Ersatz Reality



If you want proof positive that we Brits have in these times of austerity retained our sense of irony, you need look no further than our mainstream reality shows.

Britain’s Got Talent is one of ITV’s flagship shows and is the show of choice for no-hopers and wannabees seeking fame and fortune. The clue to the show’s remit, you would have thought, is in the title. But that didn’t stop the great British public who awarded a Hungarian mimetic ballet troupe the premier accolade.

Turning over to the Beeb, we have the Voice, a show with a format which at best seems half-formed. The judges hear the contestants but don’t see them and so judge them on the quality of their voice alone. So far so good. But the show descends into just another karaoke competition once the judges know who they are. However, the British public have rescued the Beeb who have been wrestling to no avail with the problem of how to perfect the format by awarding Andrea Begley the crown. So now we have a show which starts out with a panel of judges who cannot see the contestants being won by a singer who cannot see the judges – perfect!

So where do reality shows go from here?

Britain’s Got Talent did, apparently, produce the TV highlight of the year so far when viola player, Natalie Holt, left her seat in the orchestra to pelt the particularly oleaginous Svengali, Simon Cowell, with eggs. Hold on to that thought a second.

Rod Liddle asked in the latest edition of the Spectator what must rate as the question of the week – which television chef would you most like to see throttled in a restaurant?  Whilst I agree with him that Nigella Lawson wouldn’t have been top of my list, I think there is the kernel of an idea here.

As a nation we like to build up our celebs only to knock them down again with gusto. How about a reality show that involves the great British public selecting a celeb for some form of public humiliation? The list of candidate groups – bankers, politicians, minor royals, irritating TV personalities – is so extensive that there will be no shortage of programme material.

The more I think about it, this may well be the route to salvation that the British reality TV industry is desperately seeking. Now where did I put Endemol’s telephone number?

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fourteen


William Bullock (1813 – 1867)

The latest inductee to our Hall of Fame is William Bullock who transformed the printing industry with his development of the rotary perfecting press.

Bullock was born in Greenville, New York and was orphaned at an early age. He started his working career early out of necessity as a machinist and iron founder and through self-education developed an interest and profound knowledge of mechanics. By the mid-1830s he was running his own machinery shop in Savannah, Georgia and developed a shingle-cutting machine. Unfortunately, his business went bust because he was unable to market his invention.

Moving back to New York – he had found time to sire 13 children with two wives in the interim – he made artificial legs. But soon he was able to give full rein to his inventive side designing, amongst other things, a cotton and hay press, a seed planter, a lathe cutting machine and a grain drill. It was this latter invention that brought him to national prominence when he was awarded second prize by the Franklin Institute in 1849.

Shortly afterwards, our hero moved into the newspaper industry editing the American Eagle and then building a high-speed press for the nationally circulated Leslie’s Weekly in 1860. The newspaper industry was growing like topsy – by the 1850s there were over 2,500 newspapers in the US alone – and the technological deficiencies of the printing presses were seriously inhibiting production capabilities. As early as 1835, Sir Rowland Hill – he of postage stamp fame here in Blighty – suggested that the next major step forward should be the development of a press that was capable of printing on both sides of the paper at the same time. It was to this problem that Bullock applied his mind.

By 1861 he had cracked it with the rotary perfecting press and he was awarded a patent two years later, after the prototype had been installed at the Cincinnati Times. In 1865 the Philadelphia Inquirer had installed the first fully functioning model. Bullock’s machine contained a number of technological breakthroughs – it allowed for continuous large rolls of paper to be fed automatically through its rollers, thus eliminating the necessity to hand-feed paper into the machine; the press was self-adjusting, allowed printing on both sides of the paper, folded the paper and with a sharp serrated knife which rarely needed sharpening cut the sheets with rapid precision. The combination of all these features revolutionised the efficiency of the printing process. His early models were able to produce 12,000 sheets an hour and later, after further refinements, notched up an impressive 30,000 sheets an hour. His design is still used today.

But sheer genius is not enough to make it into our Hall of Fame – there has to be a flaw in your character or you have to suffer a monumental stroke of ill-fortune. It was the latter that earns Bullock his elevation to our rolls. On April 3rd 1867, our hero was making some adjustments to one of his new presses being installed for the Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper. He tried to kick a driving belt onto a pulley but, unfortunately, his leg got caught in the machinery and was crushed. Within a few days he had developed gangrene and on 12th April died on the operating theatre when surgeons were trying to amputate his leg.

Developing a revolutionary piece of technology which was the cause of his death – William Bullock is a truly worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

The Bar At The End Of The Universe


Imagine you were cruising around the galaxy. Indulge me in my fancy – imagine you were the travelling in the company of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebox, Trillian and Marvin, the paranoid android. You want a drink so you reach out for your updated version of the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – android version?. This fount of all galactic knowledge directs you to the constellation, Aquila. It is some 10,000 light years away from your former home, Earth  – now flattened to make way for an inter-galactic highway – but no matter, your spacecraft is fitted with an improbability drive and will get you there in a blink of an eye.

Why Aquila? This constellation which is 1,000 times the diameter of the solar system has an interstellar gas cloud – G34.3 – which British scientists (doesn’t it make you proud) have analysed and calculated to contain enough alcohol to make 400 trillion trillion pints of beer. Enough surely for a good night out for you and your strange travelling companions, even allowing for the one with two heads.

The presence of ethyl alcohol – what you and I glug happily – in interstellar gas clouds was first detected by a Californian scientist, Ben Zuckerman, as far back as 1975 but it is only recently that British scientists from the University of Kent have detected such a vast amount of alcohol in a celestial body. Initially, the elements and molecular fragments in the gas cloud are so diffuse that there is little chance of interaction but over time, the scientists hypothesise, gaseous components condense on the surface of dust grains which in turn brings them closer and sparks off reactions. Eventually relatively complex molecules such as alcohol are formed.

The scientists have found 32 chemical compounds in G34.3 including dimethyl ether and methyl formate but alcohol is the principal component.

So it is true – alcohol does make the world go round!

Clogged Supplies



Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will have come to realise that I have a pretty catholic taste when it comes to music. I even like folk music, although more of the folk-rock variety than the finger in the ear stuff. But if you are an aficionado of live music then just as the dread bagpipe is deemed to be the natural accompaniment to anything Scottish, so morris men seem to be the natural accompaniment to folk music.

The sainted Seb Coe – remember him? – had a run in with the morris men when ahead of the Olympics he jokingly suggested that the opening ceremony might consist of 5,000 morris dancers. This throwaway remark irked the men with beards and bells and he was the subject of a vociferous campaign prosecuted by folkies to try to restore their credibility. So you tread on dangerous ground, clearly, if you are audacious enough to criticise them.

Hardly a day goes by without you picking up the paper to read about another shortage. Indeed, the only thing we have a glut of these days is stories about shortages. And it seems that a shortage – this time of irons – is causing considerable inconvenience to the subset of our community who work up a thirst by wearing clogs and bells and beating seven shades of blue out of each other with sticks whilst cavorting in time (vaguely) to some wheezy accordion.

For the serious morris teams (or sides as they liked to be called) who perform the processional clog and step clog dances, the clog is the only footwear of choice. The irons are fitted to the soles of the wooden footwear, a bit like horseshoes. Each shoe normally has two irons, one around the toes and the other on the heel. Apparently they accentuate the noise made during the dance routines and their substitute, rubber fittings, don’t really cut it from a decibel perspective.

When available they cost about £20 a pair – the equivalent of around six pints of Dogs Bollocks which is the necessary prerequisite for the serious morris man before a performance. The reason for the shortage is that foundries and blacksmiths have stopped production of the irons because there is no money in them.

A quaint rural tradition will be imperilled unless supplies can be sourced elsewhere.I for one will be happy to see them perform without my ears being assaulted by the thunder of their footwear but that may just be me!


When I Grow Up I Want To Be A (5)..


Pure Finder

This job involved collecting dogs’ faeces which doubtless littered the streets of London. Dogs’ dung was known as pure because of its cleansing and purifying properties and was sold on to tanneries where it was used, principally, in the manufacture of leathers such as moroccos and roans. The pure – so much better than dog poop, I think – was rubbed by hand into the skin being worked upon. The dung removed all the moisture from the skin and the unpleasant odours associated with the natural skin.

Henry Mayhew spent a couple of decades observing the, to our eyes, strange trades practised on the streets of London for the News Chronicle and his articles were published in 1851 in a book entitled, London Labour and the London Poor. According to Mayhew men only practised the trade since the 1820s, it previously having been the preserve of women known as bunters who combined the collection of dog poop with their main stock in trade, the collection of rags.

Being a pure finder was a lucrative occupation as the tanneries in Bermondsey were voracious users of the stuff. They sold the dung on by the stable-bucket load and could get between 8d to 10d or even between 1s and 1s 2d a bucket, depending upon quality. Dry limy dung fetched the highest price at some yards because of its high alkaline content which made it a more effective purifying agent. Other yards, however, had a preference for the dark, moist sort. To satisfy the requirements of the latter type of customers Pure finders were not averse to adopting what might be termed tricks of the trade and adulterating what they had collected.

Tools of the trade consisted of a handle basket, usually with a cover, to hide the contents and a black leather glove for the right hand. Many Pure finders, however, dispensed with the glove on the basis that it was easier to wash their hands than to keep the glove fit for use.

Mayhew describes Pure finders as a better educated class than others who plied their trade from the detritus of the streets. Some finders who had attached themselves to kennels could earn as much as 10s to 15s a week but generally the average take-home pay was 10s at a time when the average wage was 7s 6d. However, Mayhew notes that the bottom had fallen out of the market  – some years earlier, they could get as much as 3s to 4s a pail for the pure and would not have swapped their job for the best paid mechanic’s position in town. Around the mid-nineteenth century Mayhew estimated there were around two to three hundred finders servicing the 30 or so tanneries in Bermondsey. Earnings were seasonal – in the summer they would collect a pail-full a day but in the winter because of the foul weather and the shorter daylight hours they might only collect five a week.

The reduction in the number of tanneries and changes to the production processes associated with leather did for the Pure finder but for all its unpleasantness, it was at least lucrative while it lasted.