01 Jul

John Noakes and the Spirit of the Braying Mob

Excuse me if this isn’t polished or even interesting. I don’t have any careful arguments to weave and, even if I did, I’m not sure I have the care and attention needed to weave them. I guess I’m feeling a bit dejected with the world. I’ve been working hard all month trying to communicate with the world but the world doesn’t seem all that interested in talking to me. Well, screw the world. I can at least talk to myself or, if I’m lucky, some other lone intellects out there that don’t belong to a marketing scam robot or some Chinese plastics company intent on filling my comments with spam.

I wanted to write about John Noakes who, you might know, went missing (but was thankfully found) yesterday and I wanted to write about him without using the word ‘celebrity’. I despise that word, which has to be the curse of our age. It has been elevated to the point that to possess ‘celebrity’ means that you’re a special kind of person, worthy of special treatment and to be judged against lower moral or artistic standards than the rest of common humanity. For example, I was searching last week for a publisher and I came across one who advertised their interest in humour. You should know how rare that is for UK publishers, who largely take no interest in humour unless it’s disguised as some postmodern pastiche of Polish pork butchers in the 1300s. This publisher therefore caught my eye, until I read that writers would have to pay to have their books published. There was, however, an exception. In the case of ‘a celebrity’, the publisher would be very interested in discussing an advance and contact.

It’s a sign of how the world has become. Yet the truth is that people who are celebrities tend to be the dullest among us. To be a celebrity is different to being a writer, a musician, an actor, painter, poet, illustrator, inventor, sportsperson, or even a politician. It’s why the very best writers, musicians, actors, painters, poets, illustrators, inventors, sportspersons, and politicians live ordinary lives. They don’t wish to live like a celebrity. To be a celebrity simply means that you have fame and, really, there’s nothing less interesting than a person famous only for having fame. The other day The Times dedicated a double page spread to Alan Titchmarsh, one of the dullest men on the planet and it was amazing how many dull things the dullest man on the planet had to say in what was, predictably, a very dull article. Yet still: he’s famous and because he was famous, he even had his face in full colour on their colour supplement.

Welcome to the UK, 2015. For those that have: here have more. Those without, we want you to have even less.

Last weekend witnessed another visible demonstration of celebrity when Kanye West took the stage at Glastonbury. He walked out thinking, perhaps, that celebrity would do most of his work for him. It didn’t. It was a risible performance, highlighting the fact that this was one of the least enjoyable Glastonbury weekends in quite a while. All the excellence was to be found well beyond the headline acts. Patti Smith produced the performance of the festival but I also enjoyed, as you might expect, the show put on by FFS on the last night, which was largely ignored by the media. The media were too busy talking about The Who, who did what The Who have always done but didn’t do it with much swagger. The fact that they refused to allow the BBC to broadcast their set was small minded, greedy, or both. In future, no act should be allowed to headline (or otherwise) at Glastonbury if they make non-broadcast a condition of the performance. The question wasn’t so much who but why? Why were The Who performing at Glastonbury? I think it was simply because they’re a world famous act. They have ‘celebrity’.

I arrived at the beginning of this week reflecting, yet again, on how celebrity is ruining our culture. If you’re not a celebrity, then you’re obviously nobody, and perhaps it’s because of the problems associated with being a nobody that an otherwise excellent band like the Fat White Family (a bit blues, a bit Velvet Underground, a lot The Doors) have to resort to the tales of the sordid excess in order to get noticed and then heard. The same is true of writers, actors, artists, comedians. To get noticed, you must doing something in excess. You must run out on stage whilst Kanye West is performing. You must paint your work in your own excrement or blood. You must write your book whilst sitting in a cupboard for ten years and never seeing daylight…

Then John Noakes went missing.

I can’t think of many people who have meant as much to me as John Noakes. Yet to describe what he did is to skirt around the phrase ‘celebrity’. He was, of course, a TV presenter, which usually is a job that amounts to very little. Presenters are usually celebrities. Vernon Kaye and Claudia Winkleman are both celebrities but I can’t honestly tell you of a single discernible skill either of them has to make them worth the money the BBC pays them. Cut their wage to a sixth and you’d still find people equally adept at fronting that kind of show. I’m serious. I fail to understand why the BBC think it important to pay millions to people who are merely presenters. A disembodied robotic voice could link segments together almost as well… Did I say ‘almost’? Well, I meant to say ‘better’.

Yet Noakes wasn’t simply a presenter. He was an accidental comedian. In fact, when I think of what I like in comedy, I think about those qualities that Noakes embodied. He was relaxed and slightly unprofessional in a way you can perhaps see in the very best comedy. You see it in the Marx Brothers but also in Robin Williams or Steve Martin. Noakes made mistakes and allowed people to see his mistakes, a bit like Stewart Lee does when he highlights a mistake and weaves it into his set. Noakes was a clown but doing serious work in the very same way that Clive James would always use humour to make a deeper point. Yet beyond all of that, Noakes was simply likable and so very and utterly human. He was the best uncle many of us have ever had with any degree of regularity in our lives.

When he went missing yesterday, I was upset. I don’t know why. I’m not ashamed to admit that when I tried to explain it to somebody later on, I actually found myself getting teary eyed. I didn’t realise how much John Noakes meant to me. He must have meant a lot because I even used Twitter to look for updates. Perhaps I wanted to find other people who shared my upset and I was genuinely heartened to find that there were others just like me. It reminded me that not everybody on Twitter is a hate filled troll.

Yet there were, predictably, a few others who saw it as another opportunity to make cheap jokes about the disappearance of an 81 year old man suffering from Alzheimer’s. They are the people who made me quit Twitter or, at least, have minimal contact with social media. They are the always-looking-for-a-laugh narcissists, who are always at your elbow playing everything for laughs. They’re the Colin Hunts of the online world who give a bad name to anybody who has ever tried to make people laugh for a living.

I suppose what I find irritating about them is that I could easily be one of those people myself. When I first used Twitter, I used it as a way of writing jokes and being ‘witty’. Yet you soon find it’s an insatiable medium. Your best material is stolen by others and the many of the people also in the business of being funny are quite happy to steal their material from old joke books. People who aren’t serious about comedy seem unable to stop trying to be funny. Serious comedians are often described as sulky and miserable when they’re not on stage but that’s because people assume that to have a comedic outlook on life means that you’re always ‘up for a laugh’. In my limited experience, it’s quite the reverse. It’s why I despise Twitter. It’s also a place where you’re always encouraged to be that little bit more edgy. When I write what I write about real people, I don’t mean to hurt them. I write knowing there’s a distance between my writing and the chances of their reading what I write. Twitter is very different. Your words too easily end up in their timeline, seen by their eyes. Twitter magnifies the venom and I quit the moment I realised this. I quit the moment people began confusing my comic creation with the real Richard Madeley.

Others didn’t share my concerns and still don’t. Twitter comedians are no comedians in my eyes. They’re precisely the people I didn’t want to become when I was growing up. What I wanted to be was some latter day John Noakes, who was a free spirit, fascinated by the world but never to the point of pretension. He was funny but never to the point where it would begin to wear on you. He was balanced pretty evenly in that place where the best human beings exist: good natured, interested and, above all things, simply humane.

It’s why his disappearance yesterday upset me. Not because John Noakes the celebrity had gone missing. It was because I remembered John Noakes as simply the best example of a generous, witty but unashamedly joyous spirit there was when I was growing up. He’s one of the best examples of our kind and of a better age, before Twitter exposed us all to the vile psychopaths who hurt people in the name of humour. I’m now at the stage when I actively despise people who try to be funny on Twitter. They’re little more than piss-soaked mongrels howling at the heels of the braying mob. Yesterday reminded me that they’re still out there seeking their celebrity. And the sad truth is: one day their excesses might become so great that they might indeed find it.

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28 Jun

Kanye West & Gemma Cairney: The Moronic Glastonbury Experience

One of the reasons I always enjoy watching Glastonbury is that it introduces me to music I wouldn’t normally listen to. Friday night, I settled down and watched the BBC2 late night show, not knowing what I was going to see but unsurprised that I found so much to like. Though they’re not a band I’ve ever listened to except, perhaps, at a previous Glastonbury, Florence and the Machines surprised me with a fantastic set. It might have been a bit happy clappy for my tastes and all that nonsense about grabbing the person next to them sounded like the prelude to charges of public groping but, as headlining acts go, it was impressive. Florence earned an extra fan on that performance alone and should clearly be promoted to a proper headline slot at a future festival.

Even more impressive, to my ears, were the bands that came after. Wolf Alice really seriously impressed me with their thick grungy sound. I then found myself doing a Google search for Sharon Van Etten after a good solo performance on the BBC stage. Hot Chip were good but I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to buy an album but the opposite is true of the Kasai Allstars. The Allstars were sublime and precisely the kind of thing that sticks in my mind as being the very best of Glastonbury. Not sure what it says about Glastonbury being a music festival when they performed to a relative small crowd but they made a fantastic sound and conveyed real passion for their music that transcended language. Definitely a highlight of the festival so far.

Not performing to a small crowd last night was Kanye West. I’d read somewhere that Ron Mael (of Sparks and currently FFS) said that he was a fan of West. I couldn’t tell if Ron was serious or not but I thought this was a chance for me to see what West is about. I went into it not knowing a thing about West except that he’s married to a Kardashian about whom I know even less except for the ‘break in the internet’ photo of last year. I have never ever heard Kanye West’s music. I don’t know his back story except that I know that he has a high opinion of himself and some people have protested his invite to Glastonbury.

I watched the entire Kanye set and, I confess, it was a struggle. The person I was watching it with even had to leave the room after I said I’d like to see it through to the end. The performance was making her so angry. I shared the sentiment but I knew I wanted to write something about it today and it seemed only fair to watch the entire thing before making a judgement.

It began well. Visually the single figure of West under the bank of lights was striking. West’s backing tapes (no sign of any musicians in any of this) were catchy but that was true throughout. Perhaps I’m not postmodern enough to appreciate this but I’m not entirely sure you can claim to be a musical genius when the best parts of your act are samples ripped from catchy songs of the past.

After a strong beginning, the performance settled into a pattern and really didn’t develop. The lights would change occasionally but the whole thing was either a muffled rap or a middle of the road soulful croon. The crooning was better than the rapping but I wish I could say something about the lyrics which were largely incomprehensible to me and hard on the ears. Nearly everything was pushed through some kind of vocoder, which too often made him sound like a dolphin farting in a bathtub. Occasional phrases stuck out but it was usually the word which caused Jeremy Clarkson no end of trouble when he was thought to have barely muttered it a year or so ago. Last night, the BBC delighted in the fact the word was broadcast a few hundred times and at one point was being chanted by the crowd. It’s a point that’s not always picked up and I do wonder if critics are right when they argue that West is given a far easier time by a largely white press who are so desperate to emphasis their liberal credentials they won’t condemn a performer who is crass, disrespectful of his audience, and utterly unworthy of praise.

Not that bad language bothers me and I’ve heard much worse. Yet what really bothered me was the sheer banality of the performance. The worst thing you can do as a Glastonbury headlining act is be boring but Kanye West was precisely that. I’ve never been so bored watching a so-called ‘superstar’. Perhaps I’m just old but I doubt if that’s it. I like difficult sounds. I embrace challenging music. This wasn’t even that. It was just bad music and far below the standards of Glastonbury, which elsewhere is a serious music festival for people serious about their music.

One other point: I’ve never seen such a grumpy person in the business of entertaining people. He stopped songs perhaps two or three times, occasionally muttering rebukes to his team. He seemed constantly unhappy yet at the same time believing that he really is the ‘the greatest living rock star on the planet’. I hope to God he was saying that with his tongue firmly in his cheek because, in truth, he wasn’t even the greatest living rock star at Glastonbury. I’m not even sure he was the greatest living rock star on that stage.

The whole evening was perhaps best summed up when the gawping fool Gemma Cairney came back on screen and was breathless with praise for what we’d just watched. She praised him for being unpredictable (being hoisted into the air on a cherry picker being an example of that) but what I saw was a performance only remarkable because it was completely unremarkable. If you want stage presence and invention, go watch the last song of the Kasai Allstars’ set as they all mount an invisible motorbike and dance off the stage.

I’ve written before about Cairney being the most high profile representative of a new brainless BBC but her performances at Glastonbury usually sets a new standard for being witless. I’m sure she has equally witless defenders inside the corporation who believe she appeals to an important demographic but any demographic that identifies with Cairney is a demographic that needs immediate remedial help and checking for brain leaches. She splutters and gasps and groans in the place where you’d hope for words and each appearance makes you seriously wonder if the BBC aren’t suffering an outbreak of the living dead. If you do a Google search for her videos, you come up with her playing ‘Innuendo Bingo’ on Radio One, which I’d not seen before but pretty much sums up this lamentable side of Aunty Beeb’s attempts to appeal to ‘yoof’. It involves two people, mouths filled with water, poised over a dustbin. The presenter then plays clips from shows containing filthy double entendres and the point of the game is to avoid laughing. Of course, the player who doesn’t laugh will get the other person’s mouthful of water spat into their face.

Spitting water in somebody’s face is about the level of Gemma Cairney’s skills as a presenter. She might be ideally suited (and, indeed, I think she is) to children’s TV, but anybody over the age of 13 must get slightly pissed off at her infantile style. ‘Gormless’ is the phrase that keeps coming to mind when she speaks. She has a wide eyed passion for everything, as though seeing everything for the first time, but it quickly turns into a spluttering inarticulate shower of stupidity and I find it hard not to turn it off.

She’s the worst aspect of the BBC’s otherwise superlative coverage. They don’t cover any event with quite the same brilliance as they do Glastonbury. They have presenters like Jo Whiley, Mark Radcliffe and Lauren Laverne who are simply stunningly good at their job because they match their knowledge of music with genuine wit and a relaxed presenting style. Yet the whole thing is brought to its knees by Cairney who seems to be there only because the BBC are desperate to get the affirmation of the dumbest segment of its audience. If the BBC ever lose the license fee, it will because people like Cairney have radically undermined what the BBC should represent. The license fee can only be justified if it’s a tax we pay to produce a cultural product that sets a higher standard for thought and action than would be possible when striving to be competitive in the commercial marketplace. Cairney doesn’t even aspire to a mediocre standard for thought and action. She makes you resent putting money in her pocket. Her inverted donkey laughter is like the death knell of the BBC. It leaves you wondering how much the BBC pay this fool and how we can demand a portion of our license fee back.

Now, I’m off to finish watching today’s set by Patti Smith. So far she’s been everything that Kanye West wasn’t last night.

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23 Jun

ABC’s New Series of Battlebots: Reviewed Through English Eyes

I geeked myself out tonight, though I had to scour the web to do it in a way that was probably a little bit wrong. I got to glimpse the first episode of Battlebots, the returning ABC show that will probably never get shown here in the UK. From what I’ve seen, they have four fifths of a remarkable show and one fifth of something that deserves to be dumped somewhere mid-Atlantic.

The great four fifths are the robots, the robot builders, the crowd, and the arena. Look closely and these are people who love robots and the technology behind robots. I say with a note of pride that these people are geeks. They’re the kids who didn’t fit in at school because they were in love with servo motors and engineering schematics. These are the kids who organized their own tournaments and then went home to watch Mythbusters and other shows made specifically for them. They are, in other words, my kind of people. They’re the people that the website Tested is built for and it was over at Tested that I first learned about the new series of Battlebots. I’d watched Norman Chan’s interviews with all the builders and I was as excited to see the first episode as I was also frustrated to know that I might not see it.

Thankfully, in the dark corners of the web, ghosts of these shows persist long enough that non-Americans can see them if we look hard enough and, like I said, I loved four fifths of what I saw.

Yet that leaves one fifth of the show I’ve not mentioned. That one fifth is the presenters and they really do bring the whole thing down.

I don’t understand why a show aimed at geeks and powered by geeks should be hosted by what, in the American vernacular, are ‘jocks’. These are the most anodyne of American TV presenters, more bull than brains. They are drivel-spouting cliches of the worst kind. One (Kenny Florian) is an ‘MMA Star’, whatever the hell that means but I’m guess it means that he beats people up for a living. Not very ‘geek’ at all. Another is Chris Rose, apparently a professional sports presenter, which explains why he’s so big, loud and grating. He only needed to say ‘they’ve poured blood, sweat and gears into this’ before I wanted to attack my own forehead with an electric drill.

This for me is the sad part of what could be a great show. The first episode had the robot Plan 9, built by Lisa Winter who I remember from robot battles of the past when she was a precocious young gear-head driving a bug shaped robot. Since then, Lisa has grown up. Her hair has turned pink and she’s now covered by tattoos. So, okay, I’m not a fan of tattoos myself but I can sometimes make an exception when it’s part of that West Coat hipster vibe. I don’t like tattoos on anybody but I like people who are themselves and unique. Even if you could argue that the hipster look is itself now derivative, the people who have it tend to be interesting, articulate, and intelligent. Winter is no different. When she speaks, she does so without resorting to scripted banalities. She is a great representative of the culture from which battling robots has emerged. It’s one of the parts of the America I love. It’s the good bit of a sometimes terrifying and depressing nation.



Sadly, that erudite, witty, individual culture is here being enveloped by something that’s utterly mainstream and as ugly as hell. The main host is Molly McGrath who is as far from Lisa Winter as you could get. McGrath is toned and tanned to TV perfection. She’s got a great smile and legs that go well past her knees. She articulates her phrases unlike anything you hear in real life. She knows how to stand in the highest high heels and her dress is slightly transparent so you can really see how far those leg go. She’s a geek’s dream girl, stunning yet in a totally artificial way you’ve seen a thousand times before and which means that, really, she isn’t stunning at all. Lisa Winter is stunning because Lisa Winter is individual and creative and representative of a younger generation doing their own thing in the outlands beyond the mainstream.BB1

And that’s what I take from the first episode of Battlebots. It’s a geek festival being taken over and ruined by the professional athletes and the professional presenters, who were the very people the geeks of the world wanted to escape back when they went off to do their own thing in high school. Even more than the sound of metal upon metal, the most grating thing about Battlebots is that somebody somewhere thought we needed those meatheads to justify the competition. It’s the corporate mainstream glitz and misguided ‘professionalism’ that actually brings Battlebots down from the lofty heights it might have reached had it a little self-awareness. Perhaps it’s just because I’m English that I’m particularly sensitive to this kind of overly produced American TV but had Battlebots been on the BBC, with the same people and the same production values, it might not have had quite so many flashing lights and braying asses for hosts. It might have had a few more wits and, like Top Gear, it might have taken over the globe and List Winter would rightly be its star. I’ll definitely try to catch the rest of the series but, geek though I am to the last fibre of my being, a lot of this is really not for me.

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11 Jun

Celebrating Uwe Boll Day

I’m celebrating World Uwe Boll Day but perhaps you don’t recognise the festival. Perhaps you don’t even recognise Uwe Boll.

Boll is a film director who is widely regarded as one of the worst in the business.

Of course, that’s a lazy assumption to make simply because it’s such a popular assumption. Very few people who actually criticise Boll have probably seen a Boll movie. Yet they say he’s bad and laugh at him because that’s currently very much in vogue.

Yet even if Boll deserves his reputation, I sometimes suspect he might actually be quite a good director but other reasons make his films so bad. Possibly one reason is his ego. He makes low budget movies despite having ambitions that match those of James Cameron. Boll has tended to make films where he’s somehow managed to snag the rights to a popular video game, meaning that audiences recognise the title of their much beloved game and then wonder how the hell the results could turn out so bad. ‘Alone in the Dark’ was a great series of computer games but Boll’s ‘Alone in the Dark’ the movie is something else entirely. He made the film version of the notorious video game, ‘Postal’, a nasty little game in which you play the role of a postman going ‘postal’. However, the film version is supposedly a dark satire on modern culture and some people rate it.

The thing is: when a film is as low budget as Boll’s films tend, it isn’t really all that significant when they get low scores like 3 and 4 on IMDB. Most low budget films do. They simple can’t compete with Hollywood. The significant thing is when they actually get scores around 6 or above.

Yet the question of Boll’s talent are often set aside because Boll is something more than just a film maker. He’s an internet meme. He’s a symbol of something that the masses can mock without mercy. He is the struggling hack or artist (the distinctions are sometimes hard to see) whose efforts can easily be ridiculed. This is largely down to Boll’s character. Boll is very vocal and that ego I mentioned has no qualms about attacking his critics. He famously challenged any critic to a round of boxing a few years back. He’s also notorious for his regular attacks on the Hollywood machine.

Now, even though I’ve never sat through a Boll film, I do have some sympathy for the guy because he genuinely seems to love what he does. His ego is a hardened bulwark against which the world’s critics smash themselves with delighted fury. Uwe Boll is the easy target and, in that sense, I even admire him for being so solid despite the attacks. I don’t know what the ratio is of critics to creators but I should imagine it’s pretty high. The world is full of critics.

Yesterday, I saw the videos that Boll has recorded in response to his latest Kickstarter attempt to get funding for a new film.  The thing is: people laugh at Boll and mock him but, I think, what Boll is expressing should be familiar to anybody who struggles to get recognition for their work. Hell, it’s how I feel most days as I put long hours into what I believe are genuinely worthwhile projects. Perhaps it wasn’t wise of Boll to say those things on camera but that lack of restraint is the very reason why Boll has become notorious. These videos will further enhance his reputation as a person worthy of people’s scorn. To me, however, they make me feel sorry for Boll because I feel sorry for anybody who tries to be creative hard in this world and is routinely turned on (or simply ignored) by the masses who have never once tried to be creative.

As we’re seeing across the Middle East, it takes only a moment to destroy something that has taken another person a lifetime to create. It seems to very unfair and terribly one sided. It actually makes me thankful that Uwe Boll is there as an example of resilience and self-belief. Don’t get me wrong: he’s wrong about a lot of things. He was just dumb to single out George Clooney who, despite the media’s obsessions with his good looks, is actually turning into a very fine writer and director. Where Boll isn’t wrong, however, is in being passionate. In a world of cynics, naysayers, and general indifference, we probably need a few more Uwe Bolls to stand up and say they believe in what they’re doing. The alternative is a bland singularity of corporate messages and rehashed franchises.




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09 Jun

Did somebody forget about Sir Barry Humphries?

So it’s confirmed. It’s going to be Sir Lenny Henry.

Oh, give me a break! If Henry is worthy of a knighthood then I guess the Chuckle Brothers get peerages.

Seriously: the worst comedian in the UK gets one of the highest honours? Put that into context: Armando Iannucci has an OBE but Lenny Henry will soon have a knighthood. The man who brought us ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Alan Partridge’ is less acclaimed by the (supposed) nation than quite possibly the most derisible comedian we’ve seen since the heyday of crap comedians back in the 1970s.

What about the truly great comedians we have eligible for that award? Barry Humphries only got a CBE in 2007 when he deserves a hell of a lot more. I mean: it’s BARRY HUMPHRIES, for Christ’s sake!

Poor Spike Milligan (one of our truly great comedians) had to hit 82 before they knighted him. And what about the Pythons? Any one of them is more worthy, though I hear that Cleese once turned down a peerage. What about making Terry Gilliam a ‘Sir’ for services to cinema, comedy and the general state of the nation’s mental health?

I won’t be calling Lenny Henry a ‘sir’ any time soon. It’s almost as ridiculous as ‘Dame’ Joan Collins.

It reminds me why I’m really glad to have quit public blogging. The British public clearly have different tastes to me.

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05 Jun

Were my readers ever real?

Over the past few months, I noticed certain trends on this blog. I notice certain ‘people’ visiting regularly and it gave me a reassuring sense that some of you were real. Of course, I never heard from many of those ‘regulars’. I’d just look at my stats and think ‘oh, that person from Eastern Europe is visiting again’ or ‘it’s the reader in Paris’ or ‘the Ukraine’.

I decided to move to a private blog hoping that those regulars would come visit and become new regulars over there. A couple have but not that many. Certainly, not enough to justify the existence of this blog but enough to justify the existence of that other blog, which is written solely for real people to enjoy. I’d rather entertain one person I know that a 1000 people who might be specters of the web, robots, spiders, web scrapers…

What’s odd is that despite not blogging here for days, I still see the hits coming from those ‘regulars’, which makes me wonder if they really ever existed. Might they just be machines, programmed to hit the blog, for reasons unknown? It’s like they have a routine which doesn’t adapt to my disappearance.

On days when my private blog is quiet, I miss having those regular hits but, the truth is that I don’t miss having fake regulars. I don’t want to be speaking only to machines. I wanted people who actually thought this blog was worth reading.

I suppose I always wrote this blog out of a sense of despair, even loneliness. I genuinely relish having human contact with intelligent people. I want to share the things I do with real people of a similar mind. Well, sod it. I’ve issued an invite and anybody who asked, got the password to the new blog. The thing is, you specters of the web: I really am blogging privately. Everything that used to go here for all is now behind a wall. Knock on the door if you’re real. Otherwise, I refuse to believe that you even exist.

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03 Jun

Blogging is fun again…

… but I’m not blogging here. If you’re a regular and still wonder where I am, I’m elsewhere. My invite is still open to regulars who want to drop in but I need to send you a password to allow you past the snarling guard dogs. Email me. Introduce yourself if I don’t know you already.

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27 May

The Art of Cheating At Caricature

Really too tired tonight to make this a polished blog post full of clean prose. Besides, the following was an experiment; the kind of dumb exercise I often find myself attempting over a bank holiday weekend.

It began on Saturday afternoon. I’d been browsing the web and I followed a link that took me to the webpage of a fairly well-known illustrator. I had a look through his celebrated caricatures, which were all truly brilliant, yet I’d also noticed something strange about them. I though I recognised a few of the faces.

Now, that shouldn’t be odd. He was drawing famous people so I would obviously know the faces. Yet it’s wasn’t that I knew the faces as much as I recognised the faces as they’d been originally photographed. A few minutes of googling later and I’d confirmed my suspicion. They might have been pulled and squeezed a little but they were exactly the same as the original photos. I was pretty sure that the bugger cheats!*

I couldn’t be certain, of course,  and I’m still not certain. However, having spent a little time looking into the work of other digital caricaturists, I realised that cheating might not be as uncommon as I first suspected. There are dozens of the little buggers out there making a nice little fortune by using this technique. I therefore set myself a challenge. Not having done anything like this before, I set out to cheat.

I began by spending Saturday afternoon painting a caricature of Michael Gove. After a couple of hours, I had this… And believe me when I say that I hand painted every single detail. Click the image to see it bigger. You can see my brush stokes and the places I missed.


Now, I didn’t have time to finish the tie and, frankly, wasn’t sure what to do with it at this point. So I thought I’d try another, this time of Syria’s Assad, which I finished sitting in a hospital cafe this morning. Yes, it really is that basic a technique. There’s really no skill involved. With the Assad picture, I was much less careful about colouring in the patches. I rushed it with no concern for the ‘art’. I just wanted to test the method. This is the result:

Syria Test2

Normally I don’t really care too much about using technology to help the process of creating something. I use spell checkers when writing and (much to the disgust of Stu), I use tippex when drawing cartoons in ink. Yet these two paintings genuinely make me feel so ashamed that I haven’t (and won’t) even bother signing them.

But let me explain the method, though it’s so obvious and straightforward that you’ve probably figured it out already. I found two high quality images on the web and loaded them into Photoshop. I then applied the Liquify filter and followed the usual rules of caricature to distort the faces. In the case of the second, I then created a standard mock up of Assad with a noose around his neck and lifted the hand from Austin Powers (no more than ten minutes work). I then load it into a painting program and use the colour picker to pick the colour of an area which I then painted over with not much care. Rinse and repeat for a couple of hours and bingo. You get results like the above. In the case of the Assad, I used a blending tool to smooth out the patches. I also added the background myself after the original proved too difficult to copy. It accounts for the fact that it’s the most amateur bit of the painting.

Now, some people would say this isn’t cheating but I beg to differ. Is my effort of a few hours that much different to my simply applying a Photoshop paint-effect filter to my original composition which took about ten seconds?

Syria Test3

Yet I guess people will say that I’m being harsh and perhaps I am. A few of the people who I suspect of using this technique do so as a start and their finished results can look spectacular to the point that they can take your breath away. And perhaps that’s all that matters. Teller & Penn (the director should get the first credit, I think) made a brilliant documentary last year called ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ which detailed how a non-artist could create ‘great art’ using a relatively simply mechanical process. Do people say Vermeer was any less talented an artist simply because he copied directly from nature?

Having said that, I personally don’t like it. I know I could improve the technique if I invested more time into it. I could adapt it to produce more ‘painterly’ or stylized effects. Yet I can’t help but feel that whilst they look impressive, they’re somehow hollow once you know how they’re done. In future, I think I’ll stick to drawing my caricatures the way I’ve been learning for the past few years. I’d rather fail trying to learn the techniques of Gerald Scarfe or Al Hirschfeld than succeed by turning myself into a copying machine. I prefer my results won by hard work, trial and error, and plenty of mistakes. I just know that the next time I see one of those amazing caricatures you often see on the cover of magazine and newspapers, I’ll be a little more suspicious about how they came into existence.

* ‘Cheating’ is, I know, a strong word. Perhaps you feel like it’s also the wrong word but, for me, I think it’s correct. Unless you admit to painting over a photograph, you are giving people the belief that you’ve achieved your results through your own skills. That’s not to say none of the finished product is without skill but the ‘likeness’ is the caricaturist’s most prized ‘skill’. Getting a likeness is the hardest part of the artist’s craft, especially when  pulling the face into contorted shapes. Gerald Scarfe is a genius because he can do that more than any other artist. If you’re achieving the same through a mechanical process,** then I think it’s correct to call it ‘cheating’. If you’re not cheating but producing amazing results, then congratulations: you really are a true artist.

** Of course, there’s a second question. What constitutes a mechanical process? Does beginning with a grid count as mechanical? Well, I guess it does but this is about scale. All art is (or should be) about the craft and a craft is a mechanical process. A grid can still go wrong. It takes skill to make it work. Even a lightbox takes some effort to produce reasonable results. However, simply painting over a painting, using a colour picker to ensure exact colours is something else entirely. A machine could do it and often does it when applying filter effects. The only difference between that and a person doing it is that the human brings a degree of incompetence to the copying,  producing a more random effect, which makes it look hand drawn. It’s our human inexactitude that makes the deception all the greater.

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26 May

Electric Trains Hit The North

I’m on the first of two days of having to sit in a hospital coffee shop waiting for those closest to me have scans of one sort of another. However, today, once the scan was complete, we could escape and decided to head into Manchester. Nothing notable about that. It’s on the same train line and it has the best restaurant and bookshop in the form of Waterstones on Deansgate where I’m typing this, rather blissfully, if the truth be told.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the day was my first voyage on an electric train. Well, perhaps not my first if the Tube trains are electric and I suspect they are. However, for the North West, electric trains have been a long time coming. For years we’ve been putting up with engineering work on our main line between Liverpool and Manchester, all in the promise of a better service.

The better service arrived this morning and it felt largely horrible. Not that there wasn’t plenty of room because there was. As a taller than average bloke, I appreciated the legroom. The seats seemed oddly low but that’s a minor thing. Yet the train stank like an old radio that had overheated. It’s hard to describe except as ‘ cooked electrics’. What was worse was the noise. Jesus on a moped! It was like having your ears drilled by the Highland regiment of bagpipes and cat stranglers. I suppose the positives were more acceleration out of every station and once the speed was up, the horrible whine disappeared. But was it worth the years of waiting? Was it really work being unable to get into or out of the cities at night except by a slow plodding replacement coach service?

Well, I suppose it was. It’s cleaner and it felt quicker. Yet it also felt refurbished. I believe these new trains are refurbished, with ‘new’ for the North meaning what was too old for the south. London always seems to get new trains. We get something that looks a bit bolted together. In our carriage, there was an ugly post stuck right in the centre of the carriage. I guess it was conducting something (perhaps the juice from the overead lines) down into the undercarriage but really not that good on the eye. The whole thing felt second rate.

On a better note, Manchester Victoria station looks amazing. It’s long been considered one of the worst stations in the country but it’s had an almost complete rebuild and it’s breaktaking. Open, light, elegant. Just a shame about the bloody trains…

[Update: Too knackered to write anything polished but thought I should add that the train home changed my opinion somewhat. This time there was no smell of burnt radios. The new electric trains seem to be much longer and therefore have many more seats. Made for a pleasant change from the usual cattle trucks I’ve been used to in the past. They’re also *fast*. The acceleration is a bit of a punch in the kidneys and once they get going they seem to really fly. However, there’s still that ‘whine’. Perhaps I’ll get use to it.

The bad part is still the interiors which are pretty shoddy for ‘new’ trains. They’re not a patch on the supposedly ‘old’ trains being run by Arriva on the North Wales line. Given a choice, I’d probably choose Arriva but it’s tighter than it used to be. I like the new Victoria station (I think it will be genuinely spectacular when finished) and I might be tempted to take the electric line simply to get there quicker and to be closer to Waterstones when I arrive. Yet I still think that after years of promises, the new electric trains are a bit of a disappointment.]


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