Some Sort of Word Experiment or failure

I am thinking of what to do in my two Edinburgh shows. I may well put in some slightly more scripted word pieces as opposed to the usual ramble, though the usual ramble will be present as well.

This is some words about those gifts you buy on holiday for family members and then, one holiday, there is no need to buy them anymore.

Drunk Wasp Shopfront

The Fudge in the window
was spur for a memory.
Cut Cubes behind glass
Wasps dipping & licking.
No need to go in now
I can leave the shop be.

Last time we bought some,
They slumped in that paper bag
to the left of your chair
lumping back                                                                                                                                        to single candy mass in the sunlight.
Never Forgetful over sweet treats
You barely touched them now,
Still there when you were gone.

No purchase needed
I’ll browse a while anyway
Maybe a quarter of clotted cream
Shame to leave empty-handed

What window will be the memory spur of me
If all the bookshops are gone.
Oxfam? Iced buns?
Or maybe just a skip.                                                                                                                              “splintered shelves, a snapped CD,                                                                                                 bubble wrap & a picture frame                                                                                                            that rings a bell.”

It’s not really finished, I am still working out how to do this.

My Edinburgh shows are here and here. Then on tour






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Deserving Rich, Greedy Poor & thoughts on why I voted

I voted early. I will wake up in Stockholm when the general election result comes through. I might seek asylum and send for my family.
The last few days of the election are usually a grotesque spectacle on the newsagent’s floor, as the press’s excessive spin and propaganda reveals why you can’t trust it any other time of year until you’ve done a few background checks on the information they splash about. Somehow, previously positive traits, tolerance, kindness, generosity, altruism, have been turned into delusions and facets to be ashamed of. These, we are told, are the aims of the foolish and molly coddled.
I can’t remember a time where the belief in the divine right of the wealthy has been so apparent.
The perks of the wealthy are richly deserved, aid to the poor, the ill and the old is a terrible burden.
It’s all your fault.
I am at the lower end of the wealthy.
I am all right.
I did it all myself.
With the added assistance of being from a comfortable middle class background and with the usefulness of being white and male.
I went to a public school.
The same one that the film director Lindsay Anderson went to. He returned to it to make If… , a powerful attack on the values and divisions Britain was built on.
The school allowed him to film there, and when they saw the result he was persona non grata for a couple of decades.

When I see Boris Johnson, I see the power of the public school narrative. Day in and day out, the pupils are told that they are the very best people in society. They are the leaders. They will know best. In an abject failing of critical thinking and scepticism, many come to believe that.
It is right that they should rule, they know their Latin and their wines.
We are told to build a better house, a higher wall, a wider loft conversion, but not to build a better culture and civilisation. That is too costly.
The right wing manifesto has been that we must sell our services to the corporations, the Omnicorps of today, and they’ll make it all better while charging more and creaming more off the top because they deserve it.
Does childhood poverty ever worry you as you are driven to your second home in Cornwall?
Why is it that this society can only be seen to function effectively if those at the top are paid so much more than used to be necessary in 1978?
A few years ago, I went to see a Dennis Potter double bill, Blade on the Feather and Traitor, at the BFI. It was introduced by his producer and friend, Kenith Trodd. Both plays dealt with men who had betrayed others, men of privilege who had consorted with Russia and caused the death of others. These were upper class men, men of privilege. Trodd said that Potter believed the upper class had no love of their country. It was to be found in the other classes, but what concerned many of the upper class, whether it was with Nazis or Communists, was how much would they get. As long as they were deserving in the eyes of the new regime, all was good.
This is what worries me about BREXIT. There is such talk of “control” and “sovereignty”, yet we sell our utilities across the world and we may well find ourselves increasingly bending our knees to even uglier regimes. Rather than gain our freedom, we may have made ourselves even more captive to others.
I do not believe any political party can fulfil our dreams. I do not believe any of them are populated by so many thinkers and activists of depth and understanding that we will build a Utopia, but I do believe there are some who are not as mean-spirited, as selfish and as intolerant as others. I believe some dare to imagine a better life for more people.
I voted Labour, though I would not have been ashamed to vote for the Green party or LibDems either.
After World War 2, there were a few decades of trying to improve society for the majority. The programme to dismantle this has now gone on for longer than the programme to build it, is it possible to slow this advance, to stop hating our neighbours, to understand others, to offer the embattled and broken the possibility of hope? Or have we reached the phase where kindness, tolerance and ambition for a better society for all will be buried beneath tribalism and narcissism?

For those at the top, I suppose the thought is either “I want more” or “I want more people to have the comforts I take for granted.” I should add this is all motivated by selfishness. I don’t want to feel miserable walking down the street and seeing increasing numbers of homeless people and reading about childhood poverty. I want to think, “this is a society trying to make it better for more people”,  with me, it’s all me me me really.

FOOTNOTE – some of the things I want when I vote.
A decrease in preventable deaths and an NHS where those who work in it do not feel beaten and unacknowledged.
Better treatment for the elderly.
A strong and fair education system.
Effective action to deal with climate change.
Effective action against childhood poverty.
The list is long, I’ll stop there.
(and I am prepared to pay more tax for this. I have a good life, why shouldn’t more people have that. And before the normal snide “well, you can opt to contribute more income tax you know” comes my way, if a party of higher taxation does not win, I will pay the excess income tax I would have paid to a charity.)

I am off to the Edinburgh Fringe and gadding about the UK and Australia this Autumn, click for details – Barnard Castle to Folkestone and much in between.

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Hello Wembley! Are you Ready For Maxwell’s Equation!

I am not an arena comic, but for the last 22 days I have been an arena sidekick.
I’ve been a Sid Little to Brian Cox’s Eddie Large. Except it has been Brian looking plaintively at me, as I run around and do stupid voices, with an air of “stop interrupting, I just want to do me cosmology.”
It feels odd that it doesn’t feel odder to see a lecture on astronomy in a 9000 seater.
It is rare to observe silence from so many as they watch Brian with his excessively powerful laser pointer guiding the multitude through his favourite nebulae. It is a laser with Freudian Jedi ramifications.
Nine years ago, when I first put on a science jamboree show at Hammersmith Apollo, some by-standers were sceptical, which is obviously a good start for a science show. In a handy piece of synchronicity, this was just before the dawn of Brian Cox morphing into the sexy face of particle physics. Fortunately, due to the radio producer Alexandra Feachem, we fell into a double act of wisdom and excitability. I focus on the latter. Know your limitations and make the most of them.
We were both wary of moving up from theatre to arena, but by the end of the first show, in a former livestock market in Peterborough, it seemed utterly normal. To attempt to encapsulate the Universe, surely an arena is the least you need.
The screen was remarkable, technology that was the star of the show, but which required an academic ease of an astronomical ringmaster.
Each night, to the dying strains of REM’s Man on the Moon if the show was running to time, we would walk up a steel incline towards the enormous bank of monitors that would be responsible for projecting photons that made up rainbows, bluebells, star systems and Maxwell’s Equation into the audience’s eyes. Brian would be well-tailored, I’d be wearing a nearly new cardigan. On most night’s, I’d be dressed as the scatter-brain scientist and he’d be dressed as the Moorcockian playboy.
The lights would lower. A series of images and quotes would appear on the screen while the music of Brian Eno, obviously, played. Each night, I had got into the habit of turning to him when least expected and repeating the Spinal Tap line, “have a good show, yeah.”
Then it began. As if by magic, though as we know, there are equations to declare there is no such thing, he would be centre stage and the whooping would begin, with the occasional cry of “Brian!” from an audience member in case he’d forgotten.
And it would begin, not with Tonight I’m Going to Rock You, but with a wistfully delivered line of “Welcome to an evening of cosmology and astronomy”.
What surprised us both was that the arena audience’s were even more silent than the theatre audiences of the previous tour. The nearest to a fracas was on the Friday night in Glasgow where a fight started to break out during Brian’s explanation of the eukaryotic cell. It was quelled.
Each night, we had around 500 questions tweeted to us.
The most popular questions were:
Are we living in a simulation? (if we are, it doesn’t matter).
What is the other side of a black hole? (there isn’t really another side)
Aren’t you hot in that woollen jacket and waistcoat? (it’s not really a jacket and waistcoat, it’s just a sort of zip in liner that creates that illusion)
As well as plenty about Planet X, Tabby’s Star and Missions to Mars.
The youngest questioner was seven, the eldest eighty nine.
Being of a self-loathing disposition, I feared that moving up to such scale could lead to social media abuse and people angry that I had disturbed their view of eye and mind candy.
As it was, the response was delightful. I have not sought out reactions, so I am merely talking about what I have seen. Three negative criticisms came my way, one from an energetic anti-semite and two from people who just didn’t really think the night turned out to be their thing.
I heard some rumblings from the outside that this was turning religion into science, so which prophet does that make Michael McIntyre? It was encouraging that after each show we received many follow up questions and queries of where to go next to find out more. Quite a few people left the building feeling insignificant, but positively insignificant.
And now my arena days are over, as I return to my usual rooms to do my solo shows, but hopefully this was not the end, or at least it was “The End of Brian Cox Live, but Brian Cox will return in The Particle Physicist Who Love Mu.”

I am at the Edinburgh Fringe with two shows in August and also doing a hotch potch of our dates around the UK.
I will be touring with Brian across Australia (and with our first New Zealand date) in November. Latest Book Shambles is with the great science communicator, Dr Karl.

And thank you to Amy, Giles, Adam, Ash and everyone who made our UK tour brilliant.



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Iain Lee – Big Issue Piece


I wrote this piece for The Big Issue a few months back. It isn’t up in the archive, so here it is.

I first saw Iain Lee in an Edinburgh comedy club, duetting with Mackenzie Crook on an easy listening version of the Only Fools and Horses theme tune. Not long afterwards, he won the role of host on Channel 4’s high profile comedy news series, The 11 O’Clock Show. While members of the supporting cast and writing team, including Ricky Gervais, Sasha Baron Cohen and Charlie Brooker, would go onto to international success, some may consider this to have been Lee’s peak, but only if you judge TV as the arbiter of success.
The spite and sneering dismissal of that show is far from Iain Lee’s voice now. (in the interest of transparency, I hold my hand up and admit to having been a writer on the show).
He was brilliantly quick-witted when most are barely able to correctly aim a toasty soldier into a boiled egg on Channel 4’s breakfast show, Rise, but since then, he has spent most of his time on talk radio. After being sacked from BBC Three Counties Radio, wrongly in my opinion, he now presents the late evening show on talkRADIO.
He is the master of offhand compassion. He doesn’t fawn or over emote, he is matter of fact in his dealings with the multitude that call his show. He demonstrates far more humanity on a daily basis than I’ve ever heard from the representative of Christian Concern who took umbrage with his accusations that she was bigoted and homophobic. This led to his sacking from BBC Three Counties.
Last week, he talked of the mental health problems he was currently battling with. There was no hand wringing and melodrama, yet he was talking about his suicidal thoughts. On the day of broadcast, his mind had gone “to the darkest places it could go”.
His interview with a Samaritans representative and a listener who found solace with them had a lightness that belied the subject matter, but never belittled the subject.
This may have been commercial radio, but it was public service broadcasting.
Iain Lee is the listener’s friend. You can hear the delight in their voices when they get to speak to him and the ease with which they feel they can discuss their life and interests.
Much of the show can also be delightfully stupid, with word games that drag on and on, and yet even the process of dragging, and the increasing pauses as the competitors vainly try to muster, answers, is enthralling.
He is able to jump back and forth from gloom to frippery with ease, reminding us that the narrative of life is filled with “clunky gear changes”
His listener’s remix of a caller saying, “they’ve cancelled Brexit”, was also one of the funniest things I heard this week.
John Cooper Clarke, sorry Dr John Cooper Clarke, has been experiencing a deserved renaissance in the last few years, and this continues with his Radio 4 show, Twisted Romance, a mix of Northern club jokes on marriage that attest to his apprenticeship at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club, and his poems, both recent and vintage. Let’s hope he is never given national treasure status, he is something far more interesting than that.

I am back at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August and then a UK tour – details HERE

And buy The Big Issue, a great campaigning paper.

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Is Matter Growing In Me That Shouldn’t Be – The Hypochondria of Gum Wire

By the third day of earache and gum swelling, the tumour fantasies began.
Actually, it might have been the second…or even the first.
My pain memory plays a trick on me.
It says,”haven’t you had this pain for months? Hasn’t this been plaguing you since long before Wednesday? You’ve felt this ghost of a sickness making itself flesh for a long time now, haven’t you?”
I should keep a pain diary, chronicling any aches or newly noticed swellings.
I found a new hard lump by my wrist after attempting to drag a weighted rope up a Cotswold hill.
Was it new?
Was it tissue that had popped up out of shock that I was experiencing an exercise regime?
I’ll put that down under the 15th May entry.
Back to my throat.
I should feel around it, was anything not where it had seemed to be the last time I mapped it?
It seemed that swallowing had been uncomfortable for a long time now.
Did even soup make me blanch in February?
This time it was visions of jaw cancer.
I imagined myself dug out like Freud, with a jaw so stinking even the dogs would avoid him.
I thought about the terrible timing of it all. Just as my talking career was going so well, I’d be robbed of my ability to talk.
No Professor Brian Cox Australia tour for me.
I thought of the upset of my son who would no longer have a father’s voice to hear.
I would record a few phrases of love that I could play to him in the silence.
I wondered how possible it was no to record enough words that you could speak through technology with your own voice even when the cartilage, bone and skin had been removed.
The dentist looked into my mouth.
“Ah yes, ooh nasty, I can see what it is.”
With string grip and pliers, he trimmed the brace wire that had manouevered itself into my gum and gave me an antibiotic prescription just in case.
The pain subsided.
50% of what it was within the hour.
Sat on the train, my tongue ran over the tightening gum.
Still a little pain in the ear…
Maybe I had shifted that wire after the pain began.
Perhaps it was my perpetual tongue tampering with the pinkish jaw corner that had shifted the wire, but it had only been doing that because the pain was building already?
The prosthesis visions came into focus again…

(Schopenhauer wrote about how humans notice the pinch of a shoe, but not the wellness of the rest of the body. I am currently rejoicing in not feeling the pinch of wire into my gum and the wellness of the rest of my body, though my stomach feels strangely tight, as if I have eaten too much pre-gig pea soup and a chocolate pudding, which I have. Oh, and there is that wrist lump, hmmmm)

oh balls, the pain is back, so maybe it wasn’t the gum wire at all… ow

My Edinburgh Fringe shows are now on sale, one about art and one about science, politics and sanity. I’ll be touring a hybrid of them both around the UK from September.

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Reading In the Starlight

These are strange and encouraging days when cosmology can be an arena event. You can’t sell out as many dates as Mrs Brown’s Boys, but it’s not a bad start to see 7000 people a night being wowed by explanations of why our universe seems to be as it is. Fabulous photographs have been tweeted of beaming children with beaming parents, the same beaming parents who will later have the theory of bubble universes explained to them by their beaming children on the way home from the gig.
(Yes, I just described a science seminar as a gig).
My favourite image was a mum who snapped her two daughters frantically scribbling notes at Birmingham NIA. In Newcastle, we had questions from a seven year old, who wanted to know about the speed of light, and an eighty-eight year old who wanted relativity explained.
As I stand by the side of the stage, I feel like Mr Benn, having donned my costume (cardigan and horn-rimmed glasses), where would the changing room door lead to? I do not need the shopkeeper to tell me when the adventure is over, Brian Cox’s look of “I need to explain rainbows now”, makes it clear that I must return to Festive Road to put some neutrinos in a drawer of memories.

A frequent question after the show is “I want to know more, what should I read?”

One of the problems of reading science books for the first time, or even returning to them after a long break, is people can very quickly presume they haven’t understood enough and therefore must not have a science brain. This is not true.
Do not expect to read one book about quantum cosmology, put it down, and become a professor.
It takes time (if time exists, but let’s not get bogged down by that now).
Even in popular science books, you will come across words and ideas that can be both tricky and counter-instinctual. It is not like reading a novel. Most of us need to slow down our reading and stop to contemplate the meaning of the descriptions. Gazing out of a window with a knitted brow or perplexed squint can be a major part of reading books on physics. It is worth it when you get the little explosions of comprehension.
I have read two versions of how Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist, bongo player and arch anecdotalist, read books. In one version, he recommended you read until incomprehension. At that point, you stopped, and went back to the beginning, using the second reading run up as an opportunity to gain the momentum to get to the next page. In another story, I read that he suggested reading a book all the way to the end, ploughing through your confusion, and then went back to the start.
I find that I read most science books more than once and keep a pencil and pad by my elbow, scribbling phrases and questions. Sometimes, I do this in the book margins, I am sorry that this may be shocking. What can be encouraging when I return to read the books another time, is seeing that I now understand the marginalia of earlier conundrums.

Feynman is a good place to start. His books of stories, What Do You Care What Other People Think? and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman? are good places to start, mixing science and autobiography. What Do You Care What Other People Think? includes a long piece on Feynman’s involvement in the Challenger Space Shuttle enquiry and a very moving piece about how he met his first wife, Arline Feynman and their relationship, much of it was the tragic backdrop of the fatal illness that would kill her. From there, you can move to Six Easy Pieces, transcriptions of a few of his introductory physics lectures. (The Value of Science, which Brian reads an excerpt of during the show is in What Do You Care What Other People Think?)

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot is also quoted in the show and is well worth buying, though try and buy a secondhand illustrated edition as the current edition has not photographs in it. His Demon-Haunted World was one of the books that reignited my fascination with science and is a great introduction to why scientific thinking will improve your life.
We are both admirers of Janna Levin, she writes with deep understanding and a beautiful sense of poetry. Her latest book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, is about gravitational waves. (Janna was one our New York edition of The Infinite Monkey Cage)
Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door is also a good place to start if you want to understand the LHC and why scientists ask the questions they ask.
String theory frequently comes up in audience questions, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is a good place to be bamboozled and delighted by eleven dimensions. (Brian was on an early series of Monkey Cage along with Alan Moore, our favourite magician)
Sean Carroll’s Particle at the End of the Universe and The Big Picture are highly recommended, though Brian warns that they are a little trickier, but worth the effort. (He was in our LA edition with Joe Rogan and Eric Idle).
In the show, I talk a little about Charles Darwin and I would recommend Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes as a good starting point to read about his life and work.
The question of our universe being a simulation has also been a regular audience question, you might want to try Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence.

There are many others I would recommend and please feel free to add your own favourites beneath this post.

I am going to the Edinburgh festival with shows on science and art here and here.
I will be touring the UK – Leeds, York, Hull, Bath, Salford and many more, information HERE.

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The Mobius Strip Hell of The Lighthouse Family

One of the most important, engrossing and pointless tasks of preparing an Edinburgh fringe or tour show is compiling the audience walk in music. Almost before I have conjured a title or theme, I have started composing a list of songs the audience will barely notice as they make themselves comfortable. Sometimes I am in an upbeat mood, or at least I want them to be in an upbeat mood, so I have often used Billy Bragg’s Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards followed by The Polyphonic Spree’s cover of Lithium. The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s Sport (The Odd Boy) is another favourite as it is pertinent to the younger lives of many of my audience, who were rarely picked first for games, plus it has some delightful bell playing at the end that is a fine example of expert stereo recording. I have often walked on to Basil Poledoris’s main theme from Robocop because I find the stirring, bombastic orchestral surge is a good counterpoint to what the audience see before them, a pale man in a cardigan.
One of my favourites was the use Michael Legge and I made of The Lighthouse Family’s Lifted for our Pointless Anger Righteous Ire show of 2012. For 15 minutes, a loop of the first minute of Lifted, expertly spliced like an easy listening Mobius strip of hell, would play to our waiting audience. It was magnificent to hear the slow rise of indignant rustling as they twigged the true horror. It got the audience into just the mood we required.

On my last Edinburgh Fringe run, in 2014, I was particularly enamoured with the archive releases of Trunk Records, so the audience walked into the soundtrack from Blood on Satan’s Claw, Bright Eyes from the Classroom Projects’ album, Music from Mathematics , which is what the future was going to sound like when keyboardists passed the Turing test, and Philip Larkin reading some of The Less Deceived.

It is a little thing, but I like to imagine a few members of the audience nudge each other and say, “hang on, isn’t this the theme from the classic Satan regrows himself after a skull exhuming ploughing accident movie Blood on Satan’s Claw?”
For this year’s two shows all I know for sure is that I’ll be playing Arthur Russell’s This is How We Walk on the Moon before my show about art. I better get on with with choosing the playlist for the shows or I’ll never get around to writing them.

My Edinburgh fringe shows are now on sale here and here.

Many people have been asking about the play in music for the Brian Cox arena tour, expertly put together by our tour manager, Giles. It is a selection of songs about space and science, though currently it has no Pond. We must repair this error. Here are the arena songs of cosmology.

My top three out of these songs are The Killing Moon (Echo and the Bunnymen), Go! (Public Service Broadcasting) and Another Girl Another Planet (The Only Ones), what about you?

Artist Title
Just Jack Astronaut
Taylor Swift Starlight
George Harrison Here Comes the Sun
Echo & The Bunnymen The Killing Moon
Sunhouse Spinning round the sun
Stevie Wonder Saturn
Coldplay Sky Full of Stars
One Republic Counting Stars
Madonna Lucky Star
Elton John Rocket Man
The Flaming Lips Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon
KT Tunstall Crescent Moon
The Beatles Across the Universe
Paul Weller Science
Wolfmother Violence of the Sun
Elbow Lippy Kids
David Bowie Life on Mars
Lost Horizons Space Walk
Gorrilaz Every planet we reach is dead
Lou Reed Satellite of Love
The Waterboys The Whole of the Moon
Guided By Voices I am a Scientist (I am a Scientist EP Version)
Eels Daisies of the Galaxy
Frank Sinatra Fly me to the Moon
The Kinks Supersonic Rocket Ship
R.E.M. Man on the Moon
Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band Mr. Apollo
The Police Walking on the moon
Sheila B. Devotion Spacer
Elvis Presley Blue Moon of Kentucky
David Bowie Space Oddity
Deep Purple Space Truckin’
Muse Supermassive Blackhole
OK Go Shooting the moon
They Might Be Giants Science is real
Public Service Broadcasting Go!
Dispatches Circles Around the Sun
Pink Floyd Astronomy Domine
Colourbox The Moon is Blue
David Bowie Starman
Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band Urban Spaceman
Stone Tepmle Pilots First Kiss on Mars
Bing Crosby Swinging on a Star
Paul Weller Saturns Pattern
Toad the Wet Sprocket New Constellation
Beastie Boys Intergagctic
B52’s There’s a moon in the sky
Moby We are all made of stars
They might be giants Why does the sun shine?
The Only Ones Another Girl, Another Planet
Babylon Zoo Spaceman

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