Day M86: How To Write A Blockbuster – Part IV

22.12.11:

Antagonists

This is the easy bit. Your antagonist could be a rival news anchor, a monster from the black lagoon or the protagonist’s own fear of commitment (although if your script is based around fear of commitment, I hate you). It’s just some thing that keeps throwing obstacles in the way of our hero.

Wants vs. Needs

Before you embark on the journey you must spell out very clearly is what your main characters heart’s desire is. It might be to go into space, get with the girl or win the world tiddlywinks championship. But that alone does not a good film make. What you can play with, and what you can be more subtle about, is what the character really NEEDS. Self confidence, trust, education, friends, the monster to stop eating his friends etc.

The most blatant example of the wants vs. needs fandango is The Wizard of Oz, in which nobody gets what they want off the wizard: they just needed somebody to tell them that they had whatever it is they wanted all along.

Often you’ll see a film in which a character doesn’t want to change until they are shown a world beyond what they’re aware of (‘the sleeper awakes’), but others are quite happy to spell out straight away that the protagonist is not happy with his or her lot and wishes for change. It’s not until later in the story that the real need of the protagonist is revealed: think of Charles Foster Kane’s last word.

An Exception…

Horror films are an exception to the rule, generally the only ‘change’ the main character needs is for things to go back to normal. This is why it’s so hard to keep a protagonist alive for more than one horror film – once they achieve the confidence or nouce they need to defeat the zombie hoards at the end of the first movie, their character arc has nowhere left to go.

Pacing

Now you’ve got to kick your story into some semblance of order based on the structure I’ve just described. It sounds pretty restrictive, but usually you’ll find the bits of your script that work follow the rules, the bits that don’t work remind you of Star Wars Episode I.

Now have a look at the pacing of the film. It doesn’t have to be exact, but you want your protagonist to begin the journey around page 30. Take the blue pill, Neo. By page 60, they should be flying high, doing really well for themselves on their quest. They’ve probably met a girl they quite like and a comedy sidekick who makes sarcastic comments.

Pages 60-90 are when everything goes wrong (the end of Act Two is often known as ‘the mentor’s graveyard’ as it’s a good place to dispense with the mentor character as he or she will be useless in Act Three anyway).

Page 90 should be the lowest point (for the main character). If you’re writing a standard story, this should be the ‘all is lost’ moment. However, if you’re writing a tragedy, it’ll be the highest point for the main character. But tragedies don’t make money, so DON’T WRITE ONE.

For the record, films like Gladiator, 300 or Pan’s Labyrinth in which the protagonist dies at the end are NOT tragedies: they achieved their goal. They don’t need to survive to win. A tragedy is only when our protagonist loses, and loses big.

Pages 90-120 are when you really need to be wrapping things up. This is nothing to do with short attention spans and more to do with pacing. You gear the audience up for the dénouement and then keep them hanging on for another hour, they’ll hate you like I hate George Lucas for making Star Wars Episode I.

Also, if the links between your scenes seem inexplicable and arbitrary, “now let’s go to the pyramids!”, you’ll lose your audience. An audience confused is not an audience entertained, and suspension of disbelief only works if you rigidly adhere to the rules that your own universe creates.

Dialogue

Right, finally, the least important thing: dialogue. By the time your film gets made, every line will be changed, switched or rewritten by the powers that be anyway so it’s no big sweat.

That being said, silent protagonists are a tough sell, and while actions speak louder than words in real life, it’s a lot easier in the world of movies to make your characters sympathetic by having them express their desires through words rather than the medium of dance.

You should also ensure that when you read an individual line, you can (usually) work out which of your characters said it. Base each of your character’s reactions, speech patterns and slang on people you know, it’ll make it easier for you to differentiate. In general keep exposition to a bare minimum: nobody likes a lecture. If you’ve got something complicated to explain, try hiding it in a car-chase. Or use The West Wing’s “walk with me” shtick.

Finished?

Now go back over the script and take out the first and last lines of each scene. Repeat until you cannot remove any more dialogue and have each scene still make sense.

Don’t waste words, you haven’t got the luxury. Everything said should move the plot forward or tell us something about your characters. In each scene, the action should arrive late and get out early.

Now…

Print out hard copies (a waste of paper I know, but it’s MUCH easier to get people to read, even if they do own a frikkin’ iPad) and distribute to your friends, family, mortal enemies, people in the street etc. Give them a questionnaire to fill out asking them mainly about three things: places they got bored, places they got confused and character actions they didn’t understand (or didn’t believe). Don’t just ask them if they think it’s any good… everyone invariably say yes as they won’t want to offend your precious sensibilities.

With all this feedback buzzing around your cranium, go to bed. Put a pad and a pen with a light on it on the side. Lie down, close your eyes and run through the script in your head like you’re watching the film. You’ll think of new connections, you’ll think of different ways of doing stuff, you’ll find characters that you can dump, scenes you can do without and ways of simply doing it better.

Then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.

When you’ve absolutely, totally, utterly and completely finished rewriting, rewrite it again.

Now set it in space, add some more robots/zombies/dinosaurs and you’re done.

Good luck.

Day M154: Such A Pretty House

Tue 28.02.12:

Today I turned 33 years old. Too old, Yoda would say, to begin the training. By the age of 33, Jesus had convinced enough illiterate sailors that he was the son of God to kick-start the most lucrative religious racket the world has ever seen, Mozart was working on what would turn out to be his last requiem and Alexander The Great had conquered the known world. All did not live to see their 34th [edit: whoops! except for Mozart, who was 35 when he died].

By the time most of us hit the big three-three, we’ve got a full time job, a house we’re struggling to keep up the repayments on, a sizeable pension fund, a savings account, a TV in every room, a fridge, a couch, wood-decking out the back, matching towels, a Playstation 3 and, by and large, rugrats.

I don’t have any of those things. In fact, everything I own in the world is stuffed inside my ludicrously small backpack. I suppose I’m one of Renton’s bunch – I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. Am I rich? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But am I happy? HELL YEAH!!!

In the last few months I’ve danced with the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea, got put in a big cannibal pot in Vanuatu, spent Christmas with a Fijian family, met the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, got told off for taking pictures outside Peter Jackson’s house in New Zealand, saw The Flaming Lips, The National, Portishead and Tim Minchin live, appeared on national TV in both New Zealand and Australia and blagged a free ride on a cruise ship on which I was treated as a VIP (ha! I’m so not!). With little more than a bit of charm, cheek and nous, I find myself staggering from one awesome experience to the next: and I’m fairly confident that I’ve spent much less money doing this than you have over the same period on your mortgage repayments.

I can’t help that I feel this way. I had two things that steered me toward this course in life. One of which was my genes: I have my father to thank for that, the other was the music I listened to in my most formative years.

I was born in 1979. A great year, as it turns out. The year of my birth had a Smashing Pumpkins song named after it, as well as being the year the movie Super 8 was set. On the day of my arrival, Heart of Glass by Blondie was number one, Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ just about to be released to the world and popular music was still riding on a high of Punk-Disco-Glam that personified the decade. The less said about the following decade the better.

And so, as it happened, I was just the right age (13/14) to get into Grunge. My mates Ben, Dino and Yoz introduced me (with a bit of a fight, I’ll admit) to the world of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the aforementioned Pumpkins.

That music influenced a generation to pick up a guitar and scream down the microphone, but the existential angst of these bands (although awesome to mosh to) said little to me about my life – my hopes and dreams… and my fears for the future.

After the death of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana fans around the world (or at least around the playground) seemed to spilt into two factions: ones that moved further towards the Kerrang way of thinking (NIN, Tool, Marilyn Manson) and others who gravitated towards the NME side of things (Blur, Oasis, Supergrass). Thus began the great 90s rock schism.

I was happy to straddle the border between the two, one week smashing the place up as Korn played The Krazy House and a few days later gently swaying from side to side as The Bluetones played The Lomax. But again, while I found all these bands great to listen to, the lyrics were more often than not about a) being pissed off with the man or b) being pissed off with society or c) some girl.

And this is why I feel that Radiohead, Pulp and Suede were, for me, more personal, more meaningful and more influential than even the hyper-political ravings of the Manic Street Preachers. Radiohead in particular spoke in clear and unambiguous terms about the dreariness of the well worn path, the monotony of the daily grind and the tragedy of wasted life.

Just to help you understand my teenage mindset a little, I’ve collected some (half-remembered) lyrics that heavily influenced my decision to spend three years of my life travelling around the world. First up is from the final part of Pulp’s ‘Inside Susan’ trilogy, which starts with the hopes and dreams of a young teenage girl and ends with Jarvis Cocker painting a picture of ‘59 Lyndhurst Grove’: a scenario that sounds as depressing as it is mundane:

There’s a picture by his first wife on the wall
Stripped floorboards in the kitchen and the hall
A stain from last week’s party on the stairs
But no-one knows who made it
Or how it ever got there
They were dancing with children round their necks
Talking business, books and records, books, art and sex
All things being considered, you’d call it a success…

He’s an architect and such a lovely guy
And he’ll stay with you until the day he dies
And he’ll give you everything you could desire
Oh well, almost everything, everything that he can buy…

Yeah, most Pulp lyrics were about drilling a hole in the wall so you can watch the neighbours having sex, but if you read between the lines, there was almost certainly a quiet rage against “the life you’ve got worked out” (which, apparently, is nothing much to shout about). It certainly struck a chord with me.

One of my favourite albums of all time is Suede’s broken, fragmented masterpiece Dog Man Star. In this snippet of ‘The Power’, career guidance counsellor Brett Anderson brilliantly lays out the future options for a young ginger kid growing up in the suburbs of Liverpool:

Through endless Asia
Through the fields of Cathay
Or enslaved in a pebble-dash grave
With a kid on the way
If you’re far over Africa
On the wings of youth
Or if you’re down in some satellite town
There’s nothing you can do

‘Or enslaved in a pebble-dash grave’ is the killer line there – the way we live our lives is an option, for better or for worse, it’s a choice we make for ourselves. I could glide through endless Asia, or I could stay at home and play World of Warcraft: it’s up to me. Thanks, Brett!

So if I chose to spend the best years of my life commuting to and from a job I didn’t like, abiding colleagues I can’t stand and dealing with a boss who couldn’t outwit a toothpick, what would that be like? Most of the fourth Blur album, The Great Escape, was utter bobbins and I can’t say that I dwelt on it for too long, but there was a short two-minute ditty called “Ernold Same” that refused to get out of my head. It’s still in there, 17 years later (God I’m old)…

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed
At the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
Felt the same way as he did every day

And Ernold Same, the same train
Same station
Sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to same old what’s-his-name
On his way to the same place
With the same name
Doing the same thing again and again and again
Poor old Ernold Same

Oh Ernold Same
His world stays the same
Today will always be tomorrow

Poor old Ernold Same
He’s getting that feeling once again
Nothing, nothing will change tomorrow

This would be a horribly tragic song even if it didn’t have Ken Livingstone’s nasal drone sprawling all over it, but as it is, it is a perfect soundtrack to the daily grind, the banality of it all. We snipe at the manners of the Victorians, the repressed sexuality, the wish to fit in, the wish to please their parents, not make a fuss, to conform to the whims of society, the constant worry of what their peers would think. Oh how far we’ve come…

Then came the magnum opus of everyday despair and rage for the button-down business age: Radiohead’s OK Computer. Here are the words to ‘No Surprises’, Radiohead’s tragic lullaby to the slow asphyxiation of suburban life:

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heel
You look so tired unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t speak for us
I’ll take the quiet life
A handshake of Carbon Monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises…
No alarms and no surprises, please

Radiohead in particular had an obsession with conveying the increasing atomisation, sterilisation and standardisation of everyday life. It’s no surprise that Edward Norton spoke about listening to OK Computer a lot during the filming of the seminal white-collar-angst film, Fight Club.

These songs all came out between 1994 and 1997: that’s 15 to 18 years old for me (both ways, funnily enough). I don’t know if it was the impact they were aiming for, but being told by a millionaire rock star that your life is dull, your job sucks and your wife is probably cheating on you is rather cruel. I mean, where do these guys get off being all angsty about a suburban lifestyle they’ll never know? An office job they’ll never have?

But then, that was the point, wasn’t it? This wasn’t the sound of the latest garish RnB wankfest gloating about their bling, this was the sound of earnest counsel: if you don’t seize the day, make the most of opportunities that come along and, most of all, believe in your own abilities, you’re going to live a dull and predictable life – a life that, let’s face it, you’re probably going to regret.

Hell, some people might hunger for the institutionalised certainties providing by a proper job. Some might go for the shallow reassurances offered by ISAs, fixed rate mortgages and pension funds. Some might be happy battling stupefying odds in the hope that one day they might win the National Lottery in lieu of directly pursuing their dreams. But I don’t. And it’s all Radiohead’s fault. Probably.

Her fake plastic watering can
For her fake plastic rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber, plans
To get rid of herself
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out

She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery
For girls in the 80s
But gravity always wins
It wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out

She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love
But I can’t help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run
It wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out

Phew! I’m worn out just typing that.

The most important verse (and the crescendo of the song) is this: But I can’t help the feeling / I could blow through the ceiling / If I just turn and run.

The meaning is clear: if you want, you can escape this so-called life, this pebble-dash grave, the crushing monotony of the everyday. All you need to do is turn and run. Simple. Radiohead liked harping on this theme so much it’s written into every song on OK Computer:

#In an interstellar burst I’m back to save the universe (Airbag)
#When I am king, you will be first against the wall (Paranoid Android)
#I’d show them the stars and the meaning of life (Subterranean Homesick Alien)
#Today we escape, we escape (Exit Music)
#One day I am gonna grow wings (Let Down)
#For a minute there I lost myself (Karma Police)
#I’ll go forwards, you go backwards and somewhere we will meet (Electioneering)
#It’s always better on the outside (Climbing Up The Walls)
#Bring down the government (No Surprises)
#I feel my luck could change (Lucky)
#No-one else would know… (The Tourist)

Those with your smartypants on will notice I’ve missed out a song there, the song being ‘Fitter Happier’. The reason for this is that the message in Fitter Happier is implicit rather than explicit, but for the sake of being comprehensive, here’s the lyrics to what has to be the most horribly discomforting song to ever get on a #1 selling album:

Fitter Happier
More Productive
Comfortable
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease
Eating well
No more microwave dinners and saturated fats
A patient, better driver
A safer car
Baby smiling in back seat
Sleeping well
No bad dreams
No paranoia
Careful to all animals
Never washing spiders down the plughole
Keep in contact with old friends
Enjoy a drink now and then
Will frequently check credit at moral bank
Hole in wall
Favours for favours
Fond but not in love
Charity standing orders
On Sundays
Ring Road
Supermarket
No killing moths
Or pouring boiling water onto ants
Carwash
Also on Sundays
No longer afraid of the dark
Or midday shadows
Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
Nothing so childish
At a better pace
Slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Now self employed
Concerned, but powerless
An empowered and informed member of society
Pragmatism, not idealism
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness
Tyres that grip in the wet
Shot of baby strapped in the back seat
A good memory
Still cries at a good film
Still kisses with saliva
No longer empty and frantic
Like a cat tied a stick
That’s driven into frozen winter shit
The ability to laugh at weakness
Calm, Fitter, Healthier and More Productive
A Pig.
In a cage.
On antibiotics.

(FYI: The overlaid sound says This is The Panic Office, section 9-17 may have been hit. Activate the following procedure. It’s from Flight of the Condor.)

When you listen to ‘Fitter Happier’, it’s like hearing a list of demands read to a subjugated society by a malevolent computer in a dystopian 1970s sci-fi movie. But when you read it, it’s actually a list of things that most people would regard as being part and parcel of being a mature, sensible, responsible grown-up.

But I can’t help being fixated on the last line: A Pig. In A Cage. On Antibiotics. It scares me. In fact the whole song scares me. Are we that predictable? Are we that pedestrian in our dreams and aspirations? Is this all we want from life? No alarms and no surprises? Doesn’t anybody else want to escape from The Matrix?

When I heard ‘No Surprises’ for the first time at a one-off show at the Manchester Apollo in July 1996, the lyrics were:

Such a pretty house
With everything you ever wanted

This was changed on the album to:

Such a pretty house
With such a pretty garden

But I prefer the first version, the sound of somebody who has exactly what they thought they wanted in life, but are still not happy. I would wager that accounts for an incredible number of people on Planet Earth today. Maybe they didn’t have the sage counsel of 90s indie rock to guide them.

But how do we decide what we want? Being social animals, we tend to follow the herd in these matters. This is why the useless chips of carbon we call diamonds are so expensive: we’re programmed to believe that they’re something we want. This is why we love being institutionalised, we hunger for conformity and suppress the itch to do more with our lives. We finish school, what now? We finish uni, what now? We get a job, what now? We buy a house, what now? We find a wife, what now? We have some kids, what now? We watch them grow, what now? We watch them repeat what we did as we waste away, our best years behind us, left wondering where all that time went, mildly irritated that our partner is not as hot as they used to be.

A nurse in Australia surveyed hundreds of terminally ill patients, asking them about any regrets they had in life. She recently published her findings.

The number one regret?

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

All I can say is this: if you are not enjoying your situation in life, change it. Stop making excuses for not living your life the way you wish to live it. If that means quitting your boring job, putting your boring house on the market, leaving your boring partner or selling your boring children into slavery then so be it. I can’t emphasise this enough: life is not a rehearsal. When you’re dead, that’s it, game over. There are no second chances, no extra lives, no do-overs. You get taken to a room and burnt.

And what do you want your life’s work to amount to? A limp football scarf tied to a coffin, the priest getting your name wrong, a house that you worked for all your life being taken by the bank, a dining table nobody wants, the knowledge towards the end that, despite all your creative urges, you spent your few short years on this planet shuffling paper back and forth, waiting for your incompetent boss to give you a pay rise so you could afford a marginally more expensive car in which to waste two unpaid hours per day every day sitting in traffic?

Or do you aspire to something greater? Leave a true legacy, travel the world, do something nobody else has ever done, start your own company, write a book, plant a forest, invent the next big thing, build a house, make a scientific breakthrough, achieve peace in the Middle East, win a Nobel prize, change the world, save the world?

Well, come on then. Stop bloody well procrastinating AND DO IT. Now. Stop waiting for permission. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

Day M200: To Curse A Thief

Sat 14.04.12:

After the good news from Hartmann, I did what all good backpackers do on Friday nights in strange and foreign lands. I went headed to the pub. A guy staying in the hostel called Nathan gave me a lift to the Brickyard and there I met a bunch of Canadians and Americans with which to celebrate my good news.

I woke up this morning, well, this afternoon, in the spare room of a couple I had been drinking with, and after thanking them profusely (and eating their bagels), I headed back to the backpackers to get everything all sorted for tomorrow’s big excursion. Saturday 14 April 2012 was a big day for us scousers, as not only was Everton playing Liverpool at Wembley for the FA Cup Final, the Grand National horse race was also being held at Aintree. Intending to watch both of these events on the telly, I headed over to the Bottom’s Up bar, took my place at the bar and ordered a Taiwan Beer and a hamburger.

The match started well, but then went downhill from there, with Liverpool winning 2-1 over Everton (my team). I fared better in the Grand National, winning the pub sweepstake and a miniature of decent whiskey for my troubles. Given the time difference, it was now rapidly approaching the midnight hour. I was toying with the idea of going back to the backpackers, getting an early night and all that jazz, but then a couple of German guys invited me to join them going to a nearby club. That club turned out to be a strip club and being a fine upstanding member of the church, I opted to go someplace else (and it wasn’t because it was too expensive, oh no).

So we went to some downstairs dive with a dancefloor, crammed with revellers and cheap drinks. I was busy dancing the night away when a chap came up to me and said that I looked just like Graham off that TV show. I explained that I was Graham from that TV show (secretly hoping he didn’t mean Graham Norton) and soon I was posing for drunken photos and pulling funny faces for the family album with this guy and his mates.

At some point one of the guys behind me took my hat off my head, presumably for a photo. But instead of giving it back like a normal decent human being, the absolute f—er walked out of the pub with it on his head. By the time I realised he’d done a runner with my novelty iconic headgear, it was too late. Security footage revealed that the gobshite did indeed walk out wearing another man’s hat (a deviant as well as a common criminal) but by now he was probably miles away. The bar manager apologised, it wasn’t his fault, but by-jingo, I think you could see the steam shooting out of my ears.

My up-to-this-point fairly upbeat demeanour took a swift nose dive. With my hair now exceptionally trim since King Neptune had his wicked way with me, and my hairline noticeably receding, I need my hat now more than ever, especially considering the next three weeks will be spent on a ship traversing equatorial waters – and my complexion is firmly on the whiter side of pale.

And so thus it was that on the 1,200th day of The Odyssey Expedition, after 3 years, 3 months and 14 days on the road, after 195 countries, 17 territories and countless nights on the lash – from Buenos Aires to Beijing, from Dubai to Dar Es Salaam, from Jerusalem to Jakarka, from Tehran to Tarawa… somebody finally stole my stupid, smelly, dog-eared, moth-eaten, good-for-nothin’ hat. And I loved that hat.

The good news is this: that hat is cursed. I had a special hex put on it by the cannibal king of a South Pacific island (which shall remain nameless) by the light of the blood-red eclipse.

By the combined power of Lapitan ancestral spirits, King Neptune, Ahura Mazda, Hanuman the monkey god, Amun-Ra and Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I Hereby Declare That Whosoever Wears or Possesses THE HAT (apart from me, I’m vaccinated) Will Suffer Like No Human Being Has Ever Suffered Before!!

THE HAT will not only ensure that this wretched tea-leaf laments his thieving ways by giving him a smelly head, dandruff, lice and premature baldness (that’s my personal contribution), but will also strike down this akubra bandit with impotence, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis, chlamydia, scrofula, Alzheimer’s disease, yellow fever, the bubonic plague, repetitive strain injury, elephantitus, herpes, the human paplova virus, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, bird-flu, scoliosis, dengue fever, eczema, smallpox, rabies, jaundice, gangrene, measles, mumps and rubella, Parkinson’s, giardiasis, Spanish flu, a pulmonary oedema, trypanosomiasis, diphtheria, lupus, tinnitus, legionnaire’s disease, rift valley fever, genital warts, Asperger’s syndrome, tape-worm, altitude sickness, myxamatosis, conjunctivitis, onchocerciasis, Hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, F and J, syphilis, foot and mouth disease, cholera, deep-vein thrombosis, haemorrhoids, swine-flu, athlete’s foot, polio, bovine spongiform encephalitis, gross obesity, anaemic dysentery, psoriasis, typhoid, leukaemia, Huntington’s, malaria, arthritis, sunburn, sunstroke, a real stroke, schistosomiasis, multiple sclerosis, tinea, Japanese encephalitis, full blown Aids, tennis elbow, thrush, filariasis, ingrown toenails, meningococcal meningitis, the common cold and whatever that kid had in ‘Mask’. And that’s just on the first day.

THE HAT will give him constant ear-worms of David Hasslehoff’s greatest hits, it will make his genitals smell like Gregg’s pasties, it will make him fall for one-legged golddiggers, it will turn everything he eats into sand and everything he drinks into Dr Pepper, it will put a virus on his computer, filling it with kiddie porn and automatically sending it to PC World to be fixed, it will reprogram his iPod so that every song is either Celine Dion or Crazy Frog, it will make him fancy Camilla Parker-Bowles, it will make him walk funny, it will cause large tufts of hair to spontaneously spout out of his nostrils within 50 feet of a member of the opposite sex, it will make Noel Edmonds his best (and only) friend, it will lower his IQ sufficiently to make him vote Republican in the upcoming US presidential election, it will give him a seat that doesn’t recline on an overnight flight, it will ensure all his children are born with tiny penises (including the girls), it will make him find Russell Brand incredibly funny, it will make one of those tiny spiky Amazonian fish swim up his urethra while he’s having a wee, it will make him wear cardigans from Marks and Spencer, it will deny him entry to the pub, it will hide the remote control down the back of the sofa, it will call him every night at 3am offering them life insurance in an excruciatingly loud, nasal and high-pitched Indian accent, it will give him a tacky ugly wobbly tramp-stamp of a Chinese character that he thinks means ‘longevity’, but actually means ‘penis’, it will put sugar in the fuel tank of his car, it will cause him to wet himself on stage in front of the entire school, he’ll wake up wearing nothing but a Union Jack at the Celtic end, it will get every insane bomb-happy muslim in the world to declare a fatwa on him, it will re-programme his TV so every channel is Five, it will make sherbet fall out of his pants while he’s walking through Singapore customs, it will put a sharp stone in his shoe while he’s running for the last bus, it will summon his dead relatives to float around and tut disapprovingly every time he masturbates, it will transubstantiate any toilet paper that touches his nipsy into sandpaper dipped in extra-hot chilli sauce, it will make him believe that wearing socks and sandals is acceptable, it’ll give him a muffin-top, it’ll give him manboobs, it will do a secret poo in his bed under the duvet, it’ll make him go cross eyed, it’ll make his teeth fall out, it’ll make him fall into a Glastonbury portaloo, it’ll put polonium in his cocaine, it’ll get him sacked for abusing livestock, it’ll make what’s left of his hair turn ginger, it’ll make him jump up and down on Oprah’s couch, it’ll change his name to Keith (if it isn’t already), it’ll make him fart and follow through, it’ll make his boiler explode and his house burn down, it’ll replace his Facebook account with that of Gary Glitter’s, it’ll get Mel Gibson to abuse him and breath heavily down the phone, it’ll set the hillbilly psychos of the church of Scientology on him, it’ll eat his last piece of cheesecake, it’ll replace all his DVDs with ones by Tyler Perry, it’ll make him invest heavily in Marconi, Enron and Kodak, it’ll replace his cornflakes with scabs and he won’t notice until it’s too late, it’ll leave piss on his bus seat, it’ll get Freddie Kruger to haunt his dreams, it’ll get Freddie Mercury to haunt his bumhole, it’ll get David Cameron to give him a hug, it’ll change all his fonts to papyrus, it’ll wet his carpet and scatter cress seeds on it while he’s banged up in a Congolese jail cell for 6 days, it’ll stencil the word ‘TWAT’ in permanent marker across his head every night while he’s asleep, it’ll never give him a long piece in Tetris, it’ll make his girlfriend cheat on them with his dad, it’ll leave an anonymous tip-off leading the police to find Madeline McCann in his basement, it’ll put him in the incorrect aspect ratio, it’ll put him on the sex offenders register, it’ll snipe him on eBay, it’ll make his toenails fall off, it’ll slam the piano lid down on his fingers, it’ll swap his car for a Sinclair C5, it’ll make his chair collapse, it’ll make people point and laugh, it’ll infest his skin with parasitic wasps, it’ll compel him to make an arse of himself in front of the nation on X-Factor and it’ll make his willy shrivel up, turn blue and drop off.

After years of illness, torment, ostracism and ridicule, THE HAT will one day make him fall into a Calcutta cesspit and trap his hand under a boulder of rock hard poo, forcing him to cut his own arm off using a small blunt penknife in order to escape.

After making him crawl blind for through miles of foul-smelling excrement, THE HAT will flush him out over a hundred-foot cliff where he will be left dangling by his one good arm. THE HAT will then fill his underpants with itching powder. After a few days of unceasing agony and torment, the branch he is hanging onto will snap and he’ll be left quadraspazzed on a life-glug for 37 years. Unfortunately for this hapless hat thief, his nurse is a psychopath and takes sadistic pleasure in mixing sulphuric acid into his IV solution. And so the ratbag sonofabitch who stole my hat is left in excruciating pain, friendless, diseased, incontinent and destitute with acid running through his veins. For 37 years. THE HAT will sit and watch, grinning to itself – but the curse will not end there.

After 37 miserable years, the delirious hat thief will think that his mum has finally come to visit, but then realise too late that it’s not his mum: it’s that psychotic nurse who promptly covers his face with a pillow filled with of broken glass and used needles. She then cuts off his face and feeds it to the dogs. The subsequent lack of a face, the complete paralysis and apparent brain death causes the twat who stole my hat to be declared dead, which would have been a release, if only he were really dead, which of course he is not.

Although unable to scream or move a muscle, he can feel everything that is being done to him. His not-quite-dead cadaver will then be harvested by a short-sighted mortician who removes all of the hat bandit’s remaining teeth using the aforementioned blunt penknife from 37 years ago, now rusty. The mortician then drops the still-alive ‘corpse’ off to be abused by drunken medical students who are recreating The Human Centipede in the basement of their faculty using bodies of recently-deceased vagrants. After having his lips stitched to the rancid poo-pipe of a putrefying tramp, the thought of being buried alive seems no longer so bad, but instead the —-ing gob—– —-faced bastard —-headed —- who stole my f-ing hat will be handed over to the American military and dropped off the side of USS Carl Vinson into the pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the almighty Sarlacc, where they learn a new definition of pain and suffering as they are slowly digested over 1000 years.

And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I think that’s letting him off lightly.

Day M216: General Santos

Mon 30.04.12:

After arriving in the port of General Santos I met with Vincent, the local agent for Mariana Express, who took me to see Manny Pacquiao’s mum’s house. It’s a pastel-coloured concrete mansion off a dirt track – the dirt track on which the octuple world boxing champion himself grew up. The other houses in the area were typical concrete hovels, overflowing with people, with kids, with hustle and bustle. I don’t get it – Filipinos are some of the sweetest and most hard-working people I’ve ever met. Why do they have so little to show for it?

The other night, Third Mate Michael and I were chatting about the world and he said he wished the British had colonised The Philippines rather than the Spanish. I thought this was a bit of an odd thing to say – I mean, who wants to be colonised? But what he meant was that, given the choice, the British would have left a better legacy – and looking at the performance of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Hong Kong in recent years, Mike seems to have a point – especially when you compare the woes of Latin America with the economic powerhouses of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

But why is this the case? Why can’t I think of a single ex-Spanish colony that really done well for itself? One that’s a world player, a economic powerhouse, a beacon of justice and democracy for the rest of the world to aspire to?

Michael pretty much answered that question for me: religion.

While the Brits were happy, in general, to let the people in their colony’s keep their own religion – at worst pushing them to be quaint old Church of Englanders, the Spanish, Portuguese and French were gung-ho for converting as many people as possible to Catholicism.

And what goes hand-in-hand with Catholicism? Poverty! The Catholic Church’s retarded attitude towards birth control has been instrumental to the economic retardation of pretty much ALL of the world’s ex-Spanish, ex-Portuguese, ex-Italian and ex-French colonies.

Think about it: if your population is doubling every few years, you’re very soon going to run out of commodities, jobs and space. Take the Philippines: a country that is now pushing 100 million people. Tiny one-room apartments house up to three families. With millions living on top of each other in abject squalor, you’re going to very quickly see a situation in which people turn to crime in order to survive. And Catholicism lends a helping hand to criminals as well – it tells them WHATEVER THEY DO will be forgiven!!!

Is it any surprise that the Mafia comes from Italy? That Irish priests find it so unproblematic to live with themselves after repeated raping children? That Mexican drug barons are renowned as the most savage and ruthless in the world, all the while sporting a gold crucifix around their necks LIKE IT MEANS SOMETHING? Who cares how much suffering, how much pain, how much death you inflict on the world, YOU’LL BE FORGIVEN!!

Here’s a formula for ya…

No control on your population levels + an ‘all will be forgiven’ attitude towards lawlessness = every wretched and impoverished state in the world.

And the really sick thing? What little the people in The Philippines and countries like it have, they give to the church, presumably so The Pope (bless his paedo-enabling socks) can continue to dine off plates MADE OF GOLD.

I try not to go off on one about religion too much, this isn’t the blog for that. But does nobody else get absolutely irate by this transparent global SCAM? How much needless suffering is acceptable in order to propagate these childish beliefs? Are people that shallow, that pathetic, that needy that they can’t live without the fantasy that they’re going to magically survive their own death and see their dead family and friends and pets again?

Is that (quite frankly laughable) fantasy worth the life of a single child? NO. But it’s that same childish fantasy that is inextricably tied to the exploitation and misery of BILLIONS of real, living, breathing human beings. Right here, right now, on this the only planet we’ll ever call home.

So let me get this straight: we’re happy to cause real people to suffer and die just so we can cling to the fanciful notion that we are somehow immortal?

I’m tearing what’s left of my hair out here: For heaven’s sake, humanity: GROW UP!!

A-hem. Sorry, I better get down off my soap-box now. *stomp* *stomp* *stomp* Yeah, yeah, I’m being far too black and white about this, I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons why the world is the way it is, I just can’t think of any right now…

Where was I? Oh yeah, General Santos. He was a bloke you see, and they named the city after him. There’s actually a gold statue of him in the otherwise attractive central park. I don’t care how big or amazing you think somebody was, gold statues, well, they’re tacky as hell aren’t they? I’d be much happier with a bronze statue myself, preferably with an electric charge running through it so pigeons don’t shit on my head.

I then headed to the shopping mall (free wi-fi!) and began round 2 of my fight with HSBC. This time it only cost me £7, or as I like to call it ‘the price of accommodation for the night’. God I hate banks. With my cash card now rejuvenated and my website all updatiated, I headed back to the ship. I took a local taxi. Usually in The Philippines you get around in a ‘Jeepnay’, a classic pick up truck from the 1940s that is cared for and looked after by its owners to such an extent that they’re still running, fifty years past their use-by date. These Jeepnays are always very shiny and colourful – I don’t know, maybe they have best-in-show competitions or something, but they are quite groovy contraptions.

In GenSan though, there are no Jeepnays and instead you get around on converted Kawasaki motorcycles. And when I say ‘converted’ I mean ‘converted to fit SIX passengers’. That’s more than a standard hackney cab. And this is a MOTORBIKE?! Vroom Vroom! Whereas the autoricks and tuk-tuks of lesser mortals are set up for two, three people max, the mofo-moto-taxis of ol’ Santos town have two seats in the ‘side car’ part and two by two seats in the back, facing each other. It hurts my head just thinking about it.

After din-dins, I set out on the lash with Chief Engineer Arka, Second Engineer Luis and Bjorn, the Electrical Engineer.

Holy mackerel booze is cheap in The Philippines. A LITRE bottle of 6.9% Red Horse lager costs about a dollar. We sat outside a shack near the entrance to the ferry terminal. The night ferry up to Zamboanga was leaving soon, and so the port entrance was jumping with people, touts, street stalls and a bit of a carnival vibe.

After a couple of beers, Luis suggested that I try some Filipino street food. I’ll try anything once (except incest and country dancing), so I said I’ll give it a punt. I was presented with a hard-boiled egg, still warm. Only this was a duck egg. AND THERE WAS A BABY DUCK FOETUS INSIDE IT! Oh Jesus, it makes the chunks rise up in my throat just thinking about it.

So I cracked it open, I sucked out the juices and bit into the soft, mushy half-formed eggy brain goo inside. To be honest, it didn’t taste that bad, not far off a standard hard-boiled egg. But the sight of the yellow-grey veiny matter, the spongy texture and the very concept of eating what amounted to a duck’s abortion made me gag. I didn’t finish the egg. Luis gave the rest of it to a stray dog. Deep fried frogs legs though, with a bit of garlic mayo – now that s— was goooood.

After our crazy happy fun snack time, we left the port entrance and walked over the road to High 5, a karaoke bar. Our hostess with the mostess, Irish, sorted us out with copious amounts of grog before dueting with me for ‘Stay’ by Shakespear’s Sister (even though she’d never heard it before). I tried to fit her into my backpack and take her with me, but I thought Mandy might object.

So after a good night had by all, we staggered back to the ship. I cheated and took a moto-taxi.

Day M242: Gotham City

Sat 26.05.12:

Gangsters. I hate them. I hate their pathetic lust for money, their shocking insensitivity to the misery of others, their child-like desire for trinkets and weaponry. But I especially hate their taste – yes I may sound like a rambling old lord bemoaning the trashy habits of the nouveau riche, but sod it: these people are not just morally bankrupt, but creatively bankrupt as well. The kind of goons who would erect a tasteless golden statue of themselves as though it’s not going to be melted down the minute they shuffle off this mortal coil they’ve done so much to ruin for others. The kind of goons that buy cars that look like glorified roller-skates, spend more on sound-systems than looking after their kids, hang out with women more plastic than Barbie and wear shirts louder than Krakatau.

One of the reasons I want drugs legalised is to strangle the main income stream of these lowdown lowbrow lowlifes, but in some cases the damage has already been done. Las Vegas, that trashy Blackpoolzilla of the desert, founded by gangsters who had their goodtastebuds removed at birth, with its shitty bastardised versions of some of the greatest buildings in the world, the air-conned epitome of what the daily exploitation of human greed and a shoddy grasp of statistics can buy. If Las Vegas’ effect on the world was restricted to that wretched hell-on-Earth where dithery old fogeys go to waste the money they’ve wasted a lifetime working for, I honestly wouldn’t give a fat flying crap. But unfortunately for humanity, Las Vegas, the world epicentre of gold-plated kitsch and a lifestyle that only cretins could possibly find aspirational, has spread its pernicious tendrils from Macau to Melbourne to Manila.

Yes I know that Las Vegas is now run by Disney and Halliburton (probably), but the form of modern casinos originates in the grotesque pipe-dreams of gangsters. Look at Tony Montana’s gay nightclub of a house, the gold chains and cheap shell suits of Tony Soprano’s goons or the hang-glider-like collars of Fredo Corleone. What these (admittedly fictional, but art does imitate life) people think is attractive, beautiful or necessary should never, NEVER, be allowed to sully the landscape of Hoggart’s Farm, never mind the skyline of a great city like Singapore.

I WISH this was Photoshop. But it's not. It's real.

Yup. It’s a Sands Casino/Hotel/THING.

Three ugly-as-f— domino-shaped towers. With a surfboard plonked on top of them that’s supposed – get this – to look like a SHIP. Oh my giddy aunt. Is this a joke? Because, seriously, if it is, it’s about as amusing as cancer.

But should I be surprised that some moron thought this was a good idea? Should I be gobsmacked that some spawn-of-Satan architect designed it? Should I be shocked that the morons in the government gave it the green light? Should I be bewildered that men toiled for thousands of man-hours with a budget that could have pulled an African country out of the shite to build something akin to a fanciful folly of a fat spoiled rich kid, what happens when Homer’s brother puts him in charge of design, the architectural equivalent of an episode of that nightmarish MTV show My Super Sweet 16?

Dear God, MAKE IT GO AWAY

FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, IT’S THREE TOWERS WITH A SURFBOARD DUMPED ON TOP!! LORD, GIMME STRENGTH.

No. No, I’m not surprised. And I’m sure there are people willing to sacrifice all dignity, any shred of perceived integrity, manners or decency by saying ‘well I think it looks nice’. If that’s your opinion, you seriously don’t deserve opinions. Or, for that matter, oxygen. Put the crayon down and please stop designing buildings or I’ll have to put you on the naughty step.

It’s crass, it’s tacky, it’s pathetic, it’s moronic, but most of all… it’s just f—ing ugly.

Ugly like a British soap opera. Ugly like a civil war. Ugly like a car accident. Ugly like a divorce. Ugly like a heroin overdose. Ugly like the lecture hall of a 60s polytechnic. Ugly like disease. Ugly like a the mind of a gangster.

But is this a huge shock to me? That in the 21st century people are still willing to build such monumental crap? No. No it’s not.

I’ll tell you what was a shock to me. THIS:

Ahh... That's better

Often in my travels, often to defenders of modern architecture, concrete and “clean straight lines”, I have thrown down The Graham Hughes Modern Architecture Challenge. It is simply this: name me one building, anywhere in the world, built (not restored) in the last fifty years that is beautiful?

And nobody, NOBODY has ever come up with an answer. A single one! ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD!! Seriously! A single building built by any of the 7,000,000,000 souls on the good ship Earth. NOT ONE!

Well butter my balls and call me Bongo. It’s taken three and a half years, 197 countries, 18 territories and 250,000 miles but I think I may have found it.

I give you ParkView Square, Singapore:

YES.

What’s this? Well-wrought statues adorning the courtyard? Dali, Beethoven and Churchill immortalised in bronze? Why the hell not eh?

Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo

Chinese motifs on the façade? Awesome. Let’s go inside.

My friends observe! This is what beautiful looks like.

Oh sweet bliss. Hand-made brass frescos, art-deco styling, the highest wine-rack in the world – one that comes with ‘wine angels’, barmaids who don a harness and bungee and float up like fairies to get your bottle of plonk?

And this is an OFFICE BUILDING? Are you kidding? No?!

Atlas Shoved.

Okay, okay, Graham – we get it, it’s a very nice building, but why are you so excited about all this?

Because ParkView Square, known affectionately as ‘Gotham City’ by the locals, was built FROM SCRATCH less than ten years ago.

You see, I don’t care that the internal structure of ParkView Square is made of concrete in the same way I don’t care that Scarlett Johansson’s internal structure is made of blood and guts. The Liverpool Liver Building and the Liverpool Gothic Cathedral also have concrete rattling around in their bones, but you’d never know unless you cut them open – and that’s the point.

Of course, mealy-mouthed modern architects will talk this place down in the same way that literary critics will dismiss Lord of the Rings (the third best selling book ON THE PLANET – fact!), but that’s to be expected isn’t it? However, from where I’m standing, all I can see is a building that inspires joy and wonder, a soaring monument to human endeavour and ingenuity.

I walked through this building every day on the way from the Bugis train station to Kuni’s place, and each time I noticed something new; a detail I had missed, a facet I had overlooked, something that put a smile on my face. Like a what the chaps at Weta did for the Roxy cinema in Wellington but on a truly epic scale, the Chinese owners and New York architects (who, I feel, are in desperate need of some serious high-fivin’) of ParkView Square deserve nothing but respect for showing the world what I’ve been banging on about in all of my many rants about modern architecture: THERE IS NO GOOD REASON THAT MODERN BUILDINGS HAVE TO LOOK UGLY.

Beetham Tower, Manchester: Europe's Tallest Eyesore
THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.
Holyrood, Edinburgh: Europe's Ugliest Building
THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.
Federation Square, Melbourne: Ugliest Building in the Southern Hemisphere
THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.
Mirador Building, Madrid. Now seriously, WHAT THE FUCK??
THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.

We have to put up with ugliness every day of our lives: bombs going off, child murders, internecine strife, car accidents, war, famine, disease, EastEnders… must we ALSO live in a world whose buildings are dictated by the obscene fetishes and peccadilloes of architects and politicians? Gibbering morons happy to dress like this:

Politicians. I Hate Them.
Yeah, see what you've done there, going for the 'serial killer in the rain' look, right?

This is the world of gangsters, bling, marketing, lies, and cocaine. This is what happens when people with no taste or decency are permitted to build things. These are the diseased brainspunk of our parent’s generation and it’s high time we ripped down this garbage and built something beautiful in its place. Give me the neo-Gothic, give me the Baroque, the Romanic, the Spanish Mission, the Country Cottage, the Florentine, the Art-Nouveau, the Tudor villa, give me Gotham City… just, for heaven’s sake, give me something that looks BEAUTIFUL!!

One damn fine Scottish sexpot
That'll do.

Today, Kuni, Christoph and I went for a mooch around town. At the end of a long hot day, Christoph and I ended up in the famous Long Bar of The Inimitable Raffles Hotel. Peanut shells cover the floor and automatic fans waft cool air gently down onto the patrons. It’s a whopping $26 (£13) for a Singapore Sling, but when in Rome…

Graham Hughes vs Singapore Sling
WHERE Else Should One Partake Of The Singapore Sling But At The Raffles Hotel

Day M243: The 10 Courts of Hell

Sun 27.05.12: 

Today I met up with Maryanne, the CouchSurfer who shared Mike’s flat with me in Hong Kong. Together with Kuni and our new CouchSurfer Callum we headed over the Haw Par Villa Theme Park to go see the TEN COURTS OF HELL!!

Hell isn’t an exclusively western concept. What happens to you after die has obsessed the upright ape since it first climbed out of the trees, touched the monolith and killed off all the Neanderthals. In some instances the fanciful fables of the hereafter have assumed the status of myth (that place religions go when they die), but for many people on this planet hell is as alive and as real as Disneyland. So why not make a theme park out of it?

That was the idea of brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the developers of Tiger Balm, who came up with the idea of Haw Par Villa in Singapore in the 1937 – a venue for “teaching traditional Chinese values”, or in other words, a venue for “scaring the shit out of children”.

The English translation said ‘Ten Courts of Hell’, and I only counted ten, but I was assured by our Chinese-speaking friends that there are indeed 18. And how wonderfully gruesome they are. Saw meets Hostel meets Hellraiser via the Texas Chainsaw Massacre but all done out with delightful little mannequins. Guts being pulled out, tongues being cut off, heads being sawn in half down the middle… and the place was full of KIDS! Seriously! Man, there’s some sweet-assed nightmares right there. I guess this is where you take little Timmy if you want him to wet the bed.

Well, this doesn’t look too bad…!
A spot of skinny dipping – just what Satan ordered.
Okay now things are getting rather gruesome…
It was the first and last time I was asked to present Jackanory.
Yes that is a man being sawn in half. But it could be worse…
…he could be getting sawn in half lengthways!
Happy Nightmares, kids!

Personally I hate the idea of hell, I find it an insult to the forward march of science and logic. I hate that kids all over the world are lied to by their lazy hack parents – is ‘doing good makes you feel good’ not a better line? No, kids are told (pretty much) ‘do as I say or you’ll burn in hell’. F—ing lovely.

“BLAH BLAH BLAH you don’t have kids, Graham, you don’t know what it’s like.”

Yeah I don’t have a million dollars and a coke addiction but I’m still happy to point and laugh at celebrities who do. Teaching kids not run into the road by slapping the backs of their legs is one thing, having some asexual freak in a frock tell kids that the universal punishment for ‘being naughty’ is TO BURN FOR TRILLIONS OF YEARS IN A FIERY LAKE OF POO is another entirely. What the hell is wrong with these people?

There are a vast number of chumps who seriously believe that all ‘non-believers’ will burn for billions of years in a boiling reservoir of excrement. Thanks a bunch, pal. I don’t go home and fantasise about Fred Phelps falling into a super-sized Glastonbury portaloo that’s just been set ablaze, I just kinda hope one day someone lobs a grenade at him. While he’s having sex with a rent boy. In Sweden. Oh and don’t forget, the list of ‘non-believers’ doesn’t just include atheists like myself, it also includes people of the ‘wrong’ faith and people of exactly the same faith (but a different denomination).

So the guys who think this God character wears a blue hat are firmly convinced that those LUNATICS(!) who believe God wears a red hat will, for the ‘crime’ of Christ-Knows-What, be tortured for ETERNITY. That’s a jolly long time. I know your brain ain’t too good with large numbers (I’m assuming you’re human) but have you ever stopped to consider how many human lifetimes actually go into an eternity? Ever heard of a ‘googol’? It’s a big number. A one with a hundred zeroes after it – and therefore a bigger number than the number of molecules in the universe. A bit abstract for you? Here:

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!

That’s a googol. Now that’s a long time expressed in Earth years. But most religious people don’t just desire MORE THAN A googol of years extra bonus post-death life. Yes, they are that greedy, that bizarre, that full of themselves that they believe they will not only magically survive their own deaths, but they will also live for ETERNITY. Which is a hell of a lot longer than a googol of years.

A ‘googolplex’ is a one with a googol of zeroes after it. I can write it like this: 10googol (ie 10 to the power of a googol), but if I tried to write it out in long form it would take me more time than the universe has left to exist. Just to give you an example, here is a one followed by a 1,000 noughts:

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!

Now copy and paste all of these zeros out 999 more times. Then you’d have a one followed by a million noughts, a number that doesn’t have an official name so I’m going to call it a Moogol. A Moogol is quite hard to conceptualise, so I’ve written it out in long form for you:

CLICK HERE TO SEE A MOOGOL…!

The crazy thing is that a Moogol is nowhere NEAR an googolplex. Seriously, if you clicked on that link just to see what a one with a million zeroes after it looked like, you could times that big long number by A MILLION and still you’d only have a one with 1,000,000,000,000 zeroes after it – nowhere near the 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
zeroes you’d need to make a googolplex.

Considering the UNIVERSE has only existed for 13,700,000,000 years, it would seem that people who believe they will continue to exist for eternity are living in cloud-cuckoo land. A googolplex of googolplexes and you’ve still not reached 0.00000000000000000001% of an eternity.

If I was a Christian, I’d honestly spend every waking moment praying that Christianity wasn’t true, since I have no vested interest in the continuous torture of dead people and I really, honestly, don’t want to magically survive my own death and then to continue to exist – EVEN IN HEAVEN – for 101000000000000000000000+ years. If you do, you’re either a dimwit or a whack-job. I hate to sound so harsh, but COME ON BE REASONABLE!! If you grant me that there is no tooth fairy and there is no Santa Claus (sorry to break it to you!), then death absolutely, totally and utterly IS the end. All that will survive of you are your deeds and, if you’ve managed to breed, some of your genetic material. Deal with it, kiddywinks!!

But like I say, hell isn’t just as Christian idea, the notion of post-mortal justice has entertained the minds of the twisted and deranged for millennia. In ancient Greece, poor old King Tantalus (whose only ‘crime’ was to murder his own son, cut him into bits, cook him in a pot and, erm, serve him to the gods for dinner) was thrown into Tartarus – the nastiest bit of the Underworld, and there he was forced to spend eternity hungry and thirsty while the most sumptuous food and drink would float agonisingly just out of reach above his head (that be where we get the term ‘tantalise’ from!). There’s Hindu hell, Buddhist hell – hell, there was even a Viking hell – for warriors who died dishonourably (presumably while having a poo).

The Chinese hell is more logical than the Christian concept, but to be honest that’s like saying 2012 (the film) is more logical than The Core. It’s still a terrible movie, but at least in Chinese hell you get judged, horribly tortured for a limited time and then you get reincarnated – no googolplexes for the maths-savvy Chinese. The mad thing is that before your re-incarnation you get your memory wiped, which kinda makes the whole torture bit rather redundant. Can we skip the judgement/torture/memory wipe/reincarnation shenanigans and just have bad people in the world, you know, just die? I don’t want to live in a world where Hitler is still alive as a squirrel.

Have you learnt your lesson? Good. Now drink this magic tea so you forget the lesson you just learnt.

That evening, Christoph and I headed off to Singapore Zoo for the Night Safari. As 80% of tropical animals are nocturnal, it makes a lot more sense to go and see them after dark. As flash photography isn’t permitted, my night-vision function on my camcorder came in incredibly handy.

Day M249: Why I’m Not A Republican

Sat 02.06.12:

Today marked the start of the 4-day Diamond Jubilee celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th year as Head of State of The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and numerous Commonwealth realms.

It’s given the British people a couple of days off work, a free concert and injected some much-needed joy into a otherwise perpetually depressed nation. There are some that argue that the royal family is an anachronism, that it’s irrelevant, that it’s out-of-touch. So would I! But then, let’s face it, those adjectives could be used to describe every political institution in the world, not least the United Nations.

I’m not swayed by arguments wrung out by Daily Mail-types who believe that to criticise the monarchy is akin to collaborating with The Nazis. Nor am I swayed by arguments wrung out by tub-thumbing Trots screaming off with her head – these are arguments borne out of emotion, of jealousy, hatred, fear, misguided patriotism and xenophobia. These do not interest me.

As a graduate of History and Politics and well-travelled absorber of all things groovy and novel, what does interest me is political systems: ones that work and ones that don’t.

I want to convince you in the course of this essay that republics – democracies with an elected head of state – are a deeply flawed political system, and that constitutional monarchies – democracies with a un-elected head of state – are (perverse as it may sound) a fairer, more sensible and more democratic way of doing things.

When you’ve finished picking your jaw up off the floor, I’d like to refer you to the Democracy Index. A list of the most democratic nations in the world. Notice how 7 of the top ten most democratic states in the world are constitutional monarchies. In fact, 4 out of the top 5 most democratic states in the world are constitutional monarchies. Weirded out yet? I hope so.

This goes against all common sense – how can having an un-elected head of state be more democratic that having an elected one?

The answer, as with most things in life, is politics. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch has no political power. Nor should they have – after all, they are just one man or one woman, who are they to frustrate the will of hundreds of elected politicians? Who are they to frustrate the will of the millions of people who didn’t vote for them? Who are they to steal the country’s natural resources or unilaterally declare war on another country?

The system that works the best is when the Head of State and Head of Government are two clear and distinct roles, the former having no political power and the latter not being in direct control of the army.

A presidential system naturally cedes far too much power into the hands of one man.

In the USA, which I believe has one of the worst political systems this side of North Korea, you have a situation in which the Head of State, Head of Government AND Head of the Armed Services is one man. ONE MAN. Let’s think about this for a moment.

ONE MAN can veto each and every bill that has spent months – maybe even years – passing through both houses of Congress. A bill that would have been carefully formulated, gone through committees, sub-committees, debates, re-writes, collective bargaining and been voted on by a majority in both the House of Representatives and The Senate. ONE MAN has the power to say ‘bollocks to that for a game of soldiers’ and throw the bill in his drawer and forget about it. You might presume that this amazing and unbelievable power would be something that happens maybe once or twice in an entire presidency.

Not so. George W Bush vetoed 12 bills.

That’s nothing: Clinton vetoed 37. George Bush Senior 44… and Ronald Reagan? 78.

Still, pales in comparison with Franklin Roosevelt’s kinda depressingly magnificent 635 vetoes.

In contrast, the Queen of Britain has vetoed exactly 0 bills. In 60 years. In fact, the last time the British Head of State vetoed a bill that had passed through both houses of parliament WAS in 1708. OVER 300 years ago. The power of veto is there in case of emergency, say if we get a loony Hitler-type in charge of parliament who wants to kill all the Welsh, but that’s never happened… and is rather unlikely to happen because the armed services of the UK do not swear alliance to the Prime Minister, they swear allegiance to the Queen. They have a right to say no. Unlike in the USA where…

ONE MAN can order the armed services to invade a foreign country FOR SIX WEEKS before having to seek permission from Congress for his actions.

You might want to rub your eyes and read that sentence again. SIX WEEKS!! Of course this rule was invented when it took six weeks to cross the Atlantic, and the British were running around burning down the president’s residence (according to scuttlebutt, the Yanks painted it white to cover the scorch marks). NOT when the USA had the capacity to WIPE OUT ALL HUMANS ON THE PLANET in the same given time frame.

Don’t forget: ONE MAN HAS THIS POWER. This is a presidential system. It is the reason the USA scores below the UK – which still doesn’t have an elected upper house, AND has a monarchy – in the Democracy Index.

It is the reason why France and Italy aren’t even down as ‘full democracies’, but rather ‘flawed democracies’ along with Cape ‘frikkin’ Verde. You look at the monumental corruption of Berlusconi, Mitterand, Chirac et al and then you look at how remarkably incorruptible the Queens of Britain or the Netherlands or Denmark are. Incorruptible because they aren’t greedy career politicians in it for the money, or the power, or both.

The line that sticks with me is in Gladiator when Marcus Aurelius Says to Maximus that he wants him to lead Rome back to democracy. Maximus says he doesn’t want the job. That, says Marcus, is why it must be you.

You see a job like that of Head of State naturally attracts the wrong sort of people. So does Head of Government, but at least in a parliamentary system the Head of Government can be over-ruled by cabinet or their own party… and can be gotten rid of as soon as they cock-up big style. Contrast the axing of Maggie Thatcher over the Poll Tax compared to the unbearable unpopularity of that dickwick George W Bush in his second term. Could the US voters get rid of Bush before the end of his term of office? NO. Not unless they could prove he broke the law. Being excruciatingly BAD AT YOUR JOB isn’t enough to fire a president – after all, he’s Head of State.

So let’s lay my cards on the table. In my humble opinion, the USA elects a dictator every four years. A dictator that has a phenomenal (and grossly un-democratic) amount of power. But the US isn’t alone in this madness. Look around the world – presidents are almost universally bad news (note that NONE of the top ten democracies are presidental systems).

In most countries in Africa, where a tribal-cum-parliamentary system would be best, you have a guy who is a member of one particular tribe – usually the biggest tribe – and he’s president. And he will look after his tribe to the detriment of all others. The corruption that stifles development in the third world is almost always linked to a presidential system. One man. Head of State. Head of Government. Head of the Armed Services. Let’s have a coup d’etat! Let’s kill the opposition! Let’s change the constitution so I’m president for life! This is not the way we should be conducting matters and running countries in the 21st century.

Yes a monarchy is anachronistic, yes it’s probably out-of-touch and yes I quite frankly hate Prince Charles. Maybe other political models work better, but that’s not the purpose of this piece. I’m merely telling you why I’m not a republican. It is because I find republics IN PRACTICE to be a one-way ticket to tyranny. Give me the checks and balances ensured by Constitutional Monarchies around the world anyday.

In closing, I’d just like to say that I once met a Jewish guy from the lower east side of Manhattan. This was in 2005, a few months after George W Bush was re-elected president. I suggested that he must be rather miffed that that walking disaster for the world had got back in.

“No”, he says, “I voted for him”.

My years of political study about voting patterns, demographics and political loyalty went flying out the window.

“WTF???” I scream, half in horror, half in sheer disbelief.

Well, says my Jewish friend, “you have to rally around your leader at a time of war.”

The prosecution rests.

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!!!

Day 1,444: I Predict A Riot

Fri 14.12.12:

Yesterday the Sinai arrived in Aswan without too much fuss. Danny and Jill, the couple I shared lunch with in Wadi Halfa, slept the night on the deck in front of the bridge. They must have been freezing. After disembarkation we got chatting outside customs to the Aussie girl who had just, with the help of Mazar and Midhat Mahir, taken the first EVER tourist bus into Egypt from Sudan USING THE ROAD. This is no small achievement and paves the way for much easier travel through Africa for all us overlanders. The Sinai doesn’t take cars: you currently have to leave your vehicle in Wadi Halfa or Aswan for the barge to bring over a few days later.

Danny, Jill and I shared a taxi from the port into town. Wow it’s grown in the last 13 years. In the afternoon I had just an hour to catch up with all my emails which had back-logged since I left Ethiopia before heading over the river to spend some time in Lord Kitchener’s Island, the botanical garden in the middle of the Nile where Mandy and I walked together for the first time back in the heady eclipse-dominated summer of 1999.


From Aswan Dec 2012, posted by Graham Hughes on 12/18/2012 (28 items)

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher 2


Later, I jumped the night train to Cairo, an 18-hour journey which cost me about £6 in British money: ie. About how much an overnight train journey SHOULD cost, EUROPE I’M LOOKING AT YOU.

I arrived in the great stinking noisy dusty concrete hell-city that is Cairo around 3pm and headed straight for Tahrir cinema in order to meet Kendra, my Bostonian CS host from last time I was in Egypt. She was a bit late and I ended up chatting with Christian, a British guy who had been travelling since I was a wee nipper. (Having a toilet seat strapped to your backpack is a great conversation starter.) We shared tales from the road and I was happy to have him pick my brain about travelling around Africa on a shoestring and without flying as that’s exactly what he planned to do next.

Kendra rucked up fashionably late and after dropping my stuff off at her gaff (and grabbing a much needed shower) we headed out to meet with Midhat Mahir – the Khartoum tour agent that I owe for getting me safely in and out of Sudan. If it wasn’t for Midhat, I’d still be in Ethiopia right now. Honestly, if you’re planning on going to Sudan, or even transiting through, contact Midhat first. He’ll tell you everything you need to know. The fact that it was he and his brother Mazar who were responsible for getting that tourist bus over the border yesterday speaks volumes for his ability to get stuff done in a country notorious for making things as difficult as possible for us hapless wayfarers. Good on ya, Midhat!

Afterwards, Kendra and I jumped a taxi to the famous (and also quite marvellous) Café Riche near Tahrir Square. It didn’t take long before we were boozing and putting the world to rights. Tomorrow is a big day for jolly ol’ Misr (as the Egyptians call Egypt), they’re having a referendum on a constitution that 40% of the country can’t even read, the other 60% can’t understand and that will invest even more power in the hands of the ‘elected’ tyrant (see: all Presidents ever) who currently runs this corrupt, dysfunctional and bizarrely impoverished corner of Africa.

You see, the mistake they made in February 2011 was getting rid of just The President.

They should have got shut of The Presidency.

The new president is a religious fundamentalist (oh yes, the world needs more of that lot…) called Mohammed Morsi. Like all ‘elected’ tyrants (see: all Presidents ever), he is Head of State AND Head of Government as well as being in charge of (*ahem*) the army, the navy, the air force, the police force, the judiciary, the civil service, the tax collectors, the border security, customs, the sea ports, the air ports, Egyptian embassies abroad, the postal system, anything that’s been left nationalised, the oil, the gas, the Suez canal, the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, the remains of Tutankhamen, the bleaching of the Red Sea coral, the dust in the Egyptian museum and that bloody awful new library in Alexandria (hey Christers! Do us a favour – burn it down again!).

Last week his police force shot dead eight people outside his ‘palace’ (does anybody else understand why the ‘elected’ representative of the people gets to live in a palace?? Hmm? And don’t be playing with semantics – The White House is a f—ing palace too and you know it). Their crime? Well, you know: protesting against him. Morsi then went on TV to apologise and singularly failed to apologise. I mean, they had it coming, how dare you protest against your Fuhrer (*cough*) I mean President?! The irony being that Morsi only became president as a result the job vacancy left in the light of of last year’s, erm, goddamnprotests.

I love it when ‘elected’ tyrants (see: all Presidents ever) get stuck into the job straight away, murdering their own and changing the constitution to make themselves pharaoh. It warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it.

I’m sorry if you think I’m labouring the point here, but I firmly believe that Presidencies are deeply flawed systems and are responsible for horror, warfare, murder, poverty and social dysfunction on a par with (and in some cases surpassing) the deeply flawed systems of fascism and communism (I’d throw the childish notions of anarchism and libertarianism in that pot as well). Here is a list of the top ten most democratic countries in the world:

1 	Norway		9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

2	Iceland		9-10	Full democracy	
        Parliamentary republic and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

3	Denmark		9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

4	Sweden		9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

5	New Zealand	9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

6	Australia	9-10	Full democracy	
        Federalism, constitutional monarchy & parliamentary democracy, bicameralism

7	Switzerland	9-10	Full democracy	
        Federalism, directorial system, bicameralism

8	Canada		9-10	Full democracy	
        Federalism, constitutional monarchy & parliamentary democracy, bicameralism

9	Finland		9-10	Full democracy	
        Parliamentary republic and parliamentary democracy, unicameralism

10	Netherlands	9-10	Full democracy	
        Constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, bicameralism

In ALL of these countries, Parliament has sovereignty, not the Head of State. Yes you’re right, nobody has ever erected a statue to a committee, but at the end of the day there simply aren’t enough so-called ‘Great Men’ left in the world to justify presidential systems – systems that are abused wholly, completely and without remorse by almost every man who gets the job (invariably by imprisoning, killing or out-spending the other guy). Countries which embrace such madness are in need of some serious time on the naughty step.

Incidentally, although it’s not exhaustive, ALL the bottom fifty on the Democracy Index http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_index have ONE MAN in charge of everything. What a surprise.