Interview – Harry Whitewolf

Back in September I reviewed Harry Whitewolf’s novel The Road to Purification, Hustlers Hassles and Hash. Author, poet and traveller, Whitewolf’s writing is a fusion of observation, fact and speculation. I asked Harry about his work, travelling, the number 11 and gn****.

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Am I The Only One Who Thinks The Zombie Joke Is Funny?

One thing I don’t like is reading jokes. Gags on paper are never funny for me. Comedy literature is different, but reading ‘this fella went into a bar…’ never raises a smile.

But I’m going to ignore my own rule with this post because there’s no other way of telling you the zombie joke. And when I do tell it no one laughs.

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The Road To Purification – Harry Whitewolf

Guides to foreign travel tend to fall into two camps: Rough Guide/Lonely Planet hipster real-life travel; and posh folk writing idyllic memoirs of unrealistically tranquil settings, sometimes accompanied by tame wildlife.

Harry Whitewolf’s odyssey falls into a camp of its own. An autobiographical miasma of reportage, history lessons and ‘what to avoid’ advice you’ll never read in a mainstream published book.

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Why The Private Sector Is Better

Ha! Fooled you. Clickbait, you see. It’s what the private sector is good at: discovering ever more devious ways of diverting you away from what you want to what it wants.

But I’m not here to bore you with pinko-commie anti-capitalist ranting. I want to examine more closely the often-heard assertion that the private sector does things better than the public sector.

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Spontaneous Human Combustion

I love the supernatural, I love the unexplained, the paranormal, a good mystery. In the early 1980s, the perfect magazine was published. Called The Unexplained, it was all about the unexplained.

It nearly scared me to death. Literally.

The adverts started to appear on telly and I was soon hounding my parents to buy it. I was at school at the time and someone else beat me to it. Another lad, Jeffrey Westwell, no stranger to the unexplained himself after turning up for school one day in a pair of inexplicably flared trousers, told me all about the first edition and a terrifying phenomenon called SHC: spontaneous human combustion.

When someone standing in a school corridor describes the human body going up in smoke it doesn’t have quite the same impact as seeing the after effects in print. The article had several pages of ugly black and white photographs of a solitary leg or the top half of a torso, surrounded by ash, the rest of the room virtually untouched.

At the time, the phenomenon was little understood. The surroundings unaffected by the heat, the burning apparently confined to the body and nothing else, baffled experts and with no obvious source of the fire the primary explanation was that the fire came from within, starting spontaneously. Hence the name.

Spontaneous combustion is not unknown. Haystacks, wood shavings, bales of paper, can heat up internally to immense temperatures and if the ignition temperature for that material is reached it spontaneously combusts. I’ve seen and felt a fire brick left inside a pile of tree bark mulch. After several hours the brick was too hot to handle without wearing gloves.

And spontaneous human combustion isn’t new, as anyone who has read Bleak House will know. Dickens, no stranger to the unexplained, created a seminal scene in which Mr Krook dies after spontaneously combusting.

It was a perfect storm. Grisly photos and a teenager already possessing a distaste for charred bodies. In 1975 following the IRA bombings in Guildford and Birmingham, the BBC helpfully displayed a police poster asking if witnesses could ‘identify this person.’ ‘This person’ being nothing more than a carbonised lump. I never forgot that image.

After reading the magazine, I lay in bed that night waiting for it to happen. Every twitch was the first stirring of the flame, every tingle round the ankle, every mild rumble of the stomach was the beginning of the inferno. I didn’t sleep for a week and got so worked up I had to sleep in a spare bed in my parents’ room.

I survived and life returned to normal until about two years later. We had moved house, my sister was married and one evening her husband bounded up the stairs with a question I hoped I’d never hear: “Chris, have you ever heard of spontaneous human combustion?” The anxiety began again.

But what exactly caused this bizarre form of death? There were two elements that had originally confused the experts: no apparent source of the fire (no bomb, no flame thrower, no anti-tank round, no exploding petrol tank. . . .); and the fire seemed to be contained to a very limited area (no burned furniture or walls, the only damage being to that immediate area where the body lay).

Experiments eventually concluded that the fuel was body fat and everything else fell into place when all the victims were considered as a group rather than viewed as individuals.

Many of the victims were elderly and living alone. Many of them were found close to an open fireplace or heater. The best explanation was that they caught fire from an exposed hem of clothing or a dropped cigarette end after they had fallen asleep. What happened next was rare, and by its rarity, exacerbated the explanations. Instead of going up in flames, the victim would lie burning, the fire fuelled by body fat which burns very slowly at high temperatures. They were in effect, cooked from the inside out. And because of the slow smouldering and internalised fuel source, there was little damage to the objects around them.

What these victims didn’t do was spontaneously combust.

Little comfort to me back in 1980, lying in bed shaking like a leaf, terrified of turning into a human candle. It ruined my birthday; the magazine was one of a number of gifts which included a 7 inch single of The Big Match theme tune, which to this day still reminds me of the torment.

And if you’re wondering why there are no images of spontaneous human combustion in this post, there are plenty on the internet if you want to search for them. But maybe leaving it to your imagination will be enough. It’s where the unexplained sometimes belongs, not in front of you in the real world.


Emergency! The Head Office Has Vanished

In a remarkable act of corporate conjuring, Apple has succeeded in making its head office disappear. This raises serious issues for CEO Tim Cook: has his chair disappeared too? Has Tim Cook disappeared?

Probably not because Apple have kicked up a fuss following the EU’s demands to pay back corporation tax owing to the Irish government who, in a twist of irony bordering on the pornographic, don’t want it.

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I Read The Guardian, But I Don’t Know Why

A few weeks ago I came across a free copy of the Daily Star. For those higher mortals who don’t live in Britain, the Daily Star is a tabloid newspaper. Noted for its bums-and-boobs approach to journalism, the Daily Star makes the Sun look like the Encyclopedia Britannica.

It’s a throwback to an age when humans shared the earth with Neanderthals. In fact you might say the Daily Star came along forty thousand years too late. It’s original editor was a toothy Cockney called Derek Jameson, nicknamed Sid Yobbo by Private Eye. The Spirit of Yob lives on in the Daily Star; brief of sentence, limited in intelligence, it isn’t read by white van man, it’s read by the van.

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Who On Earth Thought Insects Were a Good Idea?

They nip, bite, sting, burrow into the flesh, occupy our intestines and eat eyeballs. They spread diseases and those that don’t spread diseases carry the bacteria and viruses that do spread diseases.

In short, they are an unecessary evolutionary sick joke. They weren’t created by a Creator, they were created by the Creator’s morbid teenage son who had seen too many horror films.

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The Incredible Disappearing Man

It always tickles me when I read a blogger apologising for not blogging in a while. But then if they have hundreds of caring followers I can see why they would do that. I, on the other hand, struggle to get more than twenty readers per post and I know you lot won’t have missed me, but . . . I’m back. Sort of.

It all comes down to priorities. In my self-employed days I could write in the afternoons when the cafes were open, work in the mornings and evenings. But now I’m fully employed and because I can’t write at home there are limited public places I can go evenings and weekends. Given a choice between working on the fifth novel and blogging, the blog paid the price.

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Interview – Leo X Robertson

This interview should have been posted here back in May (possibly 2015!), but thanks to a lethal brew of inertia and pre-occupation with a new job and duff car salesmen – excuses, excuses, they’re all just feeble excuses – indie author Leo Robertson has been forced to wait for his place in the pantheon of The Opening Sentence interviewees.

However, this is a big ‘un. Well worth the wait. So sit down with whatever it is you sit down with to drink and hear Leo’s take on self-publishing, world literature and selling out.

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Latest Spam no.4

There’s been quite a lot of spam recently in response to The Agent’s Cipher blog post, but that is now closed to comments, so those adverts for American football shirts will be coming your way soon.

Today, I received a very nice comment from a man called Xoy Chaopi, who might be Aztec, I’m not sure. Anyway, here’s my line by line response.

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Match of the Day v Kick Off

If you don’t like football, switch off now. This is a 100% footie post, with a difference. It’s not about football itself, but a television phenomenon that may outlast the pyramids.

Saturday nights in the 1970s had a certain pattern to it: The Generation Game, Starskie and Hutch, and the evening finished off in the smokey company of Parkinson. Sandwiched between Huggy Bear and Michael Parkinson being attacked by a puppet emu was Match of the Day.

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The Museum of Childhood Toys and Games

In 2015 I took a walk around the estuary of the River Kent and nearly walked my feet off. Half way along the route, passing a farm with a load of fairground rides in storage, an idea came to me: a museum containing all the toys and games of my childhood.

A search of Ebay revealed a lot of these games and selling for a lot more than we paid for them at Christmas and birthdays in the 1970s. I made a list of some of the exhibits. It would be an interactive museum with visitors free to play the stuff on display:

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Burt Bacharach

One day in the 1970s, a new LP turned up in the house. A collection of songs by Burt Bacharach. One song in particular stood out: This Guy’s in Love With You. It wasn’t necessarily the song that connected, but its association with . . . witchcraft!

Every Sunday we’d go for a day trip and one of the places we’d visit was Pendle Hill, the gloomy presence hovering over the villages of Newchurch and Sabden and Roughlee, places associated with the Pendle witches and bursting with evocative historical atmosphere.

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Wheeler Dealers

Wander from the surfaced path of terrestrial television and you soon find your feet trudging through the quagmires of cable, satellite and freeview broadcasting. There are so many channels, and thanks to a quirk of the universe, twenty-four hours in the day.

To any right-thinking person there simply isn’t enough content to fill the millions of hours of vacant broadcasting space. Apart from the BBC, most channels make a valiant effort by filling the space with adverts, but look hard enough and you will find televisual gems. One of them is Wheeler Dealers.

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Falco subbuteo, to all you thickos who don’t know yer birds, is the Latin name for the Hobby. And with that sentence we learn why a table-top football game entered the world with such an obscure name. It makes sense in hindsight.

At its peak of popularity, Subbuteo was more realistic than the real game. To the aficionado there wasn’t a single element of the game you couldn’t buy. And it all came in the distinctive green Subbuteo boxes. In any sports or toy shop, the Subbuteo section was a wonderland in waiting.

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Who Leaked the Fonseca Papers?

The news has been circling the world for a couple of weeks following the massive leak of 11 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The documents contained information we already knew, summed up best by Noel Cowerd in The Italian Job: ‘Camp Freddie, everybody in the world is bent.‘ Or, to put a little more accuracy on it, every member of the super-rich elite is bent.

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The Champions

There’s a Golden Age of television theme tunes, from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, a time when the programme and the opening music became one in a perfect marriage. The Persuaders is a stand out theme, along with Van Der Valk, but there’s one more worth mentioning: The Champions.

Written by Tony Hatch, who had a run of hit singles writing for Petula Clark, the theme tune for The Champions encapsulated the glamour, the mystique, the internationalism of the programme’s premise. Three supergifted investigators working for Geneva-based crime unit Nemesis.

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Latest Spam no.2

Another lonely communication between the nether regions of the internet.

And continuing my generosity in helping the sad and confused (kindred spirits) I’m sharing another message in the hope that some of you might find sympathy and empathy with our less fortunate cousins.

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The Evolution of Corporations

A question came to me the other night. Having read an article in the Guardian about the high street pharmacy Boots turning into a corporate retail monster, I sat listening to Going for the One by Yes, one of the first albums ever lent to me by a schoolfriend.

As Jon Anderson warbled over Chris Squires’ squirming bass lines two issues coalesced. Corporate greed and recording albums. You see, back in the day, when I put an album onto a C30 cassette (which in the case of Going for the One, meant losing about ten minutes of Awaken), record labels were run by music enthusiasts. They were business men, don’t get me wrong, but they knew about blank tapes and how they were used.

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Airfix isn’t the only company that makes construction kits, but like Hoover and Biro, the name means the same thing. Before robots took over the world Airfix kits were the go-to hobby for millions of kids.

You could build anything with an Airfix kit (although a lot of the stuff I’ll describe in this post could have been produced by someone else such as Revelle or Tamiya.) Yes, anything: aeroplanes, ships, space ships, cars, bikes, tanks. . . . Between 1972 and 1992 I probably made them all.

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Latest Spam no.1

I often read posts and articles about people who are inundated with spam, bothered by scamsters and what have you. Unfortunately for me, the TotenUniverse is such a lonely place even the spammers don’t come by very often.

But occasionally one gets through, like today, so instead of hitting the delete button I thought I’d share the message of this other lonely tosser trying to make a buck (or earn a few quid as the Americans say).

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Ads and Adblockers

I was in a shop recently, a real bricks-and-mortar high street shop. I bought a magazine and the shopkeeper said “no, it’s free.” Free? He pointed to the walls of his shop, floor to ceiling advertisements.

“Everything in the shop is free. My income comes from the adverts.”

“Good for you,” I said before realising the doors were locked. “I can’t get out.”

“No,” said the shopkeeper. “You can only go when you’ve looked at all the adverts.”

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A Typical Job Advert

In Lancashire there is a popular garden centre and they regularly have job vacancies on the website. Let’s, for legal purposes, call them Horton Close Garden Centre.

On their website they describe what makes a good employee, what they call a ‘Horton Closer.’ But based on the details found on their website I think their job vacancy posts should be reworded as follows:

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Marketing And Creating That Killer Brand By New York-Based Consultant Theo Rand

Following the arson attack in Managua during the central American leg of Toten Herzen’s Malandanti world tour (unofficially retitled the Let the Insurance Cover It tour) Alien Noise brought in brand management consultant Theo Rand of New York firm Solid Gold to advise on damage limitation.

Alien Noise, in an uncharacteristic act of altruism, invited Rand to offer marketing and promotional advice to indie authors and this is what he had to say.

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Decent Writing Places

What makes a good writing cafe?

Well, the one I’m sat in at the moment. Quiet, stylish, refined. Has a touch of class about it, which suits my status as a professional internationally acclaimed author. In fact, I should have worn my new watch, a Christmas present that sits on my wrist like something built by Thomas Telford. A watch that says ‘this wearer has arrived.’

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