Wednesday, 29 July 2009

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Micallef?

I have a good friend who for anonymity’s sake I shall call Dave. It’s also his actual name which makes things a bit simpler. Before I ever met Dave people were telling me that I would like him. They remarked on our similar backgrounds and accents and sense of humour and kept trying to get us to be friends. When we did meet we were friendly and chatted as colleagues do, but we weren’t best buddies, at least not straight away. This was mostly my fault because I didn’t want English friends when I first moved to Australia. Anyway, I grew up a bit and started hanging out more and more with Dave and I realised that everyone was right. I met Dave’s wife, and Dave’s wife met my wife, and then we all started hanging out together until suddenly they decided they were moving back to England. I don’t think the two events were related… We still miss Dave and Mrs Dave.

Anyways, sometimes life is like that. You spend ages getting your act together and then before you know things change and move on. I tell you this because something similar has just happened with me and Shaun Micallef. Not that I’m friends with Shaun Micallef. I have never (to my knowledge) even been in the same room as him. I have however been told on many occasions that I would like him and his comedy and that I should give him a try. Much like with Dave, my response has been to dawdle and basically stand in the kitchen of the Micallef love-in party getting drunk on cheap lager and telling boring anecdotes about how Australian comedy hasn’t produced anything wonderful since Frontline.

When Shaun and I did finally meet it was via Newstopia, the SBS news parody show. This disappointed me a bit because as funny as Newstopia could be (and it could be very funny), it was essentially a copy of The Day Today, the Chris Morris-fronted BBC show from 1994 that launched Alan Partridge. Micallef’s confrontational and aggressive host seemed a little too closely modelled on Morris’s character on the Day Today (and he has admitted to be being a fan) which left a taste similar to when I watched the first episode of the American version of The Office.

Perhaps the rewards I got when I stopped comparing Steve Carrell to Ricky Gervais helped with Shaun because I was still interested enough to take a punt on a second-hand DVD of the Micallef Program. Good job I did because now, finally, I realise the brilliance of Shaun Micallef, my new best buddy in the comedy world.

My damascene moment came mid-way through a brilliant piece of physical comedy in which
an inebriated Shaun battles to get a bottle of wine from his cellar which has been filmed at such an angle to render it impossible to tell what is a ceiling, what is a wall and where the hell the floor is. As the sketch unfolded and its intricacy became more apparent I was massively impressed that something so unashamedly intelligent yet unrepentantly silly could make its way onto typically conservative and dumb Australian television. Having since found other series on DVD it was a real treat to find out that The Micallef Program (or Programme or Pogram depending upon which series you watch) was consistently this brilliant.

The show’s strength is in knowing exactly what it wants to be, sticking to its guns and creating each program with a conviction that what they are doing works. It doesn’t explain concepts or provide unnecessary punchlines; it is, unapologetically, what it is. In that sense it reminds me of shows like Big Train or the Dadaist faux-variety of Vic Reeves. The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) has much in common with Bang Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer which is of a similar vintage and takes equal delight in doing something without reason (see
German Girls) or taking sketches to places that no one could ever have anticipated (see Vic and Bob become Seagulls).

Despite their different pre-fame backgrounds Micallef and Reeves seem to have walked similar professional paths. Both got starts on commercial television before being snapped up by their respective public broadcasters (BBC/ABC). Given funding and free reign both created shows that were funny, genuinely innovative, critically lauded but not commercially popular. Since then Micallef and Reeves have tried a variety of shows and formats as vehicles to bring their formidable talents to the masses but in both cases the results left a feeling that they were watering down the very thing that makes them special.

Entranced by the charms of 1999-era Micallef and YouTube clips of his Fast Forward sketches, Mrs Custard and I tried out an episode of Talking about my Generation; the latest attempt to sneak Shaun into the hearts and minds of commercial TV watchers via the backdoor. Sadly, even allowing for some great non sequiturs and general strangeness from Shaun the show is mostly pointless panel-based-I-remember-space-hoppers-and-care-bears-and-lava-lamps nonsense. The panellists seemed unsure how to react to his shtick (although how would you react to a middle aged man taking a baseball bat to a giant piñata of Henry Kissinger’s head?) and the audience like they had been augmented with canned laughter. We were left with the feeling of being lured into watching this mess like ancient mariners onto the rocks, with Shaun in a mermaid costume combing his silver hair in the moonlight.

So what to do with Shaun Micallef? There are no ready answers as Reeves can attest. Vic has spent almost two decades as everyone’s favourite talk show interviewee, movie cameo, award presenter and celebrity guest and yet has been forced to return to the safe bosom of Shooting Stars to earn a crust.

Clearly Micallef deserves more recognition for his formidable talents and fortunately it seems like there are enough television, radio and theatre producers who agree. He’s starred on every Australian TV channel in one guise or another – and yet the right mix of critical and popular acclaim has proved elusive. In some ways it’s great that he gets to sprinkle some much needed absurdity into the mainstream but it’s also fair to say that much of the Australian television watching public is not naturally inclined towards the wilfully strange. They’re as likely to be watching shows like Talking about my Generation despite Shaun as because of him. Those of us who do like a bit of oddness are unlikely to tune in for the same reasons. We want to see him doing what he does best – writing and acting out his own work – but as we’ve seen, that didn’t have enough mass appeal to keep going. Apart from overseas it seems to me that there are a couple of places he could go to occupy a unique spot on Australian television.

Ten has missed a real opportunity with its new comedy news round-up The 7pm Project. Kudos for recognising that Australia needs a Daily Show / Colbert Report-style show, but they seem to have got it wrong. The show suffers from a lack of purpose, reporting the news more than it analyses, as well as a crushingly familiar cast (yet more Dave Hughes moaning on about ‘stuff’ like he does on every other panel show). I’m pretty sure that Micallef has the wit and intelligence to be Australia’s Jon Stewart and could add some much needed gravitas when required. One of Jon Stewart’s finest moments was the day after 9/11 when he and his staff found the right words at the right time. It’s hard to imagine Hughesy and co having much to say the next time something terrible happens, but somehow you feel like Micallef could hack it. It’s not too late, Channel 10.

Alternatively, if that’s all a bit too serious then how about filling the huge gap in interviewing styles between Andrew Denton and the mystifyingly popular Rove McManus? The paucity of choice on offer in Australia was even more apparent watching Jonathan Ross on Channel 7’s late-night repeats of his BBC talk show. Ross is by no means perfect but his interviewing style is unique and he walks a quite brilliant tightrope between flattery and abuse with all of his guests.
Compare that to the ingratiating perma-smile of McManus and tell me that Micallef couldn’t do better. If we have to be a nation obsessed with celebrity, let’s have an interviewer who can prick a few egos to balance it out. (I say this without having seen Micallef Tonight from 2003 so I’d be interested to hear if anyone thought it was any good).

My hope is that there is some brilliant TV producer out there ready to team up with Shaun and give him the freedom to create something great. There was talk of an ABC pilot called Mouse Patrol written with Tony Martin, but there’s been nothing new on that since 2005. In the meantime I’ll keep working my way through The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) DVDs and hoping for more of this kind of brilliance:

Godzilla Interview - Dracula has a Seachange - Julie Anthony sings Computer Games - Polite Distances

… and to AB, my friend who insisted I watch Micallef and whose advice I ignored, yes yes yes. You were right, damn you. You were right. Happy?

Daniel Kitson: new Australian shows

I was having a rather unpleasant morning until I heard the jolly news that Daniel Kitson is returning to these shores with another show. I'm guessing he spends most of his life arched over a Smith Corona typewriter and only has micro-sleeps (you know, the ones that can kill people) such is his prodigious output compared to other lesser comedians. From what I can gather from his website - which by his own admission is rather rambling - he has three very different shows currently on the go, none of which are the show he did at 3RRR in Melbourne earlier this year.

The one we're getting is entitled We Are Gathered Here and is described by Daniel as 'a new stand up show about finding something important in an ocean of twaddle.' He's currently touring it across the UK and will be in Australia in October to do a few nights:

Brisbane, The Tivoli - Friday 2 October

Sydney, The Factory Theatre - Saturday 3 and Monday 5 October

Melbourne, Athenaeum Theatre - Tue 6 – Sun 11 October

Adelaide, Royalty Theatre - Tue 13 October

Perth Octagon Theatre, Crawley - Monday 19 October

I am now in a far more pleasant mood than an hour ago when I was stuck in the cafe downstairs with the office over-achiever who was making me feel jittery. So, thank you Mr Kitson.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Shameless Self-Promotion

If you’re in the Melbourne area and at a loose end this Wednesday night (29th) you might like to venture over to the Forum on the corner of Russell and Flinders Streets. The venue has been turned into the Festival Lounge as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival where people can have a break from sitting down and watching movies. It’s also open to non-movie goers who just fancy a drink and a night out.

Clearly desperate, the MIFF team has invited a friend and me to provide some tasteful musical entertainment to the film-loving punters. Ever eager to humiliate ourselves in public we’ve said yes and under the noms de guerre of Total Fah and Ken Mexico will be wearing black and pretending to be classier than we are. The night is free and the Forum is always nice so if you fancy watching a couple of idiots pressing play buttons on CD players and trying not to leave noticeable gaps between songs then this is your chance. We’re on from 8.30 til midnight.

Alternatively you might want to put the kettle on, get your slippers out and watch the telly. That said I’ve had a look at the TV guide and there’s not much on apart from the Chaser mob, and I think we all know that their shark has been jumped…

Saturday, 18 July 2009

We Still Like the Moon

There's lots of space stuff going on to mark the 40th anniversary of the first moon landings and as an avowed lunar-lover I felt it was only right that I cobble together a bit of a list of moon-related things that make me smile, as a kind of poor man's tribute....

We Choose the Moon: Ever with a finger somewhere near where the pulse might be I only found out about this yesterday but it's had me hooked ever since. We Choose the Moon is a real time replaying of all the audio from the Apollo 11 mission, from lift-off through to splashdown. Every exchange between Mission Control and Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong is rebroadcast in a 'as it happened' stylee and both parties transmissions have also been recreated as Tweets on Tw*tter - making it perhaps the first and only time that Tw*tter has been vaguely useful - if only for hard-of-hearing space geeks.

Apollo - Atmospheres and Soundtracks: sublime 1983 ambient album from Brian Eno originally created as the soundtrack to moon landing documentary For All Mankind. I've never seen the movie but the music is superb in its own right. There are noises in amongst the warm synths that recall the engine noises from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other songs give a genuine sense of weightlessness, a fact not lost on Danny Boyle who memorably used the track Deep Blue Day to soundtrack Ewan McGregor's unlikely toilet swim in Trainspotting. Eno is introducing a live performance of music from the album on 20/21 July at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London. Click here for more details.

We Like the Moon: the spongmonkeys singing their pean to the genius of the moon is still one of my favourite things on the internet six years after it was first posted. We Like the Moon is pre-You Tube genius from Joel Veitch who turns everything he touches into weird, creepy, hilarious gold. His site, is blocked by the firewall at my work as 'Fun and Games' - I feel like writing to IT and saying 'yes, but they're the best goddam fun and games on the internet. Pray, let us play...'

Planet Houston: I love the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies - an affection I'll articulate in more depth at some later date if you're lucky. However take a moment to enjoy some pure camp comic joy from Superman II as Kryptonian villains Ursa, Non and General Zod run riot on the lunar surface. Oh Terence, what were you thinking...

Audrey singing Moon River: one woman, one guitar, lots of tears from Mint Custard over the years. And all before breakfast.

Others Know Me As Clive... it seems strange to think there was a time when Vince Noir and Howard Moon weren't famous in every student household across the land or their Mighty Boosh logo plastered on t-shirts, mugs or the neatly tattooed wrist of the girl who works in a coffee shop near my old work. That said, let not their current ubiquity nor decreasing returns shade their early glory. Here's a nice compilation of Noel as the Moon, and another showcasing the incomparable jazz funk spirit that is Mr Howard Moon.

In the Shadow of the Moon: beautiful and remarkably poignant 2006 documentary retelling the full story of all the Apollo missions. Told using archive footage and retrospective interviews from all the surviving moonwalkers (apart from the ever reclusive Armstrong) it humanises images that have long since become iconic. Some of the footage of lone astronauts walking across the lunar surface is both breathtaking and awe inspiring and shows just how strange it must have been to look back across the heavens and see the Earth so far away. It also salutes the lives lost throughout the race to the moon including the crew of Apollo 1 who died in a training mission in January 1967. Worth a watch and the bigger the screen the better.

Moon the Loon: fireworks in toilets, cars in swimming pools, televisions out of hotel windows, week long benders with Oliver Reed, smashing up his equipment, ever ready to play the village idiot alone or with friends, a premature drug related death and one of the most attention grabbing drummers in rock history. If it's a rock and roll cliche Keith Moon probably invented it.

Moonlighting: oh what a strange little televisual beast this was. There was far more going on within the doors of the Blue Moon detective agency, workplace of unlikely comrades David Addison (Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) than my ten year old brain could take in. To me it was funny and quirky and I liked Bruce, but it's only with rewatching that I got to appreciate just how far out there Moonlighting could be. A great show for breaking through the televisual 'fourth wall' in a manner commonly seen in British comedy shows like Monty Python (and latterly A Bit of Fry and Laurie and That Mitchell and Web Look) Moonlighting was smartly written and knowingly acted in a way that allowed it to get away with murder. Check out the Moonlighting entry on Wikipedia for the story behind how even the show's cancellation was turned into a plot line in which Maddie and David were turfed out of the studio lot as their set was dismantled around them. It's hard to imagine a show like this being as popular nowadays. It's even harder to imagine that Bruce Willis ever had that much hair.

Fate up against your will: there are of course approximately two and a half billion songs about the moon, so picking one to accompany Audrey Hepburn's moment of beauty is a tough call. I've always had a soft spot for the fifties versions of Blue Moon and whilst I'm not a big fan of the song I like Michael Stipe's Elvis impression when he sings "hey baby" in REM's Man on the Moon. Tides of the Moon by Mercury Rev and Marquee Moon by Television are both ace, whilst there's whole albums worth in Air's Moon Safari, Cat Power's Moon Pix and (lest we forget) Pink Floyd's magnum opus. And yet above them all there is the moment where Echo and the Bunnymen's brilliance straddled both the underground and overground in epic never to be repeated fashion. It may be one of their most famous songs, but whether you hear it on a jukebox, in the background of a movie soundtrack, on a walkman on your way home in the rain or nestled alongside the other gems from Ocean Rain, the Killing Moon is still a work of great beauty.

Ali G interviews Buzz Aldrin: "what do you say to all those conspiracy theorists who ask you 'does the moon really exist?'" Sacha Baron Cohen does his best to wind up an unflappable Buzz Aldrin and both end up winners.

Now must get back to Apollo 11... the crew have just woken up...

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Robot Wars: Help is at Hand

Time for another update on the impending armageddon which will result from the ongoing war between man and machine. Huge Custardy-thanks to Mr Flange of No Fixed Abode who documented this robot sighting at the entrance to a Melbourne train station last week.

Mr Flange also kindly alerted me to the existence of an educational tome entitled How To Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion by Daniel H Wilson. In this book you will find the answers to common questions such as how do you spot a robot mimicking a human, how to recognize and deactivate a rebel servant robot and how do you evade a swarm of marauding robotic flies? I know these dilemmas keep me awake at night.

The book offers excellent tips such as 'carry around a pair of welder's goggles, as lasers will likely be robot attackers' weapons of choice, and even a weak laser can cause blindness.' Equally 'if a two-legged android gives chase seek out a body of water, as most robots will sink in water or mud and fall through ice.' Sage advice indeed.

You can buy the learned Mr Wilson's book here. Whilst you're waiting for it to arrive (it may not - much of the postal system is automated these days and they're not going to take kindly to pro-human propaganda) remind yoursleves of mechanical madness in this short animation by Eric Joyner. People, not even our doughnuts are safe.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

How to Cook...Pickled Eggs

Happy Bastille Day everyone - I hope you've all had coffee and croissants for breakfast and a protest march for lunch. In celebration of all things French I've decided to start what will be an irregularly regular series of posts sharing the joys of English cuisine.

Rightly or wrongly we English cop our fair share of abuse for our cooking - or "heating up" as is perhaps more accurate (not least from the French who fondly refer to us as les Rosbifs in the same apparently friendly but quietly patronising way that they are called frogs). Perhaps as a result we've seen Jamie, Nigella, Gordon and a whole celebrity army of British chefs marching around the world, all desperate to prove that there's more to the British than than sunday roasts, fish, chips, curry and crisps.

Well, I'm here to tell you that they're wrong. There may be a few more wagyu beef fillets and ladies fingers in some British shopping baskets but I'm proud to report that the frozen food aisles are still bigger than the fresh fruit aisles in all the UK supermarkets I've ever been in. The British may no longer rule the waves but Captain Birdseye does a fine job in their stead. Despite what you may think, this is a great thing - especially when you can only be arsed to go shopping once a month.

So I plead with you to ignore those attention-grabbing celebrity chefs and their warped international vision of British kitchens and ask you to place your faith in Mint Custard to tell you the truth about the real joys of British food. Let us begin with my favourite - the humble pickled egg.

Celebrated in song by the All Seeing Eye, pickled eggs are the perfect accompaniment to fish and chips and a pint of bitter. You can't get them in Australia (Mrs Custard has gamely tried on my behalf only to be laughed out of many a deli) so your only option is to make them yourself. This is easier than you'd think, as my step by step guide will show...

Oeufs au vinaigre (Pickled Eggs)

You will need:
  • Six eggs (from a chicken - none of your posh eggs)
  • A bottle of white vinegar
  • An old jar of pasta sauce emptied and cleaned with boiling water

1. Boil six eggs for six minutes. This is about the length of Blur's Coffee and TV which has a very cute video about milk so maybe watch it on YouTube instead of using a conventional timer.

2. Peel all your eggs. Set aside, have a cup of tea and allow to cool (the eggs, not the tea - unless it's really very hot indeed in which case let that cool down a bit too).

3. Place eggs in clean jar. Be surprised that they all fit in. I was.

4. Pour white vinegar into jar until eggs are covered / drowned.

5. Put lid on tightly. Really tightly. Then put away in a dark cupboard for a month. This is about the same time as it takes for the moon to orbit the Earth. I wouldn't suggest you spend the whole time looking at the moon, but maybe spare a few minutes thinking about how ace it must have been to be Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin 40 years ago this week and how that even though Neil might have been the first man on the moon and destined to be famous for all eternity, at least Aldrin had Buzz Lightyear named after him and that's much cooler.

I should warn you I got this 'recipe' from my mum over the phone and it's the first time I've tried it. Other peoples' recipes on the net seem to vary and a fair few add salt. I'll keep you posted on my pickling progress in August. It could be terrible...


Eggilogue: Success! - see full story here

Toppermost but not Poppermost

I shouldn’t harp on too much about the Triple JJJ Hottest 100 of all Time that was counted down at the weekend. Everyman and his blog has given an opinion and as with all lists people are annoyed about what got in, angry about what got left out and convinced that their own list is better. However as a lover of all things listy it would be remiss of me not to say anything…

Overall there were few surprises. Smells like Teen Spirit was always going to win, people are still overly-obsessed with the limited talents of Jeff Buckley and Radiohead are now officially this generation’s Pink Floyd. It was slightly strange to see Elton John’s Tiny Dancer in there and in a list which rather depressingly was mostly about boys-with-guitars it was surprising to see that U2 - until recently the consensus as ‘biggest band in the world’ - didn’t get a single song in the 100.

Triple JJJ is ostensibly an alternative rock music station and this poll was only ever going to tell us that Australians love to rawk. However, even acknowledging the limitations of both the JJJ listenership and the very nature of public polls, it’s still a bit boring that there were no female artists. Save for the guest vocals of Liz Fraser and Shara Nelson on the two Massive Attack entries the top 100 was a Boys Only zone.

Even if we stick to (ahem) ‘proper’ music was there really no room for JJJ playlisted artists like Björk, PJ Harvey, Missy Elliott, Hole, Elastica, the Breeders, L7, Stereolab, Cat Power, MIA and Portishead? And whither the first ladies of pop? I can tell you for nought that Kylie and Madonna have turned in better songs than the Foo Fighter’s Evermore or Banquet by Bloc Party.

This lack of pop sparkle only served to make the chart duller and a bit too worthy. Just Billie Jean and Thriller made the count on behalf of the pop camp and no doubt even they benefitted from a late post-Jacko-death poll surge. I still can’t believe there wasn’t a place for Outkast’s Hey Ya! – surely one of the songs of the decade of any genre.

Dance music got equally short shrift. JJJ isn’t shy in supporting dance of all genres yet voters could only find room for a couple of Daft Punk tracks (although not Da Funk), the Prodigy’s Breathe (which might as well be a rock song) and Born Slippy by Underworld. Really? 21 years since acid house went mainstream and that’s the best people can do? The fucking J**n B****r T*io made it into this list so don’t tell me there isn’t some room for improvement.

Anyway, you say tomato, I say potato – a list is a list is a list. The only way to stop people griping about one list is to make another one. I propose a new poll, one that puts a 50 metre exclusion order on all boys with guitars. And when our poll is finished all those angst-ridden rockers will only be able to peer through the perimeter wire fence as we dance on inside in our sequins, feather boas and Kylie’s hotpants. Now that smells like teen spirit…

Monday, 13 July 2009

mX = (Me + Angry) x 10

Having a go at News Corporation is about as new and original as moaning about Microsoft or the weather but events last week made me more grumpy than usual about Murdoch’s ugly behemoth.

Heading down a very long escalator towards my train platform just before rush hour I noticed that people below me were being forced to jump off at the bottom. They were trying to avoid a pile of mX newspapers that were strewn all over the floor. Clearly some lazy distributor had dumped about 40 copies on the ledge between the two escalators to save time, but somehow they’d been blown or knocked over.

Rather than see some old folks lose limbs I stopped to pick them all up and put them back on the side. This is no big deal in itself (‘Man Picks Up Newspapers – No Fatalities’ is not headline news – unless you’re the editor of mX maybe…) but it did get me thinking that maybe News Corporation has responsibilities that stretch beyond the point they hand over each copy of mX to the public.

For those lucky enough not to know, mX is a tabloid rag handed out for free in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney every afternoon. Content aside (lowest common denominator shite pulled from internet articles around the world and seemingly cobbled together by high school students who’ve had too much red cordial) I’ve always hated mX because of the aggressively pushy way it is distributed. It’s impossible to walk into train stations without having to physically side-step an eager young minimum-wager in a baseball cap playing their own version of
Paperboy with commuters.

Given the lengths that people will go to avoid eye contact with the ladies and gents selling
the Big Issue (who, lest we forget, are selling something relatively inexpensive that actually contains journalism SO THEY CAN STAY ALIVE) it’s frustrating to note the huge number that will accept any old crap from Murdoch just because it’s free and in their face.

More galling are the double standards employed by the rail and bus authorities. It’s hard to imagine Big Issue sellers being given the liberties that mX distributors appear to enjoy. Seemingly they are allowed to block doorways, thrust their wares intrusively in your face and loiter in public areas without being moved on or arrested as others would. As we’ve seen they are also allowed to dump random piles of papers around stations for people to help themselves. In most situations this is called littering.

Clearly Newscorp has paid a lot of money for these distribution rights but this should come with some clear duty of care expectations. For example, what about helping with the litter they create? One side effect of their saturation coverage is that trains and buses are awash with used copies of mX left behind by commuters. This suits Newscorp because people travelling later will pick up and read discarded copies for hours afterwards; more readers = happy advertisers. In the meantime trains look like rubbish tips. Even copies that do make it off the trains are going straight to landfill - I saw at least three people dump their mX’s straight in the regular bin as soon as they got to my stop.

I’m sure Newscorp would say it’s up to people to do the right thing and take them home, but I think social responsibility goes both ways. If you give something away are you responsible for how it gets used? At what point in the process can you morally say that it’s no longer your responsibility, even if legally you’re in the clear? Newscorp clearly isn’t interested in these issues but I think we should be asking for more. As a minimum they could something in their paper asking people to dispose of properly after use.

Personally I’d like to see one recycling bin, paid for and emptied by Newscorp for every mX stand across Australia. As a further suggestion, why not put them both together on the platform. Not only will this spare us having to do the daily slalom through the distributors but it will also make it easier to pick up a copy and put it straight into the recycling bin until they get the message. Then we can all go back to our books, proper newspapers and heck, maybe even buy a Big Issue now and again.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Little Urn

"When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn."

… or so it is printed in tiny letters on a piece of paper cut from a magazine in 1882 and stuck haphazardly to the side of the most little brown jug in cricket. Yes, ladies and gentlemen... the Ashes are finally here. Huzzah.

Being English in Australia this will mean two certainties: continual sledging for at least a few months (and possibly another two years) from colleagues and so-called friends; and bleary-eyed mornings after a northern summer’s worth of late night sessions in front of the telly. What is not certain for once is who will win.

I shall ignore the rather stupid and rash news emerging from the UK press that England are the slight favourites following news of Brett Lee’s injury. This is partly because you can never ever, ever trust the Australians to lose when you want them to no matter how shoddy they play and how much you’d love it. Mostly though it’s because every time the multicoloured cowboy-themed weights of expectation are placed on the Buckaroo-like shoulders of British sport, they instantly flail under pressure, kick out their hind legs and drop the variously unattained trophies on the floor. Kind of.

Britain's Andy Murray in action at Wimbledon last week

So my hopes of an unlikely England victory will be resolutely kept in check until the whole damn thing is over. However, I’m already excited about the idea of seeing Ricky Ponting being caught, stumped or preferably bowled at least five times and hopefully ten over the coming weeks. For anyone who has forgotten the pleasures that brings, here are a few nice reminders:

As I know nothing about cricket, other than the fact that I like it a lot, I shall keep my online rantings to a minimum and draw my knowledge from the collective genii of Rob Smyth, Lawrence Booth and the rest of the Guardian’s fantastic obo team. For those who don’t like cricket, fear not. Mint Custard will continue to be as dedicated to this little Ern as any other…

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Buy Buy! Sell Sell! Bye Bye!

And in the charity shop
Mrs Brown sits at the counter pricing down some old stock
The Moon's A Balloon, two copies of Every Loser Wins,
Noel's Blobbyland Deluxe Edition

There's not much left on the doorstep recently
Something to do with eBay, Johnny reckons
He's bidding on it now - a Subbuteo catalogue '81-'82
He'll win it, put it in a drawer, and forget he ever bought it
Teenage Winter by
Saint Etienne from Tales from Turnpike House (2005)

Has anyone else noticed that eBay is a bit rubbish these days? It used to be that you could find pretty much anything on there – sometimes two of everything - being sold by someone cleaning out their cupboards or just sticking it out there to see what happens. You could pick up strange and interesting items at relatively good prices and feel like you’d actually enjoyed the shopping experience. Increasingly it seems I can never find anything that I want, and on the few occasions that I do it’s at such ridiculous prices that it’s not really worth the effort. When did eBay stop being fun and become just another way to sell things?

Part of the problem seems to be that there are far fewer private sellers online. Most eBay listings are put up by shop owners or people running online businesses. These ‘power-sellers’ may be an inevitable consequence of such an open marketplace but having flooded the site they take away the fun of random browsing which used to make eBay so interesting.

More disappointingly the range of things for sale on eBay seems to have shrunk. To give you an idea I occasionally have a little search for Housemartins curios. Over the years I’ve seen (and sometimes won) original posters from the eighties, their out-of-print biography, deleted VHS cassettes and even a special embossed badge to mark a gig that they did to support miners during the strikes. These days I’m lucky to find anything apart from the usual second hand CDs and records – all of which makes me less inspired to visit the site for window-shopping.

My own theory on the decline of eBay is that we’ve come to the end of a five-year long global episode of Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. For those who didn’t grow up in the UK in the late seventies and early eighties
Swap Shop was a Saturday morning children’s TV variety show where kids could bring along unwanted belongings and literally swap with other children for something they wanted more. The initial popularity of eBay led to something similar where we all rummaged through our unwanted things, chucked them up into cyberspace and waited for them to land in someone else’s cupboards. Meanwhile we thought about those things that we’d always wanted – a film you haven’t seen for years, perhaps a rare toy Smurf to finally finish a frustratingly incomplete collection – and found them with glee amongst other peoples’ rubbish. Maybe now we’ve all completed our various collections we have no more need for eBay. Childhood dreams have been fulfilled, nerdy collecting instincts sated; job done.

It’s probably also true that people also got smart to eBay. Where there’s muck there’s brass and people are much slower now to give up on their junk without realising its full market value. Much like those second hand and vintage shops full of retro knick-knacks that the owners pick up in charity shops for $1 and then sell on for $30, eBay sellers have become adept at sorting the wheat from the chaff and there are fewer true bargains to be found. I’m sure they’d say that they’re only making a crust but charity shops and car boot sales were the last bastions of not-for-profit shopping until this decade and I wanna go at these people like a ninja Jesus in the temple.

There are still happy stories to be had from eBay, as
my recent score of Bizzy Buzzy Bumbles will attest, but the glory days already seem long behind us. This might be a good thing; my cupboards are still full of crap – only now it’s other people’s second-hand crap – that I had to pay for. Perhaps it’s time to step outside of the rosy glow of nostalgia and live in the here and now? Maybe – but if anyone has a cheap Star Wars Land of the Jawas Action Playset they don’t want then feel free to get in touch.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Robot Wars Update

Some of you will be aware that there is a war going on in these here streets of Melbourne between dark forces of destructive technology and the lovely lambs-frolicking-gaily-in-fields-and-supping-nectar-from-buttercups world of nature. Evil robots have infiltrated our homes and streets disguised as everyday items and are poised ready to attack mankind upon command from some higher and as yet unidentified source. Mint Custard continues to risk life and limb to report to you from the frontline of this bitter battle so that you might have a chance of escape if confronted by one of these devious technological demons. Forget Transformers - this is the real shit baby. First the good news...

Beady-eyed fiend in Melbourne CBD (as identified in April) is taken out - presumably by doe-eyed rabbits armed with plastic tape

Robot posing as snake is captured on St Kilda promenade and left in the stockades

Several robots combine to pass themselves off as a game of Mousetrap but are caught before they are able to infiltrate a child's christmas stocking.

And yet for every capture there is another sighting. These sly little buggers are still out there...

Tiny spy robot mimics nature crocodile-stylee on the bonnet of our car

Ahoy hoy - watch out for this nautical four-eyed uniped stalking tourists on St Kilda pier

Cyclops poses as small child outside Luna Park

If you see any more robots in disguise please take pictures and send them on so we can warn others. And for everyone else, remember - actual robot attack is relatively rare so please don't have nightmares. After all, most of them can't even climb stairs. Most of them...