Iconic ‘taches – inspiration for mid-Movember growers #movember

Movember is the month of moustache-growing madness, raising awareness particularly for prostate cancer and other cancers affecting men. An international movement, in the UK Movember ‘taches can even be found sprouting in the corridors of Westminster.

Moustaches may not be the most fashionable look, but there’s no doubting their pedigree. From musicians to scientists to movie stars, from revolutions to civil wars to world wars, there are examples of memorable moustaches throughout history. Writing in the Daily Mail in 2008, Piers Brendon even attributes “the humble moustache” with a key role in the success of the British Empire (How the moustache won an empire).

The 2011 World Beard and Moustache Championships produced some stunning and bizarre examples of upper-lip facial hair, with numerous categories for competitors to enter and strict rules on how they should be grown. Patrick Gorman, overall winner in the moustache category, told the Arizona Daily Star that he wouldn’t be defending his title next year in Las Vegas – so there is hope for the rest of us yet.

For those engaged in Movember 2011, and who might be flagging a little with the bristly scratch of your new growth, here are some iconic ‘taches to keep you motivated.

I might give it a go next year…

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Stunning street art illusions

I’ve mentioned my love of illusions before.

One of the things that has captivated me since I first stumbled across it online is that genre of art where artists compose 3D illusions on pavements, usually out of chalk. There is something genuinely fascinating about the way the brain tricks the eye and some of the pictures are simply genius.

A number of those below are by the Belgium-based British artist Julian Beever, whose work has become world-renowned. According to his own website, he has been creating street art like this for over twenty years. However, it’s only in the age of the Internet, that people have been able to showcase work that is often ephemeral, washed away with the next big downpour.

The YouTube clip, below the gallery, shows the construction and reaction to a piece of work created in the centre of Stolkholm by Erik Johansson, a Swedish artist. His giant artwork was covered by various newspapers around the world, including Metro.

For all its beauty, street art remains controversial, being regarded by many as graffiti. I enjoy the anarchic beauty of it, however, and its potential for breaking up the grey angularity of so many of our modern urban spaces.


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Lego lunacy

A friend’s Facebook update reminded me how much I used to love Lego® as a kid.

Lego was kept in a special box (and, latterly, when I needed additional storage, an old Quality Street tin). It was a green-coloured wooden box that Granddad had made specially, with brass hinges and brass hooks, and numerous internal compartments. From time to time I would sort the various bricks and planks into types, putting them in different sections. It’s what probably led me to insist on alphabetising my CD and DVD collections…

The living room now looking like an explosion in a Lego factory, I would build space stations in the vicinity of the neighbourhood Lego garage, with spaceships to explore the strange new world of the Christmas tree, its lights twinkling away like stars and its glass baubles dangling like asteroids. Back then, most of the pieces weren’t pre-moulded and so you had to be inventive with the bits you did have to create wings, cockpits, laser cannons etc. Lighting bricks, with a cleverly concealed battery pack, lent these Lego landscapes an eerie quality, especially in the dark, with Lego figurines casting four-inch shadows on the plastic tarmac.

Skip forward twenty years and stop-motion animators have had a world of fun with Lego.

Here are four of my favourites: The Battle For Helm’s Deep (by TXsamwise), Star Wars – The Elevator (by obibrickkenobi), The Letter (by JamesFM) and The Ninja Fight (byLegoDude8000).

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Logs, spandex and the geo-politics of Rocky IV

We had a delivery of logs this morning and, singledom introducing a whole new desire to shape up and get fit, I stuck my headphones on – Whitesnake, Alice Cooper and Biffy Clyro  – and threw myself into the log heap.

As I worked up a sweat, stacking them against the side of the house, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a cold January Saturday in 1986, when several friends and I caught the bus to Romford to watch a film that epitomises the Hollywood of 80s America: Rocky IV. I’d been seduced by the idea of America years before, Star Wars, Raiders, the A-Team, the Dukes of Hazzard, T J Hooker, Star Trek etc all doing exactly what they were supposed to do and brain-washing me into believing that only American things were real and “proper”. As ever, as an overly impressionable 14 year-old, I was blown away and Rock IV was my new best movie of all time.

Of course, having seen it several times since,  through the boring filter of being “all growed up”, it is a crap film with some cheesily memorable moments that capture something that appeals to single blokes with an ab obsession – and those with a fascination for Hollywood grotesque. It also captures – as it was designed to do – the geo-politics of the day, with a ruthless, towering Russian pitted against the smaller American hero. Along the way, Ivan Drago (could you make up a more evil-sounding Russian name?!) kills Rocky’s friend, the famous Apollo Creed (introduced by a Spandex-suited James Brown in one of the most over-the-top character entrances ever), and so loyalty, honour and revenge are all qualities tested to Hollywood destruction.

So far, so cheesy, but the film does contain some clever cultural inversions, not least of all in the training montage, where the Russians are portrayed as being in possession of sports technology years ahead of its time (some twenty years, apparently, according to  a paper entitled Rocky IV – Fight Medicine presented to the University of Texas Health Science Centre), whilst Rocky has to rely on a simple wood cabin in the wilds of Russia, felling trees, sawing timber, humping logs and running through the snow. And whilst the claims of some on the Interwebz that Rocky IV ended the Cold War are probably exaggerated, there is a certain amount of fun to be had in seeing the Politburo rise to cheer Rocky’s final speech:

[Addressing the Soviet crowd, translated into Russian line by line by announcer]
Rocky: During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than twenty million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!
[loud applause, even by the Politburo]

Go, Rocky!

There’s lots that could be said about Rocky IV as a propaganda film or even just as a reflection of the geo-political uncertainty of the time. Observations could be made about American insecurity, perceptions of Russia and that general staple of American culture (film in particular) of the individual pitted against the world – and winning.

In the end, though, I was  thinking substitute Russian landscape-double Wyoming for Langdon Hills and a Hillcroft log-stack and hell, yeah, I could be Rocky, too!

Here are the two most iconic moments of that film as far as I am concerned: the entrance of Apollo Creed and Rocky’s training montage. Enjoy the 80s’ cheese.

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Music by wine glass – the haunting “glass harp” of Robert Tiso

There are some strange instruments in this world – and one of them is a staple component of Sunday dinner (at Hillcroft at least): the wine glass.

I can recall numerous evenings where we have, after too many bottles of Pinot Noir, attempted to play a few notes between however many happen to be perched around the table. Seeing the new Skoda ad, I was prompted to trawl round YouTube. Robert Tiso is one of a number of talented musicians who takes this to a whole new level, sometimes recording and splicing together several parts of classical favourites to create a haunting soundscape.

Below is the ad and several examples of Tiso’s recordings.


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Animals, boats, magic, adventures – and lashings of ginger beer

I always wanted to be Barney. Or Jack. Or even Rory.

I think I was probably Julian. At best Philip.  And sometimes I may have been just a bit of a Dick.

Growing up in the countryside, with my imagination and a ready-made gang of four (brother and two cousins), I was never far from an Enid Blyton book.

For reasons best kept to myself, I have been encouraged to revisit those childhood reads. All of a sudden, at the tender age of 39, I have found myself rediscovering thrilling worlds of hidden islands, secret castles, creepy circuses, and mysterious fairs, not to mention fairies, pixies, magic trees and magic chairs. I have also discovered that, thankfully, I am not alone and that there are a whole bunch of people who pretend to be all “growed up”, but who secretly hanker after the adventures of Blyton’s masterful story-telling. EnidBlyton.net offers a fun, fan-run alternative to the more staid, though still impressive Enid Blyton Society website.

For me, the experience was not just about the story. My first books were hand-me-downs, secret treasure troves of exciting tales, passed on like family treasures. I remember clearly the first time I read one of the “Adventure” series – the Valley of Adventure. After the Sunday service one day, round at the farm, Nan delved into the huge cupboard of books and plucked out a huge weighty tome. The foxed pages and the damp, musty smell of old books has drawn me to second-hand bookshops ever since.

I was hooked.

These were terrific stories of derring-do, with people of my own age taking on the baddies and winning! At the same time, the fantasist in me was always hopeful that the mushroom ring in the garden (and yes, we really did have mushroom rings) might prove to be a moonlit meeting place for fairies. And of course there was always a plethora of boats, befriended animals, secret caves and ruined castles to fuel my cheese-addled dreams.

For me, Enid Blyton books could be broken down into three genres – fairy stories, adventure stories and farm stories. Some, I know, will find that heretical, but, as a young boy, there seemed to be something decidedly too girly about reading Malory Towers – the series set in a girl’s boarding school – so I basically discounted those.  (I have since been severely admonished and told that I am not a true Blyton fan until I have read them. Thank goodness for Kindle, is all I can say, or I might be getting some very odd looks on the morning train. I’ve also realised that the Malory Towers series is set in Cornwall, which of course means I can justify reading them on that basis alone!)

I remember hiding under the covers with a torch, gripped by whichever book I was immersed in, whether it was The Wishing Chair, or The Magic Faraway Tree, or the exploits of Bill Smugs with Jack, Kiki and company – or the Famous Five, escaping to Kirrin Island to hunt for treasure. Somehow  or other, Blyton managed to create appealing, exciting worlds, even with templated characters and plots that are not exactly rivals for a John Le Carré Smiley novel. Holidays in Cornwall were made even more thrilling by the prospect of smugglers, wreckers, escaped monkeys that might need a home – and even German submarines. (My grasp of history was pretty good, but, let’s face it, a ten year-old with a cap gun is going to struggle to fit his imagination to historical reality, particularly when he might be about to save Cadgwith from a U-boat invasion!)

Blyton seems to divide readers. She is either loved or loathed, with households either banning her books or buying them in droves. The dislike of Blyton’s writing was institutionalised in the BBC’s efforts over 30 years to keep her and her works off the air-waves, despite her global success. Michael Hann, writing in the Guardian, suggests an almost ironic reverse snobbery, where her books were regarded as too simple and too middle-class aspirational. It would seem that Blyton was perhaps a less than pleasant person, also, with BBC4’s Enid, starring Helena Bonham-Carter, revealing a darker side to the writer (bullying parenting, a cruel divorce, ruthless business sense, affairs etc).

With all that in mind, it is refreshing to discover that Blyton has some unlikely fans. Laura Canning, whose hard hitting prose in the critically-acclaimed Taste The Bright Lights seems several universes away from the cosy, conservative world of Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny, confesses to enjoying Blyton as a guilty pleasure, even now. More interestingly, her essay on themes and plot devices in Malory Towers is genuinely illuminating, revealing subtle character writing which would escape most boring Blyton-deniers.

Sadly, though, some of Blyton’s character archetypes do not lend themselves well to today’s brutish, cynical and dangerous world. It’s hard to imagine writers of today’s gritty children’s fiction being able realise a character like Tammylan, the wild man who children befriend in the countryside, without raising an eyebrow. Or even Bill Smugs, who, as a policeman, should really know better than to be taking a bunch of kids along to catch the baddies. Such characters seen incongruous today and would likely be dismissed knowingly as being appropriate to “more innocent times” . I wonder about that. If we are honest, Blyton’s times were far from innocent, bearing witness to the horrors of the likes of Auschwitz and Belsen. Perhaps it says more about our own fears and lack of confidence in who we are, uncomfortable with heroes in a world where there are so many obvious villains (I don’t see Bill sitting idly by whilst city drunks puke and fight on the last train out of Fenchurch Street!).

I’d thought about recounting the Blyton books I’ve read, but the reality is that there are dozens and I would feel guilty about those I missed out. So instead, some of my favourites:

The Adventurous Four

The Children of Cherry Tree Farm

Five Runaway Together 

The Magic Faraway Tree

The Mystery Of Tally-Ho Cottage

The Ring O’Bells Mystery

The Sea Of Adventure

In the end though, perhaps I am over-complicating things. Let’s face it, I simply liked a darn good yarn and Blyton new how to tell those. Besides, she also knew how to make a young lad wanting adventure to feel good about himself:

“Well, silly, you’ll hop into it, if you find that I haven’t been able to manage the man, and you’ll get out to sea,” said Jack. “And there you’ll stay till it begins to get dark, when you can creep in and see if you can find us and take us off. But you needn’t worry – I shall get that fellow all right. I shall tackle him just like I tackle chaps at rugger, at school.”

Lucy-Ann gazed at Jack in admiration. What it was to be a boy!

From The Sea of Adventure

See you at the next Enid Blyton Day?

Guerilla train singing

Commuting is a strange activity.

The journey in has become an opportunity to catch up with friends around the world, using the wonders of modern technology (I am still trying get my head around that – sitting on a train to Fenchurch Street and chatting away to a friend thousands of miles away as if they are the other end of the carriage). The journey home is an opportunity to order my thoughts, perhaps write a personal email or two or, if I have a drunken, leering prat next to me, to pretend I am asleep. (Just occasionally, it is a good chance to catch up on sleep!) The tube is often a hassle, people pushing and shoving and I try to lose myself in a Blackberry Sudoku.

Commuting has its own routines and, with iPods, Kindles and iPads becoming a part of the regular commuter armoury, we become very defensive our own little worlds and find intrusions into it intensely irritating. (Is it irrational for me to be extremely wound up at people eating fast food on late evening trains – something which strikes me as an unnecessary intrusion into my nasal cavities!).

I don’t know if it is our traditional British reserve, but we get very suspicious of the stranger who starts talking to us as we journey together to another place.  I’ve had that reaction, too, which is odd, as I’ve always enjoyed public transport abroad precisely because people seem much happier to talk on buses, trams and trains.  Let’s face it, Jonathan Harker would have been in a lot more trouble with The Count if he hadn’t struck up conversation with the Transylvanian locals in his horse-drawn carriage.

Every now and then, though, something happens that makes me smile, shakes my reservations and reminds me how much fun it can be to lose our inhibitions and be a little more human and a little less robotic.

A friend shared this link with me – and I am sharing it with you.

Well done, Adam Street Singers. If they need tenors, perhaps I’ll join…

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