series 1).
All my grey and thinning hair harrumphing over telly, and it might just have been that I wasn’t watching it and all I was overhearing was the cacophonous trash.
I just need a filter. It was so much easier when it was three channels, within 4 minutes you could know there was nothing on and you’d watch 3-2-1 in the vague hope that Frankie Howerd might turn up to offer an iambic clue for a music centre and his and hers television.

I am off on tour saying some sentences and waving my arms – Goole to Bridgwater, Leicester to Aldershot, Sheffield to Belfast and on and on. Tour dates HERE

Lengthy DVD HERE

I am vaguely hungover for the first time in over a year.

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The Cataracts that Obscured the Po-Faced Reflection

I no longer know what is offensive, though I am aware that my poverty stricken grammar and punctuation skills will normally stir a kraken or two. (this has been written very quickly, so be prepared to slavver Grammarian beasts)

Today, it was a tweet about JMW Turner.
I thought it was just a silly joke, I was wrong.

“rather than go to the JMW Turner exhibition, I am going to save money by spending a day walking along the Thames without my glasses on.”

I tweeted that, then went off for a cup of tea and a small slice of chocolate cake.
I didn’t mean it as an attack on Turner, it’s a bit late for that. It was meant as a silly money saving tip idea (I see the new Viz is out) and also based on stories that his style was partly down to cataracts and, in later life, short-sightedness.

On my return, reasonably full but I could have done with a bit more icing, I find a tweet

“What a fucking stupid tweet. Not sure why it’s made me so angry but it has.” with my original tweet attached.

Then, from a follower of this fellow.

Rather than go to your next live show, but I’m going to save money by watching a potato rot in a cupboard instead.

Publicly shared by placing a dot before my twitter name.

As these were public tweets, I RTed them and commented

“wow, a silly joke about Turner is taken very seriously, ah, this must be the internet.”

Then, it all got tetchy. I was accused of RTing passive aggressively. I don’t think I was being passive aggressive. I think I was being jauntily aggressive and laughing in the face of those who designated themselves to occupy Olympian heights of po-facedness. I see no reason why people are allowed to be publicly derogatory and share around their misunderstanding as truth with all their followers, but if I do that, it is cruel and unfair and interfering with the discussion they were having about Constable on their timeline. (I think one of them did realise there had been a misunderstanding and I wasn’t declaring that the artistic imagination of human beings is shit and that all art must be destroyed by a MechaGodzilla)

They can ridicule me to their 1000 or more followers, but as I have more followers than that, the game is now abusive. I think if someone has a very low level of followers, I might write something directly to them, but after a few hundred, where must the line be drawn. Are we only allowed a Twitter spat with people with exactly the same number of followers. Had they just tweeted directly to me that I was a dick (uh oh, this opens the floodgates), well that’s the internet.

I was also a bit annoyed as it was po-faced fury from the left, and that is exactly the sort of cliche, like The Guardian putting a colour spread on diamond and gold media trinkets immediately after a photo spread on squalor, that makes me itchy. I don’t like to think I was part of the process of handing the ammo over to the “and of course the Socialists have no sense of humour” shooting party. It is all the sillier because the little fey fisticuffs of occasional adjectives in which we partook, briefly, may mask that we have things in common and might even get on if we met at a Grace Petrie gig. I believe I saw that Grace followed one of them and she is usually a good judge of character. Or it may turn out that we’d be breaking ginger beer bottles over each other’s heads if we collided in the Tate Britain canteen.

Is there an equation which tells you the percentage difference of followers that makes RTing public misunderstandings/derision etc acceptable, and when the gap is too great?

Has anyone written the rules up yet?

I am only going to make jokes about Dadaists in the future, or futurists in the Dada, one or the other.

(To allow their timelines to return to normal and get back to talking landscapes, I deleted my RTs etc quite quickly. I noticed the original provocateur has not bothered to removed his angry misunderstanding of me from his timeline. I am tempted to RT it again, but instead I will be safe in the knowledge that I get to atheist heaven first, a place where nothing happens and nobody knows they exist, because they don’t. It is very quiet there.)

I am off being accidentally offensive about science or brains or something on my Autumn tour – from Croydon to Newcastle, Belfast to Goole, Bridgwater to Cardiff and more. Details HERE

New 3 hour DVD packed with apologetic offence (and silly things) is HERE

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Intestinal Feuds Over Yes/No and Utopia

I love Scotland, architecturally, musically, even the actual humans who live there.
That 1980s “Scotland’s For Me” tourism campaign was clearly very potent, even though the film Restless Natives suggested coach travel could contain jeopardy.
I don’t know very much about what independence would mean except in the abstract.
This is not about Yes or No as I haven’t done the reading. (I thought I better start the day by writing something and today’s exercise was writing this).

I have gut instincts at war on this, probably a side effect of irritable bowel syndrome.
I have loved Scotland since somewhere between Gregory’s Girl and The Wicker Man, two films that I think should be remade as one. I can see that long sequence where Gregory is led from phone box to chip shop to park, it eventually leads to Clare Grogan placing John Gordon Sinclair into a Wicker Edwyn Collins so that the crop of LPs from that year’s Postcard records roster is good and strongly reviewed in the Melody Maker.

I have had many Scottish holidays, toured there repeatedly, and obviously spent many Summer months there (I particularly liked The Gatehouse of Fleet when I was 12, I must return one day). So, I think, why can’t we all stick together, we get on okay don’t we? I’ve had some lovely conversations with taxi drivers, one very intense one about the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, while another asked if I could help write his best man speech.

But then, I love Norway, and I don’t feel any less of it because there is not an MP for Trondheim at Westminster. Does their independence from England make their pickled herring and murder ballads less palatable?

So, my other twisted gut rumbles a message of, “if the population of a country wants independence then why shouldn’t they, they have the right to balls up their economy even more than a central government across a border has a right to balls up their lives.”
Let each nation have the right to fuck themselves up, or maybe make things better, or maybe sell off their land to some loon-haired, money enthusiast American golfer and Babel tower builder.

Watching the confusion and propaganda on most contemporary issues I wonder if we should follow the rules of Dunbar’s number and not just divide the people at the borders, but that we must all vote ourselves into midget nations of 150 people each, after that number, things seem to get confused. The problem maybe that, like picking football teams on the school playing fields, a selection of the wheezy and odd will find themselves left on the touchline, chosen only with umbrage and disdain (oh how sporting ineptitude of youth still smarts).

Then, there is the Pale Blue Dot idealist me, led by an altogether different, sentient and utopian bowel, that sees national boundaries as another division to stir up greedy fervour and hate based on a different hat or bauble. that foolish gut, in white piano Lennon mode, sees each new split as another hand up for manipulation and jingoism, but that has little to do with this upcoming vote, and more to a downtrodden optimism that humans could co-exist without recourse to tribalism and a fetishism for insularity and hate marked by a l boundary. But Utopian me is hankered by the knowledge that it’ll take an impending invasion from pugilistic extraterrestrials to create unity, and those lazy lifeforms just don’t seem to have the wherewithal to help out here, wherever they may be.

I am up at Wigtown soon, also off to Croydon, Dublin, Cardiff, Oslo, Sheffield, Cambridge and a town near you soon (US and Australian dates in Spring 2015) Details HERE

The Cosmic Genome science app is now one year old, here are the 114 or so scientists and enthusiasts on it in rapid edit form HERE

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Intestines feud over Yes and No and Utopia

I love Scotland, architecturally, musically, socially, even the actual humans who live there.
That 1980s “Scotland’s For Me” tourism campaign was clearly very potent, even though the film Restless Natives suggested coach travel could contain jeopardy.
I don’t know very much about what independence would mean except in the abstract.
This is not a post about Yes or No as I haven’t done the reading.

I have gut instincts at war on this, probably a side effect of irritable bowel syndrome.
I have loved Scotland since somewhere between Gregory’s Girl and The Wicker Man, two films that I think should be remade as one. I can see that long sequence where Gregory is led from phone box to chip shop to park, it eventually leads to Clare Grogan placing John Gordon Sinclair into a Wicker Edwyn Collins so that the crop of LPs from that year’s Postcard records roster is good and strongly reviewed in the Melody Maker.

I have had many Scottish holidays, toured there repeatedly, and obviously spent many Summer months there (I particularly liked The Gatehouse of Fleet when I was 12, I must return one day). So, I think, why can’t we all stick together, we get on okay don’t we? I’ve had some lovely conversations with taxi drivers, one very intense one about the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, while another asked if I could help write his best man speech.

But then, I love Norway, and I don’t feel any less of it because there is not an MP for Trondheim at Westminster. Does their independence from England make their pickled herring and murder ballads less palatable?

So, my other twisted gut rumbles a message of, “if the population of a country wants independence then why shouldn’t they, they have the right to balls up their economy even more than a central government across a border has a right to balls up their lives.”
Let each nation have the right to fuck themselves up, or maybe make things better, or maybe sell off their land to some loon-haired, money enthusiast American golfer and Babel tower builder.

Watching the confusion and propaganda on most contemporary issues I wonder if we should follow the rules of Dunbar’s number and not just divide the people at the borders, but that we must all vote ourselves into midget nations of 150 people each, after that number, things seem to get confused. The problem maybe that, like picking football teams on the school playing fields, a selection of the wheezy and odd will find themselves left on the touchline, chosen only with umbrage and disdain (oh how sporting ineptitude of youth still smarts).

Then, there is the Pale Blue Dot idealist me, led by an altogether different, sentient and utopian bowel, that sees national boundaries as another division to stir up greedy fervour and hate based on a different hat or bauble. that foolish gut, in white piano Lennon mode, sees each new split as another hand up for manipulation and jingoism, but that has little to do with this upcoming vote, and more to a downtrodden optimism that humans could co-exist without recourse to tribalism and a fetishism for insularity and hate marked by a l boundary. But Utopian me is hankered by the knowledge that it’ll take an impending invasion from pugilistic extraterrestrials to create unity, and those lazy lifeforms just don’t seem to have the wherewithal to help out here, wherever they may be.

It’ll be nice to see Hadrian’s Wall get a makeover.

I am up at Wigtown soon, also off to Croydon, Dublin, Cardiff, Oslo, Sheffield, Cambridge and a town near you soon (US and Australian dates in Spring 2015) Details HERE

The Cosmic Genome science app is now one year old, here are the 114 or so scientists and enthusiasts on it in rapid edit form HERE

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Did it start with a Puppet Show..? What is Alternative Comedy, and is it anyway?

What is alternative comedy?
Does such a thing exist anymore and, if so, does it require a new label.
As a child, or parasitic growth, of the age of alternative comedy, I wonder what defines it.

When I first saw it, I noticed it was loud and energetic. Bruce Forsyth was also loud and energetic, but the energy of Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall seemed different, there was a militancy, sometimes a sneer, both real and self parodying. Was it asking mainstream light entertainment out for a fight by the elm tree where Stan Boardman propped his push bike?

I didn’t notice the politics in the first few TV versions I saw. It was the manic intensity that shone through, there was no leaning at jaunty angle on the microphone stand to be seen here. It was slapstick and absurd, this before the next rise of observational comedy. The best observational comedians were of a slightly older generation, the urbane and incisive Dave Allen, and the excitingly sweary Billy Connolly amongst them. (here he is swearing from the outset, Wreck on Tour was one of my favourite cassettes of comedy) .

After the violent slapstick and swearing, I started to realise that alternative comedy was political too. This was part of my political education. I wouldn’t need too much nuance until later on in my life. Margaret Thatcher was the despot, surrounded by drooling henchmen and unlickworthy lickspittles. Alternative comedy was connected to striking miners’ benefits and Red Wedge tours. It would be a few years before the “alternative comedians” would be performing at the Royal Variety performance or in the Queen’s back garden. Entertainment would never be the same again…until it was.

Finally, somewhere in the laughter breaks, I realised that the alternative comedian was the author of their own words. Their routines were not necessarily their own experience, but the oddities and spoutings were the product of their own mind. It was their world view, even if it was sometimes not the material world we knew, this could be a planet of their own making.

In the minds of many, alternative comedy was non-sexist, non-racist, self-written, sometimes with a rebel yell. Often, the non-sexist, non-racist element was unspoken, as Rik slammed Ade’s penis in a piano.

Alternative comedy is a term still bandied around, but which performers are alternative and which are mainstream. Does the term offer any real information to a prospective audience member? With so much comedy available, does it need more tags, something akin to the sub sections in a record shop?

“I am looking for some easy listening comedy. Something for my husband and I to relax to while drinking red wine. Have you got a comedian that goes well with Merlot?”

During the Edinburgh Fringe, there seemed to be a new division. There were complaints that, of late, comedy has become about things, and has themes and purpose, and this angered some who wondered what happened to jokes. What happened to jokes was that those people had stopped looking for the tellers so they could create a fictional reality that they could be cross about. There are plenty of joke tellers, plenty of storytellers, some people who want to try and offer the audience alternative ways of thinking, and others who want to do nothing more than make you laugh by any means necessary.

Is this one of the divisions – the beloved entertainers versus the humorous sociology lecturers? If you stand on stage, is your only desire to make the audience laugh, or are you limited by wishing to make them laugh on your terms? If the audience aren’t going with you, is there a limit to what you can turn to in your box of tricks and confetti?

A couple of months ago, a comedian asked me what was more important for me, “getting an idea across or getting big laughs”, but I hope not to sacrifice one for the other. My plan, sometimes thwarted, is to find a way to talk about the reptilian brain or Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms or the speed of light, and get big laughs. I hope I am not ridiculous in vain.

So, what is alternative comedy? Whatever vestiges are left of the original idea, a media hook for a burgeoning scene, or a Malcolm Hardee poster for an absurd puppet show with Martin Soan, I wonder if it is authorship and the limits of your comedic language being the limits of the world you want to share, unforced by preconceptions or audience demands.

The need to fail when common ground is untreadable with your comedy ethics?

Is alternative comedy what you don’t find funny, if so, then everyone is an alternative comedian to someone (though if you don’t find Laurel and Hardy funny then it is definitely your fault)

Over to you.

I am gabbling across the UK and beyond (US and Australia next year) – from Goole to Cardiff, Dublin to Sheffield, Leicester to Cambridge and on and on. Dates HERE

My three hour “alternative?” comedy DVD is HERE

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