Tuesday, 31 December 2013

That was the Year that Was

2013 was a big year for me so I thought I'd dedicate a blogpost to looking back over the past 12 months and picking out some of the highlights.

I guess the most obvious thing to mention is that this year was my first year as a fully-fledged QI elf. I've been involved with the show, in a peripheral way, for some years but I can't begin to tell you how exciting it is to actually be involved in writing it. It's one of my favourite TV shows and has been since it began. January through to April I was attending research meetings and April to May I was at the live recordings and I loved every minute. I can't wait to get going on 2014's 'L' series in the new year. The QI people are wonderful to work with and it's fantastic getting to meet so many great comedians.


The army chap with me (above) is one Tony 'Baldrick' Robinson of the London Irish Regiment and, as you'll know if you watched the Christmas show this week, he's holding one of the footballs that were smuggled into the trenches of WWI and which was kicked-around during the famous Christmas armistice. What an extraordinary object to be able to see and touch. And, talking of extraordinary objects, we had some amazing things brought into the Museum of Curiosity this year too.

2013 was my second year of writing for QI's sister show on Radio 4 and we wrote and recorded Series 6 during June and July. It isn't often that the guests bring physical objects in to show us but this year we had two marvellous things to drool over. The explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell brought us in the actual compass owned and used by Stanley when he went to find Livingstone. And Professor Joann Fletcher brought us a silver Roman Denarius struck by Mark Antony. How cool is that?


The Museum was touched with tragedy this year, however. We were genuinely awe-struck when Sir David Frost agreed to appear on one of the episodes as he doesn't really do panel shows. And he was as charming, erudite and knowledgeable as you'd imagine he would be. I spent quite a lot of time chatting with him and he was a delight. He had the ability to make you feel as if you were the most important person he'd spoken to that day - a very useful skill for an interviewer and, let's face, there's never been a better one. I was hugely saddened to hear of his death just a few weeks after the recording. It turns out that we were his last public appearance. He kindly signed my copy of his book on the Frost/Nixon tapes so I guess I have one of the last, if not the last, books that he signed. I will treasure it. What a huge loss to the world.

Incidentally, also on that show, we had Dr Paul Sinha and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock who has been recently announced as the new presenter of The Sky at Night. It couldn't have happened to a nicer or more brilliant lady.

2013 also saw me embarking on something of a national speaking tour of the UK. The organisers of QEDCon in Manchester invited me to open this year's conference in April with a talk I'd done a couple of times before called The Skeptical Bobby. It's all about grass-roots skepticism and how I have learned to question the world around me in a healthy way. Anyway, the talk went down well and I got a standing ovation from no less a person than Professor Richard Dawkins. The upshot of this was a series of invites to repeat the talk all over the UK. Between April and December, I did just shy of 50 performances including the Edinburgh Festival. My 'tour' took me from Glasgow to Winchester, Lincoln to Oxford, Liverpool to Southend-On-Sea and I still have bookings into March in places as far afield as Newcastle and Teesside. On the right hand side of this blog there's a link that will show you where I am and when.

On top of the Skeptical Bobby talk, I also gave talks to the British Humanists Association, the Ethical Society (Conway Hall), did a turn at a couple of stops on the Ig Nobel Prizes UK tour, Museums Show Off, Creat-Ed, the One Life Festival, Village Green Festival and several shows for Salon including the Harrogate International Festival, the Transmission Awards and Latitude. Latitude proved to be the biggest challenge as I, and many other performers and festival-goers, found ourselves stranded at London's Liverpool Street station thanks to a disturbed person threatening suicide at Ipswich station. Eventually I reached the point where I would not be able to get to the gig in time so I did it using my phone and the audience at Latitude got to hear me, if not see me. Thank goodness for technology, eh? My involvement with Salon continues into 2014 as I've been asked to be a judge for the next Transmission Awards.

And then, of course, there was the new book ...

It was published in October and has the most AMAZING cover by the genius that is Tom Gauld (that's him and me above. Dammit, I'm wearing the same t-shirt as I was in that earlier photo. Makes it look like I only have one. I have four, honest.) How lucky was I to get such a great cover artist? I also got to record the audiobook, which was a new experience. And I got to pimp it at the world-famous Hay Festival. It was my first Hay and it was glorious fun.

Other highlights of the year included writing and running two pilots for a show called 101 People to Meet before You (or they) Die with Dan Schreiber (write ups of radio pilot here and live pilot here), a visit to Dublin for International Colgan Day (No, really, see here), appearing in the video for Emperor Yes' new single (January 2014) End of the World, and visiting so many new places and meeting a literal horde of great people. It was also a year in which I finally seemed to get to grips with painting (after 18 months of continual practice) and in which I got my first newspaper column, writing the 'Weekend Wonders' feature for the Sunday People (all of which are reproduced on this blog).

We also said goodbye to some famous names; some loved some hated. Among them were international names like Margaret Thatcher, Hugo Chávez and Nelson Mandela. But there were people from my childhood too and many personal heroes including TV and radio personalities Sir David Frost, Alan Whicker, David Jacobs, David Coleman, Derek Batey and Roger Ebert; actors Peter O'Toole, Lewis Collins, Karen Black, Graham Stark, Richard Griffiths, James Gandolfini, Esther Williams, Milo O'Shea and Nosher Powell; writers Tom Sharpe, Syd Field, Doris Lessing, Tom Clancy, Michael Baigent, Eddie Braben, Seamus Heaney, Elmore Leonard, James Herbert, Richard Matheson, Jack Vance and Iain Banks; comedy stars Elspet Gray, John Fortune, Felix Dexter, Peter Gilmore, Mike Winters, Paul Shane, Frank Thornton, Bill Pertwee and Norman Collier; sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and Asterix translator Derek Hockridge; musicians Lou Reed, Richie Havens, Peter Banks, Reg Presley, Kevin Ayers, Kenny Ball, Slim Whitman, George Duke and Bernadette Nolan; directors Mel Smith, Michael Winner, Bryan Forbes and Ray Harryhausen; archaeologist Mick Aston, wrestler Mick McManus and Roobarb animator Bob Godfrey; Yoda sculptor Stuart Freeborn and Dalek designer Raymond Cusick; album cover guru Storm Thorgerson and comedy star-finder Addison Cresswell ...and so many others.

Roll on 2014. May it be as full and exciting and challenging as 2013.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Weekend Wonders #4 - Curious History

This week's column from the Sunday People.

When I watched cowboy films as a child it never occurred to me that the ‘Wild West’ happened during the Victorian era. But it did, of course. The most commonly worn hat in America at that time wasn’t the Stetson; it was the Bowler. And Billy the Kid was killed in 1881, the same year that the first Boer War ended and the first ever electric street lights were switched on in Godalming, Surrey.
Interestingly, Pablo Picasso was born the same year that Billy the Kid died (1881), and died in the same year that Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon (1973).

It’s curious how historical events that are unrelated to each other seem ‘wrong’ when placed side by side. For example, we think of the guillotine as something from long ago but the last time it was used to execute someone in France was in the same year that Star Wars came out – 1977. The last public execution by guillotine was in 1939 and was witnessed by movie star Christopher Lee, who was 17 at the time.

The last claimed sighting of a Dodo was reported in 1688, just a year after Newton published his Three Laws of Motion, while the building of the great pyramids of Egypt began when there were still woolly mammoths strolling about Siberia. And, despite many Americans visiting the UK to soak up the history, the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) is actually 11 years older than London’s Tower Bridge (1894).

Perhaps my favourite such fact is that Sir Bruce Forsyth was born in 1928, a whole year before Ann Frank. Oh, and Brucie has the world’s longest TV career; his first appearance was in 1939, the year that WW2 began and Batman first appeared in a comic.

Hasn’t he done well?

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Weekend Wonders #3 - Flea Bites

This week's column from the Sunday People; everything you probably didn't want to know about fleas.

The largest species of flea, Hystrichopsylla schefferi (the Mountain Beaver Flea) can grow up to 10mm in length. But most species of flea are no larger than 3.3mm long and many are far smaller. The average flea can jump approximately 197mm vertically and a distance of 330mm horizontally, which is pretty impressive. However, claims that ‘If a flea were the size of a man, it could jump over a skyscraper’ are not true. It’s all a matter of scaling.

Imagine a cube 10mm square that weighs 1g. We can make a cube 20mm square by glueing eight of the 10mm cubes together. This cube is only twice the size of the 10mm cube … but it weighs 8g, which is eight times heavier. If we now make a cube 100mm square, it would only be 10 times bigger than our 10mm cube but would weigh 1,000g (1kg). So, if we say that an average flea is 3mm tall and an average human is 172cms (1720mm) tall, our flea would need to be scaled up by a factor of over 570 times to be of a similar size. But it would be millions of times heavier, which would prevent it jumping any higher than you can. The only fact we can say is true is that, if fleas built their own flea-sized skyscrapers, they could probably jump over them.

Interestingly, the game we call Tiddlywinks in the UK is most commonly associated with fleas almost everywhere else. The French call it Jeu de la puce (Game of the flea), the Germans call it Flohhopfspiel (The flea hop game) and the Portuguese call it Jugo da pulga (The game of fleas).

Game of fleas?

Sounds like a good name for a TV series.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Podcast? Vodcast? Words. Pictures. Noises. Or Something.

I'm going to start recording the remainder of Series 2 of my Colganology podcasts after Christmas. Or is it vodcasts? I'm a bit hung up on what they actually are. Basically, it's me speaking over a slideshow and music bed.

Anyhoo, I've created a Vimeo channel here to catalogue them. You'll find the 10 episodes that make up Series 1 and the first three episodes of Series 2. The subjects range from eating insects to showercaps, Thunderbirds to why I like Goths and everything in between.


Here's the link again: Colganology. Or you can click on the link in the right hand column of this blog page.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Weekend Wonders #2 - Going Underground

My second weekly column for the Sunday People.

The first written record of the London Underground being called ‘The Tube’ was made by Queen Victoria writing in her diary in 1847.

Only 45 per cent of the Underground’s 249 miles of track is actually underground. Its highest point (the Dollis Brook viaduct on the Northern Line) is 60ft above street level. There are 270 stations on the system and a number of ‘ghost stations’ that were shut down for various reasons. Among them were Brill, Blake Hall, King William Street, Lord’s, Quainton Road, Verney Junction and Wood Siding.

During WWII, the Central Line was converted into a factory making fighter aircraft. The factory was two miles long.

The River Westbourne is carried in a pipe over passenger’s heads at Sloane Square.

Six of London’s 32 boroughs have no tube stations at all: Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Kingston, Sutton and Hackney (Old Street station and Manor House stations are actually just over the border in Islington and Haringey boroughs respectively). And yet there are stations in Buckinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire.

Each Tube train travels an average of 114,500 miles per year and, overall, the Tube carries over a billion (1,107,000,000) passengers every year and 3.4million passengers every day (figures: July 2012).

The Tube is home to half a million mice and a species of mosquito called Culex pipiens molestus.

Prime Minister William Gladstone’s body was one of only two that have (intentionally) been carried on the Underground. In 1898, his coffin was transported to Westminster station by Tube for his State Funeral. The other dead commuter was Dr Thomas Barnardo, founder of the famous children’s homes.

You could have caught the Tube to watch the last public execution in England. Michael Barrett was publicly hanged in 1868, five years after the Tube opened in 1863

Friday, 6 December 2013

John Conway's Glorious Beasties

I've been a fan of John Conway's work ever since I first discovered him on Darren Naish's Tetrablog for Scientific American and his Tetzoo podcast. Conway's work is both accurate and tongue-in-cheek; he'll give the same level of care to depicting a Styracosaurus as he will to a wholly unproven cryptid like Bigfoot. And his paintings are beautiful. Just look:

They were Giraffatitan, Megalodon and Yeti. Aren't they great? He also produces some lovely fantasy artwork too:

Now, as you'll know if you've seen my live talks or read this blog occasionally, I am a bit of a dino-nut. I freakin' love prehistoric beasties. Which is why I like Conway's work so much. These aren't depictions of statues, these are living, dynamic animals who hunt and fight and shag and roll in the mud for fun. So, if you like his work as much as I do, there are prints and books available on his website here.

And here are a couple of my past blog posts you may like: The story of how I helped make a new tail for one of the world's most famous dinos here; and a post on dinosaur books and the evolution of palaeoart here.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Wax on. Wax Off. Wax Never?

And so another Movember ends and lads all over the UK are reaching for their razors. But not me. Oh no. I like being hirsute. I'm proud of my hairiness.

I grew a beard as soon as my hormones allowed. Admittedly, it was a bit of a crappy beard, wispy and moth-eaten and Catweazel-like, but I was very proud of it. It marked my passage from boyhood to adulthood and I could now show the world that I was a man in a way that didn't involve trouser removal or fights in pub car parks. After all, isn't that what a beard is for? Surely the only reason that men have beards is for sexual selection? There's nothing about a man's chin (or chins in my case) that requires it (them) to be warmer than a woman's. My beard is my peacock fan, my man mane, my cock wattle.

Beard by Ben Cameron

Here, in the West, we have a curious attitude to body hair. Women have been shaving their legs and armpits for decades and now young men are shaving their heads even though they're not going bald. And I've never really understood why. Is hair, growing where it's naturally supposed to grow, really that ugly? Or have we simply been programmed to think that way by magazines and fashionitas? Is Julia Roberts any less beautiful because she once showed some oxter fluff in public? Is Amanda Palmer any less sexy because she's clung to her right to present herself au naturale? Or Drew Barrymore? Or BeyoncĂ©? Or Sophia Loren? Or any of the other women who've been ridiculed or crucified for daring to be seen in public with anything other than a gleaming axilla?

And since when did pubes become a bad thing? Is the porn industry now telling us how to look? I mean, there's no harm in tidying the garden so that you don't get spider's legs creeping out of your bikini bottoms or budgie smugglers, but every hair? I don't get it. When it did become sexy to look prepubescent?

Of course, there are people who claim that there's a positive health benefit from pubic topiary. They  claim that it's more hygienic. Really? We've managed to struggle along as a species for 200,000 years without bush removal. And we now live in an age of clean running water, perfumed unguents and anti-bacterial handwashes; an age in which we've never been cleaner or more paranoid about germs and smells (I wrote about that particular bugbear back in 2010 - read it here). Do we really now need to strip away our fur in order to be clean?

It strikes me that the only real health benefit lies with the decline of the poor old pubic louse Pthirus pubis. Some scientists claim that their numbers are falling. However, reliable figures are non-existent and a spokesperson for the Health Protection Agency says, rather aptly: 'We don't have anything in that area.' That said, in the UK at least, doctors are reporting seeing fewer cases and some say they haven't seen a case in years. Peter Greenhouse, a consultant in sexual health in Bristol says, 'I've probably gone about six months without seeing a person with pubic lice; 20 years ago, we would have seen several a week'. Dutch biologist Kees Moeliker was worried enough that he started collecting specimens for the museum, in case they become extinct. They're still some way off endangered status (now THAT will be an interesting WWF campaign) but numbers do seem to be tailing off. Home medication may be one reason for the decline (although, like head lice, the creatures quickly become resistant to chemical attack). Or, as has been suggested, it's most likely the 'loss of habitat'.

I just wonder how far we can take this depilatory revolution. How long before men start shaving their legs I wonder? They've already started on chest, head and 'back, sac and crack'. Will all hair become beastly and ugly? Will we see eyebrows and eyelashes go the way of the short and curly? That'll scupper the mascara industry.

I realise that there will be younger people reading this who see facial and pubic hair as something foul and horrible because the removal of both is all they've ever known. Well, good luck to you. You can look forward to a lifetime of rashes, razor cuts and painful waxes. You'll be spending your hard-earned wages on a bewildering range of razors, blades, epilators, tweezers, moisturisers and creams, all happily sold to you by the very people who have programmed you to believe that hair is a bad thing. I'm too old and too ugly to be affected by transient fashion and ephemeral tastes and mores. And too hairy. This beard isn't going anywhere. It's my birthright as a man. It's a Darwinian gift and I treasure it.

If it was good enough for Jesus and for Father Christmas, it's good enough for me.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Weekend Wonders #1 - What's in your Manwich?

My new column appeared in the Sunday People newspaper yesterday. Here's the first one and it's all about cannibalism. The online feature is here.

What do humans taste like?

The word that cannibal Polynesian islanders used for white men translated as ‘Long Pig’. This tallies with the opinion of Armin Meiwes from Germany who, in 2001, famously advertised on the internet for someone who wanted to be eaten. ‘It tastes of pork’, he claimed, ‘but a little bit more bitter, stronger.’ Many firefighters don’t eat roast pork because, they say, it smells like people who have been burned.

However, in the 1930s, American adventurer William Buehler Seabrook travelled extensively among cannibal societies and reported that, ‘It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal.’ Meanwhile Japanese murderer and cannibal Issei Sagawa described it as ‘tender and soft like raw tuna’.

Naturally, it’s hard to get a clear idea of the taste as so few reliable witnesses have eaten human meat. Besides which, palates differ from person to person. And the diet of the individual you’re eating can hugely alter the taste of course, as can the way the meat is cooked. One popular South Pacific method for cooking humans involved wrapping the meat in leaves and cooking in a fire pit. And Sumatran cannibals once served criminals with salt and lemon.

Perhaps an unbiased view would help. In 2006, researchers at NEC System technologies and Mie University, Japan, unveiled a robot that can taste and identify a whole range of flavours. Their ultimate aim is to one day produce a machine so accurate that it can identify individual vintages of wine. At present it can identify cheeses, meats and some other flavours. When a reporter placed his hand in the robot’s mouth it identified the ‘food’ as bacon. When a photographer repeated the action, his hand was identified as prosciutto ham.

I wonder if he was Italian?