Category Archives: Articles

My madeleines smell of saltpeter

My Madeleines smell of saltpeter. Proust could smell freshly baked madeleines and be transported back to his childhood, the same happens to me whenever I smell gunpowder.

Some kids played sports, some kids were social, I had obsessions instead. I collected my obsessions manically. Making whole fake television shows, getting angry at my brother for not being able to follow a script at 7, programming my Dad’s computer, and firing rockets into space.

We had a form of show and tell at school, something where we would bring in something from home and explain it to the other kids. In a later similarly mad moment, I shouted at my school mates for inappropriately touching my carnivorous plants*.

But this event was different, this was far grander. All of the kids from my class were given permission to come to my house and in the garden to see the rocket be launched. What an odd event? The school agreeing with a student that “yes, a visit to your house is a perfectly reasonable way to pass the morning”.

One of the other children calmly videoed the entire experience on his Dad’s camcorder (which took full size VHS tapes). Yes I grew up in Rushmore.

I slid the rocket, with it’s thin paper guide tube, over the metal launch rod. I connected the crocodile clips to the ignition for the engine, and walked back the safe distance to press the button on the blue launch box. The black Ninja model rocket fired correctly, leaving the appropriate carbon mark on the blanking plate at the base of the launch pad. Another successful mission for the rocket. I can still remember the feeling that I had; I didn’t believe my classmates were impressed enough by what had just happened.

But it takes the slightest smell, even matches when I’m in the right mood, to take me back there.

* Touch is what closes the trap of a Venus Fly Trap, something that you can do to one “leaf”/”mouth” of a flytrap plant without bother. But if you close all of them then the plant can’t eat – as I tried to calmly explain.

10 years of Gamboling

It all happened by accident. We didn’t call it blogging back then, we called it writing on the internet. I still think of it that way – of course.

I said, “I want to write”, and my therapist said, “well why don’t you”?
“Ah,” I said, “I do write, I want to be read”.
“Well isn’t there,” she asked, “something you can do about that”?
“Well I could put my writing up on a website.”
“Can you, is that a thing people can do”?
“Well, not necessarily ‘people’, ‘people’ can’t, but I can”.

Because blogging didn’t exist then, or rather it did, but it wasn’t something ‘people’ knew about. 2003 isn’t even that early really. But it is 10 years. 10 years of fun and learning.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far. 2 days ago was the milestone, it all started on the 2nd September 2003. Discovering that was an accident. We went to see the Patrick Caulfield exhibition at Tate Britain at the weekend, and I drew/painted something inspired by the visit. Where was I to post it? The blog seemed the obvious place, when I posted it I realised that I hadn’t posted anything for almost a year and wondered if it was the biggest gap so far? To work it out I realised that I needed to know when the blog started, I went back and looked and discovered that the 2nd September 2003 was the date. The blog looked like this then: if you had asked me then I would have vehemently hated the word blog as a description. I wasn’t making a blog I was making a writing website. It seems mad now but it was crucial.

When I think, years later, about my favourite posts, many of them were from the early days, but I don’t really know what the best ones are… Maybe you can help? Maybe you’ve been reading for years, maybe not. I sometimes forget about the fiction because much of it was featured in the book, the articles never got that level of recognition. If you have something you can think of from the 10 years let me know. I’ll pull a post together later in the week.

I have to specially thank Chainbear who’s 30th birthday was on 2nd September 2013. He asked people to doodle him an image for his birthday. I had seen somebody had made him this funky hat…


So I felt I needed to draw/paint something for him, and why not a painting of that scene to show it was live.


I actually ended up drawing it on a train while holding my iPhone in my left hand so I could see the original picture I was being inspired from. I had seen the Caulfield on the weekend and had told myself that I would do something inspired by it. I would I’m sure do it… eventually… That’s part of what yesterday’s poem was about. Time slips away doesn’t it. It’s easy to make excuses not to spend some time making something. Because making something, in theory, is the optional part of life – but is it really? So I thought, “hey I should actually do that other drawing”. Is being creative optional? Really?

10 years of gamboling says it isn’t for me.

I really want to thank all of my readers – who are the smartest, most beautiful and coolest people in the world (let alone the internet). I won’t name you here because that would probably be uncool. But you know who you are. THE BEST THAT’S WHO.

So please let me know anything you remember from the last 10 years, go on…

If you were a superhero what superpower would you have?

If you were a superhero what superpower would you have?

I would go for the power of persuasion.

“No, don’t steal that thing!”
“Um, ok.”

It’s the ultimate superpower. But now you can’t have that, what would you have?

I do beg your pardon, were you using that lamppost?

The other day I published a reason to be cheerful article containing the concept that dogs watching dogs on old tv programs might find their forms of speech outmoded. Of course not only is it a lovely concept but it is a wonderful area of study that scientists are looking into right now.

I like the idea that dogs these days are all streetwise and drop their rrr’s before their Woofs and so while dogs these days are all, “wotcha” and “awight” when they see movies from the 60s it sounds like two dogs passing on the street might say to one another, “I do beg your pardon, were you using that lamppost?”

There has been recent research showing that cows and birds have different accents depending on the region they are from. In birds, there is also a variation between city dwellers and country dwellers, even when they are geographically quite close.

There has been much more research into bird song, so we know a little bit more about how bird songs are learned. Some birds acquire imitations throughout their lives, but others learn a set of songs early in life that they then build on and vary. To learn these songs these birds use something called subsong. This is most often seen in birds when they are very young, or when they are in the late stages of courting. This involves the birds singing with their beaks closed, and allows the birds to practice without attracting attention to themselves (like me singing in the shower!). I like to imagine them as embarrassed teenagers worried about singing off key.

Unlike most other things, the young birds learn their songs from their father rather than their mother. But here’s where it gets a bit weirder. Dogs are actually quite a bit more sophisticated than these other animals (even if they don’t seem it). Dogs don’t copy their biological father, they copy the pack leader. And guess who that is in their mind? It’s you. According to some recent studies*, there is a correlation between the tone and timbre of the owners voices and the dog’s barks leading to the concept of Geordie pups as well as Scottie dogs.

So there you go, be careful what you casually say on twitter, some of it might turn out to be true.

*All the info up until this point has come from peer reviewed scientific papers, including the concept of dogs mimicking their owners, the last part was from a large study that was a pilot study, but hasn’t yet been extended or peer reviewed.

Swanky Swankersons

I’ve come up with a business idea. The business will be called Swanky Swankersons. It will be located right up there in Central ‘That London’. When you arrive at the concierge desk, they check your reservation and that you’ve already paid for entry. The concierge then asks you to follow him to a lounge area. On your way, you walk through an area where we waft a seasonal smell at you, be it freshly-cut grass in spring or aromatic burning logs in winter.

In the lounge area, you are asked to sit in a leather armchair. You sit here for ten minutes. Then the concierge is back and asks you to take the elevator to the first floor. A completely glass elevator opens at your touch and the doors swish as you enter the lift. When you arrive at the top floor, you realise that there is only a viewing platform which has attached to it a really long escalator for you to come back down.

At the bottom of the escalator you get your shoes polished and then you are sent on your way into the night. If, at any time, you ask what on earth is going on, then you get barred.

I think it might catch on.

The invariably poor advice of Isaac Newton – Part 2

It is little known that Isaac Newton, in addition to discovering gravity and describing the laws of motion, worked for the Cambridge Advertiser as an agony uncle. His column was feared lost until recent research discovered this trove of material in Steven Hawking’s fridge.


April 1721

Dear Sir Isaac,

I am writing to you for your most wonderful and educated advice. I am but a humble farmer and I am uneducated in your scientific ways, but this farm which has been producing apples in abundant quantity for generations appears to have been on the wane from a yield point of view ever since you invented gravity.

My family is destitute, and I’ve had to eat my pet pig, please let me know what you are going to do about this,


Jonathan Kirkwood



You give me too much credit, His Holiness himself invented gravity, I merely discovered it,




Sir Isaac,

I have spoken to the vicar and he says he ain’t done nuffink,

And in the meantime I’m down a pig and three bushels of apples,





You misunderstand me, I was talking about the almighty himself. He invented gravity, and he also sent you a bad crop, but never fear, if it’s money you’re after perhaps I can interest you in the wonderful world of Alchemy?

It is well known that if you float sufficient apples over a waterfall then a pot of gold will appear at the bottom.





You are a git,


Stop over thinking everything

I saw something on the internet the other day by the wonderful stand-up comic Sarah Millican. She called it the 11 O’clock Rule or Millican’s Law

The gist is that by 11 O’clock the next morning you have to let yourself off from your bad gig the night before. But for me the key part of the rule is that it works the other way around as well:

Equally, if you nail it, slam it, destroy it, whatever, you can only be smug about it until 11am the next day (in the past, I have set an alarm so I could get up and gloat for an extra half hour) as if you go into the next gig thinking you are God’s gift to comedy, you will die.

I am an optimist, so forgetting the negative was built into me from day one. I know that skill and use it a lot. (I’m not saying I don’t get depressed, I do regularly, but that means I know how to get myself out of that hole because I’ve been in it a lot.) The danger for me is the, “Oh my god, I’m amazing at this”.

My first painting / drawing, while not amazing, was so much better than I was expecting and I should have known better but I then drew some pretty poor paintings / drawings one of which I included last week despite being told, “that looks like a child drew it”. I included it to re-enforce Millican’s Law. I thought I had it nailed, but I really worked at that first picture because I knew I was hadn’t practiced, then I rushed off the second one because I thought – I just happened to be amazing at painting.

Don’t put yourself down too much, but don’t big yourself up too much.

One thing that isn’t included in the article but is also important is this, “keep going, and do the next gig/project/bit”. Keep going.

Museum of Me

When I was a small boy, I had a powder blue sweatshirt which had the face of Micky Mouse on it. I think it must have been from when I was around four years old. Because as a child it was my absolute favourite item of clothing, it was kept each time we moved.

When I was around sixteen or seventeen my brother and I were asked to put away our childish things. I can remember, and I am willing to admit to you now, that I decided to keep this item at that point because I thought it would be a good item to have for the museum about me that they would have when I was famous. I can remember this clearly, the certainty that this would be necessary.

Now we could dwell on my teenage lack of self awareness, or on how I was sure I would be famous but I had no idea how I was going to do this, or on how a branded sweatshirt rather than a handmade sweater from my Grandmother might not have been the best item. Or we could focus on another aspect, something that came to me as I thought about that sweatshirt.

What would you have to do to get a museum about you these days? There aren’t really museums about people. Exhibits happen I suppose. The US Presidents get a library, but only an exhibit in the library is about them and I guess they wouldn’t include a sweatshirt from when they were four there. I think there is a museum for the Formula One driver David Coulthard but he must be a rare exception and sports isn’t really my specialist subject.

And don’t be confused, it’s not that I’d like a museum of me these days. What I’m astounded by is not just that I wanted to be famous, but so famous that they would build a museum to me when most famous people I can think of don’t even have one. The worst part was that was I was seventeen when I was thinking this.

Maybe the only way to get the museum would be to build it myself and then I could be famous as the weird guy who built a museum about himself.

On never throwing anything away

My Dad wrote an absolutely brilliant comment in response to yesterday’s blog post, so great in fact that I decided to add it as its own post. Enjoy…

I had a box, it was labelled H2 on the top in marker pen, it was the box that I packed my notebooks, notes and papers into when I left university. H2 had been my last room. I had used this box before in previous moves and it had survived the tumult of these wanderings. It came with me when I returned to my parent’s home, whilst there it was lodged in the attic.
After a bit my job took me to Bristol where I shared a flat, I was keeping my chattels light, so the box didn’t come with me. Some time later I moved back to work in London, then bought a house in Kent; it was time for the box to come home, I collected it from my parent’s attic and moved it to the corner of the room I used as an office, it sat there with the H2 on the top, but I don’t think that I ever opened it.
It wasn’t long after this that I moved to work in New York. The easiest thing to do in a relocation like this was to move absolutely everything to our new house in New Jersey, of course the box marked H2 came with us.

A few years later we returned to the UK and box H2 and all out other stuff was put into storage whilst we looked for a place to live. We bought a place in West Sussex and soon after were reunited with all the things that had been in storage… The box was back.

You accumulate things over time and make assessments as to whether they are of value and worth keeping, or are they things that just have to go as they take up too much space. Box H2 was opened, the contents inspected, the maths notes, which were very comprehensive and probably my best effort, looked at in amazement… I don’t remember how I did any of that stuff. It was obvious, after 25 years I didn’t need the box or its contents any more, it had to go.

We roll forward some years and I sign up to study Radio Astronomy at Manchester University, It s bonkers, I should have just gone to the visitors centre at Jodrell Bank for a look round, but no, I’m on a course. Naturally, the course has quite a high maths content and I find that I have forgotten what I used to know. Oh, if only I hadn’t jettisoned my H2 box with all its maths content, written in my own hand and in a style that I could understand.

I’m told that the best book that I could use to get back up to speed is Engineering Mathematics by K.A. Stroud. I get a copy and start to work through it. I get a very strange sensation, it’s like I’m reading the maths notes that I used to have in box H2, Stroud lays out his stuff just like I remember my notes were. I make good progress and things come back quite quickly. After some time and out of curiosity I turn to the Preface of the book just to see… Wham, oh my god, it’s Ken Stroud who taught me maths all those years ago that has written this book…

The notes in the box marked H2 are back, I threw them out years ago, but now have them back in a book. Ken did his trick again, I got a distinction.

When will it be time to throw the book out…? I can tell you, I’m not throwing my notes out again.

Situational Creativity

In response to my question about what have you practiced the most we had some great comments from Lukeh and Nick.


I have been practising to be a good person. It’s an ongoing project that one.

I always practise swimming to get better but I just enjoy being in the water and relaxing with lengths anyway. Then there’s writing too, as I’ve said not too long ago as well as my drawing. General creativity is my biggest long-term practise I’d say.


Nick Ollivere

I think, as you can probably guess, writing is the thing I’ve practiced the longest too, although it comes close with playing guitar (which I no longer do as much). I think I actually started writing lyrics to songs before I learnt to play the guitar. I think LukehMuse has hit the nail on the head with creativity though – before writing I was always making up stories in my head etc. Gill would argue that she’s not creative and wouldn’t be able to write anything, but I think everyone is creative to a certain degree (in cookery, for example).


Nick’s comment about Gill got me thinking about another underrated form of creativity which I’m going to dub “Situational Creativity”. What do I mean by this?

Well, first of all, because I was talking about practicing stuff people immediately leapt to things like writing and drawing etc, and of course the thing people have been practicing for the longest is probably breathing or does that just happen to you? Speech? Language? Comprehension etc. But these are too basic, too broad. But people do understand a wider form of creativity than just the artistic creativity of making or producing something. There is of course creative problem solving, the infamous thinking outside the box. And much as it’s easy to scoff at the terms etc there is some truth to it. Some people are much better at problem solving than others and those people tend to practice problem solving a lot.

But I think people know about that really, what I am thinking of essentially is deciding what to do today. Some people do the same thing every day and get bored, other people do a large number of fixed things on a strict rotational basis and get bored. Other people do those things and don’t get bored I’m sure. But some people are really great at saying, “Ah I know what I’m going to do today, I’m going to call Molly and Simon and we’re going to go to the Zoo. They’ve never met, but they’d get on.”

Now to many of you the person I just described sounds like a nightmare. But this is just an example. An example where Molly loves animals and has been wanting to practice her photography (and doesn’t really know anyone good to teach her). And Simon who just got a new DSLR, is actually pretty good at snapping photos and likes to show off a bit so will be happy to give her some pointers.

This is that friend who phones you and says, “so that was crap, do you want to come over and not talk about it?”.

Creating the situations that we live in, and being creative about them is a skill. It can be something that you do for yourself or others. But there is a skill to it and it is creative, and I think people don’t notice it because the only thing it produces is annoying Facebook wall photos, and lasting friendships.