Radio Z: Time, gentlemen, please!

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The most remarkable thing about post-apocalyptic Britain was that it was incredibly clean. While Romero, Boyle, et al, portray a zombie outbreak as a terribly messy affair, the undead are rather respectful about their surroundings.

Initially, the infestation did cause somewhat of a palaver – you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, after all – but the streets of Blighty had never been cleaner. Say what you will about the brain-eaters, but they did not leave a morsel when it came to devouring a corpse; not a single body part was wasted.

Yes, post-apocalyptic Britain was spick spock. You could eat your food off the floor, as the zombies did on a daily basis, chomping on your Great Aunt Nora or disemboweling your Year 8 geography teacher; for which, you probably owed them one.

The remaining survivors, of course, did not call them zombies. They were far too proper for that. Instead, the carnivorous creatures were referred to as ‘the visitors’. You might as well have called them the migrants – coming over here, stealing our wives and brains – because, even in the end of days, the British were still inherently xenophobic. For once, however, the proud yet ignorant Anglo-Saxon could not blame Europe, nor the so-called influx of insiders; their Royston Vasey attitude was not warranted as their downfall came closer to home.

There is probably some exceptionally clever, convoluted, and downright preposterous explanation to somehow rationalise how the harmless – no, that’s not quite true, is it? – the perfectly tedious British population transformed into monsters. The science does not matter, though. When one is faced with the prospect of an out-of-control creature chewing on your gonads as a hors d’oeuvre, one does not question the origins of the beast. Instead, the mind focuses on finding a blunt object to hasten its demise. The zenith of the fucker is irrelevant when you are attempting to cause its nadir.

Was it a case of scientific experimentation going too far? Or was it hydraulic fracturing? Or perhaps it was God punishing all of the homosexuals on BBC television? In truth, no one had a bloody clue what caused the zombie apocalypse. They were interested in the what, where, and when, and had very little interest in the how.

There were rumours, of course – fake news, Twitter, and cockroaches proved the strongest of survivors – that it all started in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. While lumberjacks, pretentious wankers, and a pure sexual infatuation for vinyl may have originated from there, they could not claim that they were zombies before it was cool.

London, much like their attitude to the rest of the United Kingdom, wiped their hands of the ordeal – well, until it started to reach Milton Keynes, and then they began to panic.

Speculation surrounding the East Lancashire town, Burnley, grew. Although it was rather easy to compare its nightclub dwellers to the brainless, it was sadly a red herring. But they were not far away.

No, it all began in another old mill town, in a place that time had forgot after its initial flirtation in the late 19th century: Acorn Town.

Acorn Town could not take much credit for anything: a talent show reject from a few years ago, maybe; a football club that once punched above its weight and won the First Division many moons ago; or a one-hit wonder rock star that vacated the town at the earliest opportunity.

It doesn’t have much chance to impact the world nowadays, so it questionably puffed out its chest by being responsible for the death of mankind.

Acorn Town, oddly enough, did not contain any acorns. There was no recorded evidence to state that it ever did. While history books take great pains to delve into bloodshed, power and industry, forestation is pretty low down in the priorities of chroniclers. Acorn Town may have contained acorns at some point in its chronology, but no one felt the urge to jot it down. In fact, there were not many trees left to grow the acorns. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, greenery had been swapped for machinery, hills for mills, and a perfect blue sky in God’s England for smoke and soot.

Much like their championship-winning football team, residents simply would not let anyone forget about their industrial past. However, Acorn Town suffered from second album syndrome. The town’s official motto, Labore et Sapientia, had become redundant.

It was a perfectly lovely town, but the soul had been torn out of it. It gave no clue of its fall from grace, with its charming Victorian architecture and quaint town centre, containing the usual town hall, post office and public house.

The town had not given up – how could it? It was just brick and mortar – but its people were defeated. The residents of Acorn Town were dead, long before the zombies arrived.

A visit to the Last Orders, the battered yet defiant stalwart guarding the edge of town, would allow you to be face-to-face with the undead preceding their rise from the grave.

There was Alun, the portly landlord, whose breath ponged of stale cigarettes and pork scratching. He reflected his choice of newspaper, the Daily Express, with his foul-mouthed rants about political correctness, the fuckin’ European Union, and – heaven forfend – Generation-cuntin’-Snowflake. He shed a quiet man-tear when Princess Diana was mentioned – “she was the People’s Princess!” – and achieved a semi-erection when he heard the national anthem; when the Union Jack was raised up the mast, he offered his own salute (and not with his hands).

And then there were the two old boys, Reg and Derek, who were as much as part of the furniture as the out-of-tune piano in the corner, the wobbly snooker table, and the permanently out-of-order condom machine in the gents’ bogs. Occasionally breaking from their prolonged and intense staring contested with their pints of bitter, the pair would offer a mono-syllabled conversation to one another – and to no one else.

“‘Ee.”

“Aye?”

“Nay.”

“Oh.”

“He?”

“Thou?”

“Yay.”

“Fie!”

“Aye!”

“Aye.”

And finally, in unison, they would produce a drawn-out “‘Eeeeeee”, as though their mouths were serving as an exhaust. This high-brow intellectual debate would conclude with a tut, and a thorough examination of the aesthetically pleasing half-empty pint of bitter (they were Lancastrian – it would never be half-full). They were simple men, and followed the philosophy of ‘one rule for all’: their cups of tea and pints were provided by Tetley’s.

The clientele of the Last Orders could not place an age on Reg and Derek, and behind their backs, there was a wager – totalling £63.46 over the years – on who will die first. Both Reg and Derek outlived the rest of the bastards when the outbreak occurred. The zombies chose not to target the elderly generation. Even though they were brain dead, zombie logic made the creatures play the long game. Why force yourself into the effort of recruiting the nearly dead to the undead? And Candice was probably a juicier bite than 85-year-old Agatha (we’ll return to Agatha a bit later on).

Tapping their feet on the sticky floor, one would hope was from spilt booze and not other substances, were the trendy individuals who were undoubtedly underage. Alun deplored them as much as he despised “puffs”; he never married, however, so – as our American cousins remark in their vulgar bastardisation of the English language – you do the math.

As Quentin Crisp once remarked, and shamefully misquoted here, the hypocrisy of youth is that they rebel from their parents, and conform with their peers. The group of three college students were so alike, it was nigh on impossible to differentiate between the trio. For now, they shall be called Teenager 1, Teenager 2, and Teenager 3. Although they were barely out of their nappies, and struggling to contain his simmering loathing for the group, Alun still relented and served the pimply-faced, hormonal Three Musketeers with their ridiculous requests for fruit cider – “poofs!” – and Jaggerbombs. Perhaps it was unfair for Alun to call them poofs, for the sole fact that he struggled to determine their gender. When he overheard their surreal conversations, he really wish he hadn’t bothered.

“Cows are the most dangerous animals in the world,” surmised Teenager 1.

“What?” interjected Teenager 2.

“Cows are the most dangerous animals in the world.”

“What the fuck are you going on about?”

“Hear me out. Y’know, when cows, like, y’know,” he/she blushed, “break wind…”

“Fart?” Teenager 3 suggested.

“Yes,” he/she/your guess is as good as mind muttered, turning crimson, “Y’know when cows fart, they produce methane. And methane is a dangerous gas.”

“So are your farts!” added Teenager 2, giggling like a school-girl, which they may very well have been. The joint puffed ten minutes earlier probably did not help, betrayed by the excessive consumption of crisps. They would no doubt order a kebab during their stumble home, or a KFC rip-off that tries to avoid any copyright issues by calling itself the Kolonel’s Fried Chicken.

“Fuck off,” blurted Teenager 1, “Well, methane contributes to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect hastens global warming. And global warming will eventually fuck us up the arse!”

A silence passed over the group, as they sat back in awe at this Nostradamus-esque prediction.

“And, like, cows produce milk. Well, milk is used in yoghurts and chocolate. Chocolate causes obesity. Obesity causes heart attacks. Heart attacks cause death.”

Teenager 2 gasped, “Fuck.”

Teenager 3 gasped, “Fuck.”

Alun reached up behind the bar, with the strain lifting his already tight t-shirt and exposing his gut to the unlucky punters, and rang the rusty bell (not a euphemism).

“Time, gentlemen, please!” he bellowed.

Last orders were called at the Last Orders, as the zombies prepared to strike.

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When Harry Met Salford

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In its heyday, Cross Lane in Salford buzzed with activity. Within half a mile, there were butchers, bakers, chemists, furniture shops, clothing shops, toy shops, two undertakers’ parlours, a railway station, two music halls, two cinemas, a drill hall, an open market, churches, and eighteen – yes, eighteen – pubs. Standing high on Cross Lane was the Regent Theatre – later known as the Palace.

Upon opening in 1895, theatrical magazine ERA – with the nickname “The Actor’s Bible” – noted “the vast experience of the architect could suggest has been done to make the building as complete and comfortable as possible”. Shaped as a horseshoe, the interior was brightly decorated in cream, lavender and gold. Entering the theatre, you would walk across grand mosaic tiled flooring to reach the 1700 capacity auditorium split into the pit and a lavish gallery. Local historian Tony Flynn, in his book The History of Salford Cinemas, calls the Regent Theatre a “magnificent building”.

In this grand theatre, which cost £14,000 to build (around £1.5m in today’s terms), magician and escapologist Harry Houdini was lying in a coffin. He wasn’t dead. This was September 1904. It would be another twenty-two years before the artist, whose real name was Erik Weisz, would meet his fate after rupturing his appendix in a stunt gone wrong. The magician was performing his infamous finale, ‘Mysto’s Coffin Trick’.

Tony Flynn argues that the theatre always produced a series of firsts in Salford.

He said: “The Regent Theatre had established itself as Salford’s foremost place of entertainment. The theatre was the venue for Salford’s first moving picture show in 1901, courtesy of Thomas Edison’s Animated Picture Company.

“(When it became a cinema) The Salford Palace could claim to be the first cinema in Salford to show talking films. The Jazz Singer was screen there on September 2nd 1929.”

Created by John Heywood Ltd, Printers, Manchester - courtesy of the Library of Congress

Created by John Heywood Ltd, Printers, Manchester -The Magic Poster Collection (Library of Congress)

Hidden behind a curtain, Houdini was placed in a coffin with the lid screwed down and the screws were covered in sealing wax. He was free within two minutes. The sealing wax was miraculously unbroken. The great showman then dared his captive audience to perform the same trick for a fee of £300 if they achieved it. He produced the banknotes onstage. There were no takers.

Houdini had fared worse in another Lancastrian town forty miles away called Blackburn, two years earlier. Throughout Europe and the US, Houdini had earned the nickname of “The Handcuff King”, where he challenged audiences to bring forth a pair of any regulation handcuffs and he would break free from them. On October 24th 1902, the proprietor of the Blackburn School of Physical Culture, William Hope Hodgson produced a set of irons wrapped in twine and with the locks altered to a packed house at the Palace Theatre. Reluctantly, with many vocal protests, Houdini accepted the challenge.

After two hours of contortion and false starts, Houdini staggered from behind his curtain onto the stage with his shirt torn from the cuff to the shoulder, his wrists and biceps bleeding profusely, and barely able to stand. When asked two years later about several scars “as though some tiger had clawed him”, Houdini explained that he had simply been to Blackburn.

However, onstage at the Regent Theatre in Salford, Houdini was having an easy ride. After receiving no volunteers to take on Mysto’s Coffin Trick, he repeated the stunt in under a minute – half of the original time. But Houdini did something that made his act different from other copycats, he broke the ‘Magic Code’ and explained how the trick was done: the screws from the head of the coffin had been removed, which gave him time to escape and then replace them.

Magicians and clairvoyants are sometimes synonymous. They apply the same techniques, cater to the same audience and their entire craft relies on illusion. The distinguishment between a clairvoyant and a conjuror is: honesty.

At the start of his career, Houdini and his wife Bess were known as Professor and Mademoiselle Houdini, clairvoyants. However, he had a change of heart after he had a sudden realisation of the “seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed”. As well as being a magician, Houdini became a debunker – a tradition inherited by the likes of James Randi, Paul Zenon and Derren Brown.

"Harry Houdini" by "Famous Players - Lasky Corporation.", US - The Library of Congress, McManus-Young Collection,

“Harry Houdini” by “Famous Players – Lasky Corporation.”, US – The Library of Congress, McManus-Young Collection,

Harry Houdini was the ultimate PR man – he knew how to spin and sell tickets for his shows. Before his appearance at the Regent Theatre, the Handcuff King asked the Chief Constable, Mr J W Hallam, if he could be locked in the police cells in Bexley Square. Tony Flynn describes the incident in his Cross Lane book:

“Permission was reluctantly granted. Houdini was shown into a cell, his clothing was taken off him and the cell was locked. His clothes were locked in an adjacent cell. Within five minutes he escaped, broken into the cell, got dressed and informed the police he was free.”

Tony hypothesises that it was likely he had hidden a skeleton key in his mouth and picked the mouth. It is a good theory. Always accompanying Houdini was his wife Bess and his brother Theo. During a similar escape in the Kremlin, Houdini escaped a Siberian Transport Cell under the guard of the Russian Secret Police. Theo had assisted by sneaking in a skeleton key.

Lock picking was a relatively new skill for Houdini, as the Manchester Guardian reported in 1904. One day, his fellow boarders in a hotel “scoffed at him” one night as the infamous escapologist had to ask for a key from reception as he had lost his.

Tony Flynn calls the trick at Bexley Square a “unusual publicity stunt”, but it was trick Houdini employed to every town and city he played in. Again, to show the shrewdness of Houdini’s public relation skills, when Scotland Yard refused to allow Houdini to perform a similar stunt in London – and with dwindling ticket sales – all of a sudden, a Daily Mirror reporter challenged the magician to escape manacles created over five years, specifically for Houdini to escape from. After more than an hour onstage at the Hippodrome, he was free. The Daily Mirror representative presented a silver replica of the handcuffs as a reward, and all the English newspapers reported on it. His captive fan were unaware of Houdini’s cosy relationship with the Mirror, where he produced columns for them, and the fact that the replica pair had been created a year prior to the challenge.

The Regent Theatre where Harry Houdini ‘treaded the boards’ is sadly no more, after being demolished in 1963. Cross Lane is virtually unrecognisable. The eighteen pubs have been reduced to one, the cinemas are gone and the railway station no longer exists. But the memories still endure, where Harry Houdini joins the alumni of Cross Lane with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, King Edward VII, W C Fields, David Lloyd George and Tommy Cooper all known to set foot in the once busy half a mile in Salford.

Courtesy of Craig Sunter, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Craig Sunter, via Wikimedia Commons

Appreciation in Iambic Pentameter

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As National Poetry Day is met with scepticism, Dan McLaughlin examines why the art form is under appreciated.

When the average person thinks of poetry, they are transported back to the socially awkward situation of being a 14-year-old in a classroom being told to recite Shakespearean sonnet. This uncomfortable scenario brings back red-faced memories of stuttering through ‘Tyger, tyger burning bright’ whilst your teacher orders you to appreciate the poem. How does one appreciate a poem, when forced? It conjures up images of the bad cop/good cop routine, in iambic pentameter.

National Poetry Day may very well bring scepticism from those tortured with Keats and DH Lawrence during their schooldays. However, poetry is not evil. It can be a rather pleasant thing when one begins to understand and enjoy it. Stephen Fry wrote in his wonderful guide to poetry, An Ode Less Travelled:

“Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal chords.”

Stephen_Fry

 

(‘Stephen Fry’  courtesy of GNU via WikimediaCommons)

How come they don’t teach you this in school? Mainly, because education is a sausage machine where the students are processed to get grades, not appreciation. You are never taught of the silly joy of reading Tennyson’s Kraken in a Glaswegian accent (Below the thunders of the upper deep/Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea/
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep/
The Kraken sleepeth) or attempting to read the first line of Simon Armitage’s The Christening aloud with a straight face (I am a sperm whale).

Poetry comes across as a bit archaic. Soon its windows will fail, and it will not be able to see to see. Our etymology is evolving, and once romantic language, which stemmed from our stanzas will be replaced with acronyms and LOL. This is evident via Twitter, where @Lawrah86 attempted poetry in 140 characters with:

When poetry tries to be at its most cool, it still looks pretentious with its tweed jacket and leather elbow pads. Beat poetry is a popular form of verse, but it so easily ridiculed. In the Mike Myers’ film So I Married An Axe Murderer the protagonist attempts beat poetry (or slam poetry, in the US) with these killer lines:

“Woman.

Woe, man!

Whoa, man!

She was a thief.

You got to belief.

She stole my heart, and my cat.”

 Although Tim Minchin’s 9 ½ minutes beat poem, called Storm, is well worth a read and a watch.

iambic_pentameter

 

(‘Iambic Pentameter’ courtesy of Remy van Elst via Picasa)

Plato once said, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history”. Poetry is an uncensored form of communication flowing directly from the poet’s mind; almost like a diary that happens to rhyme. It is a personal and visceral thing, so when our teachers forced upon us ‘appreciation’, this was completely the wrong approach. I have remained unmoved by some poetry, such as Lawrence and Keats because I am hardly lovey-dovey; but I find Edgar Allan Poe enthralling, because I have been terrified of his poem Raven since my Nan bought me his anthology from a charity shop as a child.

Some of you may have attempted to write poetry, for which I congratulate you. It is a hugely daunting task, and there are only a select few who can achieve it. Primary school teachers up and down the country seek solitude in whiskey after hearing “the cat in the hat sat on the mat” fifty times over. I once tried to write some form of comprehensible poetry, when my best friend became a father for the first time. Here is my feeble attempt:

“I have no wise words for you today, my friend:                                                                                           This is where the jurisdiction of my wit ends.
                                                                                                  I’m afraid I don’t have any philosophy to cite,
                                                                                                No great thinkers to quote, try as I might.

So this is it! When art starts to make sense!
                                                                                                     No more jokes at the poet’s expense.
                                                                                                         Suddenly you start to listen to Keats and Tennyson:
                                                                                        All because of the birth of wee Lennon.”

Poetry is archaic, uncool and perhaps on life support machine awaiting a power failure, but it is also brutally honest. Do not quiver in fear of National Poetry Day, but celebrate the institution of true emotions.