checking in on my own mental health – 2019

A year ago I wrote this. It’s kind of an inventory of all the things in my life that have an effect on my mental health, and an interesting snapshot of where I was at twelve months ago. I found it helpful to write at the time, almost as a form of therapy in itself – just laying everything out there and saying “this is what it is”.

So a year on, I want to do it again. This week is once more Mental Health Awareness Week, which our government in their infinite wisdom have marked by turning on a green light.

Which brings me to the first thing to talk about…

Brexit, and general cultural uncertainty

What the hell is going on in the world? Like, seriously: what’s happening?

It feels like we’re stuck in a perpetual catch-22. Impossible situations, political stalemates, the absolute certainty that nothing we can do will ever change anything.

We’re hurtling towards a climate rebellion, but the biggest issue of the day is how many ovens you should have in your house. (The answer is one, of course. Who has FOUR ovens?)

Sure, these are things that are mostly disconnected from our lives. But it’s a backdrop. And if the big things are so uncertain, what are we meant to do? And will there even be a planet left in 10 years time?

No to mention the last season of Game of Thrones being a complete and utter disappointment. A decade of our lives wasted.

We may not feel it, but we’re experiencing existential trauma on a daily basis. No wonder I’m so tired.

Health

I’m well! Well enough, at least. I get the odd cough and cold, but typically I’m not in a bad state.

I’ve started experiencing a couple of mysterious symptoms recently though. Like perpetual jaw ache, and weird, dry rashes on my hands. But I don’t think I’m sick, I think I’m stressed out. I sleep and eat ok, so I don’t know for sure.

I also worry about my weight. It’s been steadily going up since the start of last year. I’m still not overweight by any stretch, but I keep catching myself in mirrors, or see pics of myself and not liking it. Especially around my face, like the cheeks and chin. And my stomach is getting bigger – I’m literally balancing my laptop on it now to write this. A stomach should never be able to be fulfil the function of a lap.

But at least my arms haven’t fallen off.

Living situation

I’m in the same flat I was a year ago, which is great. I love where I live and I love the place we’ve got.

Unfortunately one of my housemates is moving out soon, which means either moving to a new place (not ideal), or finding a new person to move in (even less ideal, if they’re a randomer). That’s throwing some more stress onto my plate of course. Moving to London was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, and I’d rather not have to go through any of it again. Even though it would be easier now that I’m ‘here’ already.

But I like my housemates. And I like my housemates’ friends and partners. So all good.

Work

I’m at the same place I was last year. Which is good! I like it there. The people are nice, and it’s an exciting place to be.

Is it a relaxing job? Not always no. And I’m not the best at enforcing my own work/life balance sometimes. I stay late too often, not even getting much done when I do. It’s almost like tearing myself away is giving up somehow. I dunno – room for improvement here.

And there’s been stressful times, especially in the last few months. My job involves trying to keep an impossibly-large number of people happy. And ‘caring too much about keeping everyone happy’ might just be my single greatest character flaw. So when I can’t do it, or don’t manage it, that really upsets me. Especially when a lot of it cascades at once, and you just feel like a bit of a failure.

Hopefully I’ll grow more secure and confident with time” I wrote last year. Have I? In some ways, yes! I take a more active role in things than I did before. But I’m not a natural leader, stepping up to things doesn’t come naturally to me. That said, I’d set myself goals around things like public speaking that I never thought would be possible, so never say never.

Love

I’m currently with someone I really like and is making me happy. We just spent about two weeks straight together, which was very nice.

They’re into board games and movies and games and comedy, which is all I could ever ask for. So even when I’m not feeling my best, I have someone to support me. Which means a lot.

Family

The fam seem cool I guess.

I’m a bit worried about my aunt. She’s gone from ‘annoying aunt’ status to ‘ok actually not well now’, which has been hard. It makes spending time with her difficult and sometimes resentful. I don’t think I had a very happy Christmas in 2018, partly because of this (but also because I drank so much beer it cramped my legs up and I couldn’t walk).

Other family stuff is fine, or I simply don’t think or talk about it.

Social Life

This was my big deal last year. Parties and being social and the associated fear and anxiety. Does this still happen? Yes. But is it a major problem in my life? Not as much.

In the end, the CBT did help overall. And I also just grew into my own skin a bit. I think I’ll always be a bit of an outsider. Mainstream stuff usually doesn’t bother me to much (except Game of Thrones, where I STAN AN ICON… sorry I don’t know what that means either). But also I’m quiet, I take time to warm to people. And too much people-stimulation simply tires me out. I like to get away and just be by myself sometimes. And that’s cool.

If anything, I’ve gone quite far the other way. There’s been stretches of weeks where every night there’s been “a thing”. Like maybe a work social followed by a film the next night, then dinner with uni friends the next night, then comedy the night after that, and a work event the next day. In isolation these things are fine, but I do struggle when it piles up. Even if each thing is something I want to do and have, in fact, chosen to do. I do find myself simply tired of stuff, the very things I moved to London to do more of.

Creativity

I feel better when I’m being creative. That can be messing around on Photoshop, writing stupid stuff on the blog, or trying to tweet something so mad that even I wouldn’t retweet it.

And I’ve found a great outlet for it this year through stand-up comedy. I did a course for five weeks at the start of the year, culminating in a showcase for at my favourite comedy pub: The Bill Murray.

That was really fun. I’m seven real gigs in so far, and I’m trying to keep it up. It’s a tiring hobby though – late nights in far-off pubs. And you have to bring someone with you, who’ll patiently sit though two hours of people-that-aren’t-you to listen to your same five minutes they’ve heard before. Anyone that attends comedy gigs as a ‘bringer’ for their friends is a saint in my eyes.

It’s a lazy trope, but it’s true: that stand-up is kinda like a form of therapy. A confession to strangers about your deepest flaws, worries, and fears. I talk about my anxiety in my stand-up, about the things I’m scared of. “I don’t like feeling like I’m under suspicion – it’s why I’ve never won a game of Cluedo in my life” quips on-stage Cook, someone who genuinely pretends to be bad at walking when behind someone at night, in order to seem less threatening.

So yeah, comedy is good and telling jokes is great for your mental health. More comedians than you think struggle with this stuff (and everyone thinks every comedian is secretly depressed, so there you go). Come see me sometime!

I’m also working on an exciting podcast project. It’s about friendship and mental health, but that’s all I’ll say about it for now…

Mental Health

Am I good? I don’t know.

Ostensibly, yes. I’m not on medication right now. And I’m not in therapy.

But I don’t feel good. My phq-9 score hovers around 13, marking ‘moderate depression’ and I strongly identify with the “feeling bad about yourself” and “little interest or pleasure in doing things” parts.

I’ll still feel quite down a lot of the time. But I’ll more commonly just feel kind of blank. Like spaced out, and not feeling anything. Like a numbness after being over-stimulated. I think it’s probably coming from the work stress.

I have a worrying amount of symptoms from the ‘signs of burnout’ list I just googled. Which seems bad. But I think that word sums up how I’m feeling now. A mix of tired and disinterested. I’m bad at taking time away from work, so often I’m just operating in a near-constant daze.

I think I need to take time for myself more. To properly sit and think about what I care about right now, and what I’m doing for me. But it’s hard to do that when so much is happening ALL THE TIME.

Like my phone notifications are the worst. There’s been so many times I’ve been thinking about something when a notification comes in, then another, and another. Your train of thought is constantly interrupted, with things that all demand your immediate attention. Too many WhatsApp groups or people bothering me for stuff. I just want everyone to leave me alone sometimes. But also I don’t want that. Not really.

Am I feeling anxious? Of course. Anxiety practically defines me, and I’ll never beat it. I can just learn to live with it.

But I’m ok

I’m happy enough most days. I really can’t complain about my situation when so many have it so worse off. And I recognise my privileged position – that at least some of my worries are borne from the lack of not having to worry about so many other things. I have my health, and some wealth, and work, and all manner of advantages.

And things are on the way up, probably. At least, better than twelve months ago.

Let’s just see what happens over the next year. Let’s keep an eye on each other, ok?

Elegiac Stanzas: Literary references in British Sea Power’s early discography

I’m a big fan of the local library
I just read a book
But that’s another story

So declares Yan Wilkinson in Who’s In Control, the first song on British Sea Power’s fourth album, Valhalla Dancehall. And as the very name of that album suggests, British Sea Power are a band more than comfortable with a literary reference. In fact, from just classical mythology alone they’ve drawn upon Zeus, Hercules, and the Trojan War. Listening to British Sea Power, isn’t just listening to music, it’s an education in the arts. Like reading a truly great book, it’s fun on its own, but when you dig into what it’s drawing on, you get something truly meaningful.

One of the reasons I love BSP, and maybe the reason they get a bit overlooked, is that they pick unusual things to sing about. When most bands are singing about love and relationships, BSP have sung about the history of artificial illumination, the smallest church in Sussex, and the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. You know, standard fare. And throughout these explorations, they pepper eclectic references. And if GCSE English taught me anything it’s that lots of references = very good. Or at least, it makes the songs richer than your standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus affair.

Which brings us to this. For years I’ve wondered about collecting the references I’d unearthed. And finally, I’ve actually got round to doing it. I’m focussing on the first album – The Decline of British Sea Power – mostly because I know it best, but also because I think it has the highest density of these references. And I’m grateful to various contributors across the internet for helping me to fill in the blanks on some of this, especially the folks at SongMeanings.net, the Salty Water BSP fan site, and the stark-raving mad bunch on the BSP forum.

TDOBSP is also a masterpiece of an album from start to finish, musically as well as lyrically. It’s broadly about…. remembrance?  At least, that’s my interpretation. As the quote on the front of the album says (from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey): “We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and a land for the dead.

The album cover of The Decline of British Sea Power

Angular guitar riffs meet Russian literature

The album opens with forty two seconds of gregorian chanting. Because why not. But after that, the first line – spoken, not sung – is:  “Oh Fyodor you are the most attractive man”. Oh hello, Russian author FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, on this nondescript 2003 indie rock release, what are you doing here? The song is Apologies to Insect Life, and the song supposedly draws inspiration from Dostoyevksy’s Notes from Underground – but I don’t know enough about to get the specific references.

It’s a Pixies-inspired clangy anthem that builds with frenetic energy that spills over to the next song Favours in the Beetroot Fields, supposedly an oblique reference to the dispensation Field Marshall Montgomery gave his troops to seek ‘favours’ while stationed out on the front.

BSP & Betjeman

The title of Favours in the Beetroot Fields partially echoes The Licorice Fields at Pontefract, by former poet laureate John Betjeman. Is it a deliberate reference? Possibly not. But we know it’s at least knocking around in the BSP subconscious from their appearance in the BBC documentary Betjeman & Me, in which they perform a reading of Pontefract and discuss Betjeman’s penchant for larger ladies.

Betjeman’s roots spread throughout BSP’s work, but more in tone than outright content. Betjeman’s playful poking at sensibilities pops up in a lot of BSP lyrics. And I have a strong suspicion that the song Lucky Bicycle (which you’ll be lucky to find anywhere) is a reference to the line from Myfanwy. where the poet writes of how his beloved rides around the city on a bike and he cheekily declares: trace me your wheel-tracks, you fortunate bicycle!

Shakespeare and sci-fi

The fourth song on the album, Something Wicked, is probably the best example of the album’s themes. It compares and contrasts various symbols of nature that have been co-opted by mankind for military purposes (the Oak Leak Cluster as military award, the use of camouflage) concluding that “your works of nature are unnatural”. The title is an almost-too-obvious reference to the witches of Macbeth, who foretell the bloody events to come in their warning to the king-to-be.

Something Wicked features some of my favourite lyrics on the album, with a couple of my favourite lines being:

And the lake was clear as crystal
The best tea I’ve ever had

There’s no such thing as a filler lyrics for BSP, and I choose to believe that these two lines are a reference to The Shining Levels by John Wyatt – a book about a man who ends up living in isolation in the Lake District (the shining levels of the title being the lakes themselves). That BSP apparently almost named their album after the book is also a strong indication. A highlight of the book is when the protagonist adopts an injured baby deer and nurses it to back to health. The same little lost roe deer from No Lucifer from their third album? Probably!

But as well as the Shakespearean allusions, Something Wicked could also be a reference to Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Again, we know that BSP are fans. Their song Georgie Ray off Valhalla Dancehall, is loosely based on Bradbury – as well as George Orwell – and their fifth studio album Machineries of Joy is the namesake of a collection of Bradbury’s short stories.

The idea of British Sea Power being science fiction fans may seem odd, so let’s acknowledge that. So far we’ve brought up mythology, Shakespeare, poets, and nature – none of which suggest an interest in either science or fiction, particularly. But there’s an interesting link here, which gives some more context to other parts of The Decline Of…

Remembering Geoff Goddard & Joe Meek

At university, BSP were friends with a chap named Geoff Goddard. Despite working in the catering department at the University of Reading, Goddard had a celebrated past in the music industry, working with artists like The Tornados and Heinz. Most notably he worked with the producer Joe Meek. Meek’s album I Hear A New World is one of the most incredible (viz. weird) half hours of music you’ll ever listen to, and has been cited by BSP as an influence on their own work. And together, Goddard and Meek created hits like the chart-topping Telstar and Johnny Remember Me. So is it any surprise, then, that the fifth track on TDOBSP is called, simply, Remember Me?

Before moving on, take a moment to appreciate the video BSP made for Remember Me, where they bring to life iconic London statues to belt out the most anthemic track off the record.

The Lonely & Larkin

The seventh song on TDOBSP – The Lonely – might also be the saddest. Hauntingly beautiful, it paints a picture of isolation, of long evenings spent hunched over a keyboard playing music. Just look at how beautiful the chorus is:

I’ll drink all day and play by night
Upon my Casio electric piano
‘Til in the darkness I see lights
But not candelabra
But things from other stars

Oh, did I mention that the song is about the late Geoff Goddard? Yup! It’s a tribute song to the friend-of-the-band, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching. As a portrait of a genuine person by someone who deeply admires and respects them, it’s deeply moving and genuinely poetic.

And there’s a touch of another poet at work here. Compare Philip Larkin’s Aubade:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:

It’s not so much a paraphrasing as an out-and-out reworking of Larkin’s original. But it’s far from plagiarism. BSP use reference as the basis for originality, not as a substitute. And I like the idea that BSP are Larkin fans. There’s something a bit punk about Larkin and the idea of a bunch of angry young men studying his works and then blasting them out on stage seems fitting.

See also “it deepens like a coastal shelf” as Larkin’s description of misery in This Be The Verse. I think Larkin was talking about the shallow portion of a continent that is submerged underwater (thanks Wikipedia), but I can hear it ring in Oh Larsen B, from BSP’s second album, an ode to Yan’s “favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf”. (A song about the collapse of the Larsen-B ice shelf, of course).

Now That’s What I Call World War One Joy Division

We need to talk about Carrion, the 8th song on TDOBSP, and my favourite British Sea Power song of all time. I think it’s about a shipwreck, judging by some of the lyrics and the fact that the British Maritime Museum had some of the lyrics up on a wall for a bit. It name checks Scapa Flow and Rotherhithe, has a bit about the devil in it, and the refrain is about hair pomade. So basically a perfect song.

As well as being a piece of poetry in itself, I think Carrion has some interesting war poetry allusions in it. In early live shows, the song was preceded by clips of the classic war film A Matter of Life and Death or the audio of “Returning, we Hear the Larks” by Isaac Rosenberg. There used to be a great clip of this on Youtube but I’m having real trouble finding it – if anyone out there has it I’d be truly thankful!

Returning to the text itself, as it were, the line “Can stone and steel and horse’s heels / Ever explain the way you feel?” seems to me to be a TS Elliot reference. His Triumphal March is an inventory of the instruments of war, beginning with “Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’ heels”. Oh, and there’s those oakleaves again from Something Wicked.

Do you like my historic rock?

Let’s march on to the end of the album then. At just under 14 minutes, Lately is the climax of the album. The lyrics require close interrogation, and a lot of it I can’t place at all. The song breaks down both lyrically and musically to the end, with Yan just screaming variations of the same line:

Do you like my megalithic rock?
Do you like my prehistoric rock?
Do you like my teutonic rock?
Do you like my priapic rock?
Do you like my neolithic rock?
Do you like my sterile rock?
Do you like my megalithic rock?

We’d see this again in the title of their third album – Do You Like Rock Music? But the song begins a lot more sedately:

Lately, you seem like another language
Are you in trouble,
Are you in trouble again?
And you know how they say,
The past, it is a foreign country
How can we go there,
How can we go where we once went?

Very typical BSP; themes of memory and isolation. And of course “the past is a foreign country” is a quote by LP Hartley which in full reads: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But it’s interesting that BSP would explicitly call this out as a reference (“you know how they say…”). Reference itself as a form of remembrance.

I really like this verse too:

Replacing Hercules, with the heroic sounds of Formby
Remove the tunics touch, stood aside from the putsch,
Stood aside from history

There’s the Greek mythology, with the heroic athleticism of Hercules ironically displaced by the saucy northern entertainer George Formby. Then there’s a bit I assume is a Hitler reference with the Putsch.

But BSP could never stand aside from history. They’re too obsessed by it. The ringing from ten minutes of guitar feedback has barely dissipated when the final song of the album begins. A Wooden Horse may be the closest that BSP come on the record to writing a traditional love song. “When wooden horses were in use / I would have built one / And left it for you” sings Yan. But even this sentiment is framed within the context of Greek mythology and history. They just can’t help themselves.


Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Just because BSP have written an album densely packed with literary references, both oblique and obvious, does that alone make it any good? Well, of course not. Other bands have drawn upon history and literature in their music; The Decemberists deserve an honourable mention here for being particular great.

But the way that BSP have done it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen any band do. And it’s not just the scale of it, or the way it’s made me obsessively crawl over every word, and spend hours researching this essay over an entire Easter bank holiday weekend.

What makes the album great is the way that these references reinforce the theme. As we’ve said, this is an album about remembrance, of looking back and appreciating. The album is called ‘The Decline Of…’ for a reason. We look back with fondness at things in the past, but we also displace the old with the new. We reject old myths for the modern, we reject the natural for the mechanical, we forget people and things.

In referencing the obscure and the forgotten, BSP make us remember. Geoff Goddard died in 2000 but he lives on in the music he left behind, and in our remembering him through BSP’s music.

Returning back to the quote that adorns the cover of the album..

We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and a land for the dead

Review: Giggle Palooza

Giggle Palooza is a Facebook page with 1.6m likes. Which means it must be good. One point six million people can’t be wrong, right? And by examining the page we can learn the secret to creating great online content and, dare I say it, life itself?

Let’s start at the top.

Ok so the profile picture is a small child with her tongue sticking out, where about 30% of the letters of the words that make up the name of the page are visible. That’s ok though, because if you missed it, the page is also named in the absolutely enormous cover photo, where a disembodied figure representing the – I’m guessing – “I want to die” emoji poses next to a 3D rendering of the page name.

Which brings us to our first question: what does the name mean?

Now, we all know and love a giggle. It’s like a little laugh. The kind of stifled guffaw that a little girl might do – like the one in the profile picture if she was giggling instead of not actually visibly laughing at all.

But ‘palooza?’ It appears to be a neologism for an ‘exaggerated event’, but the etymology is kinda whack. The term stems most famously from the Lollapalooza music festival. But that festival itself seems to have derived its name from some older term for just a big, whacky thing. We find the term ‘lallapaloosa’ in PG Wodehouse, for instance. But it’s not an especially modern or relevant term. So kudos to the Giggle Palooza team for bringing it back!

In the About section of the page, we find the Giggle Palooza mission statement:

What a fine ambition! To make as many people as possible laugh as outrageously loud as they can each day. Is that not the same aim as noted utilitarian ethicists Jeremy Bentham and JS Mill, just rendered in different language? And to showcase new artist talent? Such philanthropy! As we approach the collapse of civilisation due to unbridled capitalistic greed, it’s refreshing to see that altruism does indeed still exist.

Let’s take a look at some of this award-winning content then, starting with a post that’s been pinned to the top of the page.

Well, ok. This is kind of problematic. I thought we were done with OCD jokes. But who are we to judge the artists of 2017 by today’s standards? And one million people liked it enough to share it onwards with almost a quarter of a million people reacting in some way to do (mostly likes, laughs, and loves). Is this art? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it’s popular.

Next post! A more recent one now.

A lot to take in here. It’s actually an animated post, but I think you get the broad strokes of it. It’s a funny sentiment, sure. And the post copy “Sure hope not” really gets you thinking. To say so much with so little. Wow.

Next up it’s a dancing bear.

I used to work with someone who loved this kind of thing. Every Friday, without fail, they’d send a cartoon around to the entire company expressing the sentiment that it was the end of the week and we should celebrate. After about a year, someone replied with “sounds like you really hate your job” and then they stopped. But there’s definitely an audience for it.

Ok, that’s pretty funny! I don’t really understand the “smooth sailing” caption. But I’m with the 1.5k people who liked this. And the digital collage style is reminiscent of the photomontage style of the pop art school. This could be hung in the Tate Modern. It might also be an advert for Vick VapoRub, I’m not sure.

Hello!

This one doesn’t feel like a joke. It definitely didn’t make me ‘laugh as outrageously loud as I can’. But I guess they’re trying to make a political point, which is a noble use of their platform. Of course, you could say that it’s kind of unfair to judge people for using mobility scooters without knowing their individual circumstances. And maybe people who are overweight (for whatever reason) deserve to get around and engage with society if they have mobility issues. But I’m being too serious, this is a giggle palooza after all!

Ok, I do hate this one.

But I think that’s enough of that. Let’s review what Giggle Palooza can tell us about truly great, engaging content. The key features seem to be:

  • Extremely basic photoshop work
  • Expressing approval or disapproval towards specific days of the week (Mondays are bad, Fridays are good)
  • Somewhat problematic non-inclusive views
  • Animals

So I’ve used the above formula to create the world’s first piece of PERFECT CONTENT:

Pleas like, enjoy, and share with your friends.

Most podcasts suck. But some are okay.

Podcasts are very in right now. But they’ve been a long time coming.

Remember when podcasts came out? It was 2004. The same year as Usher’s ‘Yeah’,  Shrek 2, and Jeremy Clarkson punching Piers Morgan at the British Press Awards. It’s only been 14 years, but it feels like forever.

And for some reason we still all use the word ‘podcast’. Even though it’s etymologically linked to the iPod and we’re all listening to them on our phones. But whatever, languages evolves I guess.

Podcasts were different back in those days. They were usually extensions of things that already existed beyond the podcast world. Here’s a typical UK podcast chart from 2009:

  1. Frankie Boyle: Mock The Week Musings
  2. Friday Night Comedy from BBC Radio 4
  3. The Ricky Gervais Podcast
  4. Jimmy Carr’s Video Podcast
  5. The Twilight Saga: New Moon
  6. Best of Chris Moyles Enhanced
  7. Jack Dee
  8. Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know
  9. Stephen Fry’s PODGRAMS (Audio & Visual)
  10. Rhod Gilbert’s Best Bits

So yeah, almost entirely (male) comedians generating extra content around some thing that’s already popular. And one of the Twilight Books for some reason.

That Ricky Gervais one is one of the first ones I remember becoming famous in its own right. Even that was basically just a spin-off of Gervais and Merchant’s radio show on XFM. But it very much set a precedent for how a podcast could be its own ‘thing’ beyond just supporting something else.

And now, podcasts are prolific. Apple Podcasts hosts over 550,000 podcasts alone. And hundreds more are springing up every day.

That’s because there’s a very low barrier to entry for podcasts. To create music, you need to have some talent. To create video, you need some

You can find a podcast for literally any subject you’re interested in. Even Shrek.

But of that 550,000 how many are actually good? The answer is about 50. So 0.01%.

Is that harsh? Not really. The majority of podcasts are soulless productions, made to fill some niche with non-content supported by adverts for a variety of inessential millennial products. They’re usually one of the following:

  • Two friends (usually men) sit behind a mic and ‘just ramble!’ The content is their oddball take on current events and unnecessary opinions on things.
  • Entrepreneur-porn. Anything to do with success in business.
  • Bland technology news reporting. Often laser-focussed on a particular niche like Apple.
  • Storytelling podcasts, which are now 100% of the gruesome ‘true crime’ genre.
  • Boring sports/politics/gaming chat.
  • D&D podcasts that aren’t anywhere near as fun to listen to as D&D is to play.
  • Culturally parasitic podcasts that exist to comment on the most recent episode of a television show.
  • Harry Potter.

I’m not saying that the secrets to success in life can’t be found in a podcast. But no, they can’t be. Podcasts exist to be mildly entertaining distractions from our monotonous lives. They’re something to listen to in order to make your commute feel quicker, to make household chores less painful, or give your brain something to do while you’re having a bath.

Here’s a few of the podcasts I actually like –

The Adam Buxton Podcast

One of the categories I could have mentioned above but didn’t was ‘comedy interview podcasts’ – which I actually like. Other podcasts in this category include Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, Brian Gittins & Friends, and things like Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces.

These podcasts are actually good because there’s no expectations. They don’t have to be funny, or even interesting – though they often are both. They’re typically just two people having a chat about things.

But wait! Didn’t I say in my list that two people having a chat is the worst kind of content possible? Yes, I did! But when the people in it are famous, or more importantly: people I like, it’s ok. Their opinions are actually insightful and I learn things. So it’s a valuable use of my time to listen to them. Or at least, a non-negative value contribution to my life.

Buzzfeed’s Internet Explorer

A really entertaining podcast that takes on internet culture and memes. This should be my dream podcast, but sadly it comes out pretty infrequently

Other internet-y podcasts that are ok are Reply All and Why’d You Push That Button? And a special recommendation for Trends Like These, which recaps the week in Twitter trends and news. Trends Like These is co-hosted by a chap called Travis McElroy, which brings us to…

Any McElroy Brothers podcast

The McElroys are three brothers (Justin, Griffin, & Travis) who primarily make podcasts. Although their podcasts often fit the template for the kind of podcasts I hate, for some reason they are immune to my typical objections. Chalk it up to them being so inherently adorable and glorious.

Central to the McElroy podcast empire is My Brother, My Brother, and Me – which may well be the world’s greatest podcast. It’s an “advice show for the modern era” but is basically a platform for their surreal improv-esque forays into popular culture. And they talk about Shrek a lot. So it’s more than just “three brothers round a mic”.

Likewise, they have the only good D&D podcast – The Adventure Zone. There’s another in which they chronicle their attempts to get cast in Trolls 2. And they have one in which they’re committed to watching the movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 every year until they die.

And there’s a variety of good spin-offs that the brothers have with their partners: Sawbones (a podcast about medical history), Schmanners (a manners and etiquette podcast, which I saw live at the London Podcast Festival this year!), and Wonderful – a podcast about lovely things.

The McElroy’s are part of the Maximum Fun podcast network, which also hosts the Judge John Hodgman podcast, that I quite like. In this, comedian John Hodgman plays a judge, passing judgement on everyday arguments between couples. It’s good!

The H3 Podcast

h3h3 is a bit of a controversial figure. The youtuber-turned-podcaster has a devoted cult following online in places like Reddit. But his frank manner and habit of picking fights with other popular youtubers (he has an ongoing feud with Jake and Logan Paul) means it can sometimes be a little toxic.

But I enjoy the podcast, mostly for the ‘goofs’ – his commentaries on stupid youtube videos. It’s what made his YouTube channel popular and is always entertaining, especially when his wife Hila pipes up with a dry comment. She’s the greatest.

No Such Thing As A Fish

Currently the 3rd most popular podcast in the UK on Spotify. NSTAAF is a spin-off podcast from the researchers behind QI. Every week they gather to share and discuss the most interesting facts they’ve found out. And it’s pretty good!

This is exactly the kind of thing that could be very annoying. There’s space for exactly one ‘fun facts’ podcast in the world, so I’m glad this has been the one to break out. It’s become a bit of a brand in itself, perhaps superseding QI itself (they have a book out every year now), but ignore all that and it’s an entertaining listen.

Under the Skin

Russell Brand’s podcast! Wait, where are you going?

No seriously, I like this. People write off Brand as being a figure of ridicule, who just uses big words and does irresponsible things like telling young people not to vote. But listen to the podcast, and you can’t argue that he’s unintelligent.

Under the Skin covers all kinds of big sociological topics. From things he’s written about himself such as politics and addiction, to more abstract things like metaphysics. His interview with Adam Curtis in particular is really fascinating – and it’s kinda adorable how he tries to pierce Curtis’ hard outer shell with boyish charm.

Special shoutouts

Quickfire time. Here’s some more podcasts to check out if you’re hungry for more:

  • 99% Invisible. The design podcast that everyone recommends. I’m no exception.
  • Fintech Insider. Probably only relevant if you work in or know about Fintech. But I’ve been on it twice so I recommend it for that reason!
  • Four Finger Discount. A very solid Simpsons podcast (which I prefer to the more-widely celebrated Everything’s Coming Up Simpsons).
  • Harmontown. Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon melts down on mic in this podcast which is as much a portrait of a man in crisis as it is an entertaining listen.
  • Household Name. A podcast about things we take for granted, but with interesting stories. “Wait, that’s exactly the same premise as 99% invisible!” you say. And yes, you’re right. But they have some interesting content of their own, like their recent episode on the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Check it out.
  • My Dad Wrote A Porno. Everyone’s favourite podcast. Does what it says on the tin. Now a worldwide sensation. I have mixed feelings about it but overall think it’s pretty decent.
  • Worst Idea of All Time Podcast. Australians Guy Montgomery and Tim Batt watch the same film every week for a year and talk about it. So far they’ve done Grown Ups 2, Sex and the City 2, and We Are Your Friends. If that sounds familiar, it’s because they also co-host Till Death Do Us Blart, the aforementioned McElroy production, known to its fans as #DEATHBLART.

See, podcasts ain’t all bad. It’s just that about 549,950 of them are.

Got some good podcasts pick of your own? Great! Keep them to yourself. There’s nothing more annoying than listening to someone else’s podcast recommendations.

The Dickhead Song – eight years on

There have always been hipsters.

In late 18th century France, the Incroyables and Merveilleuses scandalised Paris with their outrageous fashions, wearing extreme exaggerated costume-like dress. Some even donned ‘ironic’ bicorne hats, as worn by the military. They really were unbearably pretentious. 

So even though we think of the hipster as a relatively modern phenomenon, that may just be because our use of that word to describe a particular constantly-existing  group of people has only been going on for a few years. (And don’t forget that the word ‘hipster’ itself is originally a 1940s term for certain jazz musicians – and not necessarily a derogatory term).

Back in 2005, Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris were satirising this group of people, and the London media sub-culture they occupied, in their sitcom Nathan Barley. Lacking the term ‘hipster’ in the vocabulary of their time, they instead went simply with ‘idiots’, producing what might be the greatest prophecy since the Book of Isaiah.

(Predicting ‘hand-held twit machines’ a full year before Twitter was created still blows my mind).

And there’s another, more timeless, term often used to regard this group of ‘self-regarding consumer slaves’. Quite simply: dickheads. And nothing summed this group up better than 2010’s ‘The Dickhead Song’.

This came out at that perfect time during university when everyone was just starting to get laptops, and viral youtube videos were just becoming a thing, and that weird mix of synth-poppy songs with crudely-done animations was just getting overdone. (Remember rathergood.com? It’s still going!)

The song itself is a pretty decent inventory of the main complaints against hipsters. So, eight years on (sorry I wasn’t waiting two more years to do some bloody anniversary thing), let’s see how it’s aged. And see how well I – a 28 year old man living in North London – fit the dickhead bill.

Got on the train from Cambridgeshire
Moved down to an East London flat

Was this a big complaint at the time? People from Cambridgeshire specifically? I feel today that hipsters come from all over the place. And they’re not living in East London anymore. SOUTH is the place to be. Looking at you, New Cross and Deptford.

Me? I technically got on the train from Cambridge and moved down to a North-East London flat. So about 90% of the words in the opening lines apply. Not a good start.

Got a moustache and a low cut vest

I feel this went out of date pretty quickly. Beards overcame moustaches pretty fast. And low cut vests? Nope.

Me? I’m growing a moustache literally right now. Please donate.

Some purple leggings
and a sailor tat

Both outdated too. Though presumably the people who got the sailor tattoos still have them?

I dug through some old photos to see what I could find for myself, and I came across this. It’s extremely bad, but I still maintain I was doing it ironically.

Just one gear on my fixie bike

Yeah, fixies are still a thing. But I feel that everyone has a bike now and it’s not so much a hipster thing. Maybe the extreme no-brakes, high-seat, DIY pedal kind of things you see are still a hipster thing. The jury is out.

Me? My fixie bike got stolen. It was too pure for this world.

got a plus one here for my gig tonight

I don’t agree with this. Being a musician doesn’t make you a hipster, or a dickhead. I guess flexing about having ‘plus ones’ and stuff is, but that falls into the wider category of twattish behaviour.

Me? I don’t play gigs.

I play synth…
We all play synth

Synths are out, I feel. There’s probably some new kind of hipster instrument that I haven’t even heard of yet instead. And it seems all the cool kids are ‘soundcloud DJs’ today anyway, whatever one of those is.

Me? I’m happy with an acoustic guitar.

20-20 vision just a pair of empty frames

Are empty frames still a thing? Were they ever? I feel these days, glasses are still ‘geek chic’ cool, but it’s almost cooler to actually need them for vision. Like it implies you’re bookish and books are cool now, I think?

Me? I actually need mine for vision because I’m bookish.

Dressing like a nerd although i never got the grades

See above. Probably cooler to just be smart now.

Me? I have a degree in philosophy. The dressing like a nerd is unintentional.

I remember when the kids at school would call me names
Now were taking over their estates

Yeah, there’s a good point here about gentrification – which is still happening and is still very much bad. The fetishisation of deprived areas as trendy is insensitive to their resident populations and drives out lower-income families when new, wealthier people move in.

Me? I’m probably guilty of it. I live in Stoke Newington, which isn’t a materially impoverished neighbourhood by any means, but I do feel guilty walking past several local greengrocers to pick up my overpriced organic veg at the Whole Foods.

CHORUS

Catchy.

Polaroid app on my iphone
taking pictures on London Fields
up on the blog so everyone knows
were having new age fun, with a vintage feel

I can’t believe Instagram didn’t exist when this song came out. But it just about didn’t. (The song was uploaded to YouTube on September 28th, 2010 – the initial Instagram release was October 6th, 2010). Of course, other polaroid-style apps have existed for as long as smart phones have had cameras. But for some reason I just assume that Instagram has always existed. Like Instagram came first, then light and darkness, then the earth and the heavens, and the sea and the skies, and then plants and animals, and then finally humans. Instagram is eternal, we just logged into it.

But yeah, Instagram is ubiquitous now. Your primary school probably has an Instagram account. So it’s not even cool now. It just is.

Me? I tried to see if I’d taken a picture of London Fields because that would be perfect. I couldn’t find one, but I did come across one I took of Greenwich Park, which is just as cliché. Also LOL at the caption I picked for it.

View this post on Instagram

new age fun with a #vintage feel

A post shared by Richard Cook (@cookywook) on

coolest kids at a warehouse rave
exclusive list look theres my name
I got in…
You couldn’t get in

I might be wrong, but I don’t think warehouse raves are a thing anymore. It seems to be more like ‘poetry night downstairs at the pub’ or something. I don’t know – I’m not cool. I don’t get many Facebook invites these days for those weird club nights with like 100 DJs on that nobody’s ever heard of.

Me? No.

never bought a pack of fags i only roll my own

Yes, hipsters are still very much rolling their own. 

Me? I don’t smoke.

plugging in my laptop at the starbucks down the road

Oh come on, EVERYONE does that. It used to really annoy me that people would set up shop in Starbucks all day and work. But now I’m the kind of person that would do that, I think it’s a very good thing.

Me? I think it’s a very good thing.

say i work in media im really on the dole

Hipsters still dominate media. They’re in your advertising agencies, they’re running the social media accounts for your favourite brands, they’re producing that TV show you really like. Sorry, you have a lot to thank them for.

Me? My job involves social media so guilty as charged I guess.

im the coolest guy you’ll ever know

Obviously this is me.

Loafers with no socks
Electropop meets southern hip hop
Indeterminate sexual preference
Something retro on my necklace

I feel these are very specific references I don’t quite get, and reflect more ephemeral aspects of hipsterness specific to the time. What might they look like today? Ripped jeans? Grime music? Gender fluidity? Each generation of hipsters will have something unique to cling onto.

Me? I tried to think about the most hipster thing I’ve ever done. It was either going to a Neutral Milk Hotel concert in Camden, or seeing a Wes Anderson movie in Shoreditch and going to a hipster fried chicken place afterwards.


And that’s it. That’s the whole song.

It’s stood up pretty well. It’s still describing a somewhat self-absorbed group of people. But we’ve established that these people will always exist. And since they by definition keep themselves to themselves, they’re nothing to worry about.

And me? Most of the things referenced in the song applied to me in one way or another. (Moving from Cambridge to North-East London in particular is a bit spooky). But I’m a product of these times as much as I am a participant in them. Being involved with culture is bound to leave some cultural residue.

But I’m always just doing it ironically, yeah?

Quick look: Rubik, the Amazing Cube

The 80s was a wild time for cartoons, with everything from the Ghostbusters to Mr T getting the animated treatment. And it’s no secret that a lot of these existed purely to sell or promote child-friendly toys, like Transformers or Masters of the Universe. Even some video games were made into cartoons, with the Pac Man cartoon being especially memorable.

But the one I’d like to take a quick look at today is Rubik, the Amazing Cube. Here’s the intro:

Yup, it’s a show about a talking Rubik’s cube.

BETCHA DIDNT THINK THERE WAS ANY LORE BEHIND RUBIKS CUBE DID YOU. WELL THERE IS AND ITS VERY DEEP. RUBIK IS A MAGIC SPACE ELF THAT TALKS LIKE A BABY AND HAS THE FACE OF A HIDEOUS TROLL MONSTER.

According to the mythos of the show, this Rubik’s cube is magical and owned by an evil wizard. The way it works is that Rubik is powerless and inert when the cube is scrambled, and only comes to life when the cube is solved. Yes, I am aware that it is basically the same premise as Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.

In any case, in true 80s cartoon fashion, some punk kids steal the cube from the evil wizard and use it to get their revenge on bullies. In total, 13 episodes were made, airing between September and December 1983. The episode titles are wonderfully evocative, with stand-out favourites being Rubik and the Mysterious Man, Rubik’s First Christmas, and Back Packin’ Rubik.

But I have questions.

Is the implication here that all Rubik’s cubes contain little Rubik people? Or is it just this one? I mean, it was originally in the possession of a wizard – but I’m unclear whether he created it or just has it. I’m also unclear on whether the cube is meant to be magic, that is to say that Rubik exhibits non-standard metaphysical properties and is perhaps some kind of machine elf, or whether Rubik is an alien and the cube is an extraterrestrial mechanism. But why would such a creature exist, if it can be so easily disabled by being scrambled? (In one episode, the cube is fully mixed up after being dropped by a dog).

And in one episode it is heavily implied that Rubik, the Amazing Cube is also Santa Claus.

And that’s all I have to say about this bizarre show.

I can’t believe that Readitfor.me exists

Reading is one of the few pure joys left in the world.

Books don’t have ads in them. Books don’t have extra downloadable content after you’ve bought them. Books don’t stay in a state of disappointing ‘early access’. Books are good.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those ‘I love nothing more than the smell of a new book, the feeling of turning pages, the rush of knowing you’re getting to the end’ kind of people. Even though my life’s ambition is to one day be rich enough to own a failing bookshop, I read everything on my kindle these days. It’s just more convenient.

But here’s the important bit: I still read them. I’ll spend months ploughing through a good book. Which in the age of 90-minute movies and meant-to-be-binged Netflix shows is pretty nuts. That’s a lot of time and attention to dedicate to one form of entertainment. But I don’t mind at all. A good book is a slow burn, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But what if you’re too important to have the time to read books? Introducing: readitfor.me

Billed as ‘the #1 book summary service for entrepreneurs, executives, and business coaches‘ the pitch is this: WE READ BOOKS SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO.

They basically produce short twelve minute summaries of the kind of books that people who describe themselves as ‘serial entrepreneur’ in their Twitter bio go crazy over. Books with titles like HOW TO SCALE YOUR BUSINESS BRAIN AND SUCEED WITHOUT TRYING or POWER HACKS TO SUPERCHARGE YOUR MINDSET. So it’s not fiction, or anything good, just typical executive trash. But it’s still annoying to me.

Here’s a gem from their FAQs:

What sort of equipment do I need for this?
All of our videos and workshops can be accessed on your tablet, laptop or smartphone, and can also be projected onto a boardroom wall.

Ahhhh yes. The way books were meant to be read. Little did Dickens know when he put pen to paper and inspired generations of writers in the English-speaking world, that one day we might be reading books “projected onto a boardroom wall”.

Sure, the sting is taken out of this by the fact that the books aren’t any good. If this was attempting to reduce classic literature down it’d be outright offensive. But I think there’s a couple of assumptions being made here that I find distasteful:

  1. That the benefit of a body of work is solely the top-level content, which can be extracted without anything being lost.
  2. That reading as an activity can be outsourced.
  3. That you can be too busy to just a read a book.

Keep books great. Read them! Support libraries! And for the love of God, don’t pay something else to read them for you.

Hot take: polls are bad for democracy

Why do we vote?

It’s a pretty interesting question, with a long answer. The history of democracy is a good read, but what you need to know is that – like all good things – it was invented in Greece. The city-state of Athens around 5 BC is generally regarded to be the first implemented model of one-person-one-vote democracy as we would recognise it today.

It was a direct democracy in the sense that the people of Athens themselves were the voters on each decision, without further representation. (A footnote to say that ‘people of Athens’ referred to citizens – a somewhat non-inclusive group, excluding women, slaves, young people and so on). And for a while that was good.

Today, in the UK, we have a representative democracy. We don’t vote on each and every issue like the Greeks did – we vote for people who make those decisions on our behalf. Further still, our model is one of parliamentary democracy where we vote for representatives to form a government and the head of government is appointed by the head of state (Queenie!) to run things – that being whoever is the leader of the most popular party, as voted for by that party’s members. Yeah, it’s a bit complicated.

But the basics of it is that in the UK we vote for parties. We divide the country up into about 650 constituencies (voting areas), and the parties field candidates in each constituency. At a general election, whichever party wins the most seats gets to be in charge, since we have a dumb and stupid non-representational voting system.

So far so good. It’s fair, open, easy to understand, and about as democratic as you can hope for in the 21st century. The old Athenian system simply wouldn’t work in 2018. We can’t be expected to understand or have an opinion on every issue. We don’t even have referendums that often (imagine this current Brexit mess, but for EVERY SINGLE DECISION).

There’s some debate about whether MPs are meant to be ‘delegates’ or ‘trustees’. As delegates, they’d be the absolute instruments of their constituents will – perfectly channeling the voice of the people. But as members of a political party that isn’t really feasible. Yet having them as ‘trustees’ means letting them make decisions that might even be against the will of their constituents, if it’s actually in their best interests. For example: most constituents will oppose an increase in tax, but support better public services. A trustee can make the difficult decision to oppose the ‘will’ for the overall good.

BUT I DIGRESS I WAS GONNA TALK ABOUT POLLS NOT JUST REGURGITATE MY POLITICAL A LEVEL IN FULL SORRY

When describing how democracy works above, we haven’t mentioned polls at all. That’s because they’re simply not part of the concept. In fact, you could say that there’d an inherent idea core to democracy that is incompatible with political polling: the idea of the secret ballot.

The ‘secret ballot’ is the idea that everyone’s vote is a secret. Everyone has a voice, but nobody knows what everyone else has voted for. This is a good thing for democracy: it prevents voter intimidation or squeamishness. We always have a desire to fit in, and our votes being public might stop people voting from how they really want to. Yes, it helps extreme groups win more votes, but overall it’s a good thing.

Do polls violate the idea of a secret ballot? Clearly not. The secret ballot idea applies at the individual vote level, not overall. After all, we have to know the outcome! But there’s another idea at play here: that the outcome of a vote is uncertain.

Democracy works best when it’s a disinterested process. By this I mean that the result of a vote is up for grabs. After all, what’s the point in voting if it’s a foregone conclusion? Brexit and Trump were ‘good’ votes in that the outcome was surprising (what they demonstrate about the democratic process is another conversation). The will of the people needs to be a potent force, and that’s not possible when decisions are robbed of their jeopardy.

And yet this is precisely what polling does. By ‘polling’ I mean the forecasting and publishing of election results. Bodies like YouGov, ICM, and Ipsos Mori do this, attempting to predict the outcome of elections before they happen. And this is bad, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, as said above, it robs elections of their jeopardy. If the outcome of an election is a foregone conclusion – which for polling to have any authority, it must consider it to be – then the process is likely not truly democratic. Sure, in a perfect direct democracy there would be issues with a 99% consensus already. But even still, publishing the result of an election, even a ‘predicted’ one, before the vote seems to betray the concept of uncertain outcomes that makes democracy effective.

And don’t think this doesn’t have an impact on turnout. Ask people why they don’t vote and you’ll likely hear “because it wouldn’t make a difference” anyway. I live in the Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency – which elected Labour MP Diane Abbott to Parliament in the 2017 election with 75% of the vote. The Conservative candidate got 12% of the vote. So if I was a Tory voter, would I feel an empowered democratic citizen having this repeated again and again in the polls running up to an election? Clearly not.

Something that drives me crazy is the use graphs like the above in election pamphlets. “Can’t win here” is the catchphrase they use, and it’s awful. Every election is a blank slate, anyone could win. If every voter decided to vote Green in your constituency, you’d get a Green MP. And yet polls set an alternative narrative: that of the status quo. That the incumbent state of affairs will more or less be maintained. It’s no wonder that young people and other groups feel disenfranchised and powerless.

Polls also shift the way we think about voting, in bad ways. ‘Tactical voting’ is a symptom of a broken democracy. That’s when you vote, not for the party you actually want to win, but in order to help prevent someone else from winning. Cleisthenes must be turning in his grave. Vote-swapping systems and things like that arise because polls turn an election into a scientific game rather than a legitimate decision-making exercise.

And it encourages bad behaviour from our representatives too. During the election cycle, incredible levels of attention are paid to the polls. And the campaign strategy is informed by the poll results. Sure, it’s the sensible thing to do given that polls exist – but it’s a reflection that elections have become a vote-winning version of marketing. And that’s bad for democracy too.

Can we beat this? Can we claw back democracy from the damage polling has done to it? I don’t know. As with all technology and science, once the genie’s out of the bottle, it won’t go back in. On the TV debates they’ve started doing recently, they’ve now got those live ‘worm’ graphs, where support for each speaker is displayed live in real time along with the program. I think that’s too far – encouraging a safe, boring approach to politics where every word of every sentence is rehearsed to media-trained perfection.

Keep polls, sure. But for the sake of democracy let’s stop obsessing over them. Bring back the uncertainty to politics. It’s an open field, anyone can win. Trying to predict the future just sucks the joy out of it entirely.

Who should have really won Rat Race? A comprehensive study.

Rat Race is a near-perfect film. Coming out in 2001, the same year as Shrek, it was very much part of the peak of pre-9/11 wacky comedies that embodied the turn of the millennium. It even has Smashmouth in it – literally on stage singing All Star at the end of the film.

It’s one hundred and twelve minutes of pretty much pure nonsense. A crazy squirrel lady, a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators, a song by the Baha Men, Hitler’s car… the film really has it all.

I remember first seeing the film in 2002 or so. We’d rented the DVD from the local village shop because they had nothing good available, and I was sceptical. The film looked like garbage. Just completely stupid and dumb. The cast were pretty much entirely nobodies to me, expect for Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese, and the fact that Atkinson was being wasted on a bizarrely offensive Italian tourist character put me off.

But do you what happened when the ending credits began to roll? I went back to the DVD menu and watched it again. In full. An entire second time. Something I hadn’t done prior, or since with any other movie. There was something special about this film, something I had to watch again. And I did, again and again. And now this movie lives forever in my dreams and soul.

And because of that, I’m particularly fixated on answering one particular question about it, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, let’s review what the film’s actually about.

1. A brief overview of the plot

Rat Race is primarily a rip-off of the 1963 movie ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ – a film I have never seen and have no interest in seeing. But the plot of that movie, as I understand it, is a bunch of strangers chasing after some money in zany ways. And yep, that’s pretty much Rat Race.

John Cleese plays an eccentric casino owner – Donald Sinclair – who wants to offer his highest rollers a new game to bet on. Instead of betting on cards or horses, he invents a new sort of race – where people chase across the country to win a prize. To do this, he plucks a variety of guests from the hotel and informs them that two million dollars in cash has been placed in a bag in a station locker in New Mexico. The first one there gets to keep it. And they’re off!

That’s it. It’s a very simple premise. Well, there’s at least one layer of dramatic irony going on – the participants in the race don’t know that they’re the subjects of a larger bet. But that doesn’t really play any significant role in the plot. It’s more just a contrivance for the setup to make any sense, and to give Cleese a few more scenes scattered throughout the film. The film could just as well be the same characters chasing the money without that element, and it’d be more or less the same.

So what the film represents is a logistical challenge. All the characters start off in the same spot, and each has to reach the same end point. What they need to do is find the most efficient way to manage that. Things go wrong, hilarity ensues, and that’s basically all you need to know to understand this film.

2. The most efficient way to win

To figure this out we need to determine two things: where the characters start, and where they end up. As Rat Race is a piece of fiction, it makes identifying this an interesting challenge. Thankfully, the first part of this is pretty straightforward: it’s explicitly stated that the characters are in the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. That weird casino that has a mini-Venice built inside it. To each their own.

The end point is more difficult. They have to get to Silver City, New Mexico – which is a real place. But the train station containing the locker containing the money does not exist. Silver City just doesn’t have a passenger train station. The exterior shots of the station are actually of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in Ely, Nevada.

So the most obvious approach would be to simply pick a central spot in Silver City and say that’s roughly where they were going. A problem with this is that Atkinson’s character (Enrico Pollini) is clearly seen travelling to the station by rail, and ends up nearly winning as a result. (OH SORRY I DIDN’T GIVE A SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS 17 YEAR OLD COMEDY FILM).

But the stand-in location above isn’t any good either, as the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is 800 miles away from Silver City. And there aren’t any really good rail stops nearby that could act as approximate locations. So let’s just say that Silver City in general is the location they’re heading to.

Let’s plug these coorindates into Google Maps and see what we get.

I’m not buying that ‘7 hour 10 mins’ travel time by plane that Google is giving me there. But I’m not able to find any actual flights that go between the two airports. Instead, as the characters in the film attempt, you’d be best off getting a flight to Albuquerque, taking about 1 hour and 25 minutes. Followed by a drive of just over 4 hours to Silver City. So your total travel time would be about 5 and half hours.

Let’s add in some time for general airport faffing. It’s a domestic flight so no border control, and they probably wouldn’t take any baggage: so about 90 minutes extra seems right. So maybe 7 hours total? And that’s if they could instantly get a flight the moment they reached the airport. Which seems unlikely.

So clearly a plane trip is the most efficient way to do this. Unless they just missed a flight, in which case the direct car ride is the best – at around nine and a half hours door-to-door.

All this is purely academic anyway, as none of the characters end up sticking to any kind of plan or take anything close to an ‘efficient route’. But it gives us an interesting yardstick with which we can measure the film’s correspondence to reality. If seven to nine-and-a-half hours is a realistic time range for getting from Vegas to Silver City under normal conditions, then we should expect at least ten hours and upwards for the wacky routes our heroes take to get there.

So let’s get to it. I’m now going to take each group of characters in turn, analyse the route they took, and attempt a fair approximation of their trip. A lot of guesswork is going to be involved, but I’m approaching this from a disinterested perspective (I don’t really like any of the characters enough to be rooting for them), so I’m not concerned about any impartiality on my part, conscious or otherwise.

3. The Journeys

3.1 – Duane & Blaine

Duane and Blaine are brothers, and they’re basically hustlers. We’re introduced to them as they attempt to commit some ‘personal accident compensation’ fraud. They’re probably the most ruthless of the group in their pursuit of the money, and willing to go to the most immoral lengths to win.

They start by driving to the airport. The Venetian Resort is a ten minute drive from Vegas’ McCarran International Airport. (We’ll use this as a standard for the other characters too).

At the airport they find they’re unable to get a seat on the next flight, as the others have got tickets first. So they decide to, erm, use their truck to destroy the ground radar and prevent anyone from flying. (As a reminder, this film came out in cinemas just 25 days before 9/11). Let’s rewatch that scene, a masterpiece of film-making, combing physical comedy and a classical score.

Let’s say this whole thing takes 15 minutes.

Somehow avoiding domestic terrorism charges, the pair head over to a car hire place (10 minutes) and hire a new car (10 minutes).

They then drive for an unspecified amount of time. Off-screen they meet the squirrel lady, but I’m not able to determine whereabouts she’s locate; the “Totem Pole Ranch” she references doesn’t seem to be a real place. Let’s just assume they’re doing the normal drive.

At some point along the way they stop to get a second key cut (15 minutes) but it’s stolen by the locksmith. They chase him down the road, into a hot air balloon festival. Again, this could be anywhere. Can we reverse engineer some of the missing times here from what else we see in the rest of the film? Maybe!

Following a 4 minute episode where they fight the locksmith for the key they end up back on the road, with a signpost indicating they’re 28 miles from Silver City. An interrupted drive from from Vegas to to the town of Buckhorn (roughly 30 miles from Silver City) would take 8 hours 40 minutes. So let’s assume that as a base amount of time to add everything else onto.

But they’re not they’re yet! Distracted on the road, they end up driving into a Monster Truck rally. Again, I can’t find a decent contender for this within 30 miles of Silver City. But let’s say they spend at least 20 minutes at the rally, for the both the events in the film and then stealing the truck off-screen. They then drive the rest of the way – about a 30 minute drive. They then run for another 2 minutes from the truck to the station. So..

  • Drive to the airport: 10 mins
  • Airport sabotage: 15 mins
  • Head to car hire: 10 mins
  • Hiring a car: 10 mins
  • Car travel: 8 hours 40 mins
  • Key cutting: 15 mins
  • Locksmith fight: 4 mins
  • Monster truck rally: 20 mins
  • Remaining drive: 30 mins
  • Running: 2 mins
  • Total: 10 hours and 36 minutes.

3.2 – Enrico Pollini

Enrico Pollini is an Italian tourist character, portrayed by Rowan Atkinson. Similar to Mr Bean, he’s a bumbling idiotic character that the others look down upon. He’s also a narcoleptic, which – rather than being used as a chance to highlight the impact this illness has on people’s lives – is basically just used as a punchline a few times to reiterate how useless he is.

He falls asleep pretty much immediately, in the hotel lobby. He then stays asleep for about half of the film before waking up and continuing. Sadly, there’s no accurate way to determine how long he was asleep for. We can see he’s amassed a crowd of children around him, watching him sleep – so he’s been there a while. But not so long that he’s received any medical attention or intervention by hotel staff. (They could of course be under instructions not to intervene by Sinclair, but who knows?).

From what I understand about narcolepsy, sleep attacks are common but not especially lengthy. These microsleep attacks can range from a few seconds to a few minutes. I’m going to give a generous high-end cap of 30 minutes on Pollini’s sleep, as that seems about right for the way the sleep is cut in the film, and the limit of what seems to be medically appropriate.

After his sleep, he leaves the hotel and is almost hit by Zack Mallozzi – an organ transplant driver played by Wayne Knight. Mallozzi is driving to El Paso, which does indeed go close by Silver City. They drive for a while, before stopping after Pollini throws a human heart out of the van window.

Mallozzi attempts to murder Pollini and take his heart (????) and Pollini escapes by jumping onto a nearby moving train (???). Can we figure out where this takes place?

I think so! On the Interstate Route 10, between Steins and Lordburg there’s a stretch of road that has a train track running alongside it. This is along the route they would have taken from Vegas to Silver City/El Paso, and also matches the geography. So it’s a safe bet.

To get here, it’d take an 8 hour 30 minute drive. Pollini escapes onto a train and is on his way to Silver City.

Now, since Silver City doesn’t actually have a train station we’ll have to use some imagination. This spot on the road is 45 miles from Silver City. In the USA, passenger trains are limited to 59mph. So, assuming they were travelling at top speed, the time it would take for a train to cover that distance is about 45 minutes.

Let’s assume him arriving there counts as winning, narcolepsy aside. So..

  • Initial sleep: 30 minutes
  • Car time: 8 hours 30 minutes
  • Train time: 45 minutes
  • Overall time: 9 hours and 45 minutes

By car, the distance covered by the train would have taken about an hour. So we can also give him a ‘realistic’ time of a round 10 hours if it comes to it.

3.3 – Owen Templeton

Owen Templeton is Cuba Gooding Jr’s character in Rat Race. He plays a disgraced football referee, universally despised for making a bad call on a coin flip. His is one of the most pitiful misadventures in the film, and particularly varied.

He also starts by going to get to the airport (10 mins), finds he can’t make the flight (5 mins), and goes to grab a cab. Meeting the same cabbie, he instructs the driver to head to Silver City. After some time,he’s left stranded in the desert by the cab driver, since he’d lost money on the football game Templeton had refereed.

Now, I doubt that the cab driver would drive over an hour to exact his revenge on Templeton. And while there’s no clues as to the exact part of the Nevada desert that Templeton was left in, I think somewhere around Boulder City would be suitable.

It’s surrounded by desert, on the way from Vegas to Silver City, and is only a 30 minute drive. Let’s add another 10 mins for the cab driver’s shortcut, plus another 1 hour for Templeton’s time spent wandering the desert – he’s clearly been out there a long time and is suffering from dehydration.

This also makes sense in terms of what happens next. He reaches a coach stop, where a bus is parked full of Lucille Ball impersonators, on their way to a convention in Santa Fe. If they came from the Vegas direction, it’d make sense they’d pass by Boulder City on the way too. So the facts add up.

After 5 minutes of coaxing the coach driver into giving him all his clothes, Templeton is on his way. The drive from Boulder City to Silver City would take about 8 hours 45 minutes. But since a coach full of Lucys is going to be slower than a car, and Templeton is shown to be an inexperienced coach driver, I think we can add another hour on top of that.

This time also includes the coach breaking down scene, and Templeton somehow coming into possession of a horse.

Then the 2 minute run from the coach to the station. So…

  • Travel to airport: 10 mins
  • Time in airport: 5 mins
  • Cab to desert, including shortuct: 40 mins
  • Lost in desert: 1 hour
  • Coach stop: 5 mins
  • Drive to Silver City: 8 hours 45 minutes
  • Extra coach time and horse: 1 hour
  • Running to station: 2 minutes
  • Total: 11 hours and 47 minutes

3.4 – Vera and Merrill

This pair are an estranged mother and daughter meeting for the first time, played by Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman respectively. And they have a pretty wild time.

Like the others, they try the airport. Merrill is a wealthy businesswoman and is able to secure a charter jet. She offers a bonus for the pilots if they can reach their destination in under an hour. Was she heading for Albuquerque airport like the others, or the closer Grant County Airport? We don’t know, but it doesn’t matter as the flights all get cancelled. So let’s just work with the standard 10 mins drive to the airport, with maybe around 15 mins of faffing because they actually make it onto their plane.

Like the brothers, they go to hire a car (10 mins) and are frustrated by the slow car hire worker (let’s say 20 mins). Then they’re off!

Driving for a bit, they get a bit lost trying to locate the interstate. This is brought up several times in the movie and I’m not sure what it means. If they mean Route 10, then it should be clearly signposted after cutting through Phoenix.

Sure, they could be trying to cut onto the interstate early. But that would add extra time onto their journey (checkout Google’s wild suggestion that adds two whole hours onto the journey). So I’m not sure what their route is, or how they’re getting lost. But whatever. Crazy squirrel lady happens.

They take the squirrel lady’s directions and end up driving into a ravine. Let’s say they lose 30 mins for this detour / near-death experience. They then wander the desert for a bit – let’s give them the same hour we gave Templeton for this bit. And they come across the testing area for a high speed rocket car.

Since we can’t say where they start or end up during the rocket car bit, it’s a bit sparse in terms of the calculations we can do. But the scientists state that the girls break Mach 1 during this part, meaning they were travelling at about 767mph. So they definitely winning the ‘fastest moving at any point during the film’ part of the movie. Assuming they were in the car for 5 minutes, they’d cover about 63 miles. A car travelling at 75mph (the speed limit in New Mexico) would take 50 minutes to cover this distance.

So I propose that rather than trying to incorporate the rocket car in as an additional calculation, we simply deduct ’50 minutes’ from what would be otherwise be a standard trip.

They wander the desert a little more. Clearly still dizzy from the rocket car, they can’t have been walking around for more than 15 minutes, before getting bundled into a bus. Since we can’t tell where the bus started, we can’t say how long this would have taken. So let’s think about this.

Nine and a half hours is the average amount of time it’d take a normal car to do the full journey. Let’s deduct the fifty minutes saved by the rocket car, then add another 10 for the extra slowness of travelling by bus. That gives us a total ‘on the road’ time of 8 hours 50 minutes. Are you still following along?

Their bus actually ends up closer to the station than the other racers, so let’s give them 1 minute of running time. So…

  • Airport travel and faff: 25 mins
  • Detour: 30 mins
  • Desert time: 1 hour
  • Second desert time: 15 mins
  • ‘On the road’ (initial car time + bus time – rocket car time): 8 hours 50 mins
  • Running to the station: 1 minute
  • Total: 11 hours and 1 minute

3.5 – The Pear Family

The Pears are a mother, father, son, and daughter enjoying a family holiday to Las Vegas. The father, Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz), is recruited into Sinclair’s race but neglects to tell the rest of the family about it, thinking that his wife wouldn’t approve. The lie he gives instead is that he has a job offer in Silver City (working in “ink, for fountain pens!). His family all believe this lie and they set out for the airport (10 mins journey time, 5 mins faff).

Like the others, they end up grounded so opt to drive to Silver City instead. His daughter needs the toilet soon after, and Randy makes her go out of the window of the moving car. He’s stopped by police as a result, probably being detained for about 10 mins.

They stop off at a ‘Barbie Museum’ on the way – which instead of being a museum about the popular doll, is in fact a museum about the SS officer Klaus Barbie. They spend about 15 minutes at the museum (why did they take the tour) before leaving to find that Duane and Blaine have sabotaged their car. Somehow they are able to steal what in the universe of this film is explicitly actual Hitler’s actual car. Which is apparently roadworthy and contains petrol.

A series of highly-plausible events take place where Randy smears black lipstick on his upper lip, burns both his tongue and middle finger with Hitler’s cigarette lighter, is attacked by bikers, crashes into a WW2 Allied veterans rally, and is shot at. But I can’t imagine this adding more than 30 minutes to the family’s overall journey.

After this, the family are next seen in a truck stop, wanting to quit the journey. Randy refuses to let them give up and illegally drugs them all, before bundling them into the back of a truck. Sleeping pills take about an hour to take effect, so let’s say they were at the stop for 1 hour 15 minutes.

The family then arrive in Silver City and spend the usual 2 minutes or so running to the station. Despite the diversions along the way, the family spent most of their journey on the road (in their car / Hitler’s car / the lorry), so using the standard 9.5 hours as the base time feels fair, with some fuzzy lines around the speed of the lorry and the reliability of Adolf Hitler’s car. So…

  • Airport: 15 mins
  • Police stop: 10 mins
  • Barbie Museum: 15 mins
  • Weird Nazi stuff: 30 mins
  • Road stop: 1 hour 15 mins
  • On-the-road time: 9 hours 30 mins
  • Running to the station: 2 mins
  • Total: 11 hours and 57 minutes

3.6 – Nick & Tracy

Nick and Tracy are unique amongst the racers in that, although they travel together, they didn’t know each other between the film. They agree to travel together (mostly because they happen to be reading the same biography of Charles Lindbergh) and a romantic element develops. But we can count them as one unit because all their timings should be the same.

So they both head to the airport (10 mins) but faff around for a bit longer. They strike up a conversation over the book, and Nick is excited to hear that Tracy can still fly as she’s a helicopter pilot and only the airplanes are grounded. Let’s call this another 10 mins of chat/plan time.

Now, if they’d just taken the helicopter the entire way they’d have easily won. Assuming the helicopter travelled at 160mph they could cover the 450 miles in about 2 hours 48 minutes – and probably land right near the station. But they don’t.

Instead, Tracy begins by flying the helicopter north – which Nick expresses some concern about. Tracy explains that it’s so they can visit her boyfriend. Where they end up isn’t clear, but it’s presumably a bit far east as well. After Tracy fights her boyfriend, they crash the helicopter and steal his truck.

In the next scene we see them, they’re sitting in a diner where Nick brags: “If everybody else had to drive, we have a three-hour head start.” Nick’s got a map in front of him, so we can take his word on that. So, let’s take our usual 9.5 hour calculation and subtract three hours to get six and a half hours driving time.

Not much else happens to them along the way. They spend a scene arguing with a mechanic who’s trying to rip them off. Call that 30 minutes. And they run out of petrol and stop to siphon some from a police car. But that can’t be more than 5 mins as the policeman drives off pretty sharpish to chase the brothers.

Does that all add up? This scene in the film geotemporally locates Nick, Tracy, Duane, and Blaine in the same spot. We could attempt to reconcile this all into one consistent timeline, but it doesn’t matter too much. We’re interested in how long each group would have taken, independently of each other anyway. Remember that the brothers still have to deal with the Monster Truck bit. We don’t see Nick and Tracy again until the end, with two minutes of running time to the station. So…

  • Airport: 20 mins
  • Driving: 6 hours 30 mins
  • Policeman: 5 mins
  • Mechanic: 30 mins
  • Running to the station: 2 mins
  • Total: 7 hours and 27 minutes

4. The Winners

We have a winner! Here’s the countdown:

Sixth place: The Pear Family (11 hours 57 minutes)

The Pears spent a good deal of time hitting the road, but racked up way too much stoppage time. The lag on the sleeping pills is a particular hard-hitter. And the Nazi Museum was just unnecessary altogether.

Fifth place: Owen Templeton (11 hours 47 minutes)

A surprisingly high ranking for someone left to die in the desert. But even a solid commitment to driving a coach under stressful conditions sees Templeton just missing out on a spot in the top four.

Fourth place: Vera and Merrill (11 hours 1 minute)

The rocket car wasn’t enough to help the girls out and claw back time from two separate sections of them carless in the desert.

Third place: Duane & Blaine (10 hours and 36 minutes)

The brothers ruined everyone’s plans with their airport sabotage and this ruthlessness saw them through to making up good time on the road. But it wasn’t enough in the end.

Second place: Enrico Pollini (9 hours and 45 minutes)

Incredible scenes from the plucky Italian. Despite falling asleep at the starting block, Pollini really ‘hauled ass’ to almost make it into first place. Of course, within the film itself he makes it there first, but we can’t ignore the reality that there is no rail station in Silver City. So he just misses out.

First place: Nick & Tracy (7 hours 27 minutes)

They had a bloody helicopter. Of course they won.

Whether they used it all the way or not, the “three hour” head start is simply too much of an advantage to ignore. We’ve established that travelling by air is the most efficient way to win this race and since they were the only two able to take advantage of it, they were the clear favourites from the outset.

5. Concluding remarks

Rat Race clearly isn’t a film meant to be taken this seriously. The fact that all the characters end up in basically the same place at the same time isn’t the result of careful and deliberate planning by the screenwriters – it’s just a convenience for the sake of the plot.

But I think we can conclude that if an eccentric billionaire offers you the chance to win $2m dollars in a race, you should probably go find a helicopter pilot as soon as possible. And don’t trust women who sell squirrels.

I’ve probably made some basic errors in the above, so please do let me know if you spot anything. Or have a go at doing all the calculations yourself. It’s only taken me five and a  half hours!

Now, let’s all enjoy some Smashmouth.


Further reading:

In my research for this… thing, I really enjoyed this article about the plotholes of Rat Race. It really is a very silly film.

Why is Foghorn Leghorn called Foghorn Leghorn?

Foghorn Leghorn is a terrifying chicken monster featured in the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons. He speaks with an inexplicable Southern accent and is generally pretty unlikable.

But why the hell is he called ‘Foghorn Leghorn’??!?!!  I don’t understand why this is his name. Why does he need to have the word “HORN” twice in his name.

Like…. his first name is FOGHORN? As in the actual thing that warns ships about fog during fog? That’s not a good name for a rooster. It’s pretty much the worst name. Don’t call your chicken monster Foghorn.

And if you MUST give your chicken character the first name ‘Foghorn’, then WHY ON EARTH would you give him the surname LEGHORN.

A LEGHORN IS NOT EVEN A THING. WHAT WOULD THAT EVEN BE??? LIKE… A HORN FOR YOUR LEGS?

NO NOT A SHOEHORN. A SHOE HORN IS A REAL THING. IT’S NOT A HORN, REALLY. BUT AT LEAST IT’S AN OBJECT THAT EXISTS WITHIN OUR UNIVERSE. THERE ARE NO LEG HORNS.

Ok. So I looked it up and apparently he’s named after a character from some 40s radio show called Senator Claghorn. I guess that explains one of the horns. BUT NOT TWO.

He should be called Chicken Man.