Friday, 23 November 2012

Dear John...

I like to read. An important part of my word intake is a daily newspaper; my newspaper of choice is The Independent. A frequent contributor to the paper is John Walsh; he writes a regular column and a number of restaurant reviews, and these are always entertaining, informative, well-written. 
So this isn’t going to be a hatchet job. It’s a response. Nothing more.

Mr. Walsh, in his column of 22nd November (though in its online form it’s listed as being published on the 21st), said this:

Extraordinary to see graphic books turn up in two categories in the Costa Prize, among the novels and biographies. I wish I admired comic-strip fiction as the French do, but it always seems to me a bastard version of the real thing. As one shortlistee, Joff Winterhart, says, “My book isn’t a novel in the conventional sense, it’s a comic with pictures and speech boards.” Quite.
Good novels are made of words, without drawings that helpfully show the expressions on characters’ faces. It’s cruel but true: illustrations in novels are for children, or those who have trouble keeping up.
Well, first of all, it’s not just the French, it’s also the Belgians and the Japanese and the Brazilians and the Americans and, to an increasing extent, it’s the British and the rest of the world. 
What I have to take issue with is the idea that a novel which “isn’t a novel in the conventional sense” is somehow lesser than a “good” novel, “made of words”. A good graphic novel stands up quite easily against a good prose novel, and can be better than a great deal of merely adequate prose novels. Also, if we define a “good” novel as Mr. Walsh does, then where do we begin to exclude works that stray from that definition? 
A quick look across my own bookshelves reveals works by Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Harvey Pekar, David Mazzuchelli and many others: graphic novels which, using Mr. Walsh’s definition, are not “good” books. But I also have “good” books such as Alisdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly which relies to a large extent on typographical tricks and  illustrations to convey certain meanings and events. I have a copy of B S Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, some of which is told in the form of entries in a book-keeping ledger. I have three copies of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (one of which is an adaptation in graphic form by Martin Rowson, who also works for The Independent) which relies on typographical tricks just as Gray does, but also features such things as the infamous ‘black page’, which allows the reader to imagine for themselves what happens in that sequence. Tom Wolfe’s new book, Back To Blood, uses all manner of :::::!!!!&%@ strange \\\((())¢#ยช≠ typography. And! Punc-tu^ation as a narrative device. The Independent’s reviewer said 
it seems remarkable that at 81 he should still be writing with such verve. Back to Blood is energising, fascinating – and utterly exhausting.
To be fair, that reviewer wasn’t Mr. Walsh, and we shouldn’t expect all writers for a particular publication to hold or express the same opinions.
All of the above, and many more besides, are novels “made of words” which, just as a graphic novel does, use story-telling devices other than words to convey their narrative and their subtext. Are these no longer “good” books? 

Moving on to Mr. Walsh’s second point: 
It’s cruel but true: illustrations in novels are for children, or those who have trouble keeping up.
I’m afraid, Mr. Walsh, I have to take this as something of a personal insult. As I’ve said, I read all manner of books. Some of those books are highbrow literary fiction, some of them are pot-boilers, some are biography, some history, some science texts. Some of them are graphic novels. Some, like the different versions of Tristram Shandy, are both, and the different media reveal different sides of the work. But it seems that because I enjoy novels that have illustrations, I’m either a child (and why should age be a barrier to literature? Surely a child can enjoy ‘grown-up’ books as much as an adult can get pleasure from Alice In Wonderland or even You’re A Bad Man, Mr. Gum) or a bit of a thicko. 
So it looks like I'm not good enough. Obviously I have “trouble keeping up” and I’m going to have to adjust my bookshelves accordingly and get rid of everything for which I’m too slow. Goodbye to Thomas Pynchon, Julian Barnes, Evelyn Waugh, Amis pere et fils, both David Mitchells, Jim Thompson, Don deLillo, Alan Coren, Albert Camus…
Oh, and I suppose The Independent’s out as well. Which is a pity, as I happen to know that  one of Mr. Walsh’s senior colleagues on the paper is a big fan of comics. Let’s hope that, at the next big editorial meeting, he doesn’t have trouble keeping up. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Now That I Own the BBC

In a few weeks time the present hoo-hah about the BBC – a hoo-hah mostly manufactured by others in the print media who are desperately trying to head Lord Leveson off at the pass – will, with any luck, be reduced to an item on the end-of-year news round-ups that fill a few hours at the end of December.

A couple of suggestions, then, as to what should happen next:

Firstly, abolish the post of Director General. It’s simply too big a job for any one man to be able adequately to fill. Replace it with two positions;  Director General (Operations) and Director General (Production). The first takes care of the business and political end of the corporation, deals with shitstorms like the one going on right now, and decides where the money’s to be spent. He also simplifies the management structure that has beknighted the BBC since John Birt was in charge. The other handles the creative side of the BBC, allocates the budget given by DG (Ops), and makes sure the corporation’s output is what it should be - the best television and radio it’s possible to be. This post should be filled by someone from the creative industries, someone along the lines of Michael Grade. In fact, it should be held by Michael Grade, full stop,

Secondly, change the way the BBC is funded. No, calm down over there in Daily Mail Land, not abolish the licence fee (although maybe the new DG (Ops) should make ‘we will abolish the licence fee’ his first public statement, just to give Rupert Murdoch that final fatal heart attack. Then he can say “Just kidding!” and get on with his job unbothered by the ancient bastard). I advocate we abolish the system by which the licence fee goes to the Government who then decide how much of it goes to the BBC. 

Instead, we just give it to the BBC. Free the corporation from having to kowtow to some arse who’d really rather see it sold off or crippled. Let it know that the licence fee is there wholly as funding for a media giant that is free of outside influence and commercial necessity, but also let it know that the fee is reliant on those who pay it, and whose consideration must absolutely be at the forefront of everything the BBC does.

Because, quite simply, the BBC is glorious. It must stay that way. Yes, it makes mistakes, and it has done recently in a shockingly bad way, but those mistakes must be reconciled, and apologised for, and those adversely affected must be compensated. And when that’s done the BBC should be allowed to get on with the job of being glorious, of making astounding television programmes, and unmissable radio, and of having the only news organisation that is completely vital, and it must be allowed to do this without some high-pitched nincompoop trying to sell the user some type of appalling rubbish every ten minutes, without having to worry whether a new series is bland enough to pull in enough advertisers, without the need – a need which is absolutely a part of any commercial medium – to consider anything other that the satisfaction of its users.

That is all.

Monday, 5 November 2012


Bonfire Weekend is over, and once again the air is filled with the smell of cordite and disappointment and the streets are littered with the empty shells of brightly coloured fripperies that promised a dazzling array of light and wonder but ultimately delivered only a few brief seconds of something resembling excitement before sputtering into a sad parody of its own potential. 

So let’s talk about comics. 

This was the month where I finally gave up on all but a few of the New 52 DC books; I’d struggled manfully on through the first year of those that I’d originally felt had potential, but a lot of them fell by the wayside as disillusionment set in, and then the silly sods went and shot themselves in the foot with their Zero Month promotion. Ideal jumping-on points are, more and more these days, more like ideal jumping-off points, and it was time to alight. 

I’ll tell you exactly what did it: Nicky Necro. I’d doggedly stuck with Justice League Dark despite realising very early on that it wasn’t very good, hoping that it’d turn round and do something astonishing with the potential-laden characters who manned it. It had bloody Constantine in it for Christ’s sake, and even the worst of Hellblazers had something going for it. But month after month JLD gave me lousy plots and dialogue you could carve a small figurine out of. And then came the Zero issue, redolent with promise, oozingly open to giving me a story that would expose the hidden exotica of John and Zatanna’s doomed love. Instead it gave me the secret origin of John’s coat. More to the point, it gave us John’s mentor, his teacher, the man who lit the fuse that would blaze into the darkness. And it gave this man the insultingly stupid name of Nicky Necro. Why stop there? Why not call him Bertie Blackmagic, or Dennis Darkness? What did this teach me? It taught me that somebody just wasn't trying. And if you're not going to try, I'm buggered if I'll give you my cash. 

Book thrown to one side, order cancelled. 

So, what with OMAC and Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE cancelled, that’s left me with Flash. One title out of 52. And I’m only sticking with that for as long as it looks pretty. 

Don’t talk to me about Marvel, either. OK, Hawkeye’s a thing of beauty but I can see it lasting about as long as Fraction’s Defenders did. Ditto the FF relaunch. And I for one can’t be doing with the company’s policy of restarting titles every eighteen months. It confuses the punters, who are dropping the books as though they were smallpox-infected blankets. It confuses the retailer, who has no bloody clue how many to order of yet another Captain America or Iron Man #1. It plays merry hell with the shop’s database. 

All of this leads to the main point, for which I shall put on my retailer hat: new titles from the Big Two aren’t worth taking a flyer on. The shop will sell slightly more of the first Marvel Now (! optional) issues than it does at present. Then it will sell slightly fewer of the subsequent issues than it does at present. There may be one title that breaks out and becomes not only a success, but a continuing success. A success with legs. 

But the signs aren’t good. Captain Marvel, the first Now! book, sits on the shelves, alone, unloved, unsold. In two, three, five years from now, I’d bet my left leg that most of these new titles are doing the same as CM will be: sitting in the back issue bins, in numbers too large to convey rarity, at prices no higher than at launch. Outlier here: Hawkeye again. First issue sells like nobody’s business at eight quid a pop. But for every Hawkeye there’s a Son Of Hulk

In fact, these days it makes more sense for the shop to take a flyer on new series from Image. Five years ago you’d look at Previews and only order enough copies of a new Image book to fill pre-orders. But these days: Saga #1’s on its fifth printing and we sell two or three a week. Six quid a time, plus postage if you’re overseas, which the majority of orders for it are (another time, we shall discuss the geographical cycle of comics retail). Or Happy, which we took a chance on and sold out of in days. 

There was a time when you could see that Marvel or DC were launching a new title and be confident of shifting a hundred or so copies off the shelf. These days (disregarding the one-offs like the initial New 52 launch month, where everybody wanted everything), you’re lucky to move ten. Variant covers help at publisher/distributor level, but if you’re a retailer staring at twentyfive unsold Superman #13 and nobody’s going for the sketch variant, it does you no good at all. 

Talking of Superman #13: that shows pretty well how media attention means nothing now. There were newspaper and TV reports about that issue; it was the top story on the BBC’s news site. How many extra copies did we sell? One. To a journalist. Who’s a regular customer anyway. 

Let’s see if there’s any good news. Well yes, there is, but even that’s got a down side darker than a closed mineshaft. The Vertigo one-shots that come out every few months, the ones that are essentially trademark renewals; the most recent one, Ghosts, wasn’t a bad book. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was a rather good book. If you’re a big comics geek you’d want to pick it up because it features the last work by the late Joe Kubert (literally: it’s rough pencils only, but even rough pencils from a Kubert are worth more than fully-painted from most people). It’s complete and of itself, it has no real ties to convoluted continuity unless you really need the backstory of the Dead Boy Detectives. It’s got a good number of stories in it. It’s the ideal book to show to new readers, or to the bored partners of old readers who don’t quite understand their other half’s obsession with costumes, or to casual drop-ins who wonder what you sell in this strange, out-of-the-way shop with the funny S-sign in the window. 

But it costs $8. That’s about six quid. For a comic. You could get a book for that, a proper book with covers and everything. You could get lunch, a good lunch, with coffee. And we have a cafe not ten steps away. To give DC/Vertigo their due, they overshipped this, so we got a bundle of copies for nothing, but it’s rare that this happens. I’d love to have more books like Ghosts, but I’d love to have them either at an affordable price, or on SOR, or as overships. 

But I can’t see that happening in an industry where the people who can afford to do it - and who need that kind of readership - prefer to shovel out yet another relaunch of X-Men

Just a word

A quick question: when did ‘the unemployed’ become ‘the workless’?

It seems unimportant a change, but consider it for a moment: ‘unemployed’ is far more active, implying as it does that there are a number of factors behind the unemployment. If I work for somebody, they employ me, I am employed. It’s a two-way street. 

If I don’t work for somebody (and assuming I’m not working for myself), I’m unemployed because nobody employs me. There’s a chance they’re not employing me because I’m a feckless bastard, but it’s far more likely they’re not employing me because they have no job to employ me in. 

It’s a no-fault form of language. The blame for the absence of employment is laid on no specific person. 

‘Workless’ carries different weight. ‘Workless’ implies a choice, suggests that the person referred to has made a decision not to work. It places the blame firmly, squarely, on the person without work. It absolves the employer and, more importantly, it absolves the causes of unemployment, be they political, geographical or economic. 

It’s a small and subtle change to the language of work, but it signifies a larger shift towards the stigmatisation of those without work, as does the gentle pressure to see the unemployed as a different social group to those who work - different even to that growing number who work only part-time as a result of the shortage of available full-time jobs. 

So do me a favour, would you? Next time you see or hear ‘workless’ used, in a newspaper or on a news report, but especially, particularly, if it’s used by a politician, change it. Edit their words inside your head. There are too many people screwed by unemployment and there are probably going to be a hell of a lot more. 

Don’t let anybody make it their fault. 

Don’t make the victims think they committed the crime. 

Monday, 1 October 2012


Two things to remember now the political season has resumed; 

When Question Time begins on Thursday night, hide all objects large/heavy/throwable enough to damage your television.

When Question Time ends on Thursday night, you have approximately thirty-five seconds to get up, leap across the room and turn off the television before Andrew Neil opens his mouth.

Today's Question

What's forty pounds to you? 

“You cannot make the poor rich by making the rich poor” is a phrase I heard used by Steven Norris a while ago, though it’s been around for a good while, and it’s been popping up more and more in the rightist magazines and blogs. It’s a favourite phrase of Conservatives as it conjures up images of the complete rejection of the present system, of forcibly taking every penny the rich have and showering it on those dreadful poor people (some of whom are from overseas!). It’s best illustrated by the old story of one of the Rothschilds being bearded by a mob of angry tenants demanding he redistribute his fortune amongst them. Rothschild threw a handful of coins at them and said something along the lines of “Here’s your two bob each - now bugger off”. Put that way, the absolute of ‘making the rich poor’ is ridiculous, and putting it that way is the classic reductio ad absurdum ploy to negate an argument by, in this case, making its supporters look like ardent Spartists. 

But if you add an aspect of relativity to the statement - if you make it state something realistic - everything changes. ‘You cannot make the poor richer by making the rich poorer’ is entirely different, and entirely false. Making the rich very slightly poorer is very much the way to make the poor richer. 

If you increase a rich man’s taxes by a small percentage, it will make little or no difference to him. Take three thousand pounds off of Roman Abramovitch and frankly he won’t notice it. However, that three thousand, re-distributed among one hundred poor people, will make those poor people relatively far better off. The extra thirty pounds that each poor person receives is, to them, the possibility of proper heating in the bitter winters we have these days, or of a far better diet - one of the next scandals this country should address is the spiralling cost of fresh vegetables compared with the plummeting cost of ready meals and junk food - which in turn leads to a fitter populace and lower health service costs. It makes them richer. Richer. Very much richer. It’s a no-brainer, unless you’re a stupid selfish bastard who thinks ‘making the rich poor’ means descending into Marxist-anarcho-syndicalist chaos, or taking away your Jag (which in most  rightist minds is pretty much the same thing). 

There are those who will say that increasing a tax rate will inevitably lead to a fall in tax take and so to a smaller amount of income from that tax being available for redistribution. Their evidence for this is something called the Laffer Curve, a graph which illustrates exactly this and as such has been used as a justification for tax cuts since 1984. One problem with the Laffer Curve is that it was thought up in a bar and scribbled on the back of a napkin, and while that may well have worked for Picasso when it came to  settling the absinthe bill, it doesn’t show the rigour of thought required for economic theory. Another problem is that it doesn’t work: there’s no way of knowing where on the Laffer Curve any particular economy should be placed, and without that knowledge there’s no way of knowing what the optimum tax rate/tax take is. 

How do I know this? I read an article about it in a magazine. Not Marxism Today, not Kill The Rich Monthly. I read it in The Economist.

The next question is: how rich is rich? I’d say that if your household income is around £70,000 or over, you can afford another 1 or 2% tax. That’s between about £13.50 and £27.00 a week, and that's only if you levy that tax on the entire income rather than just the proportion that would be liable for the higher rate (and I'll continue using that formula firstly because, as Roger T points out, I'm not an accountant and secondly because the higher figure bolsters my argument). £116 a month, tops. That works out at about four quid a day for the upper rate of increase. What’s the opportunity cost of that? A cup of coffee from Starbucks? A pint of beer? Would you really miss that? What would you rather have, a child from a low-income family getting a proper meal, or you getting a sugar buzz from the syrup in your gingerbread latte? 

The beauty of a small tax increase is that the more you earn, the less likely you are to suffer as a result of it. If you’re on £100,000 a year - an amount that most people would say qualifies you as ‘rich’ - you’re currently taking home around £1,250 a week. Would you really miss the forty quid that a 2% tax increase would cost you? Would you run screaming from this Bolshevik tax hell, the way the rightists swear you would? 

Or would you, as a humane person with an ounce of compassion for your fellow man, say “That’s pretty fair. I might not have that second bottle of Hermitage La Chapelle, but what of it?”

Here’s my final thought on this: there are people who think an extra forty pounds in tax is too much to pay. They’ll kick against it like a toddler faced with a plate of broccoli. To them, forty pounds is a small fortune. And yet, if you offer those people the same forty pounds in the form of, say, a pay rise or the fee for an hour’s work or even as a prize for a small lottery win, they’ll reject it as being too small, an insult, a disgrace. 

I’d like to say to those people: it’s one or the other. Make up your bloody minds. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Turrrrrn to the left!

I am not a man of fashion, and I don’t care. Got a couple of good suits, a couple of work suits, a few pairs of 501s in different states of wear (worn no other jeans but 501s since before Nick Kamen, and have slowly gone from 28 inch waist to 34 but do I worry? I do not), bundle of shirts and t-shirts and that, the odd straight-leg flat-front chino and a small selection of shoes and boots. Couple of coats. And that does me. 

This morning I stopped to top up the Oyster and somebody thrust a magazine into my hand. A men’s fashion magazine. I don’t think he singled me out as someone in need of advice. If he had, what kind of fashion tips would you take from a bloke in an orange plastic tabard? 

A cheeky little vintage;
 you may be amused by its impudence
Anyway, I had a look through it. It was called ‘MODE’ (in caps) but it may as well have been called ’84 Pages Of Cunts’. I mean, straight away there’s a photo of some fella called Luke. Luke’s a shirtelier. I'll say it again; a shirtelier. No you’re not mate, you’re a bloke who sells shirts. You’re one step up from the dodgy cockney in the sheepskin down Romford Market. Get over yourself. 

Moving on, there’s a £300 cricket jumper, and here’s a £250 denim shirt - all so very very this season though - before we get to Megatwat #1; The Trend: Blousons Over Tailoring. Apparently that’s what we should all be doing this winter; putting on a suit and then sticking one of those short puffy coats over it so a foot of jacket’s showing. If my old man was alive he’d have a fit. No gentleman worth his salt lets even a mere glimpse of jacket show beneath his topcoat, nor more than an inch and a half of shirt cuff protrude from his jacket sleeve. Only a bounder, a cad or a double-glazing salesman would. 
Pagoda Shoulderline:
never got the recognition
she deserved

Other things we should keep an eye out for: the Pagoda Shoulderline (a wonderful character actress who starred alongside Michelin Twick in so many pre-war British comedies); Vetiver over Neroli (Tom Ford says so. Don’t argue with Tom Ford); big chunky five-grand watches that’ll stay on your wrist exactly as long as it takes your average mugger to find a machete. Oh, and monk-strap shoes. Very big this season (not ‘very big’ as in clown shoes, just y’know, in). 

This is why we beat the Hun in '18
- dashed good tailoring
And just in case you’re feeling a bit short of bling, here comes, recommended by the Merchandise Manager of Harrods - and we all know what a watchword for class that place is - the Dolce & Gabbana gold bullion hand-embroidered jacket. A jacket with a load of scrolling down the front, like spilled spaghetti but in gold. Gold, ladies and gentlemen. Yours for £6,548. Probably dry-clean only though, and who wants that kind of bother? 

Highpoint of all this, though, is the eight-page spread featuring WERNER. All in caps! WERNER! Look at him!  

Look at his fur coat that could well be made out of old ladies' dead acts but is really a just-over thirteen grand fox fur (Tom Ford again, since you ask. Don't all rush).
Don't laugh.
He could kill you.
Look at his lovely boots! Look at his neatly-tied jumpsuit! Just LOOK at his vertical hair!

Christ, no wonder Dave Sim went mad if he looked at tosh like this all bloody day. 

Sod it. Where can I find an orange plastic tabard?

Sunday, 23 September 2012


So there’s this family: the father’s in his seventies, his wife - his second - is in her forties, they have eight children, live in a big house. Their house is, frankly, a disgrace; their pet dogs eat scraps of food out of discarded fast food wrappers left on a coffee table, and the floors and the back garden are strewn with the dogs' activity's end result. The kids are out of control. The father sits in his pants, surrounded with piles of rubbish, eating pizza off a tray in front of a giant television.

Are they typical welfare dependents? Bound for Jeremy Kyle? No, because these people are multi-millionaires. They live like this because the father’s business is in trouble and they’ve had to lay off all the staff except for one nanny who lives in a wendy house in the back garden. They’ve also laid off all the staff in the business the father ran. 

This family is the subject of the film The Queen of Versailles; it shows a macro version of what’s happened to a lot of people since the sub-prime mortgage meltdown of a few years ago, and that’s reflected in the micro by a small subplot that follows a old friend of the wife who suffers a greater loss in the same financial disaster. 

One of the things that sticks most after seeing the film is how quickly the family spiral down into squalor; without staff, they have no idea and no capability for looking after themselves, and within weeks they’re up to their neck in old McDonald’s wrappers. Not that this stops them from spending atrocious amounts of money; there’s a scene involving a shopping trip that should, if you have any sense of social outrage, send you into a flat fury. 

What really stays with you is the sense of entitlement they have: despite having lost most of his considerable fortune, the father refuses to take the advice of everybody else and determinedly keeps hold of the fifty-two story timeshare complex that’s causing the majority of his problems, and his wife still makes plan for their new house - the largest in the USA, half-built, costing fifty million dollars so far with another fifty needed to finish it. 

If they were the typical Jeremy Kyle welfare-claiming family, they’d be the centre of all kinds of Daily Mail-style anger. But they’re not - they’re still an incredibly wealthy family for whom ‘poverty’ is a more relative concept than it is for the unemployed salesman let go in their company’s cost-cutting. 

But it shows that the divide between rich and poor is a lot more narrow than we’d care to think; no matter how much money you may have, you’re never that far from the people with nothing. It’s all a matter of self-respect. I know people who literally haven’t a penny but would rather die than let their houses - houses they’ll probably lose in the benefit changes coming next year - fall into the disrepair that we’re supposed to accept as some form of well-financed eccentricity from the family in the film. The simpering ‘well, I know I shouldn’t let this happen but it’s out of my hands’ attitude of the mother would see her demonised if she was claiming benefits. 

There are undeserving poor, according to politicians of a certain stripe - politicians that the father in the film boasts of having helped into office (and if you don’t see that scene, early in the film, and wonder why he hasn’t faced criminal charges, we can’t be friends). But it seems to me that there are a lot more undeserving rich. 

The Queen of Versailles is showing at selected cinemas, but as it’s a BBC Storyville production it may well be shown on television soon. You really ought to watch it. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

Yes, yes, alright

I have been informed via Other Media that the Latin tag I'd attached to this thing was either incorrect or meant something entirely different to what I'd believed it meant - something to do with mistresses or some other tosh.

I've changed it.


Sunday, 16 September 2012


Something that never ceases to astound me: the sheer amiability of the public in the face of everyday corporate shenanigans. 

We may well get all huffy about the likes of Barclays being scum, and some of us are only too fond of acting all Little Hitlerish with the poor sods we interact with every day - witness the prickish behaviour of anybody in a Lacoste polo shirt towards the staff in their local supermarket - but the rest of the time we’re just rolling over like a nervous Yorkshire Terrier and letting the bastards shaft us. 

For example: I used to pay my energy bills once a quarter. The bills would arrive in the post, I’d look at them and swear a bit, then I’d either send a cheque or nip into the bank and pay them off. 

Then, one day, the energy people said “We’ve all got this internet lark these days, and bank accounts and all that, so if you want us to keep supplying you with gas and electricity so you stay warm and you can read and watch telly and use computers, you’ll have to set up an online account and pay us that way.”

But that was okay because every quarter it saved me the bother of writing a cheque or nipping into the bank to pay them off. 

Then, one day, the energy people said “Ah, what happens now is that we need you to set up a direct debit so we can take money out of your bank account when it’s due. Don’t worry, we won’t screw you over.”

But that was okay because I kind of trusted them still. 

But then the energy people said “Well, what’s going to happen now is that we’re going to look at how much power you use, and we’re going to average that out over the next three months, and we’re going to take an amount of money out of your account each month so you don’t have really big bills in the winter.”

And that’s when the shenanigans started. 

The energy people revised the number of times they revise the amount of power you use; it’s gone from quarterly to bi-annually. And the amount of money they take is the largest amount rather than the average. Because of that, my monthly payment has gone up by around 200% in the last three years. Admittedly, my usage has increased - there’s a bloke sitting using a computer or watching television all day every day and well into the night these days - but not by that much. 

Now, I get a statement - not a bill - every six months. It’s a pdf. It tells me how much I’ve used in the previous six months and how much the energy people estimate I’m going to use in the next six months. Every time I get one of these statements I’m in credit, sometimes to the tune of a couple of hundred pounds.

What this means is that the energy people are, for all intents and purposes, sitting on my money. My cash has been taken by them out of my bank account, has been put into theirs, and is essentially lubricating their cashflow while chucking sand into mine. 

So if they’re holding on to (let’s say) three hundred quid of my money, how much of yours have they got? And if we multiply an average amount per customer by the number of customers they have, we’re looking at a very large amount of money being held by the energy people. Money that’s earning them interest, either as it’s held on deposit or as it’s being used for expenditure that otherwise would be financed by interest-bearing loans. 

But we’re not getting interest from them. All we’re getting is reams of figures designed to confuse the layman into thinking it’d be far easier to leave things as they are. By leaving things as they are and not kicking up a stink about these free loans we’re giving to very large corporations, we’re letting them take what is rightfully ours. 

And I think it’s time that stopped. 

So I’m going to ask for my money back, plus the interest it would have earned if it had stayed in my bank account. 

I’ve just phoned the Customer Helpdesk of my energy people, and spoken to a very friendly lady whose manner audibly froze when I outlined what I was looking for. She said she’d get someone to call me back very soon.

I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Next: Culture.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Tim's List Of Lost Things (1)

1. Life With Archie #7; left on bus.

2. KitKat, one finger eaten, slightly melted through being stored in coat pocket; dropped through hole in coat pocket.

3. Amazing Spider-Man #687; eaten by swan.

(to be continued)

Let It Die...

A few weeks ago I stood on a street corner while a large group of scared, panicky people ran toward me. They were followed by a line of police officers, who were trying to keep the first group apart from another group, who had decided that the kind of people who make up the first group were not the kind of people who should be allowed in this country. This situation continued for some hours. 

At the same time - exactly the same time, and for some hours following - the local MP, for whom I have a great deal of time, was telling the world via Twitter that everything was fine, no problems, no roads cordoned off, everybody going about their business as usual. 

Obviously everything here is fine.

Which summed something up for me: I, and everybody else in that area that evening, knew what was going on out there. The MP didn’t. Either that, or she was feeding a different narrative to the world. And there we had it: the problem with politics today in a nutshell. 

Politicians seem to have no idea what actually concerns the majority of people in this country today. There’s this strange idea that everybody belongs to the ‘squeezed middle’, that everybody’s main concern is whether they can afford the usual restaurant or shall they have to downgrade to takeaways, that there’s nobody actually at the sharp end of day-to-day living in recession-era Britain. 

And obviously these people are on their way to a lovely teaparty.
There’s a disconnect between us and them, and there’s a reason for this; most politicians have chosen politics as a career. Most - especially the younger MPs that sit at present - have gone in a straight line from university (usually PPE) to a researcher or Special Adviser position within either one of the main parties or a government department, then risen swiftly to a safe seat. 

And without wishing to come over all Animal Farm on you, there seems to be very little difference in style or substance between them, regardless of party. Certainly there are the outliers, the publicity whores, the slightly extreme sorts; trying to be the political equivalents of shock jocks, aiming for Howard Stern and just about hitting Dermot O’Leary. 

Overall, though, there’s just a coating of human pubulum, a bland smoosh of interchangeable suits and smiles spread like Philadelphia cheese over the leather benches of the House. 

They’re disconnected from ordinary people, who don’t trust them and show that distrust by not voting. Let’s make that clear: people are not voting for a party or a person, nor against. They’re simply not bothering to vote at all. Turnout falls in each consecutive election. Some local elections have turnouts so small they might not have bothered to call the thing in the first place. 

What the public needs is something to believe in again. Either that, or a swift kick up the arse. 

There’s talk at the moment of renovating the Houses of Parliament. Beautiful though it is in its gothic overkill, it’s an old building, full of asbestos and vermin, daily becoming a more and more apt metaphor for what goes on within. It’ll have to be closed down while it’s made safe. 

So why not, for the length of the renovation work but possibly longer, reintroduce the electorate to the importance of democracy by taking away the process of democracy?

Let’s say, then, that Parliament is dissolved, that we have no government. What we have instead is one person in charge of each region; a Commissar for London, another for the South-East, another for Manchester, for each Riding of Yorkshire and so on. Unelected, of course; appointed by the Privy Council perhaps, or chosen by lottery one grey weekend. 

For five years, maybe ten, these couple of dozen people sit in committee in a conference centre somewhere, and make decisions for us. With any luck there’ll be a spread of political convictions between them, but if there isn’t then tough luck, because if they turn out to be maniac extremists, we’re stuck with them. 

And then, when the House is ready for re-occupation (and it may never be; we shall hold on to the possibility of a wholesale relocation of a reinstated Parliament to the QEII Conference Centre, or to the Olympic Park, or to an industrial estate in Lincolnshire), we shall disband the committee, thank them for their work, and start from scratch. 

We’ll have to tweak the system a little. The public may welcome it back with open arms and hugely increased participation, but equally they may not. So instead, we’ll have to incentivise the MPs. 

Ballot papers will have a ‘None Of The Above’ option, and if that option is the most popular, a constituency will just have to get along without an MP for a while. MP’s salaries will be tied to average wages, and rise only at the same level as the same index used for calculating raises in state pensions and other benefits. Outgoing MPs will get the same redundancy benefits as any other worker. Expenses will be subject to the same scrutiny as they would in any other company. 

You see, the problem with too many MPs at the moment, especially those in safe seats or with large majorities, is that they see themselves as creatures of privilege, set for life (or until tabloid scandal) in a cushy job where they can swan along whenever they feel like it, waffle a bit, then bugger off home. Not all of them; the MP I mention at the start of this is very good at her job, working hard both within her constituency and in the larger arena. But a lot do. 

We have to make being an MP a job, one that rewards those who are good at it with positions of greater responsibility, but which weeds out the placemen and the careerists and the mates of the PM and all the others that make politics as it stands such a feeble parody of what it should be. 

Then maybe the people will stop looking at politicians with contempt and distrust, and start voting in decent numbers again, and rediscover what it means to have control over the people who legislate for us. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

This Time Next Year...

(An occasional series of schemes to make me rich.)

Kickstopper: It’s like Kickstarter but pretty much in reverse. Here’s how it works.

Fay Fantasy-Typist wants to write another in her series of Dragonesses and Dreamwalkers books. But Fay doesn’t want to be subject to the onerous demands of editors who insist that the books make any kind of sense and are not just a collection of Fay’s Reiki-healing-inspired new age meanderings. So Fay wants to self-publish, but that would cost more than Fay can afford, because although the books so far have been well-received by those who like that sort of thing, they’ve not gone mainstream and Fay hasn’t been able to fulfil her dream of living in a Gothic folly surrounded by talking cats and lute-playing ravens, and is in fact living in a council flat in Walsall. Besides which, what money has been realised by Dragonesses and Dreamwalkers so far has been spent on long flowing robes and Wicca lessons.

So Fay puts her plan up on Kickstopper in the hope that her readers will pledge money to her so she can type her newest book without any of those annoying everyday financial concerns, then publish it in the format she feels it deserves, with black leatherette covers and the odd embedded fake ruby.

Luckily, there are enough people out there who – because they are adult, literate people -know that Fay’s book is likely to be as atrocious as any of her others. Rather than see another redundant fantasy pollute the shelves, these people can pledge money through the Kickstopper site to stop her from continuing.

If Fay says she’ll type a chapter for every fifty quid raised, Kickstopper can raise fiftyfive notes to stop her in her tracks. With luck and any form of natural justice, sufficient money will be raised through pledges to stop Fay from ever putting quill to vellum.

It’s as simple as that.

But, I hear you say, what’s to stop Fay from just saying she’s going to write the book, getting the Kickstopper money, and then going ahead and writing it anyway? And even if she doesn’t, isn’t the whole thing just a way of allowing under-talented people to get money to do nothing?

Better that, I say, than allowing her to continue. Better to stem the flow of piss-poor fantasy twaddle at the source than let it run over the rim of printing’s chamberpot.

However, at Kickstopper we will recognise the power of incentives both to pledger and pledgee, which is why, if the pledgee should renege on their contract not to produce, all monies must be repaid with interest. That’s a given. We will also offer the following extra bonus incentives to pledges:

If the pledgee pledges a certain minimum amount, they will be eligible to call the creator rude names and tell them exactly what they think of their work. This initial band of incentives includes the opportunity to laugh at the creator’s dress sense, and to tell them that they smell.

Band Two of the incentive plan grants the right for a pledger to stand outside the creator’s house late at night and stare at their window; they may also follow the creator around at a distance of ten yards and mock their choice of vegan (or other) foodstuffs.

Band Three – the highest pledges – will extend to the pledger the unique chance to give the creator a hefty kick in the old lunch or, for Executive Diamond Level pledges, gently break one finger (per pledge, up to and including eight separate fingers but excluding thumbs because of some ridiculous Human Rights law or other). Kickstopper is producing a range of humane but not too humane secateur-based tools to facilitate this.

We are currently working on a weapons-based incentive for those willing to pledge their entire estate and to serve jail time.

Friday, 17 August 2012

She Is... Still

Remember this?

It may be coming out on DVD, provided sufficient people sign up.

Go here. Make it happen.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Modern Pentathlon

Sixteen days ago I quite happily sneered at the Olympics; they were too expensive for a economically-knackered country, the money would be better spent on infrastructure or a much-needed cash injection into the NHS, they’d been overtaken by the corporate sponsors and had become nothing but a shill for Coca-Cola and worse, a shill paid for by the British taxpayer. Worse, I’ve been unable to take my usual weekly ride out past Stratford as the entire Lee Valley has been cordoned off from the likes of me and my battered Dawes. Last time I was able to go past, the first thing I saw of the Olympic Park was the rear end of The World’s Largest McDonalds.

So how is it that this afternoon, as I write this, I have one eye on a woman riding a horse – admittedly a fine-looking horse – around a course in Horse Guards Parade? And how is it that I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow when the Games are all over?

The Opening Ceremony had a lot to do with this: I was still in full-on sneer mode when I say down with a couple of friends and a couple of beers to watch it. I’m not afraid to say that the promise of beer was the deciding factor in joining them that evening. But within half an hour I was done. Drawn in. Suckerpunched. Sitting there with a Stella in my hand, a Chinese take-away on my lap and a stupid great grin all over my stupid great face.

Every day for the last fortnight (and a bit) I’ve sat down and watched whatever was on, switching channels to see what obscure feats were on the Red Button. Every morning I trotted out and bought a newspaper, then came back and read every word of the twenty pages of dedicated Games coverage within, plus the seven or eight pages in the main paper. I’ve never done that, not even in the height of the football season.

And here we are, with that football season less that a week away; usually this would see me poring over the fixture list, making judgments about how each team would perform against another. Today, it leaves me cold. The modern Premier League makes the worst excesses of Barclays’ bonuses look like the petty theft of a sherbet dib-dab from a sweet shop. Let them get on with it, their ridiculous play-acting and their non-stop indiscriminate shagging and their petulant demand for ever more absurd amounts of money. Sod them.

Instead, I want to see more of what I’ve seen over the last fortnight: athletes at the peak of their abilities pushing themselves to the limit and beyond for nothing else but the joy of doing it (yes, and for a potential medal, and for the potential millions in sponsorship and endorsements they could make, but for now you can just shut up, alright?).

I want to see the small sports, the sports that are played in draughty school halls, the sports that are only now coming out into the light as the Lottery money hits; I want to see the weird sports like the keirin with its bowler-hatted pacer who looks like Mr Benn on a day off from being a cartoon. I want to see astonishing things like the gymastic rings, where men built by geometry hold themselves horizontal, several feet off the floor, or like the bars, where tiny flimsy girls throw themselves into the air and bounce off the equipment, their bodies bending and twisting as though they came straight from the pen of Tex Avery. I want to see myself being amazed by things I thought comical; gasping at synchronised swimming, at the levels of athletic ability and physical control needed for that sport and to do it suspended, upside-down, underwater. I want to see thousands of people cheering until their throats bleed as people with origins from all over this world push themselves harder and harder and prove that to be British, and a hero, today doesn’t mean you have to be white, middle-class, moneyed.

I want to feel the inclusivity, the joy, the love that I’ve seen this last sixteen days.

I want to see more of human beings being the best that human beings can be.

And more: these Games have shown again that the BBC, for all the bullying it takes from those in the pocket of those they take to the stadium as guests, does this sort of thing, this kind of event, the kind that pulls the nation together, far better than any commercial concern can. Can you imagine ITV cutting to a commercial the second Jessica Ennis crossed the line? Ant and Dec as anchormen? A refusal to show the lesser-known sports or the qualifying events as they attract insufficient advertisers? There’s a very real chance that in eight years time the television rights to the Games will have been sold off to a subscription-based channel. It’s being discussed, and given the present government and the present Culture Secretary, it may well happen.

For now, though, we’ve had wonderous coverage, provided by the Olympic Broadcast Service and distributed by the BBC: if you wish to know what things may be like in the future, read up on the atrocity dished up by NBC in America.

Although I now joyfully effuse about the Games with the zeal of the convert, there’s been one thing that’s disappointed me. I may be wrong in this as even I have had to leave the sofa every so often, but in all the time I’ve spent basking in the radiance, I’ve yet to see anything at all of Ken Livingstone. Without Livingstone’s work, his enthusiasm, his love of London, we probably wouldn’t have been given the host role in the first place. If he’s been excluded, or written out of the history, or worst of all just forgotten, it would be a tragedy. Ken deserved to be there. I hope he was. I hope that, even if he wasn’t there, he was proud.

The Women’s Pentathlon is just finishing: each competitor staggers into the arena and across the finish line, those who finished faster rushing up and embracing them; an ever-larger group of exhausted humanity rejoicing in their collective achievement.

Now then: how far ahead can you book tickets for Rio?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Meanwhile, in the universe next door...

Fan opinion is divided over news that the success of Before Watchmen has led to a further spate of spin-off mini-series. DC Comics co-person Ronnie James Didio last night issued the following press release which probably wasn’t written by him at all:


No, hang on, that was the cat walking across the keyboard.

Try this.

“Hey! After After Watchmen which introduced readers to the other great comicbooks that were a little bit like Watchmen in that they used the occasional big word and had not so many fight scenes as an ordinary comic, and after Before Watchmen which is still setting comics alight – literally in some cases, as the more enthusiastic fans of  Alan Moore are firebombing shops that carry it – we knew there were more stories to tell about the beloved characters in the Watchmen universe.

That’s why we’ll be launching During Watchmen, a new set of very limited series featuring the characters that, while not at the forefront of the original series’ narrative, were essential to its success.

The series will be:

Rich Gay Gentlemen From Chapter Two: The rich gay gentlemen from the restaurant scene in chapter two (page 25) leave the restaurant and go to a club or something. Not a sweaty dancey club, more one of those swanky nob type of club where you sit in button-back armchairs and read the Washington Post while a waiter brings you a decent scotch or two.

Rhonda, Darlene and the Girls On the Street: The hooker who propositions Rorschach in Chapter Two (page 25 again! What is it with Alan’s story structure that means there’s Ordinary People on page 25 all the time I asks you?) gets into a strange john’s car. When she doesn’t come back, the other working girls form their own band of revenge-seeking vigilante-justice-dealing ahh, you get the idea. It’s just like any other female-led mainstream comic but with cheaper costumes.

Billboard Guy: Some schlub goes round pasting up the big ads for Nostalgia, maybe he drops a bucket of paste and has to go on the lam, maybe he moonlights as a Gunga Diner delivery boy. We’ll think of something.

Where We Goin’, Daddy? Heartbreaking one-shot revealing the backstory behind the father and daughter at Grand Central Station in Chapter Three (page 24 this time. Close enough, huh?). Greg Schlub has promised his daughter Hayley a magical trainriding holiday ever since she was a baby, but cutbacks and economies have always meant poor Greg didn’t have the money to do it. Now one of Greg’s distant Aunts has died and left him a few thou, Greg’s finally going to take Hayley on that long-promised train journey…if a giant squid bomb plot twist doesn’t get him first.

Joey The Lesbian Cab Driver: Yeah, that made you pay attention, didn’t it?"

During Watchmen or something very similar to it will be on sale early next year. 

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Candy Coloured Clown

There’s to be a Sandman prequel! Huzzah, and triple orgasms all round!

I know full well that I’m in a minority regarding The Sandman; I was quite impressed with the first year or so, but it was obvious that as soon as it became a top-selling title, the story started to be stretched out beyond its natural length. In fact, in the first issue there was a text piece stating that it was planned to be forty issues long. I can understand that sometimes a character demands more space than was originally planned, but nearly doubling the length of the run was, you have to admit, pushing it a bit. And be honest, a few of those six-parters could have been done in one, two issues tops.

Add to that the spin-offs, the various mini-series, the merchandising, and you’ve got something that couldn’t be the work of literature it’s claimed to be. What you’ve got is a brand. No different from Harry Potter or Fifty Shades Of Grey or even Police Academy or Scary Movie.

Regardless of my opinion, the prequel’s to be published. I believe it’s as despicable a publishing decision as some claim Before Watchmen is, as it’s an unnecessary adjunct to a work that is supposedly sufficient unto itself. The argument in favour of it is that the original creator is to write the new series, but I don’t see why that makes a difference; if the new story is such an important part of the overall work, it doesn’t matter who writes it, it should have been part of the work from the very beginning. Adding extra sections now is like pouring Bisto gravy all over your main course at The Fat Duck.

Except that in this case, the chef’s standing by your chair, taking a deep sniff of the gravy aroma and letting out a long, contented ‘Ahhhh…’


Anybody who knows me well enough will remember that about eleven years ago I went through a phase of falling asleep at the most inconvenient times. It turned out, after many weird medical tests, to be caused by stress-related narcolepsy, and that in turn was a result of my decision to stop allowing the day-to-day aggravation of working life (and working shifts, as I was at the time) to set off the most appalling migraines.  Seems I could do something about the need to stop the car on the way home to vomit and get my sight back, but nothing about the need to alleviate the stress without some form of bodily reaction.

Frankly, falling over was far better. I'd get more warning – there'd be a feeling of incredible fatigue for a few hours beforehand, and recognising this meant I could make sure I was in a safe place before passing out. Generally I’d get home, feeling more than a little tired, make a cup of tea, sit down to drink it and wake up the next day, still on the sofa and with a lap full of cold PG Tips. The most obvious exception to this was the first attack, when I collapsed on the last Piccadilly Line tube home and had to be carried off at Finsbury Park station, feeling undiluted hate radiating from every other passenger whose journey home I’d ruined. Still, on the plus side, the woman who pulled the communication cord, got me into the recovery position, waited with me for a cab and made sure I got home is now one of my closest friends. So that’s all good.

Anyway: the last six weeks or so have far more stressful that I’d care them to be. Don’t worry about why, they just have been. Nothing you or I can do about it at the moment, but it’s slowly getting sorted out.

As a result, I’ve found myself again unable to do a great deal. For two out of the last three weeks I’ve been in bed for far too long, and when I’ve not been there I’ve been sat on the sofa, occasionally waking up with a start and cursing myself for losing another afternoon. The rest of the time – the actual waking hours – I’ve been in a fog of confusion, stumbling about in what’s been like a very very long senior moment, unable to gather my thoughts to do anything except basic self-care.

Luckily, the last few days have seen this state ebbing away; I’ve been more active, even been out for a few long bike rides, seen a few friends. And, as is evident by the fact that there’s a new post here, I’ve been able to write again. 

It’s been a bastard and it’s caused me to miss some important things that I would have liked to attend. But I think it’s passed.

Normal service, etc. As soon as possible.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

I Should Be So... (au cinema, bis!)

I had difficulty with The Artist. Everybody loved it and I so dearly wanted to, too. But it was just so pleased with itself, so brimming with self-regard about its black-and-whiteness and its ooh-there’s-no-wordsness and its just-like-the-1930s-ness, that I simply couldn’t love it. I could admire it, but that’s not the same. That’s like telling a girl who’s spent ages trying to get you to go out with her that you have high regard for her literacy skills. 
So I wasn’t overwhelmed with anticipation when The Lodger ripped open one of those Amazon packages that he buys instead of paying me any rent and waved the enclosed copy of Lucky Luke at me. 
Lucky Luke. It’s French, it’s set in a romanticised past (and given that it was made in 2009, it comes from a romanticised past), it stars Jean Dujardin. Three things that make it very like The Artist. But I refuse to dismiss anything out of hand without giving it a fair try (this is untrue. I dismiss a great many things out of hand without giving them a fair try, simply because it’s easy, it’s fun, and leaves me untroubled by any of that awkward ‘ooh blimey I quite like this even though I really should be sneering at it’ business that probably blights the life of the average Guardian Guide contributor). 
And you know what? Within ten minutes I’d fallen in love with it. 
You can argue with me, but you can't argue with status
It’s one of the best comic-book adaptations I’ve seen; faithful to the original drawings, faithful to their sly humour and knockabout slapstick. It’s certainly the best I’ve seen this year; yes, it’s knocked Marvel The Avengers Assemble (or whatever) off top spot, but it’s done that by being an entirely different type of film. Where Avengers was very much a loud, look-at-me-NOW! blockbuster tentpole movie, Lucky Luke, despite being the most expensive film to be made in France (I’m told), is small and charming and unassuming. 
At the same time, it’s almost in awe of the old American west and the men therein, and it invites us to join us. It has an astonishing visual texture; the cinematography literally glows, even in the darker scenes. And it has no shame whatsoever in indulging in any number of visual puns, trompe l’oeil, verbal puns (in French when spoken, but as nearly all of the on-screen text - store signs, etc - is in English, it’s not shy of bilingual wordplay as well) and snappy doubletalk. 
There’s also a hugely pretty production design; the town Luke cleans up is very much a platonic ideal of the Old Western Town, as are its ne’er-do-well inhabitants, and the final act is set in - well, I’m not telling you what it’s set in, but if you don’t applaud the way it looks, we can’t be friends. 
Jean Dujardin, who was so very slightly over-smooth in The Artist, is a superb Luke; stupidly handsome, knowing it but not using it. It’s a better all-round performance than in The Artist and one that he looks like he’s enjoying a lot more. And although the Lucky Luke character as drawn is relatively simplistic and as such should be easily portrayed by almost anyone - it’s a quiff and a cowboy outfit, in essence - Dujardin looks the part. Not just visually; he’s got the hair, he’s got the squint, he’s got the cigarette, but underneath the props he’s got the attitude and the feel of Luke. 
If there’s a down side to Lucky Luke, it’s that the plot can feel less than original at times; it’s fairly obvious who the bad guy’s going to turn to be, equally so for the mysterious saloon-bar siren Luke falls for. 
But that’s forgivable. Don’t argue, it just is. 
Go and see it. Buy the DVD. If you want to justify it on an intellectual basis, see how many references to other films you can recognise (or, if you’re a miserable sod, ‘see how many shots have been stolen from other films’). But really, you owe it to yourself. If only for the horse.