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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

“Not Easily Consumable even though they are all consumer images” – Paolozzi at Whitechapel

Standing opposite some Eduardo Paolozzi collages, I wanted to do turn to the woman three frames width from me and beam, “isn’t this fun!”
The first room in The Whitechapel Gallery’s Paolozzi exhibition is rammed with an excess of creativity, post war explosion of sculptures, collages and dress patterns that defies an age were ration books were still in hand and eggs were still powdered.
I have a habit of forgetting the closing date of exhibitions at The Whitechapel, not this time.
With a slither of time between leaving home and going to Derby for the next dates of the Brian Cox tour, I decided the limited time and weight of rucksack and suitcase was no alibi for missing art
Hoiking my luggage around a gallery would count as the day’s exercise session as we were not being stretched and reshaped on a hillside or lakeside by Brian’s trainer today.
Like the Rauschenberg exhibition, I grinned from one magnificent creation to the next. Sadly, I was unaccompanied, so I had to keep it all in. Not everyone was as grinnish as me, plus an old man burdened with luggage and expressing delight to strangers can be seen as a peculiar thing that strangers feel the need to ward off.
The first image was a 1950s magazine cutting about the future of electronic hand and arm replacements, I could instantaneously understand why JG Ballard admired him so much. Images of Lucille Ball and the latest tinned tuna technology soon followed.
Like so many exhibitions I visit, I went in predominantly ignorant of much of the work. I had seen some of it along a balcony at the Yorkshire Sculpture park last Summer, and a few illustrations accompanying articles by and about Ballard.
Though I knew the Bunk! image, I knew nothing of his silent Bunk presentation at the ICA in 1952, described as “the opening salvo of pop art.”

He projected a series of adverts and cuttings, baffling many observers at the time, but also leaving quite a few intrigued. It must have been an enigmatic event. The carousel of slides clicks and whirrs in the Whitechapel. It generates a nostalgia for the future that never quite arrived.
The images look so hopeful, but also arcane, a time where magazines and politics was suggesting the life after wartime would be a time of ambition, new comforts and domestic joys, before the potency of perpetual fear began to dominate.

Do I admire and delight in Paulozzi’s collages as they encourage narcissistic me to see them as similar to my mind, frenetic with cogs and heads, teapots and octopi, before self-knowledge me reminds me that his framing of a multitude of shapes and images has some control, unlike my spewing brain.

Listening to philosopher Rick Roderick’s Self Under Siege lecture a day later, he discusses the confusion we face from the cultural bombardment of the twentieth century, something that seems even truer in the twenty-first.
‘The marriage of reason and fantasy which has dominated the twentieth century has given birth to an even more ambiguous world”, wrote JG Ballard in the introduction to Paulozzi’s box of images, General Dynamic of F.U.N.

In room 2, the colours at first take over from the images. The As is When series is alluringly overwhelming.

I couldn’t look at anything just the once. I would leave and return and, had I not needed to arrive at a velodrome in Derby by 4.15pm, I would have stayed for the day. Resting my eyes near cakes and coffee, then going back in. Placed within the prints, there is information about Wittgenstein, his perpetual sense of disappointment after giving lectures, his need to immediately distract his mind by sitting in the front row of the movies. Westerns were his favourites.
“A picture is fact,” he wrote, but can Paulozzi’s be narrowed down to just one fact?

Like Rauschenberg, you walk away in awe of the intense activity of one mind.
There are only a few days left, you should go.

I am going to try to understand art a little more in my Edinburgh show – Rorschach Test, tickets here.
Also, my science and insanity show at Edinburgh Fringe has just gone on sale here.

I will be doing a 19 date tour in the Autumn, with more dates added in the Spring.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Whitman and Feynman are on your side, but… a little arena cosmology tour diary

Sitting opposite each other on the train from Edinburgh, Professor Cox laughed as he watched me take out a pile of books, my creased notepad and pencil and pen in preparation for the 4 hours and 22 minutes until London. I had notes to make and information to digest. He has a significant lead on me and I am not such a canny tortoise that I’ll ever be able to overtake him.
I am always scribbling and trying to understand.
While I twitch and scribble and pen chew, he calmly looks out at the sea and continues to calculate the universe.
I need to do things.
Saturday was a good day.
We had breakfast, then we went onto the moors for fitness training.
Brian has been eager for me to join him in his regime. I think he expected me to collapse like a jelly being steam ironed.
I think I might have been suspicious that this might happen to.
In a moment of bravado, I volunteered to carry the weights up to the moor.
Surprisingly, my concealed stamina, built up from many long walks carrying heavy bags of books, came through. I ache a little now and some movement is restricted, though I think that may have come from day 2’s regime of of hanging from trees in the shore of Lake Windermere.
After the moors, I had time to go to another churchyard. Fine names on the tombstones – Smirk and Platt and Summersgill, one with the addition of “you were the wind beneath my wings”, another with “cast a cold on life, on death, horseman pass by.”
I sat on a bench in memory of Donald Wildman and read some Ezra Pound.
I have been sitting in cemeteries since I was 9, it’s good to get used to them for the future.
This meant that I could approach lunch without feeling I had frittered my morning away.
The rest of the day would be spent traveling to Liverpool, listening to Echo and the Bunnymen and saying, “this really is a pretty big arena isn’t it.”
The night ended in the back of the van, eating cheese, lowering adrenaline, and looking at dry stone walls bordering the Lake District.

I didn’t need Savages to sing,”I understand the urgency of life”, I knew it was urgent anyway, but it is useful that they’ve given the sentiment a raucous tune and phrasing.

I wonder if I can sit back and enjoy the view, but I was born to fidget.

The gap in the tour schedule was just big enough that I could place some things in it.
Back home by 4pm, it was playtime and Doctor Who summaries for a few hours with my son.
“Other people said it was scary, but I didn’t find it frightening, but it is a bit sad, I won’t tell you when.”
A cinema trip with my wife to see Mad to be Normal, a film about RD Laing and his Kingsley Hall experiment which almost worked, but didn’t quite. Very good up to the unravelling, but a little too slapdash for the fall and closure. Tennant is very good as RD Laing, and Michael Gambon is a thing of sad beauty, but underused. A few people left, apparently expecting something a little more Broadchurch and a little less “these were the revolutionary ideas, tinged with Marx and Sartre, about understanding schizophrenia and the family that threw Rorschach blots onto 1960s culture.”

I was up early enough to get into London and see the Paolozzi exhibtion at The Whitechapel Gallery. It made me giddy. There are only five days left, you should go.
Looking at the collages and images from his Bunk presentation of the 1950s, I psychobabbled a solution to why I like his art so much. It is fecund, so many ideas coming from each work. It is how I wish my mind was with all its busyness and confusion, but I fear mine falls short of fecundity and stalls at febrile instead.

To Derby Arena, it’s usually a cycling track, maybe we’ll do a few exercise laps before the cosmology.

Most of the Professor Brian Cox tour is sold out, though you may find some returns and 30 or so tickets go on sale in the afternoon of the shows.

I am off on a little solo tour this Autumn with a show about art and science and insanity, starting in Barnard Castle and ending in Folkestone. Tickets for Reading went on sale today (plus Leeds, York, Hull and 13 more)
I will also be doing two shows at Edinburgh Fringe, one at the Museum of Scotland and one at The Stand.

And one more footnote, here is the playlist of audience music used on Prof tour.

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
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’ll Tell You What I Want… Rawls’ Theory of the Spice Girls

What do you want?

Sitting on a bench by the porch of a rural church, the sunshine lighting the pages of my Walt Whitman book and with a soft soundtrack of birdsong around me, I realised that I was one of the few people in the UK who is predominantly happy with their life. Due to background, income and current career, I will also be one of the last to feel the repercussions of sociopathic governmental decisions. The worst effect so far is merely occasional barbed social media spite globs due to my apparent membership of the liberal media elite. The aggressive and near fascist media elite are apparently a far more acceptable bunch, real good eggs of venality and self interest.

In an interview, JG Ballard once said that it had been good for him to spend two years in a Japanese Internment Camp during World War 2 as it gave him some experience of what life for most people in the world was like, the suburban Shepperton life does not represent the mean average of daily human experience.
I am aware that I am fortunate. I am aware that all this did not come my way through nothing more than my own personal skills and tenacity.

I am thinking about these things as our next general election draws close and I have to ask what I want from a government. The choices are not alluring or dynamic, and rarely imaginative.
What surprised me after the EU referendum was the inability of many people who voted leave to explain how they hoped it would change their daily experience. The buzzwords of “sovereignty” and “freedom” came up, but then failed to be transformed into tangible ideas.
This is not an attack on BREXITeers, perhaps it’s an attack on language, how words disconnected from reality become potent motivators when it comes to crosses in boxes.
My problem with that is it becomes harder to work out success or failure if it is just down to whether we have gained or lost a word on our top trump card of values. It’s much easier to con people if the aim is words not deeds. “See, we delivered on you having a new noun to chant, we never said anything about not killing all the first borns.” You can take back a microwave or laptop that fails to live up to its advertised promises, but there is no warranty on a duplicitous government.

Being in the fortunate position of having what I want, what do I want when I vote in an election?
It seemed to be worthwhile to make a list of what I think should be feasible and aspired to, tangible values and possible outcomes that I want, without the distraction of They Live style sloganeering (reminds me, must buy new sunglasses for billboard inspections). I can then return to the list as the five years trundles and tick off the rewards and ring the betrayals.

I would like to see smaller class sizes in schools and an education system that was not constantly being fiddle with due to the ideological whims of education secretaries.

I would like to see access to good healthcare readily available and a healthcare system where people are not pawns of target hitting. Also, a government which listens to the concerns of doctors and nurses and pays attention to them.

Decent care for the elderly and decent pay for carers to demonstrated the both the cared for and the carers are not just some nuisance and impediment to profit.

I would like to see a higher minimum wage and higher management and business leaders having a greater understanding that the size of disparity between the highest paid and the lowest paid is not a good thing for a society or a healthy civilisation generally.

On top of that, I would like to see greater respect for importance of libraries, youth clubs and respite care. I want to see homelessness effectively tackled, equality rights taken seriously and a justice system committed to finding ways to prevent repeat offending.

I also wouldn’t mind clear thoughts on the unhealthy nature of very few individuals owning the vast majority of methods of broadcasting information. Those who control the means of moulding public opinion draw the line of their concern for the country just before it comes to paying taxes. They are keen to contribute discord and hate from their islands and chateaus, but not so keen on contributing tax to build a better country.

For the time being, not all of the above will make any difference to my immediate life, but I think they would make living in the UK better for everyone.
Speaking to an American friend after the United Airlines debacle with Dr Dao, he told me of the number of people who had said to him, “that bloody Dr Dao, getting in the way of all the other passengers flight home.” It seemed that they all imagined themselves as the inconvenienced, not the one being manhandled and bloodied. That’s why I think Rawl’s Theory of Justice is an important to think about when placing a cross in a box, what is the society you would want if you could, by chance, find yourself thrown into any position in it. You might be the Mayor of Moneytown, or you might be the toilet cleaner of Pig Squat.

I know I am fortunate, I would like more people to feel they were too. It is not a selfless act to vote for things that may cost me more in income tax, I think it will mean walking about in the open is just one of the many things that might improve with a more cohesive society where people feel respected and valued.

That’s my list so far, I am sure it will grow, please feel free to add your list of hopes for a new government below this post.

I am off on a UK tour without Brian Cox (so not quite so many arena shows) in the Autumn, dates are HERE. More dates to be added in Spring, do suggest towns and cities and village halls if you’d like.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Door Will Soon Open for me, but not for them – an afternoon in prison

18 months ago, I went to talk in a prison. I wrote 950 words about it on the train home and then it lolled around in a some nano gates of memory for “political reasons”.The chum who invited me through the gates has now asked me if I’d put it up as governors and politics change. I have rewritten nothing. I haven’t even reread it. This was my immediate reaction, bad grammar and all.

Today, I went to prison the first time.
My wife was obviously impressed when I told her that I was going to Leicester prison for Valentine’s day.
I have never been in prison and my meetings with former prisoners have been few. The most time I have spent with one was the two weeks I shared a flat with Malcolm Hardee in Johannesburg.
It was after a gig in Northampton that I was asked if I would come into Leicester prison and talk to some of the men there about whatever I could manage to talk about, writing or shouting or making a living being a dick. I said yes, then worried about it afterwards as usual. It wasn’t visiting a prison that I feared, it was having anything relevant or useful to say to those serving time. What would this middle class milksop have to say of any purpose or use?
Entering the prison felt surprisingly run of the mill. I thought some middle class antsy, pale foppery would make twitchy, but fortunately not. I went through hefty metal door after hefty metal door, the rattling of a multitude of keys, just as my cliched imagination foretold.
And inside, it looked not far off Porridge of 40 years ago.
I obeyed my OCD and popped to the toilet before the final few doors, knowing it would be something of a rigmarole of echoing iron and further keys once in the library.
About here, I suppose I should write, “I was nervous, what would these convicted criminals, with their scars and tattoos and slang and knowledge of intimidation and snooker balls in socks look like? My mind ran wild. The fear turned to sweat”.
But I am not so naive to imagine these examples of humanity would be so different to the ones I had just seen on the Leicester streets a few minutes before. By avoiding cod psychology and newspaper hoopla and screeching, I didn’t think I would see faces that betrayed some criminal gene. How easy it might be for those who wish to say intelligence and criminality are all formed in the womb. Education could be for those whose mouth swab reveals the anointed order of ACTGs and crime could just be declared destiny.
I was pleased to Randal Keynes‘ Creation (AKA Annie’s Box) was on the counter of the little library, I thumbed through it, seeking the “chaos of delight” quotation that I have repeated as a Darwinian mantra on so many occasions. On another shelf, I was Luke Haines’ Bad Vibes
The first men came in. One was writing poetry, and asked me what I thought of John Cooper Clarke, a man he had just found out about a few days ago. I recommended him highly and couldn’t help but recite, “You’ll Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express.”
I wondered how long he had written poetry. It sounded as if it had been his secret, real men don’t write poetry, but now he was happy, maybe proud, that he was creating stanzas.
I told him about John Cooper Clarke reciting poetry at punk gigs and how Oscar Wilde was a good boxer. He had been a boxer too.
Eight more joined us. We talked for a couple of hours. I probably talked too much. Brevity eludes me as usual. A few jokes were told.
I saw a rose made of bread. It had intricate details and vivid colour. A lump of dough that had been scrupulously sculpted. The sculptor had only started creating them a few weeks ago. He was filling his pad with them, and making them for others, as valentine’s gifts. (I found out they were now pads, not cells).
They told me of their feelings of incarceration and of parole boards and uncertainty.
Some say that prison is a holiday camp, but you could escape from even the most Stalinistic Butlins.
You might have a telly, as if that will compensate for all else. It seems there is a desperate lack of imagination in any mind that thinks access to ITV2 trumps an ability to walk out of the door and see a panoramic sky. Can Dancing on Ice make up for the touch of your family? Think of the fury and edginess you can feel when your mobile phone runs out of battery mid journey, then think of the scarcity of phone calls inside prison. When I walked through the gate of that prison, I knew I would be out again in a matter of hours. I don’t think I would be much good at anything much lengthier. Free will may be an illusion, but I like exercising it, whatever a fraud it might be.
These men had found creativity, poetry and art. Before I left, as they were sent back to the cells, one was given a couple of extra minutes to read me his poem. It was direct and heartfelt, with clever flourishes. In the reading, his sense of achievement was clear.
It was his work from his mind, and it expressed something about his predicament and how he wanted to change it. It had a humanity sadly lacking in much daily and political discourse.
It’s a popular party conference pleaser to say, “it’s time we thought of the victims” and then some Draconian legislation is mooted and the papers write furiously about the story of a convicted pickpocket who was given a chocolate biscuit. If we really thought about the victims, then we’d be looking to make prison and its aftermath as effective as possible in creating people who are not repeat offenders. What I saw today were people working hard to work out a route.

I am off to the Edinburgh Festival in August with two shows, one on art and one general upbeat rant on reality and madness. I’ll then be taking a confusion of the two shows around the UK on a small tour from Barnard Castle to Bath with 17 stops on the way (Dartmouth, Salford, Leeds, Hull, Bristol etc.) Might be some details at robinince.com

You can also find an interview with Peter Capaldi and speeches by Helen Czerski and me from March of Science here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Return to Mach

The lid is off.                                                                                                                                       The id is out.                                                                                                                                         The superego will mop up the aftermath.
The fumbling failure to cease performing stand up is over.
In the time off, I think I have been able to gain some perspective.
It gave me a chance to spend almost every weekend going on adventures with my son for a year.
It severely cut the tweeting about frustrating train journeys.
It allowed me to put on weight due to the loss of that two hours of nightly flailing and gesticulating.
Disembarking at Machynlleth, this was the official termination of my disassociation from stand up.
I have started typing two new shows, something I haven’t done for a long time.
The last few solo shows were scribbled on postcards and structured via failure in front of small audiences.
I currently have 30 pages of notes and two exercise books full of numbered ideas that may gather the moss of a routine or will die on the vine.
The Rorschach Test of Robin Ince is somethingorother about art and I have decided to class that as spoken word. This is not due to fear of failure to find the punchlines in a Picasso, but to broaden out from the necessity of everything leading to a joke. It will not be joke-less by intention and I plan anything that that doesn’t have a punchline to be interesting enough to divert the audience.(That will be at the Museum of Scotland during the fringe).
Pragmatic Insanity, inspired by both Philip K Dick and RD Laing’s thoughts that sometimes insanity is the correct reaction to reality. This will be in one of my favourite smaller rooms on the fringe, Stand 2, and I plan on that being a looser collection of ideas, though death and quantum physics are cropping up quite a lot.
I was intending to collate some of the ideas in the exercise books on the train to Machynlleth, but I bumped into Alexis Dubus and we talked about the KLF and Robert Anton Wilson instead. At Wolverhampton, Bridget Christie, and we all agreed to put our heads down and work on our shows.
So.
We ate grapes and crisps and talked about comedians and critics and the problems of being distracted from writing new shows.
At Machynlleth, we sat in the Quarry Café and ate soup and talked of science fiction book covers, Josie Long and James Acaster’s near “death by logs” experience of some years ago, and how we’d soon be going off to write our shows.
Getting to Y Plas, I found more people to talk to about how we were all about to write our shows for the weekend.
Eventually, I sat at an asymmetrical bench and started writing on postcards and trying to order some words on paper and in my head. As usual, I was under the illusion that I could regurgitate 50 or 60 ideas that I’d only just written down for the first time. I see me standing before the crowd like a sociology teacher played by Alain Delon, delivering with gravitas salient points with subtle and potent punchlines.
When I got into the venue, I found out there was a projector I could use, so I quickly made a powerpoint of things I liked, including Georgia O Keeffe’s paintings of pelvis bones and Divine in Pink Flamingos preparing to declare her manifesto of “kill everyone now!”
Having been AWOL from comedy, when I do find myself alone at the side of the stage, it is a little more alien than usual.
I have to remind myself what I intend to do.
The music faded and I walked on with a new opening line freshly formed in my head, by the time I reached the microphone, that had been unconsciously discarded and something different came out. It was chaotic. It was twenty minutes longer than it was meant to be.
Some of it required having spent a few days in my head to understand it.
Sometimes five ideas came out at once, sometimes none at all, but still there was noise.
I hope it was entertaining for most people.
It was passionate, even if it was at times more meaningless than intended.
I had a lovely conversation with an audience member who apologised for being complimentary in that lovely way where people think you may be bored by people saying they enjoy what you do.
I am a little more sure that I have the makings of two new shows in my exercise books, now it’s up to my frontal lobes to pick the right words and intone them correctly.
I have new faces to make publicly.
And thank you again Machynlleth festival, your existence is a magnificent achievement.

I will be at Museum of Scotland and The Stand for first two weeks of Edinburgh Fringe and then doing a slight tour (mixing up both shows) including Salford, Barnard Castle, Colchester and Bath.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments