Friday, June 30, 2017


Last year, I did some research for an idea that never materialised. I had it in mind that a product test of bottled water would be quite funny, but the reason I thought that was why, ultimately, it was not worth doing. Recently, this came up in a conversation, and I was told that I should do it, because it was a funny idea… I’m still not totally sure.
My research involved buying up various brands of bottled water over a couple of weeks: these names included Evian, Volvic, Buxton, Tesco Ashbeck Water, Tesco Perthshire Water, Highland Spring, Acqua Panna, Glaceau SmartWater, Fiji Artesian Water, Voss Water from Norway. I also made sure to try our tap water at home, and the Brita-filtered tap water from the break room at work. I restricted my purview to still water, finding sparkling water to be as hard to drink as tonic water, and envisaged creating tables and charts that led to the single, inevitable conclusion:
IT ALL TASTES THE SAME!!! There is only so much water you can take before you realise it is all just water. For there to be any more to it means it is no longer water. Water, water everywhere, and it costs so bloody much. Give me a Victorian-style drinking fountain any day, then a bottle to fill up.

I kind of expected to find I had wasted my money but, apart from a slight difference in the taste of the tap water, coming from the large chalk deposits where I live, having only one available answer to your experiment leaves you unable to form a decent joke. Therefore, chastened, I abandoned the idea, and wrote about typewriters instead.
However, the abundance of bottled waters from which I could choose is, to me, a bit perverse. It was the British that started to bottle water in the 17th century, transporting the perceived health benefits of the Malvern springs across the country. Taking a “water cure” was popular in Victorian times, evoking Roman spas like those at Bath, where its sulphurous hot spring, more to bathe in than drink, was touted as a way of restoring your “vital fire” as much as curing “the Scratch.”
Even then, if water is water, why do we go so far for it? Why was I able to walk for fifteen minutes from home to a shop that sells artesian water from Fiji, which is nearly ten thousand miles away? Why does the supermarket Tesco have an English brand of water (Ashbeck) and a Scottish brand (Perthshire)? Why does paying the extra for a glass bottle, over a PET plastic bottle, make water taste nicer? Why have I been buying Evian for the sole reason that I think the bottle looks nicer, rather than what is in the bottle? Why will there only ever be questions, when I know it is just water?
That said, good drinking water can be hard to find, but bottles of it are always found where it is already plentiful.

Friday, June 23, 2017


The following is a journey of pareidolia – just knowing there is a word for when you perceive familiar patterns in something where there is none speaks a lot for how the mind both wonders, and wanders.
Well-known examples of pareidolia include seeing the outline of Great Britain in clouds, and imagining you can hear satanic messages in songs when they are played backwards, but the kind most often perceived are when the brain’s cognitive processes go looking for faces in electrical appliances, buildings, food, craters on the Moon, and so on, although the face of Jesus is more likely to appear in food. Hermann Rorschach’s inkblot tests, created in 1921, deliberately direct this instinct by testing reactions to ten inkblot images, chosen from a large number that were all created accidentally.
Of course, there are other ways the human mind can be directed, and that is by deliberately putting faces onto products. There is no reason that Tesla need a radiator grille on the front of their cars, unless they want them not to have a mouth. Meanwhile, the sportier you want your car to be, the more likely the headlight eyes will look meaner, with the bug-eyed Austin-Healey Sprite being a major exception.

Meanwhile, what if you are given the job of deciding the colours of a new vacuum cleaner, and find the top half of it looks like a bowler hat? It did not take long for the graphic designer in question, Michael Walsh, to decide that the nozzle looked like a nose, adding eyes and a mouth to create the “Henry” hoover. Chris Duncan’s Somerset-based company, Numatic International, had established itself in the market for industrial cleaners, but the pareidolia inherent in Duncan’s design for a home cleaner created a product that advertises itself, especially when owners start playing with them on YouTube.
This is where my experience comes in. We had a Henry hoover at home, until my parents decided upon an upright cleaner instead, but it is still the best cleaner we have. My route to work passes a specialist vacuum cleaner shop, the front window full of Numatic’s range staring out at you, from the various Henrys to Hetty, George, James and Charles, names apparently inspired by the Royal Family, and capable of various wet and dry-cleaning combinations.

But Numatic are still makers of industrial cleaners, and looking at their website made me feel a little uneasy. The “Homecare” have the faces, but then the commercial “Cleancare” range starts removing these features – the “Henry” name becomes “Numatic,” then the face disappears on bigger cleaners… but the black top-hat top half is still there, and the nose nozzle remains.
Nearly forty years of popular culture mean we expect to see the face on a Numatic cleaner, and not to see one where you expect one to be is a little unsettling. Still, if you do need one of their industrial cleaners, you could ask them to draw a face on it at the factory before they box it up.

Friday, June 16, 2017


When I gave myself the OK to write about the word “OK,” I wasn’t OK that some may not be OK with that. Sure, it would be OK to read, but instead of thinking “that was OK,” they may think it was OK instead. Then I thought, OK, if it turns out OK, that’s OK with me, OK?
Well, that is a lot of “OK,” but it reflects the list of possible origins for this word. Most often an abbreviation for fanciful misspellings of “all correct,” an apparent fad in the United States of the 19th century, though “oll korrect,” or even “oll wright,” is a bit of a stretch, but “Old Kinderhook,” the nickname for President Martin Van Buuren, at least sounds plausible. The alternative spelling “okay” was itself another way of spelling “okeh,” the Choctaw Indian word for “it is so” – several West African languages have something similar. There are various explanations of how “OK” can be abbreviations of German, French, Dutch, Greek and Gaelic (“och aye”) words, among so many others – Puerto Rican rum can be “au quai,” for export from the docks, or an order could be from high command, or “Ober Kommando.”

I got the impression that, no matter how the prevalence of “OK” can be explained away, the fact that the “O” and the “K” are clear, unmistakeable sounds, and every language has both, the only issue is how you write it down: I always use capitals, but “O.K.,” “Ok,” “ok,” and “okay” are all perfectly fine in English, because there has never been a consensus. Meanwhile, the Finnish word “ookoo” is what the letters “O” and “K” sound like by themselves in Finnish, but it is pronounced “OK,” as in the English “OK” - the same goes for the Afrikaans “oukei,” the Maltese “oukej,” and “okey” and “okej” in most of Europe, when they are not writing “OK” themselves.
However, you can blame NASA for giving things the “A-OK.”
Is it OK that we have a word that can be used so easily? “OK” can be used without commitment, when you don’t want to say that something is good or bad. Likewise, you may want to say “OK” to confirm you have understood an order, a decision or a piece of information, but you may only want to give the impression that you have. “OK” can be used to create a distance between what you intend to mean, and what you want someone else to hear. Just like you may want to say “OK,” in a foreign country, you will get further if you have more words at your disposal.
Restricting your language? I’m not OK with that, but if you don’t lose what you want to say, that’s fine, OK?

Friday, June 9, 2017


Well, that wasn’t meant to happen, apparently.
I had intended to write about the general election results, particularly about attempting to sit through the overnight coverage. For those non-football fans, with no cup finals or play-offs to pore over, the general election is my equivalent of the World Cup Final, or the Super Bowl, and the results programmes have developed to match that – the exit poll, battles in key marginals, the swingometer, and so on. Grace Wyndham Goldie, the BBC producer that created the first TV election results programme, in 1950, really was on to something, even if she had to fight engineers believing that broadcasting beyond midnight could damage the BBC’s electrical equipment.
So, um, yeah, my original idea was going to be something a bit light-hearted, talking about how we have a major TV event built around our democracy, mixed in with detail on how I tried to stay awake to watch it all… then the result of the exit poll came in, claiming a hung parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest party, but falling short of a majority of seats. Because the poll was wrong in 2015, predicting another hung parliament instead of a small Tory majority, the immediate reaction was to say that all options are still open, because it contradicted everything said in the campaign up to now.

From the moment the election was called by Theresa May, the belief was the Conservative Party would have an increased majority in the House of Commons – because the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, was always seen as divided between its party’s supporters and the leader’s supporters, the Conservatives may even cause a landslide. Many right-wing-leaning newspapers called the election a Tory win, which was to be expected, but because that included the “Daily Mail” and “The Sun,” this dictated the direction, and the noise, of the narrative.
The reason for calling the election has now also been called into question. Despite fixed-term parliaments having been introduced in 2010, it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to call a general election whenever they like, but they should only do that if they are definitely sure they are going to win. The resulting vote in the Commons to have an election now could have resulted in an election not happening, but everyone else was sure they should have an election now, because they all had their own reasons – calling an election over Brexit alone, as Theresa May had done, was never a realistic possibility.
So, now what? Which party can form a government? What solidity of Brexit – hard or soft – will we get now? Could Jeremy Corbyn be the next Prime Minister? Could Boris Johnson be the next Prime Minister? Well, what we do know is this – turnout among 18-24 year-olds could be as high as 72%, up from 43% in 2015, and 38% in 2005, so whoever does wind up in government really will have to govern for everyone.

Friday, June 2, 2017


Logo #1

Firstly, a big thank you to you all for reading what has been quite a bewildering year’s worth of subjects. When I began “Dancing with the Gatekeepers,” on 30th May 2016, my intention has always been to understand each subject that came to mind each week, and to learn something from it, confirming why the most popular articles so far range wildly from David Bowie to Donald Trump, from Quorn to the Futurist Cookbook, from big data to “legal names,” from George Orwell to word puzzles, and from the art of telling a joke to the history of the word “ain’t.”
If anyone has sought to find out more, or ask a question about something, or someone, having read my work here, then that is the best possible outcome – I only write because I am happy to admit I don’t have all the answers.

However, the first subject I featured, on how John Lennon’s flippant remark to a journalist’s question became, at the insistence of Yoko Ono, the inspired dream of a man on a flaming pie, telling Lennon to name his band, “The Beatles, with an ‘a.’” Once you know something is untrue, the persistent insistence that “ceci n’est pas une pipe” becomes a deranged fantasy. When it comes to cold facts, those that mean the world works on a base level, you should not the use joke in René Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images” as a way to live your life or, even worse, assert your point of view over those of others.
The two words of the last year have been “Brexit” and “Trump.” Even if I look back on this article in twenty, thirty, fifty years, I will not need any further explanation than that, and I don’t expect you may not either. I have tried not to advance a particular view about either of these – politically, I am in the centre, so if the world is substantively better for everyone after Brexit and Trump, then that is fine by me – but the one thing I should not have to be, if I did say anything about either subject, is afraid to say anything at all.

Freedom of speech is paramount in this world – all opinions should be able to be heard, then we can decide on their merit. I am not the type of person who tells people that the truth is being kept from them, or that they are blind to it, because I would need to have concrete evidence to prove that, unless I wanted to engage in conspiracy theory. When certain voices think they have been silenced, because one outlet decides they don’t want them there anymore, they should think whether that place has its own voices to protect, or whether they might have been in the wrong place to begin with. Every voice has its own place and, if requires, what it says can be tested, in a court of law.
I wrote a great number of notes for what I wanted to write about here, and quite a few of them could become their own discussion here in future weeks. It is a febrile time for thought about our own places in the world, having felt that everything has been turned upside down. However, I feel safe that things will work out better for everyone in the end, even if I don’t know why - that might just be me.
The dream that gave me the name “Dancing with the Gatekeepers” was my having recorded an album, rock and/or electronic in nature, in which one song led to my shouting “all you have are words” over and over again. Despite what others may choose to do with their words, they are all I have too.
Good luck, everyone.