Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Power of Books - Mladen Penev

I've (naturally) been thinking book covers this week and my friend Chrissi Broughton shared a link to some interesting images by Bulgarian-born Austrian photographer and artist Mladen Penev.

His Power of Books series steps away from the book cover and concentrates on the impact of the content instead. I just think they're very cool.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Cor! Constable Colgan's Connectoscopic Cover!

Ladies and gentlemen, aliens and robots, may I present the MAGNIFICENT cover of my new book ...

Isn't it great? It's by the brilliant writer/illustrator of the popular books Goliath, The Gigantic Robot, Hunter and Painter and You're all just Jealous of my Jetpack, the very splendid Mr Tom Gauld.

I met up with Tom last night to thank him for doing such an amazing job. He's as nice as he is talented.

I must also mention the genius that is designer Mark Ecob who sat down with me to work out what was needed and came up with the perfect cover. Just wait until you see the full wrap-around cover - it's gorgeous! But what do you expect from the guy who was recently entrusted to redesign the covers of Iain Banks' fiction books? With Mark and Tom on board, it couldn't fail.

So, there you go! I've been very spoilt. And we have a cover. And, if you pledged on the book through Unbound, the book will be in your hands soon. It's gone off to the printers and, as they can have up to a six week turn around, it should be ready sometime around late May/early June. The e-book should be ready about the same time and I'm recording the audiobook in June. And then the trade paperback will be in the shops in the Autumn, in time for Christmas!

That said, if you didn't pledge on the book but can't wait until September, you can still pledge here and get a copy sent out to you. However, your name won't now be listed in the back as a funder as there has to be a cut-off point for the print process to start.

Exciting times!

Danger! Bad Lyrics in Road!

This first appeared on my blog in 2010. It's worth a reprint.

As I'm sure most of you know, I was once part of an odd little team from Scotland Yard called The Problem Solving Unit that looked at the crime and community issues that traditional policing couldn't shift. Over the years we got involved in some very weird stuff. We also met some amazing problem solvers and many who were ahead of their time. One such was a sergeant from Lambeth, who I won't name, but who in the early 1980s came up with a great idea to solve the problem of kids being knocked down; sing some songs and scare the shite out of them.

The result was a slim printed volume called Road Safety Songs intended for use by police schools officers all over London. I'm pleased to report that I've clung on to my copy all these years. Now I'd like to share some of the highlights with you.

The first thing to note is that, during the course of just 18 pages, the author manages to mow down a dozen kids, mostly using lorries. Take this cautionary tale from 'To the tune of Clementine':

But she dashed right on the roadway
Never heeding brothers nine
And a lorry came and hit her
Foolish foolish Clementine.

Or the royal tragedy laid out in the gripping 'To the tune of The Grand Old Duke of York':

And a lorry came along
And knocked him off his feet,
And now all that's left of the poor old Duke
Is his statue in the street.

Or even the tear-jerking ballad of John the Brixton schoolboy in 'Ode to John' - the only song with a title and no hints as to a tune:

But then one day it happened
As John was out to play.
A lorry come and hit our John
Now he's not feeling gay.

And so it goes on. But my absolute favourite is 'To the tune of Daisy, Daisy' and it goes like this:

David, David, mind how you cross the road
You're half crazy if you don't use the Code
You may be a boy of courage
But if you don't avoid that carriage
Then you'll be sweeped right off your feet
And you'll end up in hospital.

Yes, I know I'm a bad person for taking the Mickey a little tiny bit (although some of the grammar does invite comment). However, I will say this: Sergeant X at least bothered to do his part to make the roads safer and, who knows, he may even have saved a few lives. I absolutely salute him for that. But that doesn't detract from the charming naivety of it all and the fact that 30 years later, it's still making me chuckle. So, children, remember to use your Green Cross Code and ...

Little girls and boys,
Happy in your play,
We don't want an ambulance
To carry you away.

Goodness me, no.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The disturbingly beautiful sculpture of Patricia Piccinini

Somewhere between horror movie monster, biological specimen and fine art, there's Australian artist Patricia Piccinini.

The models are extraordinarily realistic, which adds to their strangeness.

Personally I love them. What she's doing, of course, is showing us that anything that challenges our perceptions of 'normal' can seem grotesque and uncomfortable.

There's a lot more of her work on her website here.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Me and Twitter - It's Complicated

I'm starting to wonder whether Twitter and I have a future. I mean, I love Twitter - no problem there - and I think it likes me. But, just recently, things have become strained between us. We have some compatibility issues.

I was kind of a social media virgin when we met. Okay, yes, I flirted with MySpace but I wasn't in a band so we never got past first base. Bebo seemed nice but maybe a little too young for me. At the other end of the scale, Friends Reunited simply reminded me of how old I was. People said to me that maybe Facebook and I would hit it off. But Facebook was way too brash and it asked too many questions and almost everyone had been there before me (and it seems to have a serious problem with drink). So I said a polite 'no' and kept myself to myself.

But then Twitter came along. It was smart and uncomplicated. It spoke to me succinctly. Twitter asked nothing of me, not even my name and photograph. It accepted me for who I was. I chatted a lot with Twitter and the conversations were fascinating, witty, important, and sometimes hilarious. Twitter introduced me to a whole bunch of people I wouldn't have met before, some of which are now close friends.

But then Twitter changed. Or maybe it was me? I don't know for sure. Where once there had been intelligent debate, there was now raging anger and polemic. Where once there had been humorous deconstruction of celebrity, suddenly there was bitching and pure bloody hatred. Where once we could all get together and have fun, now ... well, the spark had kind of gone.

Maybe we can work things out. I hope so. As I say, I love Twitter and it's been good for me. But there can't be any future for us if I no longer enjoy our time together. When the fun has been sucked out of a relationship, is it really worth fighting to keep it staggering on? Should I give it one more go or should we have a hug and go our separate ways?

It's complicated.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Storm has passed

The name Storm Thorgerson may not mean much to you. So the news that he has died aged just 69 may have passed you by. However, chances are, you know his work and know it well. Because Storm Thorgerson, as Douglas Adams once said, was 'the greatest album designer in the world'. It's thanks to Thorgerson that pigs flew over Battersea Power Station, Peter Gabriel's face melted, Led Zeppelin set people on fire and The Nice dropped their balls in the desert.

Thorgerson formed Hipgnosis, a design company, with fellow artist Aubrey Powell and created their first album covers in the 1960s for the newly-formed Pink Floyd. Such was the originality and freshness of their designs, they soon had bands queuing up. Never dull, always innovative and pushing the boundaries of what photography and print technology could achieve, they became giants in the now sadly lost field of album cover design.

Everything these days is about making things smaller and more compact. The 12" by 12" LP format may have been a bugger for storage but it was a great canvas on which to make popular art; even more so with a 24" by 12" gatefold sleeve. Hipgnosis (and later Storm Studios) went for it, producing many classic images ... even up to the present day (you'll doubtless recognise the covers of Biffy Clyro's Only Revolutions and Muse's Absolution).


As a teenager in the 1970s, the work of Hipgnosis was one of the many strong influences on my developing art style. In fact, it could be said that they cost me a good grade at A Level ... instead of doing pencil drawing and oil painting as the exam requested, I farted about with illustration, photo collage and photographic effects (we had a dark room at home) and I barely scraped a pass. The only piece I still have from those days is this photo, inspired by the Peter Gabriel cover above (If you can't make it out, I'm slashing my own portrait with a knife).

I think that the Hipgnosis influence is still with me today. When I created a new publicity image for myself last year (using photographers Mark Page and my brother Si), the whole concept had a very Thorgerson feel about it.
I never got to meet Storm Thorgerson. I was supposed to meet him a couple of years ago as I got invited to the private view of a retrospective of Hipgnosis's work. Sadly, Storm was too ill to attend but I did meet Aubrey 'Po' Powell and other artists who worked for and with the company. And here we are:
Po and Storm created some of the most iconic images in rock and pop music and deserve to be celebrated. I would certainly advise you to get hold of one or more of their books. The first collection of their work was Walk Away Rene (1978). The most recent is For The Love Of Vinyl (2009). Also worthy of note is Taken By Storm (2007), an anthology of Thorgerson's personal album cover designs. There are other books too - I have them all - and there's a good selection here. Oh, and a nice slideshow of 17 of his finest images on The Guardian website here.
Storm Thorgerson wasn't a household name but many of the bands he did LP covers for are household names because of how well he did his job. The LP covers made us go 'Wow!' in the record shops and it wasn't at all unusual for us to buy an album just on the strength of the image and be introduced to a whole new artist's music.
A sad loss.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Scots got it right today

This is a photo of a large public screen that was set up in Edinburgh today to allow people to watch Baroness Thatcher's funeral. It was published in The Guardian.

As Oscar Wilde once wrote in The Picture of Dorian Grey: 'There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about'.

So true. Indifference is so much more powerful than spite and vitriol.

Scotland got it right I reckon.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Problem Solving 101

Since speaking at QEDCon at the weekend, I've had lots of very kind and complimentary emails, tweets and comments and I feel very flattered. Thank you! Meanwhile, people have also asked if I can summarise the key points of what I talked about and maybe describe my methodology and some of the main tools and techniques I used when tackling crime and community safety problems. Well, it would take a whole book to cover it all. I could write that book (and, indeed, my agent has been pushing me to do so) but it doesn't exist yet. So, in the meantime, here's a rough bluffer's guide.

I worked for the Metropolitan Police Problem Solving Unit. Our little team - five cops and an analyst - all came from a variety of backgrounds and we all had some expertise in a range of skills and knowledge. Our job was to help others to find sustainable solutions to persistent problems that hadn't responded to traditional enforcement methods. And by 'enforcement' I'm talking about the widest possible range of legal options available to public-service organisations all working together in partnership; organisations like town and county councils, local authorities, housing departments, social services, schools and colleges, health trusts, fire and rescue etc. Incidentally, that 'partnership' word will crop up time and time again. It's not just a nod to political correctness or a fashionable buzz-phrase. It was a really vital component of what we did. Problem solving isn't just a case of coming up with a bunch of mad ideas and hoping that one of them works. It's a science. And it can be used for tackling anything from dog poop on the pavements to international terrorism. It works like this. Crime, and indeed all problems, have three components:

There is always something or someone that is causing the problem, someone or something that is affected by the problem, and a place in time and space where the two of them come together - that's where and when the problem occurs (i). This may seem like common sense. And it is. But our natural tendency as human beings is to simplify matters, so we tend to focus only on the cause. If I can use a medical analogy here, if your problem is malaria, focusing on the individual mosquitoes is all very well. But, while you're doing that, the swamp you didn't drain is breeding a million more and the potential victims you didn't inoculate are being set up as new targets. If you want a more complete and sustainable (there's that word again) solution, you must tackle all three sides. That means tackling the root causes of the problem, not just the symptoms.

Take burglary for instance. The police can arrest as many burglars as you like but burglary won't go away. That's because there will always be a steady stream of motivated offenders (cause) ready to fill any 'job vacancy' created by the arrests. Meanwhile, if the victims (effect) continue to act in much the same way as they always have and the location (space-time) remains unchanged, the offender's job is made that much easier. They have a template to work from - all of the previous successful burglaries in that area. Therefore, the best way to tackle burglary is to adopt a three-pronged problem solving approach:

  • Cause - We work on catching the bad guy. Of course we do. But we also try to identify what makes someone become an offender in the first place and try to divert potential burglars away from the swag bag (often in partnership with youth groups and other agencies). We also work with convicted offenders to try to stop them re-offending.

  • Effect - We work in partnership with the householders to make them less likely to be victims in the future. This means education. We offer crime prevention advice (close your windows!) and reassurance (visits, setting up Neighbourhood Watch schemes etc.). We ask people to take certain small actions that will make their property less attractive, such as not leaving highly desirable objects in plain view - you wouldn't leave your iPad on a car seat so don't leave it visible on your coffee table.
  • Space-Time - We encourage people to take some degree of control of their personal protection by modifying the location (alarms, security lights, gravel paths, window locks etc.). We show them how to secure a home without creating a fortress or instilling a siege mentality.

Sometimes, however, the obvious solutions don't work and, despite our best efforts, the problem persists. Sometimes this can be due to a wholly random factor that we cannot predict or change. Homicide is a good example of this. While some are predictable, the vast majority are spur of the moment and therefore completely unpredictable. So we have to be more creative in our approach. At QEDCon I mentioned something called The Impact Scale (ii) and showed this slide:

If you can eradicate the problem - great. But it will be a very rare instance that you do. If you can reduce how often it happens, that's great too. But it doesn't necessarily help anyone for whom the problem is still very real. So, can you reduce the impact it has on them by limiting the severity? Graffiti is endemic and a nuisance but mostly harmless. However, when it is abusive, or singles out individual persons or groups, it can cause fear and distress. So you reduce the severity by tackling that graffiti first. However, if, like homicide, it's not always possible to prevent a problem from happening then get better at dealing with it. Have well-rehearsed contingency plans. Educate people. By all means, bring in knife control measures and keep the pressure on gang members to stop stabbing each other. But why not also teach them some first aid skills? It means that if the worst case scenario occurs, a life might be saved by handling the incident better. The final option of 'pass to a more suitable agent' isn't admitting defeat; it's simply acknowledging that some agencies or individuals may be in a better position to lead on tackling the problem. They may have specific knowledge, better resources, better training, different but more useful legal powers. And you can still work with them of course.

If you had a park nearby but were afraid to use it because aggressive drunks go there every afternoon and then fall asleep on the park benches ... what would you do? You've tried traditional methods like asking them to go or calling the police. But these people are locked into a lifestyle they find impossible to break free from, and they are often so drunk that any attempt at communication is fruitless.

 It would be easy to take the one-sided triangle approach and keep on arresting the drunks or chasing them away. But, as I said, that won't provide any degree of permanency. You just create a vacancy for other drunks. Or we could take an equally one-dimensional approach and simply remove the benches. But that punishes everybody. Where will the pensioners sit? Or the young parents? And aren't some benches wearing memorial plaques? The donors' families won't like that.

So how about a solution that looks at all three sides of the triangle instead? How about firstly changing the design of the benches?

This doesn't disadvantage the lawful park users (victims) and the visual effect on the location in minimal. A lot of people probably wouldn't even notice the substitution. But the drunks will. Oh yes. Now they can't sleep on the benches any more and there's a good chance that they'll move on elsewhere.

But solving a problem is a very different thing to pushing it elsewhere. And just changing the environment is only changing one side of the triangle. If we think of these people - the offenders - as the victims too, then maybe we can work in partnership (I warned you about that word) with families, outreach workers, social services etc. to offer these unfortunates a way off of the Hellish merry-go-round that is their life. That's a complete solution. That's problem solving done properly.

So that's a very quick guide to the kind of work I did with just a few examples. The important things to take away are:

  • Research the underlying causes of a problem - you have to understand why it happens, why it happens where it does, when it does, why people cause the problem and why certain people/objects become the targets.

  • Identify the biggest and most solid pillars that support the problem continuing. Once you've done that you can design ways to knock those pillars down. Occasionally those methods are unorthodox, unusual, creative or unlikely ... but if they work and they're legal and they harm no one - do it! Remember, if everything else has been tried and failed, there are only the unorthodox, unusual, creative or unlikely things left to try.

  • Go for the maximum impact ... but set realistic goals. You may not be able to eliminate the problem and if that's the target you set, you'll continuously fail. And consider, right at the start, how you're going to measure your success. If you can't prove that you've made a difference, you're going to have problems convincing people to try your ideas in the future.

I've barely scratched the surface here but, hopefully, it's given you a base upon which to build. I'm always contactable of course and I'm always up for coming to you to give talks.

And maybe I should get on and finally write that book ...

(i) This 'problem analysis triangle' was distilled out of the work of professors Marcus Felson and Lawrence E Cohen who developed Routine Activity Theory. When examining crime specifically, we would change the headings to Victim, Offender and Location ... but the same rules apply.
(ii) Developed by Professor John E Eck in his 1987 paper Problem-Solving: Problem-Oriented Policing in Newport News.

Monday, 15 April 2013


Ah, QEDCon ... how do I love thee? Let me count the ways ...
I've just got home from Manchester after two days of meeting, watching and listening to one of the most interesting pods of humans it's ever been my good fortune to shoal with.
The line-up read like a Who'sWho of rational royalty: Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, Carrie Poppy, Ben Goldacre, Adam Rutherford, Rachael Dunlop, Robin Ince, Richard Wiseman, Jeff Forshaw, Helen Czerski ... and many, many more. So you can imagine my trepidation at being invited to open the weekend of talks, panels and parties as first speaker. Daunting? Just a little. Not only was I probably the least well-known person on the bill, I also had to speak to a huge audience. Here's the room. Well, about three quarters of the room.  
My invite to speak at QEDCon came off the back of a talk I did at a Skeptics in the Pub meeting in Camden, North London, last year. It was, therefore, similar subject matter that made up the content of my 40 minute talk. Entitled The Skeptical Bobby, it was part autobiography and part explanation of some of the tools and techniques that I used during my police service to either prevent crime and disorder or to reduce their impact on people's lives. And it was also to highlight the fact that healthy scepticism should inform all aspects of our lives - including policing.

It went better than I could have hoped for - which says a great deal for the attentiveness and courtesy of the audience - and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And, having been first on, it meant that I could enjoy the rest of the weekend's programme in a relaxed and happy state.
The high spots, for me, were Helen Czerski's talk on bubbles and science toys - she really is one of the most passionate and engaging science communicators I've ever met, Lawrence Krauss's mind-bending explanations of the structure of the past and future universe, Robin Ince's informed and entertaining interview with Richard Dawkins, Mark Lynas's brilliant talk on the impact we're having on the Earth, Brooke Magnanti's debunking of sex myths and Richard Saunders' and Carrie Poppy's individual talks on challenging assumptions and unsubstantiated claims. I must especially high-five Richard as he stood in for Ben Goldacre at the eleventh hour (due to unforeseen circumstances) and was excellent. He also made me some tiny origami dinosaurs. How can you not like a person who makes tiny origami dinosaurs? That's my forefinger for size comparison. 
 I also got to handle a real space shuttle ceramic tile. That's pretty damned cool isn't it? Well, I suppose that is its purpose ...

It probably goes without saying that the other speakers were all superb too and the event was deliciously MC'd by Brian Thompson - a very funny man. And talk of funny men brings me to Richard Wiseman who compered the Ockham Awards with his usual mix of humour, psychology and tea towel chicken construction, and Mitch Benn, Michael Legge and Chris Coltrane who provided the cabaret on the Saturday evening and who made me spit my beer on more than one occasion for fear of nasal squirtage.
I cannot rate QEDCon highly enough. It was thought-provoking, entertaining and inclusive. Everyone was so kind and helpful and open to discussion, not matter what the topic. It's just so sad that there are people who see this kind of peaceful, humanist free-thinking as some sort of threat. Throughout the weekend, a few protestors stood outside the hotel handing out leaflets and, quite alarmingly, someone had organised a choir to sing hymns and songs in praise of God and Jesus on the floor below the conference hall, presumably in the hope that if they sang loud enough it would drown us out. It didn't. And I am genuinely saddened to report that many of them were children - most of whom probably wouldn't have a clue who Richard Dawkins is. What a cynical and angry thing for adults to do.
I can't finish without mentioning Professor Dawkins one last time. At the start of my talk, I told the audience that my coping strategy was to imagine Richard Dawkins naked, which got a modest laugh. What I didn't find out until later is that he missed the start and walked in a few minutes into my presentation. So when he stood up at the end and announced how much he had enjoyed it, there was an understandable ripple of titters throughout the delegates. To his complete credit, he took the whole thing in good humour and even expressed his enjoyment via Twitter.
I don't always agree with everything that Richard Dawkins says. But I cannot deny that he is a charming and charismatic man. Which is why he is one of the 'poster boys' for the ethical humanist movement of which I am proud to be a part.
The QED in QEDCon stands for Question, Explore, Discover. The search for truth is the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal and, when used wisely, increases our understanding of the world - and the universe - around us. The more we understand, the less we fear. The less we fear, the less we hate. The only bad feeling I personally saw demonstrated at QEDCon was aimed towards us.
I know in which camp I'd rather be sat.

Do go and visit Eventifier here to see photos and videos. My thanks to Doxievee and Ralfnausk for the pictures of me on stage.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Celebrity Make-Unders

We're all used to seeing airbrushed, tweaked and manipulated images of celebrities specially designed to make us all feel inadequate. Well, here's the opposite - some 'un-photoshopped' celebs by New York based artist Danny Evans for his Make-Under Project. Mwah ha ha.

Rihanna ...


Britney Spears ...


Jennifer Aniston ...


Johnny Depp ...


Madonna ...


David and Victoria Beckham ...


Tom Cruise ...


Jay-Z and Beyoncé ...


Tom Cruise is definitely my favourite.

Found at Demilked.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Why I won't celebrate the death of the Iron Lady

One evening in 1985 ... or it may have been 1986 ... I was standing in the rain outside the Cavalry and Guards Club on Piccadilly in London. Despite the best efforts of my police-issue raincoat, I was soaked to the skin; the coat may have been waterproof but my trousers weren't and osmosis was ensuring that no part of my lower body was missing out on a good wash. I'd been standing there, as part of a security detail for something like an hour when suddenly the doors opened and a conga line of well-dressed people emerged, umbrellas fopping open as they dashed for taxis and their chauffeur-driven cars. No one acknowledged me, let alone said anything. My own boss, the then Commissioner of Police Sir Kenneth Newman appeared and, without even a glance at me, waddled to his car and was whisked away. And then a lady stepped out dressed all in blue. She was only about 5'4", and half of that height was made up of carefully coiffured hair, but she exuded all the confidence and power of a tiger in a room full of hamsters. And then, to my utter surprise, she walked over to talk to me. But more than that, she waved to one of her aides to come with her and hold a large golfing umbrella over us. She apologised for the fact that I'd had to stand in the rain for so long. She thanked me for my diligence. She shook my hand. And then she went slowly on her way to her car. There was no audience to see this, other than her aide. There were no photographers, no reporters. That was my first encounter with Margaret Thatcher. There would be a couple more over the next couple of years but none quite so intimate. And now, when I look back on the incident, I have very mixed feelings about it. I still find it very hard to square that image with the Thatcher that did so much harm and who many people, with justification, hate to the very core of their being.

I was not, and never have been a Tory voter. I grew up in Liberal Cornwall and I've remained staunchly Liberal ever since. Oh alright, I did have a little flirt with the SDP at one time but they eventually merged with the Liberals so that hardly counts. That said, in the last two elections I've voted Green; not because I think that they can necessarily form a government, but because it would be nice to have a few people in the Commons with informed opinions on environmental issues. I hadn't been a political teenager either. In 1979, when my school decided that us Sixth Formers should hold a parallel General Election to see if the results mirrored the real thing, myself and my two best mates formed The Cheese and Wine Party and bribed the voters with a barbecue and beach party. We won a landslide victory, we pissed off all of our teachers and I became Minister for Alcohol. There was something powerful in that act of silly anarchy. It was a celebration after years of hardship; rather like I imagine people felt during the Restoration in 1660. After a decade of Puritanism, people were ready to party. They wrote bawdy comedies and drank and made merry. The shift from the 1970s into the 80s had that same fin de siècle feel about it.

Throughout the late 70s it had felt (to me anyway) as if we'd been at the mercy of a whole new breed of puritans. They were called 'The Unions'. The so-called Winter of Discontent 1978/9 had seen widespread strikes across many areas of industry. Garbage wasn't collected, libraries were shut, even bodies remained unburied. In the previous couple of years, there had been rolling power cuts - something unthinkable today when we are so reliant on technology - and TV shows were cancelled left, right and centre. It was 'thanks' to the unions that my beloved Doctor Who was cancelled mid-season and why it would be another decade before I would get to see any of the Douglas Adams-penned story Shada. It was thanks to the unions that I had to walk to school during one of the harshest Winters we'd had in decades because the bus drivers were out. It was thanks to the unions that there was no heating in the house and we'd had to put coats on our beds to keep warm. Everyone was fed up with the Labour government under Jim Callaghan who seemed to kowtow to every demand made by the Shop Stewards. But it was the unions that angered us the most; they were the bogeymen who appeared to be using our discomfort as a bargaining tool in their wage negotiations. Of course, I now understand that whole era much better and I fully appreciate why the unions were doing what they were doing. But back then there was no internet and only three TV channels - assuming there was any electricity with which to watch them - and we didn't have everyday access to anything like the deep political debate and analysis we have today. So, when a sharp-nosed, sleepy-eyed lady Tory appeared and said that she was going to give the unions a damned good thrashing, we sat up and took notice. And when she said that she and her party could make Britain great again, an awful lot of people decided to give her the chance to prove it. Which was why, in 1979, the Tories swept to power. Four years later, with Thatcher still at the helm, the Tories slammed it again, increasing their majority from 43 to 144 (The Falklands Campaign helped immensely - nothing stirs the national breast more than a good war). A third General Election in 1987 saw a third win and a majority of 102. But, by this time, attitudes to Thatcher had changed both inside her party and in the greater population. The bubble had started to burst and people now understood just what sort of person she really was. Consequently she was ousted by John Major in a bloodless coup and Major went on to win yet another election in 1992. I mention all this because I think people forget that the great British public voted her into power twice and her party four times in a row. That's right. We had a Tory government from 1979 until Tony Blair's first win in 1997. She didn't stage a coup or force anyone to vote. The British public wanted her in charge.

On the news this evening I watched a group of students - most of which weren't even born when Margaret Thatcher had any real influence - dancing around singing 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead' and chanting to the effect that they were overjoyed that Margaret Thatcher had joined the Choir Invisible. It made me cross to see it. Why? Because they were exhibiting the kind of 'me me me' behaviour than Thatcherism brought to the UK. I wanted to say to them, 'Ahem, do you know anything about recent political history? Or are you just jumping on the bandwagon because Twitter is stuffed full of ire and Facebook has a special page for you to express your hatred for this woman?' Those sorts of scenes make me feel quite ashamed to be British. We're better than that. We don't dance on the graves of people we don't like. I also wanted them to tell them to get some perspective. When all is said and done, Thatcher didn't execute millions of innocent people in gas chambers. She didn't torture people and laugh at their suffering. She didn't stick skewers in puppies. What she did was follow a particular political ideology built on self-servicing greed. She eschewed the idea of society and told us all to grab what we could and fuck everyone else. And we bought it, hook, line and sinker. We started to buy branded goods to look better than our friends, we bought bigger and better cars and houses, we dressed like utter tits. The 1980s was a decade of excess. Meanwhile, the Tories were dismantling the infrastructure of Great Britain and re-assembling it as UK Plc. Where before the trains and the water and the electricity had been owned by us, now it was owned by a small group of fat cats who would clog their arteries on our hard-earned cash as we all got poorer. Thatcher's boot boys sold off the social housing stock - great news for people who otherwise could never have got onto the property ladder - but then utterly failed to build any new houses for the poorest  members of society to live in. She destroyed whole communities - miners' wives and children were just treated as collateral damage in her war with the unions. She created a dangerously unhealthy 'survival of the fittest' culture and widened the gap between rich and poor to such a degree that I'm not sure it can ever again be bridged. That's what she did and, for that, she should forever be held up as an example of everything that is worst in politics and in, indeed, in human beings.

I will never have any love for Margaret Thatcher. She decimated the industries in my home county of Cornwall and made it the poorest in the UK. She used me and my police colleagues as political tools during the Miners' Strike and forever damaged the relationship between the police and the public. She made me feel dirty. She made me feel like a traitor. But even after all that I can't bring myself to celebrate her death because that would make me feel even dirtier. It would make me feel as heartless as she seemed to be. I try to be a caring, sensitive human being and, whatever she was as a politician, she was also a wife, a mother, a grandmother. That's the person I briefly saw outside the Cavalry and Guards Club all those years ago and that's the person who is being mourned by her family right now, the majority of which are blameless. It's distressing enough to lose a loved one without the waves of hatred being directed at the family name. I intend to show a little compassion for their sakes, if not for the so-called Iron Lady herself.

Margaret Thatcher was instrumental in creating a whole new breed of selfish, greedy, uncaring Briton for whom compassion was seen as a sign of weakness. That's not who I want to be and I don't want to be part of a society that celebrates that kind of behaviour. I'm a humanist and I'm not going to stoop to her level. Margaret Thatcher is dead and she is not going to be any more dead if I burn a straw effigy of her in the street. I'm not saying that anyone should admire her - her faults far outweigh her achievements. I'm not saying that people shouldn't hate her - Lord knows so many people have good reason to. What I am saying is that having a party to celebrate her death may make people feel momentarily empowered but it will do nothing towards fixing the damage she did. The money spent on booze and bunting could be far better spent on projects to rebuild and reinvigorate the lives of those communities she damaged. Downloading a copy of 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!' only increases the profits of Thatcher's beloved multi-national companies that destroyed our local shops and decimated our High Streets. Remember how we all mourned the loss of HMV just recently? I can't even encourage you to stand around a piano and have a sing song. What for? She can't hear you. How much better to use all of that energy and hard-earned money to campaign against unfairness and greed. That would really cock a snook in her ghost's direction. And, more importantly, at the people who continue to follow her policies. Besides which, every celebration of her death keeps her in the spotlight. I'd much rather she was unceremoniously lowered into the pit unregarded and forgotten. We should surely use her death to spur us on to creating a much better society to live in than the one she envisaged.

It takes a lot of energy to hate and I have more constructive things to do with that energy. What I'm going to do is take the wise advice of Billy Bragg who, despite the fact we were on 'opposite sides' during the Miners' Strike, has always had my greatest respect and admiration and who posted this today: 'This is not a time for celebration. The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today. Of why ordinary working people are no longer able to earn enough from one job to support a family; of why there is a shortage of decent affordable housing; of why domestic growth is driven by credit, not by real incomes; of why tax-payers are forced to top up wages; of why a spiteful government seeks to penalise the poor for having an extra bedroom; of why Rupert Murdoch became so powerful; of why cynicism and greed became the hallmarks of our society. Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this. The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don’t celebrate – organise!'

Hear hear.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

101 People to Meet before You (or They) Die - Live Pilot

Around this time last year, Dan Schreiber and I wrote and broadcast a pilot for a show called 101 People to Meet before You (or They) Die on London's Resonance FM. The idea behind the show is to make a kind of 'anti-chat show' because most chat shows, while entertaining, are almost always about well-known celebrities who usually have a book/film/event to plug. Meanwhile, we are surrounded by truly amazing people who have done extraordinary things ... and we'd never know it. So, wouldn't it be great to put some of them under the spotlight?

For the radio show, Dan interviewed Charles Brewer- Carias (above), a Venezuelan 'discoverer' who has identified hundreds of new species - including possibly the oldest living organisms on the planet. He also found the world's largest quartzite cave and has maybe located the semi-legendary lost 'City of Gold' - El Dorado. Incidentally, he was also the 'model' for the baddie, Charles Muntz, in Pixar's film Up. The show was fun to do but there were problems with it. Firstly, timing - it was way too long. The problem is that these people are so damned interesting! Secondly, the show needed visuals because you just didn't get a sense of how amazing his adventures were without seeing the landscapes and the creatures he spoke about (you can hear the show here with a slide show of appropriate images to accompany it - It's so much better with pictures). Thirdly, it really needed an audience.

So, last night, we ran a live pilot with an audience of around 130 people at the Conway Hall in Holborn, London. Our guests this time were Marc Abrahams, the man behind the Ig Nobel Prizes, and Dr Jan Bondeson, consultant rheumatologist by day, Fortean researcher and author by night. The show was curated by Dan and began with a talk by Marc on the history of the Ig Nobels (and a demonstration of the physics involved in walking and carrying a cup of coffee), followed by a talk by Jan on the history of 'amazing talking dogs'. Both were very funny and hugely informative.


The second half of the show - after a beer and comfort break - started with unfeasibly tall magician Pete Heat entertaining the crowds with tricks involving a loaf of bread, a flip chart and some ghastly pink Y Fronts. You can watch a nice little interview with him here on Youtube.

Then we kicked off into the 'anti-chat show' part of the evening with Dan, Marc and Jan discussing such unlikely subjects as a bra that can turn into a pair of breathing masks (ably demonstrated by a member of the audience), safety coffins to avoid premature burial, patents for machines that use centrifugal force to 'help' deliver babies, bosom serpents, giving Viagra to hamsters to cure jet lag, and 'The London Monster', a madman who frequented the capital a century before Jack the Ripper and whose modus operandi involved stabbing women in the buttocks.

The show was great fun, the audience laughed in all the right places and it was a pretty good live pilot. It had some issues, most notably some horrible timing problems that made the show significantly longer than we'd intended. But that's the point of a pilot - to find out what works and what doesn't work before unleashing it upon the wider public. I look forward to helping iron out the kinks before the next one.

One extra bonus for me was meeting Maria Boyle, a long-time friend on Twitter (@twistedlilkitty) from Ireland who I hadn't met before in 'meatspace'. She's a microbiologist by day and a stand-up comedian by night but she's also an amazingly funny cartoonist (you can see her range of cards here or follow her as @twisteddoodles on Twitter). I couldn't resist challenging her to create something  on the spot and she came up trumps, firstly with a great gag about Rolf, Germany's most famous talking dog, and then about Dr Elena Bodnar's 'emergency bra' gas mask design.

Aren't they great?

You can also read Live Skeptic's Storify account of the evening here.