Monster Munch

It’s time to pop over to the pdf magazine All The Rage and read about Monsters. My own contribution, a sobering account of celebrity excess, can be found below.

A dinosaur is diverted from a course of city-scale mayhem by a
Godzilla-sized packet of Chewits, cleverly mirroring the use of bright
candy to mollify the “little monsters” at which the advert is
targeted1. I had thought that they had left the character at that, but
a quick trip to reveals the following:

The brand character, Chewie the Chewitsaurus, first appeared in a TV
commercial in 1980. Today he is an integral part of the brand identity
acting as a spokesperson for Chewits. Although his appearance may have
changed slightly, he is still very popular with the kids of today. His
original name was ‘The Muncher’ and only changed to Chewie in 1990.

He liked them so much he bought the company. Pausing only, like New
Labour, to change his name and his appearance.

But The Muncher’s hubris is nothing compared with that of the Honey
Monster. Originally a jovial sidekick, he first appeared alongside Henry
McGee in 19762.

‘I’m not his mummy’.

Honey Monster’s shtick was that he destroyed everything in sight for his
love of ‘pieces of natural wheat, puffed up, and tasting of honey’3.
While the original advert juxtaposed the blundering Honey Monster with
McGee’s perfectly judged deadpan, subsequent outings became increasingly
far-fetched, and in the 1980s ‘mummy’ was removed altogether. The 1990s
Honey Monster changed, both physically – the hair is longer and more
fluorescent – and in his demeanour. He is suddenly hip and coordinated,
scoring the winning goal for Kevin Keegan in football obsessed 1996, and
appearing with Boyzone the following year. Believing the hype, believing
his agent4, believing he is big enough to go it alone, he is no longer
the more-or-less-lovable clumsy sugar-obsessed proto-Blobby, he is now,
simply, a twat.

The reasons behind this sad transformation can be glimpsed in a
statement, apparently from “HM” himself, on his website:

In 2006 Sugar Puffs were acquired by the nice men at Big Bear. I was
very happy as I felt a bit unloved by my previous owners. Now I’m at the
centre of things again and Big Bear even decided to call the company
Honey Monster Foods.

The previous owners were Quaker. Why did they make him feel “unloved”?
Was there tension between the owners’ puritan, pacifist roots and the
increasingly brash and self-centred Honey Monster? It would seem that a
split was inevitable. Appearing with pop stars and footballers, even
performing his own 1998 “Sugar Puff Daddy” rap, was not enough: he had
to have the whole company named after him.

And so, like so many ageing vacuous celebrities before him, he has
re-invented himself again, this time planting his sticky, fake-fur
encrusted flag in the spiritual home of today’s media-literate,
intertextual youth, The Mighty Boosh. The press release for the latest
advert speaks of family fun and a “bizarrely comic musical ritual”, and
the advert’s crimp-style song ironically refers to “wheaty chums that
settle in transit”, but many fans remain unimpressed by the
appropriation of the Boosh, and Honey Monster himself admits in his blog
that “Some people like our song, but it hasn’t made everybody happy so
I’m a bit sad about that”.

Yes, he even has a blog, and he uses it to talk about his charity work
and appearing in OK! with Katie Price. He has, truly, become a monster.

1 Real monsters of course exist not in adverts, but in the minds (and
occasionally wardrobes) of children. The things that keep us awake at
night are usually normal objects, distorted by our imagination, shapes
in the wallpaper, the big fluffy brushes on the sides of car washes, and
Concord, turning into bad-Emu when the nose drops. You were safe as long
as no part of you was sticking out from under the duvet, but, as this
included the face, breathing could become difficult (for which of
course, Gary Larson invented the Monster Snorkel: “Allows your child to
breathe comfortably without exposing vulnerable parts to attack”).

2 The fun, and the horror, is available via

3 Cookie Monster, meanwhile, destroys rather than consumes his objects
of desire. He has no oesophagus, what did we expect?

4 Eric Hall?

A Veneziana Conundrum

Last week, my companion and I found ourselves in the Islington area of London, and in possession of a voucher for Pizza Express. We had received the voucher by email, and had printed it out, as per the instructions. We were amused to note that in the “small print” it stated that photocopies of the voucher were not accepted. You could print out as many as you wanted, but not photocopy them.

This is amusing in itself, but provided extra amusement for us, as it reminded me of a curious incident from my time working for a publisher in Birmingham. I was in charge of a website that published technical articles, and was tasked with commissioning various experts to write for us. The website was well regarded and was doing well. One writer had done a nice article for us, and we were in the process of commissioning another from them when negotiations stumbled unexpectedly. In the tetchy aftermath, they commented that we published too many articles by writers with Indian names. We said that we would not stop commissioning articles from highly qualified and competent technical writers with Indian names, and left it at that. Fine, we thought. Weird, and annoying that we had already spent some time on the article, but, there you go. Then they emailed the editor to request that the article they had submitted, by email attachment, be sent back to them. I’ll say that again: they had sent us the article as an email attachment, and now, because we weren’t going to use it, they wanted us to email it back to them. Our amusement at this request, which we were happy to oblige, was muted only by the knowledge that we had already published a technical article by this person.

So, back in Islington, flushed with amusement at the follies of others, we ordered our meal, being careful to inform the waiter, as directed in the instructions, that we were in possession of, and fully intended to use, the voucher.

I ordered a Nicoise Salad, and my companion opted for a Veneziana Pizza. The voucher entitled us to buy one main meal and get (the cheaper) one free. So.

As followers of Richard Herring’s Pepysian weblog will know, Pizza Express has for some time offered a “discretionary” 25p to the Venice in Peril fund, with every Veneziana Pizza purchaseda. Whilst I have great respect for the Veneziana Pizza, I have a distinct and mildly irrational antipathy to Venice. I visited Venice once – a day trip from Croatia – and enjoyed a splendid Italian lunch in one of its many piazzas. The waiter attempted to instigate a “Venezian in Peril” fund of his own by adding a zero to the four thousand lira cover charge, effectively hiding about twenty pounds amongst all those circles on the bill, presumably in the believe that two hot, stuffed, pissed English tourists wouldn’t notice. I challenged him on this (using my fluent English) and it was all cleared up, but left a bitter aftertaste. One which I harbour to this day, in fact.

Herring does an amusing job of explaining the ins and outs of the Veneziana Pizza issue in the piece linked to above, but suffice to say that, although the 25p donation is “discretionary” there was no way for Pizza Express to guarantee that, when you order the pizza and pay the bill, whilst they can refund you the 25p, the system won’t donate 25p to Venice anyway.

So here is my conundrum. If you order a Veneziana Pizza, and you get it free on production of a “buy one, get (the cheaper) one free, does Pizza Express donate 25p to the Veneziana Fund?

a As ever, when you look into it, the situation is more complex. According to the Word document linked to from the relevant page on their website, the 25p now goes to the Veneziana Fund, which then donates 50% of its “net receipts” to the Venice in Peril Fund, with the other 50% “being available for grants for the preservation, restoration, repair and maintenance” of various UK things that were around before 1750. According to the figures quoted in the above documents, as of 23 September 2007, the total amount raised was £1,736,842, and as of 14 March 2008, £1,147,669.68 had found its way to the Venice in Peril Fund itself.

Any Dream Will Do

After a short hiatus (June), I am back in All The Rage, where the topic for July is “Dreams”. Don’t forget to download this splendid pdf magazine. And below is my contribution.

A little while ago, in order to get my weekly ration of TV filth, I started watching The Apprentice. I came in towards the end, when they were in Morocco, pretending to be alarm clocks. Everyone was talking about the programme, everyone. Adam Buxton, Andrew Collins, even Joe Cornish was talking about it.

To win this game and become Sir Alan Sugar’s Apprentice is the contestants’ dream. Sir Alan Sugar, in the title sequence to the programme, describes the game as “the job interview from Hell”, though given the prize he should really call it “the job interview for Hell”. Haha! That’s why he has to pay them so much money if they win.

It doesn’t say how much they get but it says that it is a “six figure” salary. I’d want something more specific if I were applying for the job. Six figures could be anything from £100,000 to £999,999, assuming you only include pounds. If you include pence, the winner is considerably less well remunerated. Regular viewers will note that the winning team each week is often chosen using 3-2-1 riddle logic, and so how appropriate it would be if the overall winner fell for the practical joke and ended up fly-tipping email phones round the back of Stanstead Airport for £1000.99 a year.

“You think you’re an entrepreneur, you can even count to six, you fackin idiot. You’re hired, hahahahaha!”, laughed Sir Alan Sugar.


The fact that, whenever a dream required him to be in a house, it was always the house in Manchester that he had lived in between the ages of 8 and 18. It was now over 20 years since he’d lived there, and yet his brain, like an overzealous estate agent of the unconscious, had recorded a detailed plan of the layout of the house. Something about those formative years had burnt the particulars into his memory. He reasoned that 8 to 18 is probably the time when we become what we are, that memory knows this, and allocates its resources accordingly.

From How Time Works, All The Rage, December 2007

And, indeed, whenever a dream required that there be a celebrity, that that celebrity should be Bruce Forsyth. What was it about Brucie that he should be held in such esteem by the night shift duty manager of the noodle? The answer is surely in the prime time content that he burnt into our collective unconscious over so many formative years.

The Generation Game was essentially a single dream sequence which moved from the “I don’t really understand what I’m doing but I’m doing it” competitive bread-platting humiliation exercises to the collage of monotonous non-sequitors on the conveyor belt, the recurring elements like cuddly toys and fondu sets juxtaposed with mundane signifiers of the daily routine. The clip I was able to find and catalogue from some undisclosed year in the mid 70s contained the following neo-Dadaist parade: vacuum cleaner; basket of fruit; electric table lamp; mixer and blender; cuddly owl; electric cook pan; spice, oil and vinegar rack; digital clock/alarm/radio; fully automatic electric coffee maker; colour Polaroid camera; electric fan heater; steak fondu set; leather suitcase; ultra-violet sun-ray lamp; stainless steel Sunday set; wine rack and twelve bottles of wine; matrimonial set of sheets and pillow cases; coffee set.

He went on of course to host Play Your Cards Right, the television equivalent of getting stuck in one of those infuriating puzzle-solving non-dreams that invade and occupy the mind all night. Even his career and personal life have followed a path all of their own, rejuvenating and reinventing, apparently dislocated from the logical strictures of conscious reality.

Dream logic seemed to feature heavily in Seventies and Eighties game shows, perhaps to draw attention away from the pathetic prizes. Brucie of course; Bullseye was an extended it’s Sunday night and you’ve not done your homework and now you’re going to school on the bus in the nude anxiety dream that lasted about seven years; and the Ted Rogers/Dusty Bin-fronted 3-2-1. As part of my research for this piece, I watched a typical final segment of the show, broadcast in 1986, selected using the random clip generator that is YouTube. A group called “Wall Street Crash”1 performed a number, and then “Colin” from the group brought in a bundle of paper, and the following riddle:

Peace and agreement at speed
A crash is not what you need

The couple rejected this item, and Ted’s explanation ran more or less as follows:
What is another word for peace and agreement which also has a connection with speed? A crash is not what you need. The group were Wall Street Crash, get rid of the Crash and you’re left with Wall Street where you might have got a tickertape welcome – indeed take a look at this it’s New York!

Cue VT montage of Concord2 taking off and street scenes of the Big Apple3 complete with beautiful women and street-smart guys that seemed to know all the angles. The couple went on to select the miner’s helmet, which turned into a Mini Mayfair.

The blackbird is back, on the lawn. He’s chomping on something – not a worm, as it was a couple of weeks ago when I watched as he pecked and scuffed and jostled away until it was worked loose from the ground, and then swallowed like a big ungainly strand of spaghetti (an odd sensation for both parties, I would have thought) – but something solid, like a crust.4

1 My favourite wiki-based online encyclopaedia informs me that the better-known group “Manhattan Transfer” also appeared on the programme (a different episode, I assume).
2 The Emu-beaked monster that featured heavily in my pre-school nightmares. That thing it did when it dropped its nose.
3 The city that never sleeps, and therefore, one supposes, never dreams. Rewatching the opening sequence of Manhattan though, I am reminded of how many of my dreams involve tall buildings and lifts. Only last night, as I slept fitfully worrying if I would have anything at all to say in this piece, I anxiously ascended a vertiginous skyscraper, almost certainly based on the Rockefeller Center / GE Building in Midtown Manhattan.
4 And then I woke up.

Age and Maturity

The theme for All The Rage this month is Age and Maturity. Here is more or less what I wrote:

My hair is going grey. Mainly around the temples, but generally all over, strand by strand. I quite like this. Maybe I’m turning into David Byrne, whose hair seemed to change coloura more or less overnight at some point in the late Nineties. My father started balding around his fortieth birthday, and as I am preparing to celebrate mine later this year, my visits to the barber now involve careful scrutiny of the scissorwork and in-chair conversation for any signs of hesitancy around the crown. I read that men are supposed to inherit their hair pattern from their grandfathers, especially on the maternal side, but as both of my grandfathers were complete slapheads by the time they were thirty, it looks like it’s all pretty much up for grabs.

I’m watching a male and female pair of blackbirds in my garden. They have of late been observed standing about with a beak crammed with worms or whatever, looking around none-too-nonchalantly for a few seconds, and then disappearing into the hedge, where they have set up home. They have a nest full of baby blackbirds, in other words. But for the last few days I have seen them pecking about on the lawn and, just now, the male chomped down a whole worm all to himself. The other day I saw them perched in branches of adjacent trees, apparently gazing at each other contentedly. Is this in fact a natural, literal, example of “empty nest syndrome”, putting me in mind again of my own parents in their blissful state of three-quarter retirement, all plans-for-the-day and dinner-with-Jean-and-David, almost free of the cares they brought upon themselves by having us.

Mortality, Knowledge, Numbers
Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, for me it’s sneezes. I’ve been counting them since the twelfthb of July last year, and as I write am into the high 500s. I have also been documenting the time, place, and strength of each sneeze, and including a comment about what I was up to at the time. Naturally this process throws up all sorts of philosophical chaff, of which the following is more or less the nub:

Think of each sneeze as a single frame in the time-lapse animation of your life. The film might depict a disproportionate amount of time spent suffering from colds, or scrambling about at the back of dusty cupboards, but the pseudo-random unpredictability of the sneeze makes it a curiously representative filter on a life. So whilst it would not show the three-year-old me in my grandparents’ garden, wearing lederhosen and performing a mock golf swing with a shoehorn in the shape of a golf club, it would show me in my bedroom thirty-six years later staring at the photograph of the event.c

Childish Things
Around my eighth or ninth birthday I got seriously into Action Man. This was the golden era of the fighting doll, with realistic hair and gripping hands and, just introduced, “eagle eyes”. Like a junior version of the grammar-obsessed sneezecounting fool that I would become, I built up an army of soldiers, helicopter pilots and vehicles, putting together a finely calculated procurement strategy at least two birthdays and Christmases into the future, taking into account what could reasonably be requested of parents, grandparents and aunties, and factoring in the bonus free men and equipment I could claim with the Palitoy Green-Shield-stamp starsd that came with each purchase. But unlike so many childhood fads, I actually thought about and played with these toys for hours, indeed for years, still secretly strategizing well into my teens. And one day, mercifully, my mother gave the whole collection to the young boy next door. Within minutes the hitherto meticulously deployed action figures began appearing and disappearing above the hedge as they were hurled into the air by the clueless seven-year-old, the playthings of a First World War General sending infantry over the top. I moved on. But recently, I have again spent hours on ebay, searching and bidding for firstly a late Seventies/early Eighties Action Man, and subsequently just the right outfit. I’m no longer putting together a secret army, but rather, of course, a little art project. In his sturdy boots, sensible jeans and comfy sweater, Action Man is now to be seen displaying esoteric or ironic placards, fashioned out of cardboard boxes, in a series of photographs clearly inspired by the performance group Forced Entertainment, but with a little bit of a wink to Adam and Joee.

a My copy of Word has underlined this adjective in squiggly red, no doubt in the belief that I have inserted a superfluous “u”. It also objected to my spelling of greying. Furthermore, the other day I noticed myself feeling actual physical pleasure as I correctly spelt the word “visible”. An attention to detail in language, or an irritation at others’ inattention, is a behavioural – as opposed to a physiological – manifestation of age. In adults at any rate: linguistic pedanticism in the young is a sign of something less edifying.
b Surely one of the all time most oddly spelt words, wearing its medievalism on its sleeve like no other ordinal.
c Reflections on the Counting of Sneezes
d From memory, an “unclothed” Action Man could be claimed for 21 stars – the equivalent of two tanks and a machine gun.
e I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts about this curious “Song Wars” cultural artifact that Adam and Joe have created on their Saturday morning 6Music show. The best I’ve come up with so far is that it’s a homemade X-Factor/Eurovision, mixed with Ready Steady Cook, and a hint of Delia’s How to Cheat at Cooking (the latter being a bizarre experiment, more unusual and cruel than anything so far broadcast on BBC Three or the more digital outreaches* of Channel 4, in which we witness the famous TV ladychef unravel as she is forced to set aside her OCD-level count-out-the-individual-sesame-seeds fastidiousness and pretend that she might under any circumstances, even after a particularly busy afternoon in the Norwich City FC hospitality suite, consider serving own-brand tinned meat to anyone, even the cat). In any case the radio duo’s weekly-now-fortnightly just-for-fun certainly has something of the making do with cobbled-together leftovers and free stuff that these cooking shows bring to the table. While many of their theme-based compositions rely on tried-and-trusted devices (putting me in mind of the number of times dinner guests at Meson Joyfeed have been served “Chicken Surprise”), and occasionally the time pressure results in some unintentionally al dente sections or the hint of burnt saucepan, they are never less than tasty morsels of sound, and a few of them are genuinely ace. They’re putting a collection together as some sort of new-fangled digital long player, and I can’t wait.
* I caught a bit of the Cornish/Buxton-fronted Shock Video this week, repeated on Bravo and held in my Virgin Catch-it-up-TV: I say.

We Are Mediocrity (part one)

We have accepted the terms and conditions

We have done the Maths

We have been woken by car alarms

We have allowed our membership to lapse

We have looked, but we have not touched

We have forgotten to buy milk

We have used milk that has gone past its sell by date

We have stopped opening our junk mail

We have sung in the shower

We have kept our receipts

We have opened joint bank accounts

We have lent books to friends we know we will never see again

We have eaten out on a Tuesday night

A Clever Invention (part three)

During some routine research into oral hygiene technology today, I stumbled upon this mutant toothbrush. Like something out of The Fly. You know, for kids!

I can also imagine the creative discussion that led to this rascular innovation.

A: Increasingly, consumers are becoming concerned with their tongues.

B: If only it were possible to in some way place a tiny bristle-based brushing-stroke-cleaning device on the end of a small plastic stick.

A: Hold on…

How Time Works

Here is another numerically ordered piece, originally published in the December edition of the hip, gunslingingly pdf magazine All The Rage.

Before climbing back into bed after going to the toilet in the middle of the night, he would habitually check the time on his phone. In that half-asleep state, he had always assumed that he did this to find out what time it was, but one night he realised that he was doing it to understand how time works.

1. The discovery that the restless insomniac nothingness often lasted for over two hours, or that the feature-length dream in which he had interacted with imaginary hybrids of old friends in the kitchen of the house in which he grew up, had in fact all taken place in the hour since he had last checked the time at 3.58.

2. The frequency with which, when checking the time in the middle of the night, it would be 3.58.

3. The fact that, whenever a dream required him to be in a house, it was always the house in Manchester that he had lived in between the ages of 8 and 18. It was now over 20 years since he’d lived there, and yet his brain, like an overzealous estate agent of the unconscious, had recorded a detailed plan of the layout of the house. Something about those formative years had burnt the particulars into his memory. He reasoned that 8 to 18 is probably the time when we become what we are, that memory knows this, and allocates its resources accordingly.

4. The recognition that these nocturnal time-checks were only idly curious in the darkest small hours. The penumbra, roughly speaking the two hours after going to bed and before it was time to get up, was often occupied by a frustrating series of calculations, as he obsessed over how much sleep he was going to get, the benchmark figure of eight hours taking on an almost mystical significance for him.

5. The resultant frustration at his own counter-productive efforts to get to sleep, and the mental effort required to fret over how little sleep he was going to get, with all the self-destructive pointlessness of the recursive revision timetable.

6. The way in which different times that he set his alarm would take on their own personalities. Anything starting with a number lower than a 7 was clearly brutal, but 7.45 was a friendly time, and 8.05 dishonest. The way in which this reminded him of synaesthesia.

7. How time not only functions differently depending on which part of the night he was experiencing, but also changes with age. As a child on Christmas Eve, when the morning could not come soon enough, the anticipation would keep him awake, elongating the night. Now, as dawn approaches on another grown-up weekday morning, he lies awake, unable to prevent himself from thinking about what the clock would tell him if he looked, but like a man in pain refusing to see a doctor, too scared to check. He would if he could reach out and take the horizon in his arms, and hold it tightly to his chest as it arcs blindly towards the light.