God's Voicemail

Monday, April 16, 2012

Thai Food, and Trenton Oldfield did an Easy Thing

Who remembers the Boat Race? You know, the one that happened last Saturday, or in Twitter-years, 10576017 BC? Here's an article I (@Rombren) wrote about it that my publishers haven't yet uploaded. Enjoy.

I was aware I would be writing a piece about the 2012 Boat Race for about six weeks before the actual event. Naturally I had no idea that the whole race would go boob-up in as many ways as it did. Great from an entertainment perspective but horrible if you’re trying to find something original to say about it 5 days afterwards. How do you solve a problem like a Boat Race everyone’s already said a lot of things about? Start from the beginning I suppose.

I made plans to watch it at a swanky-looking lunch held by the Oxford Alumni society in the Thai Square restaurant at Putney Bridge, which overlooks the race start. This wasn’t my first Boat Race. The first time I tried to see it was with friends in 2008 - we ended up lost in a Chiswick cul-de-sac, our ears cocked to the distant sound jubilation. The following year I got into an acrimonious beer-fight with a bellowing man in Kew. 2012, I hoped, would be the year I both actually saw the Boat Race and did not leave smelling weirdly of hops.

I’d been nervous about going alone, so decided to arrive 20 minutes late and minimise the time available to withdraw into a lonely corner and tweet woefully. This worked out pretty well because against all odds, the only remaining seat in the room was right next to the window, directly parallel with the Cambridge cox’s left ear. The tables were already laden with friendly, interesting, talkative people and bowls of delicious soup. ‘This is going well!’, I tweeted with exuberance. Well enough for us all to confidently assume that from here on in nothing would go wrong with anything.

I was about half way through a bit of bean curd when everybody started to notice a man in the water! Someone passed me a plate of fish curry and I nearly dropped it all over the shop. Within seconds people were mentally drafting the titles of the blog-posts and Facebook statuses about THE TIME THAT GUY FELL OUT OF THE BOAT AND INTO THE RIVER. It was kicking off on Twitter and for a second the internet forgot about Samantha Brick.

When it emerged that the swimmer was a saboteur, and that the whole thing was a demonstration against the snobbery of society’s elite, the debate at alumni HQ mostly returned to Trenton Oldfield’s being a damn fool. But looking around the room made it less easy to be glib. Everyone was well-educated, well-spoken and well turned-out: all the ‘well’s. People of a different race to the majority present were serving food. Boris Johnson was 20ft away on a catamaran. I wondered if perhaps, if you scraped away the layers of clumsy rhetoric, pretension and the grin on his self-satisfied face, there might have been some point to what Trenton Oldfield was saying.

Don’t get me wrong, blog-reader! I too have read the man’s political strategy and seen that it advocates minimum-impact subversion levelled at an undefined and invisible echelon of ‘Elites’ bent on robbing him of freedom or riches or urban fencing initiatives or whatever it is he wants. It’s just that Boris Johnson being 20ft away from you on a catamaran is the kind of thing that reboots the self-awareness centres in your brain.

So I started to give this some thought, and the conclusion I came to is that Trenton Oldfield thought he was making a very different point to the one he actually made. He thought he was engineering an act of ‘civil disobedience’ against the inherent pretentiousness of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. What he in fact did, when he slithered like a man-eel into the Thames, was to publically reject the notions of hard work and aspiration to remarkable things. Because the blue boats, but also the academic communities to which they belong, are united far more by a committedness to the relentless pursuit of brilliance than they are by relative standards of privilege. Trenton Oldfield thought his plan was a masterpiece of strategy, of ‘local knowledge, ambush, surprise and speed’, but in reality his achievement was being in the way. Owning a wetsuit, if we’re really pushing it. An appropriately waterproofed cat could have done the job with equal competence. Making Oxbridge as accessible as possible to people with talent and commitment is imperative, and we must continue to fight for it, but the actions of an unremarkable man, doing an easy thing to spite people who try, can only be doomed to miss the point.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Women, the 1980s, Jokes.

I'd like to start with a quotation from one of my favourite childhood books. It's called "The Joke-A-Day Fun Book" (compiled by Janet Rogers, published 1986) and it was bought many years ago by me from the Salvation Army charity shop, at an age at which my superannuated self now cannot remember what the age was.

It's a fairly simple premise, as the title suggests, i.e. that you open the book up and there's this list of 365 jokes, one for every day of the year. And so if for example the date was the 20th of March, you could flick through the book (to page 42) and there'd be this:

Q: "What does Princess Diana say to Prince William when he does something naughty?"
A: "If you don't stop it, I'll crown you!"

And as if she knew, Janet Rogers, as if she had some misty-eyed inkling that the jokes wouldn't remain as fresh as perhaps they once were, underneath each entry there are a couple of blank feint lines headed with the words "YOUR OWN SPACE:". Presumably to allow you to make your own alterations and adjustments as necessary, or, as the years go by, add notes for your own reference. Such as in 1997 "Only works with living monarch", and then a few years later: "And one who is still a baby," and then a few years after that: "child abuse funnier in 1986 than now - maybe don't bother with this one?".

It's true, though, isn't it? It was another world back then, back in the 80s, with their Margaret Thatcher and their sudden AIDS pandemic and Gordon the Gopher. There was a lot you could say then that isn't possible today, on the 16th September 2010, because political correctness and princesses dying have transformed jokes and the way we tell them. Another joke, and one which I think really brings this "other worldliness" to the fore, but in particular the dilemma of a country on the eve of sociopolitical upheaval, falls on December 21st:

Sue: "My elder brother is a stand-up comedian."
Tracy: "Really? What's his name?"
Sue: "Jess Joe King."

Now, in my opinion, this is one of the most telling and poignant examples of the "someone whose name sounds like words which describe something they might say" school of comedy. Don't laugh, because there's genuinely quite a touching innocence about this joke. I'm talking about the palpable sensitivity with which the author, with which Janet Rogers responds to the question of the place of women in comedy, specifically stand-up comedy.

Because this would have been a hot-potato back then, in 1986, with their Margaret Thatcher and their bra-burning student groups and other prominent feminist comedy figures. People were starting to ask the question: "Look at these women, these people who have made homes and borne children since the dawn of mankind, who pioneered for suffrage at the turn of this century, who have won the right to work and study in places formerly reserved exclusively for men, and who can mend clothes. What if - what if they, too, could stand up, on a stage, in the 1980s, in the midst of this burgeoning alternative comedy revolution, and make people laugh?"

Of course today we know the answer is no. Janet Rogers, a free thinker, ahead of her time, also knew the answer was no. In fact, the only thing greater than this conviction of hers was her faith in the pun itself, the axis of the joke, that it would be a humorous coincidence if the name "Jess Joe King" belonged to someone whose line of work required them to frequently reassure people that what they say should be interpreted in a light-hearted spirit. Imagine with me now the mind of the virtuoso, the mind of Janet Rogers, in that instant of the joke's conception. Its initial euphoria in having first thought of the punchline. The mind that decided no, the name cannot simply be changed to "Joe King". The "Jess" component is integral to the meaning of the joke. The thought-process that eventually concluded to stretch credibility to the point of positing the existence of a man called Jess. Because she was originally going to say "sister". But something held her back.

And so you see, a brief, contextless snatch of a conversation had by Sue and Tracy one day shows us this visible compromise between the requirements of the pun and how far it was feasible to stretch the credulousness of the readers of the Joke-A-Day Fun Book 1986.

They were working on gut feeling alone, back then in the 80's, with their Margaret Thatcher and their Benny Hill Show and their Berlin Wall. Today the research has been done - we know that the reason women aren't funny is that when they reach a certain age, when they enter puberty, a gland - this is absolutely true - a gland which is located in the breast tissue starts to release an hormone that goes to work on the parts of the brain responsible for telling jokes. I invite you to go and do the research if you're unconvinced. The hormone renders her incapable of invoking a belly laugh in any sentient being, for the obvious biological reason that should she fall pregnant, her unborn foetus, with its underdeveloped larynx and brochial passages, might choke on its own laughter and die.

The next time somebody claims that women aren't good at telling jokes, you can tell them yes, and remind them of a milestone in the argument: the 21st December 1986.


Thursday, September 09, 2010

What do you mean this is like that episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks?

So a couple of weeks back we were having a party in this little club, me and my pals from my little German band. And it turns out nobody has any mood-music to assuage the imminent hordes who would bay for our music and bits of sweaty clothing and stray pubes and personal documents etc. Someone remembers that I have an mp3 player with me and asks to borrow it to play over the PA for a couple of hours.

Of course I hand it over without thinking it through, and immediately regret the decision with all the intense, throbbing umbrage of a pre-solo-career Lee Ryan in comparing the end of his relationship to some kind of bizarre court-case scenario*.
Which is exactly what we all would have experienced, had that ever come into question as a possible song that I might enjoy listening to in my life.

Anyway, without wanting to initiate one of those "is-she-isn't-she" debates that can go on for months about a the extent of a person's interest in that Brit-Award winning boyband whose four-year career spawned album sales of over 15 million worldwide and culminated in collaborations with Elton John and Stevie Wonder: know that the iPod was taken and plugged into the sound system and put on shuffle and that what followed was a stomach-ulcer-inducing game of musical Russian Roulette. Except with just as many blessed, reputation preserving blank rounds as there was winsome hoopla and vibrant 1990s drum-machine tish-tosh.

A much higher risk-factor, then. I knew that for every piece of music people would like and respect me for, Kelly Rowland was queued up next, in order to fire herself at a moment's notice through the central cortex of my reputation. Yet to my astonishment, the device seemed to be playing ball. Had it caught on to my predicament? Had they paid off, those hours I spent punctiliously awarding song in my iTunes library a star rating from 0 ("save it as "Unknown Artist" as provision for the unlikely instance of Vinyl Justice raiding my library for obviously embarrassing slurs on the musical record") to 5 ("play this when people come round!")? Was the mind of the machine in some way sensitive to the potential impact of the musical bomb it might drop?

Massive Attack. Yes! RATM. Yes! Morcheeba. Yes! The Red Hot Chilli Peppers! Alright! Razorlight! Shit, well, nearly. I murmur something breathlessly to a friend about a beautiful synthesis of mankind and technology.

A turning point in the action. He catches my drift, turns, picks up the iPod and in the space of a few seconds I see him access Music > Artists and the clickwheel sounds in slow motion like some kind of godawful clock or something. He lands on "Wild Wild West" by Will Smith. And it doesn't stop there, no. The iPod is now consumed by the momentum of the change and suddenly embarks upon a festival of insubordination. Bent on my humiliation, it starts to spit the shrapnel of pop music 1998-2005 with a vigour and gall only matched by that of a youthful Antony Costa telling us that if we might come back in his life he'll be there 'til the end of time.

Each track was followed by one more damning than the last. The Sugababes were answered by Carla Bruni was answered by Coldplay, and so on. We were caught in a frenzied feedback loop of crap. An algorithmic buildup of shite. And it was to end in the worst possible way that doesn't involve anything by Cliff Richard so don't worry.

Eventually the system seemed to crack under the sheer weight of shit and it found itself forced between a rock and a hard place: how to follow up "Backstreet Boys" by the Backstreet Boys? Perhaps with the criminally not-yet-forgotten 2001 album "Good Times" by former Coronation Street mankisser and torso-owner Adam Rickitt? (Which I own as part of a long-running ironic joke, by the way.) Inasfar as iPods are able to exhibit either bewilderment or exhaustion, this one found, in a fit of bewilderment and exhaustion, that Adam Rickitt was in turn only answerable to yet more of the Backstreet Boys, and thus developed a bizarre spiral of haunting and almost mathematical beauty.

Four of us silently played witness to the perfect circular motion of two musical phenomena, simultaneously less and more shit than each other, each one the answer to the question posed by the other. Their reciprocal movement extending into infinity.

(n.b. Luckily it didn't: it was getting too embarrassing.)

Maybe there is something to be learned from the mechanics of this musical encounter about the fabric of our very universe.

Equally, maybe the universe is just a throwaway thought in the semi conscious frontal lobe of laughing Duncan James as he speeds towards the burnished cityscape with the system up and the top down, got the city on lockdown, drive by in the low ride, hands up when we fly by (fly by, fly by).

*(There is one point at which his voice becomes indistinguishable from a harmonica in C#)

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Comparing Celebrities to Things continues to be a neatly laid-out list of puns about famous people

A Jazzy Jif (Lemon)
DJ Jazzy Jeff

Hollow die-cast of a lemon

Hollow die-cast of Will Smith

Available in the Lent period

Available for bookings in the latter part of this year

Cheaper than an actual lemon

Cheaper than an actual lemon

A few drops are enough for a whole pancake

A few mixes are almost enough for a whole career

Shake before use as contents may settle in transit.

Boom! Shake the Room!

Very much looks like a lemon



Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Ale-ale-jandro Ale-ale-jandro

Let's consider such a thing as "the culture of the English-speaking world". In terms of it, this has been a fairly uninteresting year for me.

I know what I like, and being thrown together with an arbitrary handful of people from various parts of the English speaking world and living in close quarters with them for 9 months isn't going to change that. But then again, it was always more or less inevitable, wasn't it, that the year abroad in Germany would consist of a number of reluctant forays into Things that Other English People Find Interesting.

In the interests of diplomacy and having someone to talk to I have at points throughout the year found myself watching for example Mamma Mia! the movie, a film so unencumbered by its own crapness that it is satisfied to leave you with the sentiment that it's fine to be spoilt and a total pain in the arse to everyone and cancel your expensive wedding on a Greek island at the last minute that all of your friends and family have travelled miles to attend. I have also sat through this ballet about prison rape and episodes of The Saturday Night Project, which makes me so furious every time I think about it that it is impossible to say more.

These contributing to a chapter of anglo-american culture whose target audience is principally gay men and middle aged women, then? Is that fair to say? And that fairly nauseating girly-demographic of which you'd be advised to consult Steve Pemberton's superb Tish in the League of Gentlemen:

Well anyway, the long and short of it is that I've got a bigoted outlook on the tastes of various sectors of society, and there's a huge genre of crap that I don't like and what I want to tell you is basically I've been a little too quick to consign things to it. This year, more specifically this morning, has been a voyage of discovery in this sense. I invite you to consider the following:

Now, everybody knows not to judge a book by its cover. Lady Gaga is an exception to that rule in that it's fair to say we're all baffled by her mad shit, and if we're honest one look at the 'cover' in this extended metaphor pre-empts some kind of ironic, bewildering twist like there's actually no book at all, or there is but as soon as you open it you get torched in the face by a flame thrower glued to a cardboard pop-up breast. I've tried to stay out of the whole Gaga debate for a while now, and the reason is that be it amongst those who love her, hate her, don't know who she is, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and famous gay men, I just don't know where to align myself. Every single thing that she has released into the sphere of public consciousness has been met with a frenzy of responses from religious fanaticists all the way through to other kinds of fanaticists. Reading people's opinions on Lady Gaga is like accidentally wandering into a rifle range during a match between Elton John, the Pope and Robert Mugabe.

Yesterday saw the release of the awaited "Alejandro" music video. Though officially undecided in opinion, I think I speak for all of us when I say we've come to expect certain things of Lady Gaga: a certain standard, a certain kind of thematic discourse, a certain repeated ramming of the self against boundaries of social acceptability. It met my expectations in all of these ways, for reasons which I will summarise as follows:

Plot: Lady Gaga appears to be the queen of some kind of ancient civilisation, and spends much of the video either sitting or lying very still, unconvincingly lip-synching to the backing track. There are men in pants goose-stepping and a man is sitting on a bed pointing a gun at his crotch. She's miming anally penetrating a man in fishnets and high heels, and now she's some kind of nun. The pants Nazis beat her up a bit an she eats a rosary, then she is Madonna, and then she lies down on a bed, where the man, appearing to have done nothing for entire duration, is still pointing a gun at his crotch.

Cinematography: Really fast scene changes in the middle of the video match the bpm and drown you with sexual symbolism so that you want to go back and pause, e.g. to see what she's doing to that man's arse or to see if she's naked, when it actually turns out she's just wearing a big pair of flesh-coloured pants.

Symbolism: Rape, Nazis, bishops, Ancient Rome, Madonna, cross-dressing

In short: nothing happens. Yet you feel as if you have to react. Say something, do something, change your facebook status, watch it again, parody it etc. The temptation to go through each scene again and analyse what exactly makes these 9 minutes of precisely zero storyline or character development so compelling is incredible. And so you do, and you relish every second of footage that is so barefacedly disrespectful to even the most widespread and apparently harmless of social taboos. The whole thing teases, goads and unsettles and but you can't put your finger on why: after all, it does everything short of admitting it's a celebration of utter emptiness and superficiality. And it's this deceptive emptiness that drives people up the wall. The sexy Nazis make you uncomfortable, and her nudity. But at the same time there is this sacreligious idea that the Madonna scene, for example, is not merely an empty reference but the genre-equivalent of intertextuality. Newton might not have called this standing on the shoulders of giants, but it sort of is. Standing on the shoulders of giants and then hurling yourself off the edge towards the ground because it looks good on camera.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

So this is an article I wrote for my old school about my year abroad (uncut)

I left SWPS in 2007, when I was 18 and had little-to-no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I wanted to be successful and recognised and eventually own something from the ‘Apple’ store, but that was it. So I ended up studying German, which was something I’d always been pretty good at at school, at Oxford University. (Now, I don’t know what you already know about Oxford University: maybe you know someone who studied there, maybe you’re applying yourself, maybe you just reckon it’s full of wittering intellectuals who are totally disconnected from reality, but not in the good, hallucinogenic drug kind of way. [It’s about half full of them in reality, I’d say.] One thing I can tell you is that it’s pretty hard work. Doable, but it sure keeps you busy.)

Anyway, cut to two years, reams of essays and about three million books-that-I-haven’t-really-read-properly later, and there I was, preparing to move to Germany for my compulsory year of study abroad and life as a real person. To reiterate, “a real person”: with a job and a flat and free time and cleaning responsibilities. Also, none of my English friends or relatives or anyone I knew, for that matter, and a knowledge of German that, while advanced, was still pretty theoretical. Furthermore, I was about to embark on a 9 month placement as an English Language Assistant at the Evangelisches Schulzentrum Leipzig: a school which takes pupils from 7-19, with some pupils studying an intermediate “Mittelschule” syllabus , most of them the more advanced grammar school “Gymnasium” course. I would be teaching actual children of myriad backgrounds, ages and abilities who, if things went wrong, might very well mince me, season me, serve me with a raw onion and devour me at mid-morning. I had never done any of it before. The odds suggested I wasn’t going to stand a chance.

However, in between paroxysms of anticipatory dread, I managed to remain optimistic and I booked a one way ticket to Leipzig, packed a bottle of squash and some poptarts and finally, in September 09, plunged headlong into the unknown. And it was… good. Well, a weird-ish good.

I spent my first few months in Germany sipping a metaphorical cocktail of liberation and foreboding. Liberation because I could literally just do what I wanted the whole time, I think the only time I picked up a book in that period was to wear it as a hat at someone’s party. Foreboding because I was having to avoid a Tunisian man whom I’d given a fake phone number one night, assuming I’d never see him again. (I subsequently saw him on three occasions, and it was horrifically awkward.) Forgetting which side of the road they drive on over here took up some of the time, as did trying to get the washing machine to work properly.

Despite initial trials, since then I haven’t looked back. OK so I went on noticing amusing little cultural differences, e.g. the noticeably less scrupulous attitude to queuing here, some kid having to clean the classroom at the end of the lesson (heh), the fact that ‘Rose’ doesn’t exist as a name in German and that when pronounced with a German accent it sounds a bit like ‘Horst’. (A man’s name: imagine the confusion.) But, what stands out in my memory is people’s continuing friendliness, generosity, eagerness to help a bewildered English girl to her feet. A few weeks after I arrived in September it was my 21st birthday, and my colleagues from the Evangelisches Schulzentrum Leipzig threw a party, even though they a) didn’t know me from Adam and b) 21st birthdays aren’t really a big deal in Germany. Similarly, there was always someone to lend a duvet cover; take me to Ikea; talk to me in German after a whole day’s lessons in English.

I could talk for hours about my year so far, much like middle-class families who've been on safari, but we all know that would be dull and there’s a word limit, so, suffice to say I found cool flatmates, checked out all the important Leipzig monuments that feature in Karen König’s classic page-turner “Ich fühl mich so fifty-fifty” (A-Level German high-five!), became a backing singer in a band, have worked as an interpreter and a private tutor. Most startling of all, the kids at EvaSchulze haven't been eating me alive at all, except on bad days. In fact I think they actually gain something from my presence, if I say so myself. Who else could introduce them to theonion.com, talk to them in a way that their normal teacher wouldn’t, explain the terms “ham-fisted”, “suet” and “ratarsed”, and pause awkwardly when (and this happens sometimes) they ask me the meaning of an English word that I myself don’t know.

I have a fair few things in common with my 18 year old SWPSian self, we still want to be successful and recognised (though I have an iPod now), and we both still don’t really know what we want to be when we’re older. (But who expects you to know when you’re young? Apart from careers advisors, teachers, society and your parents.) That’s a bridge I’ve yet to cross, as are my final exams in Oxford next year. So living abroad hasn’t irrevocably altered my life, no, but I sure can tell you this for free: I’m a bit braver now, wiser, more confident and about a thousand times more fluent. And if there’s one thing that teaching demands of you, as well as living abroad, it’s the need to accept that Rabbie had it right, the best laid plans of mice and men do go awry, and that you somehow have to see the funny side. Adaptability and a sense of humour, then. And I reckon if a person can master those, they’re not off to a bad start in life.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Comparing Celebrities to Things IV

Great big resounding reprieve!

Louis Theroux
A Roux

Originally French

Originally French

Oxford educated

Is a culinary thickening agent




Sauce base


In a pan

Known for being totally out of place in obscure American subcultures

Known for being totally out of place in things that aren't gravy