Archive for June, 2009

The First Psychic

Posted in Books on June 22, 2009 by richardblandford

The First Psychic

You may not have heard of him, but Daniel Dunglas Home was a Victorian who crossed paths with or at least caught the attention of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Elliot, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, John Ruskin, Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday (amongst others).  Some, such as Dumas (who was his best man at his wedding) loved him. Others, like Robert Browning (who objected to his effeminacy) couldn’t stand him. So why would someone so good at getting themselves noticed by the great minds of his time now be virtually written out of history?

The answer, perhaps, is because he’s rather inconvenient.  Home was a medium, the man for whom the term ‘psychic’ was coined.  Unlike his contemporary table-tappers however, Home’s feats were never shown to be fraudulent in his lifetime.  Even now, they defy easy explanation.  Exactly how, for instance, did he manage to float out one window and through that of the room next door?

Peter Lamont’s biography, The First Psychic entertainingly faces up to the conundrum of documenting an impossible life.  Sometimes the facts seem a bit too awkwardly shoe-horned into the story structure the author is aiming for, with a grand face-off hinted at between Home and his arch-rival, John Henry (the first magician to pull a rabbit out of a hat), only for the latter merely to drunkenly shout at him in public and drop dead a short time later.

Overall, however, it’s a fascinating book that raises interesting questions about how we ‘know’ things and the limitations of the scientific method.

(I’ve been wondering whether Tim Burton knows about Home. He’d be the perfect subject for one of his films, with Johnny Depp, naturally, in the lead.)


Cooking with Sophia

Posted in Film on June 14, 2009 by richardblandford

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These frankly odd (but wonderful) pictures of Sophia Loren in the kitchen date from 1970, and were taken by Iranian photographer Vahid Sharifian (courtesy Cakehead Loves Evil).  They appeared in her cookery book, In Cucina Con Amore.  Of course, cooking with Sophia looks great fun, but can it compare to…

cooking with Vincent?

I am the DJ, I am what I play

Posted in music on June 14, 2009 by richardblandford

Little Jimmy Young discovers a phat breakbeat on a Frankie Laine b-side.


Flying Saucer Rock & Roll has been up and running for four weeks, and as it’s listened to by somebody rather than nobody, I consider it a success.  Spotify is an ocean of sound in which I’m drowning, and I plan to write a blog post about why it’s the spiritual salvation of all mankind quite soon.

In the meantime, just to say I’m now uploading all my playlists to, so if you miss one, they’re there, ready to be enjoyed for all eternity.  Just search for ‘Richard Blandford’ or ‘Flying Saucer Rock & Roll Radio’ and they’ll all come up.

Meanwhile, as it’s summer, I’m compiling a special playlist for next week on the theme of communication with the dead.  As always, it’ll be up about midday on Thursday, and can be accessed by clicking on ‘FSRAR Radio’ on the sidebar.  Enjoy!

Dandy in the Underworld

Posted in Books on June 6, 2009 by richardblandford

I think it was William Burroughs who said that all junkies become the same person in the end. If that’s true, then it seems that the person they become is one who, if they ever kick their addiction, feels compelled to pen a memoir describing their self-inflicted hell in harrowing detail.

Sebastian Horsley is just such a recovering addict with a book out. What raises his above the rest, however, is that it is very funny.

Horsley is an artist and dandy of independent wealth who, in Dandy in the Underworld, writes in an impressively Wildean style about his various exploits. He is particularly strong on his childhood years, portraying an upbringing of startling insanity amongst the moneyed class.

So good is he at setting up his story, that much of what follows falls a bit flat. His wit can’t quite disguise the fact that the decadence he indulges in as an adult is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. Drugs. Prostitutes. More drugs. Actually being a prostitute. Heard it all before, I’m afraid. At this point, he’d need to engage in an act of horrifying perversion involving at least six members of the Royal Family, including Prince Philip, AND the funny-looking one from Girls Aloud before I could really give him my full attention.

Also, sometimes his wit fails him, and arch wickedness descends into plain misanthropy. For instance, here he is on his stepmother:

Where Mother had chosen to drink herself out of the world, Stepmother had chosen to eat herself into it. There is nothing remotely heroic about an eating problem. Worse than this she had no style. In India the elephants wear better emeralds.

This wouldn’t be so bad if later on, he went swimming with sharks and got all awe-inspired at their terrible power. Sorry, Sebastian, if you want me to care about your tedious sharks, you’ve got to care about my tedious human beings first.

Anyway, all in all it’s a good, clever book. Somewhere in-between My Booky Wook and The Naked Civil Servant.

Bang A Gong

Posted in TV on June 3, 2009 by richardblandford

British Idol Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle duetting with a cat, yesterday.


I came to the Susan Boyle story late.  Britain’s Got Talent isn’t my type of show, and she doesn’t make my kind of music (or Michael Barrymore’s, apparently).  Channel flicking on Saturday night, however, I did catch a bit of the final, and what I saw was rather worrying, for reasons that will now be all too obvious.  ‘That woman’s got learning difficulties,’ I found myself saying, ‘don’t they realise that?’

Following a brisk bit of Internet research, it turns out that yes, they did know that, and so did loads of other people as it had been in the papers.  Which is fine, no reason for her not to compete, as long as they were taking it into account, I thought. Later on, I found out that Boyle had lost to a Transformers-inspired dance troupe, and that, I presumed, was the end of it.  

Except that it wasn’t, of course, and as you all know, the story’s since moved on in a darker fashion.  But in-between the contest and Boyle’s anxiety-induced incident that led to her current stay in the Priory, I found myself intrigued by the idea of someone with learning difficulties doing so well in a show such as Britain’s Got Talent (normally they get knocked out in the preliminary rounds after being publicly mocked by smug millionaires) and did a bit of background reading.  Two things struck me as being of particular interest, and somewhat worrying.  Firstly, it seems that Boyle may not have put herself forward for the programme in the first place, but was actively sought out by the production team, who were already aware of her (thereby somewhat demolishing the ‘well, she shouldn’t have applied if she didn’t want the attention’ defense).  Secondly, in the week leading up to the final, she expressed a strong desire not to take part, but was nevertheless somehow talked back into it, with mixed results.

I don’t want to go into that much analysis of it, as that’s what the columnists at the Guardian are for (and I wouldn’t want to deprive them of any of the frothing comments that come their way online), but this does seem to have been a situation where a vulnerable adult with a temper, who had been managing their own stress levels all their life, recognised that they were reaching breaking point, but found themselves in a situation where they didn’t have an independent advocate, and were not taken seriously by the people around her, many of whom had a financial stake in making sure she performed.  Anyway, as a good citizen, I complained to Ofcom who, I understand, aim to do nothing.

What I really want to talk about here are the roots of Britain’s Got Talent, namely a seventies American programme called The Gong Show.  This was the first time that a talent show’s main selling point was not how good the acts were, but how bad.  It was devised and hosted by one Chuck Barris, a man who will surely go down in history as one of the most important figures in television.  British shows such as Blind Date and Mr & Mrs are variants on formats he created.  Barris also claimed to have been a hit-man for the CIA in his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (made into a film by George Clooney), but this might be a lie.

The format of The Gong Show was simple.  Barris would introduce acts of varying degrees of weirdness to a studio audience.  Like Britain’s Got Talent, there was a panel of three judges, who sat in front of a large gong.  When a judge could bear an act no more, they would hit the gong, and the act would have to stop.  Not all the acts were bad, however.  Some, such as The Unknown Comic (a comedian with a paper bag on his head) and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (essentially just a man dancing in an amusing manner) became viewer favourites,and would come back regularly.  Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) was just one of the performers who would go on to become professional entertainers.

Now, on the one hand, this programme reintroduced the idea of the freak show as entertainment, and when watching the clips, the sound of the crowd jeering some of the acts is not pleasant.  Crucially, however, I would argue that it has one fundamental virtue above it’s bastard offspring, Britain’s Got Talent.  There was hardly anything to win.  Whereas Simon Cowell dangles fame, fortune and a full showbiz career as a carrot, thus drawing in the unintentional comedy acts he needs simply by playing on their sheer desperation, The Gong Show’s top prize was $516.32.  All that was really on offer was a chance to take part in the carnival.  And even if the performer’s role in the carnival was to be gonged off the stage, there was always a sense that they weren’t being rejected due to their strangeness, but in a weird way, embraced because of it.  The gong was almost a symbol of belonging.  ‘Gabba, gabba, we accept you, one of us.’

In Britain’s Got Talent, the buzzers are a means of division, separating the acceptable from the freaks, ‘us’ from ‘them’.  This year, someone who had spent her life being a ‘them’ was seemingly sought out and let through the barrier as a gimmick.  Now she’s stranded in the world of ‘us’, wondering how she’ll ever get back home.

Anyway, here are some Gong Show clips.