If we were having coffee…

I just read about this community blogging exercise in which bloggers post about what they would do or say if they were actually sitting having coffee with their readers. This sounds a bit egotistical in a way, as if “my readers” are this huge audience and I’d be sitting there holding court, when in reality there’d be about three of us around a table. We’re all each other’s readers really so I imagine it’d be a fairly busy and fluid social situation. I don’t actually follow that many blogs as such, I only read individual blog posts that come my way through social media, so I would probably just sit down with whoever seemed interesting, or rather with people who found me interesting enough to sit with.

As for what I’d do… firstly I’d just be grateful to be sitting in a cafe drinking proper coffee, as it’s something I hardly do anymore. I live on the outskirts of quite a small and not very exciting town in the Midlands, and although there is a cafe near my flat I’ve never gone in there. It’s an independent cafe and I’m always slightly scared that the coffee will be bad, and I’ll have to sit there and drink it out of politeness. A couple of miles away in the town centre we have a couple of branches of Costa and a Caffe Nero as well as some more independent places including a street vendor in the marketplace. The street guy looks like his coffee might be excellent but he charges a small fortune, and there’s nowhere to sit unless you want to be intoxicated by cigarettes of the electronic and traditional kind, so I usually end up at Caffe Nero. I like Costa too but Caffe Nero is in a more lively spot than Costa – “lively” around here meaning five or more people might walk by while I drink my latte.

I work from home and have a home-brewed coffee every day. The following is the most pretentious thing I’ve ever written but I’ll write it anyway. Very occasionally I’ll make some proper coffee with a moka pot, usually with 7-8 teaspoons of a medium strength coffee from the Cafe Direct range. Most of the time though I drink instant, albeit decent instant, carefully prepared. First I dissolve two heaped teaspoons of Carte Noire or Douwe Egberts or a new brand I’ve just found called Percol (which sounds like a washing powder, but is very good) in a small amount of off-the-boil water, then microwave a mug two-thirds full with milk for 90 seconds. Then I froth up the milk with a hand-held frother I got for a couple of quid at Range, then pour the coffee into the milk. I take two sugars in coffee and usually I dissolve the sugar with the coffee so that stirring at the end doesn’t dissolve the milk froth, but sometimes it’s good to sprinkle the sugar on top of the froth and watch it melt in and then spoon off the froth-sugar mix and chew it. My recipe is never going to be as flavoursome or luxurious as proper coffee, but for a quick home brew it’s cheap and very cheering.

Thus, a proper coffee in a cafe is a real treat for me. The prices are ridiculous if you consider them in isolation, but as an occasional treat it’s a bargain really when you factor in the pleasure of the coffee and being able to gaze out the window at the world, or even just at the baristas doing their job. I love the smell of coffee and the sound of beans grinding and the knocking of a portafilter being emptied.

So having bored on to you, my audient, about my love of coffee and the different types and techniques, I’d then move onto other topics such as our dreadful government, social media and creative writing. I suspect most of my blog’s audience are people who follow me on Twitter, so we’d already have a lot in common and would chat about the same stuff we do on there. We’d probably end up looking at our phones and swapping silly tweets and YouTube videos or something. Speaking of the latter, here to round off is an appropriate Stewart Lee routine…

A short screenplay for Ian McMillan

If you are old enough you may remember a series of TV adverts for Heineken lager. Generally someone would be depicted either doing something lamely or having a disappointing experience, and then they would drink the lager, whereupon their achievement or experience was instantly improved. A German-accented voice-over intoned, “Only Heineken can do this, because it refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.”

I would say the below is my favourite of the series but in fact I think it’s the only one I can remember. At the time it aired in the late 1980s I was a teenager studying English Literature at school and college, so beer and Wordsworth were much on my mind at the time. Watch the video (it’s only a minute long) and then read on.

Ian McMillan is one of my favourite people on Twitter. (In fact it would be nice to do a series of blog posts focusing on all my favourite Twitter accounts – an idea for another day, perhaps.) He’s a poet, author, BBC Radio broadcaster and general national treasure. Each morning he gets up at (or even before) the crack of dawn and goes for a walk around his native Barnsley. Then he gets back home and tweets these lovely little images and observations which he always prefixes “early stroll”. Do yourself a favour and do an advanced search on Twitter for these tweets and read through them. Here’s an example:

So my mind then put the memory of the Heineken advert and McMillan’s tweets together along with something else of which I am much fond and came up with the following.


The camera SWEEPS over the majestic countryside.

Orchestral classical music SURGES throughout.

Early stroll. Right damp and drizzly. There was some rubbish by the bus stop. Ah, no…


The camera SWEEPS through the streets, past the town hall and Victorian shop buildings.

Early stroll. Some pigeons were eating some chips someone had dropped. Oh, no, this is terrible…


Close on electric kettle boiling. A man’s hand takes a teabag from a box of YORKSHIRE TEA, puts it in a mug and pours the boiling water on. Steam BILLOWS.

IAN MCMILLAN approaches the kitchen table holding the steaming mug of tea in one hand and an iPad in the other. He sits down at the table, drinking from the mug. He puts the mug down smiling, and taps on the iPad.

Early stroll. The bus’s only passenger is light. A man pushes a baby in a pushchair flanked by two whippets. A room flickers underwater blue.

He stops tapping, takes another swig of tea and winks at the camera.


Close on a table laden with a Yorkshire Tea caddy, teapot, mugs, a plate of biscuits, an iPad showing Ian McMillan’s Twitter feed and a book of poems.

Only Yorkshire Tea can do this, because it refreshes the tweets other teas can’t reach.


I doubt Ian McMillan (or Alan Bennett come to that) would be likely to do an advert for Yorkshire Tea, and if they did they’d probably get a professional script-writer in, and also possibly avoid having to pay Heineken a royalty. But guys, if you like the above then feel free to use it. My fee, you might say poetically, is tea.

The Random Surreal Metaphorical Title Generator

A potato
A potato (image shamelessly stolen from the Guardian because they hate Jeremy Corbyn)

The other day my girlfriend and I went to the local park with my children, and apropos of nothing except his own inner silliness my 10-year-old son referred to something he called “the potato of destiny”. We all found this vastly inspirational and were soon competing with each other for the silliest “concrete noun of abstract noun” expression. The winner was unclear but entries included The Pigeon of Doubt, The Seesaw of Happiness, The Bananas of Benevolence (extra marks for alliteration) and The Trouser of Shame. (I admit the latter may have been unconsciously inspired by this wonderful tweet by the fabulous @TechnicallyRon.)

Upon returning home from the park I had nothing better to do so I tweaked a bit of Javascript I’d used previously for something similar to create random “surreal metaphorical titles” whenever you click a button. I’ve now installed this in the sidebar of the blog (a bit up and to the right of this sentence if you’re on a desktop PC, or scroll down a lot if on mobile). So next time you’re stuck for that perfect title for your surreal poem, story or painting, or your imagination needs a jolt of lobster caffeine, hit “generate” a few times, and Bob’s your gramophone (or perhaps your Gramophone of Decrepitude).

My own favourites generated so far include:

The Mince Pie of Deception
The Trouser of Anxiety
The Cheese Slice of Sadness
The Wheelchair of Deception
The Biscuit of Falsity
The Trouser of Truth
The Potato of Anxiety
The Avocado of Humourlessness
The Satsuma of Delight
The Cheese Slice of Humourlessness
The Cake of Shame
The Nose of Sadness
The Avocado of Philanthropy
The Digital Watch of Deception
The Aubergine of Truth
The Trouser of Deception
The Dessert of Deception
The Satsuma of Pusillanimity
The Sausage of Anxiety
The Nose Hair of Deception
The Squidgy Stuff of Destiny
The Moustache of Philanthropy

The script works off a limited vocabulary but I’ve already added several more since first installing the widget, and plan to keep expanding the word list, so please do return for updates, or post suggestions for new words in the comments below.

“Women don’t understand fracking”

A leading female scientist and chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas has said women are opposed to fracking because they “don’t understand” the science and “follow their gut instinct” rather than the facts.

When I first read this I actually sympathised for a moment because Averil Macdonald blamed this situation on the lack of women studying and working in STEM, which is a well known problem and a national shame. She also went on to say that “More facts are not going to make any difference… What we have got to do is understand the gut reaction, the feel. The dialogue is more important than the dissemination of facts.” Well, it might be a surprise to find a scientist saying something is more important than the facts, but if she’s saying that women have stopped listening to the evidence because they don’t trust the source, I thought, that does have to be dealt with.

Macdonald’s comments were prompted by the latest Nottingham University survey on public perception of fracking revealing that 31.5 per cent of women believe that shale gas exploration should be allowed in the UK compared with 58 per cent of men. These figures compare with “a plurality of [all] respondents, 46.5%, remain[ing] of the view that shale gas should be extracted in the UK [which] is by far the lowest percentage since the University of Nottingham Shale Gas Survey began.” This last point is of course bad news for UK Onshore Oil & Gas, who are by definition pro-fracking.

It occurred to me that Macdonald could be trying to exploit the hot topic of women in STEM to garner female favour for fracking. I even started thinking that her comments were aimed at trapping liberal men into siding with her so that they can be seen as feminist by supporting women in STEM. But there are plenty of women against fracking who do very well understand the science, obviously, so for her to take this position is patronising of women, and is anyway a distraction from the environmental issues of fracking which are that it causes earthquakes, puts chemicals in the ground, and may even cause children to be born prematurely.

Macdonald was also talking to the Times originally, who are intensely pro-fracking. The original article describes her as “the new champion of the shale gas industry, leading a push to persuade women that the process is safe and will benefit Britain’s economy as well as help to meet climate change targets.”

Well, it doesn’t seem to have worked. There’s a great comment on a Huffington Post article about this: “…what Macdonald really said is men are more gullible, easily persuaded by data they wouldnt never [sic] admit they dont understand, and look at short term gain. She also said women are less gullible, more apt to question the validity of data generated by and for the benefit of a particular industry, and look at long term consequences rather than short term gain.”

I’m not surprised to hear that more men than women support fracking, incidentally. Isn’t it, symbolically, a masculine procedure? Drilling into mother earth (wonder what Freud would say?), thrusting a massive penis substitute deep into the ground and ejaculating polluting substances all to demonstrate your total POWER over the very soil we walk on? Put it away, for God’s sake.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership election

A few days ago I tweeted “Labour bans Jeremy Corbyn from voting for himself”. It seemed only logical they would do so, because after all they’d just banned Mark Steel, the veteran left-wing comedian, for supporting Corbyn (whilst also relentlessly taking the piss out of the Labour establishment’s absurd and totalitarian approach to the contest).

Today the estimable satirical news website Newsthump published an article headlined “Jeremy Corbyn barred from voting for Jeremy Corbyn“. I should add they follow me on Twitter…

But hey, I’m not bitter. It’s all to the good. Like all the best satire, this is truer than real life. By which I mean that by barring people like Mark Steel and Ken Loach for supporting Jeremy Corbyn​’s values, Labour have created a paradox by even allowing Corbyn to run in the first place.

How can Labour ban ANYONE from voting – implicitly for Corbyn – and still allow him to be a candidate? Then again, they banned the Conservative-supporting Toby Young too, and somehow allowed crypto-Tory Liz Kendall to run, so what do I know. It’s a mess.

We should remember, of course, that Corbyn was only nominated to begin with by self-confessed morons not because they wanted him to be leader but because they were “advised we should have a broad debate”.

Even more ironically, there has been no debate, only Corbyn coming up with one popular policy after another and the other three candidates desperately attacking him whilst either not announcing any policies of their own or, er, agreeing with Corbyn’s. Or whilst not voting against the government on issues such as shoving more children into poverty.

Jeremy Corbyn running for Labour leader with a series of sensible, anti-austerity, pro-social justice and – for God’s sake – anti-Tory policies has been the only thing that’s kept me from completely despairing of politics in this nasty little country since the horrendous general election result in May.

Now that voting for the Labour leadership is finally underway I hope Jeremy thunders to victory in the first round and Labour can finally rebuild itself in its own true, original image – that of actually giving a shit about poor and vulnerable people – while we forget how utterly ridiculous this entire contest has otherwise been.

General Election 2015

I was going to blog my sadness and anger about today’s result, but everything I was going to say has already been said, and better, by this guy Plashing Vole who I follow on Twitter.

Read the post and weep.

I will only add that as someone with a disabled partner and mixed-race children living in an area with a high population of immigrants, I am now more scared and concerned and sad for them and for other people like them than I have been at any time over the past five years. I did my best, guys – I voted Green, a party I believe in, and although I didn’t think they would get into power as such I honestly thought common decency and a leftwards coalition would prevail.

I suppose you could say that the people who voted Tory voted for a party they believe in too. But they can all go fuck themselves.

My feedback to Google Chrome this evening

I lost a whole load of bookmarks just now after deleting someone called “person 1” in my settings. I had no idea who this “person” was, so deleting him seemed reasonable. It seems I was not signed in to Chrome (why would I be?), so was using it as some sort of temporary user, which is presumably why the associated bookmarks were deleted along with him. There was no warning of this at the time of removing the “person”. I have now lost hours of work and scores of pages useful to me for reference for both work and pleasure. I then tried using bookmarks manager to sort things out only to find this page was “not available”. How can your own bookmarks manager page return a 404? I’ve now signed in using two Google accounts and am switching between them. I have manually imported an old bookmark set into one, while in the other another old bookmark set has appeared from nowhere. In both cases I will have to get all my bookmarks back manually to how they were at the start of all this. To add to the confusion I am getting a different view of “bookmarks manager” in each of the two Chrome “users” I am switching between – one of them shows a pretty selection of colourful tiles, the other one a dull list of standard yellow folders. You can’t even be consistent with your own features. You basically don’t have a clue how stressful it is using your browser, do you? You’re probably sitting there laughing at these remarks, if indeed they’re being read by anyone at all. I doubt they’ll get to anyone higher up than the bloke who sweeps the floor. In fact I doubt this “feedback” will even be seen by a human at Google. It’ll probably be fed into a database and scanned for key words. Hell, even that probably won’t happen. I can say what I like, can’t I? You don’t give a damn! How dearly I would love to sit down with the person or team who actually came up with all this nonsense and tell them about my actual HUMAN experience and what it really means as a normal “person” to use your browser. Go on, I dare you to rise to the challenge! Sit down with me over a cup of coffee, human to human, and I’ll tell you what a pain it is to use Chrome and you tell me what your thinking was when you developed all these useless features. Will you be human enough to do it? Or is Google the faceless bunch of automatons we’re led to believe? I’m saving this feedback text and will publish it on my blog at http://blog.thoughtcat.com, together with your response, if any. If anyone at Google actually cares about any of this, email me and we’ll see what you’re made of.

Please do feed The Boxtrolls

Mr Duncan-Smith will see you now

Yesterday I took my children to see The Boxtrolls. It was my youngest’s birthday the other day and he chose a cinema treat. I was pleasantly amazed to find out that Cineworld do an offer for children on Saturday mornings called Movies for Juniors with tickets costing only £1.50 each. It was also nice to discover that cinemas still show films on a Saturday morning, as I’d formed the impression this had gone out of fashion in about 1965.

Cineworld had one other film to choose from in Movies for Juniors but it looked a bit babyish, and as my juniors are now 8 and 9, a PG movie seemed more suitable. Otherwise, I hadn’t heard of The Boxtrolls, which turns out to have been released in the UK last September. It was one of the few films I’ve ever gone to watch at the cinema purely because it was “on”, rather than because I’d heard anything good about it beforehand, or anything about it at all in this case, so I had no preconceptions. So the last thing I expected to be doing afterwards was blogging about it, but the film had such a superb message that I couldn’t not. (Spoiler warning for the below.)

The Boxtrolls threatened to put me off almost immediately with its grotesque styling and the apparent abduction of a child. Don’t let me put you off, though, as it gets better. The style didn’t improve, as such; everything in this film is ugly, from the characters brutally caricatured to the Tim Burtonesque twisted Dickensian backdrops. I couldn’t tell whether it was live animation or Toy Story-strength CGI run through a steampunk filter, although an easter egg after the main end credits appears to show it was the former. The Boxtroll creatures eat handfuls of chunky insects; an allergic reaction causes an already-ugly character’s face to swell to Elephant Man proportions; someone spits out a gigantic mouthful of cheese… and let’s not get into the leeches. It’s basically gross, and arouses more disgust than hilarity. But the way most of the characters feel, think and behave is worse.

At the start of the film the Boxtrolls are monsters. We know this because there’s a team of “exterminators” out trying to catch them, and the creatures are also blamed for the abduction of the baby – albeit the town’s aristocratic mayor-figure isn’t interested in the child’s fate, still less who took him. The funny green creatures dressed in cardboard boxes are then shown popping up from the sewers around the town in the dead of night, hunting for things: specifically, metal and mechanical objects. Some of these are stolen, such as metal house-numbers off front doors, but the Boxtrolls mostly seem to rummage in dustbins and alleyways for discarded trinkets. One demonstrates skill and intelligence by fixing a broken alarm-clock, another goes around oiling anything that squeaks. The exterminators are three men, two of whom chat to each other and ponder their role as “the good guys”; they decide that’s what they must be because their job is to rid the town of monsters. The third exterminator never engages in conversation, and in fact is clearly insane, trigger-happily shooting anything that moves.

Their leader Snatcher is a vile and unscrupulous caricature, somewhere between the Child-Catcher, Fagin and one of Gerald Scarfe’s teachers from The Wall. Voiced unrecognisably by Ben Kingsley in full East End gangster mode, he and his team operate out of a giant factory-like building accessorised with a furnace. They wear crumbly red top-hats, but the “mayor” (his name is Lord Portley-Rind – his official role isn’t actually very clear) and his cheese-gorging cronies all wear perfect white hats. Snatcher desperately wants a white hat as compensation for “saving the town” from the “menace” of the Boxtrolls, but Portley-Rind is having none of it; the White Hat has to be earnt (or you can simply get one by “being rich”, as one of the White Hat-wearers explains, without irony). When we see how grotesque Snatcher is, and get a glimpse into the Boxtrolls’ industrious subterranean community, and see how little the white-hatted elite care about anything but their cheese parties, and hear how terrified the townsfolk are of the Boxtrolls despite never having seen one, it becomes clear who the actual monsters are in this particular social equation.

The film is an allegory about any government-terrorised modern society, but rings especially true with Britain under the current coalition. To say Snatcher is Iain Duncan-Smith would probably be libellous if only because the comparison makes the Work & Pensions Secretary out to be more pleasant than he actually is. The Boxtrolls could be people on benefits, disabled people, poor people, unemployed people, “scroungers”, immigrants, ethnic minorities, anybody “different” or not playing by the “rules”, or all of these; they may dress in cardboard boxes but are shown by their orderliness, teamwork and desire to quietly get on with their lives to be valuable members of society. Snatcher’s desperation to become part of the elite by sucking up to it through any means possible, and its snobbish refusal to give him the recognition – and white-hatted “good guy” validation – he craves, is telling of both the psychological motivation of a sociopath and of the aristocracy’s hypocrisy (those two words go together so well in fact that there should exist a mashup neologism like “arihystopracy”). The elite will employ the real dregs of society to do their dirty work to weed out what they, the elite, decide are the actual dregs, but the relationship only goes one way. Snatcher even covets the cheese the White Hats spend their days feasting on, despite suffering monstrous anaphylactic shock if he so much as touches the stuff. (My only criticism of the film in fact is its unfair portrayal of cheese as either a luxury of rich wasters or a trigger for monsterdom.)

In a superb twist, the Boxtrolls’ “child abduction” – the semi-mythical “Trubshaw Baby” event on which the town’s fear of the creatures is based – turns out to have been a humanitarian adoption after Snatcher’s team dispensed with the baby’s father for consorting with the Boxtrolls. By contrast with the exclusionary elite and its henchmen, the father, a gifted inventor, embraced the creatures for their ingenuity and treated them as equals, in a symbiotic learning/teaching relationship. The boy grows up thinking he is a Boxtroll, knowing nothing of his real father. The Boxtrolls’ names come from the labels on the packaging boxes they wear, so the boy is called Eggs, while his adoptive father is Fish; later Eggs witnesses Fish being abducted, in turn, by the exterminators, and this prompts him to visit the town disguised as a “real boy” to try and find his “father”. Here he finds the “real people” being spun lie after lie about the Boxtrolls, who, unbeknown to both the people and the creatures, are keeping their lives in check: as long as there is an ongoing war between the two, the people feel protected and the exterminators and their employers, paid for out of their taxes, self-justify by being seen to be doing that protection. It’s a wheeze we’ve all seen so often.

Luckily meanwhile, Eggs runs into Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie, who with her pink cheeks and gold hair is stylised as the only non-ugly thing in the film. (One other disappointment is that there aren’t many female characters to identify with.) Winnie follows Eggs into the Boxtrolls’ subterranea and is livid at not seeing the “piles of baby bones” and “rivers of blood” propagated by the townsfolk myths. This use of the term commonly associated with Enoch Powell may seem crude, but it cleverly takes a phrase of threat (i.e. “mass immigration will create rivers of blood”, in other words your blood, so it mustn’t happen) and turns it into one of promise (“believe me, these monsters are so wonderfully despicable that they positively bathe in rivers of blood”, i.e. this is already happening and has to go on happening for you to continue to find them monstrous). Neglected by her father, whose idea of parenting is to give her a castle to live in yet not actually listen to anything she says, Winnie and Eggs try to work out how to set the record straight and tell the town the truth about the Boxtrolls. “We need a father!” says Eggs, naively believing that Lord Portley-Rind will help them. Indeed, when they manage to infiltrate a party thrown by Portley-Rind for top society folk, Eggs has a scene revealing himself to the crowd as the Trubshaw Baby, but nobody wants to believe it. Instead the mayor announces that “We were going to build a children’s hospital, but we decided to spend the money on the world’s biggest wheel of cheese.” When this enormous Emmenthal becomes as unhinged as the exterminators and ends up in the sea, white-hatted “good guy” Portley-Rind sighs “We may as well have built a children’s hospital now…”

The final scene sees Snatcher controlling a gigantic steampunk power-loader, having apparently exterminated all the Boxtrolls and now symbolically finishing off Eggs in front of a baying crowd, albeit only on the condition that Portley-Rind gives him his White Hat once he can say Mission Accomplished. Portley-Rind is still reluctant but, like all terrible leaders, gives in to the demands of the crowd, and it’s only when Snatcher’s two chattering henchmen finally realise the only way to become the good guys is to turn tail on their paymaster that the day is saved. Asked to press the button on Snatcher’s monstrous machine that will drop Eggs into a bonfire, one exterminator reflects that “This certainly stretches the definition of ‘hero’,” one of the best and truest lines of the film. The Boxtrolls have not, in fact, been exterminated at all: earlier, Eggs railed at the creatures for not doing more to stand up and defend themselves – an accusation that our society’s most vulnerable may very well be levelling against each other under the coalition’s divide-and-rule ideology – but finally they do. It may be depressing that they only set themselves free at the behest of Eggs, who bears more resemblance to the ruling society than to the Boxtrolls and whom they look up to perhaps like a charismatic political leader, but their self-liberation is nonetheless a positive characteristic, compared to what may instead have been a social uprising with all its attendant blood-spillage.

Having said how superb the film is, I doubt I would go and see it again because it is pretty revolting, as I say. But it is worth seeing, with or without your kids in tow (preferably with), and I am heartened that a children’s film was wise enough to tackle inequality and fascism in such a bold way.

Plain packaging law will make it impossible for Ukip to draw up policies on back of a fag packet, complains Farage

nigel-farage-smokingUkip leader Nigel Farage today criticised proposed new plain cigarette packaging laws as “unworkable”.

“This legislation will make life very hard for our policy team, who work on the backs of fag packets all the time,” said Farage.

“These aren’t plain packs at all, they will be plastered with pictures of blackened lungs, tumours and God knows what else. It’s an unacceptable intrusion into the manufacture and promotion of political propaganda.”

Nigel Farage has a postgraduate degree in smoking, and claims to have studied Advanced Tobacco Consumption at the University of Middle England, Britainshire.

Public Health Minister Jane Ellison told MPs that the government’s move to prohibit branded cigarette packaging was likely to have a positive impact on public health, particularly for children.

“My children are proud passive smokers,” railed Farage. “Giving yourself and others around you lung cancer is a fundamental British right.

“Since Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the weed to Britain we have had a great tradition in this country of many disgusting chest conditions and making the environment horrible for other people.

“I’ve nothing against our non-smoking neighbours, they’re very welcome to come to Britain just as long as they leave after 24 hours, don’t take benefits and don’t use our beloved NHS, which I want to privatise as soon as possible.”

Further reading: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30930376