Tuesday, 29 December 2009

True Grit

It has been snowing lately. We’re not very good at dealing with weather in the UK; we prefer to talk about it. Once the snow line rose above two inches, the country ground to a halt.
In the case of Cumbria, it slid to a halt. The local highways department decided to be parsimonious with the grit and as a result, most of the inhabitants spent the last week doing Torville and Dean impressions on the icy roads and pavements.
Inevitably, this was the subject for this week’s Westmorland Gazette cartoon. Below are the four rough ideas I submitted. You can find out which one appeared on the front page by visiting my website any time from Wednesday 30th onwards.

Friday, 18 December 2009

A Fortnight in Copenhagen

For the two weeks I have spent part of each day at the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen. I wasn’t one of the 15 delegates from Cumbria, I didn’t get to go along and carry anyone’s bags and, sadly, nor was I invited to be the UN’s official cartoonist. It’s all been virtual, from my desk here in the Lake District.

It has been fascinating. The Conference organisers have Twittered and organised seven live web feeds, allowing anyone with broadband access to follow what is going on. In fact, as I type, a tiny Barrack Obahma, is in a corner my screen, urging delegates to come to an agreement. Oops, he’s just finished and now it’s Pakalitha Bethuel Mosisili, President of Lesotho. Meanwhile, over on another web feed is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, presumably highlighting Iran’s attempts to go green by investing vigorously in nuclear power.

It’s not as good as being there in person but does have the significant advantage of being able to scoff mince pies whilst witnessing global events unfold.

And removes some of the filters imposed by mainstream media.

A few days ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger was giving addressing the Conference. It was a good performance, as you might expect and stressed that whatever the outcome in negotiations, the UN Conference was already a success for getting the world’s attention on this important issue.

He also put forward a Big Idea, which I’ll come to in a moment.

Turning to BBC TV news that night, Arnie hardly received a mention. The 10 O’Clock News announced that The Terminator had arrived and … that was it. Hew Thingie immediately went on to concentrate on the the imminent collapse of the talks.

The usual media focus on disaster, disagreements and deadlock.

Elsewhere, the Beeb has done better. The World Service provided excellent coverage with a wider perspective on the Conference from an additional seven countries around the globe. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, Matt McGrath and the production team have covered smaller, more quirky items such as the proliferation of acronyms and the paucity of public toilets. They've even posted pics on Flikr. It helps make a world event engagingly human, taking the focus off the politicians for a brief period.

And that’s the point. Our political leaders need to realise that they’re not our leaders. They’re public servants (your regime may vary). As such, they’re answerable to the public and not in Denmark to parade in nice suits and grandstand for the voters back home. The impetus for getting an agreement out of this conference comes from the NGOs and pressure groups camped outside the Bella Conference Centre in the freezing cold. Ironically, they were the ones being excluded by security as the politicians arrived to deliver their news bites.

Back to Arnie, who doesn’t need his profile raising and could therefore get on with talking some sense. He began by commenting that it was nice to be somewhere where his accent wasn’t out of place. He then listed what California was doing to push renewable energy and make the world’s 7th largest economy more green. And then came his Big Idea. Instead of a conference aimed at countries, prime ministers and presidents, how about the UN organising one for cities, states and smaller groups? The sort of organisations who are already making significant progress on the march to renewable energy and a more sustainable environment.

Of course, Arnie campaigned for it to be held in California, which won’t exactly harm his chances of re-election in 2010. But they’re greener of the rest of the US and it looks a nice place to visit. Give me five minutes and I’ll be packed.

The heavyweight politicians have turned up in force today and the mainstream media will concentrate on them. The real Conference work looks like it will continue all weekend so let’s hope World Service continues to cover it and that the web feeds remain. It might be worth popping in to see who is around.

Whatever the outcome, I’ve enjoyed my vicarious fortnight in Denmark. As Arnie said at the end of his Conference speech, I’ll be back.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Digging a Hole

More bad news in Cumbria this week. Due to financial difficulties the University of Cumbria has decided to close its historic Ambleside campus, the former Charlotte Mason College. This has come as a blow to students, staff and locals alike. Ambleside gains a lot from having the students on site.

It's the lead story in this week's Westmorland Gazette, so it becomes the subject for the front page cartoon. I think any of the rough ideas would have worked this week - here's the five I submitted.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Flood of Ideas

Most weeks I walk into the Westmorland Gazette newsroom without a clue what the front page stories will be. I prefer to jump in without too much pre-knowledge. I've never liked spoilers.

This week was rather different. Cumbria was all over the national news. Here are the five sketches I presented the editor, together with the cartoon which made it onto the front page.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Off The Rails

I don’t agree with Top Gear about many things but I’m veering towards their point of view on public transport. Especially when it comes to UK train services.

It is less stressful, more relaxing and infinitely more satisfying to drive the length of England than it is to try and book a train ticket. It also takes fewer hours. Carlisle to London by car? About five hours. Booking the ticket online - about four days.

First you have to decide when you’re going. Roughly. With enough flexibility to be able to take advantage of cheaper fares if there is a full moon on the day of travel (outbound journey only).

Then you have to thread your way through a bewildering variety of available rail tickets: Advanced, first class, standard, super-saver, off-peak, first advanced, anytime day single, super-advanced off-peak return, advanced off-saver super-peak, advanced-saver-first-class-upgrade-single, standard-advanced-turn-up-and-grab-the-ticket-salesman-by-the-throat-and-shout-“For-god’s-sake-just-a-give-me-*****ing-ticket!”

Then there are the discounts. Did you know you can get cheaper tickets if you have the ticket sent to your mobile phone? You need a wap-enabled mobile for this. This recently led to the ludicrous situation where it was cheaper for me to buy a new phone, than it was for me to pay for a normal ticket poked over the counter.

The ticket is emailed to the screen of your mobile, arriving in a state that is virtually unreadable. On my last trip the conductor asked for our tickets and said: “Oh god, you’ve all got them on your mobiles. I’ve got a splitting headache so I’m not even going to look.”

The image quality is so bad you could probably counterfeit it in Photoshop. Not that I would ever condone such vile behaviour as it would cheat the scumbag rail companies of much deserved income.

To make things even more deliberately annoying, you have to be careful which online booking service you use. I’ve just been caught out by this (hence the need to rant blog about it).

I’m a public-spirited kind of guy, so for the benefit of fellow travellers in the north west of England, let me state this very clearly:

NEVER EVER EVER book via Trainline.com without checking the Virgin Trains site first.

Even if you’ve already checked Virgin, do it again. In the 30 seconds since you last looked, Earth may have aligned with Jupiter thereby releasing new offers. (I can see no logic to their availability so the causal link may well be astrological in origin.)

Unfortunately, this time I decided I had a life so forgot to double-check virgintrains.com and paid £30 more than I needed. Of course, refunds are available on some tickets but - ha ha - not all and anyway there’s a £10 admin fee per ticket. Outbound and return are two tickets, even if you book as one return journey. Presumably this is because Trainline.com has television advertising to pay for.

And speaking of fees, when you buy a ticket from Trainline there is a booking fee (£1) and a credit card fee (£3.50) so, on balance, I think my earlier public-spirited statement can be amended to:

NEVER EVER book a train via Trainline.com. Not ever.

Should you want to give me your comments on this issue, you’ll find me on the next train to London. I’ll be the one trying to steal £30 worth of sugar sachets from the buffet carriage.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

1300 Cartoons (and counting)

1984 was an interesting year. Spandau Ballet was the biggest band in the UK. Big Brother was still 16 years away. I had been freelance for six months and was surprised to find I could still afford to eat. And a small, single column cartoon appeared on the front page of The Westmorland Gazette, the UK's top regional weekly newspaper.

Okay, I exaggerate. Madonna was much bigger than the Kemp brothers. But the cartoon was a new departure and I'm mildly astonished to find it continuing to sit on the front page, twenty five years later.

It's sobering to reflect that the cartoon is now older than some of the Gazette's reporters. It’s attempts to appear hip and trendy manifest as an online colour version. There it can even be viewed on an iPhone. It has yet to Twitter, Digg or Spotify but it's been on TV and even inspired a theatre set.

Looking back, I can see that the drawing style has changed dramatically over the years. This is partly due to deadline. In the old days, I took a day to do the cartoon. Now I get three hours from seeing the story to finished artwork. This includes at least four preliminary sketches for the editor to choose - or, if he hates all of them, up to ten. Then the finished cartoon is scanned into my Powerbook, a grey wash added in Photoshop and the electronic file is sent to the sub-editors in Blackburn. All of which takes only twice as long than the old fashioned method.

The subject matter of some of the jokes haven’t changed much. For example, I've been 'doing' Sellafield for almost the entire career of the cartoon. Other recurring topics include Windermere power boats, low flying aircraft, Kendal's bewildering traffic system, second homes and the local hospital. When I began, the Gazette's editor had me campaigning to have the hospital built. Fast forward 25 years and the cartoon is campaigning to prevent it being closed.

I still have most of the 1300 original cartoons and 5200 preliminary sketches. Occasionally originals get sold or are given away to much-loved and highly valued friends - who promptly hang them in the loo. The rest are carefully filed away against the day when Tate Modern gives up on Brit Art installations and decides to have an exhibition of something more amusing (and, let's be frank, more baffling to anyone outside Cumbria).

[This originally appeared on thewestmorlandgazette.co.uk but a recent redesign has lost track of my posts. I'll reprinting the less libellous ones here. In BBC terms, think of it as "a second chance to see ..."]

Friday, 30 October 2009

Cheating on Aunty

Recently I have been reviewing a long-term relationship. Over the years it has been an on-off affair. It may be time to move on.

The companion of choice to whom I refer is, of course, Aunty Beeb. She’s usually around somewhere, often tuned to Radio 3, 7 or the World Service.

When the World Service lived on short wave, it was a radio treasure trove, with all manner of programmes - comedy, drama, documentaries, quiz shows. Now it’s become a 24 hour news channel. As news goes it’s pretty wide-ranging (and not Westminster-obsessed like the domestic news) but it is marred recently by some deeply patronising on-air adverts.

The worst of these is BBC Tourette Syndrome. This affliction causes the station to broadcast the phrase “BBC” as often as possible. The most extreme BBC-count I’ve managed is eleven times in five minutes. One jingle begins “BBC BBC World Service” and sounds like a high tech speech impediment.

Aunty is displaying a range irritating behaviour at the moment. The old dear seems to have forgotten what she’s for and who she is aimed at. Perhaps she’s getting smug in her old age or trying too hard to impress her younger nephews and nieces. Or maybe she’s become a dotty old bat who has forgotten who pays her license fee.

She needs to be more careful. I could be tempted to cheat on her. It is an awfully wide world and Aunty is not the only one with a home on the web. Google ‘FStream’ and you can download a free application to your computer or iPod which gives you access to thousands of radio stations from around the planet. There is every genre of music, every kind of station you can think of and some of it is extraordinarily good.

If you enjoyed Buena Vista Social Club, then wait ‘til you hear a genuine Cuban radio station. Annoyed by the Daily Mail? Then go apoplectic with Rush Limbaugh on U.S. Republican radio stations. All of life is out there.

Listening worldwide feels exotic, adventurous and opens up new horizons. It may not all be in a language you happen to understand but at least there’s less chance of being annoyed by the adverts.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Pictures for an Exhibition

Last week a new exhibition opened in Mill Yard Studios, a small art gallery and working studio close to where I live. Lines Coming and Going may not be the snappiest exhibition title around but it does describe what is on show. Line work from six artists, the focus of each being shape and form rather than colour and texture.

And in the case of one of them, jokes. That would be me. Included in the show is original artwork from my Westmorland Gazette cartoon, on show and on sale for the very first time.

It was gratifying to be asked to take part. Cartoonists are usually the poor relations in the art world, cruelly spurned and ignored. Which is why we now have a Cartoon Museum of our own. Some cartoonists can’t draw for toffee, of course, but even their stuff is interesting when placed in a frame an hung on a wall. Artwork designed for print is never the finished article, so you get to see the imperfections. You get to see the blue sketch lines (in my case), the little notes in the margin (Giles) and the ink splats all over the surrounding paper (Scarfe). Giles famously didn’t want anyone to see his originals and claimed he wanted them burned on his death. Fortunately he changed his mind, placed them in the hands of a Trust and they have all been donated to the Cartoon Archive at Kent University, where you can now see them online.

Back to the local exhibition. I was asked to submit eight pieces of artwork and as I have drawn over 1300 cartoons for the Gazette, some drastic filtering was required. I began by only considering cartoons published between 2007 and 2009. This may or may not have been influenced by the fact that I have three year’s worth of archives on my website and I could find them all.

A cartoon on the front of a regional newspaper is both topical and, sometimes, quite parochial. Taken out of context it may make no sense at all. (Left in context mine occasionally make little sense.) So the next stage was to employ a traditional cartooning technique and cheat: I sent an email to friends, colleagues and the usual suspects, asking them to identify the cartoons they liked best.

Favourites quickly began to emerge so now it was my turn to join in.

Time for a confession. The Gazette cartoon is drawn to a deadline. I don’t have the luxury of awaiting inspiration or the exact quality of light to dance across my studio. If I do that there will be a small blank box in the following day’s newspaper. So some of the originals are ok-ish as drawings but nothing special. However, once in an improbably-coloured moon, there’s a drawing which I really, really like. It hits the page without my intervention and looks like somebody good drew it.

So no one is having any of those.

Well, okay, one got in. There’s no point being entirely selfish, it’s a selling exhibition after all. Interestingly, it was also the one my fellow exhibitors immediately identified as their favourite.

In the end, out of the 150 plus drawings, whittling it down to eight was a remarkably painless process (helped by getting other people to do most of the work, of course). You can see the selection on my website. Better still, get down to Mill Yard Studios before the exhibition finishes on 1 November and buy one of the cartoons.

As long as it’s not my favourite.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Lunar Dust-up

Earlier today, NASA crashed the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) spacecraft into the Moon. This wasn't sloppy driving, it was an attempt to look for evidence of water in Cabeus, a deep Lunar crater which lies in perpetual darkness. Telescopes from Earth were monitoring the results hoping to see ice and other material ejected by the impact.

From a scientific point of view, this is a pretty impressive. It's a tiny, 98 metre wide target to hit from a quarter of a million miles away - roughly the equivalent of hitting a golf ball in Lancaster and getting a hole-in-one in Brighton.

One valuable item of data to emerge so far is that the legions of the scientifically-illiterate cluttering up the interweb far exceeds expectations.

During the lead up to the impact it was a trending topic on Twitter. The twitterances were split between those following the science and those outraged it was happening. How dare we throw bombs at the moon, do we know what we're doing? What happens if we destroy it? Will we bring about Armageddon? (Here's a clue: No.)

Elsewhere in cyber space (where no one can hear you talk sense) there was a petition to President Obama wanting to (and I quote because I'm not inventive enough to make this up) stop the "US military-industrial-entertainment complex" from undertaking "a hostile act of aggression and a violent intrusion upon our closest and dearest celestial neighbor that will also have far reaching effects here on earth".

The petition was raised by the Chicago Surrealist Movement so it could be a spoof. But it’s too late - the clarion call has been taken up by moon-huggers everywhere.

There is a long and honourable history of finding out what stuff is made of by prodding it. NASA has been doing it since Apollo. The ascent stages of Apollos 12, 14, 15 and 17 were all deliberately crashed into the lunar surface. Seismometers, placed by the Apollo astronauts, were used to record the impact to get an idea of the moon's internal structure. (Sadly for Wallace and Grommit fans, it wasn't cheese.)

In the 1970s hippies didn't have an internet to bleat across. They probably congregated in San Francisco and sang mournful songs instead. If they did, no record exists, although this is probably a Good Thing.

Ironically, the LCROSS mission occurs ten years after the setting for Gerry Anderson’s TV series, Space 1999. If you missed it, this featured an explosion driving the moon out of orbit so the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha could have exciting space adventures whilst wearing flared trousers and talking in whispers. The biggest threat they encountered was Barry Morse's acting.

I watched the live NASA feed of the LCROSS impact and admit I was a little disappointed. I hoped the question of water on the moon would finally be settled. I anticipated seeing Elvis on a li-lo with Lord Lucan paddling nearby, possibly in the shade of a WW2 Nazi bomber. No luck. The screen went blank some seconds before impact. So that's another conspiracy theory shot down in flames … but who by and sponsored by what shadowy organisation?

It’s still daylight now but I assume the moon is still there. I'll have to wait until tonight to find out. On the whole, I'll be relieved if it is. It would be a shame if werewolves become an endangered species.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Play Not Dull

Last week, there was a moment when BBC TV rivalled the internet for wilfully propagating anarchy.

During Mock The Week, Dara O’Briain suggested extracting the radio-control chip from a London Underground Oyster card and fitting it into a magic wand. Then you wave it at the gate each time you go on the tube. Many people might say, “Why would you want to do that?” To which the only sane answer is “Why would you not?” Come on, it looks cool, it makes onlookers laugh and it might seriously annoy a bureaucrat somewhere. And it demonstrates the sort of youthful, playful outlook on life which makes you irresistible to the opposite sex. Or not.

Talking of annoying bureaucrats, how many of you have come across the splendid book by Patrick Moore on this subject? Bureaucrats and How To Annoy Them is a guide to doing exactly that. It offers helpful advice like always putting a stamp in the exact middle of an envelope, how to slightly overpay your income tax by an amount just significantly too much for them to ignore and generally how to drive officials round the bend. The philosophy is that you can never beat bureaucracy but you can waste its time by engaging it in pointless correspondence. It’s an engaging, hilarious book and I recommend you buy it and put its philosophy into practice immediately.

Back to the interweb. Another bit of wayward brilliance recently came to my attention via YouTube. In Me Shed is a raucous, back garden pop-video performed by suburban Welsh rockers Punks Not Dad.

For those of you too desperately unhip to know, Punks Not Dad are a bunch of middle-aged blokes who are living the dream of punk rebellion exactly 32 years too late. Their lead singer is called Sid Life Crisis. Other band members include Johnny Cardigan, Joe Strimmer and Adrian Viles.

PND’s motto is Allen Key in the UK, although it might just as well be live slow, die old and concentrate on developing an impressive beer gut between gigs.

Like Where The Hell is Matt?, In Me Shed one of those attitude-defining things. You either get it or not. Explanations are redundant and there is no middle ground.

Which is as it should be. What one person categorises as joyous and life-affirming, another will find mind-numbingly tedious.

And speaking of dull, there is one reason why you might not want to do Dara O’Briain’s magic wand thing: Transport for London will fine you for damaging an Oyster Card.

There are far too many reasons for being grown up and boring. Fight back. Buy Punk Not Dad’s CD.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Singular regularity

I like to keep regular.

Like most people, I suppose, I prefer a daily rhythm which is predictable and ordered. Especially important when one works freelance as a jet-setting, international cartoonist, freed from the shackles of the weekday nine to five. So it came as a shock when my usual Thursday job switched to Wednesday.

This is no trivial matter. The Westmorland Gazette has been appearing on the same day of the week for hundreds of years. Thursday has been my newspaper cartoon day for a quarter of a century. True, the time of day has varied as different printing presses and production deadlines have come into play but Thursday itself has remained an immovable object. Holidays have been built around it. Appointments in far flung corners of the globe have been organised to allow me to fax or email cartoons back to the high-tech, super-streamlined newspaper office in a remote corner of England.

Furthermore those around me have undergone 25 years of training to make sure they know that Thursdays, for two or three hours, I cannot be reached by phone, person, email or carrier pigeon for any reason except in the direst of emergencies. (My publishing business partner has now just about got it … I am not sure I will live long enough for him to become programmed to the change of routine.)

The new day has been running two weeks so will take a while to bed in. It does have benefits. Wednesday is market day in Kendal and the town is therefore very exciting, being positively a-throb with life and activity. (I don’t get out much when I am not internationally jet-setting.)

On the subject of which, when I am jet-setting - or at least, train-setting - I can do it on a Thursday, avoiding the transport companies’ predilection to screw their customers at Friday ticket rates. (Note to overseas readers - highway robbery did not die out in the UK, it became a subsidiary of the national rail network.)

On press day itself the cartoon routine remains the same. Read stories, produce a batch of sketches, sulk when the editor choses the wrong one, draw final artwork and scan into computer in three hours prior to press deadline. This has a rhythm all of its own, finely tuned to the hot-house environment of a regional newspaper office, a vibrant news-gathering organism turning a penetrating, incisive scrutiny on the community around it.

Unless it is someone’s birthday. In which case it’s cakes all round.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Being a Cartoonist

I have just completed one of the most difficult projects I have undertaken. A book on cartooning. Odd that it should have been so hard given that I am a cartoonist and have been drawing professionally for over 25 years. But it became one of those very personal endeavours that you agonise over getting right, fuss with endlessly and generally drive everyone around mad with. (I like ending sentences with prepositions.)

One of the things I have been keen to emphasise in the book is that cartoons are not just for kids. Some of the best cartoons are done for kids (Quentin Blake, for example) but it is not some noddy deviant relative of real art, to be dismissed by grown ups the world over.

Cartoonists have brought down governments, undermined politicians, attacked dictators, annoyed major world religions, taunted tyrants and taken men to the moon. (I may have got carried away with the last one.) The point is, it is a valid art form with a strong tradition. If you don’t believe me, go visit the British Cartoon Museum in London. Cartoonists, children’s illustrators and comic book artists are, in my opinion, hugely undervalued in this country. Some produce work of far greater artistry than any of the contemporary Brit Art clowns.

Someone once asked me what I did for a living and retorted, “Cartoonist? That must be a nice little life.” I decided to ignore the patronising tone and asked what he did instead. It turned out he was a manager in a city company and therefore astonishingly boring. Loads of money, no time, no life. I therefore saw it as my duty to regaled him with some of the jobs I had done, the exciting and exotic clients I had worked for and the endless freedom and creativity my nice little life afforded me. I have no idea if he saw the point but it felt good to me.

Cartooning is a brilliant way to earn a living. You get paid to make people laugh and you’re legitimately allowed to spend all day playing with ideas. Sometimes you get to annoy politicians. (Although if you do, the chances are they will ask for the original artwork, which takes the edge off the sense of satisfaction you may feel.)

I wouldn’t swap jobs for the world. It has brought me untold wealth, fast cars, glamorous women and a jet-setting lifestyle. (Some or all of the last sentence may be untrue.) Laughing keeps you healthy and helps you live longer: I recently interviewed American cartoonist Arnold Roth - 80 years old and determined to keep cartooning until nature intervenes (his words, not mine).

So my message at the end of the book, to any aspiring cartoonists: Go out there, do your best work, draw what makes you laugh and hope it will also amuse your clients. With luck you’ll never have to return to the day job.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Fly Me To The Moon

So, where were you when Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon?

As far as I recall - and yes, I was alive at the time, hard to believe in one so fresh faced and lovely - I was in bed. I remember scrambling out for the re-runs at 6.00 a.m. and spending the rest of the day at school trying to keep my eyes open.

I also spent the next few days buying up all the newspapers, in training to be a geek before the word was invented. I then filed them all away in an old suitcase (in a bid to be an early nerd as well). And during all the Apollo frenzy last week, a trip into the loft revealed … taraa, they’re all still there! So the last week has been a complete lunar nostalgia fest. And as I re-read all those old papers, I experienced again that old feeling of guilt about not doing my homework.

Whilst it’s possible to recapture some of the excitement of the period (readers under 48 need not apply), it is, of course, impossible to get a feeling of what it would really be like to stand upon the surface of the moon. Probably the nearest most of us will get is to look at the cleaned up, archived photographs in the book, Full Moon. Or go and look at the paintings by Alan Bean. That’s right, one of the moon walkers. He was the 4th person to walk on the moon, in November 1969. When he came back home, realised how lucky we were to live on Earth and was inspired to take up painting.

No cartoonists have yet made it to the moon (I am open to offers). It’s probably just as well. You may be aware there are people out there who doubt the moon landings were real and think it’s all an elaborate conspiracy. Designed, I presume, to give them a vapid and tawdry career spouting cobblers on TV. A cartoonist couldn’t resist messing with their heads by scratching out in the lunar dust: “IT’S ALL FAKE!”

Incidentally, drawing cartoons on the moon is now entirely feasible. NASA’s new LRO has already sent back pictures of the Apollo landing sites, showing the Lunar Module and the path made by Aldrin and Armstrong. Let me repeat, there is one cartoonist not a quarter of a million miles from where I sit who would go in a heartbeat. (Although a spaceship would be more useful.)

Was Apollo worth it? The lunar landing programme cost $150 billion in today’s money. That seems an awful lot until you discover that bailing out the American banking system has just cost the American tax payer $700 billion. Which of those two achievements is the most uplifting and inspirational?

On the other hand, spending $700,000,000,000 to send the world’s bankers to the moon seems a fantastically reasonable deal. We could even save some money: Don’t bother to give them space suits.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Going Digital, Part 2

Having decided that the BBC licence tax is going to get me whether or not I have a television, I’ve succumbed to a digibox. And now the second stage of the demented switch over process is complete, and analogue has been switched off, I have:

(A) About a million new channels

(B) A television with a pile of redundant analogue electronics inside it. Yes, I know I am supposed to ditch it and get a flat screen thing but I like my old Sony, so there. The economy can recover from recession without my input.

Acquiring all the digital radio stations, including the wonderful Radio 7 and BBC-BBC World Service, is a considerable bonus. I am not so sure the same can be said for some of the TV channels. For those of you who haven’t switched yet, here’s what you have in store:

BBC1 to 4 - not quite sure why the BBC needs so many or why 3 and 4 require a little logo in the top left to tell you what you’ve tuned into. Are goldfish the BBC's new core demographic?

BBC News - 24 hour news with presenters who aren’t handsome or pretty enough to be on BBC1.

CBeebies - training channel for future news and current affairs presenters.

BBC Parliament - feeble attempt to suck up to the politicians ready for the next licence fee review

ITV1 - occasionally contains programmes without real people.

ITV2 - contains older programmes.

ITV3 - repeats of programmes you last saw when you were three years old.

ITV4 - quiz channel, e.g. what is ITV4?

Channel 4 - so named because you have a one-in-four chance of getting Big Brother whatever time of day you tune in.

E4 - Channel 4 translated into Yorkshire.

4 + 1 - Channel Five for accountants.

Teacher’s Channel - only on for a few hours a day and then disappears for the summer.

Directgov - dodgy insurance channel.

Community Channel - stuff you would otherwise know about if you didn’t spend all day indoors watching TV.

Gay Rabbit - alarmingly enlightened children’s channel.

305 - nothing broadcast, which makes it the one place you’re safe from those irritating Michael Winner adverts.

Strangely enough, the likelihood of finding something you want to watch seems to be in inverse proportion to the number of channels on offer. Other channels may, of course, be available but after going through that lot, it’s easy to find yourself being drawn to the bookcase …

Fortunately, the electronic programme guide is quite exciting. I could watch that for hours.