A Restoration

A few days ago, I dropped a newly-opened 500g tub of Flora margarine, and it landed, openside-down, on the kitchen floor. When I picked it up the entire polyunsaturated block decided that it quite liked it there, and came clean out of the tub.

1. I found that I was, in equal measure, irritated at the inconvenience, and intrigued by the unusual sight of half a kilo of raw yellow fat.

2. I used a fresh tea-towel (from the cupboard) to pick the block up, and placed it, rightside-up now, on a clean plate. I was surprised at how slippy and awkward it was to pick up. Given what it was that I was picking up, I find the fact that I was surprised in itself surprising.

3. I used some kitchen roll to carefully remove any margarine that might have come into contact with the floor. As the block was almost new I could afford to go for it a bit when removing any potentially unhygienic sections. I was in effect “margarine-rich” at the time of making the decision. A less abundant block of margarine would no doubt have precipitated more frugal estimate as to how much to remove. Thus our perception of reality is relative, and affected by environmental factors, including the mental state of the observer. Could this discovery lead philosophers to a sister theory to Occam’s Razor, known as “Occam’s Kitchen Roll”?

4. I was then able to de-invert the block of margarine back into the plastic tub and, with a minimum of cosmetic prodding, return it to at least a fleeting approximation of its previous state.

5. I was briefly entertained by the idea of returning it to the tub bottom-side-up, and the possibility of consuming the margarine backwards. I eventually concluded that the correct order should be restored, but I emerged from the experience a wiser and more complete person.

6. I have glimpsed the underside of the margarine.

Time Flies By

I’m getting to know the tree quite well now. Three* times running this week, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the train slowed, and finally stopped completely right alongside the tree. On one occasion for about ten minutes. I must have been sitting in the same place on the train, as each time I had the same identical view of the tree, which is small, and has a surprising number of leaves for this time of year.

On Thursday I finally managed to understand the muffled burbling that came out of the speakers as a message from the train man, saying that the delay was due to congestion at Tyseley Junction. This was therefore exactly like the part of the Reginald Perrin programme where he is always 11 minutes late due to one hold-up or another, which leads him, as he is eventually losing (or some might say finding again) his sanity, to write to the train company and suggest that they amend their timetables. I might write to the train company myself, in a sort of “fiction meets reality is stranger than fiction”.

It’s a good tree though, and now we are old friends. I’ll miss it if the train people get their act together and don’t keep stopping the train to let all the other trains, which presumably have timetables too, go first.

* In fact, it was four, as I was also on the train on Friday, when it slowed and stopped in the same place. But this time I was sitting on the other side of the carriage, and as it started to slow down, I embarked upon a difficult tissueless sneezing fit.

Cubic Ruminations

The following essay was originally published in the increasingly aptly named All The Rage in November 2007. Read on, then pay them a visit.

It is impossible for me to think of the Rubik’s Cube without a mental image of a schoolboy scuttling along a polished stone corridor with his hands in his blazer pockets: an odd but appropriately nerdy mode of travel. The boy in question is not me, but a much nerdier friend, possibly the same one that used to build little radio transmitters which would then transmit the jaunty-cum-irritating jingle from my new digital watch. Other than the fact that one of those pockets was very likely, at this time, to have also contained a Cube, I don’t know why this image particularly comes to mind. But it is clearly synaptically linked, twinned even, with the feel of the Cube in my own blazer pocket, the sharp corners pressing against my thigh, and its weight creating a disconcerting asymmetry. An uneven distribution, perhaps, which could best be mitigated by a hand firmly wedged in each pocket as you half-ran along the green-grey corridors of another, too long and yet not long enough lunchtime.

Apparently the Cube is more popular now than ever. (Although it might be more accurate to say that it is more popular now than it has been since 1980-82, when it reputedly sold over one hundred million units.) Teen maths geeks from all over the world are competing to return a scrambled cube to its primary state faster than anyone else, the world record being under 10 seconds. They should have a competition (in America), a sort of geek-jock challenge. A geek has to complete the Cube before a sprinter can run 100m. An obvious comedic alternative to this would involve the geek having to run 100m before the sprinter can complete the Cube. A pretty fair fight in both cases, I would have thought. (It always frustrated me that children who were encouraged to exploit their academic success by attending Cambridge University at the age of 14 were invariably admitted to study Mathematics[1]. Why were there never any child prodigy geographers? And why, given that any respect for their social well-being or chance of happiness in life has long since been sacrificed on the alter of their genius, have they not in the intervening time solved all the problems in the Universe?)

And so, a list, in numerical, but otherwise no particular, order:

1. The feel of the Cube in your blazer pocket.

2. The image of a schoolboy half running and half sliding along a corridor in Manchester with his hands in his blazer pockets.

3. The Cube consists of 21 pieces: a rotating core with six central squares, and 20 individual edge and corner blocks.

4. These pieces can be, and often were (sometimes by uncles) taken apart, in order to “solve” the puzzle. This was generally regarded as cheating. And the adjacent trick of removing all of the stickers and reapplying them in the correct configuration: also considered cheating. Both of these cheats had an incrementally detrimental effect on the physical condition of the Cube, and, congruently, on ones own sense of self-worth.

5. The acquisition of photocopied pages from a book which detailed the various “algorithms” that you could learn in order to solve the Cube without taking it apart.

6. The curious way in which the use of these instructions was considered by some to also in some respect count as cheating, as if the memorization and application of the algorithms was not enough, and the point of the puzzle was actually to work out those algorithms for yourself.

7. The even curiouser way in which the acquisition of these pages did indeed feel illicit, as if on some subconscious level I concurred with the puzzle fundamentalists and family members who regarded such documentation as inauthentic, as samizdat[2], and its possession and use as shameful.

8. And how this illicit distribution and consumption might be seen as an analogue for another such furtive exchange of literature that would shortly replace it, how the innocent pre-pubescent craze could be viewed from this clever distance as somehow foreshadowing the guilty excitement that our hormonal destinies and those with access to the areas underneath older family members’ beds would combine to induce.

9. And yet, however hard I try, that analogy fails to resonate, and I am forced to conclude that, reassuringly, the desire to solve the Cube, to take something fractured and to make it whole, was innocent, and pure, and good[3].

10. The cost of the genuine branded Rubik’s Cube was prohibitive (around £5 as I recall, about the same price as a three bedroomed terraced house in Northenden at that time). Consequently there was a wide assortment of False Cubes, market knock-offs that, though presumably manufactured using the same clever and patented internal mechanism, were nevertheless aesthetically and kinetically inferior.

11. I learnt the necessary algorithms, and managed to “Do The Cube” in a respectable time, generally between three to six minutes, depending on the starting state of the Cube, and other environmental factors such as the television and grandparents. Naturally I was working with a False Cube, and my times were no doubt affected by the stiffness and occasional jamming and misalignment that were standard features on the cheaper product.

12. The Cube spawned a motley array of spin-offs, both from Professor Rubik himself and others. Significantly less pandemic snakes, barrels and pyramids followed, all in the multicoloured, rotating-block idiom. Not content with the complexity of the original Rubik’s Cube, more complicated iterations of the original have been developed, and a 5 * 5 * 5 version is available, marketed as the Professor’s Cube (so named, no doubt, with a nod to another evocative Eighties icon, Jimmy Saville).

13. As if the original Cube wasn’t difficult enough. As if it wasn’t invented as a self-evidently impossible puzzle, an esoteric exercise in Engineering and Mathematics, a curiosity and conversation piece, a dinner party “Get a load of this Derek”. As if it wasn’t intended as a Pure Maths Masquerade, whose solution was only hypothetical, and its eventual finder afforded some fleeting notoriety: a few minutes on Nationwide perhaps, along with some moderate financial reward in the form of a Heineken advert and a guest appearance on Little and Large.

14. And so, in honour of the willfully obtuse puzzle, I offer you one of my own. It is a Wordsearch. A Wordsearch of names of types of puzzle. A Wordsearch of names of types of puzzle wherein all of the puzzle names have been jumbled. It is, therefore, a puzzle puzzle puzzle, or, if you prefer, a puzzle cubed. There are ten puzzles to be found and unjumbled. A clue, and possibly even a solution of sorts, will be posted on joyfeed.com later this month.

S   B   N   E   M   J   U   B   L   F   P   S
N   L   I   D   R   E   D   V   E   S   D   V
A   C   S   L   O   W   O   S   R   U   W   S
S   M   C   R   E   W   S   A   R   S   N   E
O   G   A   J   L   E   U   E   R   T   T   R
A   T   R   G   R   H   K   O   L   S   E   A
F   V   F   C   N   B   E   W   A   E   X   M
C   A   D   O   I   R   P   W   T   R   R   A
D   O   E   B   H   T   J   J   E   E   C   G
W   R   S   D   S   C   O   R   O   W   P   N
H   U   C   Z   E   L   M   M   S   N   Y   A
E   A   A   F   S   G   A   S   W   I   J   A

[1] The only exception to this being Music, though this is hardly a distinction, given that the study of music at an institution of higher education is essentially Mathematics for people with ears.

[2] A word I first encountered in Infinite Jest

[3] Equally, I would reject any suggestion that the manual exertion required to produce the repeated movements described in the documentation might in any way be regarded as ideal conditioning of the tendons in the fingers and wrist, thereby proving useful to precisely the same teenage algorithm fans once all the faces of Cube had been correctly ordered for the final time that evening, and the object returned to its resting place on the bedside table.


So, yes, it’s autumn. According to this web page nothing happened in September, but that is wrong: a lot of things happened in September, it’s just that writing something for this web page wasn’t one of them. Because of, you might say, confusingly.

Here though, now that it is autumn, is some information about things that have happened in the last 24 hours, or that seem likely to happen soon.

7 Inch Cinema
Last night we went to the 7 Inch Cinema do upstairs in the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath. They showed many short films and promotional videos, most of which were very good in their own way, and there was a film quiz. I don’t know if we won the film quiz, because we left before the announcements. If we did win the film quiz, I would be flabbergasted. That’s not too strong a word: trust me, you didn’t hear the questions.

The point is that this is EXACTLY what you should be doing on a Sunday night. There will be further and broadly similar events on the last Sunday of October and the last Sunday of November, in the same upstairs. Furthermore the 7 Inch Cinema people will be involved with the event at Ikon Eastside on 31 October, so it is important that you get along to that.

Finally, and for those of you who are reading this and saying “But, it’s not fair, I don’t live in Birmingham, I live in London. Why isn’t there ever any fun stuff in London?” I can tell you that 7 Inch Cinema people will be bringing their own brand of slightly small moving images to the “Abbey pub” in London’s Kentish Town, on 20 October. Now stop whining.

All The Rage
I have had the honour of having some of my writing appear in a futuristically pdf magazine called All The Rage. This downloadable and printable publication is edited by the same person responsible for a humorous book called How to Worry Friends and Inconvenience People, which we all hope everyone will be buying for everyone else this Christmas.

Leaves turning colours other than green before falling in heaps in the park
Walk, look, kick, listen, smile: autumn.

I am not a mole

What appealed to him about the Underground was the idea of descending into the earth in one part of the city and then shortly afterwards emerging up and out onto the street in a completely different place. This was teletransportation for the industrial age. But he subsequently realised that this was essentially a love of the novelty, as his visits to London were always brief, and few and far between. Since living in a city with a Metro he had become bored of the lack of visual stimuli in these tunnels. “I am not a mole”, he would say to himself, sometimes a little too loudly, as he rattled through the darkness.

Similarly, for years he preferred the option on trains of facing away from the direction of travel, watching the landscape that he had travelled through spread itself out in front of him. The smooth unwinding quality of train travel neutralises the need to anticipate your path to avoid motion sickness, and there are simple strategic advantages to the rear-facing seats. There is a sense, however illusory, that taking the train’s momentum with your back securely nestled against the seat cushion will afford greater protection in the event of a crash. In addition the relative unpopularity of facing backwards gives those who opt for it a greater choice of seating, and increases the probability that our precious personal space will not be invaded by another passenger. (This raises the question of why being invaded from the front is considered less objectionable than from the side. The answer I think lies somewhere in the unconscious belief that the inevitable games of train-footsie that are played with the facing passenger are nevertheless preferable to contact along the vulnerable and intimate flank, with its ticklish waist-ribcage-armpit regions.)

But long periods spent in compulsory use of commuter trains had gradually eroded his contentment with the rear-facing seats, and he had eventually arrived at the conclusion that it was not for nothing that evolution had placed our eyes relentlessly together and forward-facing, and that, consequently, there was indeed something unsettling about not watching where you were going.

He’s got it on tap

If you want something to represent the stupidity and pointlessness of contemporary existence, then I suggest you look to the gunk that arrives day and night in my Thunderbird inbox.

I was briefly cheered, however, when I noticed a message this morning. The header said it was from “Digby Faucett”, though the content of the letter suggests he was in a state of excitement, and was clearly confused:

Hello Digby
yes, YES!.. I finally have a huge penis

Frode Danko

I have nothing to add at this stage.

Negative Betting

Subject: Re: Booker Prize special
Date: Wed, 15 Aug 2007 13:37:45 +0100 (BST)
From: care@ladbrokes.com <care@ladbrokes.com>
To: Peter Fletcher [email]

Dear Mr Fletcher,

Thank you for your e-mail.

I regret to inform you that this is a bet we will not be covering.

If we can be of any further assistance, please contact us again and
we will be more than happy to help you.

Yours sincerely,

Customer Services

Original Message Follows:

You have odds for the Longlisted Booker titles both for outright winner
and to reach the shortlist.

Would it be possible to receive odds for the inverse, i.e. I would like to
bet that e.g. On Chesil Beach will NOT reach the shortlist (the current
odds make this tempting).

I have spoken to one of your helpful telephone consultants, who was
very informative and helpful. I am aware that this sort of bet is “negative”,
but he advised me to write and ask just in case.



On the Marketing of Automobiles

Large billboard posters around my city recently advertised a Lexus saloon with the following slogan:

MOVES YOU In more ways than one.

Can you see what they’ve done there? I was tempted to explain how the slogan worked, and why I thought it was a clever use of words, but then I realised that, like all of the best slogans, it “speaks for itself”.

This set me off thinking about the names of cars. Why is it, for example, that while there are many instances of cars named after cats, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no instances of cars named after dogs?

Whilst I’m not expecting the branding people to counter the elegance and coiled sexuality implicit in the word “Jaguar” with something like “Labrador” or “Basset”, there are surely suitable dog breeds that can be harvested for this use.

“Bulldog” – resolutely British 4×4

“Retriever” – reliable city runaround

“Whippet” – nippy little two-seater

And so on.

Ford, in fact, could do worse than selecting all their car names by sticking a pin in a big list of dog breeds and just going for it. Indeed, they already have done far worse. Who, for example, came up with the bizarre plan of naming their cars after pornographic magazines? Were they furtively working their way up through the range, culminating in an executive saloon called the “Ford Mayfair”, before someone spotted it? Perhaps then they had to lie low for a while, opting for the more innocuous Spanish theme with names like “Granada” and “Sierra”, reminding their bosses of happy days spent knocking a golf ball up and down the Costa del Sol. The wags had the last laugh though, managing to slip “Cortina” past the board, and ensuring that the classic 1970s saloon would forever go by the name of the “Ford Curtain”.

They were back at it with the “Probe” of course. As close to calling a car the Ford Looks Like A Penis Driven By A Prick as you are likely to get. John Hurt did the adverts, only a few years after he had been the voice of the AIDS euphemism.

My favourite though is probably the mysterious “Ka”. The counter-intuitive marketing intelligence of giving a car a name that not only nobody knows how to pronounce, but also makes you sound like an idiot however you try. I should know, I bought one. The salesmen had clearly given up and just spelt out the letters, as if they were talking about an adult concept within earshot of a pre-literate child: “John, this gentleman would like a K-A, do we have one in red?” Of course, given the manufacturer’s track record, and the fact that for all we knew “ka” might actually be Hungarian for “good fisting”, this was probably a sensible policy.