Archive for May, 2009

Creative Networks, Leeds

Friday, May 29th, 2009

What a good event this is. It’s free and you get hot food and a drink (yes, for free!). It’s on the last Thursday of every month at Leeds college of art. They have a guest speaker at each meeting (usually semi-famous) and it is populated by creative types so if you are in the creative industries it’s a great place to network (I suppose the name of the event gives the game away).

There is also an opportunity to do a three minute pitch of your product or service to the audience before the main event. I did one last night which generated quite a bit of interest although I am a public speaker and I did prepare my pitch for maximum impact (tip; do NOT simply recite your Yellow Pages ad).

If you live around the Leeds area I recommend this gig. Here is a link to more information.

The black halo

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

A good friend of mine told me this story so I know it is true. It involves a premonition of disaster.

A friend of hers is an international artist and regularly travels to the USA on art business. On this particular occasion he was flying from London and had already boarded the plane. As he was waiting for take off a strange sensation overwhelmed him and when he looked at fellow passengers he noticed that they were all crowned with a black halo. As you can imagine this totally unnerved him and he started to panic. He realised he couldn’t fly on that particular plane.

He called the stewardess and explained his premonition to her. She tried to reassure him but he was adamant that he could not fly on that plane and whatever the cost he had to get off it. No amount of pressure and cajoling could get him to change his mind. He got off the plane.

Of course his luggage was still in the hold and the plane could not fly with it still on board. All the luggage had to be disgorged, his luggage identified, removed and then the remaining luggage returned to the hold. This delayed the flight by some considerable time and the other passengers on board were fuming with rage. However, the artist was resolute, that aeroplane was cursed and despite the cost and aggravation he knew he was making the right decision.

I listened to my friend with fascination. She was not prone to superstition and histrionics and she told the story in a deadpan, matter of fact way.

“So,” I said, “what happened to the flight?”

My friend looked at me strangely and replied in a confused tone, “It landed safely of course. He just had a psychotic episode, what did you think I was talking about?”

So there you have it. Countless prophesies are simply not reported because they are wrong. Which suggests that those that are reported as correct used either dumb luck or falsified information. Take your pick.

How to feed your audience

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Often a keynote speech has to be adapted for different audiences and for different time constraints. If the presentation requires shortening, the temptation is to simply include the most sexy bits of your speech to keep it as punchy as possible. This can sometimes work against you.

The best way to look at preparing a speech is to imagine you are serving a meal to a hungry audience. No matter how short or long your presentation is, the demands of hunger remain the same.

Here are a couple of starter incidents to whet your appetite.

The first was when I was showing Paul Thomas, a friend of mine, my latest slide show presentation. I described a visual trick I do with a cup and spoon to demonstrate how inept we are at predicting outcomes. I then showed him a couple of slides which basically illustrated similar illusions. Paul warned me to be careful about overwhelming my audience with too much stuff, they only have a limited capacity for new information. Good point.

The second incident involved a conversation I had with David Hyner earlier today. We were talking about a presentation he had made to a school a couple of weeks back and which I had attended. The only real criticism I could find with his excellent content and delivery was the lack of some gravitas, some profound bit of meat to chew over. David acknowledged this feedback as valid and described the scenario as mentioned in my first paragraph.

This set me thinking about how to avoid this seductive trap. If you always think of the meal analogy, it should help you give a balanced presentation.

You are feeding the audience
It’s about them, they’re hungry, not you, so don’t feed your own ego.

They have limited appetites
Their stomachs can only hold so much food and they are probably used to particular foods so presenting them with a huge banquet, no matter how tempting it looks, is just wasteful and some people will subconsciously feel frustrated that they couldn’t taste it all. Also, exotic spicy foods can upset delicate stomachs so if your ideas are radical and challenging they may need to be watered down a bit with a suitable sauce.

They need sustenance
Remember it’s the food they need, not the wrapper.

They need quality
A lot of presentations try to appeal to the immediate demands of hunger and are full of sugar and saturated fats – in effect fast food. This gives a quick sugar rush of energy but it is not long before the audience will require another quick fix and their health in the long term will decline.

They need a varied diet
Give them a tasty starter or two, serve the main dish somewhere in the middle or near the end, garnished with suitable examples and anecdotes then finish with something sweet or minty.

Your audience will feel satisfied and probably come back again to enjoy another fabulous meal.

If you want to leave a tip, a comment would be nice.


Monday, May 18th, 2009

The purpose of fashion is to make you buy things you don’t need. Fashion must be one of the most asinine and vacuous pursuits of the modern age.

From earliest times, fashion was simply a creative impulse – a pendant, a flower in someone’s hair, a purely decorative marking on a pot – but this impulse has become processed and distilled by manufacturers. Of course it is not entirely their fault, the consumers are just as culpable.

Fashion is closely linked with status. Fashion is for those who can afford it. It’s a bit like etiquette; only those with more time on their hands than they know what to do with can afford to waste so much time on absolute frivolities. The rich want to distinguish themselves from the poor. In feudal times when most people worked on the land, a suntan was seen as common so the rich applied toxic white makeup to their faces just to exaggerate the fact that they did not have to work on the land. Today of course, that is reversed; if you have a tan in winter then you can afford to jet off to some exotic sun drenched location while everyone else has to toil ghost like in gloomy offices.

The epitome of fashion today is the ice sculpture at parties. Someone rich has paid a craftsperson to create an exquisite sculpture of a horse, for example, just so that it can disappear into a puddle of water. It’s as if they are saying “I am so rich I can afford to spend money on something unique and yet so ephemeral that it will only exist for a few hours”.

And I marvel at the way the fashion industry announces the ‘new’ colour for the season. They haven’t invented a new colour at all! Turns out it’s brown or blue, colours that have been around for thousands of years.

Telephone spam

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

In recent years I’ve noticed that these pre-recorded telephone messages trying to sell you something (I have to confess I never listen to any of them) are becoming more and more of a nuisance. So much so that I keep thinking I ought to go and see my MP, Ed Balls, and demand that he introduce some legislation banning all unsolicited sales calls using pre-recorded messages. I mean, they must cost virtually nothing to run – no call centres, no wages to pay, just some smarmy actor to pay for who must be down on his luck to do such a depraved job, so what’s to stop them proliferating? Imagine where it could end if nothing is done – your telephone is constantly ringing with these spam calls. It’s bad enough getting a live unsolicited call but when you can’t be rude/clever/sarcastic/angry (delete inapplicable) because you’re just talking to a machine, I get angry.

I think I will go to the surgery of my MP with a list of demands. I’ve never done anything like it before and my assumption is that it is a waste of time, but hey, maybe Ed Balls is just sitting there every month, twiddling his thumbs and wishing someone would come in and ask him to do something constructive. I’ll let you know how I get on.

If that is a waste of time my Plan B is to employ the very same people who create these calls to mount a campaign which harangues people into signing a petition which asks the government  to ban these calls. Wait a minute… that’s a YouTube sketch waiting to be done, surely? I bags it first.

The gravy train is threatening to derail

Monday, May 11th, 2009

It’s been interesting hearing the MP’s shift ground on the expenses issue. At first they just said ‘we’ve done nothing wrong, it’s all within the rules’. Then when the media wouldn’t let the story die and more revelations emerged which demonstrated the abuse of the current system, some of the MP’s said er, ‘we’ve done nothing wrong, it’s all within the rules’.

Hey, these are MP’s we’re talking about.

But the public indignation was such that the Prime Minister had to produce a risible YouTube video which attempted to slow down the out of control gravy train. This backfired spectacularly and the gravy train picked up some more frightening speed.

So then some independent people (Martin Bell in particular) started to complain that there was no contrition in any of these ripostes from the MP’s and slowly the whole debacle started to take on a more sinister hue. Isn’t their standard rebuttal of ‘we’ve done nothing wrong, it’s all within the rules’, exactly the same one that any participant of any evil regime that has ever existed always trots out? Yes, it is.

Suddenly the gravy train is threatening to look more like a train wreck in a very short space of time.

Now we hear admissions from all sides of the government that the system has to change and that it is no longer acceptable to maintain that, ‘we’ve done nothing wrong, it’s all within the rules’. However, I can’t help thinking that we have been here before. Didn’t something similar happen to the banks? Yes, it did.

Have we seen any legislation yet? No, we haven’t.
Oh there will be change of some kind with the MP’s expenses I’m sure but what change will there be and who will police it?

That gravy train is too valuable a cargo to simply let it run away.

The stupidity of banks

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

My wife found a good rate of interest on a yearly bond with a particular bank but she had to move fast. She did everything that was required of her to move money around (a long process these days) and she sensibly kept all the relevant documentation.

When her statement came through for the month and she saw that the interest earned was zero she started her investigations as to why, along with her angst ridden running commentary to me of her discoveries (I had no choice in this latter matter and I am getting updates as I write).

After several telephone calls on 0845 numbers (so that’s why they have them, most of their profits come this way. Incidentally, if like me, you have a telephone deal which makes 01 and 02 numbers free to call here’s a great site to avoid most of the 08 numbers) I got a review of the utter incompetence of the customer service at one bank. You wouldn’t believe the sheer ineptitude…, actually, anyone who has ever called the customer services of any large organisation and spoken with a barely comprehensible native Indian speaking customer service advisor would believe. My wife had to continually tell them their job and about the products they are supposed to currently have on offer, even, at one point, reading from the leaflet she had saved to contradict what the idiot on the telephone was trying to tell her. I won’t embarrass the bank publicly but the bank’s name begins with an ‘S’ and the rest of the letters are ‘antander’.

Giving up on ‘help’ coming from the banks she investigated further.

Eventually, through forensic accounting, she found the answer, and boy is it a doozy. When she was giving her bank account details to the other bank in the form of a pass book, the teller mistook 0 for O. Look at that again, an O for a 0. Or was it the other way around? Or look at this; 1 and I. With certain fonts it’s impossible to tell them apart.

Whoever it was in the banking system who thought combining letters and numbers for a reference system was a good idea must have been on some undercover anarchist inspired combat mission that was conceived, fuelled and finally accomplished with the help of a cocktail of mind altering drugs -

“Let’s confuse the hell out of our customers by having several symbols that look identical to each other but are completely wrong when read by a computer. This is going to be such a laugh, especially when millions of pounds could be at stake”.

A result for the anarchists.

It’s no wonder the banks lost trillions. Several other cocktails of narcotics must have been subsequently ingested -

“Is a billion a thousand million or a million million? Ah, whatever”.

Czechs, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Gentle Ihor's Devotion picture

Left to right: The Gentle One, Eddie Tempest and Nigel Goodwin.

A comment in my last post reminded me of my rock ‘n roll days. I kept a diary of a little tour we did in Europe. Here it is.

Gentle Ihor’s Devotion on Tour

Wednesday, December 2nd 1992. Arrive at Harwich at 11.03 a.m. to catch the 11.00 a.m. ferry to the Hook of Holland. Fortunately it’s waiting for us which is lucky as we had arranged to meet our driver – an ex-girlfriend of mine called Christy – on it. As we are having our carnet stamped (a list of all our equipment required by customs), a beat up white transit van screeches to a halt behind us. We are not surprised to discover that it is another band on their way to Holland to do a few gigs. Hello Snatch from London.

We are so relieved about catching the ferry that as we board the ramp we holler and whoop with joy. Rock and roll.

Christy and I sleep as best we can in a cabin. As Nige and Eddie (lead guitar and keyboards respectively) can’t drive, they get pissed in the bar. Unfortunately it is a smooth crossing. I just love those big-dipper crossings when everyone is dying in a sea of vomit and I’m having a whale of a time. Ah well, maybe on the return journey…

Before we leave the ferry we exchange singles with Snatch then head out for the open road and Nuremberg, then break down at the petrol station just outside the port. We have a fault in our cooling system and we have to call out National Breakdown. A man who couldn’t speak a word of English came to our rescue – but we did know a woman who could speak some words of Dutch! Christy’s experience as a traveller was proving to be invaluable even at this stage. The man fills up the radiator with water and instructs us to follow him for several kilometres After several kilometres we stop. He inspects the engine and declares all is well. We head out for the open road once again.

We drive through the night until we reach Nuremberg. It is 6.30 a.m. We are supposed to meet Martti, our promoter in Nuremberg, at 4.00 p.m. We wait until 7.30 a.m. before we deem it respectable to ring him. He is very good about it and asks for half an hour to sort out his flat, i.e. kick out the guests he already has in there. We learn that Martti is also a musician and drives a van. Musicians must be the same the world over – dilatory van drivers.

Christy and I get our heads down for the afternoon. Nige and Eddie get stoned with Martti.

The gig that evening is in a rock club called Kuntsverien or something. We are told it is the pits. “Don’t worry” I say, “we are used to pits.”

The club made the worst venue we had ever played in England look like Buckingham Palace. A foul stench greeted us. Someone had left a damp, dubious looking rag on the stove. To mask the stench, the proprietor – a man who looked like he’d just walked off a Spaghetti Western set in his leather attire – offered us all a cigarette. “Be careful” he said, “It’s all grass.” Nige and Eddie feel at home.

The evening bears more of a resemblance to an English venue when only 12 people turn up for the gig. The bar staff have a whip round for us they are so embarrassed. We perform, as the saying goes, a blinding set. The few people in the club go berserk. Beer is forced upon us, encores are demanded and given, t-shirts and singles galore are sold, and Walkmans are produced to record our impressions of Nuremberg for the benefit of various fanzines. This is what it must feel like to be a rock ‘n roll star. Martti is so impressed with our music he offers us a tour of Germany in May with decent venues. We accept. Nige and Eddie get pissed.

Reality returns when we have to load up the van in pitch blackness and the pouring rain. There is only a muddy track from the club to the van, a distance of about 20 yards, so I’m not exaggerating, it IS worse than any venue we have ever played.

Christy and I have to keep each other awake as we drive through the night to Prague. Nige and Eddie sleep in the back of the van. The bastards.

Our last instruction from Vladimir, the Czech promoter, was to go to Prague and meet Abigail our road manager. Now Prague is a big place, so we were a little concerned about the vagueness of this message. However, all turned out well, and after several ‘phone calls we meet Abigail in a MacDonalds (this was some feat: there are four MacDonalds in Prague and Abigail only knows two of them). Abigail is dressed in blue denims and a black and white checked headscarf. OK for an English Spring, but foolhardy for a Czech December. Her only luggage is a black leather shoulder bag – two packets of tampons, a pair of socks and a lipstick and it would be full – and we’re on the road for 10 days! Abigail is young. Twenty one. She is pretty with curly black hair and bright red lipstick. What the hell is she doing here? We find out later – she can drink like a fish and smoke like a Trabant, the only qualifications needed for the job. We meet Vladimir briefly then set out for Koprinici, the first town on the tour. It is approximately 600 kms away and we are already late, but then we are musicians.

Arrive at venue two hours late. I am so tired I bang my head on the door frame of the van and close the door on my foot. The venue looks to be a club in a block of high rise council flats. I’m told there are some flats but also offices. They obviously don’t like specialising in this country. We get a gorgeous food rider and a fridge stocked with so much beer we have to take a photograph of it. Abigail informs us that this is the best rider on the tour. Nige and Eddie get pissed.

We check in at the hotel before the gig. Christy and I are in one room, Nige and Eddie are next door. We go back to the venue to rock ‘n roll.

Approximately 150 people are gathered for our performance. They are mostly young and gauche. It’s almost as if they want to enjoy themselves but don’t know how to: they dance stiffly and need at least 45 minutes to warm into the idea. Christy explains later, than under Communism they were not allowed to express any appreciation of a performance, in fact the performers were supposed to applaud the audience. We encountered this mute response several times on the tour and it unnerved us, we assumed they didn’t like us but Abigail was emphatic – they loved us; if they don’t like something they leave. Afterwards, I was reassured somewhat by people coming up to me and saying enthusiastically “Try again!” I interpreted this as meaning ‘more.’

After the gig, Nige, Eddie and Abigail elect to stay behind at the venue to finish drinking the large quantity of remaining beer with their new found friends. Christy and I go back to the hotel for some much needed sleep. As I doze off I congratulate myself on being so sensible; it’s a long tour and I have to pace myself. I mischievously imagine the state of the others in the morning before I dive into a deep and dreamless sleep.

I’m woken up at 5.30 a m. by Nige’s barracking voice next door. He’s polemicising about some inconsequential footnote to the history of rock ‘n roll to whoever will listen to him over the faint strains of The Style Council. I bang on the adjoining wall. The music gets louder. I put my ear plugs in and console myself with the thought of waking them up later on. I go back to sleep.

I wake up at about noon to the sounds of gusting rain on the window and the groans of a couple next door making love. When I am fully awake, these sounds turn out to be Christy rustling plastic bags and zippering up her holdall. I take out my earplugs and incredibly I hear music and voices coming from next door. I look at Christy and she says that they have been up for hours. I’m incredulous.

Had a breakfast of Fried chicken and potatoes. Couldn’t get over the Rat Pack looking perfectly OK. Left for the next venue at about 2.30 p.m.

And this was pretty much the pattern for the rest of the tour. I felt a bit like one of those cartoon characters in an old series looking for Arnie Saknusen in the centre of the Earth because everywhere we went there were scrawled messages from Every New Dead Ghost and the Psycho Surgeons.

The most memorable impression I retained from Czechoslovakia is that every one smokes and drinks a lot – an awful lot. Not a meal went by where I didn’t ingest some tobacco smoke nor see beer on the table. It soon became apparent that there was nothing else to do here and as these items were so cheap to buy it made sense to get your entertainment this way. Dope is incredibly prevalent here and smoked openly as the police turn a blind eye towards it. We had a couple of cancellations on the tour and we were supposed to fill in the time at the ‘House of Grass’. This turned out to be a farmhouse about 12 kms outside of town that had no running water and a hole in the ground for a toilet. It had electricity but this seemed to have been installed specifically for the state of the art hi-fi which dominated the room. The most significant feature however was the inspiration for the houses’ name – bushels of finest grade hashish hanging from the wooden rafters. The sole occupation of whoever sojourns here (and there was always some weird looking misfit hanging about) is to smoke as much dope as possible whilst listening to Legendary Pink Dots tapes. There is never any danger of running out of the stuff as they grow it on the farm. In fact it seemed to be their only crop. Needless to say, Christy and I beat a hasty retreat to an hotel while the Rat Pack got completely vapourized.

It was in this town of Olomouc that we visited a ‘vegetarian’ restaurant. It was called a vegetarian restaurant because it had vegetables. Meat was served with every meal on the menu but they had vegetables – lots of them; a rare thing for a Czech restaurant. It turned out this was considered a very classy and expensive restaurant by the people of the town. We had a three course meal of excellent food complete with drinks and coffee. It cost us the equivalent of 2 English pounds each.

Prague was beautiful but dilapidated. We walked over King Charles’ bridge and the sights were stunning – misty vistas of romantic horizons steeped in history, glorious architecture washed in muted colours of red ochre and burnt umber, itinerant street traders flogging rubber spiders than crawled slowly dawn any walls they were thrown at. Oh well, every beauty spot on Earth gets an ice cream van parked on it eventually.

The gig at the Bunkr Klub that night was the best one on the tour, everyone had a great time, including me! Most of the people in the place were from different parts of Europe, lots of Germans and Britons. We added our moniker to the extensive roster of grafitti in the changing room.

Prague is a great place, a sort of, Paris as it used to be, I’m informed. And of course everything is twice as expensive as anywhere else. My only painful memory of the place is that I caught a nasty cold here which made the last two gigs of the tour very uncomfortable experiences indeed. In fact, on one of them, Nige and I came to blows over smoke exclusion zones. I had imposed one in the changing room and Nige had violated it. Water and cigarrette butts were thrown before fists came into play. It was like being back at Secondary school in the playground. The fatigue, beer and illness had regressed our mental development and we were back with the animals in the jungle. Who would have thought it, but that is what being on the road does to you; emotions are raw and tempers are drawn as tight as drum skins. Tours can break some bands.

Our last gig was in Pilsen. Any idea what this place is famous for? We took our payment for the gig in lager. Czech currency is worthless outside the country so it made sense to convert our money into consumables before we left. 174 bottles of it got loaded into the van. For myself, I was glad to be leaving the place. It was grey, dirty, run down and poverty stricken. The people were friendly enough but they all smoked incessantly and seemed to spend most of their time face down on the floor in a drunken stupor. One of our gigs was nearly cancelled because the sound man turned up so drunk he couldn’t operate his mouth let alone electronic equipment.

The contrast was made all the greater when we stopped off in Würzburg in Germany on the way back to the Hook of Holland. Here was magic and joy. It was night time, about 9.00 p.m. and as we wandered the streets, which were lined with parked Porches and Mercedes, looking for a place to eat we were all struck by how clean and tidy the place was. It was decked out in Christmas finery and all the shops were stocked full of the most beautiful things you could imagine. We gazed longingly at them through enormous pellucid windows. I was transfixed by its utter charm. From lamp-posts hung wind chimes that were stirred gently by the breeze. The fragile musical notes were the only sound to be heard in the quiet town. Fairy lights glowed brilliant white on tall, perfectly conical Christmas trees. Wedding cake buildings, newly painted and rigorously maintained, stood illuminated along the edge of the square. Here was perfection. Here was security. It was a scene straight out of a Speilberg movie.

On the way back to the van a brightly lit tram car passed us; it was restaurant full of happy diners. We saw a sex shop on the high street that was fronted as boldly and as proudly as any Boots or Marks and Spencer. Christy said this was just a typical town in Germany.

Roll on the German tour.