Saturday, 28 April 2012

The 'Invisible' Boxes of Cayeteno Ferrer

This is clever. LA based artist Cayeteno Ferrer paints delivery boxes to match their surroundings. And he does it so well that they become almost invisible. This was for his Western Imports exhibition in 2007-8. Do visit his site and check out some of his other amazing illusory art.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Colganology Podcast - Episode 3 - Naked came the Stevyn

Hello and welcome to this week's podcast.

Here's the transcript:

Let’s start with some hot sex action:

'He unhooked her brassiere and this time Gillian offered no resistance. He removed it and bit softly at her breasts. They waved at him, pennants in the wind of lust, and he bit deeply into the acid of her dugs. Then he pulled off the black net panties – there was a cellophane sound as they were peeled past her thighs. What he hoped (and prayed) would be a smooth operation was spoiled as he had to fumble about her knees and she arched to let him finish slipping them off.

Turnbull rose from the bed and then, clad only in his beard, rejoined her.

‘Not yet Joshua’ she said, ‘Not yet. Kiss my knees first.’

‘Your knees?’

‘My knees.’

'Would you prefer the caps or the hollows?’

That was an extract from Naked came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe, justifiably said by many the worst book ever published by a mainstream publisher. The story of how the book came to be is fascinating.

Back in 1969, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady was convinced that standards of literary and artistic taste were plummeting rapidly in the United States. Successful authors like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann were riding high in the book charts and it seemed to McGrady that any book, no matter how badly written, would sell as long as it was full of sex. So he decided to prove it. He got together with a group of his colleagues from Newsday - five women and 19 men - to write a collaborative novel that would be the absolute epitome of the sexually explicit dross that filled the bookshop shelves. It would have an almost non-existent plot, no social insight, a complete lack of character development and no redeeming features whatsoever. But it would be filled with kinky sex - at least a minimum of two sex scenes per chapter. He gave the resulting novel the deliberately suggestive title of Naked Came the Stranger.

The book was heavily promoted and given an appropriately provocative cover. McGrady’s sister-in-law was enlisted to play the role of the book’s fictitious author, Penelope Ashe, and she appeared for interviews in low-cut dresses and dutifully sang the praises of sexual liberation and the permissive society. And McGrady proved his point. The book sold and sold and sold. In fact, it did so well that McGrady started feeling guilty about the amount of money he and his confederates were earning. So they exposed the hoax. And the resulting publicity just made the book an even bigger seller.

McGrady had failed. He had been hoping that his experiment would convince American readers to change their ways. They didn't. Which just goes to show that quality and good taste don't always match the public's appetite. The story of Naked came the Stranger was one of the inspirations for another famous hoax book. The difference in this case, however, was that the book was created to expose possible wrongdoing. The story centres around a company called PublishAmerica. It happily billed itself as the USA’s ‘number one book publisher’ and claimed to be a traditional publisher, offering all the services you would expect such as selectively screening submissions, assigning an editor to work with the author to bring a book to publication, and handling publicity and distribution. However, authors who had signed with the company began to point out that this wasn’t happening; that PublishAmerica was actually just a ‘vanity publisher’; something that the company strenuously denied.

Then, in December 2005, author Philip Dolan, who had spent between US$7000 and $13000 promoting his own book, took the company to court claiming that no book stores were able to get hold of his book. He was awarded an unspecified amount in compensation and his contract was rescinded. However, PublishAmerica remained unrepentant – it was not and never had been a vanity publisher. Things might have ended there had the company not been so scathing about science fiction and fantasy writers. In the Autumn of 2004, a company representative issued a series of statements that included:

‘As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction... ‘

‘[science fiction authors] have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home with a publisher.’

The comments were sufficiently inflammatory for a group of such writers to decide to test PublishAmerica’s claims that they were a ‘traditional publisher’ that only accepted high-quality manuscripts. PublishAmerica’s own website at the time boasted that they received over 70 manuscripts a day, read every single one and rejected most of them. The 30-odd authors, led by James D MacDonald, collaborated to produce the worst novel possible and took just one weekend to write it. They called it Atlanta Nights. It’s horrible. Here’s an example of the style:

‘Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday …’

But there was more … The book had two chapter 12s and a missing chapter 21.. Chapters 13 and 15 were written by two different authors but told exactly the same story. Going one further, chapters 4 and 17 are exactly the same, word for word. My favourite chapter is 34 which consists of words randomly generated by a computer programme. Here’s a snippet:

'Let me look black with him, especially the creak of his mind. He had his mind. He fitted into Bruce’s jacket and tie, his hand up hit, he discovered his name was too small for Friday, said it’s not open for such a call from a commie round he told himself. She surely loved those huge mosquitoes . . . Oh, yes.'

The whole book was littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Characters changed sex and colour and died before reappearing later in the book without explanation. The finale was particularly special; firstly, it is revealed that the entire story was a dream but then the book carried on for several more chapters. Oh, and the initials of all the named characters in the book, when properly arranged, made up the sentence: ‘PublishAmerica is a vanity press.’ The completed book, supposedly penned by one Travis Tea, was sent to PublishAmerica … who accepted it without reservation and offered the author a contract on the 7th of December 2004. At this point the hoax was revealed.

PublishAmerica responded by retracting its acceptance on the 24th of January 2005, stating that the novel failed to meet their standards after ‘further editing’. However, they later accepted another author's manuscript which featured the same 30 pages repeated ten times.

PublishAmerica is still trading (their website) and still claim to be 'the nation's number one book publisher'. It may be that the issues they had in the past are now resolved so all I can do is repeat the facts about their previous trading practices. Meanwhile, Atlanta Nights can still be bought in paperback or as an e-book and all proceeds go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund charity. You can also find Naked came the Stranger quite easily and cheaply on sites like Amazon, ebay and Abebooks. I did. And I haven’t stopped laughing since.

This is sexy Stevyn Colgan saying ‘Yeah Baby. Thanks for listening.’

Thursday, 26 April 2012

A showcase of my art

A little video showcase of my artwork.

It's about three and a half minutes long and the music is some feck-awful thing called Heb je even voor mij by Frans Bauer.


Words to live your life by

I liked this a lot. This pretty much says everything about me and how I want to live my life. And how I would love others to as well. The last line in particular struck me as so true.

It was produced by Words Engraved. Visit their site and you can see the same words in a variety of languages and voices. Inspirational and, indeed, aspirational.

Never quite getting to the Alien Planet

I made a very good find today ... the entire 90 minute Alien Planet documentary.

Back in the early 1990s, I had (yet another) near-miss with a book project. A great friend of mine, John Coppinger, is a sculptor. He's the man who made Jabba the Hutt for Return of the Jedi and you've seen his creatures in many, many films. Here's John (far right - beard) on set and me with Jabba's face before painting:

Anyway, he and I had the idea of creating a book in which we visit alien worlds and meet creatures that have evolved to live on those worlds. The idea was that we would make the book educational; by showing how creatures have evolved elsewhere we could mirror how life has evolved here. The gimmick was that John would actually build the creatures (this was before CGI). So we put together some sample chapters and a few photos and illustrations like these:

And we got a bite! Dorling Kindersley liked it and negotiations began. Via them, John and I also ended up contributing some content to a Channel 4 Equinox show on aliens and I got to chat with people like Dougal Dixon and Professor Jack Cohen - the alien guys in the UK. Things went along merrily for a while ... but then the guy at DK we'd been dealing with jumped to another publisher and the lady who took over our project dropped it as she didn't believe in it. To add to our problems, the film Stargate appeared and effectively used exactly the same idea we'd had of a kind of 'subway' network of gateways allowing people to jump from world to world. And so the book died. That's the way things happen sometimes.

Then, a few years later in 1999, the BBC launched the groundbreaking Walking with Dinosaurs show and John was involved in sculpting dinosaurs for it. And we wondered whether it was worth pitching the idea of a 'Walking with Aliens'. After all, we had all of the research done and we'd designed the aliens. I also contacted a brilliant Australian artist called Alex Ries and asked if he wanted to be involved if we got it off the ground. You can see some of his extraordinary alien design work here. Here's a sample:

However, the BBC told us that they were already working on a 'Walking with Aliens' project with Dougal Dixon so we backed off. And that was that for the project. That said, whatever the BBC was planning didn't happen and the series never got made. However, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Discovery Channel was doing something along the same lines. They'd decided to make a CGI show based on the fantastic alien designs and illustrations of Wayne Douglas Barlowe.

Barlowe has designed creatures for many films. For example, he worked on both Hellboy films and designed the wildlife for Avatar. And, in 1993, he wrote a book called Expedition; a lavishly illustrated guide to the wildlife of another planet called Darwin IV. I have a copy and it's a staggeringly lovely thing. And it was this book that Discovery brought to life. I watched the show when it was on and loved it. I even bought the DVD. But now you can watch it all here for free. Enjoy!

P.s. I still have a great alien book project if anyone wants to publish it ...

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Relentlessly Cheerful Art of James Hance

I think that if I were ever to meet the fiendishly talented Mr Hance we'd get on very well. He appears to share my sense of humour and my love of subverting genres and mixing and matching beloved characters from films, books and TV. His artwork is witty and delicious and annoyingly good. Look!

Do visit his website here. The man is very prolific and there's something there for almost anyone I reckon. Plus the proceeds from his posters and t-shirts and prints all go towards medical treatment for his daughter. So buy! Buy! Buy!

The 2012 Ig Nobel Prizes UK Tour - London

As you may have read in this previous blogpost, on 9th March 2012 I took part in the Ig Nobel Prizes Uk Tour by speaking at Imperial College in the 800-seater Great Hall of the Sherfield Building. The event was completely sold out. The speakers included Oxford University mathematician Dr Mason Porter discussing his paper on synchronisation in cows, Ig Nobel winner Mirjam Tuk on her paper that explores improved decision-making when you have a full bladder, New Scientist magazine's John Hoyland with some extracts from its ever-excellent Feedback pages, and myself talking about how police officers once used a form of cryptic hide-and-seek during the 'dead' hours on night duty (between 3am and 5am) as a memory aid to learning the fastest routes to various locations. As a bonus we had Professor Andrew George from Imperial reading some terrible poetry by William Topaz McGonagall. A tremendously fun evening hosted brilliantly by Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobels and the Annals of Improbable Research. And now you can see it (I'm on at 48 minutes in).

Bush Poetry

I love this. It's a poem constructed entirely from the nonsense that frequently spouted from the mouth of ex-US President George W Bush. I first heard about the poem a few months agao but wasn't sure about the accuracy. But the ever-brilliant Barbara Mikkelson at has checked it out and, barring a couple of tiny misquotes, it's pretty good (you can read her analysis here)! The poem is generally credited to Richard Thompson, a writer/artist for The Washington Post.

So here we go. Unintentional poetry from the gibbering cakehole of George Dubya. Enjoy.

Make the Pie Higher!

By G W Bush

I think we all agree, the past is over.
This is still a dangerous world.
It's a world of madmen and uncertainty
And potential mental losses.

Rarely is the question asked
'Is our children learning?'
Will the highways of the Internet become more few?
How many hands have I shaked?

They misunderestimate me.
I am a pitbull on the pantleg of opportunity.
I know that the human being and the fish can coexist.
Families is where our nation finds hope, where our wings take dream.

Put food on your family!
Knock down the tollbooth!
Vulcanize society!
Make the pie higher! Make the pie higher!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Colganology Podcast - Episode 2 - Bug and Chips twice please


On the top shelf of one of my bookcases there’s a small green book by a man called Vincent M Holt. It was first published in 1885 by the London Natural History Museum (It's where I got my copy) and has been in print ever since. Surprisingly, it’s a cook book. It’s a cook book called Why not eat insects?

I bought my copy at an evening lecture run by the Museum in the early 1990s. The speaker, whose name I've forgotten I'm afraid, made the very valid point that insects and other invertebrates outnumber us backboners by millions to one. And yet, on the whole, this vast source of protein is almost entirely unused. I say almost ... because we do eat some. Invertebrates – creatures without backbones – include the hard-shelled, multi-legged arthropods such as insects, spiders and crustaceans. It also includes worms, starfish and corals. And the molluscs; the snails and slugs. But here’s the odd thing … we’ll eat invertebrates that come out of the sea but very few that live on land. Most people baulk at eating a garden snail but think nothing of chomping on a winkle or oyster. We happily munch on crabs and prawns and lobsters … but not on locusts, scorpions and ants. Why is that? Why this prejudice against land-based arthropods? The lecturer (and I'll have to paraphrase here) made this very point.

Let’s look at prawns and locusts, for example. They share a common ancestry. They are both arthropods with external skeletons and almost identical internal arrangements. However, one evolved to live on land and in the air; the other to live in the sea. Locusts eat grain and corn and green leaves and fruit. Prawns eat fish crap, bacteria and micro-organisms and quite frequently hang around near sewage outfalls. So which would you rather eat? Most would still go for the prawn. And yet, they taste pretty much the same. I can vouch for that. This wasn't just a lecture, you see ... it was a tasting. And during the evening I munched my way through deep fried honey ants, a barbecued witchety grub, a kind of black pudding made from brine flies and a locust cocktail. And they were all delicious. They really were. He also explained that there would be less famine in some parts of the world if people started eating insects again. It’s notable that the countries that stopped eating bugs are those that were visited and ‘educated’ by Christian Missionaries who managed to persuade the vast majority of tribes that eating bugs was dirty and disgusting. A prejudice, incidentally, that was foisted onto most of you too. In the Far East, where few such missionaries dared to tread, bugs still provide a valuable source of protein to some of the world’s largest populations. There, having invertebrates on the menu is no more freaky than eating chicken or fish.

Food prejudices are not a uniquely British phenomenon, but we are oddly particular. We'll eat a lamb or a cow or a pig. But we won't eat a horse. Most people will no longer eat rabbit or squirrel or pigeon even though they are plentiful, pests, low in fat and cholesterol and delicious. And the fishmongers and chip shops get asked for almost nothing but cod while John Dory, gurnard, pollock or hake are also fantastic fish. We have created a hierarchy of animals, with some being much more important than others. Take 'dolphin-friendly tuna' for instance; no one seems to give a toss about the tuna. All tinned tuna is tuna-unfriendly. This is a perfect example of what some call species-ism or mammal-nepotism; people make value judgements about living creatures based upon how close they are to us on the family tree of life. Hence, we baulk at stabbing an elephant but will happily stick a hook through a fish's jaw, boil a lobster alive and drown slugs in beer. Pretty = good. Ugly = bad. It's no great surprise that the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) chose a charismatic warm-blooded mammal - the giant panda - for its logo is it? Yet if you look at the list of critically endangered species (as opposed to just endangered) what do we find? The Antiguan Racer Snake, the Spotted Handfish, the Australian Ant, and the Southern Blue Fin Tuna. Surely they’d be more suitable animals for the logo?

What puzzles me is this …. Why don’t these same prejudices make us eat fewer mammals and more bugs? It’s a real mystery to me. Surely people find chickens and lambs cuter than honey ants or meal worms? If you have any theories, please do let me know.

Meanwhile, here are some statistics for you to mull over. 100g of crickets or grasshoppers contain 121 calories, 12.9g of protein, 5.5g of fat, 5.1g of carbohydrates, 75.8 mg of calcium, 185.3mg of phosphorous, 9.5mg of iron, 0.36mg of thiamin, 1.09mg of riboflavin and 3.10mg of niacin. There are 1,462 recorded species of edible insect. Just one of those species - Mealworms - are an incredibly rich source of nutrition, having more complete protein than soy, meat, or fish and are concentrated sources of calcium, niacin, magnesium, potassium, the B-vitamins, and many other nutrients. Wouldn't they go some way to alleviating world hunger? We’d certainly never run out of them. Mealworms are beetle larvae – and there are over 350,000 species of beetle alone. Fully 95% of all living creatures on Earth are insects – that’s approximately 10 quintillion (10 with 18 noughts after it) individual insects alive on this planet at this exact moment. If you scooped up all of the animals on Earth and scrunched them up into a ball, 10% of the total mass would be made up of ants. By comparison, we humans make up just 0.33% - and there are seven billion of us.

Actually, the chances are that you’ve eaten a few bugs already. The old story that every year we all swallow an average of four spiders in our sleep is completely untrue. But you have eaten bugs. Or parts of them anyway. Food manufacturers are aware that is impossible to completely guarantee that their products will not contain some insect contamination and there are levels of acceptability. For instance, chocolate is allowed to contain up to 60 insect fragments per gram before it is deemed to be unsuitable for sale or consumption. Ground nutmeg and cinnamon is allowed up to 100 insect fragments per 10 grams and caned citrus fruit juices may contain up to 5 fruit fly eggs per 250ml before action needs to be taken. Disturbed? Don’t be. The fragments are tiny and harmless. And perfectly edible. It’s almost impossible to find any foodstuff that isn’t contaminated by bugs But as Dr. Manfred Kroger, a professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University, says, 'Let's face it, much of our food comes from nature, and nature is not perfect.'

But embracing the bug as a foodstuff isn’t just about survival in Third World countries. Just think about the exciting new range of meals you’d have to choose from. Anticipating this, the excellent Mr Holt included recipes and suggested menus in his little green book. Who could not resist the lure of Boeuf aux chenilles (Braised beef with caterpillars), or Wasp grubs fried in the comb) or the ultimate supper dish of Phalenes au parmesan (Moths and cheese on toast)? There is absolutely no difference between a snail and an oyster - they are both gastropods. And the snails you pay so much for in France are the same as the ones in your back garden. Exactly the same. They’re just bred to be larger and fed on top quality greens.

So get out the garlic butter and tuck in.

You have nothing to lose but your prejudices.

Here's a great little TED talk by Marcel Dicke that covers some of what I've said and considerably more:

Saturday, 21 April 2012

10 more things you pesky kids maybe didn't know about your favourite cartoon characters ...

Home for Top Cat and his gang - Benny the Ball, Fancy-Fancy, Spook, Brain and Choo Choo – was called Hoagie’s Alley.
Danger Mouse’s eye patch was an affectation only and ‘part of the suit’.
Danger Mouse’s assistant, Ernest Penfold, was a hamster. His boss, Colonel K, was a chinchilla.
Secret Squirrel is known as ‘No-Worries Squirrrel’ in Portuguese-speaking countries, ‘Secret-less Agent’ in France and ‘Agent Ekorn (Acorn)’ in Norway.
Dick Dastardly’s voice was provided by Paul Winchell, the same man who did Disney’s version of Tigger. Dastardly’s full name is Richard Milhous Dastardly. No, really.
Fred and Wilma Flintstone were the first couple ever to be seen in bed together on US television. The show was originally going to be called The Flagstones.
Ranger Smith of Yogi Bear fame is called John Francis Smith although in one episode, for no apparent reason, he gives his name as Harold.
Officer Dibble’s first name was Charlie.
Dick Dastardly has an identical twin brother known as the Dread Baron who has a dog that looks almost identical to Muttley called Mumbly. The Dread Baron appeared in Hanna- Barbera’s Laff-A-Lympics series. His relationship to Dastardly was never explained until issue #12 of the Laff-A-Lympics comic book by Marvel Comics. It's believed that he was invented at the last minute because there were licensing complications in using Dastardly and Muttley in the new show because the characters were part-owned by Heatter-Quigley Productions.
Penelope Pitstop had a vibrator fitted in her car, the Compact Pussycat. As you may recall, her car was a mobile beauty salon with all kinds of built-in devices such as hair dryers and a robotic hand that dispensed lipstick. Well, in one episode called Speeding for Smogland, we clearly see her select the following device:

When activated, a belt emerged and looped around her waist and began vibrating in the style of those old weight-loss machines. Here's the episode if you want to see it for yourself:

I’d be very surprised if its inclusion wasn’t a little joke especially for the adults watching.

10 things you meddling kids maybe didn't know about Scooby Doo


The four main characters’ full names are Fred Herman Jones, Daphne Blake, Velma Dace Dinkley and Norville ‘Shaggy’ Rogers.
Scooby’s full name is Scoobert ‘Scooby’ Doo. The name Scooby Doo was taken from an ad-lib by Frank Sinatra in his song Strangers in the night.
Carl Sagan loved Scooby Doo because the show adopted a predominantly sceptical attitude towards paranormal themes (unlike the majority of TV shows). He stated that an ‘adult analogue to Scooby-Doo would be a great public service’.
The ‘bubblegum pop’ music featured during the show was written by Austin Roberts. He also sang the famous theme tune.
Shaggy has a huge appetite and a love of bizarre food combinations. This stems from the fact that his very first toy was a garbage disposal.
Shaggy’s dad, Samuel, is a police officer and his mum is called Wendy. He has an uncle called Shagworthy and another called Gaggy.
Fred wears a size 16½ neckscarf.
Fred’s parents, Brad Chiles and Judy Reeves, were the original ‘Mystery Incorporated’ and were blackmailed into leaving their son to be raised by the criminal mayor of Crystal Cove, Fred Jones Senior.
The show was originally going to be called The Mysteries Five and would revolve around the ghost-hunting adventures of a pop band. The members of the band were named Geoff, Mike, Kelly, Linda and WW (later called Shaggy). Their dog, Too Much, played bongos. The show also, temporarily, had the name Who's S-S-Scared?
Scooby Doo is a Great Dane and one of triplets, the others being Skippy Doo and Dooby Doo. In addition he has two brothers called Howdy Doo and Yabba Doo and a sister called Ruby Doo, who is the mother of his intensely irritating nephew Scrappy. He has at least one cousin called Scooby Dum who lives with Ma and Pa Skillet in the Okefenokee swamps in South Georgia.


Friday, 20 April 2012

The Colganology Podcast - Episode 1 - Waiter, there's a fish in my penis

A little podcast in words and pictures for people who don't want to read all the drivel I wrote in my last blogpost. 12 minutes of your life that you'll never get back.


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Waiter, there's a fish in my penis

This past week I've been researching and co-writing (with Dan Schreiber of BBC Radio 4's The Museum of Curiosity) the pilot for a new radio series. The show is called 101 People to Meet before You (or They) Die and it's a series of interviews with some of the world's most extraordinary people:  explorers, scientists, artists, philosophers and much, much more. The pilot features Charles Brewer-Carias, the Venezuelan grandson of a British diplomat, who has spent much of his 72 years exploring the Amazon. He holds the world record for making fire using just sticks (2.7 seconds), has discovered over 100 species of plants and animals new to science (of which 20 or more were named after him), and may have discovered the world's oldest life form. He also claims to have found the location of El Dorado, the semi-mythical lost 'City of Gold'.

However, I'm not going to talk about him here. You can listen to the show on Resonance FM on the 30th April instead (I'll remind you closer to the time). What I am going to talk about here is another denizen of the Amazon, the candiru fish. Of all the weird and wonderful things I've had to research recently, this little bugger proved to be the most slippery and difficult to get a hold on.

Candiru, also known as toothpick fish, vampire fish or 'penis fish' are several species of small, thin catfish of the Trichomycteridae family. Although some candiru species have been known to grow to a size of 40 centimetres (16 in) in length, most are considerably smaller. They are best known for their supposed behaviour of detecting urine in water and then following the flow back to source where they enter the human urethra and remain, firmly lodged by way of backward-facing spines. This behaviour is recounted on thousands of websites, in books and on TV shows. A couple of years ago, naturalist Mark Carwardine told the story to Stephen Fry on the BBC TV show Last Chance To See.

As you can see, Stephen does suggest that it's an urban myth but Carwardine assures him that the 'string is a joke but the fish is real'. It was also featured on the BBC's Weird Nature series.

Carwardine is right - the fish is real. But whether or not it actually does what the stories say it does has been the cause of my headaches this week. The truth is somewhat confused.

To begin with, let me say that anecdotal stories about the 'penis fish' go back a long way; right back into the early 19th century. However, and I cannot stress this enough, there are no completely verified accounts of a candiru entering a human urethra. In fact the first documented case of medical removal dates only from 1997 ... and many features of that particular case are somewhat problematic. So, let's look at the evidence for and against the story ...

Over the past two decades, explorers and journalists alike have collected hundreds of tales concerning the candiru's nastiest trick. It's also mentioned in several scientific papers. Professor John R Herman, in his 1973 paper, 'Candiru: Urinophilic catfish - Its gift to urology' (Urology 1(3), pp 265-267), writes:

'One of the strangest [stories from the Amazon concerned] a fish that was urinophilic and could swim up the urethra or into the vagina of the unwary native who urinated while bathing in the Amazon. It was said that this fish, known as candirú, was long, thin, and capable of forcing its way into the body's passageways following the trail of urine. Once inside it would eat away the mucous membranes and tissues until hemorrhage would kill it or the host. It was also said that even if one caught the fish by the tail, once in the urethra it could not be pulled out because it would spread itself like an umbrella. Indeed, rumours had it that penectomy was preferred to the misery and pain associated with leaving the fish in the urethra!'

It's notable that Herman recounts the stories but does not provide any actual evidence as proof. Decades before, in a 1945 paper called 'The solution of incrustations in the urinary bladder by a new method', (Journal of Urology, 53(5), p 702) a Brazilian urologist called Eugênio Lins describes a non-surgical method (a herbal mixture at close to boiling point) to treat the condition. He also reports on a US Navy surgeon named Charles Ammerman who operated on three candiru victims, in one case slicing into the bladder to extract the fish. Again, the paper tells the stories but is lacking in details. (Note: I have been unable to find any official record of Ammerman's work. If you can find any such records, I'd love to see them.)

Then there's that 1997 account of the surgical removal of a candiru. In this incident, the victim (a 23-year-old man from Iticoatiara, Brazil, recorded only as 'FBC') claimed that a candiru 'jumped' from the water into his urethra as he urinated while thigh-deep in a river. After travelling to Manaus, the victim underwent a two-hour urological surgery by one Dr Anoar Samad to remove the fish from his body. In Samad's case report we read the following:

'Patient, 23, male, looking for the emergency service with extreme difficulty in urination and bleeding by the urethra, with a history of 3 days that had suffered an attack by a fish of the Amazon region known as the candiru that had penetrated into his urethra when he was urinating into the river. Said that tried to hold it, but it was very smooth and seemed to be of small size. On physical examination, the patient was pale with fever, extreme pain to the manipulation of the penis, urinary retention, bleeding the penis and great swelling of scrotum. Referred to the surgical centre, and under anaesthesia, we performed cystoscopy (endoscopy of the urethra and bladder) for diagnosis and documentation of the case. Identified that the fish was of great size occupying the entire anterior urethra and impacted near the urinary sphincter or muscle that controls urine (Probably as live fish tried to penetrate the scrotal bag, explaining the swelling). We open in the perineum and remove it in this way, but we remove it by endoscopy (sic).'

This appears to be the same story that appeared on a 2010 episode of River Monsters on the Animal Planet channel involving one Silvio Barbosa. Barbosa - presumably Mr FBC - and Dr Samad appeared on the show (you can see an extract here - sadly, Animal Planet has restricted me embedding the video on this blog). Incidentally, you'll sometimes find the following two pictures accompanying the Barbosa story on some websites. They are actually screengrabs from an episode of the US medical drama Grays Anatomy.

As I said earlier, there are a number of problems with this story. Firstly, there's that old chestnut about the fish 'jumping' into the urethra. Research and experimentation with various species of candiru, most notably by the American marine biologist Stephen Spotte, has shown that they simply cannot jump in this fashion. Even if they could, they'd be defeated by simple fluid dynamics; the maximum swimming velocity of the fish is insufficient to oppose the downward velocity of the urine stream, and a fish that size maintaining position and thrust within a 2–7 mm wide column of fluid is simply impossible.

Which brings us to our second issue, the size of the fish. Barbosa describes a 'small fish' but the documentation and specimen (retained by Samad) indicates a fish that was 133.5 mm in length and had a head with a diameter of 11.5 mm. At one point on the TV show, Samad says: I removed the entire fish. It was 6 inch long and about 1/2 inch wide. It would have required significant force to pry the urethra open to this extent. Half an inch? No candiru species has appendages or other apparatus that would allow it to accomplish this, and if it were leaping out of the water as the patient claimed, it would not have had sufficient leverage to force its way inside. This does raise the ugly spectre of possible self-infliction. I am not specifically talking about Barbosa here; I wasn't there and cannot dispute his version of events. But I was a cop for 30 years and in my time I heard any number of stories from hospital staff about people 'falling onto broom handles' or 'sitting on a ketchup bottle' or 'accidentally dropping a knitting needle into their urethras'. Is 'the fish jumped out of the water and forced its way up my willy' in the same camp? It's not without precedent. In a 2007 paper from Indian two surgeons report operating on a youth who claimed that a fish had jumped into his urethra while he was cleaning his fish tank. Presumably while naked.

Thirdly, Samad's paper, and numerous other sources, claim that the fish was attracted to the victim by the scent of urine in the water. Now, it is true that fish excrete ammonia through their gills and the candiru's natural behaviour is to swim into the gill slits of fish and to attach themselves to the blood-rich tissues to feed. Ammonia and urea are dangerous to a fish's metabolism if allowed to build up in concentration inside the body. So urea is released in urine and ammonia is excreted through the gills. Therefore, it seems quite logical to assume that it is ammonia - present also in urine - that attracts the candiru to a possible host, fish or human. However, this was proven not to be the case in 2001 when experiments clearly showed that candiru identify potential hosts by sight, not smell, and have no specific ability to detect chemical attractants.

There are other issues with Samad's paper and the account of the unfortunate Mr FBC but it would take too long to recount them all here. Suffice to say, the story doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

As for other stories of candiru attacks, most are variants on the same theme. In 1855 French naturalist Frances de Castelnau reported that local Araguay fishermen told stories of  a fish that 'springs out of the water and penetrates into the urethra by ascending the length of the liquid column' (Castelnau dismissed the claim as 'absolutely preposterous'). Another account was documented by biologist George A Boulenger from a Brazilian physician named Dr Bach, who examined a man and several boys whose penises had been amputated. Bach believed this was a remedy performed because of candiru, but he was merely speculating as he did not speak his patients' language. American biologist Eugene Willis Gudger later noted that the area the patients were from did not have candiru in its rivers, and suggested the amputations were much more likely the result of having been attacked by piranha.

In 1836 Eduard Poeppig documented an eyewitness account by a local physician called Dr Lacerda, who told of a case where a candiru had entered a native woman's vagina, rather than a male urethra. He relates that the fish was extracted after external and internal application of the juice from a Xagua plant (believed to be a name for Genipa americana). And in 1891 naturalist Paul Le Cointe provides a rare first-hand account of a candiru entering a human body, and like Lacerda's account, it involved the fish being lodged in a vagina rather than a penis. This raises an interesting point; if the candiru's natural behaviour is to parasitise the gill slits of fish, isn't the human vagina a far more likely target than the penis? And yet there are almost no stories of this happening. The aforementioned Dr Eugene Gudger (writing in the 1930s) noted that 'there have been several other cases reported where the fish entered the vaginal canal, but not a single case of a candiru entering the anus'. He therefore concluded that this supports the unlikelihood of the fish entering the male urethra, based on the comparatively small opening that would only accommodate the most immature members of the species.

Perhaps the most damning evidence against the candiru legend is this: these fish are very common and numerous. And considering how many native adults and children spend their days playing, washing and swimming in the Amazon and its tributaries (and not bothering to get out of the water before urinating), there should be numerous documented cases of candiru-plugged urethras. But there aren't. There are almost none.

But you can't keep a good story down and, despite the legend of the candiru appearing to be just that -  a legend - it continues to pop up on websites and TV shows with reckless abandon for the facts. It would be wrong and unscientific to say that there has never been a candiru attack on a penis - as you've seen, there is some evidence (albeit nearly all hearsay) to suggest that it might have happened. However, these cases are so rare and so unlikely that you probably have as much chance of a candiru attack as being hit by a falling meteorite. Certainly, in his deliciously-named book, Candiru : life and legend of the bloodsucking catfishes, biologist Stephen Spotte - who has spent 40 years studying the animal - concludes that lurid tales of the 'penis fish' are almost certainly urban myth.

Which is a bit of a shame because the myth is almost always more entertaining than reality.


Gudger, E.W. (1930). On the alleged penetration of the human urethra by an Amazonian catfish called candiru with a review of the allied habits of other members of the family pygidiidae. The American Journal of Surgery (Elsevier Inc.) 8 (1): 170–188.

Randall, D. and Wright, P. (1987) Ammonia distribution and excretion in fish Fish Physiology and Biochemistry, Volume 3, Number 3, 107-120.

Spotte, S. (2002) Candiru : life and legend of the bloodsucking catfishes. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts Book Co.

Spotte, S., Petry, P., Zuanon, J.A.S. (2001). Experiments on the feeding behaviour of the hematophagous candiru. Environmental Biology of Fishes 60 (4): 459–464

Vezhaventhan, G. and Jeyaraman, R. (2007) Unusual Foreign Body In Urinary Bladder: A Case Report. The Internet Journal of Urology. 2007 Volume 4 Number 2

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Seventh time lucky?

It's never fun when reality smacks you in the face. It can be painful. It can be humbling. It can knock you down, puncture your ego and stamp all over your dreams in hob-nailed boots. With spikes on the bottom. But, if you take the hit, rub your jaw and are strong enough to stand up ready for whatever comes next, then reality can also be a powerful way to get your life in order; to work out what's wrong and to figure out how to put it right.

Take my art, for example. Over the past few days, lots of people have told me how much they like the Bagpuss/Jabba the Hutt crossover painting I just did (see a couple of posts back). Someone asked me if I planned to have it made up as a print for sale. So I cavassed opinion on Twitter. Would anyone buy a print? And, out of my 3000+ followers, six said yes. Well, actually, two were maybes. Which was pretty much what I expected. You see, the reason I gave up trying to be a pro artist last year is the uncommercial nature of what I like to paint. If I'm brutally honest, I wouldn't hang any of my paintings on my wall. And that's not me being hyper-critical. I can honestly say that if I saw that Bagpuss picture, and it had been painted by someone else, I'd like it, I'd laugh at it, but I wouldn't buy it. So why would anyone else? If I compare it to the work of a popular artist such as Paul Slater (see previous post), I can see what I do wrong. His colours are much more subtle and considered. His humour is mature. Galleries love him. No galleries want my stuff. I'd love to be as good as him. But I'm not. Maybe if I keep on practising I'll get close. But the point I'm making here is that when the reality hit me that I will never earn a living as an artist it wasn't a bad thing. It made me realise that art should just be a hobby for me. And it will be because I like painting and I like what I produce even if it isn't commercial. That reality slap made me focus on the things I am good at.

I know that I'm a  better writer than I am an artist. People do like my stuff - I've just had a terrible run of luck. As I've reported before (here and, in more detail, here), I have had several close calls with success, including having a Doctor Who script accepted by the BBC and co-writing two episodes for Gerry Anderson's revamped CGI Captain Scarlet series that would have been used if the show hadn't been cancelled after season one. I've had near misses with novels too. I've written five books - yes, five - that, I was sure, all had great central ideas. And I was right. I know I was right because five other books with the same idea beat me to publication, rendering my books forever unsaleable. It's just cruel coincidence of course but it stings like battery acid in a cut and there's nothing you can do about it.

I turned to non-fiction and, many would say, finally found success with Joined-Up Thinking. It's true that I got a book deal with Pan Macmillan. It's true that I got a terrific advance because everyone - from The Bookseller to The Telegraph and The Times - reckoned it was going to be a massive hit. Stephen Fry did a cover quote. I did scores of interviews. I had a launch party at the Phoenix Theatre in London. The book has never, to date, had even the hint of a bad review. But it bombed. A combination of factors - most notably the loss of almost every major high street bookstore chain in the months leading up to release - meant that the book got no publicity whatsoever. It came out amid a huge raft of highly-publicised celeb biographies and no one knew my book even existed. To date, it has still not made its advance back. All of which means that no traditional publisher will now touch me - I'm a 'bad investment'. My agent has not been able to get me even a nibble for nearly four years.

Slap! Reality check!

So yes, I've had a shit time of it. And yes, I'm pretty toxic. But that means that other avenues are ripe for exploration. Crowd-funding is one such avenue and I'm delighted to tell you that I have a new book coming out very soon with Unbound (Even that suffered a slight hiccup as it was meant to come out before Christmas but a book with a similar format and an almost identical tagline came out just before. Again! Aaargh! So I had to go away and re-think the structure). But we're ready to go again now and I'm hoping I don't get gazumped for a seventh time!

Reality does suck sometimes. And life isn't fair but it's no use whingeing about it. There will always be people who seem to get every advantage, deserved or otherwise. And there will always be people like me who, if they fell in a barrel of boobies would come out sucking their thumbs. But there's strength in adversity. It's made me leaner (not physically obviously), hungrier (why I'm not lean, physically), more determined, more focused. I've stripped away the stuff that will never earn me a living and concentrated on what I'm best at. And if this new book does okay, it'll go some way towards 'clearing my name' with the publishing world. I'm ready for the next punch. Bring it on.

I'll be pimping the book like a madman very soon. Watch this space. x

Artist of the Week: Paul Slater

Last time I was in London, I popped into the Medici Gallery in Cork Street (near Oxford Circus) and fell instantly for the artwork of Paul Slater. I wish I could paint like this guy. And his sense of humour is wonderful:

Visit his website here.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Jabbagpuss (and Princess Madeleia)

A new painting, just completed. This one was just screaming to be done. One day I happened to notice that Bagpuss, the eponymous hero of Oliver Postgate's lovely old TV series, is about the same shape as Jabba from Star Wars. That made Madeleine the rag doll his slave girl. Professor Yaffle and Gabriel the toad became mercenaries. And the mice on the mouse organ became snacks. It seemed so right. So I doodled it.

It seemed to work! And as there was space on the far left I also added a froglet and Mr Pogle from Pogle's Wood.  So, here's a stage by stage guide to how I painted it (click on pics to see larger versions):

It's my small tribute to the late, great Oliver Postgate who made my childhood - and the childhoods of millions of Brits - so much lovelier.

English as she is mangled

In my last post I mentioned Pedro Carolino's epic Portuguese-English conversational phrase book - English As She Is Spoke. Today I thought I might save you the bother of digging the book out by presenting you with a few of the choicer snippets. A little history might interest you too.

O Novo Guia da Conversacao

English As She Is Spoke was published in 1883 and co-credited to José da Fonseca. It had long been assumed that the authors of this Portuguese to English phrasebook did not, in fact, know any English. But, recently, Alex MacBride of the UCLA Department of Linguistics has uncovered evidence to suggest that the book may be an incompetent ripoff by Carolino of an earlier French to English phrasebook authored by Fonseca. The book contains many dictionary-aided translations that are wildly inaccurate. For example, the Portuguese phrase 'chover a cântaros' is translated as 'raining in jars', whereas an idiomatic English translation would be 'raining buckets.'

Mark Twain said of the book that: 'Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.'

Carolino's bastardised phrasebook was discovered by a British traveler in the 1860s, in the Portuguese colony of Macao, off the coast of China.  He was astonished to see that it was being used as a textbook in the island's schools. Upon his return to London, he made the book public and we've loved it ever since. So just how bad is English As She Is Spoke? Let me show you. Here are some popular proverbs and what Carolino, without any irony, calls 'idiotisms':

Few, few the bird make her nest.

Nothing some money, nothing of Swiss.

In the country of blinds, the one eyed man are kings.

To do a wink to some body.

So many go the jar to spring, than at last rest there.

He eat untill to can't more.

It want to beat the iron during it is hot.

The stone as roll not heap up not foam.

He is beggar as a church rat.

Keep the chestnut of the fire with the cat foot.

Friendship of a child is water into a basket.

Burn the politeness.

Of the hand to mouth, one lose often the soup.

To look for a needle in a hay bundle.

To craunch the marmoset.

To buy cat in pocket.

To make paps for the cats.

To fatten the foot.

Carolino also includes some 'common dialogues' to give his readers some idea of common English conversation. For example:

DIALOGUE 17 To Inform One'self of a Person

How is that gentilman who you did speak by and by? Is a German.
I did think him Englishman. He is of the Saxony side.
He speak the french very well. Tough he is German, he speak so much well italyan, french, spanish and english, that among the Italyans, they believe him Italyan, he speak the frenche as the Frenches himselves. The Spanishesmen believe him Spanishing, and the Englishes, Englishman. It is difficult to enjoy well so much several languages.

Glorious, isn't it? I laughed out loud at a description of a walk in the country that involved 'The gurgling of birds'.

The whole book can be accessed for free here at Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Ding Dong! Happy of top in sky

Okay, so this is my new favourite thing. I spent this morning with good chums Dan Schreiber and Ash Gardner in Docklands. Over lunch, Ash brought my attention to the And Jill Then Is Collapsed blog in which Masal Bugduv takes nursery rhymes and carols and pushes them through translation programmes from English to French to German to Italian and then back to English again. What results is a beautifully surreal form of English. For example:

'They are of teapot,
Large little ones and,
My sleeve my suggestion,
When I begin to hiss you feel it,
Here here to strike me and it passes to me!'


'Far away it is eaten in a bed for a bed,
The small Gentleman Jesus has given its beautiful head.
The stars in the luminous sky watched in down, where it has rested,
The little one who fall asleep on the Jesus hay.

The bovines are the following ones,
The wide awake child,
But less Gentleman Jesus cries that ago,
Jesus Gentleman he watches from the sky and my permanence to the morning it is near.

Near me, Gentleman Jesus I ask you to remain.
All around me always and I love to me.
Made happy all beloveds sons in tender cure yours.
And in the sky, to assume, with you over there of being.'

And the wonderful:

'Jack and Jill instituted on the hill
To the aim to try a bucket of water
Jack has fallen and has broken off the crown
And Jill then is collapsed.'

Truly joyous abandonment of the language. Do go and have a look.

While you're at it, have a look at these sites too. The first is an old blogpost of mine that tells the story of the unintentionally hilarious Road Safety Songs booklet.

The other is the Project Gutenberg free online edition of Pedro Carolino and Jose da Fonseca's monstrously innaccurate translation book English as she is spoke. If you don't know the story, it's an English phrase book ... but written by authors who could only speak Portuguese. Therefore, they used an Portuguese-French dictionary and a Frenche-English dictionary to write their book. The final masterpiece uses language that is quite unlike all three.

What other phrasebook would give you the popular idiom 'To craunch a marmoset'?

Monday, 9 April 2012

My own little time capsule

I was looking at John Hutchinson's 'then and now' photos first thing this morning (see here). In them, he captured London as it was 40 years ago and compares the photos with up-to-date shots.

With even my limited mathematical skills, I suddenly realised that these were taken in 1972; the very year in which I went on a school trip from Cornwall to London, aged 10. And I realised that I too have some photos of the capital from that year. I didn't take them, sadly. I bought them as a set of transparencies to take home as a souvenir (Dad was into slides at the time and had a half-decent projector). I had a camera with me but it was an old Kodak box-shaped affair that took grainy black and whites - as you'll see from the last couple of photos of Westminster Palace and my school chums on the Embankment. The transparencies were, presumably, taken in the 1960s - I see Doctor Zhivago is being advertised on Piccadilly Circus and that was 1965. I thought you may like to see them (click on the photos to enlarge).

Like Hutchinson, I'm tempted to try and recreate those old photos using my modern digital SLR. Or some of them anyway; quite a few are taken from a high elevation which suggests that the photographer had access to buildings that I may not. Meanwhile, what did I look like in 1972? Here I am at Carn Euny prehistoric village in Cornwall. In brown shorts. Yike.