Confessions of a professional photobomber

Scrapper Duncan's mashup cartoon of the Elgin Marbles and his colleague photobomber in cartoon form, armed with a fork

Walking the fork

Back in the last years of the twentieth century, I was a professional photobomber. Now that an authoritative dictionary has officially recognised the word, polite society suddenly sees it as a recent thing. However, those of us who quietly carried out our guerilla art haven’t yet needed a name for our fun.

Myself and a good friend, whom I’ll just call PN, used to loiter in certain galleries in the British Museum. We chose rooms which held stolen iconic objects from countries rich enough to send endless streams of tourists to be photographed beside them. Two in particular provided especially rich pickings: the room with the Rosetta Stone and the room with the Elgin Marbles.

We took it in turns to be the photobomber and the photographer. Making out like we didn’t know each other, one would position himself where a tourist would likely ask to be photographed alongside their national treasures. If that was me, I would smile broadly, say that I would be delighted and distract them whilst PN got into position. They would pose, I would line them up, offer to take a couple of shots and then snap away.

Remember this was in the days before digital photography. The tourists would have to wait until they got home before seeing their photographs. Kids, can you even imagine that? The very concept of waiting for anything seems to have disappeared. Is that word even still in the dictionary?

With the Rosetta Stone, PN would pose in the background as if he were walking like an Egyptian. He was much better at this than I was. So good that the first few times I couldn’t control my mirth and the game was spoiled. But I learnt to master my emotions and we became a highly skilled team. Hundreds of tourists will have gone home and then asked the question, “WTF?!!” Long before that phrase made it into the official pantheon of words.

Being unable to carry off the Egyptian walk so successfully, my preferred technique was just to pick my nose or stick my tongue out or make some other inappropriate gesture. After we’d photobombed three hundred or so tourists, we got banned from that room. No matter, there were plenty of other worthy objects of our attention.

The Elgin Marbles was a tougher intellectual brief. Knowing that they had been  damaged during misguided restoration using kitchen forks, the photographer would point the camera so that only the tops of the tourists’ heads would appear and the photobomber would be poking a fork above them from behind. How many of them would get the joke back home, I cannot not say. Quite a few didn’t appreciate our sense of humour at the time. There were a handful of ugly incidents.

Eventually, we got banned from the entire museum. The staff said that was simpler than having to deal with us. “It might be art,” said their top boss, “so take it to an art gallery.

Nevill Juvenile’s Archbishop is a classy ecclesiastical act

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of the Nevill Bonfire Clergy Stand on Saturday 18th October 2014 (c) 20th October 2014

Nevill Clergy Stand 2014

This is the Archbishop of Nevill Juvenile Bonfire Society (on the left) and her hapless clergyman (on the right). Atop a hill in high wind, they made a good target for the faithful, assembled in their congregation, last Saturday night. For reasons that my regular readers and everyone in Lewes will easily understand, I cannot bring myself to join in with the condemnation visited upon them. Instead, I restricted myself to studying their technique.

In so doing I marvelled at their lady Archbishop’s elegance. (Sorry, I don’t know her name.) She had already ascended the stand by the time I made it to the top of the hill. My own congregation, whom I had in modest part lent out to her for the evening, reported that she seemed to struggle a little with the steps up the scaffold. I believe she was a founding member of her Society in 1958 and has been its Archbishop ever since. Once up, she was in her element. Nimble footed, elegant and very able, we admired her ecclesiastical class. I’m looking forward to paying my compliments in person at the first ever Bishop’s Breakfast, on 4th November.

Her clergyman clutched a domestic fire guard to his face throughout the whole sermon. I assume that was for comedic value because he was very well protected. Unlike his boss, he was dolled up in cumbersome heavy duty gardening gloves. Behind the fire guard, his eyes hid behind safety goggles of some sort. Various people suggested that I might ape this new technique. Amusing though it was, I will refrain. Nevill has mastered the art of the comic clergy. Southover is much more serious. If it was actually for his personal protection, I am sympathetic to his plight. Last year his costume was shredded, so voluminous and accurate were their parishioners’ protests.

Be under no mistake of judgment, being a bonfire archbishop is no easy brief. The Commander in Chief of Cliffe Bonfire Society recently explained the mischief my counterpart in her ranks suffers. I left that meeting a very shaken man and comforted myself by pacing out the sides of a massive field in darkness, with a former clergyman by my side. Whatever he was talking about that night, I have no idea. I was in private prayer.

Whilst I do have a lot to say (Have you noticed?), I’d like to hear your ideas for what should be included in my sermon this year. Although Southover Bonfire Society has lost its fire site, I expect to be sermonising from somewhere. Details will be posted here, as and when appropriate.

No topic is too big or too small, I’ll do personal requests, I’ll do it for money and, ladies, it doesn’t have to be money. Luckily, for me, the basic morality of a bonfire bishop is somewhat unconventional. So pop your thoughts into the comment box and do make sure to keep them short because I’m the essayist here!

I’d rather be homeless than sleep with Thatcher

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of Margaret Thatcher

Rarely seen in public after leaving the House of Commons, Thatcher claimed £535,000 in state handouts for “Public Duties”

When I was a pupil barrister and chair of London’s Free Representation Unit (FRU) I got to all know various privileged people. All sorts of people passed through the doors of that estimable charity. Some of them were fellow travellers but, for the most part, they were merely ticking boxes on their curriculum vitae. They had no more interest in actively pursuing social justice than the Tony Blair had in the redistribution of wealth. Incidentally, both the Blairs were former members of FRU.

One night I was at work late in the office, studying for a case I was due to fight in a few days time. It was nearly midnight and time to catch the last tube train home. Suddenly I discovered that I had left my keys at home and was locked out. I phoned to see if anyone was in but the phone was usually left on silent to avoid disturbing the karma. Chances were that my hippy landlord was still in, stirring some lentils in the cockroach infested kitchen of my tower block but he could equally have been running around naked on Primrose Hill.

Another fellow in the FRU office offered to put me up for the night. Let’s call him M. I didn’t know M very well. He’d made much effort to befriend me. I didn’t really click with him but he didn’t seem to grasp that and carried on as if we were becoming pals. It was one of those tricky working relationships with which we are all very familiar. It was a kind offer and made me immediately think I had been too judgmental, so I accepted with much gratitude. Having previously been not only homeless but actually a rough sleeper in London, I didn’t want to return to the streets.

Like me, he also lived on the Isle of Dogs. Unlike me, he lived in a posh modern flat at the Southern end of the Island. We caught an Eastern bound train and headed off home. I recall chatting a bit, with him apparently fascinated about the life I had left behind. I had spent the first five years out of University working the streets as a Showman. Very similar to being a barrister really.

At his flat, he made me some toast and then showed me to his spare room. I had actually never met anyone of his age ~ he was in his early twenties ~ who could afford to maintain a spare room. I had been expecting a sofa. However, the real shock came when he opened the door. Above the bed was a giant poster of Margaret Thatcher! “I can’t sleep in a house with that on the wall!

I retreated to the hall, collected my coat, picked up my bag and wished him goodnight. He ran out into the street after me. “I could take it down, I didn’t realise it would be a problem…” He was pleading now. Looking back, I don’t which of us was more pathetic. I went back to the streets.

The many faces of Scrapper

Scrapper Duncan's passport photograph aged 14 (c) 13th October 2014

Scrapper Duncan, at 14 years’ old.

During my recent and final personal property purge of 2014, I found a cache of photographs of me throughout the ages. This collection cannot be described as complete. No-one can stop their personal images appearing on governmental and corporate facial recognition systems. Everything we’ve ever emailed, everything accidentally automatically uploaded when we’ve bought a new phone, ever photograph every shared by anyone through WasteBook et cetera, it’s all there in massive searchable archives. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph at 19 years' old (c) 13th October 2014

Scrapper Duncan, aged 19 years’ old

So here’s me posting a few old prints, which the authorities may want to add to their collection. My HP scanner went on strike this morning and suddenly wouldn’t co-operate with Ubuntu any more. These are all photographs of photographs. Somehow, given their age, that seems more appropriate.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph, aged 19.5 (c) 13th October 2014

Scrapper Duncan, aged nineteen and a half

Those first two photographs were taken when I was still living in the bosom of my family. I hadn’t yet been given the chance to try to look old and worn out. Why is that so permanently fashionable amongst the young? This third one shows the beginning of my surly attitude. It comes from the brink of me leaving my parental home. I’m still gelling my hair, like the good fashion conscious punk that I wanted to be but I’m definitely getting ready to face the world. Those were horrible, hopeless times to grow up in, thanks to Thatcherism. The most promoted social value was greed and our TV screens were filled with conflict. Much like today.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph at 20 years' old, after he had joined a non-cutting-of-hair-pact (c) 13th October 2014

Scrapper Duncan, 20 years’ old

I think this is the most embarrassing self-portrait that I own. Yet I have a special fondness for it. I am twenty years’ old and have, for some time, been honouring a pact I made with my university friends never to cut my hair again. The friendships which came with that puerile bonding exercise proved to be equally fickle. In fact, I was the first man out of the deal. Long unwashed hair didn’t suit me. When I shaved it off, the liberation was ecstatic. I jumped around from my ankles to the ceiling, until a door frame got in the way and I was knocked out.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph at the age of 26

Scrapper Duncan, 26 years’ old

Here’s me after five years of working the street as a Showman. I’m through with The Soft Years as I like to call them. They’ve taken their toll. I’ve seen a little of the rough side of life and forgotten how to sign my own name. It was time to re-educate myself. So I bit the bullet, spat it out and signed up for a law conversion course, with a view to becoming a barrister. This is how I looked on the day I walked through the doors of Sussex University, to study CPE.

Scrapper Duncan, aged 29, in the High Holborn Office of London's Free Representation Unit

Scrapper Duncan, 29 years’ old

Three years later, I’ve smartened up considerably. This is me in the High Holborn office of London’s legendary Free Representation Unit. I was the charity’s secretary when this photograph was taken. Incredibly, we were trying to take a publicity shot. It was an early attempt to crack the problem of how to photograph office workers looking interesting. A problem which portrait photographers have long since abandoned trying to solve. I’m being shown a piece of archaic technology ~ a pen.

Photograph of Scrapper Duncan, aged 31 years' old

Scrapper Duncan, 31 years’ old

I’ll end this parade of shame with my final self-portrait of the twentieth century. I think photo booth picture was paid for so that I could buy a London Underground travel card. I’m practising as a barrister, just. The short journey to respectability seemed very long at the time. It had been hard but I’ve still got a full head of hair. And issues with my hairstyle. So much for growing up, eh?

Snow overshoes transform winter urban walking

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of his snow overshoes with spikes (c) 13th October 2014

Get spiked!

This is my final blog post on shoes. A few weeks ago I asked my twitter followers to guess how many pairs of footwear I owned at that point in time. I gave one clue: it was an infeasibly large number for a man. Incredibly, there was very little interest in this guessing game. I tried to whip up some extra enthusiasm a few days ago but only received facetious replies. The answer, for those of you too shy to reply, is ten and a half.

No pair is incomplete. The overshoes above I’m counting as a half pair on the grounds that they cannot be worn without another pair of shoes. They are designed to slip on over the top of other shoes. Protuding from the yellow circles are little metal spikes, which stick into and grip snow and ice. In fact, these spikes make me more sure footed than I am in the height of summer.

My (now ex-)wife discovered the merits of snow overshoes in one particularly bad winter when she was reduced to crossing a road on all fours. Brighton was caught out by the severest frost imaginable. As bad luck would have it, the Tory council had scrimped on rock salt for the roads and pavements because of the previous decade’s mild winters. Everything came to a standstill, except the people hanging on for their dear lives by the scaffolding at the top of Church Street. Whilst my wife was on her knees, a man ran past him. She called out an exclamation to take care. He stopped, returned and pointed out his advantage ~ the very things pictured above.

I never run anywhere, except when I’m wearing these. Last time I wore them, I overtook a young Mum and her toddler, who were struggling up one of Patcham’s steepest streets. “Look at that man go!” said the toddler. “He must be like a super hero with special magic powers.” I didn’t dare turn around, lest she was disappointed that I could not help them. Instead, I quickened my pace and ran away. Hopefully, in the kid’s imagination, to aid someone more stricken than they were.

The trick is to buy snow overshoes on Ebay in the height of a very hot summer. That’s the way to get the best deal on them. Remember to remove them when you turn up with provisions at your elderly neighbour’s house though, otherwise you’ll mark their inlaid wooden floor. Assuming you live in Sussex, that is, where posh floors seem to be necessary for social cohesion. Or something.

Although I had ten and a half pairs of shoes when I began this series of blog posts, I have cut the collection down to size. Dare I ask you guess how many pairs I have retained?

Hard soles for soft feet

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of his cleated cycling shoes (c) 13th October 2014

Cleat and tidy

These shoes are my current favourite footwear. Non-cyclists should note the metal cleat placed directly below where the ball of my feet sit. This locks into the SPD pedals on my bicycle. It’s the modern version of the old toe clip. It’s easier to use and much more efficient, even if left on the relatively loose default factory setting. Instead of just converting muscle power into downward thrusts, with these shoes and their corresponding pedals almost all of every revolution becomes useful progress. If only political radicals could make the same claim!

They improve your cycling efficiency by a factor of 50%. If that sounds like one of those astonishing claims which is simply too good to be true, consider the evidence. Before I got them, there were certain hills which I could not manage more than two thirds of. On the very first occasion I wore them, without any extra training, I completed these hills. The final third ought to have been the hardest part, so that’s a brutal test. Yet I completed them with the same level of muscle ache as I had formerly managed the bottom third.

By the way, if you think that means the cleated system provides a 33% gain, you need to check your mathematical knowledge. Clearly, the gain is half again of what I could manage before. Whilst we’re fact checking, I should mention that shoes like this are not actually called cleated. Confusingly, they are called clipless. That’s because they are better using old school toe clips.

The only downside to them is that it is easy to forget you are wearing them and locked in. This means that you can fail to disengage in time, even though it is ridiculously easy to do. The humiliation of slowly falling off your bicycle sideways and then being apparently unable to stand up because you are attached to it is a marvel for motorists, apparently. When you’ve done this once or twice, you don’t ever do it again.

Aside from the extra power capture, you’ll be wondering what it feels like to ride with them? Well, you know how any machine which you use regularly starts to feel like an extension of your body? That’s as true for a bicycle as it is for an industrial sander or whatever. With clipless pedals and shoes, it is you that feels like an extension of the bicycle! You ride with much more confidence, with a surer footing.

I cannot praise this footwear and respective pair of pedals purchase enough. It cost me a week’s dole money (£70), money which I could scarcely afford to fritter. It was no leap of faith for me, I had used them before, when a rode a recumbent. The fact is that I will never again ride on conventional pedals. What a massive waste of effort that is!

My final word on being a Straight Edger

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of a ruler (c) 12th October 2014

A different kind of straight edge

Over the last three weeks, since I adopted the lifestyle of a Straight Edger, I have been repeatedly asked, “Why?” It’s a fair question. Very often it is followed up by another couple of questions: “Why would you become boring like that?” and “Couldn’t you have some fun occasionally?” There are other questions too but I tend to treat them as rhetorical.

Since straight edging is invariably an individual choice, I’ll define what I mean by it. It means avoiding any short-cut to pleasure. I have decided to permanently refrain from:

  • nicotine (in any form)
  • recreational drugs, including alcohol, caffeine and chocolate
  • refined sugar
  • casual sex

All these things produce short term highs and are followed, inevitably, by a crash of some kind. Built up tolerances mean regular users of these experiences see the crashes as so slight as to be superficial. Basing happiness on a series of highs and lows like this has not worked well for me, so I’ve quit the scene.

Along the short path I’ve travelled, I’ve discovered that my culture has cultivated a Pavlovian Indoctrination in me. I get urges on a Friday and Saturday night, which do not exist on other nights of the week. To go out and chat up women. Knowing that this proclivity could easily overwhelm me I battled it.

Two weeks ago, I was at home alone on a Saturday night, struggling against this temptation for hours. Being penniless didn’t undermine it. I could talk someone into buying me a pint. I was an addict, at my wits end. For some reason, I thought about gambling. I don’t, by the way. There is a cooling off period when you choose to join a casino. I told myself, ‘I will delay any decision by three days.’ This system worked! The very next day, I’d changed my mind.

Various people tease me, saying I have chosen an ascetic lifestyle. My Dad used to accuse me of aspiring to be a disciple of St Cuthbert, when I was younger. There was some truth in that, I guess. In my early twenties I was in the same boat as now but I also quit sleeping in beds, preferring a concrete floor. Incredible that I could attract a girlfriend! I digress.

I’m not going that far in my middle age. I’m a moderate Straight Edger. That doesn’t mean, to answer the questions above, that I intend to fall off the wagon on occasion. I don’t want the rough landing. I’m actually having more fun than I’ve had for decades. It’s like being a kid again. My creative cup overflows. I go out, hang out with people I want to, wherever suits (pubs or otherwise), come home when I want and generally feel bloody brilliant all the time.

Finally, I don’t want other people to follow me down this path. What works best for me, may not work for you. I’m not interested in preaching on this topic. In fact, I’ll never discuss it again.

#TTIP: Corporate destruction of democracy, supported by the UK

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of Barack Obama (c) 11th October 2014

Barack Obama kicked this crap off

#TTIP (commonly pronounced tee tip) is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. It is a massive treaty currently being negotiated in secret between the EU and the USA. If it is approved, it will transfer a vast range of power from our democratically elected governments, straight into corporate hands. It will give corporations the power to sue governments to protect their profits. That isn’t some apocalyptic economic theory dreamt up by crackpot economists and their fellow Leftie trouble-makers. It is already happening under the regimes created by similar treaties around the world.

Let’s look at a single example of this new type of corporate power in action. In 2012, the Ecuadorian government terminated its contract with Occidental (an Oil corporation based in the US) because it had sold 40% of its business to another company without complying with its legal obligation to obtain government approval first. Consequently, Ecuador was forced to pay $1,770,000,000 to Occidental, thanks to the Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions in the US-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty.

TTIP will create new markets in public services. This will lead to greater privatisation and make renationalisation of any of them practically impossible. So if you wanted to vote Labour to save the NHS, forget it. Or perhaps you wanted to vote Green to renationalise the railways. You can forget that too.

The proposed harmonisation of food safety regulations will delete EU restrictions on GM crops and lower our food standards to those of the US, where such concepts as public safety haven’t yet been invented. Similarly, environmental regulations will collapse to become consistent with the US. We’ll be fracked off and have no say in the matter. If our government should suddenly see the light and decide to leave fossil fuels in the ground, the corporations will be able to sue for loss of profits.

The list of serious risks goes on and on. The basic point is that the powers that be consider the main barriers to trade to be your consumer and employment rights. You can read all about it at noTTIP.org.uk. In the meantime, you might be wondering what can be done about it. This is where it gets really scary. The answer seems to be, ‘sweet F.A.’

That’s because this treaty and the negotiations behind it are supported by every single political party which is capable of forming any part of our government. You’d expect the thieving Tory bastards, the Kippers and the so-called Liberal Democrats to be in favour. Tragically, Labour has now completed its journey to The Dark Side by completely and utterly failing to speak even a word of criticism of the impending disaster. Ed Miliband has made noises about the NHS being exempt but he’s not at the negotiating table and the leaks so far suggest otherwise. Neither Miliband nor any other senior figure in the Labour Party has joined the campaign against TTIP. The only parties opposed to the treaty are those the BBC won’t give proportionate air time to ~ the Greens and the other minor parties.

Political Top Trumps: Douglas Carswell MP v Caroline Lucas MP

Scrapper Duncan's spoof Top Trumps card for Douglas Carswell (c) 11th October 2014

He’s a posh toff

Douglas Carswell’s definitely outside the bland box of British politics, with a range of views my Grandfather’s generation literally fought a war to oppose. He wants to abolish war crimes as a thing, promotes the view that foreigners spread disease and would do away with workers’ rights.

So much for the introductory blurb. He was a thieving Tory bastard, practically campaigning against the Kippers inside their ranks right up until the moment he became one. Thinking one thing one week and another the following week, without ever admitting wrongness is the very mark of the Swivel Eyed Loon.

He scores low for Coherent Politics because UKIP doesn’t do policy based campaigning. It does emotion based campaigning. It appeals to a demographic which can scarcely grasp the Daily Mail anyway: old, uneducated, white men by and large.

With both the Tories and UKIP he will have a Wealthy Backer or two. Neither party makes any secret of that. However, he doesn’t seem to have anyone backing him personally.

In this game, Parachute Skill refers to a politician’s ability to get elected in an area in which s/he doesn’t have any real connection. Carswell lives in Fulham, where a jerk like him could never get elected. He scores low for Fashion Integrity because pin-striped suits and good publicity do not work well together. Finally he is clearly a massive Publicity Lover because there was no need for a mid-term election in his safe seat in Clacton.

Scrapper Duncan's spoof Top Trumps card for Caroline Lucas MP (c) 11th October 2014

She’s a posh bird

Caroline Lucas is a different kettle of fish but equally oddball. Despite being the political opposite of Carswell, she has much in common with him. They’re both posh with an unhealthy disregard for loyalty towards those who built them up. Plus she likes to talk far too fast.

Say what you like about Caroline Lucas ~ and plenty do ~ but she scores very low on the Swivel Eyed Loon front. Practically everything she campaigns for is backed up by evidence. She isn’t a saint though and can’t see the inconsistency between campaigning against war and scolding a colleague for pointing out that soldiers kill people for wages. She scores high for Coherent Politics because she’s been on the Green wicket for longer than anyone cares to remember. She’s one of those people you want to be seen talking to at a social occasion but not for the whole evening because she is interminably boring with her righteousness.

She has a Wealthy Backer all to herself: the owner of Lush, Mark Constantine, though her party will say that he funds all their candidates. Her Parachute Skill is superb. She actually lived on the Continent when she was elected to represent Brighton Pavilion. Being unfamiliar with Brighton, on her election night she walked the long way home.

Most people when asked what clothing Caroline Lucas typically wears, cannot recall. She plays safe for Fashion Integrity. Finally, being a complete media whore she scores exceptionally well as a Limelight Lover.

Only the rich can afford to buy cheap shoes

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of his Meindl walking boots (c) 9th October 2014

Meindl your own business

I’m writing about these boots at the end of their useful life. You can’t buy these because Meindl no longer manufacture them to the same standard, which I would describe as expedition grade. So this isn’t me casually stooping to a product placement or endorsing the leather trade. These boots were hand made in Italy and stood well by me for the best part of a decade.

During that time I walked and walked and walked in them. Although I recently computed the distance I walked in some trekking trainers made by The North Face before they failed (900 miles), that’s not possible here. Their journeys are incalculable. They have travelled the paths less well trod and some more famous ones too. They carried me, along the South Downs Way at Midwinter alone, when they proved the most trustworthy companion. I bashed them up and down the streets of Brighton. They were stood up and counted amongst the thousands of pairs of feet in Occupy London. I’ve even danced in them.

Even now, there’s nothing wrong with their uppers. A few scuffs and scrapes, sure, but nothing serious and certainly nothing fatal. The soles have worn smooth, that’s all. They’re still perfectly good for urban walking. I can and will, when finances permit, have them resoled. They are just too good to lose. During this year’s drastic purging of my personal property, they were never even considered for disposal, despite now being something I have to carry around rather than carrying me.

I need to explain the apparent hypocrisy of using leather boots whilst being a vegan anarchist straight edger. The fact is that we have not yet invented the technology to better leather for footwear. When we do, I will abandon it. I’ll disentangle myself from the industrial murder of animals so far as possible but not compromise my personal safety. I’m no martyr!

Primo Levi preached about the preciousness of reliable footwear. His greatest novel, If This Was A Man, described how he survived Auschwitz, in all its appalling detail. Amongst all the appalling horrors he described therein, there is some sound advice suitable for all situations. He identified footwear as being the most crucial item you can clothe yourself with in a survival situation. Whilst everyone now knows we lose most of our heat through our head, if your feet are in contact with the cold ground, you will die quickly. Swapping his shirt for a pair of decent shoes saw him through.

What’s true for the worst case scenario, is also true for your every day existence. If you spend proper money on anything, spend it on the basics. You may need to save, beg, borrow or even ~ heavens! I’m an Archbishop ~ steal. By whatever means necessary, be sure of your footwear. When you’ve grounded yourself with a good sole, the world will fall beneath your feet. You will step out of any circumstances without worrying about losing your footing.