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In the past, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the finest minds in the advertising industry, if not the country as a whole, and in that time we tried to produce work that was challenging, arresting, thought-provoking, and at the very least, intelligent.

And then I saw this bus today and I thought, holy crap, what a waste of time that was.

Pictures after the jump. Sort of safe for work.

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Ignorance is progress

There’s this model of learning – competence levels, I think they’re called – that divides our grasp of any given situation into four distinct stages – unconscious incompetence, when you’re just generally useless at whatever it is and sort of unaware of the fact; conscious competence, when you’re aware that you’re generally useless;  conscious competence, when you’re good at what you’re doing, but are aware of your process of doing it; and finally, the ultimate goal of unconscious competence, when you’re good at what you’re doing and not even aware of the fact – walking (whilst sober), for example.

Generally, the goal is to progress up the various stages, and each stage largely follows on from the other. But I’m wondering if there’s not a shortcut to the top, a fifth, rogue stage of what I’ll call “Willful Ignorance”.

See, I’m old enough to have grown up in a pre-wifi world (then again, I’m kind of old enough to have grown up in a pre-compact disc world), so the concept is not innate to me – even though a lot of tech these days comes with pre-installed wifi that just works, because I’m rooted in a pre-wifi world, I spend a fair amount of time trying to work out how it works, which generally results in me buggering it up, or at least over-complicating something I don’t really need to understand.

And I tend to do this a lot with new concepts – tax returns, DVD authoring, Russell Brand. And I think it’s because it’s an attempt to contextualise the new experience/product/whatever, rather than just get on with it. And this is where Willful Ignorance comes in handy – it carries you from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence in one swift move, without any of that messing about with actual learning in between. As my little sister would say, TMI, NMP. Or rather, she would, if she was fifteen and living in Orange County.

I think Willful Ignorance is ideal if you know too much about the past, and, as the rate of progress increases, potentially an increasingly essential tool. For example, I just bought a wifi SD Card for what was a vaguely defunct old ipaq I had, stuck it in, merrily pressed continue whenever prompted on screen, ignored anything that looked even vaguely, temptingly cryptic (IP – MAC – SSID – CRC – Tx), and hey presto, it just works. I now have wifi on my iPaq. I don’t even know what an SD Card is, and despite the temptation to look it up on Wikipedia, I couldn’t care less. There was a slot in the back of the iPaq, it fitted the card, that’s it. It’s a revelation.

So I’m applying this same approach to my tax return now.  Will report back, possibly from jail, possibly as someone’s bitch. But it shall be a role which I shall embrace with equally mindless gusto.

The garden of innocence

I spent a large portion of my childhood growing up in the Home Counties. And it’s where my family still live, in a village satisfied with not one, but two different names. It’s that kind of place. So this weekend, when all the cool kids were on the streets of Notting Hill eating jerk chicken and dancing with policemen, I was at a Country Fayre back in my home town, watching the judging of, amongst other categories, best runner bean, best floral arrangement, and best root tuber. Because that is how I roll.

But my favourite category, and the one the results of which I awaited with baited breath, was Best English Countryside (On A Plate).  For those of you who aren’t aware, The English Countryside (On A Plate) is, basically, Home Counties Bonsai – the arrangement of flowers, plants, pinecones, earth and pebbles on a (dinner) plate in an aesthetically pleasing fashion so as to convey the spirit of the English countryside. And if you weren’t aware, I wouldn’t be at all surprised, since a Google search for the term revealed a grand total of zero results.

But I love it. I have no idea at all how many bottles of Baileys the Country Fayre Committee had put away when they came up with The English Countryside (On A Plate), but it’s a brilliant example of exactly why I love the Home Counties, and village fetes in particular. The V&A run an ironic Village Fete every year, and while it’s a fond tribute to the tradition, it can’t compare with the strangeness of the genuine article. Whether it’s White Elephant stalls or Bat-a-Rat games, coconut shies or cream teas, I love every traditional aspect of them.

Which was, perhaps, why I was so shocked to discover the existence of a racket in the floral/produce competition world. It turned out that the majority of the categories had been won by what can only be described as a Country Fayre hustler. As I commiserated with the disgruntled losers of the soft fruit category over a cream tea, they told me in hushed tones how the man in question went from village to village, entering his prize onions or marrows or roses or whatever into competitions, almost always sweeping the board in each category.

There he is, said the man who came second in best tomato, nodding in the direction of a neighbouring table. Look at him, gloating away like that, said third in plum-and-damson.

I looked across, expecting to see some kind of Terry Thomas-like figure, his table covered in rosettes, cackling to himself and twirling his moustache. But there was just some old guy who looked a bit like Bill Oddie, calmly dolloping cream onto a scone. Frankly, that made it all the more insidious.

But despite the pall of evil that has been cast over the entire tradition of Country Fayres by this Home Counties huckster, the devil’s gardener himself, the good news is that the first prize for The English Countryside (On A Plate) eluded his nefarious grasp. That honour went to plucky young Betsy Bell, age 8.  Let us not forget her example. For as long as Betsy keeps adding her own unique combination of lichen, moss, daisies and oak leaves and twigs to bone china, there is hope, England.

There is hope.

There have been the usual nightmares on the tube over the past few days. The once reliable Victoria Line lately seems completely unable to operate without some form of signal failure or other; the problem being compounded by weekday early closing and occasional shutdown of parts of the line at weekends, apparently to facilitate the testing of new, improved carriages. At this stage, if they’re not rolling out trains that run on thousands of tiny little mechanical legs and can travel into the fourth dimension, I’m not going to be impressed.

Now. I’m a relatively peaceful kind of fellow, rarely moved to violence, but the Underground somehow manages to consistently move me to the point of physical harmful rage. I’m increasingly of the opinion that terrorist action pales into insignificance when compared to the years of Londoners’ lives that’ve been taken off by frustration born of incompetence, whether that’s down to TfL, London Underground, Metronet, or whatever other hastily-thrown together collection of consultants is running things today.

And the reason we should know that something is very, very wrong are the posters that are now quite common in most stations: they say things like “our staff have the right to work without fear of physical violence and we will prosecute any such offences to the full extent of the law”

There are two clear things wrong with this particular message. Firstly, that it frankly states the obvious, putting it up there with the disclaimers that say “this plastic bag may suffocate you if you wear it like a hat” or “do not eat this rat poison” as yet another in the long line of losses common sense has suffered. If only I’d bludgeoned that gate inspector to death before those posters came out, I might have had a chance in the courts, dammit.

Secondly, and this is what annoys me more, even, than a signal failure at Seven Sisters, surely if things have come to the stage where they have to put up signs saying don’t attack our staff, the problem is a little more serious than a few signs saying don’t attack our staff is going to resolve. Another example: they’ve issued DNA Swab Kits to every underground station, so staff can take samples when members of the public spit at them. They’re giving people who sell tickets for trains the kind of gear you see on CSI Miami. That’s not right.

I think it’s a doubly insidious campaign. For a start, because it’s clearly been done as a cheap way to boost staff morale – We know you’re in traction, Clive, but we HAVE put up some posters. But mostly, because it somehow implicates me every time I get irritated with the terrible service. The truth is, the only people I actually want to inflict pain upon while I’m waiting on a heaving station platform, are the people I don’t see, the ones in the tall buildings overground, with the views of parks and bridges and the river and the sky and the sun.

Big finish – and hey! not surprisingly, they’re the ones who can’t see the problem.

Liars’ League

It’s the second Tuesday of the month, and so that can only mean it’s time for another gathering of the finest short-story writing talent that London, nay, the country, nay again because we get submissions from across the globe, the world, has to offer. Fittingly enough for such a cosmopolitan event, tonight’s theme is Home and Abroad – and it will be taking place in our spiritual home of The Lamb, 94 Lamb’s Conduit Street. Ship boards at 7pm, hoisting the jib and sailing with us tonight we have:

Michael Spring
Alan McCormick
Peter Higgins
Quintin Forrest
Maggie Womersley

As ever, hope to see you there, and feel free to bring your own travel analogies. £2 on the door. The next Liars’ League event will be on the 11th September, when the theme will be Birds and Beasts. We’re accepting submissions via the usual orifices until 24th August. Bestiality welcome, poetry is most definitely not. 

Open wide

I’m feeling slightly guilty about Flickr. I’m a big fan, but have recently deserted it somewhat for the sly charms of facebook. Which is as much of an apology as it is a confession – I held out against the ‘book for the longest time, but now, as is generally the way with these things, I’m quite, quite obsessed. And so, it seems, are many of my friends – we all seemed to take part in a sort of lemming-like dash towards the cliffacebook at the same time, as though on some unspoken cue. I don’t know who started it, guv, I was just there and all of a sudden we went mad, like. And now I feel like I’m having an affair with a crazy young society party girl, this whirl of events and flirty remarks, glimpses into impossibly impressive lives. The last time that happened Things Did Not End Well for me, so I really should know better, but there it is.

Anyway.

For all its charms and ability to share photos of people doing shots of tequila/dressing up in eighties gear/having picnics in London parks, what facebook hasn’t got, and which Flickr is still the unrivalled champion of, is the endlessly fascinating world of What’s In My Bag.

What’s In My Bag (sometimes tagged What’s In Your Bag) is, for those who haven’t yet discovered the phenomenon, not too difficult to explain.  Basically, it’s exactly what is says on the tin – a photograph of the photographer’s bag and its content.

Generally that means a day bag – a handbag or its male equivalent – and arranged beside it, things like books, ipods, phones, keys, wallets, contact lenses, bottles of water, makeup, pens, sunglasses and so on.

And there are literally thousands of these photos. They look like dissected creatures, the bags themselves deflated and hollow, their internals often neatly laid out beside them, each one meticulously tagged and annotated for reference, the miles of earphone intestines, the Ray-Ban eyeballs, the 50cl Evian heart.

Mostly the removed organs are identikit – ipods are fairly ubiquitous, as are keys and phones and wallets and so on. The titles of books obviously vary – though they tend to be suspiciously hip – Chuck Palahniuk appears frequently, as does Kurt Vonnegut, though perhaps it’s fitting that meta fiction and meta photography go hand in hand. I suspect that there’s a degree of editing that goes on with these photos in general though, whether that’s in adding the impressive or removing the mediocre. But every so often you find a bag with a genuine, if unintended, story – in amongst the Palms and the Nokias and the Moleskines and the MAC lipglosses will be something that speaks more about the owner than everything else put together: a preponderance of sanitising products suggesting incipient OCD; one too many photographs of a girl/boyfriend hinting at a clingy neurosis; a collection of charms, tokens and mascots indicating an individual who has long since strayed into the realms of unreason, though they may not yet, if ever, know it. Happy bags are less interesting.

Anyway. I don’t know where it came from, this exhibitionistic need to reveal one’s material self.  In fact, on the face of it, it seems kind of strange – advertising your valuables for the world to see. After all, any one of the bags on Flickr contains I’d say an average of £500’s worth of gear – enterprising muggers could in theory select their targets in the comfort of their own home.

But what’s weirder is the possibility that it’s a meme not prompted by pride at all, but rather fear – the consequence of living in a post 9/11 world, a need to protest your innocence. 

Because Semtex, Sarin, and Anthrax are rarely tagged on Flickr.

We’ll meet again

So I’ve been thinking about the Cold War a lot lately. Perhaps that’s because of the recent spate of diplomatic expulsions and now, Russia’s surreal sub-aquatic landgrabs, perhaps it’s down to a number of movies I’ve seen lately – The Good Shepherd, The Good German, and, for good measure, Good Night and Good Luck spring to mind – or perhaps it’s because I’m finally old enough to be able to process the concept without having some kind of an anxiety attack.

When I was about nine, my family moved back to the UK after an eight-year stint in the States. And, I was told, we were moving to a town called Beaconsfield, at the time a place famous primarily for its model village and pretty much nothing else. To be honest, it’s not really famous for anything else these days either, and it’s quite happy in its own comfortable conservative anonymity.

I was happy to be moving there. Not because of the model village and its fascinating level of detail (which I’m still very fond of), but because I’d worked out that we were close to High Wycombe and thus NATO Strike Command, which put it in the top five Soviet targets in the event of a nuclear strike. There was even a base right next to Beaconsfield itself, so I’d worked out that there was a decent likelihood that if we weren’t within the vaporisation radius, we were certainly within incinerating distance, and would be thus spared the horrors of radioactive fallout and subsequent nuclear winter.

I’m not joking. I was nine years old and this made me happy.

And for the next five years or so, it’s about the only thing that did. It was difficult to think of much else – the local library provided me with When the Wind Blows, James Herbert’s Domain, and Z of Zachariah, and at some point I watched Red Dawn (WOLVERINES!!) and, of course, the BBC’s utterly terrifying dystopian kitchen sink docudrama Threads.

I was obsessed. When I wasn’t thinking about blast yields I was wondering about the effectiveness of fallout shelters. How did they work? Would the filtration systems function properly? How deep did they have to be? And when I wasn’t concerning myself with fallout shelters I was thinking about building up a supply of canned good in case the unthinkable happened and I actually survived. Did everything become radioactive after the blast, or was it just the things the fallout fell upon, the bitter cousin of Peter Pan’s fairy dust? What would be ruined by an EMP? Was it all electrical items, or just the ones that were on at the time of the blast? Would watches work? What would people use as currency? Would my pocket money be best invested in gold sovereigns, just in case?

Anyway. I guess the real reason I mention all this was that I was listening to an interview with Don DeLillo the other day in which he compared public perceptions of the Cold War to today’s “War on Terror”, suggesting that the former didn’t have such an intimate effect on people as they go about their everyday lives, that terrorism today is somehow more pervasive.

And I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s because I also grew up with the mundane, urban threat of IRA bombs on Oxford Street at Christmas that the prospect of bombs on trains and in taxis and at the office is somehow familiar. A suspect parcel left behind at Warren Street tube becomes, for the most of us, an inconvenience rather than something ominous; you clearly take the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus and double back, or better still, the Northern Line to Goodge Street and cut up Charlotte Street if they’ve closed the top of Tottenham Court Road. These cavalier negotiations are made not to show that the terrorists have not won, not to demonstrate, I think, that We Are Not Afraid, they are made So I Can Get To Work, or Lunch, or The Pub. There’s nothing grand in it. We Are Not Bothered, perhaps. We Have Other Things On Our Mind. We Are Knackered And Just Want A Pint.

But the Cold War was different, and even now any such renewals fills me with dread. Perhaps it was the branding that was different. The images were better. The Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall. The Warsaw Pact. These things seemed alien, hidden, almost religiously mysterious – the faceless totality of the threat made it greater in my mind. I think in its lack of intimacy lay its power.  And it’s imagery the Tories drew on, in many respects, in 1997, with their now famous New Labour New Danger poster – piercing eyes staring at us from the folds of red curtains. Perhaps it was that poster which, more than anything, subdued any of my remaining fears of the Cold War; what was once to be feared had by then become the stuff of pantomime. It was all going to be okay.

But maybe not. All I know for certain is that I really shouldn’t have watched Threads again the other night.

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