Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Recycled Into Art - Part 2

Some more artist 'Wombles' - people who create things from found materials and the rubbish that most of us discard. We kick off with the sculptures of Heather Jansch, whose work I saw recently at the Eden Project:

Jean Shin does amazing things with vinyl records, umbrellas and other objects:

Robert Bradford uses thrown away children's toys, clothes pegs, buttons ... anything plastic:

And Subodh Gupta uses scrapped kitchen utensils:

More tomorrow!

Monday, 30 January 2012

Happy Birthdays they'll never see

I was running through David Wallechinsky's and Amy Wallace's excellent Book of Lists this morning and came across an interesting section on what ages people would be if they were still alive today. As mine is the 2005 edition, I thought it might be interesting to update the list. So, if they were still alive today ...

Dylan Thomas would be 98, JFK would be 92, Malcolm X would be 86 and Marilyn Monroe would be 85. Anne Frank would be 82, Elvis would be 76, and John Lennon and Bruce Lee would both be 71.

James Dean would be 80, Jimi Hendrix would be 69, Jim Morrison and Bob Marley would both be 68, and Marc Bolan would be 64. John Belushi would be 62, Douglas Adams would be 59, Kurt Cobain would be 44 and Princess Diana would be 50.

You can't help wondering if they would be the icons they are now if they had lived to be older.

Images by Andrzej Dragan.

Recycled Into Art - Part 1

I've always been a lover of sculpture. And I'm very much a sustainable living/save the planet kind of a guy. By combining these two passions you'll find my favourite kind of art; where things that might once have been landfill are given new life. In the past I've featured artists like Stephane Halleux, Peter Rush, David Kemp, Jessica Harrison, Ivan Lovatt, Jennifer MaestreJunior Fritz Jacquet, James Corbett, Stuart Haygarth, Mike Rivamonte, Wim Delvoye, Yong Ho Ji, Jim and Tori Mullen, Click Mort, Alex Gross and my good friends Sophie Thompson and Ptolemy Elrington (also look here and here). I've also featured some of my own humble recycled work, such as my Art Critics painting and my Junk Owls and Cobblepot sculptures.

I've found a few more recycling artists recently and so here's a quick round up. First off the blocks is Scottish artist David Mach who makes the most amazing installations and sculptures from materials like coat hangers and match heads (as always, click on the pictures to see a larger version).

The curiously spelled Kate MccGwire uses feathers:

Quell, 2011 <span class=bodytxt>Photo: Tessa Angus courtesy of All Visual Arts </span> (<a href=index.php?pid=40&nid=2&sid=2011&work_id=68>More information</a>)

Lure, 2011 <span class=bodytxt>Photo: Tessa Angus courtesy of All Visual Arts </span> (<a href=index.php?pid=40&nid=2&sid=2011&work_id=67>More information</a>)

While Anastassia Elias uses carboard toilet roll tubes to wonderful effect:


More tomorrow!

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Creating nothing but fudge

As you'll know if you read this blogpost a while back, or this or, indeed, this or this, I have little truck with Creationists. I have no isssue with faith. I have no problem with religion. I have friends who are religious. And I consider myself a warm, caring, ethical, but atheist human being. As far as I am concerned, we're all free to believe what we want to believe. Or not believe, as the case may be. However, when people deliberately falsify the facts to suit their version of events and then use that to persuade free-thinking and easily-misguided children to share their viewpoint, I do take umbrage.

A couple of days ago I came across a website called Creation Liberty that purports to present evidence that the story of creation, as recorded in the Bible, is the absolute truth word-for-word. However, the whole website consists of nothing more than attacks on evolutionary theory and accepted science. Meanwhile, there is almost no attempt to provide any concrete evidence for the Creationist version of events. The 'proof' it provides is largely inaccurate and woefully misleading. Let me show you some examples:

One page, all about dinosaurs, starts:

'How did the dinosaurs become extinct? This question is not designed to help students to think, but rather is designed to tell them what to think. This question assumes that dinosaurs went extinct. For example, there are panthers still living wild in Florida. Many people have lived their entire lives in Florida, and have never seen a panther. Because they have not seen one, does that mean panthers do not exist in Florida? No, it simply means they are hard to find. No one could prove the extinction of anything unless they were at all places at all times at the same time. So the real question here is not, 'How did the dinosaurs go extinct,' but rather, 'Did they go extinct?'

This is a hugely lazy argument. What the author, Christopher J E Johnson, utterly fails to point out is that, while many people have never seen a panther, some people have. There are eyewitness accounts. There is physical evidence in the form of corpses, bones and panther poo. And there are photographs - lots of photographs. Johnson uses a few grainy pics and dodgy accounts of creatures such as 'The Lockness (sic) Monster' as his evidence that dinosaurs still exist. He doesn't comment on the fact that photos of Nessie have completely dried up since the advent of decent quality digital cameras, Google Earth and mobile phones. Nor does he address the fact that not all the dinosaurs did become extinct. There is compelling evidence that some species evolved into birds. As for 'No one could prove the extinction of anything unless they were at all places at all times at the same time', that statement applies to everything, surely? You can't definitively say that there are no fairies or goblins unless you were in all places at all times. But you can make the reasoned assumption that, as there is absolutely no evidence of their existence, they most likely don't.

He then goes on to explain that: 'All throughout history, dinosaurs have been known as 'dragons.' Many evolutionists make complaint that dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible, but that is simply not true. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible 34 times.'  Is this true? Do 'many evolutions' complain about this? Have we called dinosaurs dragons 'all throughout history'? As I recall, they were only named and described for the first time in the 1840s. I wouldn't call under 200 years 'all throughout history'. And while it's quite feasible that ancient dinosaur skeletons might once have been seen as the bones of mythical dragons, it's a tenuous argument at best to suggest that the dragons mentioned in the Bible are therefore sightings of dinosaurs. For a start, many dinosaurs were small and not exactly fearsome. These are surely the most likely candidates for prolonged survival rather than the huge charismatic specialist dinosaurs? Rats will outlive lions, trust me. No dinosaur had wings - as most mythical dragons invariably do. There were once pterosaurs, of course, but they probably didn't breathe fire (if that were even possible) and they weren't dinosaurs. They were as closely related to dinosaurs as a blue whale is to a platypus. Oh, and the website's 'evidence' that dinosaurs and dragons are one and the same includes scans of older text books, the largest of which uses the description of the species dinotherium as an example.

This is a dinotherium. It's a mammal.

This is the kind of shoddy, badly-researched material that is purporting to be a more accurate account of the story of life on this planet than evolutionary theory.

I must stress again that I'm not on the attack here. I'm really not. I would never launch a website decrying faith in God and pulling the Bible to pieces. I am happy to read and discuss Creationist literature and the content of their websites. I do so often. I'm a curious and enquiring guy. What I'm looking for, as a reasoned and critical thinker, is evidence that supports their claims. I'm looking for any argument that is stronger than the evidence provided by the fossil record and the very clear evidence all around us that plants and animals can and do change form over time. What most Creationism material - including the website under discussion - usually provides me with is unsupported assertions or, most commonly I'm afraid, ill-researched attacks on evolutionary theory. I've lost count of the times I've read that there are 'no missing links between modern species and so-called extinct species'. Yes there are! Lots! Look at the dizzying variety of trilobite fossils! There are so many that you can actually see, as clear as the nose on your face, the slow and steady development of the eye over time. Then there are larger missing links like the recently discovered tiktaalik (see below). If the Creationist lobby would be as open to new information as most of us Evolutionists are, they'd read more widely and see that missing links exist all over the place.

Let's return to the website and just look at a couple more pieces of 'evidence'. Johnson provides images of an Egyptian pot which he claims clearly shows long-necked dinosaurs. Ten minutes of research will show that this is a fairly common stylistic representation of giraffes. Just looking at the shapes of the heads, legs and tails is enough. And, let's be honest, the Egyptians would be quite au fait with giraffes as Egypt is on the African continent. A supposed stegosaurus turns up on a 12th century Cambodian temple. But had the author cared to do even a simple Google search of that same temple, he'd have found all kinds of other animal images including monkeys and peacocks that also lie inside decorative lotus leaf borders that kind-of look like the plates on a stegosaurus's back. Presenting a few highly-seective images as 'evidence' is invalid and doesn't take into account Mankind's wonderful propensity for creativity in art. It's like selecting a few images by Picasso, Tretchikoff and even Peyo and making the conclusion that blue-skinned humans once existed. I could also mention the many thousands of images of God and Jesus, most of which are wildly different to each other, and none of which were painted by anyone who'd actually met either of them. Art is not proof of form or even existence.

I could go on and on but that would support the idea that this is an attack on Mr Johnson who is very probably a lovely human being. I want this to be read as a friendly challenge to the author to exhibit some proper evidence to support his claims, rather than the fuzzy logic and mishmash of inaccuracies he has provided. And also to not base his entire argument on attacking evolutionary theory, all of which can be supported with evidence.

I will, however, make a few final observations on Johnson's assertion that the story of Noah's ark is true. He states that:

'(1) The boat was 2/3rds the size of the Titanic. (300x50x30 egyptian cubits = 1.54 million cubic feet) Also taking into consideration that there were no lavish ballroom, dining halls, 1st-class accomodations (sic), engine rooms, etc. huge numbers of animals could be stored in a boat that size.'

(2) The Bible does not say Noah had to get two of every species. The evolutionists use the word species, and then illogically apply their modern definition back in time to the Bible, and call the Bible wrong. The Bible says bring two of every 'kind' so the question is how many kinds of animals did Noah take on the ark? God told Noah to take two of each kind, and seven of some kinds (Genesis 7:2-3), and we can also determine that this did not include insects or fish. (Genesis 7:22) Where exactly is the line between each kind? Scientists have not yet determined the kind barriers for many creatures, but some have estimated there are around 8,000-10,000 basic kinds of animals on the planet, which is much more reasonable for Noah and his family to accomplish.'

Let's take these two points together to begin with. The website states that 'scientists have not yet determined the kind barriers (sic) for many creatures'. Actually, yes they have. We've had a very sophisticated form of taxonomic classification and scientific nomenclature for over 200 years (see  here). Saying that there may be as few as 8000 -10,000 'basic kinds of animals' without qualifying where that figure comes from or how those classes are decided is meaningless. But even if we accept it, could a boat - even one 2/3rds the size of the Titanic - fit them all in? Yes, he does suggest that baby animals were taken on board to save space (although the Bible fails to mention this) and, handily, that they were all vegetarians prior to the flood. But even if that were true, how would you sort out the vast range of environments from polar to equatorial that some 'kinds' need in order to survive (Presumably, Noah and his unnamed wife travelled all over the globe to collect them too)? What about the vast quantities of food they'd all need? What about the poo and the pee? And, while the fish and the insects may have been excluded for some reason, what about the whales? What about the sea urchins and turtles and prawns and scallops and squid? Meanwhile, all of the sea fish would have died due to the oceans being made fresh by enough rain to cover the Earth to the tops of the highest mountains; salt water fish cannot survive in fresh and vice versa. So where did all the cod come from? There are no answers to be found here. 

But the biggest fudging of the facts is the argument that God didn't mean species but 'kind'. Where is that line drawn? Does that mean two tigers, two lions, panthers, ocelots, cheetahs, lynxes, pumas, wildcats, jaguars, caracals, bobcats, margays, leopards, servals and domestic cats? And, I guess, because we can't prove that they're extinct, all of the prehistoric cats like the sabre-toothed smilodon too? Or does it mean two generic cats that were the progenitors of all of the different species of cat that exist now? How would this happen? Not by genetics, natural selection and evolution surely? If Creationist theory allows such variation on a theme within a family of animals such as felidae (cats), then why not within the order of Carnivora? Or the phylum Chordata? Is it really so hard to imagine that, over tens of millions of years, whales and bears could have evolved from a common ancestor? Creationists spend all their time focusing on the outward appearances of animals and handily overlook the fact that animals as diffferent as bears and whales have more physical similarities than differences. Whales once walked on four legs; they have the atrophied remnants of a pelvis and leg bones embedded in their flesh. They're not just there by random chance. They serve no purpose. That's hardly intelligent design is it?

The point to make here is that if you're going to present a valid argument to an accepted theory, do so with facts, figures and physical evidence, not cherry-picked images, innacurate reporting (Sir Peter Scott was never a member of parliament - he stood as a Conservative candidate in 1945 and lost - Nor did he or his wife ever see Nessie or claim to have done so), and lazy assumptions. The theory of evolution is what all theories are - the most likely answer to a question based upon the evidence currently available. Like any theory, it can change and adapt if new evidence comes to light. It can also be proven to be downright wrong. But you need convincing arguments to do that. If there ever comes a day when the Creationist movement finds the evidence to support their argument, I will gladly accept it and so will every right-thinking scientist on the planet. Evolution is not a religion as Johnson so absurdly claims. It is a belief based upon facts. Creationism is a belief based solely upon faith.

To put it another way, I'd rather have proof  - rather than blind faith - that there's a parachute in my back pack before jumping from the plane. I'd also argue that making others jump blindly because you say that they must is wrong on every level. You must give them the option to look for themselves oif they want to.

So, by all means teach children that there are two versions of events, the scientific view and the Biblical view. Throw in some other theories too such as panspermia or alien intervention. It's good to explore different possibilities; it creates enquiring minds and intelligent discussion. But let the children decide what they want to believe. Let them examine the evidence and make a choice. If they choose to believe that every word in the Bible is true, that's their right. But don't force them to that view with lies and misleading nonsense. My children were brought up with all the facts to hand and with no bias from me. One believes that there is a god or higher being, the other two don't. I respect their beliefs. I have religious friends - one is a vicar - who can quite happily square evolution with belief in God. They don't have to be polarised opposites or mutually exclusive. They can co-exist. Many scientists have faith. And, anyway, the Reverend Dave has the ultimate trump card as I can never prove that God didn't invented the elegant, sophisticated and beautiful (his words) process of natural selection.

Evolutionary theory isn't evil. It has no agenda. It's not a religion. It's open to new ideas. It's not out to prove the non-existence of God. Creationism, by comparison, is blinkered and often aggressively defensive. It's a viewpoint that allows for no flexibility of thinking. If you don't agree with the precise description in the Bible, you're wrong. End of argument. Sites like Creation Liberty do not expand intelligent discourse and do nothing for the Creationist movement except to expose some of them as ill-informed and ignorant (in the true sense of the word).

According to the Bible itself, faith is 'being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see' (Hebrews 11:1). Faith should be enough for you Mr Johnson; believe what you want to believe. But use your energies for good deeds and kindness. Help to create the next generation of good, ethical men and women. Help to create the next generation of scientists and philanthropists who will cure diseases, ease suffering and expand our knowledge of this amazing universe. Don't put all of your passion into raging against a theory you don't subscribe to, clearly don't understand and, from the evidence of your own website, refuse to even consider as a possibility.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

No News is Good News

The beginning of February will mark my six month anniversary without newspapers (see here). As you may recall, I gave up reading them as they were becoming increasingly annoying, scaremongering, sensationalist and obsessed with vapid 'celebrities'. It started as just a week of easily-swallowed cold turkey but felt so good that I carried on. I soon included the TV news as well. The daily barrage of bad news, misery, greed and tragedy - and most of it unlikely to ever have a direct effect on my life - has gone. Ignorance truly is bliss.

That said, I do occasionally catch snippets of TV news; it's unavoidable unless I completely stay away from television or the internet. And every little piece I catch reminds me of why I made the right decision. Firstly, there's the quality of the news reporting. There was a time when it restricted itself to facts. Now, every report seems fudged and opinionated. For example, during the recent sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship (it's not a liner as many news reports said it was) I found myself watching an early evening BBC report in which the reporter stated that 'some people' had suggested that the ship was too tall. What people? Who are they? How many of them? Where did they voice this opinion and to whom? Are they engineers or experts of some kind? Why are we paying 'some people' sufficient attention to warrant their mention on the national news? Of course, none of those questions were ever answered. Instead, as if to add insult to inanity, the reporter then visited an expert on ship design in a lab with a big water tank and a model boat where he explained that no, the ship wasn't top-heavy at all. The whole five minute segment was utterly pointless filler. There's far too much use made of these waffling unqualified 'some people say' and 'people have suggested' statements in the media. They muddy the issue for the sake of padding and sensationalism.

Even worse are so-called 'vox pops'; those short snappy interviews with people in the street. In the same broadcast, a reporter covering the story of Dr Theodora Dallas - the juror jailed for prejudicing a case by researching a defendant's background and previous convictions - decided to ask people what their views were on events. One person said that Dallas should have got more than six months for contempt of court. Another said that they thought the penalty was too harsh. A third said that he didn't see what the fuss was about and that he'd do the same if he's ever picked for jury service. So what did those vox pops add to the story? Three contrasting opinions, none of which have any relevance or authority. So why include them at at all in a supposedly factual news broadcast? As Martin Robbins wrote in The Guardian on Thursday; 'The BBC's drive to avoid bias is admirable, but - whether through laziness or fear - journalists have fallen into the trap of believing that avoiding bias means avoiding any kind of judgement. The idea that a policy or political statement might actually be objectively, empirically, scientifically just wrong is alien to such people. Instead we live in a bizarre place where it seems almost every half-baked opinion – no matter how stupid or irresponsible – must be broadcast to the world as valid and equal. In this polluted environment, attitudes to things like 'facts', 'evidence' and 'science' range from indifference to open hostility.'

Mitchell and Webb caught what I'm saying perfectly in this sketch:

And when reporters aren't presenting us with pointless diversions or vox popping, they're standing in the street outside a building where something is going on that we, and they, aren't allowed to go inside and watch. Why? The news anchor could provide exactly the same information (which is usually 'we don't know what's happening yet') without the additional cost of an outside broadcast unit and a wet reporter standing in a thunderstorm.

Oh, and I'm sorry but since when was the fact that a pop singer is getting divorced 'news'? It really, really isn't. Nor is it news that a footballer has cheated on his wife or that someone famous has opened a shop. News, people, not gossip. News!

But I reserve my biggest dollops of ire for the interviews. I've genuinely come close to screaming when I hear reporters asking people who've been through Hell: 'Are you glad it's all over?' I've felt my blood pressure rise every time a reporter asks 'What does it feel like to be free after your months of incarceration?' or 'What do you plan to do now that you're home from Iraq and reunited with loved ones?' Of course they're glad, unless they're some kind of sado-masochist in which case they'd have told their rescuers to leave them handcuffed to the radiator. And I think we can all probably guess what those soldiers are going to be doing with their partners after being separated and celibate for so long. Several times, I suspect, and in a variety of positions too.

Things get even worse in the studio and many interviews seem overly provocative and aimed at getting a reaction rather than facts. As you may know, Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan was very vocal about a recent appearance on Radio 4's Today show - a programme supposedly about current affairs. Instead of being asked about the technical difficulties of translating a much-loved film to the West End stage, Linehan was bombarded with barbed accusatory questions aimed at forcing him to defend what he'd done. As he put it: 'The style of debate practised by the Today programme poisons discourse in this country. It is an arena where there are no positions possible except for diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted and where politicians are forced into defensive positions of utter banality. None of it is any good for the national conversation.' Martin Robbins again: 'The Today programme claims to be serious, but seems to work on the basis that the best way to enlighten viewers is to take two people and force them into a sort of intellectual-masturbation death match. Graham Linehan appeared on the show last year to discuss his adaptation of The Ladykillers and found himself ambushed by questions that weren't just hostile, but sometimes completely bizarre.'

I don't want to hear shows where the reporter has already made up his/her mind and then invites a guest in to defend themselves. That's not reportage. That's interrogation. That's not what I want from my news reports and current affairs programming. I want facts and figures, and interviews with experts who can add detail and explanation to why events have happened the way they have. I want eyewitness accounts where people tell me how an event affected them, not assumptions by newsreaders that 'the mood' is this or that 'there's a growing sense' of that. I have no fucking interest whatsoever in the marital shenanigans of Premiership Footballers or reality TV stars.

I deliberately watched the BBC News - which I still consider to be the best - at Six O'Clock yesterday and counted the number of times a reporter or newsreader voiced unsupported opinion. I counted eight instances in the first three minutes. I also looked for subtle bias in the words used by reporters; in particular adjectives such as 'horrific', 'worrying', 'terrifying' etc. that are perfectly acceptable tumbling from the lips of traumatised eye-witnesses and victims but have no place in a news report (unless repeating what others have said). I heard two in the same three minute period. I also heard phrases such as 'their resolve crumbled' rather than 'they no longer opposed' and 'dogged by rumours' rather than 'continuing rumours'. The use of emotive words like 'crumbled' and 'dogged by' create a very different picture to the more factual alternatives. It's as if the people who write the news feel the need to 'sex' the reports up. You really don't have to guys.

The news is not an entertainment show. When it stops acting like one, I will return to watching it. In the meantime, I'll get my information from other sources.

The postcardy weirdness of Alex Gross

Alex Gross collects old postcards and photos and then turns them into something quite odd by adding painted clothes, makeup and backgrounds.

As I say, odd but strangely compelling. Visit his site here.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Teaser Trailer

As you may know, I'm doing my first public speaking gig for over a year very soon. It's at the Sceptics in the Pub event in North London on February 20th (see here) and is the first of quite a few that I'll be doing this year.

The theme will be critical thinking; particularly how the idea of 'question everything' caused me no end of hassle during my 30 year police career. However, there is a happy ending; I did eventually see many of my ideas vindicated and I even became something of an expert in applying new ways of thinking to tackle persistent problems of crime and disorder. The talk will explain the highs and the lows, where things went right and when they didn't, and there will be lots of laughs. You'll learn all about what scares elephants, the best way to make fake vomit, why Tim Minchin and I ended up discussing plastic dog poo and how to stop knife crime by holding a dog show.

If you come along, I can promise you some funny stories, some extraordinary stories and some pretty pictures. You'll be seeing some Powerpoint slides like these:

That's the teaser trailer done.

Do come along if you can. But if you can't, keep an eye out for announcements of other talks on Twitter and on this blog.

It would be lovely to meet you!

Click Mort's Curious Curios

Remember the work of Jessica Harrison who takes charity shop-bought porcelain figures and re-sculpts them into horror figurines (remind yourself here)? Well, thanks to the ever-brilliant Hi-Fructose magazine, I've now discovered the oddly named Click Mort who buys the same kinds of figurines but who then chops and swaps the parts to make bizarre sculptures like these:


Aren't they ... weirdly wonderful? Do visit his website here to see more.

You'd be better off with a sinister hairdryer

I've blogged before (see here) about dominant handedness and some of the myths that surround left-handedness (more creative, sinister etc.). I've also argued that we should spend more time looking for the similarities between people rather than differences. Whichever hand is dominant really should not be an issue in the 21st century. However, I still find that manufacturers often don't take left-handedness into consideration when designing a new product. I'm a Righty but one of my daughters is a Lefty and she has endless problems with everyday products because people haven't been courteous enough to think about her needs (and the 7-10% of the population who share them). It's a Righty dominated world. Yes, some companies do produce left-handed versions of things - Virgin even make a left-handed mobile phone - but these products are invariably more expensive than the right-handed versions. With all of the brilliance and inventiveness we have as a species isn't it possible to design products that can be used equally well by both?

I mention this today because of a tweet I read earlier. Artist Joe Rogers - known by his Twitter name of @colourboxonline - made the comment: 'Is there a rule that says in pictures hair dryers have to be pointing to the left?' and he linked it to a Google image search. Here's the link. But if you can't click on that right now, here's what comes up:

Pages and pages of hairdryers and nearly all of them pointing left. And you know why don't you? I assume most of you reading this are right-handed. If you had to lay a hairdryer down in order to photograph it, you would lay it down facing left. A left-handed person would lay it down facing right. I would therefore suggest, Mr or Mrs Hairdryer salesperson that you present your photographs with the hairdryers facing right. You'll stand out from the crowd on the Google image search. There you - free marketing advice.

After all, it's often the product that breaks all the rules that captures the most readers. Nothing else would explain why the Daily Mail website is now the most visited newspaper site on the planet (It's true! See the BBC news item here). Their site breaks every rule of website design ... but maybe that's the point. It''s the peacock that gets noticed, not the hundreds of starlings around it.

When is a protest not a protest?

Barnaul Russia protest toys in the role of demonstrators with placards

Russian police don't take kindly to opposition protesters – even if they're 5cm high and made of plastic.

Police in the Siberian city of Barnaul have asked prosecutors to investigate the legality of a recent protest that saw dozens of small dolls – teddy bears, Lego men, South Park figurines – arranged to mimic a protest, complete with signs reading: "I'm for clean elections" and "A thief should sit in jail, not in the Kremlin".

"Political opposition forces are using new technologies to carry out public events – using toys with placards at mini-protests," Andrei Mulintsev, the city's deputy police chief, said at a press conference this week, according to local media. "In our opinion, this is still an unsanctioned public event."

Activists set up the display after authorities repeatedly rejected their request to hold a sanctioned demonstration of the kind held in Moscow to protest disputed parliamentary elections results and Vladimir Putin's expected return to the presidency in a March vote.

Passersby admired the display with giggles, but police took it more seriously, examining its details and writing down each placard.

"The authorities' attempt to limit citizens' rights to express their position has become absurd," said Lyudmila Alexandrova, a 26-year-old graduate student and protest organiser. "We wanted to hyperbolise this attempt and show the absurdity and farce of officials' struggle with their own people."

They are not the first. Russia's Blue Buckets group, formed to protest officials' wanton flouting of traffic rules, have run across government cars while wearing buckets on their heads, drawing the state's ire.

Voina, the rebellious art collective, won worldwide fame after painting a 65-metre-long phallus on a drawbridge in St Petersburg that, when erected, faced the city's Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters. Its members have been repeatedly detained.

The activists in Barnaul say they have no choice but to adopt creative measures. Local authorities have refused to issue approval for opposition protests since 10 December, the first nationwide day of protest in Russia. Around 2,000 people turned out in Barnaul that day, an unprecedented number for the small city.

Police have tried to pressure them into shutting down the doll protests, organisers said. "They tried to tell us our event was illegal – they even said that to put toys in the snow, we had to rent it from the city authorities," Alexandrova said.

All authorities appear to be on high alert, as Russia prepares for its next day of protest on 4 February, one month before a presidential vote that Putin hopes will sweep him back into the Kremlin. On Thursday, the Moscow mayor's office approved the opposition's request to gather up to 50,000 people for a march through part of the city centre.

The jumpiest police were found this week in Kaliningrad, Russia's Baltic exclave. As two dozen nationalist youth took to the streets for a jog designed to promote a healthy lifestyle, carrying their traditional black, yellow and white flag, police descended upon the rally, having confused it for a gay pride parade. Gay rights remain largely unrecognised in Russia, and gay rights rallies are regularly banned. Police questioned the activists before releasing them, local media reported.

Source: Miriam Elder in The Guardian.  Photograph: Sergey Teplyakov/vkontakte

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Worst Poem of All Time?

What is the worst poem ever written?

There are many serious contenders for the title. The all-time greats - people like Julia Moore and William Topaz McGonagall - produced gloriously crappy epics. But even the big guns occasionally dropped a bollock. Can you believe that William Wordsworth could produce lines like:

'I've measured it from side to side;
'Tis three feet long and two feet wide...'

(describing a pond in The Thorn)

For a while, I considering nailing my colours to The Stuttering Lover (not to be confused with the traditional Irish song of the same name - see here) by Fred Emerson Brooks (1850-1923). It's astoundingly bad. Read it out aloud in all of its insensitive glory (I hear it in my head as read by Forrest Gump for some reason):

The Stuttering Lover

I luh-love you very well,
Much mu-more than I can tell.
With a lu-lu-lu-lu-lu-love I cannot utter;
I kn-know just what to say
But my tongue gets in the way,
And af-fe-fe-fe-fe-fection’s bound to stutter!

When a wooer wu-wu-woos,
And a cooer cu-cu-coos,
Till his face is re-re-red as a tomato,
Take his heart in bi-bi-bits,
Every portion fi-fi-fits,
Though his love song su-su-seem, somewhat staccato!

I'll wu-worship you, of course,
And nuh-never get divorce,
Though you stu-stu-stu-stu-storm in angry weather;
For whu-when you're in a pique,
So muh-mad you cannot speak,
We'll be du-du-du-du-dumb then both together.

However, this looks like the finest prose when compared to the outlandish poesy of Theophile Marzials (1850-1920). His greatest work (in my humble opinion) is A Tragedy, first published in 1874 in an anthology of his work called The Gallery of Pigeons (I've often thought that would be a great name for a band).

The poem inflamed people's passions - although maybe not in the way Marzials would have liked. Dante Gabriel Rossetti hated it, saying that, 'I could scarcely believe it wasn't a spoof, so I checked the first edition, and sure enough, this text is accurate and the book clearly had pretensions to be taken seriously.'

So here it is in all of its bizarre onomatopoeic glory ...

A Tragedy

Death! Plop.
The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop.
Above, beneath.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop,
As they scraggle black on the thin grey sky,
Where the black cloud rack-hackles drizzle and fly
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop
On the black scrag piles, where the loose cords plop,
As the raw wind whines in the thin tree-top.
Plop, plop.
And scudding by
The boatmen call out hoy! and hey!
All is running water and sky,
And my head shrieks -- "Stop,"
And my heart shrieks -- "Die."

My thought is running out of my head;
My love is running out of my heart,
My soul runs after, and leaves me as dead,
For my life runs after to catch them -- and fled
They all are every one!
-- and I stand, and start,
At the water that oozes up, plop and plop,
On the barges that flop
And dizzy me dead.
I might reel and drop.
And the shrill wind whines in the thin tree-top
Flop, plop.

A curse on him.
Ugh! yet I knew --
I knew --
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end --
My Devil --
My "Friend"
I had trusted the whole of my living to!
Ugh; and I knew!
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air --
I can do,
I can dare,
(Plop, plop
The barges flop
Drip drop.)
I can dare! I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
And stop.
Plop, flop.


'And let myself all run away with my head?' Genius.

Want to read more bad poetry? I can recommend three books - The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse by D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, Very Bad Poetry by Kathryn and Ross Petras, and Pegasus Descending: A Treasury of the Best Bad Poems in English by James Camp, X J Kennedy and Keith Waldrop. All three are crammed full of delicious dross and doeful waffle.

The first tiny hint of Spring

I imagine that a seasoned twitcher would enjoy living around where I live in South Buckinghamshire. We are blessed with some stunning wild birdlife. Easily most obvious are the enormous red kites that are as common here as pigeons are in the city and seagulls at the beach. You might recall some photos I got of a few individuals in my garden last year (see here). But, because this is a county of woodlands (hence why nearby High Wycombe was once the centre of the UK furniture industry), we're also quite accustomed to seeing wood pigeons, collared doves, jays, cuckoos and woodpeckers. In fact, the first sighting of the green woodpeckers is usually an indication that Spring is on the way. So you can imagine how excited I was just ten minutes ago when this lovely creature landed on my lawn and began probing for worms brought near the surface by heavy rain this morning. I grabbed my camera and took the best shots I could through double-glazing (click for larger pics).

Glorious aren't they?

Building Bridges

This is an extraordinary story from last November ... never before seen pictures of Tower Bridge - one of the world's most iconic structures - have been unveiled after a stash of 50 prints were found in a skip (Click on the photos to see larger versions).

The pictures date back to 1892 and the bridge's steel frame can be seen, looking much like it does in the finale of the first Robert Downey Jnr Sherlock Holmes film.

The caretaker of a Westminster office block - who wishes to remain annymous - found the photos in a skip along with other papers relating to the bridge's construction. 'I didn't know what to do with them', he told reporters, 'So I wrapped them in some brown paper and put them in a bag under the bed.’ However, when he mentioned them to his neighbour, City of Westminster tour guide Peter Berthoud, the significance of the find started to emerge. ‘When my neighbour gave me a disk with the images on I just couldn't believe it', said Berthoud. ‘I spent hours going through my books to see if these pictures were already around, but I couldn't see them anywhere - they are totally unique.'

The bridge took eight years to build and, at the time, was a landmark feat of engineering. And it nearly looked very different; the bridge's original architect, Horace Jones, wanted to clad the bridge in brick. However, following his death, he was succeeded as architect by John Wolfe-Barry who decreed that the bridge should be clad in stone

'People are so used to seeing images of the Empire State Building being built' says Berthoud, 'But this is part of British history being created 50 years earlier.’

Thanks to my friend Mark Page for bringing these to my attention.