Stephen Fry’s “L” competition – and the little voice

When I started following Stephen Fry on Twitter (and was stupidly chuffed that he followed me back), I was one of just a thousand(ish) who did so.

Unsurprisingly, this figure has grown hugely.  As I write, he’s being followed by over 63,000 Twitterers, and to mark passing the 50,000 mark, he set a competition for his fawning accolytes (one of whom I cheerfully admit to being).

You had to write a tweet (a Twitter message) which contained exactly 50 “L”s – L being the Roman numeral for 50.  Quite a challenge, given that tweets have a rigid 140-character limit.  Even more so, when spaces count as characters.

And you had to mark the message with a hashtag: #L  so that it could be identified as a competition entry.  So that’s two characters gone already, I thought (fatal mistake, as you will see).

What I wrote

A quick look at the entries as they enthusiastically rolled in showed a lot like this:

gavski82: #L illegal llamas loll, a ball?hells bell!all call a folly.a hill will roll,willy nilly.bill fell ill, all still.a pull will lilt,will fall.

Doesn’t make a lot of sense, really.  Nor did most of the others.

I thought the only way to stand a chance of gaining Mr Fry’s approbation was for it to be about something, and ideally to have a bit of rhythm to it, like a poem.

So after a bit of scratching about, this is what I submitted:

Ill,dull lull. Poll-all well,lol! All hail jolly poll!All roll pell-mell,all ululate,all lalala!Hail BHO!Hail Michelle!Tell world,allswell#L

BHO, I hoped, was recognisable as Barrack Hussein Obama, whose inauguration had just taken place.  And I used as much punctuation and spaces as I could spare to indicate the rhythm of the piece (piece?  tut, pretentious, moi?), which should read like this:

Ill, dull lull.
Poll – all well, lol!
All hail jolly poll!
All roll pell-mell, all ululate, all lalala!
Hail BHO! Hail Michelle!
Tell world, all swell

I was quite pleased with it.  At least it wasn’t total nonsense.

But I messed up the hashtag.  I didn’t leave a space before it, so the hashtag engine didn’t pick it up, which means it wasn’t considered for the competition.

Boo, hoo, so what?

Why am I telling you this?  It’s because of the little voice.

I thought, to protect my idea of doing an Obama tribute, I’d leave it until close to the deadline to post my tweet.

I was writing scripts for The Archers at the time, which takes total concentration.

As I sat at my desk at 9.30 on the Saturday morning of the (noon) deadline, I read my “note to self” to post the tweet at 11.30.  A tiny fleeting thought passed through my mind: “shall I set an alarm?”  No, I thought. It’ll be fine.  I need to get on with writing this script.

Next thing I knew, it was ten to midday. Sudden panic. I grabbed my draft, carefully typed it into Twitter, and sent it.

When I came to the end of a scene about twenty minutes later, I went hunting for my entry in the hashtags.

It wasn’t there.

And then I realised that the #L wasn’t two characters.  It was three, because it needed a space to separate it out from the other text.  A space that I has used in search of my precious rhythm, but could have sacrificed.

God, I was annoyed.  With myself, which is the worst sort of annoyance there is, of course. I’d worked quite hard in my limited free time to come up with this offering, and I might just as well have not bothered, as I told myself, my wife, my nearest son, my Twitter buddies, and would have told the milkman if he’d been around.

Listen, you idiot (me, I mean)

So to make myself feel a tiny bit better, I tried to think what I might learn from this.  And, not for the first time, it was a lesson about that little voice.

My subconscious knew what the right thing to do was, and it told me.  If I’d posted the tweet a bit earlier, my error might well have dawned on me in time to put it right.

But the subconscious is so easily shouted down by the noisy, busy forefront of the mind.

I’ve told the little voice “no, it’ll be fine” before.  And I’ve almost always regretted it later.

So when you get that little whisper, remember me banging about the house at 12.30 on a Saturday lunchtime, ridiculously annoyed about a little word game.


(And I’ll try to, as well)

MP’s expenses – they vote tomorrow

Today’s the last day to write to your MP insisting that s/he votes against the moves by the government to keep MPs’ expenses secret.

How they can justify this is completely beyond me.  There was a suggestion that MPs’ security might be compromised, but that has been dealt with – their home addresses cannot now be revealed.  Another claim that the record-keeping would be too onerous can be seen as facile by anyone who’s self employed and therefore has to keep all their receipts so they can put them through their books.

President Obama has just promised to make his administration the most open and transparent ever.  Our government seems set on the opposite course, in a move that can only make the average person despise polititians even more than they already do.

If you agree, tell your own MP.

To contact mine, I used the Write to Them website – very quick and easy to use, and it suggests the sort of thing you might say, with links for further information.

Update – later the same day

Looks like the campaign had an effect.  There is decency (all right, shame) in politics, after all.

Stephen Fry is following me

For some reason, this made me irrationally pleased:

Google Mail - Stephen Fry is now following you on Twitter! -
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

I know he won’t really be hanging on my every utterance.  How can he, when he was already following over a thousand people at this point, and it’s over 3000 as I write.  But I don’t care.  Stephen Fry is following me on Twitter.

I’ve never met him, but my wife and youngest son Dominic have, at a party at St James’s Palace, hosted by Prince Charles for The Archers’ 50th birthday.  While I was somewhere else in the room, no doubt making small talk with the BBC’s deputy controller of napkin rings, Stephen (he’s following me on Twitter, you know) discovered that Dominic plays Daniel Hebden Lloyd.

He lifted Dom up in the air and cried “Dominic!  I’m your biggest fan!”

What a nice man.

Did I mention that he’s following me on Twitter?

Overheard in New York City

(Madison Avenue guy) “…she had a smokin’ body…”

(Girl in pink hotpants) “…and he was like, ‘yeah’…”

(Wall St type) “…the whole world has gone topsy-turvy in the last two weeks…”

(Waiter, when asked for a Calvados):  “…a what?  Oh, a Cal-VA-dose.  Tomahto, tomayto…”

(Guy outside brownstone in shorts, 10pm):  “I swear the last four tenants never cleaned.  Ever…”

(Middle-aged lady at Metroplitan Opera House): “They’re screwing the middle classes!  They’ve been screwing us for years!”

(Driver):  “…the fuck you doin’?!…”

(Black sneaker store salesman, to white, middle-aged, besuited customer): “Hey pimp, whassup?” (followed by a ghetto handshake)

(Young hipster, of a band): “They’re totally righteous.”

Fresh(food)er’s week

I’ve just done the weekly grocery shop at Sainsbury’s in Selly Oak.  As usual, the main clientele on a Tuesday evening consisted of students from Birmingham University, which is very close.

Being that time of year again, they’re either self-catering freshers, or second years who have moved out of catered halls into their own accommodation.  But the real division is into:

  • slightly lost souls wandering round with a near empty basket and no idea what to put into it,
  • and cheerful pairs and trios wheeling piled up trolleys, squealing with delight at the adventure of cooking their own food.

They certainly brighten up the weekly chore.  But I can’t help wanting to borrow the tannoy microphone when Customer Services isn’t looking, for a public service announcement along the lines of:  “Sainsburys?  Are you mad? Aren’t you on a really tight budget?  There’s an Aldi down the road for goodness sake!  And why aren’t you buying your fruit and veg at the market?”

I haven’t so far. But if you ever hear of a madman being expelled from a supermarket after a public address incident, that’ll be me.

The unexpected in the Peak District

high edge and dowel dale

This weekend I was meant to be learning to paraglide, but the weather (strong winds) had other ideas, so the two-day course was aborted after the first morning.

As I was in the Peak District and wearing boots, I made the best of it and spent the rest of the day walking.  It was a day for the unexpected:

arms stash at harpur hill

More things I saw on my impromptu walk


The next day I wandered round the spa town of Buxton:

buxton baths

the crescent, buxton

More shots of Buxton

It wasn’t the weekend I’d expected, but I had a great time. And I’ve still got a day and a half of paragliding to look forward to.

An insult to coffee and to me

I had a meal last night, with my wife and youngest son, in a gastropub near Stratford-upon-Avon.  Nice meal, friendly staff, pleasant place, but I was left with a bad taste in my mouth – in both the metaphorical and literal senses.

To finish, I asked if they could do me a decaff double espresso.  I love the taste of strong coffee, but cut caffeine out a few years ago to help cure an insomnia problem, so decaff is my default mode nowadays.

The waitress took the order without remark and soon re-appeared with a demi-tasse cup containing a slightly sludgy-looking brown liquid.  I took it outside to the garden to enjoy with the last dregs of the sunset.

One sip told me this coffee had never seen the inside of an espresso machine.  They had just made a very strong decaff instant.  That perfect end to the meal was snatched away in a moment.  (I know I’m being precious here, and that there are far more important things in the world, but this was their business and they’d let a customer down).

I challenged them, and although a little evasive at first, they admitted what I knew already:  “We were just trying to make you happy, sir.

I’d have been happy if they’d served what I’d asked for.

But given that they didn’t have decaff ground coffee, I’d have much preferred to be treated like a grown-up and told that.  I’d rather have had no coffee than a poor substitute – I often do, as a lot of restaurants still don’t stock it. So I’d have been OK about it.

But they assumed I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between espresso and instant and thought they could get away with it. So now I feel insulted.

If they had a dish with Parma ham on the menu but had run out, would they have tried to get away with a bit of ordinary cooked ham instead?  It doesn’t show much respect for the people who pay their wages.

And we all know how many places there are to eat in the world.  I’m very unlikely ever to go back there now.

What a shame.