Saturday, December 24, 2022


[click to enlarge]

The Acorn Electron, the computer slingshot that launched me into the world of home computing, was infamously not ready for its original release date in Christmas 1982, and not enough of them could be made in time for Christmas 1983. With demand drying up ahead of Christmas 1984, the deteriorating finances of Acorn Computers Ltd, who introduced computing to millions of school children with the iconic BBC Micro [link], led to their being sold to Olivetti in 1985.

I didn’t know any of this when our family bought two Acorn Electrons and a bundle of software cassettes in the late 1980s. Games, programs, joysticks and other peripherals continued to be developed into the 1990s, supporting the near quarter million units that entered people’s homes, mostly at a reduced price to clear stock. 

The Electron was exactly what we wanted. We were taught the BBC BASIC programming language at school, and that confidence came home with us. When it came to loading games from cassette, we knew to enter “CHAIN” rather than just “LOAD”, and I knew my way around creating short musical tunes using the “SOUND” and “ENVELOPE” commands, separating out the notes and sound types, rather than the less intuitive “POKE” command and codes I later found for the SID chip in the Commodore 64 [link]. Meanwhile, Electron games we enjoyed were the wire-framed 3D spaceships of “Elite”, the maze quest game “Repton” and “Snapper”, the obligatory “Pac-Man” knock-off. 

At half the size and, initially at £199, half the price, the Acorn Electron was essentially a cut-down BBC Micro designed to meet the challenge of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. This cutting down was the computer’s downfall, as removing some of the display modes and sound channels available to the BBC Micro gave developers the expense, if they chose to spend it, of rewriting programs to be compatible - the Electron-compatible version of “Elite” is a minor triumph as a result. However, the largest problem was condensing the scores of logic chips on the BBC Micro’s motherboard into a single custom chip, a far bigger task than Sinclair had doing the same for the simpler ZX Spectrum, and one that drove back the release date of the Electron, and continued causing manufacturing problems afterwards. At least the Electron, unlike the original ZX Spectrum, had a keyboard with proper keys.

Again, we didn’t know anything about this – we were upgrading from the computing dead-end of the Commodore Plus/4, a productivity-minded machine incompatible with the more capable Commodore 64, only receiving more support decades later. The ability to use the same type of computer as at school put our family at a tremendous advantage, and in a decade where technology at home and work exponentially increased, we welcomed it. 

Acorn stopped supporting the Electron after 1986, by which time it had unveiled the Archimedes, the first computer powered by an ARM processor (“ARM” initially standing for “Acorn RISC Machine” before it was spun off into its own company). Once that made its way into school, it became the first computer I used with a graphical interface, and the later RISC PC hosted my first use of the internet. It took Acorn’s demise in 1998 to eventually come across the IBM-compatible PC that dominates people’s idea of a computer today, something that never felt as special as a result – no wonder I own a Mac now.

At the time of writing, thirty years have now passed since our Electrons were replaced by a Commodore Amiga 500 in Christmas 1992, the era of 8-bit computers having finally been overtaken. Once again, there was little to learn – we were ready to fly.

Sunday, December 18, 2022


Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is an animated cartoon character introduced almost a century ago that is now having their moment, having stayed fresh through little exposure. Most notable for having been taken away from Walt Disney in a contract dispute with the series’ distributor, leading to his creation of Mickey Mouse, Oswald has made only sporadic appearances in video games, cartoon shorts, theme park appearances and merchandising since The Walt Disney Company regained rights to the character in 2006, but the appearance of two new shorts in December 2022, one to advertise a collaboration between Disney and fashion brand Givenchy, have given Oswald new vitality.

Oswald appears superficially to be a rabbit version of his 1920s contemporary Felix the Cat, and the “rubber hose” animation, frantic stories and stretchy cartoon logic in Oswald’s cartoons were pioneered by Felix, whose tail could turn into objects just like Oswald’s ears can. To a modern audience, these cartoons could appear either to be jerky, slow or repetitive, which is down to the innovation and sophistication in animated shorts produced later by Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM, taking advantages of using plastic cels over paper, multi-plane camerawork, as well as colour and sound. Watching these earlier cartoons is like bridging the gap between what animated cartoons became, and newspaper strip cartoons like “Mutt & Jeff” and “Krazy Kat”, which themselves received their own animated series.

Likewise, both Oswald and Felix suffered from the rise of Mickey Mouse, and the change in direction of animation and story towards a more realistic and natural style, but while Felix the Cat retained a similar appearance through major reboots in the 1930s and beyond, Oswald was redesigned multiple times by successor animators Hugh Harman & Rudolph Ising, and by Walter Lantz, who later created Woody Woodpecker. With the stylised black rabbit design supplanted by shorter limbs, then Mickey-like white gloves and shorts, and a more childlike personality, and again by a very Disney-like realistic rabbit design, the character that became known as just “Oswald Rabbit” had no connection to the Disney original. 

The 2006 deal with NBC Universal that traded Oswald for the services of ABC and ESPN American football commentator Al Michaels was for the trademark of “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”, the twenty-seven Disney-produced cartoons produced in 1927-29, and anything physical relating to them that Universal still possessed – anything made from then remains with Universal in almost complete obscurity, leaving Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to be known as only Walt Disney’s original creation, existing in one particular moment of animation history, untouched by time or entropy. Mickey Mouse, personality bland-ed out of him by changing times, tastes and placement as a corporate mascot, comes off worse to me as a result, although the more recent “Mickey Mouse” TV series produced by Paul Rudish reintroduced some of the irascibility the character first displayed in 1928, which over time had been subsumed into Donald Duck.

The new Oswald short, directed by “Pocahontas” director Eric Goldberg, and the new Givenchy fashion campaign, are notable for featuring hand-drawn animation, with the clothes featuring Oswald with the aim of capturing “the spirit of adventure”. A special animated billboard has also appeared in Times Square, New York. There is the sense that Disney is building towards something. It may prove to be the beginning of another Disney franchise, but with this character still being relatively untouched, it has the potential to be its most vibrant.

Sunday, December 11, 2022


As much as I like Coca-Cola, I am increasingly turning to British soft drinks. Dinner usually includes a glass of Vimto, while I may choose Tango or Tizer when I am out somewhere. If I find a pub serving Pepsi instead of Coke – I really don’t like Pepsi - that means their supplier should have also stocked them with R. White’s lemonade, so I will choose that instead.

I don’t think this is because my tastes have changed, more than my consciously trying other flavours because my tastes do not include alcohol, let alone tea or coffee. I am happy Guinness 0.0 now exists, while I consider Vimto, a cordial of blackcurrants, grapes and raspberries, to be a non-alcoholic version of Pimm’s No. 1, until they join the bandwagon. A good non-alcoholic drink should taste similar to the fuelled-up version anyway, as Budweiser Prohibition Brew (now Budweiser Zero) also proved.

And then there’s Tizer. Introduced in 1924, Tizer is like a mid-point between Vimto and the strange, sherbet-like (to me) taste of Irn-Bru, the official drink of the Cop26 climate summit when it was held in Glasgow, and a drink I have since found contains quinine to taste, and whose colour I keep calling “Agent Orange” instead of “sunset yellow”. With Tizer having a strong citrus flavour comprised of whatever has been put into it, including what gives it its particularly red colour – it’s not just Coca-Cola that employs the idea of “secret recipe” in their mystique, I mean advertising - I usually say that Tizer “tastes of red”. The flavour is of itself, making comparisons difficult. Tizer’s original name was “Pickup’s Appetizer”, named for its inventors Fred and Tom Pickup, making it an aperitif in the same way that Jägermeister is meant to be a digestif.

Tizer has been owned and made since 1972 by A.G. Barr plc of Cumbernauld, originators of Irn-Bru in 1899, moving the drink there from its native Manchester, from where Vimto also appeared. Drinks sold under the “Barr” name include their own cola, cherryade, lemonade, orangeade, limeade, bubblegum flavour, ice cream soda, ginger beer and “shandyade”. Reading through this list made me realise that supermarket own brand drinks have also supplanted the old brands, being sold just as widely, taking up as much space on shelves at a lower cost, and probably not too dissimilar in taste.

From what I can see, or from what the shelves of my nearest corner shop can attest, Barr is the last of the regional soft drink makers that were the main suppliers of soft drinks for its local area, much like channel 3 on British televisions was for Granada, Meridian or Tyne Tees, before “ITV” became the main name. Other such brands with history reaching back to the 19th century like Corona, Alpine and R. White’s, of which only the lemonade now remains on sale, wouldn’t be sold nationwide until the 1960s and 70s.

As it stands, British soft drinks are dominated by three companies: alongside A.G. Barr is Britvic, which owns Tango, Robinsons fruit drinks and R. White’s in addition to producing Pepsi, 7Up, Gatorade and Lipton’s Ice Tea under licence; and Coca-Cola which, despite being an outpost of the US giant, originated the pineapple and grapefruit drink Lilt in the UK in 1975. In other words, they compete on brands rather than flavours. It isn’t a surprise that Corona, bought by Beechams in 1958 and sold to Britvic in 1987, has failed to survive while its orange soda brand Tango, which was introduced in 1950 and produced alongside a separate Corona orangeade, that must have tasted different in some way to be worth the effort, has thrived since the 1990s through its use of surreal and absurdist advertising – “You know when you've been Tango'd” was a slogan used in everyday life at one point, whereas “I’se Got the Ize”, from a 1986 Tizer ad that showed the drink changing the drinker’s speech, didn’t take so well. 

The temperance movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries have, while losing out to liberation and moderation, have left their mark in what I get to drink instead. With Coca-Cola gaining popularity quickly due to its being introduced in 1886, the same year alcohol was banned in its home city of Atlanta, “Vim Tonic”, later Vimto, was introduced in Manchester in 1908 just as a new Licensing Act sought to increase alcohol duty and reduce the number of pubs. This history gives the impression that soft drinks are what you have “instead”, which for me is preferable from umpteen types of beer and wine.

That said, I can’t think of an alcoholic equivalent of Tizer. Aperol? Ruby Grapefruit Bacardi Breezer?

Sunday, December 4, 2022


I previously said “Station to Station” (1975) was my favourite David Bowie album [link], but the album I have the T-shirt for is “Scary Monsters... and Super Creeps” (1980), which closed the “classic” Bowie period of the 1970s, before he reinvented himself as “himself” for “Let’s Dance” in 1983.

“Scary Monsters” begins and ends with two versions of the same song, “It’s No Game”, the first sung as a wail against an oncoming onslaught, the second much calmer, as if having accepted a new status quo. Initially feeling like a set-up for an album with an anti-fascist theme, most clearly in the lyrics to “Fashion”, “It’s No Game” launches you into what becomes almost a definitive Bowie statement on recurrent themes of alienation, madness and misunderstanding, before taking on a new confidence with the next album.

What I had not expected was for “It’s No Game” to have dated from the start of Bowie’s “classic” era. A new box set, “Divine Symmetry”, was released in November 2022 to act as a complement to 1971’s “Hunky Dory” album, showing the process that led to “Life on Mars”, “Oh You Pretty Things” and “Changes”, while including songs that remained as demos or were only performed live. One of these, “Tired of My Life”, starts as a folk-like song more reminiscent of Bowie’s previous album “The Man Who Sold the World”, but you start recognising the chord progression, and then the middle section: “Pull the curtains on yesterday and it seems so much later / Put a bullet in my brain and I'll make all the papers.” 

The verses around it may have changed, and the remaining lines polished further, but hearing “It’s No Game” in “Tired of My Life” is inescapable, just as listening to “King of the City” will lead you to start singing “Ashes to Ashes” along with it. I shouldn’t have expected something like this to have been done – if you bought the remised reissue of the Beatles album known as “The White Album” that came with an extra CD of demo songs, you will know that John Lennon’s “Child of Nature” had its lyrics rewritten to become “Jealous Guy” – but there is something about hearing David Bowie essentially recycling old material years after writing, and not just when plans don’t work out, such as a musical version of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” being repurposed into 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” album. 

Even if these recordings were known, or even released previously, grouping them together to display an artist’s creative process confirms the adage about how much of it is perspiration over inspiration. Add in “Scream Like a Baby”, reusing the music composed by Bowie for “I Am a Laser”, a 1973 song he wrote for backing group The Astronettes, and Bowie’s covering of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come”, and half of the ten tracks for “Scary Monsters” existed before the album’s production began, which departed from Bowie’s usual process by having backing tracks recorded before lyrics were written, instead of pre-written demos or Brian Eno-led improvisation.

This exposure to Bowie’s musical processes will continue, but it will come at the expense of the mystique that the works were intended to create. With the selling of the publishing rights to his back catalogue for $250 million to Warner Chappell Music in January 2022, everything will eventually come out. We remain curious, but we cannot put our fingers in our ears, we will eventually know Bowie inside out.

Saturday, November 26, 2022


Angel & Omar

There is nothing like getting yourself to watch a DVD copy of a film you haven’t watched yet, by telling yourself you are going to write about it.

“Rock & Rule”, a 1983 Canadian animated film that mixes a post-apocalyptic landscape, pop music and dog-like mutant humanoids, while being targeted at a more grown-up audience, has been covered as thoroughly online as another film I have talked about, “Animalympics” [link], creating enough furries from its audience for that term not to need inverted commas anymore. I am not a furry, but I love animated films, as apparently do the Germans – both DVDs I own of “Rock & Rule” and “Animalympics” are from Germany, having no UK release beyond VHS, although the BBFC gives “Rock & Rule” a PG rating, advising it “contains mild language and sex references”.

The plot involves a rock star supervillain, Mok, who retires to Ohmtown, a ravaged place whose power plant could help him secure immortality. From the opening crawl, “high in the hills above Ohmtown, Mok’s computers work at deciphering an ancient satanic code which could unlock a doorway between his world and a darker dimension while Mok himself searches for the last crucial component – a very special voice.” 


The correct voice will have just the right frequency for the plan to work, much like Ella Fitzgerald breaking a glass in the ads for Memorex tapes [link], but by this point, we have already been told the film features the voices of Cheap Trick, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Earth Wind & Fire... and Debbie Harry of Blondie. Unless they surprise me and Maurice White’s voice fits the plan, it will be Debbie Harry.

As it turns out, the voice is found in an Ohmtown band featuring Angel, their keyboard player, and Omar, its lead singer and guitarist. Angel’s voice is identified by an audition, leading to Mok kidnapping Angel and taking her to Nuke York by airship. Omar mistakes this for ambition being placed over their relationship, until he gets caught up in Mok’s machinations and sent home – by this point, it has become clear that another voice could disrupt Mok’s plan, but there is also no one that can be found to fit that description, until Omar makes his way back.

Unfortunately for me, the mutated humanoids – the film’s American release explained that humanity had been destroyed and replaced war – border on obnoxious most of the time. Angel, as the heroine, is spirited but bland in a “damsel in distress” manner, until she sings, and the English-accented Mok approaches a Disney-type villain, but many supporting characters are noisy and abrasive, and even Omar begins as such, making the film feel longer than its hour and twenty minutes.

The art direction, however, is impeccable. The ruined cityscape and street level grime are reminiscent of “Blade Runner”, not yet a classic, but far away from the run-down, unsafe 1980s New York – it is both fanciful and lived-in, with suitably muted colours. If rotoscoping was not used to exact the characters’ movements, I will be surprised.

Ohmtown, at night

Despite this, you may be here for the music more than the story. Just as with the soundtrack by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman on “Animalympics”, the songs in “Rock & Rule” were written by the performers, like Mok’s grandstanding numbers “My Name is Mok” by Lou Reed, and “Pain & Suffering” by Iggy Pop, just as Debbie Harry’s songs as Angel were co-written with Chris Stein of Blondie - both of Mok's songs are the highlights, of course, and are perfect examples of each artist's qualities being infused into one villain. Earth Wind & Fire’s “Dance Dance Dance”, essentially the background to a nightclub scene, was also written and recorded for the film. However, with the recording artists being signed to different labels, no soundtrack album was released, and only a few tracks have surfaced commercially, with the version of “Pain & Suffering” not being released until 2019.

“Rock & Rule” was produced by Nelvana, the studio that made a big splash by animating the introduction of Boba Fett in the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special”, later producing the series “Droids” and “Ewoks”. The failure of “Rock & Rule” at the box office, released on few screens with little publicity, nearly bankrupted Nelvana, but their subsequent concentration on children’s shows, most notably the “Care Bears” film series they instigated, built the company into the major force it remains today, although nothing as adult as “Rock & Rule” appears to have been attempted since then, which is a shame when considering the attention it has received since.

Sunday, November 20, 2022


Considering how often I have written here about the virtues of home media, and owning copies of films, music and TV and radio shows, I should have had much to say about the abrupt removal of shows and films from the HBO Max streaming service, plus the cancellation of upcoming projects. The reason I had not done so, apart from HBO Max not being available in the UK, was because I had already covered similar ground back in 2018 [link], when Netflix took down the 1978 film version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” - this led me to buy a Blu-ray copy, which has a higher-quality picture than the variable bit-rate of online streaming often delivers.

What has changed since then is that online streaming has slowly become the norm. HBO Max, Discovery+, Apple TV+, Paramount + and Peacock are among the services that launched since 2018, and Tesco and Sainsbury’s are among the supermarkets that have stopped selling DVDs.

Worse for me, films I have watched at the cinema have not yet become available on a physical home video release in the UK, namely Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch”, originally released in October 2021, and the Daniels’ “Everything Everywhere All At Once”, from April 2022. I have been so used to a 13-16 week between a cinema and home video release that I am seriously considering buying the German issue of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” over having to buy a download of it from Amazon Prime, which is subjected to digital rights management avoided by having a physical copy to use as you wish. Meanwhile, I could watch “The French Dispatch” by subscribing to Disney+, but I have already once chosen to buy a box set of a Disney TV show over subscribing to Disney+ - that show was “Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers”.

I have no answer to these problems, except that if physical home video is to become a niche pursuit, available for purchase through specialist stores or online, that having the ability to buy a physical release must become as easy as possible. The Warner Archive Collection has been a North American success I wish they would replicate in the UK, being an operation that produces DVD and Blu-ray copies of films on demand. If it means they need to have the money upfront before making a DVD of, for example, the 1931 pre-Hollywood Code release of “The Maltese Falcon”, it guarantees the availability of films for which there is less viability in producing a wider commercial release.

Likewise, it has been customary for other distributors to licence TV shows and films to release themselves. In the UK, I have Network Distributing Ltd to thank for releasing brilliant sitcoms like “Whoops Apocalypse” and “Hot Metal” on DVD, shows that broadcaster ITV, who own the rights, have not released themselves, like they did with “Inspector Morse” or “A Touch of Frost”. 

“The Strange World of Gurney Slade”, a surreal 1961 sitcom starring Anthony Newley that plays with reality in ways next seen in “The Prisoner”, was released by Network in 2011, which I bought on the back of knowing it was a major influence on David Bowie, before realising he could only have seen it at age 12 on its original airing, or on its single repeat run in 1963. TV used to be ephemeral until the advent of home video, but the shift to online streaming puts all the power back in the hands of rights holder to display or withdraw content as they wish – you can no longer grab a copy out of the air in the way that a VHS or DVD recorder provided to you.

If I return to this subject in another four years from now, I can only expect that the situation will have become worse – “home video” as a concept may be dead by then, and even The Criterion Collection may be online-only. Keep your DVDs.

Sunday, November 13, 2022


Rhodes MK8 with optional effects unit

It absolutely makes sense that I would covet an electric piano that costs from eight thousand pounds to buy. As much as the opening theme I composed for my YouTube channel, and my song “Nostalgia’s Gonna Get You” [link] both use synth chords recreating the “E Piano 1” sound of the Yamaha DX7, what that sound is itself recreating is a kind of electric instrument holy grail – and one that no longer has to be bought second-hand.

Ray Manzarek’s piano line on The Doors’ song “Riders on the Storm” proves that “Rhodes” is an electric piano brand that evokes a certain mellow tone, almost like an electrified glockenspiel, especially on higher notes. Like a standard piano, Rhodes pianos are mechanical, its keys connected to hammers that hit thin metal rods connected to tuning-fork-shaped bars, the vibrations feeding to electric pick-ups. Used by The Doors, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock among many others, the Rhodes sound is highly prized, but with the original Rhodes factory having closed in 1987, outside of a short-run production in 2007, the older units have been kept running continuously, meaning few have experienced hearing one that hasn’t been “broken in” through years of use.

This is until the British sound design company Loopmasters bought the rights to the name, producing a new Rhodes MK 8 piano, based on the Mark I stage model introduced in 1970. I have watched a good few videos featuring it being put through detailed musical tests by people who could afford to buy their own, one of which had to remind themselves its keys were firmer than on previous Rhodes pianos because they were brand new.

I am naturally jealous that some people can afford to drop eight thousand pounds on a musical instrument, which approaches ten thousand once you add the extra effects unit with more digital options to shape the analogue sound, and once you want it in a colour other than black. It all depends on what you want, but when a Yamaha baby grand piano – a standard one with strings, not a sample-based electric CLP model – approaches that figure, your only concerns are what sound you want, and how much weight is your floor able to take.

Arguably, I already have the Rhodes sound with my Yamaha reface DX synthesiser, which cost one thirtieth the price of a base Rhodes MK 8, and I am very happy with it, but I know it is a copy of a copy. The original Yamaha DX7 of 1983 was much lighter and more versatile than a Rhodes with the sounds it creates, entirely by digital means that the owner doesn’t have to think about - the rise of similar synthesisers at the time will have hastened the end of their production. 

I guess it may be that you develop a taste for certain sounds over time, and once you have heard one sound being approximated so many times, or reproduced on online plugins that recorded samples from a Rhodes, you want to experience the real thing directly, being in the presence of its particular tonal quality that cannot be emulated owing to its mix of mechanical and electronic machinery. 

I am sure there will be a Rhodes MK 9 by the time I can afford a MK 8, but when it comes, I will take one in pink, thank you.

Sunday, November 6, 2022


You shouldn’t “punch down” if you can help it, but when we are all below Elon Musk, and he has just bought the online home of “punching down”, the rest of us have nowhere to go but up, or away altogether.

I had already decided I was going to write about Twitter’s “blue tick” verification before its new owner started firing half the company’s staff, triggering lawsuits, recriminations and an exodus of both users and advertisers, so whether I decide to take Musk’s offer of a “blue tick” Twitter Blue account, for $7.99 per month, depends if Twitter remains long enough in its current form to be of any use, let alone whether the subscription cost goes on improving the experience of using the site, or paying off debt loaded onto it through Musk’s buyout.

The question that remains for me, in case it remains a proposition on Twitter or elsewhere, is this: if I do not have the influence or following on a social media account to earn a “blue tick” verification, should I just buy one if the opportunity presents itself?

I have Twitter and Instagram accounts using the handle @msleighspence, and both have follower accounts in the tens because I only use them “for work”, posting links to these articles, and re-Tweeting the “CheapShow” podcast and occasional other thinks I like. Right now, using these accounts more would count as “work”, meaning I perhaps do not use them enough to justify any clarification from the sites that I am the person named “Leigh Spence” on them.

Until now, account verification is something awarded when it is earned, in the case of YouTube’s unlocking of features once subscriber thresholds are achieved, or when it is needed: both Instagram and Twitter (up to now) verify accounts featured in various news sources, with the user needing to provide proof demonstrating you are well-known public name that people are willing to seek out, bringing traffic to the site involved. The verification is then in the interest of the site as much as of the individual.

Now, I was thinking that buying a “blue tick” for my Twitter would act as the cheapest form of paid advertising I have come across – yes, I use Twitter and Instagram for advertising, but verifying one account would improve its visibility, and if that increases the number of people viewing these articles, then that is money well spent, so long as that is the only outcome. Increased exposure cuts both ways, and if reducing or eliminating your presence on the site becomes the better option, then being verified that you are yourself, and all the money you spent, is a waste of time – no wonder people like to be anonymous if they can.

I have still to make up my mind about opening a Twitter subscription in order to have a verified account, as Elon Musk’s plans for the site are currently changing like the weather, or whether Stephen King objects to them, his opposition to a $20 per month cost for his “blue tick” prompting Musk to offer $8 instead – all King needs to do now is two write Musk into his next novel as either revenge or as a warning. 

What I am currently anticipating is YouTube introducing social media-like “handles” for its users, at no cost, which may find my videos easier to find, at no cost – when that goes live, I will be at @leighspence there.

Saturday, October 29, 2022


Coming up, I take advantage of the eternal popularity of Halloween to stitch together slow-motion footage of the bats circling the back garden.

Thank you for watching, if you would like to see more videos like this, please like, comment and subscribe, and as ever the nostalgia culture crisis continues at, the home of dancing with the gatekeepers.

Monday, October 24, 2022


Official photo issued during Johnson campaign

The problem with writing about politics is that events often travel at break-neck speed, so I am not surprised at having eschewed politics as a subject for discussion at all. Give me postmodernism, pens and cars any day, along with any subject that remains evergreen, or slow-moving enough to pin down.

What rendered my previous article about the latest Conservative Party leadership election having been rendered out of date later the same day [link] was the announcement by one candidate that they were withdrawing from a race they never actually said they were standing in, like they had shown up to run the London Marathon with a hand-drawn number, withdrawing after realising whatever time they placed would never be counted.

The assumption made by Boris Johnson, returning from his holiday in the Dominican Republic to pick up from the point he had left in July, speaks of a man who hasn’t been in the country much at all in the intervening time. That he could ask the other two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, to stand aside for him, is spectacularly arrogant – Sunak’s meeting with Johnson ended without agreement, while Mordaunt perhaps won some respect by asking Johnson to step aside for her. It also didn't help that the two photographs taken and issued on Twitter by supporter Lee Anderson MP, of Johnson calling MPs on the phone to secure their support, shows him looking like he is lacking sleep, visibly jet-lagged, or having been hit in the face by a football.

Then the statement he made on Sunday night – the first and last time during the weekend that someone did not speak for him – was delusional: “I have been attracted because I led our party into a massive election victory less than three years ago - and I believe I am therefore uniquely placed to avert a general election now... I believe I am well placed to deliver a Conservative victory in 2024 - and tonight I can confirm that I have cleared the very high hurdle of 102 nominations... and I could put my nomination in tomorrow... There is a very good chance that I would be successful in the election with Conservative Party members - and that I could indeed be back in Downing Street on Friday.”

Once he had placed himself on a pedestal, Johnson paints the portrait: “But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do. You can't govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament. And though I have reached out to both Rishi [Sunak] and Penny [Mordaunt] - because I hoped that we could come together in the national interest - we have sadly not been able to work out a way of doing this. Therefore I am afraid the best thing is that I do not allow my nomination to go forward and commit my support to whoever succeeds. I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”

The other official photo issued

What we have now is a way for Johnson to say, further down the line, “don’t say I didn’t warn you, I’m afraid”, while also still saying he is the only person that can unite the country, based on the General Election result of 2019, before so many other things happened. 

Marina Hyde, writing for “The Guardian”, had pointed out that Cincinnatus, the Roman emperor referenced by Johnson in his resignation speech who returned to his plough, and referenced because he came back and governed again, had only ruled for three more weeks before stepping down, once a plot to usurp power in Rome had been dealt with – his rule being a dictatorship is a fact that will just have to sit there.

Still, the situation means that the spectre of Boris Johnson hangs over the Conservative Party like a bad smell. Rishi Sunak was elected leader on Monday 24th October, after Penny Mordaunt withdrew her candidacy at the last minute, leaving Sunak as the last one standing, and as someone who had only sent out two messages on Twitter during the race, both in reference to Johnson dropping out.

Now that we have the fifth Prime Minister in the last six years, they have to pull their party together before they can hope to pull the country together, and whether the Conservative Party can do the first one, or is they are even willing by this point, is the next question. Popularity polls suggest that calling a General Election would currently be a death wish for the Conservative Party, but it has two years left before one has to be declared anyway. 

I resolve to myself that the General Election, whenever that may be, will be the next time I talk about politics.

Sunday, October 23, 2022


My mother said I shouldn’t write about politics, for fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention. But what if politics is all anyone is talking about, again, because it is all we are given to talk about, again?

The extremely short version of the last week is this: Liz Truss, the fourth Prime Minister since this website began in May 2016, resigned on Thursday 20th October, having only become leader on Tuesday 6th September. In that time, her free-market, low-tax, high-growth economic policy was trashed both by the world markets, leading to higher interest rates, a weaker Pound and higher government borrowing costs, and by the replacement Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed by Truss, the rejection of her policy making her position untenable.

I had already decided I had written enough about Liz Truss by the time she became Prime Minister, like that matters much now: when she mischaracterised postmodernist philosophy as having no space for evidence [link]; when that speech began my own series on postmodernism’s continued relevance [link], how another speech railed against “ludicrous debates about language, statues and pronouns” [link]; and questioning what the “post-Elizabethan age” will be under King Charles III and a Prime Minister Truss [link].

I am tired of being told we are living in unprecedented times. Boris Johnson was still Prime Minister as late as July, when anxiety already running high over the cost of living and energy prices, but the Conservative Party since then appear to have expended more energy on keeping itself together. Even if the current week-long leadership contest is a recognition that two months was too long for the last one, especially when it didn’t produce a satisfactory result, the course of events are still up in the air: either one person gets more than one hundred MPs supporting them to be a candidate by 14:00 on Monday 24th October, making them Prime minister immediately, or we could have as many as three candidates, who then need to be voted on by the same Party members that elected Liz Truss.

This doesn’t reduce the outrage at having to go through the process again. In order just to follow the news, which feels like it is changing with every moment, you are reduced to the “doomscrolling” of live news feeds reporting every event as it breaks, watching the government being contradicted in real time on Thursday 21st October: everything is fine; Truss has called a meeting; no speech is planned; they’ve got the lectern out....

I had already reduced the amount of news I watch on television by the time Boris Johnson resigned as Prime minister in July 2022, although that was easy in the week of this event as my TV had broken [link], but the continued rumbling of unease about, well, the national situation, has not subsided despite trying not to take as much notice of it. I don’t know how long it can go on, or when it will end.

The Conservative Party assume they can keep thinking they can fix their own mistakes, and Boris Johnson, having flown back from his third holiday since being thrown out, appears to think his old job is his for the taking again, without acknowledging that he is Boris Johnson, and that name comes with baggage.

Even as I write, I am sure this won’t be the end of it. We can’t guarantee at this point that whoever is elected as the next Prime Minister can hold their party together, only because that questions was not answered by the last PM.

My objections to the Conservative Party right now are moral, not ideological, resulting from the situation they have created. These people are not my betters, and they do not command my respect. This isn’t even about wanting another party in charge, this is just about wanting stability, and if they cannot do that, then they need to give the people the chance to decide who can.

Saturday, October 15, 2022


The Ford Escort was the biggest-selling car of the 1980s, a statement that applies both the United Kingdom and the United States.


Whether that statement applies to one car is another question. Created as a “world car” between Ford’s American and European divisions, ostensibly to share both expertise and production costs, the Escort on sale in North American showrooms from 1980 shared little more than its engine with its European counterpart, and its design is different enough to call the effort of sharing its development into question.


I had not heard of there being a separate Ford Escort until a couple of weeks ago, but looking at pictures of it brings a sort of an “Uncanny Valley” effect – the European version was so prevalent on British roads, seeing something that purports to be the same thing, while looking almost like it, but not quite, produces an unwarranted feeling of unease.


Reading the 1982 brochure for the North American Escort reveals the difference in approach with Ford of Europe: placing emphasis on its “world car” status, and on having outsold every imported car in the US in 1981, Ford introduced the Escort to replace both the Pinto, a “subcompact” coupé-looking car with a poor safety record, and the Fiesta, Ford’s first attempt at a “world car” that was too small for the United States (and which I have talked about here: link). Both the targets and the stakes were set high, but this situation was only found in North America, and its half of the plan must have inevitably diverged to meet them.


The European Version

Meanwhile, the focus of the European Escort was squarely on aerodynamics, fuel economy and simplicity of design, having launched in the UK with the slogan “Simple is Efficient”. Unlike Ford of America, which attached a globe logo to every Escort sold there in its first year, Ford of Europe make no mention of having developed the car with anyone else. The European Escort’s straight line design was by Uwe Bahlsen and Patrick Le Quément, following it with the futuristic, for the time, Ford Sierra (also discussed previously: link).


The North American Escort could serve to indicate the main differences between American and European cars in general. It has the same wheelbase as the European model, but is nine inches longer, two inches wider, and one inch shorter in height, with a more sloped nose, and chrome trimmings on even the base L model. Only a 1.6 litre engine was offered initially in America, the largest of the engines offered in Europe, and the interior was entirely redesigned, with black, fawn and blue colour combinations joined by an all-interior blood-like colour known as “Medium Red”. The “Squire Option” of faux wood panelling was available on the estate car.


Contributing to the design changes to the North American Escort may have been differing safety standards. Many European manufacturers in the 1970s seen their sleek designs essentially ruined through the process of “federalisation” to meet US safety regulations, often through the addition of thick black shock-absorbing bumpers to protect the headlights and engine in a 5 mph collission – Ford would do this with the Capri coupé when it was sold as the Mercury Capri in the US. This led British Leyland to redesign the MGB and MG Midget to suit, but because the US was their main market, it had to be done.


The Escort would become more of a “world car” through the 1980s, adding production at Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela to the factories in the UK, West Germany, Spain and the United States. However, the Escort produced in South America was the European version – the North American version was only sold in North America, and was only made there too. When Ford of America updated their Escort in 1990, it opted to rebrand the Ford Laser, a car sold mostly in Asia and Australasia, and based on the Mazda 323. Meanwhile, successive updates of the European Escort continued until the Focus began replacing it 1998, the Escort name disappearing in 2002... until it reappeared in 2015, on a redesigned Focus saloon car sold in China and the Middle East. Perhaps the name travels further than the car.

"Medium Red"

Sunday, October 9, 2022


Most of what I write will start as half-thoughts recorded on a scrap of paper, or even a couple of words scrawled on my right hand. This is borne from a belief, made many years ago, that I had forgotten more good ideas than I had written down, so therefore all ideas must be caught, with a paper and pen – the finished work can then be typed up later.

To that end, when I write – when I am actually in the headspace of writing – I use a felt-tip pen, specifically the Paper Mate Flair, introduced in 1966. Their current advertising makes big mention of fun and expression, selling in a range of bold and expressive colours of ink that won’t smear or bleed through the page. I don’t really doodle or draw, or write bullet journals, so the appeal is purely functional: I avoid the mess I always end in when using a fountain pen, and I avoid the extra force required to write with a ballpoint pen. Instead, it is just me, and essentially a very stiff brush soaked in ink, and I love how that looks on the page.

There is no accounting for how people wind up with what they need to work. Pinned up at my workspace is a copy of David Bowie’s handwritten lyrics to “Fashion”, because it showed the process where he attempted to rewrite the end of the line “we are the goon squad and we’re coming to town, beep beep”, proving that sometimes the first idea you have is the best one. Like other Bowie lyrics I have seen, these were written with a felt-tip pen, red on this occasion, on squared paper. I did wonder if he also used the Flair pen, and the recent biopic “Moonage Daydream” confirmed it for me in a photograph of Bowie writing, the distinctive Flair shape blown up to fifteen feet long on a cinema screen. It was a happy coincidence for me.

With felt-tip pens most often found in packs for children, and adults, to colour between the lines, I forgot that felt-tip pens became popular enough for Parker, maker of higher-end fountain pens, made a felt-tip version of their Big Red pen in 1970, itself a copy of the Duofold pen that dated back to the 1930s, and oddly marketed as “a glorious handful of solid pleasure”, so faithful to the old design that you have to unscrew the lid, rather than just take it off. Withdrawn in 1981, Parker never made another felt-tip pen, keeping to ballpoint and fountain pens, but like Paper Mate, they are part of Newell Brands, formerly the delightfully-named Newell Rubbermaid, so there is still time to share some ideas around.

Saturday, October 1, 2022


Last week, in downloading an episode of the comedy and advice podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me” already on my phone, I realised I had caught up with myself: in the fifteen months since discovering the show, I had now heard all six hundred and twenty-eight episodes released since its debut in April 2010. 

The first I heard of the three McElroy brothers, and “MBMBAM” was the notorious moment, in “Kickeo”, episode 514, when “your babiest brother” Griffin said he was known as “Porky Pig” at high school, because of the noise made by his “technique”: “ba-de-ba-de-ba-de-ba-de...” For forty-five solid seconds, Griffin, “your oldest brother” Justin and “your middlest brother” Travis were convulsed by the kind of laughter that only comes from a moment of “where the hell did that come from?”, before Travis laments that people confuse their voices, because they will think he said it. 

As someone for whom the sound of people laughing may be their version ASMR, this was a brilliant moment, but also one that, like a large amount of their “bits” from the show, have been animated and placed on YouTube by creative people, and devoted fans, inspired by the McElroys and the imagery their “playing in the space” has created.

I felt like I had seen about a hundred different versions of the brothers before hearing my first full episode, which was number 562, titled “It Helps to Have a Cube”. With my only regular podcast being “CheapShow”, which I once described here as “the celebratory mix of trash culture and body horror that pushes taste for the perfect laugh” [link], I had caught “MBMBAM” on an appropriate week: Griffin began the episode as a cassette tape that had to be wound up, and who can also sharpen pencils with his behind; the brothers discuss how competitive hot dog eater Joey Chestnut deals with the inevitable trip to the bathroom; they answer a plea from a listener who wants to stop being the office jokester, before sharing how to hide from a murderer; they review the latest album by pizza play place mascot Chuck E. Cheese, and conclude that you should pour a ring of salt around a ghost to keep them in place.

With its surreal and absurdist humour not overlapping the scatological, almost Dadaist force of “CheapShow”, its shared grounding with “MBMBAM” as magazine-like formats in the safe space of “wholesome filth” made me feel like I was in the right place, so I kept listening, but went backwards for a bit, from the 500-range episodes, into the 400s, then 300s, but in January 2022, as I wrote about One Times Square [link], I heard the first four episodes from 2010, and progressed from there – having jumped around previously, the last episode I hadn’t heard was number 291, “Most Likely to Boat”. 

Having now heard every episode so far, including the latest episode number 629, “Millennial Seinfeld” – a welcome moment for every time I heard a listener’s predicament and thought “what kind of ‘Seinfeld’ plot is this?” – what have I learned from “My Brother, My Brother and Me?

Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” is where the often-cited ten-thousand-hour rule for becoming an expert in a given field comes from. Once you realise there aren’t that many hours in a year, you appreciate the slow grind of putting in the work to get gradually better over time. While the McElroy brothers discourage listening to the first hundred episodes of “MBMBAM”, it is there where you hear the graft, the refinement, the encouragement and guidance from the show’s audience, the endearing talk of listening parties, online forums, and burning episodes to a CD for a friend, and later the liberating challenge of creatively advertising Extreme Restraints, a literal online sex shop. Hearing the show’s form and tone take shape, its hosts both in charge and along for the ride, was a liberating experience – you too can have a creative career, but you must put in the work.

Despite Bob Ball’s opening advisory that “the McElroy brothers are not experts, and their advice should never be followed”, it is only an advisory. After thousands of questions, they have arrived at major lessons like “act strong”, “keep your grades up”, and “will a sign help?”, but it can also be concluded that horses are essentially sacred, that a religion can be formed from eating a mango, “the man who sleeps with a machete is a fool every night but one”, and “if you nut in space, it push you backward”.

But with three people playing off each other like a TV writers’ room, entire passages have been created that put me in the mind of a sketch show rather than an advice column, like “The Ravioli Monster”, Traci Chapman’s “Faster Car”, Travis creating a “mango cult”, an entire episode taking apart the Robert DeNiro-starring comedy “The War with Grandpa”, and nearly “Clockwork Oranging” themselves over “hating” the celebrity-led podcast “Smartless” for winning an award for which they were also nominated (for their advertisement reads). A particular favourite is from episode 539, “Quantum Beef”, where a discussion on barbecues turns to the children’s TV science host Mr Wizard using dry ice to shatter a hot dog, before shouting, 

“we’re all just meat! I’m basically 225 hot dogs strapped together with casing. Old casing, that saw some shit in ‘Nam! If you wanna look at the eclipse... you just burn a little bit of your eye meat, what do I care? It’ll grow back, or it won’t, then we all die. It’s meat. Life is a great experiment... You’re my son now? Your mom said I could adopt you. I promised to teach you science... I revealed to your mom the arcane meat secret, and she said she gave up. Now you’re my meat. I love you.”

I doubt anyone would have come up with the above passage by themselves, and the escalation, the lore, and the unexpected tenderness at the end marks out the three people that created it, and where their creative journey has taken them.

While I start looking into the role-playing game podcast “The Adventure Zone” that the McElroys began in 2014 with their radio presenter father Clint, my choices for five “My Brother, My Brother and Me” episodes, in no particular episodes, are:

#562 “It Helps to Have a Cube”: a listener’s first episode is forever cherished by them.

#468 “Down the Soda Hole”: presented with the force of “standing energy”, it is Justin’s asking “have you seen the movie Big Daddy?”, and Travis’s weary answer of “yes”, catches them all off guard.

#265 “The Ballad of Tit Liquid”: two words inspire a character that derails the rest of the show.

#482 “Face 2 Face: Big Stitch Energy”: a live show begun with a recap of the show’s history to date (October 2019), to the tune of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, by superfan Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the McElroys’ use of “unless, unless, unless”, to change tack on their advice, into the musical “Hamilton”.

Special “The My Brother, My Brother and Me Guided Sleep Experience for Spiritual Harmony”: sponsored by Casper mattresses, ASMR becomes deliberately quiet and unintentionally tense, followed by a Cockney countdown from 100 to zero.

Sunday, September 25, 2022


I distinctly remember the hope that, when the Covid-19 pandemic eventually drew to a close, the ensuing momentum that would follow such a seismic event could have been the beginning of a new “Roaring Twenties”, last seen following the First World War and the flu pandemic of 1918.

Of course, it does not feel like this has happened, replaced more by a need to return things to normal, just as the proposals to redraw the map of London following the Great Fire of 1666 was replaced by a need to rebuild as soon as possible.

This has left me feeling like the 2020s haven’t really started yet culturally, much like when the 1960s were said to have started with The Beatles in 1963, or when the 1990s were ushered in by Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991. The pandemic acted more like a stress test than a creative inspiration, before counting the threat it made to live music venues, in places like Liverpool and Seattle, that help foment the scenes that changed popular music.

The reason I have started thinking about this now was its having been prompted by reading many articles about the prospects of a “post-Elizabethan age” – following the death of the Queen, having been a symbol of stability and consensus for so long, what country is the UK going to become, and how will things progress under King Charles III and Prime Minister Liz Truss? 

It feels like fundamental changes are expected, but it is not known what they could be, or what for they should take, because elements of that expectation were themselves not expected. Who are we counting on to enact the change? Someone creative? A ground swell? 

I don’t think it is possible to expect a paradigm shift, unless this a result of anxiety. Beatlemania and Nirvana may have ushered in the “Sixties” and the “Nineties”, but the ironic detachment and post-Cold War relief that characterised the “Nineties” was definitively ended by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, just as the end of the “Elizabethan age” was not an event to prepare for. If the lockdown caused by Covid-19 is considered a paradigm shift, it is only in the sense that the standard procedure for progress to take was interrupted or stopped, while happening to coincide with the beginning of the decade.

I think this is one of those times where I don’t know what to expect. The UK has seen uncertainty in one form or another caused by Brexit, Covid, and by changes in Prime Minister and Monarch, unless this proves to be the character of the 2020s – we are already nearly three years in, so it might be time to either call it now, or start preparing to make the 2030s as great as possible.

Sunday, September 18, 2022


With the UK still in a period of national mourning as I write this, I decided that discussing the prospects for the country and monarchy can wait for now. 


What I do know is that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II will be noted most visibly when the face on the UK’s money and postage stamps begin to change. I have already been witness to this, when the smaller 5 and 10 pence coins introduced in 1990 and 1992 respectively removed one and two shilling coins featuring King George VI, and possibly still George V, from circulation, but that was a change due to progress. Any change this time will be felt more keenly, especially when for the last fifty-five years, the UK has had perhaps the best postage stamps in the world.


The Royal Philatelic Collection is one of the largest and most valuable stamp collections in the world. It was begun by King George V, although stamp collecting has been a part of the Royal Family since 1864, not so long after the Royal Mail introduced the Penny Black in 1840 as the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. The Queen continued the collection, currently stored at Windsor Castle.


With the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland substituting the monarch’s face for writing its country name on its stamps, Arnold Machin’s standard “definitive” stamp design used since June 1967 is the most simple and effective design possible: the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II, created by Machin in clay, wearing the George IV State Diadem, a crown that includes the roses, thistles and shamrocks that featured separately on the former, more busy standard stamp design; the price value of the stamp; and a single colour used, helping to differentiate from other values of stamp.

I have a stamp collection, mostly kept within one book, and in looking back into it now, the cumulative effect of seeing so many of the “Machin series”, in so many different colours, across so many pages, puts me in mind of Andy Warhol’s pop art screenprints, again reproducing the same image in different colours, except they cost substantially more.


This simplicity and effectiveness of this design has doomed attempts to change it. A proposal to change the Queen’s portrait in 1981, just as Machin’s separate portrait for the original set of decimal coinage was also being replaced, was met with a letter from the subject’s private secretary: “Her Majesty is very content with the Machin effigy and thinks that a work of real quality is required if this is to be replaced.” 


Other attempts to change the design were rejected by Royal Mail’s Stamp Advisory Committee and by Machin himself, but the Queen’s gentle intervention does make you think that, if your face is the only change that can be made to something, you will more than likely say no. With the Queen having final say over her 1967 portrait, and even requesting the colour of the original 4d. stamp to closely match the original 1840 Penny Black, the sense of personal investment is palpable. It has made this portrait of the Queen into possibly most reproduced picture of a single person there has ever been, or will ever be.


Of course, Machin’s design will now have to be changed. My prediction, and hope, is that King Charles’s portrait will simply be used instead, the rest of the stamp staying as it is, but it remains to be seen if the opportunity will be taken to create an entirely new design.