How To Write Badly, Well.

You know what London is missing? The New Yorker, unarguably the finest magazine in publication. And the worst thing about living over here is that you can’t realistically read The New Yorker without looking like a fool.

I love the New Yorker, but it does seem ridiculously pretentious to purchase it given that I don’t live in the city its generally concerned with. Everything about it, from the writing to the design, is pretty much perfect, and as a local high brow general interest magazine, it makes Time Out look like it was put together by monkeys (which, let’s face it, it probably is).

There are many fine things about The New Yorker – the elegant type face and layout, the beautifully designed and sometimes provocative covers, the brilliant criticism (Alex Ross on music, Anthony Lane on film) – but the bit I always turn to first is the last page, where they showcase their cartoon caption competition.

This is always a great read, and makes me furious with envy at the comical imagination and sophistication of so many of The New Yorker’s readers. However, the only thing that’s funnier than The New Yorker’s Caption Competition is the Anti-Caption Competition hosted by

The idea here, of course, is to provide the worst possible caption to the exact same cartoon printed in the New Yorker. As the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (which I’ve also written about here) proves, writing something that is deliberately bad is as much a talent as writing well. And it’s often a whole lot funnier.

I’m building up to making my first entry in to the competition, but, frankly, the other entries are so good its almost futile.


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Sick Day

I’ve spent the day off work, sick. I have a peculiar cold, induced bizarrely enough by a rancid pint of Greene King IPA which I foolish drank too much of last Thursday. I didn’t drink all of the pint – I shouldn’t have drunk any of it, so foul and bitter and evil it tasted – but because somebody else had bought it for me, I felt the need to politely persist, despite its clearly vile flavour. In the end, my stiff upper lip gave way, and I pushed it aside. The flavour stayed with me for the rest of the evening, through two perfectly nice pints of Staropramen and a meal of sausages and mash, but I was nevertheless surprised to see my whole upper body covered in a rather nasty, hot, red rash when the time came to go to bed. I can’t begin to explain it, but I blame the beer entirely. Or more specifically, I blame the lazy bastard bar men at the otherwise reasonably pleasant pub, Inn 1888 just off Marylebone High Street. If you’re going to serve ‘real ale’ you should at least learn to keep it properly. At the very least, you should know how not to let it get so bad that it causes your customers to break out in a rash. Its a lesson I certainly will have learnt whenever it is I decide to set up a pub of my own.

Anyway, the rash died down, but left me feeling awful – feverish, achey, and with a mean sore throat. I soldiered in to the office on Friday, mostly because I had a lunch date I wanted to keep, but I made such a sorry sight that even my usually unconcerned boss commented on it. It gave me the welcome opportunity to tell a few more people about my poisoning, and to make sure that the reputation of Inn 1888 was thoroughly stained.

I felt a little better over the weekend, but the prospect of a shivery day in the office made me decide to stay in bed all day. Well not quite all day – I wandered out for some fresh air around lunchtime and soon wished I didn’t. I can’t believe its August. London in the summer time can be so gloriously uplifting, but on days like today you find yourself questioning why you bother living here in the first place.

There’s only one thing for it. An escape – which is why we’re off to Copenhagen for the weekend. The fact that the weather over there is forecast to be even worse than in London – not to mention the imminent baggage handler’s strike – is going to have to be overlooked. In the summer time in London, the only sensible thing is to get out.

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The Secret of the Red Sofas

Well the secret is out. Somehow word has gotten around about the glories of spending a peaceful hour luxuriating on the red leather sodas at Waterstone’s Piccadilly. I’ve been coming here for my lunch breaks every day for two years or so, grateful for the opportunity to sit down somewhere comfortable and read a book for an hour or so.
I’ve always been very careful not to tell anyone about this oasis of calm in the west end, for fear of spoiling my secret. Alas, it seems that my worst fears are confirmed and now it’s nigh on impossible to get a seat.
There aren’t enough places like the red sofas in this city- a place where any member of the public can sit and relax for free. London has always prided itself on being a city of activity and entertainment; but the pleasures of peaceful, quiet reflection shouldn’t be ignored.

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The Unbearable Obviousness of Being CityBoy

Nobody likes a stock broker. You may think you do, but you’d be wrong. You only like their money, because, as people, they are all selfish, greedy misogynists who’d stab you in the back to sleep with your mother. Its true – I read it in The London Paper.

Everyone’s second favourite London free-sheet used to feature a column every Monday, written by a so-called City Insider with the pseudonym CityBoy. His columns were punchy and smart and, even allowing for the fact that he had a pretty easy target for comedy, they made me chuckle wryly. In CityBoy’s columns I saw so many people that I knew, because, in essence, working in the City does something to you. Something evil…

I used to go to school with a couple of people who now work in the City, and, while some of them were undeniably arseholes the moment they took their first breath, some of them I used to call my friends. Now, though, it is exactly like they have signed over their soul for a ludicrously large packet of money and they just aren’t the same people. Hell, they’re barely people at all.

Last summer I was at a good friend’s birthday party. It was held in a small room in a fairly run down old pub near Baker Street and a lot of us all got together for the first time in ages. It was a great evening and it was great to see so many old faces. At about ten o’clock, though, Dave turned up. At school, Dave was the sort of guy who rarely made his presence felt. He was harmless, and we tolerated him mostly because he was an alright sort of guy. I hadn’t seen him since school, but on the evening of this birthday party, he changed the whole dynamic of the evening within seconds of arriving. He waltzed in wearing a very flash pin-stripe suit, and he kept waving the jacket like a matador, the better to show everyone the ludicrous lime-green silk lining he’d had put inside. He made a big fuss of being late (“Come straight from the office… the markets were all over the place”) and then made an even bigger fuss of not being able to stay long (“I’ve parked the TT on a double yellow… I can pay the ticket, but I couldn’t face them towing the thing”). As if to make up for his lateness, he shouted to the barman to bring two bottles of Cristal “sharpish”. Needless to say, the pub being towards the seedy end of the spectrum, there was no Cristal behind the bar. But, not to be dissuaded, and even though everyone was drinking pints, Dave insisted on ordering a bottle of champagne. He stayed long enough to show everyone his new watch (which cost more than my car) and tell us all about his ludicrous bonus, and then, gratefully, fucked off.

It wouldn’t be fair to tar everyone who works in the city with this same brush, but I’d wager its true of about 98% of the bastards. We all know someone like Dave, and we all hate him thanks to a mixture of jealous insecurity and good, human, common sense. Which is why CityBoy’s columns are reasonably entertaining. They’ve now been collected in to a book, which I suppose would make for some reasonable toilet reading, but I can’t help but feel that the people who are marketing the thing aren’t going down the wrong road. Instead of treating it as a collection of light humour, its being publicised as though its somehow a piece of vital undercover reportage, shedding light on an industry and a group of people who have previously been held up as shining examples of the human spirit. It’s basic argument – that city people are shits – is as obvious as Julian Clary’s sexuality. Writing a book on the subject seems entirely pointless, unless its to add to the library of the obvious, filed next to ‘The Shitting Habits of Bears’ and ‘The Pope: An Insider’s Guide to his Religious Leanings’.

Yet, thanks to the PR-driven world in which we live, CityBoy is currently on a frantic publicity tour, and being touted by everyone (Sky News, The BBC) as some sort of At the moment he’s on a frantic publicity tour for his book positioning himself as some brave libertarian whistleblower – a stance that CityBoy himself seems only too keen to encourage. In his final column, he compares himself to Martin Luther King, and suggests that by revealing his identity (he’s a specky ginger wanker who looks like a city twat) and breaking the “long-established code of silence that governs the Square Mile”, he will almost certainly be targeted by contract killers “sent by the ‘men in grey suits’”. If by this, he means the smug-bastard police, he may well be right.

CityBoy has now stopped writing his columns, but, you’ll all be pleased to hear he isn’t going to stop being a self-aggrandising idiot. “My pen ain’t gonna rest in my hand until I’ve helped foment a revolution that makes the world a fairer, more just place”. Which just goes to show, you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the cuntishness out of CityBoy…

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Reluctant Popstar Happy To Behave Like A Wanker

I’ve got to be careful here. I’m very aware that writing on a topic such as this will get me in to all sorts of trouble, and perhaps even result in a repeat accusation of cultural snobbery, as when I ragged on James for liking Groove Armada a few weeks ago. As is often the case, James rightly put me in my place – I hadn’t really listened to Groove Armada, and based my dislike of their music purely on the fact that they seemed to be everywhere. And that they just signed a ‘record deal’ with a drinks company. But that aside…

I’ve just listened to the now-vaguely-famous interview with Chris Martin on BBC Radio Four’s Front Row arts programme. You can still listen to it by downloading the 13th July Front Row Podcast from iTunes – I highly recommend doing so, if only so that this post makes any sense.

Now call me a snob if you like, but if Chris Martin isn’t a stone cold wanker then I’ll seek out and eat a copy of Coldplay’s new album ‘Viva La Vida – or Death and All His Friends’ (see, I’m already safe!).

The last time I deliberately listened to a Coldplay song was when their second album came out back in 2002. Now, I’m not trying to pretend that I liked them back then and that now that they’re popular and successful, I’ve conveniently changed my mind. I remember buying the album on release day and listening to it on the train on my way home from work, and I quite liked it. As seems to be my way, I immediately declared it a classic, listened again to a couple of choice tracks and then filed it away in my CD rack. Where it stayed.

The thing about their music is that, despite Chris Martin’s best efforts, it really doesn’t have anything to say, to the point where I’ve never felt an urge to pull out one of their albums and put it on. Lyrically he’s all over the place (most famously, “I drew a line, I drew a line for you, oh what a thing to do, and it was all yellow”). To Chris Martin, lyrics are an irrelevancy – they’re there only because the majority of people who listen to Coldplay need something to sing along to, however banal. (An exception to the rule – I did enjoy, and still do, one of their first ever singles, ‘Shiver’, a marginally chilling song about a stalker. But other than that, nothing of theirs that I’ve ever listened to has ever grasped hold of me and shaken me up.)

Listening to the hype around the new album (and, for that matter, the last one), you’d be forgiven for believing all the PR claims that Chris Martin is one of the world’s most gifted songwriters, and that all his songs are deeply layered with metaphor and embedded with social criticism and satire. The thing is, listening to Chris Martin on Front Row, I’m not sure he actually believes it himself.

Now if you’ve never listened to Front Row before, let me explain something – the interviews on there are hardly interrogations. On the spectrum of tough interviews, they’re a bit more spiky than Michael Parkinson, but nowhere near the accusatory invective of, say, Jeremy Paxman. For some reason though, Chris Martin wasn’t having any of it. He responded to every question with answers that make Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell look like a sparkling wit. And, despite their being not even the slightest hint of malice in any of the questions, Chris Martin seemed determined to see every one of them as a poisoned dart aimed straight for his head. Asked about the number of references to death on the album, Chris Martin reacted as though the interviewer just called his mother a whore. “I object to that, you’re trying to journalistically twist my words”, he said, which left the interviewer somewhat baffled. He tried again, all the time flattering Chris Martin and talking him up, giving him every opportunity to proclaim his own genius. Instead, he walked out of the interview. The BBC wrapped things up with the words “Coldplay’s Chris Martin, reluctant popstar”.

(This, let me remind you, is the man who married Gwyneth Paltrow and called his daughter Apple. But perhaps that’s not relevant.)

Reluctant Popstar he may be. But he’s also a massive tool.

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Competitive Laughing

So, last night I went to a comedy show. It was a stand-up gig at the Soho Theatre, starring American comedian Todd Barry.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that comedy is definitely the best night out. Usually you can sit down, meaning you can enjoy the entertainment in comfort, unlike, say, at a concert. Its usually reasonably cheap, another bonus when certain artists are now happy to charge you £75 for the pleasure of watching them sing. And – here’s the best bit – even if the comedy is really really shit, you can still have a great time.

I remember going to an open-mic night at a pub near me around this time last year. It was truly, unforgettably, terrible, with six or seven brave souls each facing the inhospitably stubborn crowd for ten minutes or so, before being booed off. But, despite the obvious lack of talent on display, it was truly entertaining. Curiously, most of the ‘comedians’ on show that night were so unfunny they were hilarious. We still talk about that night with much fondness. So even when its bad, live comedy is still great. The same can definitely not be said about a bad gig or a boring play…

Anyway, I knew that last night wasn’t going to be bad, because I’d seen Todd Barry before. He’s a very funny man, whose humour is really all in the delivery. He has a sort of Jack Dee meets Stephen Wright kind of shtick, delivering observations on life in a gruff monotone drawl.

So I was in a good mood all day yesterday. I was going out in London, doing something entertaining away from the cultural effluvium of the ‘mainstream’. I’d seeked out one of the exciting morsels of entertainment that London has to offer on a nightly basis. All day long I had told people I was going to a comedy show, and delighted in the fact that nobody had ever heard of Todd Barry. If I’d been going to see, say, Ricky Gervais or even Jack Dee, the effect wouldn’t have been the same. I was going to see an unheard of comic – how shit hot was I?

And it was all going so well. I arrived at the theatre with plenty of time to have a beer. I was first in line when the house doors opened, and I got myself a good seat – close enough to the front that I looked interested and influential, but not too close that I would get picked on by Todd Barry. As the theatre slowly filled up with other cool young Londoners, I allowed myself a brief moment of indulgence; was I not at the very cutting edge of London culture? Indeed I was.

And then the arse fell out of the evening. Not two minutes before the show was about to start, I noticed something terrible. Creeping along the front row, and heading for a couple of empty seats right in the centre, were two friends of mine from university. I say friends, but I mean very loose acquaintances. A couple of guys from my course who never failed to piss me off during lectures with their hopeless pretentiousness and artificial enthusiasm. Two guys who were, in short, wankers.

I have no idea if the show was any good or not. I hardly heard a word of it. Instead, I spent the hour irritated at how my cultural secret had somehow managed to leak out and cross the radar of these two highly irritating dicks. How did they know about Todd Barry? They’re not supposed to know about this sort of thing. The only way they’re allowed to know is if I told them (thus scoring highly valuable credibility points!), which is something I’d never do because they are both wankers and their credibility is not something I’d ever knowingly seek. I sat through the show obsessing about how terrible it was going to be if they saw me at the bar afterwards. What if they’d heard about Todd Barry before I had? Obviously, I’d never have let them know if this was the case. But wouldn’t that be awful?

I allowed myself a look down at them. Both of them were laughing especially loudly, as if to let everyone else know that they got every single joke and understand every single nuance that Todd Barry was trying to imply. Competitive laughing is despicable, and I wasn’t going to join in.

I couldn’t bear it. As soon as the applause died down and the house lights went up, I shot up the aisle and out of the theatre, and went straight home on the tube. All I learnt was that perhaps there was a way in which a night at a comedy club can be far from the best night out…

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This post first appeared at TWO REPRESSED
The recent case of cellar-building Austrian sex-monster Josef Fritzl has definitely suffered from some very unbalanced reporting in the media. For all the many obvious disadvantages of spending your entire life imprisoned in a cellar at the behest of a sex-mad Austrian, no one seems to have mentioned the one very clear bonus – namely, that being so far removed from the influences of the broadcast and print media, you would have no idea that Liverpool is this year’s European Capital of Culture – and given the carpet Almost as much of a twat as Alexei Saylebombardment of publicity in every newspaper and on every TV channel, that’s presumably the only way you would have been able to avoid such unwelcome news.

As anyone who’s ever spent any time with a Scouser knows, Liverpool is a city which creates a monstrous sense of civic pride in those that hail from there. No one likes a boaster at the best of times, but you’re an especially despicable human being if you’re seemingly genetically programmed to boast about coming from somewhere which only you fail to recognise as a steaming, rundown shithole. I’ve been to Liverpool before, and as the saying goes, it was very much a case of once and never again. Not if my very survival on this earth depended on my revisiting the place would I even consider the prospect with the least bit of pleasure. But somehow this concept of the city as the origin of all things wonderful is still allowed to perpetuate.

This is only exacerbated whenever something even loosely successful happens to the place, as is proven by the continual belief that they have a great music scene because The Beatles were from there, or that their football team is still any good because it was back in the 1970s. And now, this. Never mind that the other European Capital of Culture for 2008 is Sandnes in Norway, nor that last year’s Capital was that powerhouse of modern culture Sibiu in Romania – this will still be seen by Scousers everywhere as yet further proof that they do indeed live in the most thriving, relevant, important city on the planet.

It seems that TV programmers across the land are delighted with this state of affairs, as there’s been a seemingly endless dribble of crap soft-documentaries with loose connections to Liverpool. So far these have included braindead and pointless interviews with such cultural luminaries as Ringo Starr (whose so proud of Liverpool that he lives half way around the other side of the globe) and some attempts to show that Liverpool’s urban music scene is alive and well by showcasing scally white rappers in backwards baseball caps. But still, six months in to the year, this lazy programming is still going on.

Take, for instance, last Friday’s effort – Alexei Sayle’s Liverpool on BBC 2. In case your life thus far has been blissfully untarnished by any awareness of Alexei Sayle, he warrants a very short introduction. Sayle was a part of a loose group of left-wing comedians who were briefly popular in the 1980s, despite the fact that their main party trick – making fun of Margaret Thatcher – was easier than sitting down. In essence, the man owes his career to piggybacking on the success of Ben Elton, which is a damning indictment of a lack of talent if ever you needed one. Since then, he’s been shoving his big beardy face in front of any TV camera that he gets near and spouting off about all sorts of things with the sense of superiority given to him by his Scouse roots.

Alexei Sayle’s Liverpool is extremely funny, but sadly for him, entirely by accident. It was full of all the usual Liverpool clichés (the Cavern club, a ferry on the Mersey, Anfield), but also included one or two absolute gems which I’d never heard before. For example, did you know that the people of Liverpool were responsible for the current trend of wearing trainers with jeans? It must be true, because the lead singer of The Farm said so. Similarly, Liverpool is the New York City of the UK – admittedly, not because it has a thriving art scene, or a world-famous theatre district, nor because all the taxis there are yellow, but apparently because it has a multi-cultural population. Lots of Irish people live there, we’re told and it has the biggest Chinese community in Britain, outside of London. By qualifying that statement, it sort of loses any potency it might have – kind of like saying that hamburgers are actually the most nutritious form of food, apart from all the others, or that that fat wanker from The Royle Family is the biggest twat to ever come out of Liverpool, apart from Alexei Sayle…

Ah, it’s all so depressing, this communally encouraged, self-perpetuating fantasy that Liverpool is anything other than a shit hole. But Sayle did mention something that excited me. “Liverpool”, he said, “almost exists like a city separate from the rest of the country, a sort of Republic of Scouse”. Independence for Liverpool – now that’s an idea I could live with.

Alexei Sayle’s Liverpool is still available on BBC iPlayer for a couple more days. Its worth watching, but only if you can find a way to secure your hands to prevent you from gouging out your eyes with your thumbs.

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