Wednesday, June 24, 2009



JAMES says:

I knew she was no good the moment she walked in my office. Only one type of guy ends up scraping the bottom of the barrel where I reside, someone who has absolutely no one else to help them out. This gal could get fifty guys to die for her just by walking into the nearest bar, winking and offering casual sex. She looked like an angel, if angels could give you a look that suggested that they didn’t mind at all those thoughts you’re thinking, and maybe if you play your cards right... I don’t know, things might be more laid back up there these days. They certainly are down here.

I offered her a drink and she wasn’t about to say no. When I got back from the shop with the WKD Iron Brew she’d made herself comfortable, very comfortable judging by her expression, on my couch.

“Listen,” she rasped in a voice like Bette Davis narrating a trailer for the latest Terminator flick, “I need your help” She gave me some sob story about her husband going out to buy a packet of cigarettes and not coming back. It struck a bum note, any guy who went home to those gams each night would have to be dragged away by some kind of giant robot gorilla, and when I saw the weasely face in the picture that she slid across to me I knew I was being spun what we in the Shamus business call a Daily Mail exclusive. However, when she introduced me to her friends Mr Darwin and Ms Fry all doubts evaporated.

The case itself wasn’t too taxing. I recognised the poor slob straight away as the teacher at a Salsa class my old lady was always trying to drag me to at the community centre. I spent a decent interval running up expenses like an MP in a Kensington antique store then tossed hot-lips a nod in the right direction.

I must confess to a slight pang of guilt when I saw his face staring out at me from the front page Harpenden Enquirer next Wednesday, however I took consolation from the bulging wallet in my jacket. I tell you one thing though brother:

Dames, they ain’t nothing but trouble.


Monday, June 22, 2009

The Compleat Moonshadow

By John Marc DeMatteis and Jon J Muth
(Graphic Novel)

JAMES says:

Yes, that’s right, I said Graphic novel. Not comic. If any work deserved to avoid the negative baggage of the sequential story-telling medium it is this one. Not only does it have a literary sensibility strong enough to justify the novel tag, it could even quite happily be a penguin classic if you added in a few humourless, patronising and distracting foot notes. The story of a young boy’s journey from innocence to experience, it falls firmly into the bildungsroman genre, specifically the masochistic bildungsroman of works like Candide or Nathanael West’s A Cool Million. In a presumed attempt by the author to punish his past self for his surrendered innocence (which, if we think back on our own over-earnest teenage years is all understandable), the eponymous hero suffers indignity, disease and betrayal as his romantic world view is extracted with a rusty hook.

When looked upon as independent sections matters are not always subtle, and you are reminded that the author also co-wrote the Justice League during it’s humourous late 80s phase. However if the characters are drawn with broad brush-strokes it is of a piece with what you might find in, say, Dickens or Moses. And it all adds to the archetypal feel of the work.

Perhaps the reason why few graphical works achieve a level where they could be referred to as literature is that they have twice the opportunity to fail. To succeed either the author must be one of the few, the happy few, artists who are also able to write well, or the collaborators are fortunate enough to have complimentary visions. That is definitely the case here, where Muth adapts his style to the plot sympathetically, from sketchy caricature to languid Klimt-esque eroticism, whilst not losing an over-arching and cohesive vision. And it’s mighty pretty.

There are, of course, downsides. Pleasure needs be bedded with her cruel master disappointment at all times, thus is the cosmic balance maintained. Throughout Moonshadow’s journey he is placed in numerous perilous positions, yet there is very rarely a sense of peril. Partly due to the fact that the narrator is the hero in his dotage, yet also due to a feeling of invulnerability as he drifts from one disaster to another. He even manages to keep his cat with him, for G’l Doses’s sake, whereas my two cannot make it to the end of our road without getting spooked and running up a tree with a tail as bushy as a Scotsman’s beard.

Also, whilst one gets a slight sense of superiority from reading a weighty novel on the tube, the stigma attached to having pictures mean this must needs be consumed at home. Finally, for the duration of the book you will have ‘Moonshadow’ by Cat Stevens stuck in your head.

Regardless, this is a work of real beauty and profundity. It's subject matter is all human life, and there are no definitive resolutions save that most definitive of all, and if you can read the final chapter without feeling the approach of manly yet sensitive tears then you are not welcome at my table.

I’ll lend it to you if you want.


BNP Wives

(Sky Three Documentary)

NEILL says:

While flipping channels last night I had one of those curious 'did I see that right'? moments, flying through the long Freeview hinterland between where BBC4 ends and E4 begins. I went back a couple of stops and realised that, yes, I had seen that right. Sky Three were indeed showing a programme titled 'BNP Wives'. Incidentally, the last time I was so arrested by an intriguing title was Sky Three again, with 'Darts Players Wives'. This seems to indicate both a certain theme to that channel's output and a weird equivalence in the station controllers' minds between Darts Players and Far-Right Nationalism.

I only managed to catch the last 10 minutes of the show, which would not ordinarily be considered sufficient grounds for review, but based solely on what was contained in those minutes I think it's fair to say this may have been one of the most fascinating films ever to appear on British Television. As I tuned in events were already in full swing, with a series of scenes filmed at some bizarre BNP countryside fair. Fat-necked skin-headed men sat around in folding deckchairs, their demented tattoos of Germanic knights on proud display, watching some wholesome BNP-approved entertainment. This seemed to consist of a teenage boy singing Sinatra and a dumpy middle-aged woman reading hilariously, spectacularly bad poetry about her adulterous husband. Apparently her work was too awful even for the fat-necked tattoomen as they all left, and she finished her reading to an empty stage. The whole scene was utterly surreal, like watching a Village Fete run by Vogons.

It turned out that the betrayed fascist poetess was one of the Wives of the programme's title, three women involved in the BNP in various ways who were followed around for some time by the documentary-makers and given every possible opportunity to show themselves to be amongst the worst and stupidest human beings ever to drag down the grade curve of this green and pleasant land.

During one segment, the poet woman - who I think was in fact a BNP councillor - tried to evade questioning on the admittedly subtle and complicated question of whether Britain should in fact have gone to war against FUCKING HITLER. "To be honest, I've never really thought about it", she said, before starting a sentence that began "I don't agree with everything Hitler stood for, but..."

I don't think we really need to finish that thought, do we? Has any sentence worth hearing ever started out "I don't agree with everything Hitler stood for, but..."? I tried to write a few, just for the purposes of Comedy and honestly, it's almost impossible.
  • "I don't agree with everything Hitler stood for, but... it's raining"?
  • "I don't agree with everything Hitler stood for, but... I quite want a sandwich"?
  • "I don't agree with everything Hitler stood for, but... I'm a MASSIVE IDIOT NAZI WHO WRITES TERRIBLE POEMS"?
So just to reiterate, this is a person who is actively engaged in politics - specifically the politics of race and nationalism - indeed, who seems to have made those politics central to her whole life. And who claims to have 'never really thought about' such issues as Nazism, Hitler or Whether He Was Bad. This is either genuine, in which case it is possibly the most shocking and jaw-dropping stupidity ever expressed by a human being, or it is an attempt at being disingenuous so pathetically ill-advised as to actually be even more stupid.

Watching this programme was, of course, depressing in its way. But mostly it was just astonishing. To see these people going about their days, living in their seedy and depressing bubbles of hatred and idiocy, and thinking through it all that they are the normal ones. I honestly think these people fail to understand an important simple fact, so I'm going to state it here as clearly as I possibly can.

We - and I'm going to speak here for the overwhelming majority of people in this country who are, you know, NOT NAZIS - despise your ideas. We despise them. It's not that we are afraid of them, or that we don't understand them, or are 'not ready to hear them'. We understand them fully, we understand their roots and their implications, and we despise and utterly reject them anyway. The reason we understand all this is because a) we are so very, very much cleverer than you, and b) unlike you, we have actually thought about this.

The overwhelming ignorance that these people kept falling back on when pressed on any significant point was actually, in the end, oddly hopeful. It seemed to confirm something I dare to dream in my more optimistic moments: that most of what we call evil - this kind of low-grade goose-stepping flag-waving/flag-burning variety of evil, anyway - is just ignorance, at its core. And whilst 'evil' can seem mysterious and unstoppable, ignorance can be defeated relatively easily; by, oh I don't know, reading a book once in your entire fucking life. For example.

BNP Wives - the documentary, last 10 minutes thereof: 7/10
BNP Wives - the actual human beings portrayed therein: 0.4/10

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Wasps vs. Bees – A Comparative Review



On the surface they are so similar. Both are yellow and black insects that turn up when it gets warm, sting you and go “Buzz”. However, scratch beneath the surface and they are as different as Flash and the Reverse Flash. Wasps are vindictive little gits who will sting you soon as look at you and serve no useful purpose at all. They kill more Australians than any other animals (which when you look at the competition is pretty good going) and if you have the audacity to drink fizzy pop outside then they are as relentless in their pursuit as a Glaswegian divorcee who thinks they might be on for some sex.

Bees on the other hand are ace (though not to be confused with The Bees, who are also pretty good). They’re furry, and have little interest in your beverage if there are flowers around. Also, without them there wouldn’t even be any flowers. And they make honey, which is one of the dopest foodstuffs ever, and the only one to never go off. If you were to find a jar of Sumerian honey you would still be able to have it on your toast, that’s how great bees are. Although, having said that, if your Asda economy clear honey has turned into crystals it might be an idea to chuck it.

Despite this, and in definitive proof that the creator of this world is in no way benevolent and that the Lombards had it spot on, it is wasps that continue to thrive whereas bees are in danger of disappearing completely. I mean, come on, won’t someone please think of the bees. Wasps, you can all officially go to hell.

Bees 7.9/10
Wasps 1.4/10

The Book Thief

By Marcus Zusak

JAMES says:

A girl in Nazi Germany has a cool dad and steals books. For some reason this interests Death.

From the start this book is obviously going for the magical and sentimental tone used so well by writers such as Louis De Bernieres. Not long afterwards you realise that the writer is no Louis De Bernieres. It is a difficult thing to pull off, having a book narrated by Death without it seeming annoying and crass. In fact, one wonders why you would even attempt it. In this case the effect is worsened by a series of lists and asides that seem to suggest that Death is a Nick Hornby fan. I’m not sure if that is a comforting thought.

It seems an admirable idea to have a book featuring an ordinary German family during the Second World War, however the stigma of such times is so great that the author feels the need to show repeatedly and explicitly that the family at the centre of this story are not Nazis. He might as well have made them English and had done with it. The father of the family does work for Jews when no one else will, refuses to join the Nazi party and eventually hides a Jewish man in his basement. Though it is difficult to write about the period without mentioning the Holocaust, it was rather refreshing to have a book which didn’t centre around it and so I found this development rather disappointing.

Something that also became very wearisome during the course of this book was the way that even though it was written in English some phrases would still be in German, then repeated in English. It made proceedings worryingly reminiscent of Chris Claremont-era X-Men. Unglaublich.

This is not to say the overwhelming sentimentality of the book was not effective at some points. The characters were likeable and so when some of them died (given the narrator I don’t think this is spoiling anything) it was very sad. However, the overall impression was of what could have been an interesting study of live under a totalitarian regime in war time just ended up like every other book you have read about WWII, only not as good.

And besides, Death speaks in capitals. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT


P.S. If anyone could recommend an actually good book about life in Nazi Germany, let me know.

URT Podcast, Episode 2!

Yes, Episode 2 of the URT Podcast has belatedly arrived! In this excitingly rambling and incoherent SUMMER SPECIAL, Neill and James cast their critical eyes over two pieces of essential holiday viewing: the 1965 Elvis Presley musical 'Harum Scarum', and 80's Japanese animation 'Voltron: Defender of the Universe'.

Listen / download by clicking the image above, or:

...EDIT: or indeed using this handy embedded player:

You can also now check out our new podcast page, where you can subscribe to the RSS feed and stuff.

Episode 3 coming soon! Well, sooner. And with more coherence, guaranteed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Baby Sumo

(ritualistic form of child abuse. But, you know, in a FUN way)

NEILL says:

The 'Baby Sumo' festivals held annually in Japan do not, as it turns out, actually feature two infants being forced to fight while dressed in tiny sumo outfits. This is of course something of a disappointment yet as is so often the case with Japan the truth turns out to be gratifyingly demented in its own unique way.

The one-year-old contestants are dressed in traditional costume and placed opposite each other in a ring, held in the arms of their caring parents. At this point the shinto priest refereeing the "match" proceeds to try and make each baby cry, apparently mostly through a combination of sudden loud noises and, if that doesn't work, occasional poking. In a further pleasing inversion of expectations / common sense / general normality, the baby who cries first is declared the winner, crying being considered a sign of vitality and strength. This leads unscrupulous mothers to surreptitiously pull hair and pinch cheeks in attempts to grab glory for their offspring.

In a variant of this festival held in Asakusa, Tokyo, the entertainment quotient of the event - which I think you'll agree is already pretty high - is ratcheted up further by replacing the shinto priest referees with proper sumo wrestlers, who hold the babies above their heads and bellow terrifyingly into their faces.

I'm considering suggesting the introduction of this practice at my son's nursery, as I think it would help toughen the kids up, sharpen their competitive edge, and provide a fun and highly amusing day out for the parents. I'll let you know how that goes over.