Saturday, 20 December 2008


AND so, we reach the end of another year. Last year, of course, was the year that changed everything - Rachel and I began dating, I graduated and then I went travelling. This year, although I travelled a great deal on a smaller scale (Estonia, Finland, Hungary and lots of train journeys to Birmingham), was all about growing up: moving to the big city, getting a proper job and being an adult for a while. It has been tough on me, not because of the growing up, but because of having to learn to adapt on my own, in an entirely different manner to that I have experienced before.

But there have been many highlights, such as the discovery of Skeptics in the Pub and the divine cheesecake that I recently received in the post (yes, Rachel really is the best). The many free BBC recordings (including Genius and The Unbelievable Truth) and Phil's ongoing saga Bertie the Flying Pig have been wonderful too.

Anyway, as ever, I've been watching the inner workings of this blog. Because I'm addicted to pointless statistics, I've been watching where the readers of this blog come from, and what they type into Google to find it. It was bizarrely but uselessly satisfying when the statistics program stated that page views were up by 300% in November (this correlated with my return from personal obscurity, so it was particularly welcome), and when it appeared that I was being vetted by the Royal Navy (I had a page view from Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory).

This year I had visitors from the UK, the USA, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, France, Netherlands, India, Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Estonia, Belgium, China, Norway, Switzerland, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Greece, Turkey, South Africa, Argentina, Slovenia, Portugal, Jamaica, Hungary, Israel, Romania, Finland, Denmark, Malaysia, Egypt, Serbia, Mexico, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Iran, Slovakia, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Russia, Macedonia, Chile, Sri Lanka, South Korea, the British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, Anguilla, Lebanon, Croatia, British Indian Ocean Territory, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Ecuador.

Next year, the world!

And, as is now a tradition in the corners of blogland to which I have contributed, here is a selection of the search terms that led to this page. As ever, some of them are a bit worrying:

  • "Sue barker sexy"
    (and many permutations thereof: EIGHT of the top twenty search terms involved 'Sue Barker', 'Sexy' and 'Photos' - sorry to disappoint, tennis fans)
  • "Johnstone river crocodile farm"
    (three out of the top twenty; note my follow up post)
  • "Ay corumba"
  • "Waewae takahia"
  • "Simon says in maori"
  • "Danny Wallace"
  • "Enfield Island village"
  • "Kafka metamorphosis"
  • "Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree" and "Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson"
  • "Remy Zero Anger"
  • "Jon Ronson"
  • "A fringe of leaves"
  • "Leonardi da Vinci"
  • "Squinkers abroad"
  • "Where are the convolutions of broca?", "Carl Wernicke experiment" and "Francis gall removed cerebellum"
  • "A is for parrot which we can plainly see"
  • "Oldest human footprints Bolivia"
  • "Yes Man Singapore island"
  • "Ben Goldacre" and "Matthias Rath"
  • "Cassowary sound"
  • "Do earwigs make chutney?"
    (copyright Eddie Izzard)
  • "Steam puddings made in the marae"
  • "which Australian state capital was not named after a person?"
    (answer: Perth)
  • "Mensis intercalaris"
  • "Bruce Parry jumping over cattle"
  • "Cloudland Nature Refuge Atherton Tablelands"
  • "Did Genghis Khan conquer 1/3 of the world?"
  • "Facts about Gerald Durrell"
  • "Gugandji tribe"
  • "Ingrown toe nail pus blog"
    (I sincerely apologise)
  • "Interesting thoughts of a funny scientist"
    (I love that this links to this blog)
  • "Jesus Fiji"
  • "Orangutan news Simon Bishop"
  • "but I'm in constant terror of having cirrhosis of the liver"
    (and again, eh?!)

    And finally, and quite delightfully:
  • "Are giraffes the gayest animal?"

    And after all of my convoluted, inconclusive and pointless blogs about them, not one person came to this site searching for the Alans*.

    Roll on 2009. Already it is shaping up to be a good one - I shall begin it in a mystery location, wearing wellies.

    Merry Christmas everybody, and have a wonderful New Year.

    *More on this in 2009, I promise.
  • Thursday, 18 December 2008

    The Office Christmas Party

    BACK in October, Rachel and I went clubbing in the premier (and only) nightclub in Beaconsfield. It was a Wednesday night, I had work the next day, and I was taking antibiotics. I hadn't been in a nightclub since the Woolshed in Cairns, Australia, a year previously, and before that since 2006. Clubs just aren't my scene - I'd rather be somewhere that requires you to be less self-conscious, and able to hear what people are saying to you. In addition, the last year has done much damage to my ability to handle social situations. I knew next to nobody, and I just couldn't find a way to converse and fit in with them. I had forgotten how to dance. I couldn't drink, but somebody lovingly spiked my Coca Cola anyway. Plus the music was terrible.

    I really was quite upset about my inability to cope.

    So imagine, then, my trepidation when it came to the office Christmas party. Not only have I only just started to relax at work, but I had the stresses of getting home, fancy dress and, well, a late night to contend with. I'm getting old, you see. And did I mention I've forgotten how to dance?

    At 5.30 the entire office moved to the atrium for 'champagne' and end-of-year speeches. There was a lot of fizzy wine. The Christmas lunch had been served over the last two days in different sittings, with sandwiches provided on the alternative day. Having gone out for lunch, we now had our spare sandwiches to line our stomachs to offset the cava.

    But as we boarded the coach that had been put on to take us to the club, things momentarily got a little bit strange. The bus driver actually told me off for having food on the coach. Suddenly feeling twelve years old, I protested, saying: "I won't eat it on the bus, I promise!" and hid my sandwich in my coat. But, just like every twelve-year-old, I got the sandwich out again once out of the eyeline of the driver.

    The club was actually rather fancy. Free bubbly was handed round at the door and the bar was free all night. Canapes were brought round by waiters and waitresses, and a chocolate fountain and vodka luge kept the punters happy.

    The club was in Soho. I hadn't really known what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to find it a rather respectable place. However, while the waiters wore waistcoats and looked rather dapper, the waitresses were, to quote my colleague Isobel (who is very fond of gin), "dressed like prostitutes". It was an odd and somewhat amusing experience when one such waitress - in hotpants and basque - thrust a plate in front of us and enquired: "wedges?"

    The theme of the party was 'Glamourama', a pastiche of all things celebrity. Many made great efforts to glamourise themselves or to indulge in various celebrity desires, but no efforts had been made by our team. Unfortunately, however, the copy editors decided that the ultimate sign of celebrity culture is when boys wear make-up. I may have been attacked. Twice.

    So, wearing eye-liner, I found myself on the dancefloor. By this point I was actually relaxed. I wasn't worried about being drunk on the tube and not being able to get home, because I was in control. I wasn't worried about fancy dress, because the girls had seen to it that I looked beautiful. And I wasn't worried about not knowing how to dance because, finally, I remembered how to be the Simon of last year, before I turned into this ultra-reserved loner that I have regretably become. Katie and I warmed up our dancing shoes near the entrance and then stormed the dancefloor, tearing it up and getting on down and doing all those other things I've read about but can only assume we were doing. Satisfyingly, the whole team danced together, not caring what they looked like, just so long as they had fun. Craig seemed to particularly enjoy The Prodigy's Out of Space.

    I left at half eleven, at the same time as Elizabeth. I didn't mind leaving then - in my worry about the evening my exit strategy had been to leave much earlier, but I had had fun and stayed for my fill. But I was tired, and had a busy day the next day. As I was leaving, I could just make out Isobel shouting "more gin!"

    The following morning, a circular email from reception passed through the office. Sixty-two champagne glasses had gone missing from the atrium function.

    Sunday, 7 December 2008

    Join Me pt II (or, An Average Saturday in London)

    ...THE sun was shining, and though there was frost, I decided that it was about time I tried out my new bicycle. This is the bicycle I 'bought' in August and paid for in October, but which has sat in my living room entirely unused. My intention was to use the bike to cycle to the tube every day (or New Barnet mainline station, when I feel like going that way), cutting down my commute to a vaguely sensible time. It still hasn't happened. But it was a weekend, and I was in the mood for trying new things.

    I have never been so scared.

    What should have taken me a maximum of ten minutes took me just as long as if I had walked. Southgate may be a quiet corner of London, but it is still London, and I found myself stopping and walking at every junction and crossing as the traffic tried to edge closer to get a good look at this rare breed known as 'cyclist' (or so it felt). And to think I recently agreed to cycle from Lands End to John O' Groats.

    In central London I disembarked at Leicester Square, where I found a collective of joinees, many of whom I hadn't seen in years. Many of them had big, silly signs, the majority with the words "Free Hugs" on them. And at 2 pm, we were off, marching to Piccadilly Circus and up Regent Street, spreading the love, chocolate and general cheer.

    A note on free hugs:

    Westcountry Fun Day
    (This picture is from several years ago in Exeter)

    Now, if a random stranger came up to you and asked if you would like a hug, you'd be a little alarmed and would be seriously concerned about being mugged. But when several hundred people are all asking, and most of them have silly hats and big, silly signs asking if you would like a free hug, coupled with Christmas cheer, many people can't help but laugh and join in. We've made a lot of grannies happy over the years.

    Others at K6 yesterday gave out chocolates, Christmas cards and Christmas cheer. But before long, I had lost them, having been distracted at the start of the pedestrianised Regents Street by James Bond's Aston Martin, complete with 007 number plate. Up and down the shopping zone were street entertainers, musicians, jugglers, people on stilts, a human reindeer and a flying bicycle stencilled with the words "Love Your Mum". There were also an inordinate number of banjo and tuba combinations.

    I wandered in and out of shops, including the new and rather brilliant National Geographic store, and found my way up to Oxford Circus. Here there was a stage, with two screens and a big open red-carpeted area for the purpose of advertising the new film Australia. On stage were an excellent band called Blue Harlem, playing the music of Ray Charles and the like, with professional dancers (I would guess) leading members of the public and shaking their stuff. It was really fun to watch.

    I watched for a couple of numbers, until the band suddenly stopped and announced the arrival of Baz Luhrmann, the director of Australia (and also Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet). To a lukewarm applause (let's be honest, who really knows what Baz Luhrmann looks like?), he came on stage to speak about Australia and australia (sentence case is important). Then he announced a competition - a dance off for the public for two pairs of tickets to the film's premiere: one pair for the best dancing couple; one pair for the silliest.

    The band struck up, and many brave individuals took to the floor (which, if you remember, was the middle of the road). The eventual winners were magnificent, particularly the adorable two-and-a-half-year-old girl who pirouetted around her father and was lifted up to the cheers of the crowd at the end. I stayed for the final song, watching the professional couples and trying to take artistic photos in the lens of the spotlight, and then wandered off down Oxford Street.

    I have always gone down only one half of Oxford Street so, in the spirit of adventure, I decided to see what lay the other way (oh yes, I have wild adventures). Aesthetically, I wasn't impressed. This end of Oxford Street is far less impressive than the other. The buildings suddenly become concrete monstrosities, the shops suddenly became the same as any high street in the rest of the country. But there were live models in the Calvin Klein window of John Lewis, a steel band playing Christmas carols and I randomly found the High Commission of the Republic of Botswana. There were also interesting side streets, stalls and a very long queue outside Abercrombie and Fitch on Saville Row, where I suddenly, somehow, found myself.

    And then to the pub. The entire Pitcher and Piano had been booked for Join Me, where much drinking and merriment occurred. It was great to see some old friends and to finally talk to some familiar faces from previous years: Lou and Team Jixie, Elliott and Tim, Captain K, Giulia, Phil, Mrs S, Sheli, Martin Kneller and many others I have regrettably forgotten the names of. I met two Aussies, one of whom is an offshore cleaner; a cool Brummie called Boris and a lovely Kiwi called Sarah. And then there was time for speeches - the story of the patchwork quilt, a project that has been going on all year and was to be auctioned for charity later, and then a speech by Mr Danny Wallace himself.

    I've met Danny several times before. On the last occasion, he promised to take me bowling in Prague. This has never happened, although he might have been quite drunk. It was nice that yesterday, as he arrived, he patted me on the shoulder and said "nice to see you again", although he probably says that to everyone he vaguely recognises, particularly at Join Meets where most people have met him before. His speech was to mention the charity work of the day, a few bits of news, and then the 'almost New Year's honours' - an honouring of joinees who have done spectacular acts of kindness over the past year. My friend Lou was awarded a silvering, which raised a mighty cheer.

    Shortly after this I decided to leave. I was very tired, and the rest of the evening belonged to those more committed. To follow was an auction, a raffle, and undoubtedly lots of drunken revelry (and given the patchquilt, possibly some ravelry as well). I made the long journey back to Southgate tube station, gained a few more grey hairs as I cycled home, and retired for the evening.

    I still love Join Me, but I'm not so worried to be in the middle of it any more.

    If you would like to contribute to the chosen charity of this year's meet (Build Africa), you can donate here. The current estimate is that £1,794.95 was raised on the day.

    Join Me pt I (or, "I Belong to a Cult")

    "HAVE fun this weekend, you big weirdo."

    I have a confession to make. I belong to a cult. Well, more of a collective.

    In truth, it used to be a very big and important thing in my life, and so if I had had this blog three years ago, you would have known about it from day one. But now, well, part of me has moved on. I still find it a very entertaining and important movement, but I've been away from it for a long time, and I'm just not quite extroverted enough to dip in fully. However, yesterday was the annual London cult meet-up, so I went along and had a good laugh.

    Perhaps I should explain.

    There is a man called Danny Wallace. At the funeral of his great uncle Gallus, he discovered that Gallus had once tried to set up a commune, tired of the constant aggression and nastiness of World War II. He wanted to get one hundred people to live together on his Swiss farm, in harmony and happiness. He wanted one hundred, but he got three.

    The rest of the family laughed this off, but Danny, bored, unemployed and liable to undertaking stupid challenges, was inspired. He returned to London, determined to get Gallus his one hundred people. He was going to get one hundred people to join him. What for? He had no idea, but that didn't really matter.

    He placed an advert in the London newspaper Loot, inviting people to "Join" him, and to send him a passport photo as means of commitment. By the power of word of mouth and the Internet, slowly people began to join.

    Skip forward several years and a book. There are now thousands of "joinees", all doing the bidding of Danny, their "leader".

    Now, all of this sounds terrifyingly cultish: strangers, meeting over the Internet, doing the bidding of a man who likes sitting around in his flat, in his pants, scratching. They call him "leader".

    But it's not sinister. Because Join Me is a happy, and in no way scary, collective of like-minded lovely people. As numbers grew and became restless with a lack of direction (after all, Danny had no idea why he wanted people to join and why indeed they were joining), Danny had to eventually find a purpose for the group. And it's purpose was to be to make people happy. To go out of your way to perform a random act of kindness (RAoK) each and every Friday.

    And the reason why it works is this: for some reason it has become a taboo to be nice. Not nice in a 'be pleasant to your neighbour' way, but nice in a way that means that you go out of your way to do something exceptional for someone you don't know, just because you can. Once a good deed is done, everyone sees how wonderful it is, but it's the doing that most people refrain from. It's all too easy to walk past the homeless person without stopping to help or chat, because that is what everybody else does and it is almost what is expected of you. You wouldn't buy a stranger a pint in the pub just because it is nice, because people will think that it's strange. But given an excuse, like being a joinee (although there are many other excuses of course), all of these things are possible. Join Me tapped in to the desire of many to belong to something, and the desire for people to do amazing things, given some kind of excuse. And those doing the deed benefit too, receiving the warm, glowing feeling that comes from being a helping hand.

    I am a joinee. I have been for 5 years. For reasons I won't go into at this juncture, my joinee name is, officially, Silver Rainbow Joinee Bish-Bish. Through Join Me I have raced rubber ducks down public fountains, raised money for charity and been on television, line dancing. I have many friends within Join Me, and it's the most marvellous bunch of disparate lovely people who came together for really silly reasons. But I've drifted away. I don't perfom RAoKs every Friday - I just try to generally be nice, and not because Danny told me to, but because I am just generally nice. Or at least I hope so. Until yesterday I hadn't been to a meet in years, having missed last year's London meet for the beaches of Fiji. Before that, I'm not really sure when the last time I got involved was.

    So I decided to go to yesterday's meet to see what had become of Join Me. It is now seven years old and many have moved on, but would there be a new lease of life, new names and renewed enthusiasm? Boy, what a bizarre day it was...

    I really recommend you buy the book. If nothing else it will make you laugh. But it might just change your life.