28.12.03

That film
The story's epic, the CG's magnificent (if not absolutely flawless - Legolas climbing up the Oliphaunt still looked too gamey), and the leads even remembered how to act again (don't tell me this is the same Elijah Wood as in The Two Towers, where even Treebeard made him look wooden).

Despite never having finished reading the book (yeah, I gave up halfway on my one and only attempt in my teens - go on, tell me I'm a bad man), so having nothing literary to judge the films by, I think Peter Jackson can be rather pleased with himself, don't you?

25.12.03

Staying up late to wrap while half-cut and watching The Producers. Waking up too early to do the whole gang present-opening thing (Pirates - yaar!). Bacon buttie breakfast while phoning Thomsk in Australia. Christmas Top of the Pops. The Queen's Speech (journalistic necessity rather than monarchist desire). Walk the dog. Gin and tonic. Turkey. Christmas pud. Fizz. Cab-Sauv. The immaculate Belleville Rendezvous. Washing up. The disappointment of discovering that Welsh television isn't showing Amelie. Intra-family sniping initiated by grandmother (saints lost rag with her long ago). Cooling off period. Beer. Shouting match between dad and kid brother. Blog.

Merry Christmas everyone!

23.12.03

Sexie
Did you know fire stations only have poles because in the days of horse-drawn engines the problematic ponies tried to get upstairs? Maybe.

Eddie Izzard last night was, in the words of one of his own shows, glorious. Although there was nothing memorably catchy on the scale of "Cake or death?", the man just knows how to make people laugh. And he can certainly carry off a pair of knee-length, leather, high-heeled boots. Repeat viewings of the DVD will certainly be required.

Sexie? You betcha.

Not sexie
Following the decision by the jury in the Washington sniper case to recommend life in jail for 18-year-old John Lee Malvo, families of the sniper victims expressed disappointment at the verdict.

Victoria Buchanan Snyder, brother of Sonny Buchanan, one of the 10 dead, said "I cannot say I am not disappointed, because I am disappointed."

"There cannot be another case more deserving of the death penalty," she went on, but concluded: "I respect the jury's decision."

Good to see the Christmas spirit being felt in Chesapeake. I'm sorry for Victoria's loss, as well as those of the other familes, but the death penalty really is the crudest, most primitive form of retribution. It's not justice, it's vengeance. Maybe one of these days the US will decide they've had enough of the killing. Maybe.

Adult content
Belle de Jour won the Guardian's specialist British Blog award. Ostensibly the diary of a London working girl, it's an incredibly good read. Salacious, certainly, but one of the best written blogs I've read in a while. If this woman isn't really writing professionally already, she should think about a change in career. If you can stand the sex (and it's not all she writes about), I'd definitely recommend it.

21.12.03

In the absence of any real inspiration, let's reflect on the new Christmas number one.

As soon as I heard Gary Jules was in the running with his rendition of Mad World, it was the one I wanted to win. Not because of any great attraction to the song or the artist, but because it's so undeniably glum - the antithesis of the cheesy festive spirit and quasi-religious bollocks that usually dominate the charts at this time of year. If there's never another Cliff Richard number one as long as I live, it'll still be too soon. And the fact that the Pop Idols' cover of Merry Christmas War Is Over (surely in the poorest possible taste) was kept as low as No 5 is heartening.

But now I'm a little sad The Darkness were beaten to the prize by the Donnie Darko song.

Ever since my teens I've had a great aversion to the squealing, screaming, big-haired rock that pervaded the 80s - Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Heart, Europe and, of course, Hanoi Rocks, you know the kind - so I was less than happy to see it being revived. Except now, of course, I get that The Darkness are being less than serious about the whole deal.

Of course, they still have the melodramatic wailing vocals, and my key grumble of too many guitars (How many is too many? It can actually be as few as one. The key is how it's used and its prominence in the mix). But the power of post-modern irony had won me over.

And correctly judging the gravity of the situation, Justin Hawkins, Darkness poodle-rocker-in-chief, wasn't exactly magnanimous in defeat:

"We've learnt from our experience that you don't have to build up an entire campaign over a year. All you have to do is do a cover version at the end of the year and you can gazump everyone."

I can't help but warm to him after that. Why should he be gracious when he's had such an honour snatched away at the last minute?

I don't really know why I still care about the charts and who gets top spot at Christmas. After all, I gave up regularly listening to music radio several years ago, and can't stand most of what makes it big these days. It's mostly targeted at 16 to 24-year-old girls - and hopefully most people would agree I'm not one of those. But the club-lite and R&B oriented bilge that occupies most of the Top 40 really does feel like a personal affront.

I'm still drawn to TV pop shows like CD:UK (for reasons exceeding, but not excluding, the delightful Cat) and can't help feeling greatly aggrieved about the botch job done on Top of the Pops. It's been turned into a bad clone of its ITV rival, but fronted by a young boy of seemingly limited talent and charisma. And where's the chart music? I may not like it, but I'll be damned if I'm going to be deprived of the chance to moan about it. To be honest, the show's been on a gradual slide ever since they ditched Legs & Co.

Please stop me if I'm sounding too old. Actually, on second thoughts, don't. I'm having far too much fun.

Blighty's yuletide chart-topper is, and always has been, a matter to be taken seriously - arguably more than anywhere else in the world.

To paraphrase the puppy people, a Christmas number one is for life, not just for, err, Christmas.

19.12.03

With a bolder and more cynical perspective on things, I've put my hand back in the biscuit barrel, and have pulled out what may well be a Christmas cracker. If this one comes off, it will have at least one very interesting story to tell. More as it happens...

17.12.03

So I was wrong. Huntley got two life sentences for murdering Holly and Jessica.

Still not sure it will stand up against an appeal, though. The prosecution failed to prove he murdered the two girls. Just because he admitted being responsible for their deaths, and everyone (including me) knows it was deliberate on Huntley's part, that doesn't make it a watertight case. And that, in my mind, makes the conviction legally unsafe, however just it undoubtedly is.

It's been a horrible and deeply emotional case for a great many people, whether directly involved or just following and experiencing it through the media - this episode, as with each of the (thankfully few) cases of child murder that seem to occur annually, seems to have touched a nerve commonly felt throuighout the country.

I'm sure the town of Soham just wants to get on with life now, but I don't think we've heard the last of Holly and Jessica...

14.12.03

Saddam arrested. And I'm at work. I love breaking news!!!

Some time later...
Oh, the wonder of a fast-moving story. Who could have thought the discovery of an Arabic pensioner could give me such an adrenaline rush?

Saddam's capture saw the office move from a dull, sleepy Sunday morning into full tilt on half staffing at a moment's notice - and, say it though I do, we kicked ass.

For all the days that are full of trials, interminable territorial disputes and reheated government initiatives, it's the times when something really happens that make this job worth doing. Being able to handle a story of global magnitude without losing one's cool is a real test of journalistic mettle - tracking the developments, reporting them accurately, coherently and speedily, and juggling live events while keeping the story up to date.

It's relatively rarely that we get the opportunity to follow such a big story from initial rumour, through healthy reports, to indisputable fact in the space of a couple of hours: the death of Princess Margaret was one such event I've been involved in; the 2001 General Election night; the start of the attacks on Afghanistan; and of course September 11 another, much larger occasion. Although all tragic on their own scale, professionally speaking they give a much bigger buzz than 100 appeal court rulings put together.

Of course, on the more sober side of things, this probably means another four years of Dubya. Although it's definitely a good thing to have trapped such a bad man, up until the former Iraqi president's capture I really thought Dean, Clark or whoever could be in with a chance, but now George has the Mother of All USPs, he's got the White House pretty much locked down. And there's no way Hillary will go up against him now either.

Mark tells me not to be so pessimistic, that securing Saddam can only lead to a more secure and stable Iraq. While he's right and admirable to be positive, I'm not so sure I agree. I think this will allow the US to get out without clearing up properly. And I'm not one of those people who only started hating Bush when he went to war - I've plenty more issues with the man.

(Mark and I also disagree on the Soham trial. I can see Huntley getting convicted of manslaughter, possibly only one count at that, because despite Huntley's admission that he was responsible for their deaths, the prosecution gave no solid evidence he killed those girls. In short, they didn't prove anything and there's still reasonable doubt. Mark, on the other hand, thinks Huntley's bang to rights under Section 2 of the 1957 Homicide Act - namely withholding medical assistance from someone in need. But Mark and I regularly disagree on the news - it's part of the fun of working there generally, and being friends with that man specifically.)

All said, this journalism thing ain't such a bad gig. I could make a career of it.

11.12.03

Thoughts I should really articulate
Jane and Thomas' cat really does nothing but eat - preferably my food. Never before have I encountered a cat with the balls to come and steal food out of your hand or off your plate. He just sidles up and takes it. And then goes and craps in the shower. Lovely. Remind me why I want my own cat...

Gordon Brown is a desperately dull man. An intelligent, seemingly shrewd, honest and principled man, but desperately boring all the same. Or maybe it's just his subject matter. Listening to the pre-Budget report yesterday I found myself wishing for a nailgun I could use to ram spears of metal into my skull, just to give me the sensation of being live. I have no head for economics, but surely they can't be meant to be interesting? Gordon's drone was seemingly infinite, leaving me to wonder whether I'd ever want to see him as prime minister. I think he'd swing the country a little back to the left - a Good Thing - but would he be able to inspire people? But I suppose we voted for a smooth-talking, charismatic media whore last time, and look where that got us.

Mark Byford will be my next boss. The Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, appointed him Deputy DG yesterday. Byford's a pedigree Beeb man, and Greg's probably just biding his time until his spiritual home at ITV reaches the promised land of a single, unified company after Carlton and Granada merge. By this time next year, I'm saying Roland will be back on the currently sinking ship. He's done good work for us, especially after the hell of the Birt years, but keeping ITV afloat will require a whole different bag of tricks.

Amateur Girlfriends Go Proskirt Agents by Xploding Plastics is a great album. Listen to it. Mad props to Robin for telling me to do the same.

That is all.

9.12.03

Before leaving for Australia, Thomas's girlfriend Jane pointed out the Christmas decorations, just in case I wanted to put them up. I have to say that although the thought was appreciated, she was wasting her breath.

It's not that I'm anti-Christmas - far from it. Despite it being for reasons completely separated from the festival's origins, Christmas is still a very important occasion for the whole family. Even Dad, who actually objects to it on both religious and consumerist grounds, still tends to go to a candle-lit church service (the only one of us who does) on Christmas morning and spend time, thought and money on gifts. My father's a man of fascinating contradictions.

No, the reason Jane needn't have told me is that if one's going to be the only person in a house, what's the point in decorating for Christmas? Two people or more, fine. But how much more joyful can tinsel and paper-chains make it if you're making the run-in to the holiday on your own? The big black cat I'm currently sharing with certainly isn't going to feel less festive for the lack of a tree. Indeed while the actual act of decking the halls with loved ones is great fun, flying solo only serves to remind you there's nobody there to help.

So at the risk of sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge, the decorations will be staying in their boxes until they have someone who can really appreciate them. I'll be seeking my yuletide cheer elsewhere.

5.12.03

Oh, how I've ached today.

Despite fighting my hoarder's nature in getting rid of more than 100 videos (either chucked or donated), two large bin liners full of unwanted clothes and farming out a box of books (lent and crossed), the amount of stuff I've acquired in my 31 years still alarms me. And all of it needed moving. In big, heavy boxes.

Although the actual process of moving out of Elgin Avenue was relatively painless, thanks to the sterling effort provided by Thomsk and Robin, the aftermath has been somewhat less pleasant. Bits of me I didn't know could hurt are reminding me of their existence.

Still, the day gave me two funny little moments to hang on to.

The first came just after Bobs had arrived with the van, and we were preparing to load. As if officially saying goodbye, my cherished King's Troop trotted by for their daily exercise with their cannon.

I'm no military man, but the regular encounter with this regiment of the Royal Horse Artillery has been one of my favourite things about living in W9 - beautiful beasts every one, they always made me run to the window when I heard the characteristic sound of scores of hooves on tarmac and the rattle of gun carriages. It's the kind of thing that really gives a place special memories and something that I'll definitely miss.

But on this occasion, something happened that I'd never previously witnessed: from the front of the convoy a bugle sounded and the whole lot stopped outside my front door. As the 40 or so horses and their riders held up the traffic on this significant thoroughfare, one animal was brought to the back of the line. Whether it was lame or had shed a shoe, I don't know, but the soldiers duly led it into the huge horse transport that always accompanies the procession, and brought out a substitute mount. Then with another blast on the bugle, the train set off again. A very special moment indeed.

Then some time later, while driving the van down the Uxbridge Road to the storage facility, something altogether more bizarre occurred. We'd been flipping through radio stations trying to find something good, and had landed on something playing music from 1984. One track ended, and then with no drivel from the DJ, 99 Red Balloons started playing.

(Anyone old enough to remember the original appearance of Nena's only significant hit will also probably share my memories of living with the bomb. There was a time, principally under Reagan and Thatcher, when nuclear war seemed a very real possibility. This song always reminds me of that fear, and makes me feel relieved that, even though those evil weapons still exist in their thousands, the threat of imminent annihilation is less obvious now. Even with the war on terror, would today's kids really comprehend what we had to live through?)

Anyway, the track gets going and Thomas and I suddenly realise where we are. Neither of us had heard the song for years before a few weeks ago. Funny thing is, where we were on that occasion was less than 50 yards from where we were this time. Weird.

So now I'm at Thomsk's flat at least until the New Year, bracing myself for another assault on the housing market. Although not that disappointed about losing the particular property, I do feel quite scarred by the debacle, and a little wary of the process.

What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, I know, but I need a little time out before I can really find my next home.

And one thing's for sure - I can't do that aching.

4.12.03

So this it how it ends.

For the past 1008 days this flat has been my home. No longer.

Goodbye Harrow brick road. Farewell Westbourne Park. Maida Vale studios - keep on rockin'. So long Pinky's. Adieu Le Cochonnet. Seeya Grand Union. And even though it's just around the corner, I never did get to visit the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

And to everyone else who's made these three years in West 9 so memorable - ta.

I thought I knew where I was leaving you for, but that's the way the cookie crumbles.

So I'm cast out onto the street, forced to move from spare bed to spare bed until I can once more find somewhere to call my own.

Until then, when I'm reunited with all my stuff (due to begin a sentence of unknown duration in HMP Self-Storage), this will have to be my home.

Don't touch that dial.

2.12.03

It looks like I've lost my biscuit. Some bastard came and stole it from under my nose.

It all revolves around honour and a loft.

I'd found this nice, two bed flat (there, I can say it!) in Finsbury Park (north London). It didn't scream at me, but it would be a good place to live. Good space, nice area, nice street, near good friends, good pubs and good restaurants. Crappy decor, but that's by the by. Nothing a lick of paint, a pair of curtains or a blind and a stripped floor can't fix. So I decide to make an offer.

The person selling is a guy called Rob, doctor by trade. He and his wife are asking 185k. I offer 180k. They say fine they'll take that, but for 185k (their asking price) I can get it with an extended leasehold and the large loft added to the property, on which Dr Rob is spending five grand. I says hmm.

They say they have another guy interested without the loft at 182k, coming at them through a different estate agency, but would still prefer the whole loft deal. I says fine, 185 with the loft.

This is all through my estate agent, remember. Rob and I never speak. It's all "Rob says this" and "Ben says that".

They say great we're good to go, give me 10 days to get my affairs in order, and the estate agents draw up the papers and inform our solicitors.

Fast forward a few days while I get details of my mortgage finalised and let Nightshift Ben loose on the world.

Then yesterday morning, the agent (guy called Milo, very chirpy) comes back to me saying the other guy has upped his offer to 183 without loft and lease, and Rob prefers that, for some reason. What do I want to do?

So I hums and haws a little, then go back and say, okay 184 without the loft and lease.

So I'm still a grand over this other guy.

Estate agent comes back to me in the afternoon and says no go. Says Rob's Japanese wife (who up until this point has played no part in the dialogue) has actually met this other prospective purchaser and liked him, says she feels honour bound to sell to him.

Seems like she doesn't have too much of this honour stuff to spare, though. She hasn't met me. so apparently doesn't care about keeping to the deal I've agreed with her husband.

Rob tells Milo he's totally under the thumb on this issue and doesn't have a say. The only way he'll be able to sell to me if is he gets divorced.

So while I'm offering more money than the other guy, and good to go right this minute cos I've done all my mortgage negotiation, I don't get a look in. All that effort from myself, my folks and Milo for nothing.

Milo fuming. Mum and Dad fuming. Me tired. Probably would fume and spit and snarl had I the energy, but don't. Feel unusually upbeat instead, in the mood for cheesy pop - the likes of S Club, Steps and Britney, plus a bit of Gomez and Bill Withers - and New York Super Fudge Chunk. Strange how I react to bad news.

We've gone back to them with their full asking price of 185, to see whether the wife's deep sense of honour can be bought for another grand, but it looks like it's back to square one.

Scuppered by London property's answer to Yoko Ono.

1.12.03

Before we get down to tonight's serious business, I'd like to address an issue raised by someone purporting to be In Charge: Shouldn't you be working instead of writing your blog?

Thank you for your concern, In Charge, but Ben is entitled to a one hour break during his 10 hour shift, and were you the person who's really in charge, you'd be keen that he take it. How he chooses to spend those 60 minutes is his concern. And no one's ever raised any concern over the quality of his work with him, especially not in what he does overnight.

I know Ben would hope that any dip in form would be brought to his attention as soon as it happened, so that he could redouble his efforts instantly. But as this hasn't happened, we have to assume it's all good.

So as far as I see it, everything's in order. Thanks all the same for your question.

Now Robin, writing from the jellied eel environs of the Australian Antichrist's doorstep, asks:

What does this 'New Year' hold in store? My own predictionary skills can only reach as far as foreseeing a high probability of seasonal air temperature change. I was wondering if your extensive knowledge of What Is Going On In The World could shed any light beyond that.

Well, Bobs, flattered though I am that you think such things are within my grasp, precognition can not be listed among the powers I possess. However, despite working on plans for my 2004 predictions (due to be unveiled in full at the end of the year, natch), I can give you a little insight into what I see happening in the year ahead.

* The US-led coalition will pull out of Iraq, handing over power to the country's indigenous interim government. Several members will subsequently be assassinated, as the country deteriorates into civil war. President Bush will decline to get involved in what he calls 'internal politics', fearful that US troops in bodybags will see him lose his job.

* Peter Jackson will orchestrate the destruction of the Hollywood sign in his remake of King Kong, after the imbeciles of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences once again fail to reward properly his work on the Lord of the Rings.

* The civilised world will see the writing on the wall when America's Democrats nominate a man with all the appeal of a rice cake to contest the Presidential election. Dubya will duly succeed where his father failed and win a second term in office. (I'd love to be wrong on this. Please rub my nose in it if I am.)

* England's footballers will fail to win Euro 2004, struggling to even get through the group stage in Portugal, before imploding in a flurry of egocentricity against an unfancied minor nation. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich will be left with an awkward decision and the possibility of reneging on a deal, as he decides whether to replace championship-winning coach Claudio Ranieri with England failure Sven-Goran Eriksson.

* George W Bush will be involved in another comedy moment to go along with the pretzels, the Segway, and the Barney-dropping episode. Exactly what this will be, even I can't tell. But it will happen.

* The BBC will finally realise that Sir David Frost really isn't worth paying all that money to be fawning and unincisive every Sunday morning, when what they really want is intelligent, articulate conversation on current affairs.

* Ben will move into his new flat in Finsbury Park, and lots of people will come to see him. His love life might even finally start to look up.

I'll work on more as 2004 draws closer.

Oh, and Samantha, sorry about Tom Sizemore but trust me, it will be answered.

Until next time, my friends, keep asking questions.

30.11.03

Questions of a more personal nature tonight.

The enigmatic Question Man asks: What came first, nightshifts, or Nightshift Ben?

If you're asking from a global perspective, then it's definitely night shifts. After all, difficult to imagine though it may be, there's several thousand years of human existence before the Benjamin Project came along. But if you're asking about Ben, then I've been on board since day one. It just so happened that he got himself a job which would occassionally requre me to do something other than make sure he slept okay.

Jim asks Mr. Shift Ben, my question for you is this: What would be a good question for me to ask of Nightshift Ben?

That in itself is a good question, but I'd have expected you to know the answer. All questions are good, Jim. It's a shame the same can't be said for answers. Except mine, naturally. From personal problems to cosmic conundra, I'll do my best with them all.

And Jello wants to know whether there's anything I want to ask you guys. Well, uh, how do I say this diplomatically?

No.

Yes, you're right that I'm different from regular Ben - I'm more decisive, less introspective, and - if this is humanly possible - have an even higher tolerance of bad television than the CBU. But in terms of asking questions - well, he's the journalist, so I leave that to him.

Sure there are certain things about the old boy I'd be interested in getting your feedback on - such as why my regular duties seem to be restricted to sleep, rather than anything carnal, when there really are many people out there with much less to offer than this guy getting it on a regular basis; and whether you think he's right to be doing what he does, or should he be going in another direction - but I'm more interested in finding solutions once other people have identified the issues. It's just what I do.

So one last night before the New Year: whatcha got?

29.11.03

Evening all. Well, here I am for my last stint of 2003, doing my bit by earning the boy extra cash for his flat-buying lark.

But do I have any questions to answer? No, I do not. You lot have been unusually lacking in curiosity, so I'll use this opportunity to bring you an important new revelation about Ben (who is, you recall, staffed by two people during the day, and just me at night) and his lack of co-ordination and manual dexterity (or, if you will, why he's a generally clumsy fuckwit).

Our newly appointed Director of Research & Development on the Benjamin Project, Dr Lindsey Fallow, has this to reveal about the question she raised last time out:

Having had time to sit down with a pen and paper, I have calculated that whilst in proportional terms the different in velocities experienced by your lower half and your upper half is understandably small, this difference does in fact result in approximately 300 meters of linear displacement between the two halves over the course of ever hour in which you are
standing up.

Whilst sitting down this is reduced to around 150 meters per hour, and whilst lying down it is 0.

Clearly this effect is cumulative - and I'd estimate that on an average day you probably build up a further 4 km of displacement between the two - some 1460 km per year.

Please do not be alarmed. In the interests of your personal survival, I've carried out extensive calculations, and I can assure you that it will be in excess of 15,250 years before your top half laps your bottom half.

Obviously my department will now begin preparing plans to bring the two halves of the CBU into better alignment (the initial plan, which involved using a giant can crusher to reduce the extent of the discrepancy has now been rejected as there are potential negative side effects). In the meantime, you may wish to consider carrying out potential dangerous actions which require co-ordination between the two units, for example cutting your toenails, whilst lying down.


So there you have it. A great mind at work.

Any questions? Anything! Please?!

27.11.03

Tomorrow night, for the last time this year, we're letting Nightshift Ben out of his box for the weekend. We don't yet know when he'll next be out to play, so make the most of him while you can.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving to those celebrating. :)
Had a real panic today. Looking 25 years down the road, and all the money that one pays back to the people lending a mortgage really made me wonder whether buying was a good idea. The interest, my goodness! An interest only mortgage allows you to pay them quarter of a million, and then still owe them what you borrowed at the end of 25 years. The bastards bleed you dry!

My parents seemed to think that purchase was still a good idea, though, and talked me down.

But I tell you, folks, we're all in the wrong game. We should be in property. And not just buying and selling either. Nope, the real money's obviously made in enabling people to buy or sell. Just to be able to buy this biscuit, sorry, flat, I'll have to lay out somewhere in the region of £3,500. And that's before I spend anything on the flat itself.

This game isn't for the faint-hearted. Hell. This isn't a game.

25.11.03

If I seem a little out of sorts over the next few weeks, please don't worry. I've just had an offer accepted on a biscuit.

It's a good biscuit, in an area of the tin that I'm comfortable with, friends owning and borrowing biscuits nearby while still providing easy access to the rest of the cupboard.

When weighing up whether to try and buy it, I was given differing advice by people. Some said I should go for a good, solid cookie, one I knew could fill a hole and please me over the course of time. Others thought I should hold out for the full jammy chocolatey honeycomb hobnob caramel wafer once-in-a-lifetime biccie.

But on reflection, the former seems a better bet. One could scour the shelves of patisseries for ever without finding the baked goodie to beat all others, especially when, as I've said before, I don't know what kind I want.

Despite the fact that it didn't knock my socks off, this biscuit was the best I saw and will, I think, do well for me over the next few years. I'll have some work to do on it as well - nothing much, only cosmetic, a sprinkling of sugar here, the addition of a few nuts there. Much better than not being able to justify making my mark on an already perfect biscuit.

Of course, it could still all go pear-shaped, someone could try dunking it in their tea and let it fall to pieces, and I may have to go in search of another. Not for nothing is biscuit purchase considered one of the most stressful events of one's life.

There are still things I want to write about Bush and Iraq, the glory of England's rugby world champions and the cheese of Project X, and while I'll try and keep things ticking over here as well and normally as possible, if - and I mean if - abnormally large gaps appear or I don't pay as much attention to the news as usual, then I suggest you just blame it on the biscuit.

21.11.03

Apologies for the silence. There is much I want to say, not least about George's Day Out in London. However, I'm currently in South Wales, embroiled in a covert operation known only as Project X.

In time I will be able to reveal all, but for now I can disclose nothing save this: cheese is involved.

Later, Angels.

18.11.03

I'm rapidly reaching the conclusion that trying to buy a flat is bad for the soul. I agree this may sound melodramatic, but after seeing five properties this morning, I've had something of an epiphany.

I've never made any secret of my religious atheism, although I manage to keep my militant streak subdued unless faced with mass outpourings of faith.

However, the evangelism that surrounds the drive to keep the housing market afloat is making me feel more threatened than any of the major world faiths have managed in a good while.

The Cult of Property wants to claim me for its own. At every turn I find myself confronted by the holy agents of realty, estate acolytes, coaxing me away from eternal damnation as a lessee, and towards the promised land, offering me bricks and mortar in place of milk and honey.

And even those fortunate enough not to be officers of the church tell me how elated I'll feel once I have converted. Though the road may seem hard to the novice, for the enlightened the journey holds much excitement, the ultimate reward being the greatest prize I could ever hope to win.

All of them repeat the mantra that despite vile lies about the evils of recession gathering strength, now is the time to join, that salvation is near, that house prices are pushing upwards, ever upwards, towards nirvana. Do I want to be left behind on Completion Day?

But, much like with the theological promise of paradise, I have to make that leap of faith to discover the truth.

None of us knows whether our religion has been right in its teachings until we die - by which time its too late, an equation highlighted by the fact even Monsieur Pascal couldn't resist a little flutter. Equally how can one know whether a flat is right until one's lived in it?

Of course I understand the fiscal reasons for investing in land - I just can't stand everyone telling me that flat-hunting is fun. It's not. It's gruelling, confusing and depressing. There is no fun.

I'm still waiting for my Damascene conversion. The light has yet to shine.

17.11.03

Questions are usually the nightshift's detail, but he won't mind if I answer this one (being the boss, and all) from Jim:

With all due respect, Ben, I'm about to slit my wrists from boredom here. Isn't there a politician or something you can mock? Or a situation to wryly comment upon that involves some American's over-the-top zeal for patriotism? For god's sake, you're discussing the intricacies of the ISBN.

It's your journal, do with it what you will, but I'm DYING here.


Well Jim, while you're not enjoying the great ISBN debate, it's a new future we're trying to forge, so we'll continue.

And what with the 80-hour week I'm working, plus the whole flat-hunting rigmarole, blog time has been a little scant of late.

Having said that, cataloguing and classification aren't everybody's cups of tea, so your point is well taken.

Oh, and look who's just about to fly into town. Surely there's something I can find to write about that. :)

14.11.03

In my three years at library school, they never taught me what Samantha did today about the ISBN, or International Standard Book Number you find on the back or dust cover of most books.

Spot, if you will, the difference:
Little Green Men, paperback, published by Allison & Busby, available in the UK: ISBN 074900505X
Little Green Men, paperback, published by Random House Inc, available in the USA: ISBN 0060955570

Tell me, which part of international standard do people have trouble with?

* * *

I have a friend, in her early twenties, whose mother was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. My friend is understandably distraught but very strong. She gives the impression that her mother is much the same. Yet despite her mother's deadly condition, my friend still smokes quite heavily.

What can you do?

12.11.03

I've just been drawn into the Bookcrossing phenomenon. Perfect for a former librarian, you'd have thought.

But while it seems to be a great scheme, I'm participating in spite of myself. There's something not quite right about giving away books. Depleting one's collection rather than increasing. It all feels distinctly unnatural.

I've always been a hoarder by nature, unwilling to let things go, allowing them to grow around me, and carrying everything from home to home as I move through life. Consequently I have thrown away precisely one book - a freebie handed to me on the street by a Hare Krishna evangelist. And I agonised over that for days before finally lobbing it binwards.

It wasn't just chance that led me to library school. I have an innate respect for and love of the medium of the book. Old ones turn me on. One of the biggest buzzes I had during my time at University was being on the second floor balcony of the old British Library, being able to touch 14th century tomes.

So getting rid of books... creepy.

But every library needs refreshing or culling from time to time, and with a move in the offing, Bookcrossing allows me to move surplus stock or find room for new volumes with a clear conscience.

However, despite my collection being anything but high literature or learned, there are certain things staying put. No one's having my Hiaasens, neither my Bankses nor Brysons, and Douglas Adams is strictly off limits, as is Nick Hornby. And although I moved on from Pratchett some years ago, to lose touch with those parts of Discworld I know would feel like an abandonment of one of few things from my teens that I actually enjoyed. Then there's the reference books, the early Rankins, and the odd Coupland.

So all that's off limits. Not forgetting, of course, the stuff I can't remember or can't find. As for my treasured Noel Sainsbury, Jr - forget it.

But the rest - it'll have to make way for other, better, newer, older books.

So where do I start?

9.11.03

It's been a very depressing day. Not the real "thousands dead, world in peril, split up with girlfriend, lost my job, lost a limb" kind of depressing, but a complete downer all the same. My sports teams all ganged up for one great big suck.

My betrothed, Newcastle United travelled to take on the superstars of Chelski, and came away on the wrong end of a 5-0 scoreline. I was expecting them to lose, so that was no great shock, and in going down by a couple of goals to players of the class of Crespo and Duff, one leaves with one's dignity intact. Not today were we afforded that honour. The bastards took our pride along with all the points.

And then my first love, my teen crush, the Miami Dolphins managed to score 7 against the Tennessee Titans. Unfortunately, the home team notched up 31. The Fins, like the Magpies, were served a can of whupp-ass by their hosts and stank the whole place out.

Evidently I'm drawn to losers.

Newcastle United have not won a major trophy in my life. In fact I'd have to be approaching my 50th birthday to claim anything different, when the FA Cup went back to St James's Park. And for the league title one has to return to the days of photography in black and white to see champions in black and white, all the way back in 1927.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, do allow me a little association with their glory days, having gone undefeated all season in winning the Superbowl in 1972, the year of my birth, and then taking home the Lombardi Trophy as NFL champions once again the following year. Since then, pretty much nada.

The Dolphins quarterback, their leader, in those glory days was a guy called Bob Griese. Now his son Brian is doing that very same job. Brian is not his father. Brian gave the ball away five times this afternoon. (For those of you not versed in the ways of American Football, that is considered Very Bad Indeed). Brian will be leading us nowhere soon.

But it's not like it stops there.

In recent times, I've seen the Canucks lose at hockey, started taking an interest in rugby union only to see England play some of their worst games in recent years, and on my final day in the States, the three teams I rooted for over the stretch of eight hours (baseball's Braves, football's Falcons and the USA's women footballers) all decided that it wasn't the winning but the taking part that counted. And only the Falcons could claim they were playing a team recognised as being better than themselves.

In fact, the only team I've paid to see win in the last 10 years is the University of Washington Huskies.

I blame my father. He never took the least bit of interest in sporting endeavours, and so I was left to find my own affiliations. I should have been easy pickings for the medal-laden glory boys, but instead of making hay, the boys I chose were making weight. And because of Dad's athletic apathy I can't even blame my choice having been made on some misguided sense of loyalty to the family cause.

One can see why so many people flock to Manchester United. The thrill of being a winner must be something special.

I guess I'm just going to have to wait.

But you victors out there, savour your feast while you can, because one day you'll need the memory of its sweetness to disguise the bitter taste of defeat.

So there!

Is it our turn soon?

7.11.03

I'm in the middle of getting pissed with colleagues, but just wanted to show you that occasionally they let me out of the box for a little fun. Hate the voice, but the script and pictures stand up, which is all that really matters to me.

5.11.03

In the words of Swedish poodle rockers Europe, it's the final countdown.

One month from today, the flat that has been my home since March 1st 2001, some 979 days ago, will no longer serve that purpose. Long, possibly boring, financially embarrassing (though for someone else rather than me) story, so I'll spare you the details.

In the short term I'll be staying at Thomas's while he's down under for Christmas. In the long term, however, it means I'm looking for somewhere to live. And this time it's serious.

We're talking purchase.

And so begins an inestimable period of vulnerability and uncertainty, before there comes a life-changing decision that only I can make. Oh joy.

Anyone who knows me well will recognise that these are probably my least favourite states of mind to be in. In my personal circumstances much more than my professional life, uncertainty makes me tense. I feel safe in familiar surroundings. I have trouble even adapting to change in the living room. Do I want a throw over that sofa? I've never had one before. The place will look different - I'm not sure I can cope.

Though my rented accommodation of the past two years and nine months isn't the world's greatest flat - nor even the neighbourhood's - if I could stay here forever I would, if only because it would mean never having to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings ever again. The known is secure. The unknown is wild and random and threatening.

And anyone who's seen me try to order lunch will know how deftly easy decision-making avoids me. So spending the best part of £200,000 on a flat? Me? How am I supposed to trust my judgement on which one is right to pursue if I can't even commit to chicken mayo over tuna melt? Woah, as they say, Nellie.

There are currently two places in the running. A very nice, affordable one near friends which, given the correct and considered use of space, I would probably be very happy in. And a gorgeous, light-filled, slightly bigger, almost certainly unaffordable one, with a cute kitchen and one of the very best bedrooms in the world, which I think I'd love to live in, even if the bathroom is slightly eccentric.

I am, then, facing a very taxing time. I'm not looking forward to this responsibility. It may affect my mood or thinking. So if I come across a little odd in the next few weeks - well, discernibly moreso than usual - you'll know what's on my mind.

4.11.03

First things first (in case I don't survive my encounter with a xenomorph later this evening): Happy Birthday Dunc. Use this last year of your twenties wisely - you won't have time for wisdom once you hit Th, cos it just gets better from hereon in. May sexy hitchhiking angels fly you to the arms of the woman you love.

3.11.03

Well, that's about it for this session of Ask the Nightshift. Tonight's Q&A can be found below, but as soon as I hit publish on this post, I'll be back on Hair and Wake-up detail, and the CBU will have its blog back.

But those of you with an insatiable appetite for knowledge need not fear, for I shall be returning three weeks on Friday for another stint of fact-finding. Be sure to mark 28th November in your diary, and get your questions in in good time.

Oh, and Samantha: don't think I've forgotten about Tom Sizemore. I'll have some of my best people working on it while I'm away. The wait is regrettable, but should be worth it.

Until late November then, my friends...
Tonight's first question comes in the form of a heart-rending plea from a confused youngster with something of a Washington State twang:

Mr Night Shift Ben sir, I was wondering if you could explain something for me. My daddy was telling me that there are really people out in the world who think that Mallrats didn't suck bad bad bad.

I think these people probably also are responsible for the hole in the ozone, clubbing baby seals, and killing my kitten "mitsy".

Why, Mr Night Shift Ben sir, why would people like Mallrats and kill kittens?


Hey there, li'l buddy, don't cry.

Sit yourself down, and let your Uncle Nightshift explain the facts of life.

Now it's true that some people don't particularly dislike Mallrats. But you know what? That's okay. The day guys have made Ben watch it more than once. Despite the film's obvious flaws, it doesn't make them bad people.

Look at it this way. A lot of people didn't like The Matrix Reloaded as much as The Matrix. Expectations were very high after an astounding debut - and when they didn't feel the same way after seeing the second film, they got sad and angry. The second film wasn't as good as the first, but nor was it a truly bad movie. People were just disappointed.

I think the same happened with Mallrats. There are many far worse movies than Mallrats out there, it's just that this one was made by a talented writer and director, and it didn't come close to what his fans had been hoping for.

Me, I'm more of a Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back man.

But those Mallrats likers, although they may not have the world's greatest taste in movies, they're allowed to like whatever they want. You and I know they're wrong, but the fact is, their right to talk about and enjoy Kevin Smith's second film is protected in your constitution. And that's something for which you should be grateful.

After all, what if the people who liked Mallrats decided that Clerks or, just picking a movie at random, The Fellowship of the Ring should be banned? If you weren't protected by these laws, those people could make it illegal for you to see your favourite films. And then where would we be? Stuck with mediocre movies, that's where.

So here's what you should do. Rather than use your energy to hate Mallrats and the people who like it, you should put it to positive use. Tell folk why Clerks is a better film, or what there is to love about JRR Tolkien, or why they should still be excited about Neo. If you're kind and patient towards people, rather than cross and shouty, they are more likely to come around to your point of view, or at least understand it.

People could learn a lot from this guy and his friends, as opposed to the sillies who keep telling them that what they're doing is wrong and threatening to stop being their friends.

As for the kitty killers, seal clubbers and ozone depleters, well, we've just got to hope they see sense before I have to get medieval on their arse.

More time-shifting shenanigans
This second question comes from renowned space-efficient mastermind Lindsey, housed within the walls which Fagin and the Artful Dodger once called home:

Regarding the issue of days / nights and the uneven (or it now seems, even) loss and gaining of daylight.

Thanks for that Ben - I've always been inclined to believe that perception is the source of most nonsense (with the obvious exception of my coding work, where spelling and pathing are the source).

My question to you now is: Could you calculate the effective difference in linear velocity of your head and my head? I am precisely 1.52 meters tall, and I would estimate that the center of gravity of my head is approximately 20 cm below this.

The thinking behind this question is that perhaps this difference in velocities, which must be more extremely experienced by the two halves of the CBU, is behind some of the co-ordination issues between the units?

As any good action movie watcher knows, to jump from the train to the car, the two must be going at the same speed...


Um, right, calculate the... hey, Lindsey, did you see the kittens already?

You know, you may have a great theory there. I'm sure Professor Martin will find your input most valuable.

In fact, we could really do with someone like you on the project. A big science brain like yours will always come in useful on pioneering work like this.

Say - what would you think about the idea of heading up our R&D division?

2.11.03

Evening.

Robin writes with an question of astronomical proportions from Dick van Dyke's Cockernee East End:

I remember my mum asking this question of a astronomer many years ago and he declined to give an answer. Can you do better?

Days drawing in for winter seems to take less time than days drawing out for summer. We seem to have lost 3 hours from sunset in the last two short months, but it will be a more gradual process leading up to the summer solstice.

The astronomer said that this was true but said no more.

We know that the earth does not spin perpendicular to its orbit - this explains seasons and short/long days, but not the rate. I am assuming also that the southern hemisphere also experiences the opposite effect.

So, NSB what could it be?


Well Bobs, if I'm right, the answer is actually incredibly simple.

As you say, the earth isn't straight, it spins at a 23.5° tilt on its axis, which has some effect on our experience of day and night, summer and winter.

You also have to bear in mind that the earth's orbit of the sun is not a perfect circle, but actually an ellipsis. We move towards and away from our star throughout the year, coming closest to it in early January. The ellipsis also has a varying effect on the planet's speed over the course of the year, and we'll hit top speed in the next few weeks.

(This movie from Analemma shows how the Earth moves throughout the year in reality (the blue planet) as opposed to if the orbit was a perfect circle (the green planet).).

According to notes for the Earth & Sky radio show in the US, all these elements - the tilt, the trajectory and the speed, plus our location in relation to the equator - have an effect on when we see the sun rise and set. It's well worth a read if you want to know more about the science behind our experience of time.

However, none of this is really relevant to your question: why do sunsets come in in winter quicker than they go out in summer?

Sunday morning sees the sun rise over London at 6.53am, and setting at 4.34pm. Half four? Those nights really do seem to be drawing in quicker and quicker.

Except they're not. Well, no more quickly than they stretch out towards the summer.

The clue was in your original question, and it was just one word: seem

To understand what I mean, look at these sunset times for the period two months either side of the shortest day:

Oct 21, 2003: 5:56pm BST
Nov 21, 2003: 4:04pm GMT
Dec 21, 2003: 3:52pm
Jan 21, 2004: 4:27pm
Feb 21, 2004: 5:23pm

So you see we lose another half hour of sunset between today and November 21st, but then only 12 minutes over the following month. Then we pick up 35 minutes of afternoon by January 21st.

Compare these with London's sunset times for the two months leading up to the summer solstice.

April 21, 2004: 8:05pm BST
May 21: 8:53pm
June 21: 9:20pm

From April 21st to June 21st we actually acquire 1h15m of evening, compared to losing 1h4m in the two months up to the winter solstice.

But 5:56 in October minus 3:52 in December equals a loss of 2:04!, says you.

True, but remember this run-in to winter includes the switch back from BST to GMT, so once you include the artificial loss of an hour caused by lending it to the morning, it feels like 2h4m - it's only our intervention that makes it appear to be a greater loss of time.

Therefore if we didn't play around with clocks over the course of the year, the lengthening of summer evenings would actually feel slightly quicker than the shortening in winter.

In other words, though the long nights may seem to fall on us quicker than the sunny summer evenings, in terms of real time, they don't. It just feels like they do.

My guess as to why we misinterpret this time is that it's psychological or even psychosomatic, and that we're more sensitive to the loss of light than an increase in its duration, and therefore notice the encroachment of night into day more than we do day into night.

And as a final snub to our received wisdom about time, all the above assumes that the earliest sunset comes on the shortest day, December 21st. Again, we're mistaken. It falls over the course of several days around December 12th to 15th, in much the same way that the sun starts rising at 4:42 am for 10 days or so from about Friday 11 June onwards.

And to explain all that, we have to go back to how we move through space.

But hey, this is all just what I make of the question. Maybe Jane's astronomer had more to say on the subject, but I get the feeling that he didn't.

I don't think I'm wrong about this whole shebang, but I could be, so if anyone knows better then by all means feel free to, ooh, look! Kittens!

1.11.03

Hi kids, did ya miss me?

Yes, it's been five long months, but I'm back in action.

Well, I say action, but it could hardly be further from the truth.

Weekend nights are renowned for their lack of news, and this particular one is doing nothing to dispel that prejudice. In fact, it's just doing nothing period. Nothing doing.

So this weekend even more than usual, I'm relying on your questions to keep me interested. Hell, maybe even just to keep me awake.

The boss very kindly ran a promo for me the other day, but what did it come up with? The best part of bugger all.

The enchantingly-named Arsehole did, however, address one issue when he (I assume you're a guy 'cos Arsehole's a boy's name, right?) asked:

If you had to do permanent night shifts, would you have no need for Nightshift Ben? Would therefore normal Ben live at night?

Would you also need to introduce Dayshift Ben, to cope with daylight hours?

Would you become a Vampire?


Well, Arsehole, I'll let eminent Benologist Professor Laura Martin explain:

As one of the original scientists credited with the discovery of MBS (Multiple Ben Syndrome) I must point out that further work is needed on some of the more complex issues facing this field of research and particularly where Nightshift Ben is concerned. The CBU (Combined Bens Unit, known to the layman as just Ben) is currently thought to be made up of the two daytime modules: THB & BHB (Top half Ben and Bottom Half Ben) and the singular night-time module.

This diagnosis was made based on the evidence available at the time. The size and general lack of co-ordination of the CBU could only be explained by the presence of two separate Ben modules (hence the condition was originally named PBS or Pantomime Ben Syndrome (think pantomime horse)). Later study of the waking hair arrangement led us to the discovery of Nightshift Ben (NSB).


(Editor's note: My normal tasks are carried out while Ben sleeps. These include doing his hair for the morning, producing an interesting and varied range of dreams, and conducting the appropriate amount of thrashing about. Nightshift Ben.)

The problem facing research until recently was lack of opportunity to fully study the NSB. Given the CBU is now required to send NSB out to work (and about time too, he's been freeloading for far too long) we are now asking for further data on his general behaviour, particularly his ability to control the CBU.

Should NSB have the same problems co-ordinating the CBU as the two daytime modules do then this may be indicative of there actually being two Nightshift Bens.

Clearly this is an emotive issue and may even split the world of MBS study but enquiries must be made in the name of science.


In the light of that, addressing the question's key issue, if Ben switched to permanent nights, it would probably have serious staffing implications for him. I suspect all of us would have to be retrained and shifts on nights and sleeping would be doled out between the three of us. With Ben withdrawing so much from normal life, it could even see the end of the CBU - but far greater minds than mine would need to assess the potential dangers of such a move.

So in short, there will always be a need for me, whether during the day or night. You can take the Ben out of the night shift but you can't take Nightshift out of the Ben.

And while recovering from night shifts usually leaves Ben feeling like a member of the undead, it's more often a zombie than a vampire that he resembles.

But enough about me and him. There's a whole universe of facts out there. What else do you want to know?

29.10.03

I think I need help.

If it's possible to fall for a cartoon lesbian fish, well, I just may have.

Yesterday saw me looking after Thomas's de facto little one, Thea, for several hours in the middle of the day. With Finding Nemo having recently opened in Blighty, it seemed the obvious diversionary tactic for entertaining an eight-year-old girl. Sure, she may have seen it already, but that never stopped a kid lapping up repeat viewings of favourite films, most notably Josh with Dumbo, and The herself with... well, just about anything.

It was my first experience of daytime kiddie cinema since my own childhood - and haven't things changed. I'd barely had time to get over the cynical off-peak pricing for children (80% of the adult price - unashamedly preying on the pockets of parents), before the ads had begun - and the predators really sank their teeth in.

Like most adults, I'm accustomed to the familiar mix of half a dozen or so commercials for booze, cars, mobile phones and the like, which serve as a brief but useful window of opportunity for latecomers to get settled in before the trailers.

Kids, on the other hand, get the real hard sell. I swear we must have sat through a solid 20 minutes of appeals for our cash, including various toys, videos, console games, at least two kinds of breakfast cereal plus other miscellaneous foodstuffs and, for mum and dad, ads for three different makes of car - big old family-sized ones, natch.

Follow these with a good half-dozen "Forthcoming Features" and we'd been subjected to at least half an hour of consumerist campaigning before we got to see what we'd paid for.

Finding Nemo is every bit as wonderful and witty as I've been told, another inspiring movie from the already legendary Pixar. Indeed I think I laughed more than Thea, and though before seeing it, I'd felt resentful about it being the clear front runner for next year's Best Animated Oscar, come the night it will probably be one of the better decisions the Academy makes.

And then there's the delightful Dory, a funny, adorable, little blue breath of fresh air, without whom all the Marlin bits would have been horribly earnest and schmaltzy. So I find myself thankful for the existence of Ellen DeGeneres and a little bit taken with this fish.

But of course it would never work. Even if we were able conquer the species divide and making the patronising assumption I was able to "turn" her, she'd still have trouble adjusting to my extra dimension, and when all's said and done, I'm not the world's strongest swimmer.

So I'll just have to wait for the DVD release, and dream of what might have been.

Keep on swimming, keep on swimming...

28.10.03

I suppose I'm obliged to give you a 72-hour notice of intent.

On Friday night, I'll be handing over the blog's password to my nocturnal alter ego, the oracle Nightshift Ben. Nothing I can do. Blame my unit manager.

If there's anything you need answering, whether it's of a personal nature or of more universal concern, physical or philosophical, he claims to be the man for the job. He's a know-all, and ain't afraid to talk about it.

Just to remind you, on his last time out, he tackled such diverse topics as tequila, fickle women, green skies and, of course, "Why?".

So should you wish to submit a question, either leave a comment here, or use the "Ask the nightshift" e-mail address, being sure to remove the square brackets.

But don't say I didn't warn you.

25.10.03

Wait 'til you see the whites of their eyes boys
More than once in the last week I've said something that's got me an odd look from friends and colleagues.

I think it's interesting that Arizona, among other US states, doesn't use daylight saving time.

What's so wrong with finding that interesting?

One can understand why Hawaii, floating in the middle of the Pacific, doesn't feel the need to shift. It's so far behind New York and DC anyway, what's another hour?

But why does a state on the mainland choose to be out of step with the rest of the states in their time zone? Isn't it confusing to suddenly find yourself further behind the east of the country? One day you'll be eating dinner with Denver, and the very next finds you taking high tea with Hollywood. And perhaps most importantly, all your favourite TV shows are on at the wrong time for half the year.

Mind you, at least Arizona's consistent. Indiana, on the other hand, can't make its mind up. Most of the 77 counties in the Eastern Time Zone stay on standard time throughout the year... except for the two that change to daylight time along with the rest of the country, which is the approach shared by the western counties in the central time zone. Wouldn't that mess with your head?

What, I ask you again, is wrong with finding all that interesting?

And if like me you weren't already aware, the whole summertime clock change can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin who, while serving as the US minister to France, suggested in a letter to the Journal de Paris that millions of pounds could be saved each year by using fewer candles during the days of summer, daylight being much easier on the pocket than candle wax.

Franklin recommended that the party town of Paris, accustomed to rising at midday throughout the year, should make better use of summer's early sunlight and that church bells and cannon, plus liberal use of taxes, should be used to encourage people from their beds soon after dawn throughout the year.

Eventually it became obvious that while this was all well and good during the winter, in the summer the hour of rising became so early and the days so long that everyone was knackered by mid-afternoon. So clock hands were put forward an hour in the spring to give folks the chance to doze on that bit longer and consequently make better use of the long evenings.

Which is all my way of saying don't forget to put your clocks back to Zulu time at 0200 tomorrow morning. Unless you're in Arizona.

23.10.03

The next few months are promising to be the most exciting in cinema-going for some time.

Last night alone before Kill Bill Vol. 1 (itself a work of beautiful, bloody genius, proof - if proof be need be - that while Tarantino may have lost his marbles, he certainly hasn't lost It), they ran trailers for the Director's Cut of Alien (still able to make me jump after all these years), The Matrix Revolutions (Get 'em Neo!), and Return of the King (Get 'em Samwise!) - three major movie events in the space of six short weeks.

And if those weren't enough to see me through the long, dark winter, tomorrow sees the release of Intolerable Cruelty (the Coens have never made a bad film - FACT! - and I'm counting on them not to start now), while next week we get In The Cut (Meg Ryan naked - chide me all you want, but am I really expected to forego this?).

I might even be persuaded to see SWAT and Love Actually before the year is out. But then again, maybe not.

Then January gives us A Mighty Wind, while February sees Dogville before Q and U get their freaks on for Volume 2 as The Bride finally tries to Kill Bill.

If you want me, I'll be down the front...

22.10.03

Hate is a very strong word, yet it's one I feel able to use when discussing Northern Ireland, and one which could provide a solution to the whole sorry affair.

(Bear with me, please, while I set out my stall.)

Hatred and fear seem to be the most powerful, motivating forces in the make-up of the province's establishment. Fear that the status quo will be challenged and positions of privilege will be lost. Hatred of the enemy drives many of the most prominent players currently trying to determine the province's future: Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, David Trimble are all guilty of one or the other.

When the peace process features in the news agenda, as it currently does, I can barely contain my contempt for those - mostly hardline unionists, best embodied by the Reverend Ian Paisley, not to mention his own personal Mini-Me - who stubbornly refuse to let the nation move on, seemingly concerned only with protecting their own personal interests, and quite willing to let the rest of society continue suffering.

David Trimble, on the other hand, seems to be as decent and honourable a man as you'll find in Ulster politics, yet he's allowing fear to rule his thinking. Unfortunately, he believes that if he concedes too much ground to the Republican movement, he will hand the initiative, and the populist Unionist vote to the fossilised bigot Paisley, a turn of events that would set Northern Ireland back several hundred years. So he puts up a tough front, when he should just take the plunge in the hope that his principled stand will be preferable to decades more of suspicion and semtex.

(Hang in there. You're almost at the clever bit.)

The IRA are no better. They're happy for General John de Chastelain to report on the decommissioning of arms, but why on earth do they insist on a lack of detail or physical evidence? Would it kill them to hand over an inventory and a few Polaroids of the knackered Kalashnikovs and rogered rocket launchers?

Gerry Adams at least has a legitimate cause on his side, however despicable the methods used by some of his associates. Britain stole Ireland, and should have returned the six counties of the north along with the rest of the Republic. But realism rather than pessimism is the order of the day when I say that's unlikely to happen.

Having seen many press conferences over the last couple of days, one of the greatest problems would appear to be the body language continually adopted by the respective parties. Whenever a party leader makes a statement on the talks, he is backed up by a motley crew of like-minded lackeys, as if to say, "This is what I think, and if you don't like it you can take it up with my mates."

It's a political version of the Jets and the Sharks, and as long as it continues, each side will feel it has to participate in these shows of bravado. The testosterone-fuelled posturing will always get in the way of finding a real, peaceful solution to Northern Ireland's sovereignty.

So...

(Here it comes.)

Seeing as no one appears willing to back off and cool down, I suggest harnessing the hatred to solve this problem along with another that seems even less likely to find an agreeable resolution, namely Israel vs the Palestinians.

Simply put, the answer is for the global community to sponsor a fully-funded, winner-takes-all military play-off.

Each side would be given an equal amount of money and a set time in which to recruit and arm as large a fighting force as possible. Furthermore, the US, Britain and all other major military manufacturers would be obliged to sell weaponry to which ever side came shopping, so as not to favour one faction over another. A suitable uninhabited area would be selected as the location for each engagement.

Israel would then take on the Palestinians, and Republican dissidents and Loyalist paramilitaries would kick off against each other, each "match" continuing until it had a clear winner. These two victorious semi-finalists would then meet in a decider, for the title of "Undisputed Disputed Territory Champion of the World".

Of course, the format of such a competition could be subject to negotiation. Another possibility would be a mini-league with each team playing the others in limited-over hostilities, four points for a win, two for a draw, bonuses for numbers killed, et cetera.

So my solution to the problem is either that, or follow the advice of Lieutenant Ellen Ripley: "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. That's the only way to be sure. "

Maybe faced with these alternatives, the intransigent bastards on all sides would decide that conversation and compromise wasn't all that bad.

20.10.03

How to keep four thirty-something journalists happy

Single malt whisky? Check.
Monte Cristo cigars? Check.
Fine port and stilton? Check.
Intelligent, articulate company? Check.
Mary Poppins DVD? Check.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you one of the strangest Saturday nights I've had in a long while.

17.10.03

The current trial of pop star Cheryl Tweedy for racially aggravated assault for some reason reminded me of my own brief, shameful and, thankfully incompetent, contribution to racism as a teenager. It reared its head on two separate occasions around the age of 14 - one unwittingly, one unfortunately not.

The former was just a case of me joining in with the laddish heckling of an Asian woman, who was actually the best (or at least the most effective) physics teacher I ever had. Her name was Mrs Khan, but the bad influences in my class (spoiled, streetwise, middle class lads the lot of them) decided it would be a hoot to shout "Mrs Coon" in the middle of her lessons.

Me, I was seeking approval from my peers, and very much like the others - except for the streetwise bit. I had no idea that coon meant what it did, and it was the last thing this kind, patient, intelligent woman deserved. I just thought I was saying something funny and buying credibility by fitting in. When I found out what I'd been saying... well, I don't think I need to tell you anything other than I didn't feel good.

The second incident came just a few months later. Despite having my own friends, I wasn't one of the in crowd, the cool guys, still an outsider. I was walking by myself through the school grounds, and passed three lads from my year, one of them bouncing a tennis ball. Several seconds passed as we walked in opposite directions. And then suddenly the tennis ball hit me in the middle of the back.

Furious, I turned and screamed, "You black bastard!" at the lad who I'd seen with the ball, and threw it back at him (though, this being me, it missed). I've no idea whether Tanveer Raja, the fairly reserved Bangladeshi boy I was accusing had actually thrown the ball, or whether it was one of his far less palatable and more aggressive white friends. Feeling persecuted, my pride hurt worse than my body, I lashed out at the first thing I could latch on to, the one time I've picked on someone's colour for pejorative purposes.

What I do know is this: not only did I insult Tanveer with a general racist slur, I also disrespected his personal ethnic background and lumped him in with all people of colour. And although he didn't retaliate in any way, the resulting self-inflicted shame and guilt were far too much for me to cope with. I had to confess to my parents the same evening, and they were every bit as appalled as one might hope.

Eventually, Raj and I were able to talk again although we never were (but never had been) close.

But the whole. sole experience was more than enough to teach me a lesson I shouldn't have needed to learn.

15.10.03

Hallelujah! America has spoken. And she has said, "This US remake of Coupling is absolutely no good at all."

NBC hasn't quite canned its ill-judged version of one of the best bits of British TV to have been made in the last 10 years, but by moving it out of prime time, it's as much as ensured that this bastard child of comedy genius will not survive.

I saw a few minutes of the show on holiday - and really that was all Jen, Dunc and I could stomach. In their vain attempt to translate the show's success in Britain to a lowest common denominator Middle America, and despite relying heavily on the original British scripts, the producers seemed to have stripped the programme of all its charm, wit, and edge.

Daily Variety made a most damning judgment, and showed just how much the US team missed the mark, when it wrote: "The cast has no likeable characters, motivation for every act is sexual, and the theme of moronic men versus wily women has been played out".

Our own original had an entirely likeable cast, the women were just as capable of being moronic as the men, and the whole point of the show was both to ridiicule and celebrate the motivating power of sex. Why else, for goodness sake, would it be called Coupling?

The big networks should have learned from their experience of Men Behaving Blandly. As most of the TV I watch originates in the US, I know there are many things they can do well.

But ripping off comedy from a country more comfortable with public airing of sex, excess and bodily functions is not one of them.

The lesson is clear: sanitise and be damned.

14.10.03

The only bad thing about two weeks having fun thousands of miles from home is the post-holiday blues that always set in at the end.

I mention this not because I expect anyone to feel sorry for me now I'm no longer taking it easy in the Georgia sunshine, but by way of explaining my lack of anecdotes. When returning from a trip to be faced with the same old same old, I'm always afflicted by a severe and hollow melancholy.

The fact is that some of my favourite people live on the other side of the Atlantic, rather than at the other end of a short bus ride, and after two weeks of easy access and constant exposure, I miss them. Why, as I'm sure Jen said just before I left, can't everyone live in the same place?

(Although I'm told that the entire population of the world could fit on the humble Isle of Wight, all six billion of us, the practical answer is that even if we chose somewhere with a little more space it would all be a bit cramped. But it's the thought that counts.)

So I've not felt in the least bit effusive and buried my melancholy in sessions of Sports Night, seemingly the only thing capable of lifting last week's gloom.

Well, that and autumn cleaning.

Yes, the flat is cleaner than at any other point in the last 12 months. It would not be unfair to say that during the 12 months of Joe's residence some aspects of domestic hygiene suffered, and I'm as much to blame as my erstwhile flatmate. For two hard-working young guys with beer to drink and TV to watch, housework doesn't hold much allure.

Awful, I know, but let him who is without filth cast the first sponge.

But the prospect of new co-habitees prompted me to give the whole place a thorough seeing-to including corners that, to the best of my knowledge and deepest of shame, have never seen even a hint of a duster.

Having swept the cobwebs away from both bedroom and brain, I'm now ready to resume abnormal service.

You're reading Nota Benny, so stick around...

10.10.03

Happy Birthday Jim. May the beer be beautiful and the women be plenty. :)

(Of course, it's not yet your birthday for you at time of writing - so just consider it an extra seven and a half hours celebration for free.)

8.10.03

On my flight to the US, I found myself waiting outside one of the aeroplane's lavatories for quite some time. In order to distract myself from the increasingly urgent task at hand I let my eyes and mind wander. They all found their way to the external door which I was standing by, and its big, shiny handle.

The possible danger involved in flying has always been slightly titillating. Take-off and landing are my favourite parts, partly because of all the things that could go wrong. People find their thrills all over the place - amusement parks thrive on the lust for danger that a good roller coaster can satisfy. It just happens that I get my kicks from a big metal roller coaster with wings.

So faced with this handle, how easy, I thought, how easy it would be to just turn it and open the door at 38,000 feet. And what fun it would be to jump out. Fly. Drop towards the earth from more than seven miles high. I normally have no great fondness of heights, but one this large felt intoxicating. The sky called to me.

Of course, the fact I'm here, means I didn't give in to temptation. As mentioned before, I have no particular wish to stop living, and if that hadn't been enough to stop me, the knowledge that several hundred other people would have been dumped in the shit certainly was. Besides which, I'd never have got to see my friends in New York and Atlanta (including Jim).

But what a way to go.

7.10.03

Okay, so the effort to blog from Stateside petered out somewhere around Hoboken. Thanks to Jen and Dunc and also Michelle for giving me such a great time. I was even able to cope with not having a bathroom when I got back (long story), such was my mood.

More will follow in the coming days and weeks, but pirates aboard me vessel (Yaaar!) and half a bottle of gin ensured a good flight back. If only everything in life was so pleasing...

25.9.03

There's no holiday, there's no election, and the war in Iraq is over (theoretically).

But walking along seven blocks of a residential street in Hoboken, New Jersey (birthplace of Frank and my vantage point for attacking NYC), I counted 23 unique properties displaying the stars and stripes (excluding commerical premises and cars). Some of them weren't just flags either, the house-owners building ornate shrines to the American standard.

Another interesting observation is that they seldom seem to be one-offs, and the star-spangled banner appears in clusters, a kind of super-patriotic keeping up with the Joneses.

And it struck me that as hotbeds of nationalism go, Hoboken probably isn't anywhere near the top of the list, compared to say, Stupidsburg, Minnesota.

So what this unassuming little English boy is really saying is: huh? What gives?

I suppose it's just one of those things that emphasises that for all their similarities, how different the UK and the US really are.

New York makes me smile, though, and I've got a date with a big, bronze lady.

(Atlanta: T minus one)

22.9.03

It's too late to do anything about it now, but having a final look through my flight itinerary, I noticed that Continental Airlines, cheapskates that they are, now charge for in-flight alcohol on international flights.

This is disgraceful! It's an infringement of my rights. When I fly I expect at least two hefty complimentary gin and tonics. But these buggers expect me to pay. That's just rude. Considering the price of an airline ticket, would the couple of quid it would cost them to mix me a couple of drinks really set them back that much?

Anyway, I'll post when I can, but in the meantime, here's a little something to keep you entertained:

The David Blaine Assassination Game (worth it for the lengthy death scene)

See you on the other side...

21.9.03

Top 12 North American experiences to date (in no particular order)

* First time up the Empire State (New York, 1996)

* Walking round the Stanley Park sea wall - glorious sunshine, beautiful mountains - on the phone to mum and dad getting ready for bed at home in Wales (Vancouver 2002)

* Jen and Dunc's wedding - despite that damn yellerjacket (Clayton, GA, 2002)

* Catching a 20-yard touchdown pass in the end zone at Texas Stadium (Dallas, 2002)

* Fuddruckers - never have hamburgers held such an air of wonderment (Miami, 1987)

* Hunting for giant maple leaves with Frances, Morgan, Polly, and a killer hangover (Seattle, 2002)

* My first hockey match (Vancouver, 2002)

* Michelle and Arthur's wedding reception - and, uh, afterwards... (New Jersey, 1996)

* Seeing Dan Marino in the flesh - and almost hyperventilating (New York, 2002)

* Dunc's stag night (Atlanta, 2002)

* Going down to the Keys - papaya milkshake and glass-bottomed boats (Miami, 1987)

* Watching U-Dub's Huskies beat Stanford (Seattle, 1996)

NYC: T minus two days
Atlanta: T minus five days

19.9.03

Hmm. Missed out on meeting a blog legend today. Discovered - too late - that "Salam Pax", the author of the Baghdad Blog, was in the office for an interactive forum. Had I known, I'd have introduced myself as a fellow blogger and tried to get a scoop or a word for Nota Benny.

Instead I'll just have to offer the opportunity to test your Arsehole Quotient.

I scored 24. Apparently this means I have quite strong twattish tendencies, and am likely to behave like a complete arsehole on occasions.

I'll let you make your own judgement on how accurate that makes it.

17.9.03

It's still more than a year until the next US election, yet I couldn't help feeling a little surge of hope upon hearing that General Wesley Clark was putting himself forward for the Democratic nomination.

Although I've no more to go on than a gut feeling, his opening rally and a handful of profiles, his opposition to the war in Iraq, apparently liberal stances on gun control, social inclusion, abortion, taxes, and other issues, all make him appealing.

Plus he's the one credible Democratic candidate I've seen who appears to have that extra electable something. It's a long road ahead and much though it galls me to put such faith in a career soldier, I'm hoping that Jefferson's old boys are finally beginning to get a clue about what it might take to get Junior out of the White House.

But then what do I know? I voted for Blair. Twice.

16.9.03

NYC: T minus seven days.
Atlanta: T minus 10 days.

Feeling almost tangibly excited. Must calm down or I'll never make it onto the plane.

15.9.03

Peculiar weekend. Always knew the Sunday was going to be strange, but didn't bank on rolling a score of 116 at Hugh's birthday party (three strikes, couple of spares, my first ever three figure performance).

Then came the realisation on Saturday night that everyone in London seems to know immediately to whom the phrase "Twat-in-a-box" refers, regardless of whether they've heard it before, even if used outside the context of the aforementioned Tosser of Tower Bridge. And judging by our cab ride of the other evening, if the ultimate objective of his exercise is to further screw up road traffic in east London, he's succeeding brilliantly.

Finally, Sunday, and a family thing the likes of which our clan has never seen before.

Earlier this year Graham Godfrey died, quite suddenly. Graham was the husband of Pattie, my mother and Aunt Juliet's cousin, and she herself has been in the grip of Alzheimer's for several years. All this was news to mum and Jui, but especially Pattie's condition. It seemed to bring mortality into focus, so Jui decided to do what she does best: throw a party.

Essentially she and mum thought it would be a good idea to bring together all those descended from their maternal grandparents (William Richard Lander and Mary Eleanor Ridley) while they still could.

William and Mary had seven children. Diddy, Emily, Jack, Eleanor (my gran-gran, who died when I was four), Dick, Lena, and Cubby (the baby of the bunch, and the great family tragedy: a Wing Commander in the RAF, he was ambushed and killed in Burma shortly before the end of World War II).

They, in turn, had seven between them, including my mum and her sister. The next generation saw 12, including myself, and so far another nine have come from them to continue the family line.

Despite William and Mary's children now having passed on, their descendants - or the majority of them - gathered at Jui's house for a grand reunification of the blood line.

Never having met approximately 80% of these people, and not being at my best with strangers, especially when there are great expectations of kinship, I felt a little overwhelmed. For a journalist, feeling uncomfortable about speaking to new people in social conditions is probably a significant flaw.

It perhaps says a lot about the occasion that apart from immediate family and my mum's cousin Brian, whom I'd met a couple of times before, the easiest encounter was with a 10-year-old called Jackson as we bonded over a game of Marvel Super Heroes Top Trumps, disagreeing with various attribute scores and trading titbits of character information.

So I don't think I made the best of the occasion, although I think it did the trick for mum and Jui, and helped all of us see where we fit into the family tree.

My extended family seems to be made up of good people and I do hope that I get to meet most of them again - just maybe not all at the same time.

11.9.03

Getting home from work this evening was decidedly difficult. The police appear to have locked down a large swathe of the neighbourhood, including my regular route back from the tube station. Traffic diversions, circling choppers and tons of coppers - they've got the lot.

The reason for this is, at present, a mystery. Police in London are a notoriously tight-lipped bunch, even - or possibly especially - when you flash them your press card.

However, my source (unreliable though it may be) insists the blame can be taken by a naked madman with a knife dancing on the roof of the local bank.

Rumours of David Blaine's escape from his box are, as yet, unsubstantiated.

More as we get it...

10.9.03

People who know me will appreciate that religion and I rarely see eye to eye.

I used to be happily agnostic, but now proudly rank myself among the godless. Maybe it's down to the six years I spent working for BBC Religion and the somewhat unpalatable nature of my departure. Like so many good Catholic schoolgirls before me, familiarity bred contempt, and I needed to rebel. But rather than that atheism's probably just what makes sense to me. Whatever the reason, all I know is that this is my one shot at the universe.

Sure, folks can believe what they want - an individual's personal faith is none of my business, and I have no right to expect them to agree with me on the world's rights or wrongs. Yes, the majority of ancient scriptures have a great many things to teach humankind, but I don't believe any single one to have all the answers. I'm more than happy to co-exist with a whole world of faiths, just as long as they let me get on with writing my own moral code.

My problems start when religions cross that line I've drawn in the sand. Almost always the fault of large gatherings or ceremonies rather than individuals, the more a particular doctrine is shoved down my throat - or even the throats of other unwilling people - the harder I find it to stomach. For example, the fact that BBC2 gave the best part of a day's broadcasting over to the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year had me almost apoplectic with outrage.

So when Sam suggested I try the Belief-o-matic quiz(Catholic, Quaker, Hindu, Protestant, Scientologist, Muslim, Neo-Pagan - guaranteed to choose you the right religious pigeonhole or your karma back), I was surprised to find that rather than condemning me to eternity in limbo, it suggested I was a perfect, top-scoring, 100% bona fide candidate for the Unitarian Universalist movement.

Naturally a little shocked to find myself prime fodder for any religious organisation, it was only when I did a little more digging that I found that this needn't be seen as a challenge to my identity.

It seems UUs allow their members plenty of wriggle room when it comes to the topic of tenets:

Want to believe in God? Cool! We can dig that. And you needn't stop at one - the more the merrier. In fact Barry over there has wanted to get rid of his for a while. Hey, if he wants to hang out with us, who are we to insist he believes in a higher power? Come one, come all.

What about the origins of life? What with the creation and the science, it certainly gives us a lot to talk about. Who really believes that Adam and Eve stuff anyway? You do? Yeah, well, once you put it that way, who am I to argue?

And how about this Jesus thing? Yeah, we're not sure either. Tomayto, tomato - it's all good. Maybe you can sort it out in your next life - if you want one that is.


And so on. All in all, they have the appearance of being a pretty inclusive bunch - not so much a concerted movement as a relaxed gesture.

Still, I don't think I'll be joining them all the same. Fortunately I'm also a pretty damn near perfect secular humanist. And despite the many wretched things that we've done to this world, people's all I want to believe in.

It's just a question of faith.

9.9.03

The President wants you to know he's thinking of you:

"Enemies of freedom are making a desperate stand [in Iraq], and there they must be defeated. "

Couldn't agree more, George... but must you really refer to your administration in the third person?

"Everywhere that freedom takes hold, terror will retreat. "

And if that ain't a big old danger sign for the American public about current US foreign policy, well... they'll re-elect you.

7.9.03

So farewell then, Joe Duirwyn, fine and noble flatmate.

The separation from your daughter finally became too much, and not even the fact that you worked in Keira Knightley's home town could keep you away from darkest Wales.

(Imbecile! You'll kick yourself when she reveals her love of musical roofers in an exclusive interview for Cosmo).

But London's loss is Lampeter's gain. Let's face it - it needs all the help it can get.

It's been a fun and interesting year, to be sure. But now it's over.

No more Tuesday Club (although its heyday went long before you). No more avid viewings of the dodgy movies that creep into the late-night TV schedules, both knowing full well it's past our bedtime. No more self-deprecating confusion about liaisons with lovely ladies. No more diet consisting solely of pizza, easy-cook noodles, ice cream, tortillas and taramasalata. And no more having to put up with the likes of them distracting you from far more important things while walking the streets of west London.

When you moved in, I was really just accommodating another of Thomas's friends. When you moved out, I lost one of my best mates to this metropolitan horror.

I'll miss your music, your liveliness, your language, your constantly evolving hair, and plenty more things I haven't even realised yet.

But I won't miss your feet.

Come back soon and often.

Hawddamor, chyfaill. Dangnefedd, cariad ac noeth arglwyddesau beunydd.

6.9.03

Multiple choice
There are too many stories on starvation in the news. Can you guess which one is getting more coverage than it deserves?

Item A: Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi
Item B: Ethiopia
Item C: Twat-in-a-box