Friday, 29 July 2011

Come on Ova

We’re no strangers to a bit of hyperbole here at Mint Custard but when we called The Lovely Eggs’ Don’t Look at Me (I Don’t Like It) – an effervescent 3 minute rush of Kenickie, Sultans of Ping, Jilted John and Half-Man Half Biscuit - as best single of 2011 back in January we might have left ourselves open to accusations of being a bit premature.

Instead, the Eggs (husband and wife Holly Ross and David Blackwell) have gone on to affirm their place in our hearts with their second album Cob Dominos. Packed with more musical left-turns than you’d think possible in 37 minutes, it’s full of homespun wisdom, heartbreaking tales of unrequited love, cider, sausage rolls, crap jobs, first class swearing and the loveliest anthem to paranoia that will ever be written. It also contains recent single, Fuck It which might be just about the best answer for anyone trying to make sense of the madness that has been 2011 so far.

Keen to find out more about the band who give us a washing line smile, we had a chat with Holly earlier this week. Here’s what she had to say…

Hi Holly - thanks for joining us for a chat. Can we get you some tea and biscuits, or pop and cake? Cheese and Strongbow. All day, every day.

Congratulations on Cob Dominos – it’s one of our favourite albums of 2011. What’s the reaction been like so far? Thanks. The record seems to have gone down quite well we think. People have swallowed it whole. We've not got many copies left so we're re-releasing it on beautiful 12” vinyl. Oh yes we are. They will be limited edition and all hand numbered. Each one will come with a special certificate of authenticness and a letter from us. It's gonna be special. They will be available from September. People can get them direct from us but we've not worked that part out yet.

Don’t Look at Me (I Don’t Like It) is a bit special. Did some of the expressions in the lyrics [sausage roll thumbs, dog dirt eyes, car boot bones] come from people you know or are they all made up? Most of them are made up. But some are real or at least an elaboration on something real that was said. We suppose it's inspired by some of the stuff you hear everyday in Lancaster. We've got some cob expressions up here you know.

There’s that word again. Round our way a cob is a bread roll. What does cob mean in Lancaster and what - if anything - are cob dominos? Cob means funny or weird. A cob domino is someone who's a bit odd you would say. My mum calls us it all the time. She says we're a couple of cob dominos which is where the name came from.

Print an Imprint and Books, Ting! remind me of those bits in The Office where they show how boring 9-5 work can be by filming the photocopier sorting paper. Have you had terrible jobs over the years? Well David was a printer before he started working at Lancaster Musicians' Co-op so that's what that's all about. I've done loads of jobs. I've worked in a newsagent, at a meat shop (grim), at a chocolate shop, I’ve worked as a care assistant in a nursing home, as a tour guide at Lancaster Castle, as a bar maid, I worked as a local journalist, a writer for a travel company in Paris, a TV researcher and then a documentary producer/director and then in a book shop. The shittest one was the meat shop. I am a vegetarian. I thought I could handle it. I couldn't.

Watermelons features a backing army of kazoos to lovely effect. Did you have a room full of people all playing at the same time? No, just me and David. I think that was done before the digital kazoo was invented. David made it up from a kazoo and a pound shop microphone. It’s patent pending. He likes to call it the electric kazoo, but I prefer to call it the digital. Electricity is more than 100 years old. Nobody is phased by electricity any more. They take it for granted. In fact I think electricity has always been there. It comes from the sky I believe.

You’re both sporting magnificent fringes on the artwork for Cob Dominos. How do you feel about fringing on other things – jackets, boots, settees etc? There's nothing wrong with a nice bit of fringing on a settee or, say, a cushion. I don't think we have anything else fringed though. No, not like that...

The incomparable John Shuttleworth is your co-star in the video for Don’t Look At Me. Was that exciting or had your paths already crossed previously? We had met before when he performed in Lancaster. We both love Mike Leigh's Play for Today Nuts in May and just hit it off. He is a very nice man who likes eating sausage rolls. Was it exciting? Yes it was.

Watching Mr Shuttleworth’s original alter-ego Jilted John the other day it struck me that - besides great fringes - there were some musical similarities between you. Who else influences you? There are lots of things that influence us, writers and poets and relations and stuff that happens to you outside yer house. I suppose what a lot of the bands we like have in common is they don't give a shit and are just doing what they want. For us it is bands like The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Huggy Bear, Nirvana, Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, Jad Fair, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. They were all doing something different, making their own sound, which is I suppose what we are inspired by. We like to plough our own furrow. There are no rules in our band.

You released your last single on a bank holiday with the following message on Twitter: New single Fuck It comes out tomorrow. You can’t buy it cos all the shops are closed. You won’t hear it cos it can’t be played on the radio. You’re not in this for the money are you? No.

Is there any chance of seeing the Lovely Eggs in Australia at some point? We would love to. We just don't know any promoters over there yet. That would be amazing if we could pull that one off.

Do you have fans that bring you gifts or make you things? We've got some lovely fans who send us stuff. We've had two fountain pens through the post. We also had some sort of whale sponge and someone sent us a poem. We often get drawings. I always write back to everyone. I think that letters are just the best. Emails should be clunked out. If you want to write to us our address is The Lovely Eggs, c/o Lancaster Musicians' Co-op, Lancaster, Lancashire, England, UK, LA1 1XD

Mexico Can’t Make You Smile continues the Twin Peaks references from your Haunt Me Out EP. What chewing gum would you like to come back into style and did you get to Washington State (where Twin Peaks was filmed) on your American tour? Yes we did. We went to visit North Bend and visited all the locations. We had a very surreal and slightly frightening experience at the motel used in the film Fire Walk With Me. We’ll tell you about it if we ever see you. We are slightly obsessed by Twin Peaks. We better stop talking about it now. Chewing gum…? PK.

We got to go this year and did something similar. The Double R Diner is still there and they do some very lovely eggs themselves, as well as a top cherry pie. Good place to do a gig? Don't even tempt us

For more Lovely Eggs visit their MySpace page or follow Holly and David on Twitter via @TheLovelyEggs. That said, when was the last time you wrote someone a nice letter…?

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Fright or Flight

The meal was served in plastic, containers wrapped in foil
A special pack contains salt, vinegar and oil
To add to my discomfort, lightning hits the deck.
Down the aisle they venture, pouring cups of tea
To gentlemen of business and ladies of the scene
They crave for the interior a
s lightning strikes again...
Gruff Rhys, Skylon - Candylion (2007)

Living 10,000 miles away from where I was born, I’ve spent a few hours of my life in aeroplanes. Distracted by the thrill of foreign travel, an endless supply of Hollywood blockbusters and free gin, I had always rather enjoyed criss-crossing the planet amongst the clouds. There was a certain level of surprise then, when I discovered during a recent jaunt around the world that I’ve developed a fear of flying.

For context, I have in the past flown a small plane, been in several helicopters, done a tandem freefall parachute jump, bungeed off a bridge and jumped off a mountain attached to a crazy Frenchman and a hang glider. All of these acts were undertaken with a bit of youthful zest and healthy sense of what-the-hell. And yet, during what could reasonably be called a successful circumnavigation of the globe (I didn’t die in a horrific fireball at 30,000 feet) every safe landing started to feel like an 11th hour reprieve from the President from some unseen firing squad.

That our journey (eight separate flights with their own individual take-offs, landings and please-pay-attention-sir safety demonstrations) was further coloured by two different volcanic ash clouds, a mid-flight tropical storm that added 8 hours to a 6 hour journey, four constant hours of North American turbulence and a drug-addled Irishman returning from Amsterdam is just extra detail. The rot had set in long before.

It’s probably no coincidence that my fear of flying has developed during a lull in overseas flights. Not having been overseas for almost four years, I had come to associate flying with Jetstar and Tiger Airways, two cheap and cheerless local carriers, the latter of which has now been grounded due to safety concerns. Their joyless no-frills approaches and up-and-down intercity flights had robbed me of any thrills that air travel might once have had. I would spend flights to Sydney mentally drafting dramatic news headlines and radio bulletins about our imminent crash and thinking about who will look after my dog.

Subsequently my levels of in-flight angst are now influenced by two important factors; the size of the plane and the staff-to-Muppet ratio.

It makes no sense that significantly increasing the size of the thing that shouldn’t be in the air in the first place somehow makes it less scary but there’s no denying the bigger the plane, the less is my terror. Take off is smoother, cabins and seats are roomier, TV screens are individualised, drinks are much freer. When planes are big I can adjust my optimism from the opening scene from the Lost pilot to ‘hey, maybe someone will hear that little whistle across the water before the sharks get me…’

As for staff, I used to think that friendly professionalism ranked highest on my list of cabin crew qualities. I now appreciate what I’m really looking for is a door bitch (male or female) who will come down like a prison warden on even the most minor acts of lawlessness. If someone is unbuckling their seatbelt when the light is on, using ‘electronic devices’ during take-off or turning on their mobile phone before we’ve reached the terminal I want them SLAPPED DOWN.

What I don’t want, Ryan Air, is a situation where a crazy walking stereotype of a mentalist is allowed to get on my plane when he has lost his boarding pass (probably used as a roach), who ignores you (the people in charge of all our safety, lest we forget) when you repeatedly tell him to turn his iPod off until YOU give up, who asks people around him “why have we just taken off and landed again?” before we have even reached the runway, and who gets up out of his seat the second the seatbelt sign goes off, leaving his shoes, bag and coat behind and is NEVER SEEN AGAIN FOR THE REST OF THE FLIGHT…

If that does happen, Ryan Air, I would like you to take control of the situation and make us all feel at ease. What I do not want you to do is try and sell me multi-packs of duty-free cigarettes and/or scratch card lottery tickets.

The other cabin crew quality that ranks above professionalism is calmness. Wings could literally be falling off, but if I can see the benign smile of a non-plussed air-steward I’ll always feel much better about the situation. I learned this when our flight from Dublin to New York was interrupted one hour from landing by news that every airport on the eastern seaboard of the US had been closed down due to violent storms.

After an hour looping around Nova Scotia we then headed north to Montreal because (and these are the reassuring words of the Captain) ‘we are running low on fuel’. Although convinced this was leading to the death that I’d been anticipating since leaving Melbourne, and slightly aggrieved that having planned our holiday for so long, we were going to die without even seeing New York, my terror was eased by watching the seemingly unconcerned Irish crew stop working, kick their shoes off and have a bitch about some of the passengers who were less gracious about our situation. I particularly enjoyed seeing one obnoxious passenger being torn a new anus by a small red head for switching on his mobile phone. You can be my wingman anytime, Maverick.

My panic may have been lessened by the crew’s apparent insouciance, but I still spent the rest of the flight wondering how a pilot planning for a 7 hour flight was able to fly a plane after 14 hours at the helm. All mitigating factors aside my presiding in-flight emotion is still uneasy panic rising to hopeless wreck. It may be safer to travel by plane than to catch a bus or whatever that statistic is, but give me the bus any day.

I’m not as bad as some. Such is my friend’s fear of aviation that she refers to planes as ‘flying coffins of death.’ She is incapable of setting foot on a plane unless she has rendered herself comatose with all manner of long lasting little white pills. Another friend has good reason to be afraid of flying after she was involved in a major incident which saw her flight plummet 20,000 feet (that’s almost four miles) for over five minutes. As a keen traveller she has had to literally force herself to get back on the horse using counselling, noise-cancelling headphones, more little white pills and whole heap of scientific and statistical reasoning to counter the fear.

Logic should suggest that if she can get back on a plane then I should stop fannying about, sit back and enjoy the drinks trolley. If only my brain was wired up that way. Instead, the fact that I know someone who has experienced exactly what I fear goes to show that it could happen anywhere, anytime.

For now I’m just grateful my secular prayers were answered. I’m home, back with my feet and all my other bits firmly on the ground and no plans to travel until my Grandma’s 80th birthday in February next year. If I set off now, walking non-stop I should have those 10,000 miles covered just in time.

Friday, 6 May 2011

MICF - Did I Miss My Deadline?

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is, in my humble opinion, the very best thing about living in this fair city. Coming at the start of autumn it provides the perfect distraction to the fact that Victoria is about to be plunged into six months of dark and reliably bad weather. It offers opportunities for four weeks of wildly varied nights out in the company of all comedians great and small, from 20 seat cupboards to the glittering stages of some of Melbourne's most beautiful theatres.

Despite this, 2011 passed me by somewhat. Bereft of cash, busy at work and lacking real insight into who were the must-sees of a relatively superstar-free roster I only got to six shows this year, which is pitiful really. Comedians of the world, I'm sorry. I promise to do better next year. That said, the six shows I did see only reinforced how lucky we are to have MICF on our door step, starting with...

Josh Earl's Love Songs and Dedications. For a man who did his entire run at the Trades Hall in the knowledge that that his heavily pregnant wife could deliver their first child at any second, Josh Earl's seventh year at MICF was remarkably entertaining. Loosely themed around late night radio sensation the Love God's Love Song Dedications - in which slightly deranged callers try and impress/win back the loves of their lives by requesting Mariah Carey songs and Bon Jovi ballads - the source material alone was a comedy gold mine.

Thankfully there is much more to Josh Earl than easy parody and the Love God's show was just a springboard to a dissection of some of the less celebrated aspects of modern romance. If I tell you these include digital prostate stimulation or toilet tag-teaming during a bout of mutual gastro, you'll know what i mean. As he proved with last year's highly popular Josh Earl versus the Australian Women's Weekly Childrens Birthday Cake Book part of Josh's appeal is his every (indie) man personality and boy-next-door charm. Despite some scatological subject matter, songs comparing sex with baking, and admitting to your partner that the pinnacle of romance is to be merely content, everyone I went with still wanted to give him a hug at the end. For more info on Josh check out @mrjoshearl on Tw*tter or

Sanderson Jones - Taking Liberties. After being spruiked in the street I made a solemn promise to Sanderson Jones' face last year that I would attend his show. Then I got sick and didn't go. On that basis alone I was pleased that the English comedian came back this year for another run at the Bull and Bear in Flinders Lane.

Mr Jones is known to some in the UK from a series of IKEA adverts and to others for the controversy about his 2010 Edinburgh show in which he talked about the morals of censorship using a picture of a naked 12 year old Brooke Shields. I'm not sure if we got exactly the same show here - the Shields picture played only a small part in the show - but the themes of freedom of speech were represented in ways that those present will likely never forget. Certainly my innocent eyes were opened to the horrors of the 21st century through exposure to chat roulette, a seemingly consensual peeping tom for online onanists. To reveal more would risk spoiling a shocking yet genuinely funny routine, with Sanderson gleefully egging everyone on like some deranged Gene Wilder; a modern day Willy Wanka.

Constantly juggling being edgy with not alienating the crowd is a difficult ask, and one that wasn't always successful. Still, fair play to him for not playing safe at any point - especially as this was a pay-as-you-leave show. There is intelligence and subtlety to Sanderson Jones' comedy, from the PowerPoint presentations to the small video montages, and whilst some of it was lost in the mania of presentation, there is more than enough to suggest a bright future for Mr Jones.

Lisa Fineberg - Mermaids Can't Ride Bikes. I knew nothing about Lisa Fineberg before her show started other than that she used to be a professional mermaid and that, despite being 29, she can't ride a bike. This seemed like a reasonable premise to me, so I sat in a relatively full Loop Bar back room and waited to hear the tale of her tail.

Sadly Lisa never seemed quite sure what she wanted her 45 minute show to be. It wasn't clear whether her bright and beaming toothpaste smile and giggling into space was part of a carefully constructed ditzy mermaid routine or (as suggested by a PowerPoint presentation of Lisa and family playing dress ups over the years and a proudly displayed collection of turquoise clothes, bedroom, toys, and a rather-too-swish car) if her message was simply 'I'm a bit kooky aren't I?'

Whatever the truth it was hard to get an angle on what was real and what was being played for laughs. There was some genuine laughs when the starstruck Ariel act was dropped to talk about working as a supply teacher, but they were quickly forgotten. It didn't help Lisa's cause that the biggest laughs came from people helping her with her show - including celebrity friend John Safran who was present both in a pre-recorded video and in the audience.

I've since learned that this was Lisa's first MICF show, so due credit for giving something a go. Hopefully there will be a little more of the real Lisa next time around.

Michael Williams - Our Princess is in Another Castle As another relative comedy newcomer, Warrnambool's Michael Williams has no such identity problems. Michael is, unapologetically, a pizza munching, chip crunching couch-dwelling gamer. Not that there's anything wrong with that because his 20 years of console addiction has led to this Pac-Man power-pellet of a show.

Williams' mission for the evening is to show us that if you scratch the surface of life, everything's a game really. He illustrates his point by walking us through his own arcade version of the Life of Michael, detailing his attempts to get a job, score a girlfriend and leave Warrnambool to become a successful comedian. This is all done by - you guessed it - a PowerPoint presentation. Fortunately a combination of personalised Atari and Nintendo-style graphics presented on a huge old television and some dry self-depreciation mean the story is delivered with some genuine down-to-earth charm. It's likely that some more energy in the delivery might have been required without the television to rely on, but for the purposes of tonight's show it's mostly spot on.

I read a criticism online that Our Princess is in Another Castle (a reference to early video game quests to rescus damsels in distress) show wasn't nerdy enough, with too many references to games that are broadly known by the general public. That misses the point somewhat as I suspect a show directed squarely at gamers would have had an audience of three. Williams gift, despite a youth spent behind closed curtains with only a glowing cathode ray and a game controller for company, was to engage gamers and non-gamers alike in a story that everyone could relate to. For that alone he deserves a power-up and an eccy man.

Daniel Kitson - The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church As subjective as comedy is, there are still some facts out there. Farts are always funny; being unnecessarily mean to people is not; gender does not affect how funny people are; comedians who do it for fame and money should give up now. This last point brings me to my own personal number one comedy fact: no one is better at standing on a stage and making people laugh than Daniel Kitson.

As a man who avoids appearing on television, turns down the majority of interviews and mostly advertises his shows through a mailing list and word of mouth it would be hard to accuse Kitson of being in the comedy game for anything other than love of what he does. He has genuine pride in and affection for each show he does, as displayed by his methodological approach to bringing each new creation around the world for people to see. It may take time (Gregory Church was first aired at Edinburgh in 2009) but better to wait til the show can be performed to its very best than agreeing to a promoter-driven soul-sapping endless run.

It should come as no surprise that the Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church is superb. Although firmly promoted as another of Kitson's one-man-show theatre pieces rather than stand-up, Kitson is now so adept at his craft that the lines are being erased. A five-minute rambling intro piece about the show segues so seamlessly into the show itself that it's hard to remember where fact and fiction became separated.

The story itself revolves around Kitson's (alledged) discovery of several boxes of letters in a loft, all written by the eponymous hero over many years, including a series of suicide notes addressed to various acquaintances. Through these letters and the ones that follow, Kitson takes us on a Time Team-like journey of discovery - digging deeper into Gregory's life. Kitson uses his own absorbtion with the unfolding story that he read to tell the tale in flashbacks, effortlessly weaving real facts, invented facts and Gregory's facts into a perfect picture. It's even more impressive that after performing countless runs of the show he still seems excited when we collectively reach the Poirot-moment of dedection and realisation about the true nature of Gregory Church's fate.

According to a 2009 interview with the ABC's Jon Faine, Daniel has a collection of recorded material from all his shows, including this one. The problem is he can't be arsed sorting through them all to do anything with them, preferring to concentrate his efforts on the here and now. For those who missed this latest masterpiece, start hoping he decides to take some time off to do some editing. And don't let anyone spoil it for you; it's more than worth the wait.

Get On With It...

This is the last song I will ever sing...
No I've changed my mind again. Goodnight and thank you.
Morrissey, Disappointed - Bona Drag, 1990

Goodness me, has it really been a month? I have been neglectful. A whole month. It's almost enough for me to trot out the Blogger's Apology. You know the one... where Tumblrs and Wordpressers and Bloggerers start their latest offerings with a profound and painfully sincere mea culpa to their apparently distraught readers about why they have had to fend for themselves in the world for the past day/week/month/year(s) without any insight or learned counsel from the oracle that is they. There will then follow a lengthy attempt to justify being MIA, most of which can be summed up by the word 'life.'

I was going to have a look for some choice examples from the internet for you, but I was worried it might seem mean. Fortunately someone with far less scruples has saved me the job, having created the excellent blog 'Sorry I Haven't Posted - Inspiring Apologies from Today's World Wide Web.' Have a look, it's very funny.

That said, being absent for a while has made me think maybe its time to wrap it all up on here. There are no financial rewards, nor are there people queuing up to offer writing jobs in the media (I believe there are things called journalists who do years of training to do that kind of thing, and failing that, celebrities). More dispiritingly, the most popular post on Mint Custard remains what I thought was a cute story about why bears don't wear underpants. I would be happy if this was due to an appreciation of creative writing or a love of bears or somesuch but according to Statcounter the main reason people visit that page is because they have typed 'gay bears' or 'Bear Grylls nude' into Google.

Fortunately I know that my reasons for writing are mostly selfish. Parents and people in the military will be familiar with the concept of sharing information on a 'need to know' basis. I have long suspected that Mint Custard and countless other blogs operate from the opposite, a 'need to tell' basis. Whether people want to know or not, we are not capable of keeping our opinions to ourselves. It churns inside of us and we cannot keep our traps shut. You may cover our typing fingers with over-sized children's mittens, but we will find a way to proffer our tuppenceworths on the interwebs. We must, because that is who we are.

What makes each individual blogger like this will be unique to them. Perhaps they are those loud, opinionated people in the real world; brash, confident, convinced of their innate rightness on any topic before them. Maybe they are the complete opposite; tiny mice whose blogs give them the courage and a voice to talk about things that matter to them, and where someone, anyone, might listen for the first time in their quiet lives.

Whilst I am under no illusions that I am a 'need to share' person, I know I also write because it makes me happy. I'm no great wordsmith - in fact, and though its a painful truth, its still true, I'm not even Miranda Devine - but it still makes me happy to try (try to write, not to be Miranda Devine, though I bet I look better than she does in a skirt suit).

I've spent the past month continuing my Tw*tter experiment (@mintcustard for those who wish to know), connecting with people in different ways, and finding new ways to make pithy remarks in 140 characters. The problem is whilst I quite like using Tw*tter, it does make me feel like a crazy old man shouting through the cracks in the window of an abandoned house at passers-by. Yes I'm still sharing, and the internet still does the same collective shrug it gives blog posts, it's less rewarding because the process of writing is removed.

Clearly those 140 characters are enough for many people, but I've come to realise - or perhaps to affirm - that it's not quite enough for me. I have missed being here, bashing away at the keyboard trying to string sentences together about stuff that excites me and things that I want to talk about. Look over to the right in the subject cloud. There's a lot of them.

To the collective shrug, keep on shrugging. But to those that do listen and respond and comment and contact, thank you - you bring me great happiness. And to those that did notice I was gone so long, a quiet but sincere 'sorry.' Please know that I'm listening when you mutter under your collective breaths, 'get on with it...'

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Bedroom Philosopher: Wit-Bix

Some 10 days after it started, I finally got to see a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show at the weekend. My plans for another month of dawn to dusk comedy coverage were scuppered by the unexpected and distinctly unpleasant arrival of a $2000 bill from the Australian Taxation Office. Apologies to impoverished comedians and under-attended shows everywhere; blame ‘The Man’.

Fittingly my first 2011 show was Wit-Bix by the Bedroom Philosopher, the person responsible for my favourite MICF moment last year: Songs from the 86 Tram. Whilst that was a poignant snapshot of Melbourne society, brought to life through clever songs and artfully observed characters, Wit-Bix is akin to watching the accompanying bloopers on DVD. If 86 Tram was Smoke, here is its Blue in The Face.

Loose and shambolic where 86 Tram was carefully structured and multi-layered; Wit-Bix has no narrative, no over-riding theme, and regularly makes no sense at all. There are still funny and lovely little songs – including a couple of numbers ably backed by his Awkwardstra – but they have little in common beyond displaying the Philosopher’s knack for musical diversity. If any of this sounds like a bad thing, please be assured that it is not. The change of pace and format reveals a whole lot more about Justin Heazlewood (the man behind the specs) than Songs from the 86 Tram allowed for. Some is a little predictable – mini-rants about bogans and jokes-by-numbers comedians offer nothing new – but the rest is a series of left and right turns, each highlighting a different angle of the Philosopher’s comedy philosophy.

Long term fans of Lime Champions might have expected the cute, semi-tragic interplay between two laptops with male and female Stephen Hawking voices or the big band-esque number about getting a new hairdresser. I suspect they might not have anticipated the creative use of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game and a tray of kitty litter that is worth the entrance fee alone.

It’s fair to say that a few in the audience found the diversity a bit much. A painfully honest stab at addressing guilty feelings about indigenous Australians was clearly a bit serious for some of the Saturday night crowd who seemed curiously more at ease watching their host almost impale himself on a snare drum when some showing off seemed to go horribly wrong. It’s a sign of the random nature of the night when it’s unclear whether that was some Jackass / Jacques Tati slapstick or just our host being a bit enthusiastic and un-co.

There’s no doubt that ‘Beddy Phil’ (his new P-Diddy-esque street moniker) trades on being an awkward margin-dweller and Wit-Bix certainly highlights the pros and cons of that approach. He may never get to write 'as seen on Good News Week and Spicks n Specks' on his posters, but for those of who see that as a good thing he will always be compulsive viewing.

The Bedroom Philosopher’s Wit-Bix is on at the Melbourne Trades Hall, Corner of Lygon and Victoria Sreets, Carlton until 24 April 2011. Times Tues-Sat 9.30pm, Sun 8.30pm.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Village of the Damned

It’s 6.30am and the alarm is doing its usual morning beep. A groggy arm swings to turn it off, but instead of tapping snooze and retreating back under the duvet, it keeps going and reaches for an i-Phone. There are some tiny muffled taps on a glass screen then suddenly the sound of chirrups and birdsong can be heard. Moments later the room is alive with the noise of activity; saws sawing, spades digging, workers whistling, giggling and grumbling. It can mean only one thing: the Smurfs are awake.

If three is a crowd, our little house has been like Wembley Stadium of late. Courtesy of Smurfs Village, another pointless but addictive i-Phone time-waster, we are now sharing every waking moment with 40 (and counting) cheeky tiny blue people with a very strong work ethic and no interest in shirts.

For those familiar with the concept, Smurfs Village is like Farmville but with more blue. Players are provided with a large clearing in a forest and requested to create new homestead where itinerant Smurfs can live. By planting and successfully growing crops, players earn cash and power-ups to buy things to make the village more homely – houses that look like mushrooms, flower beds, park benches, lampposts, giant friendly caterpillars and the like.

In theory we are omnipotent super beings helping them rebuild their village somewhere safe from the villainous Gargamel. In practice we are their slaves, responding to the daily chores set out by the bearded Papa Smurf. These range from the reasonable (‘Plant four crops of blackcurrants so we can make some juice for thirsty Smurfs’) to the vaguely surreal (‘Send 5 Smurfs into the woods to placate some angry chipmunks). Such tasks are undertaken in real time, which has led to examples of me receiving texts during work meetings advising that my carrots are ready to harvest and should be collected before they wither.

Smurfs Village isn’t a new concept, combining elements of the SIMS series, Tamagotchi robot pets and several other Farmville derivatives. However one interesting addition is the capacity to spend actual money on improving your village. This allows you to fast track the rebuilding process, giving you access to games, utilities and special characters like Smurfette.

I only know one person who has gone down this route and the result was terrifying. Given free reign over her Smurfdom, she created a nightmarish futuristic high rise agrarian nightmare. Row upon row of Smurf houses sit on top of each other like a mushroom Manhattan whilst almost 100 Smurfs work the soil relentlessly, growing only the highest value crops with no break in sight. Meanwhile, Smurfette’s house sits isolated across a river, ‘for her own good.’

Without this purchase power, my own village has evolved slowly and is (I believe) a much nicer place for it. Stone walls line the paths, all homes have gardens with benches and picnic tables and crop rotation keeps the Smurfs and soil happy. Meanwhile my actual garden has gone to pot. Weeds have taken over, all my herbs have gone to seed and the grass was recently up to my knees, but that’s OK because Papa Smurf doesn’t tell me off about that.

Of course with great power comes responsibility, a burden some people take more seriously than others. Another friend was greatly distressed when the village she and her daughter had lovingly created suddenly vanished into the ether after her phone crashed. Still mourning for her little friends, she diligently restarted, only to see that village disappear and be replaced by her original creation. She now accepts that it is her destiny to tend and nurture whichever village is in front of her and has vowed not to shirk her responsibilities.

As for me, well, I’m ashamed to report that my interest in the Smurfs is already on the wane. I’m sick of being a slave to my crops and I’m bored of waiting 42 hours for Smurfs to come back from the forest after tending to a sick squirrel (unless the glitch in the programming which randomly speeds up Smurf time happens to occur). I’m over Handy Smurf’s dull hammering game and generally fed up of tarting up a village that I was quite happy with several levels ago.

In considering whether to ditch the village I was reminded of the most recent series of Mad Men, in which a spurned lover tells a newly engaged Don Draper ‘I hope she knows you only like the beginning of things.’ I wondered if this might also be true for me and the Smurfs? Could it be that with the novelty over and the interesting work done, simply maintaining my creation and generally making sure that everyone is alright is something that just isn’t in my nature? It’s almost reason to stop someone from having children.

If so, it’s the best argument I’ve heard to date that there is a God, somewhere out there. It’s just that having nicely set everything up here on Earth, leaving a few aardvarks and venus fly traps and manatees and dinosaurs and people about the place, he or she got a bit bored, downloaded a new game called Earth 2.0 and just left us all to look after ourselves.

For now my Smurfs can rest easy and I will continue to tend to their needs. Besides, I only need a few more smurfberries to buy Smurfette’s house - I’ve come too close to give up now. After that though, all bets are off. My little blue friends had better up their game in the entertainment stakes or else, in the words of their bearded leader, their smurf could be smurfed.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Just Another Twit

Friends, I have a confession to make. I never thought I would say this, and I feel a bit dirty as I do, but I have been dabbling in Tw*tter. I haven't been doing it much. I mean, I don't have a problem or anything. It's under control. I know my limits. I'm not an addict. It's just a friend said 'Go on, have a try. It's fun. Just a little tweet. It won't hurt you. You know you want to. And then another friend said 'I do it and I'm fine, right? I'm not like those people either. Just one tweet. C'mon. Join us.'

So I did. I was on a very long bus journey with no book and the words of my persuavive pals in my head. So I had a peek. And a play. And a poke. And then I typed @mintcustard into the box and it was still available. And I was pleased. So I told people. On Twitter. And people wrote back. Straight away. And it was nice. So I did it again. And they wrote back again. So I did it again. And again. And again. And now I can't write. Sentences. Anymore.

OK, I can, but I must admit that my previous view of Tw*tter as being a waste of breath, time and internet have been challenged of late. That said, my dabblings to date have taught me three semi-interesting facts, which like all unfettered twits I just can't wait to share:

  1. I was right. There are unquestionably people using Tw*tter who should not be allowed to go within 100 metres of a keyboard or mobile phone. People who use Tw*tter a bit like loud mad people use quiet trains. People who don't wait to be asked to tell you how they are feeling, which they report via a series of parentheses, colons, semi colons and acronymns. Some of these people are my friends. They take pictures of every meal, accompanied by the word Yum. Such people, whilst friends, have been 'unfollowed' as quickly as they were 'followed'.
  2. Tw*tter is the new comedy. In my review last year of the Bedroom Philosopher's superlative show Songs from the 86 Tram I carried on a bit about how difficult it must be to make it as a comedian in this world. Television opportunities are rare and mostly require people to change their acts to fit into whatever the show is doing. It's been a bit of a revelation to be able to follow comedians I love and some I've never heard of and see just how genuinely creative and funny people can be. @isysuttie, @serafinowicz, @sarahksilverman and @ivanbrackenbury I already had expectations for but the best find so far has been @meganamram, a Los Angeles based funny lady whose Tweets (and blog) regularly brighten my day. Take a minute to let her do the same to you.
  3. It works. I'll admit that the main reason for my succumbing to Tw*tter was to try and get more people to read Mint Custard. Plain. Simple. Shameless. Like all of us online narcissists I've seen how many people read these words and it's not very many really. Most of the time that's fine, but sometimes you write something you like and you're proud of and you think wouldn't it be nice if someone actually read this. Having seen the number of people who visit Mint Custard increase 1000% after friends with F*cebook and Tw*tter have posted a link, I was forced to question my very 20th century approach to information sharing. The result? Well, it works. People have been here and even better, it's led me to them and their blogs and thoughts and ideas and creativity, which surely is the point.

Of course the challenge now is to write things that merit a visit. It would be sad to be like many of the tw*ts out there who think that the 140 characters they fart into the internets is all that is required.

Anyway, to any new casual visitors, thanks for dropping by. Please stay a while and have a look around. It's not all rubbish. And to all those people who have been here for the past 3 years, you know I still love you the most, right?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Where the Force is Still Strong

I have a recurring dream. It's not very exciting dream but its frequency continues to surprise me. The locations and the players of this dream are rarely repeated but the result is always the same: somehow, somewhere at some point I gleefully uncover a stash of rare, old Star Wars toys.

Lucasfilm wasn’t up and running when Freud was about, but I suspect even the most casual student of cod-psychology could deduce that this goes back to my childhood and a period from 1979 to 1985 when I lived, walked and breathed all things Star Wars. Buying Christmas and birthday presents for me was a doddle. As long as there was a Kenner label on it you were on safe ground and I was in seventh heaven. I guess my recurring dream shows that those beloved toys [still safely stowed in my parents’ loft] have morphed into some kind of embodiment of youthful happiness.

With this in mind, you can perhaps imagine the hyperventilating that took place when I stumbled upon Lobos Collectables. Packed to the rafters with almost everything that ever tumbled out of Lucas’ mind, and a whole lot more besides, this small corner of Northcote is a shrine to science fiction, fantasy and overactive imaginations.

It resembles what you’d imagine the inside of Kevin Smith’s head looks like. Walls and walls of figurines, statues, aliens, robots, superheroes and super villains provide a backdrop to lovingly recreated dioramas, play sets and display cabinets. Spaceships hang suspended from the ceiling, a Star Wars trilogy pinball table pings in the corner whilst a life size Simpsons family watch old sci-fi movies from their sofa. This is no ordinary shop.

At the centre of the Lobos universe is Dennis Kafkis, a thirty something Melbournian who has managed to turn his own childhood escapism into a place where anyone can seek sanctuary from the rigours of what some like to call the real world.

I asked Dennis how Lobos Collectables came into being. Fittingly his story is full of adventure, romance, honour, tragedy, determination and a little bit of magic…

How did you get started in the world of science fiction? You always start with one item. In my case it was a bucket of green army men. I spent many hours in the back yard planning missions. My parents divorced when I was 8 or 9 and I was an only child. I went into a fantasy world of characters from sci-fi films. I could do it well because my parents spoiled me with toys and comic books - most likely their guilt about dissolving their marriage! So toys came into my life at a very important juncture for me.

What was it about Star Wars in particular that appealed to you? I don’t remember much of my childhood but I remember asking my mother for the same outfits Luke and Han wore at the end of Star Wars when they received their medals. She said no and thought I was crazy to want knee high boots and all the gear! I’m sure I had a big cry about it... I remember wondering why Chewie never got a medal as well. He risked his furry ass too! If you ask me he got ripped off.

I found my first Star Wars figure in the street in 1979 – the original Han Solo. Do you remember yours? My first was Luke from Return of the Jedi in his black suit. I still have it. I remember being in grade 2 and was playing with it outside during the lunch break. When we went inside I realized I’d lost his green light sabre. I was distraught and asked the teacher to let me go and look for it during class time. I took a friend with me and we looked for what seemed to be an eternity but with no luck. That sabre is out there somewhere!

When did the toys become a hobby? Well there was myself, Peter Mackay and our close friend Peter ‘Lobos’ Mastroanis. All of us came from the same high school and we kept up our interest in pop culture and sci-fi as we grew up. We loved movies, comics and toys including many things that are now collectable. We got into McFarlane figures, NECA , Bowen statues, Sideshow collectables. We got some of the holy grails that never got released in Australia - limited edition SDCC [San Diego Comic Convention] items. You name it, we bought it. I love the craftsmanship and the technology in making a fantastic looking figure or toy collectable… the imagination of different looks of aliens and the like. It can transport people’s imagination to another place.

How did you go from collector to owning your own store? Lobos and I were always going to open a comic store together. It was our dream so we thought ‘why not try to do it...?’ Then tragically he passed away. He was 31. He had a genetic malfunction in his heart and suffered a sudden heart attack. You hear stories where someone is fine one minute and not with us the next; this is one of them. I talked to him just a few hours earlier and everything was fine. It still haunts me to this day. When his younger brother Luis called me to tell me the news I was trembling like I was holding a jack hammer. Tragic night.

What did Peter mean to you?
We were best friends from the age of 12. He was one of the best and kindest of people. He was very creative and taught me more than I ever taught him, that's for sure. We were going to open the shop five years ago, so it’s taken me a few years to get over his death. But I put my mind to it and opened the store and named it after him. Peter loved dogs – that’s how he got the nickname Lobos. It means ‘the Wolf’ in Spanish. His illustrated design is on our business cards – a picture of a wolf. There is a framed photo of myself and Peter in the store with Wolverine in the middle. It’s a great photo, you must see it.

What kind of reactions do you hear from people when they first come in the shop?Oh my God ... I want to live here ... I will save all my dole money and spend it here every fortnight ... Can I work here please...? ... Where do you guys get all this stuff? ... Oh My God’ again... There’s a lot of drooling but mostly it is ‘cool shop, love the shop’ etc

Do you see Lobos as a shop or a museum? I understand what you mean with all the glass cabinets but no, not really a museum. They always have a ring of unapproachable about them and our store is not like that. Lobos is a place for escapism. You can touch, feel, talk to staff, even watch a movie on the TV. We do dioramas and displays of movie scenes. We open most items and take them out of their packaging. If you have time come spend an hour in the store and have a good look at everything. If you’re having a bad day or week you will soon forget about it!

I once found some Star Wars wallpaper for 50 cents at a church fete. What is the luckiest find you've ever made for merchandise? It’s my mother that finds the best stuff – I’ve trained her up! She’s like one of those St Bernard snow dogs. She found some 30” Batman and Superman figures which sell for $100 each. She also found a Star Wars Lego Imperial Shuttle in its box, 100% complete, just on the street. Don’t ask how! The guys in the shop always laugh about her.

My best find was at a garage sale 5 years ago. There was a box full of 1980s toys – Transformers, Star Wars, He Man and others, all in really good condition with all the weapons. The son had left home and his parents were selling all his left overs at a fraction of what they were worth. I gave them what they wanted for it and didn’t haggle!

Back in the 1990s a friend bought me an R5-D4 he found in an op shop because he knew it was the only original figure I didn’t have. Now you can find hundreds of them online and on e-Bay. Does the internet spoil the magic of shops like Lobos? This is my favourite question! Yes the internet mostly destroys the magic. It’s so easy to find things [online] these days, you’re 100% correct. Finding a special gem in a market or op shop has almost become a thing of the past.

We don’t have an internet site and we do not sell on e-Bay. We know you can sell all your really good items quickly and actually get a better price for them than our ticket price because you’re selling to the world and a larger market. But if we did that then the friends of Lobos would never see all the good items we have or have the chance to buy them!

One thing I like to do is place rare figures worth over $20- $30 each on our bargain wall from time to time so that someone finds it for a third of the price and can say they have found their own gems. I do this on purpose. I can sell it for more but let’s have a bit of magic... I had one guy saying ‘you know this figure is worth over $50 dollars but you have it in the $12.95 section?’ I said ‘well, we can’t change the price can we? It’s yours.’ He comes in all the time…

Is it fair to say Lobos is a labour of love? I work full time in a totally unrelated business that allows me to fund Lobos until it can stand on its own two feet (or in the world of Lobos, 12 feet and a tentacle. It is a sci-fi store!) For me this is a hobby and a passion. I do most of the work for Lobos at night. I stay up late and sneak in an hour or two here and there every day.

Most places like ours have closed down or are on the decline. It’s not easy - most weeks we don't even cover the costs of running the store but the feedback we get from our friends of the store is amazing so hopefully it will pick up in time and we can grow and become friends to many more people.

Dennis Kafkis and a few friends

Going back to your first love, what's your favourite Star Wars movie moment? Empire Strikes Back is my favourite movie. I love the Battle of Hoth. Snow and sci-fi: a perfect mix. The Cantina scenes [from Star Wars] with all the aliens are great too. I get the freeze frame out and do the slow mo action on them all. I also enjoy the Bespin City scenes as well. Anytime the heroes get screwed it’s interesting viewing…

Despite what adults think, kids love The Phantom Menace don't they? Yes they do. Trust me we sell lots of Jar Jar Binks figures and dolls. Give the alien a break, he’s okay!

What do you think Lobos would think of the store you made in his name? I am sure he would love it. We were very much about honour and this is a good start. It’s against my will but as time goes by your memories become blurred and not as sharp as they once were. I want to hold all the memories I have of Peter very close to me I hope the store remains open for 50 years so his memory is always there.

Lobos Collectables is at 503 High Street, Northcote. It's open 11-6 on Wednesdays and Fridays, 10-6 on weekends. I recommend you go in.

(with thanks to TK 421 for the photography)