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[RIDING STABLES, EXT., DAY. MY FAMILY AND I ARE HACKING OUT AS A BIRTHDAY PRESENT TO MY MUM. THE HACK LEADER HAS JUST LED OUT AN ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS HORSE, WITH A THICK NECK AND MASSIVE FEATHERY HOOVES.]

ME: Blimey. You’re quite big.

HORSE: Fear not, small human female. Although I am large and powerful and may initially seem more suitable to being ridden by Gregor Clegane, I am in fact a gentle giant. Did you happen to bring any offerings about your person, concealed perhaps inside this blue woolen outer-garment you wear?

ME: No snacks. Sorry.

HORSE [RESIGNED]: Ah. I thought as much. T’was ever thus. And yet still I permit myself to hope – perhaps if I look inside your hood -

ME: Aww, your nose is so nice and soft.

HORSE: Even though you failed to bring me a Polo mint, I will patiently tolerate your stroking of my nose, for lo, I am the nicest, most chilled-out horse in the stable. While you scramble up onto me and then ineptly adjust your stirrups for what seems like several years, I will stand like a rock and stare serenely into the middle distance. You are safe with me.

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[WE RIDE UP THE LANE. IT IS QUITE MUDDY AND SLIPPY.]

ME: You’re not going to fall over, are you?

HORSE: What is this thing you humans call “fall”? I know it not.

ME: Fair enough. This is quite a steep downhill slope though. Are you sure you’re not going to -

HORSE [PATIENT]: I will not fall. I will not slip. I will do nothing to alarm you. The dainty mare your daughter rides may prance about and insist on leaving the yard before everyone else is ready, but I am above such foolishness. I am calm and unflappable. Were I to be sold, I believe the description which would be applied to me would be “bombproof”. Are you asking me to trot?

IMG_9203[1]

ME: Well, yes. If you wouldn’t mind.

HORSE: Although trotting did not feature in my plans for the afternoon, I shall oblige. Let us circle this field twice, then come to a gentle halt and await the arrival of your small son, who I see rides upon a pony whose legs are but short and stumpy.

IMG_9202[1]

ME: I can see a wind-turbine. Can you see a wind-turbine? Aren’t horses supposed to be scared of wind-turbines?

HORSE: I see nothing of interest.

ME: Well, okay then.

IMG_9214[1]

[WE DESCEND ANOTHER SLIPPY HILL]

ME: Do you want me to let you have your head, or do I have some role in steering you down this hill?

HORSE [REASSURING]: Fragile human female, be at peace. I have navigated this hill many times. I fear it not. It is of no – HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT

ME: What? What?

HORSE [SIDLING AROUND SHOWING WHITES OF EYES]: I SEE SOMETHING BLUE AND EVIL

forget me nots

ME: You mean the forget-me-nots?

HORSE: NOBODY SAID THERE WOULD BE FLOWERS

ME: You’re spooking at flowers? Are you serious?

HORSE: THIS WAS DEFINITELY NOT WHAT WE DISCUSSED

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ME: Come on. Be brave. Walk past them. You can do it.

HORSE: DON’T LET THEM GET ANYWHERE NEAR ME. I AM SERIOUS

[WE MAKE IT PAST THE PATCH OF FORGET-ME-NOTS]

ME [TRYING NOT TO LAUGH]: Feeling better now?

HORSE: I feel splendid. As always. Why do you enquire?

ME: Hey look, I can see a rabbit. Can you see the rabbit? Is it frightening?

HORSE: I do not know the meaning of the word “frightening”. Let us discuss other matters. Perhaps we might trot again.

ME: And a blackthorn in blossom. Are we cool with the blackthorn in blossom?

blackthorn

HORSE: I have literally no idea what you are talking about.

ME: Or how about that primrose? Any problems with the primrose you’d like to discuss?

HORSE: I am a leaf on the wind; watch how I soar.

[ENDS]

[INT., MY HOUSE, 4.45AM. SHYCAT AND BOSSYCAT COME CHARGING INTO THE ROOM]

BOSSYCAT: It’s morning! Morning! Hello! It’s morning! Time to get up!

SHYCAT: Hello! It’s morning! Hello! We love you! You slept through your alarm so we came to get you!

Startled ringtailed lemur

ME: What? What? I slept through the alarm? Oh my God, what? How did that happen?

BOSSYCAT: Ha ha, not really. We fooled you. It’s not really morning at all! April Fool! Good thing we’re so cute! Bye!

SHYCAT: She made me do it. Bye!

[CATS GALLOP OFF DOWNSTAIRS. I LIE AWAKE UNTIL THE ALARM GOES OFF]

Exploring The World Of Robots

I first came across “Exploring The World Of Robots” when my brother got a copy of it for Christmas at some point in the early 1980s, and we both loved it very hard indeed. The reason we loved it is simple. It was crammed full of facts about our marvellous robotic utopian future that was quite definitely coming up in just a few short years.

Seriously; this book made all kinds of promises. In the very near future, it alleged, we would all have robots to do boring tasks we humans didn’t want to both with, like the housework and building toy cars and so on. Fake-people robots would replace the always-hard-to-come-by sick people that medical students traditionally learn on, which would somehow make learning medicine a more effective process. (Somehow.) Strap-on robot exo-skeletons would give us superhuman strength, allowing us to lift one-tonne weights with ease. Robots would even come to church (I swear, I am not making this up) and tell Bible stories.

And my brother and I believed all of this, because 1) we were kids and didn’t know any better and 2) that was what the book said, damn it! It was the early eighties! The printed word had value and meaning! What did we have to believe in if we couldn’t believe what we read in books?

I know I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face.

I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face. It’s endlessly useful.

So: we both spent a good four or five years wondering when our Housework Robot would be delivered and when we could expect to get a giant robot exo-skeleton in our Christmas stockings. After a while, we realised it wasn’t going to happen, and forgot about it. Then a few weeks ago, my brother sent me a copy of this book in the post, with a note that read, “THIS ENTIRE BOOK IS COMPOSED OF LIES AND WE BELIEVED EVERY WORD OF IT”.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Here’s the first page:

Maid Without Tears

Maid WIthout Tears Head

Let’s ignore all the strange and terrible questions raised by this strange and terrible illustration. Let’s ignore the troubling implications of the name “Maid Without Tears”, and its suggestion that most domestic workers spend their time sobbing over how awful their lives are. Let’s not pause to speculate on why this robot is unquestionably female, or why you can take its clothes off. Let’s not ask ourselves why its skin is purple and its clothes consist of moon boots, a mini-dress and a bathing-cap. Let’s even skip over the mysterious fact that its god-damn head comes off for no apparent reason. No; the really important thing to focus on here is why we’re looking at an illustration.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for illustrations in fact-based books for children. Some things, like intestines and childbirth and dinosaurs and so on, are just inherently better when presented as drawings. But this isn’t intestines or childbirth or dinosaurs. This – the author assures us – is an actual robot that actually exists and is going to be on the market very soon. Surely if you were a robotics expert and you’d built such a thing, you wouldn’t be shy about being photographed?

"Maid Without Tears" also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

“Maid Without Tears” also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

Why is there no photograph? BECAUSE THERE NEVER WAS A BLOODY MAID WITHOUT TEARS ROBOT, that’s why. A quick glance at the Maid Without Tears clearly reveals that she(?) was a recycled version of the Miss Honeywell Illusion from the late 1960s, as documented by the brilliant blog Paleofuture.

Check out the date. Miss Honeywell made her fraudulent debut in 1968, and was apparently ridiculously unconvincing even at the time. The Piccolo Book of Outrageous Robotic Lies was published in 1978. That means that, a whole decade later, a professional writer for a well-respected publisher happened across a picture of a woman dressed in a robot suit, thought, “Yeah, that sounds plausible”, did zero further research, briefed some hapless artist to draw a picture of a scientist decapitating a robot and putting his hand inside her dress, then put it in a book for children and presented it as true.

Here’s another snippet of glorious mendacity:

Man in giant robot

“Inside this robot is a man.” Well, okay, if you say so. “When he moves his arms, the robot’s arms move too.” Wait, what now? We had this technology back in 1978? Are you absolutely sure about that? Because I kind of thought this was something we were only just getting to grips with recently. “[The robot] can pour medicine into a spoon, without spilling a drop.”

Seriously? Back in the late 1970s, someone had already built a robot with the same dexterity as a person? A robot that was controlled, not by joysticks or repetitive programming, but by the individual and idiosyncratic movements of an actual human hand? So where did this marvel of technology disappear to, then? Did we just leave it behind the sofa and forget about it?

Moving on:

Exoskeleton

Yes, you’re seeing that right; that’s a robotic exoskeleton, giving a puny human the power to lift a 1000kg weight with ease. Actually, I think I remember something like that. I think it came to market some time round about 1986? Some sort of gigantic loader thing, with arms, that gave you the power to lift really heavy stuff?

Oh wait, hang on a minute –

Ripley exoskeleton

By the way, later on in the book we get another look at the exoskeleton concept. The writer is so confident that this one is, like, for reals and stuff, that he even provides a rare reference – the Hardiman 1. Confusingly, he’s overlaid his Hardiman 1 picture onto a shot of Robbie the Bible-story-reading Church Robot, but that’s okay. I think we’d all be disappointed if I didn’t feature at least a little glimpse at the robot that liberated the Sunday School teachers of the world from their bonds of servitude:

I'll admit it: if I'd heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I'd probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

I’ll admit it: if I’d heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I’d probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

This one must be real, right? I mean, it’s got a name and everything! Wrong. The Hardiman 1 was apparently a total failure, with any attempt to use the full exoskeleton causing “violent uncontrolled motion”, which was so dangerous that “the exoskeleton was never turned on with a person inside”. (Anyone else think that was a missed opportunity?) The Hardiman inventors finally managed to make a single-armed version that would lift 340kg, but as the whole thing weighed more than double that, the Hardiman was given up as a bad job.

I found that out on Wikipedia, by the way. Remember this for later.

The really sneaky thing about this book is that not everything in it is a lie. Instead it contains a seductive blend of indubitable truths (there really were cruise missiles and chess-playing computers), half-truths (“Danger, Will Robinson…my Hardiman hooks are flailing wildly”) and sheer fantasy (Maid Without feckin’ Tears? We’re only just invented the Roomba! And Roombas are really crap!). There’s no distinction made between these three wildly differing types of information. Every single robot in this book is presented as a done deal, a real piece of kit, a thing you can buy right now.

Here’s why I find this culturally interesting; this book is thirty-six years old. That means this book (like me) is officially older than the web. It’s a relic of the golden age, when we all got our facts from reputable sources. Back then, information was treated properly. We learned from real books, written by professionally-trained researchers working to highly maintained standards, who would never (to pick a random example) cheerfully recycle a ridiculously transparent marketing stunt from a previous decade and present it as an apparent scientific breakthrough in the field of robotics.

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Remember this, kids. This is a book, from a traditional publisher with a reputation for quality, written by a professional writer, presented as scientific truth and sold to children. And last week my brother and I debunked it in under an hour, using this apparent snake-pit of lies we like to call the Internet. Remember this the next time someone of my generation or above starts going on about how much better it was when information was properly controlled, and gets all sniffy about Wikipedia.

Of course the internet is also full of poorly-researched lies presented as gospel truth, because it’s in the nature of human beings to present poorly-researched lies as gospel truth from time to time. But I think what I’m saying here is: I bet my kids won’t spend bloody years of their childhood waiting around those purple-skinned cleaning robots to finally turn up at all good retailers.

Coins Out

Reject coins

It’s summer and it’s hot. When I get the kids from school, they’re cross and squabblish. So I take them down to our village beck and sling them in to cool off.

The beck with a duck

Our village beck is lovely. When the weather’s right we can all spend hours pottering around in it. Today, the weather is definitely right. Within about a minute of getting in the water, all three of us are happy and relaxed.

Becky in the beck

One of the kids’ favourite things to do is to prospect for treasure. For some reason, the river bottom is full of little fragments of dinnerware. Maybe previous villagers used to come down here and throw plates in when they were mad, I don’t know. Whatever: my kids love to dig around in the mud and the stones and find bits of plates and cups and so on, then carry them home in their socks with the plan that we’re going to make a mosaic with them. (To date we have never yet made a mosaic, but that’s okay. The joy is in the collecting.)

Playing in the beck 2

Playing in the beck

Today, we do loads better than that. Within minutes, my son comes bounding over to me brandishing a massive glass…thing…and begs me to interpret it. “It’s a lampshade,” I tell him, with no real evidence. He lays it on the side of the beck and returns for more treasure.

A lampshade, possibly

A lampshade, possibly

Within minutes, we find it. My daughter appears with a look of reverence on her face. “I think…” she can hardly speak with excitement. “I think I’ve found a glass bottle.” We rinse it off in the beck. I think she’s found a glass bottle too. Quite a pretty one. Today is a good collecting day.

Glass bottle, definitely

Glass bottle, definitely

Then my son comes back with something else. I can tell from the look on his face that he’s not sure about it.

“Look at this,” he says. “It looks like some sort of bone.”

Looks like a bone

Looks like a bone

“Goodness,” I say. “So it does.”

“So, what is it then?”

“D’you know,” I say, “I have absolutely no idea.”

We head home with the glass lampshade (possibly), the glass bottle (definitely) and the thing that looks like a bone. I wash them in the sink and then put them on the downstairs windowsill to dry. Then I sort of forget about them. The glass lampshade and the glass bottle and the thing that looks like a bone become part of the background.

Months pass. It’s next January and it’s cold. The British Gas boiler-man comes to service our boiler.

(Unsolicited plug for the British Gas boiler-man: he was ace. The boiler-man comes when he says he will, does everything he said he would, explains the paperwork, fixes our dodgy radiator for free with a part he happened to have on the van, tidies up after himself and leaves on time. This has nothing to do with the story and no-one is paying me to say this. I just mention it because it’s true, and it’s nice to acknowledge great service in public.)

Our boiler is in the downstairs bathroom. Naturally, this means the British Gas boiler-man spends time in there. Also in there are the glass lampshade, the glass bottle, and the thing that looks like a bone.

After he’s been there a while, I go in to offer him a cup of tea.

He is, as I mentioned above, ace. This is partly why I feel so bad when I see the look on his face. He is looking at the windowsill. Is he looking at the glass lampshade? No. Is he looking at the glass bottle? No. He is looking at the thing that looks like a bone. Rather belatedly, it dawns on me that there is a very good reason it looks like a bone.

Just like a bone

Just like a bone

He looks at me for a second, then looks back at the bone my son fished out of the river and which I carried home, washed and have kept on my windowsill ever since.

In any reasonable country, he would ask me, “What’s the deal with the bone on the windowsill, missus?” and I would reply, “Damn, I only just noticed. Here’s how that happened…”

But we’re British, so we don’t speak of it. Instead, I say, “would you like a cup of tea?” and he pretends to think about it for a minute and then says, “Um…no, thanks, I’m fine. But thank you” and then he gets on with fixing the boiler and I go and hide in the kitchen and no further eye contact is made between us and the bone is never ever mentioned again.

Eye of Sauron

Somehow it feels wrong that we found this at the bottom of an empty mug of tea. If there is such a thing as a sentient supernatural entity who is the essence of all evil on this earth, you’d think he’d pick a coffee-cup.

You know that whole Horror-Movie trope where someone’s adorably off-beat child receives messages that warn of the imminent arrival of terrible dark forces bent on the destruction of all humanity holds dear? And, because horror-movie children seem to be Pictures people rather than Words people, they choose to express what they know through the medium of terrifying drawings? Only the parents choose not to act on it because they are busy cooking dinner or working on their tan or getting divorced or something?

Here’s what I found propped up on my seven-year-old son’s desk on New Year’s Eve:

Angel Devil Spiderman picture

My first reaction was “Ha ha, I hope this isn’t like one of those drawings in The Ring or Silent Hill or Children of the Corn or The Butterfly Effect and I am one of those dozy parents who completely misses the signs of horrors to come.” My second (possibly more rational) reaction was “Holy shit, I hope this really isn’t like one of those drawings in The Ring or Silent Hill or Children of the Corn or The Butterfly Effect and I am one of those dozy parents who completely misses the signs of horrors to come…better do some parenting here and see what’s going down.”

Extensive interrogation revealed the following:

1. The picture is of a devil and an angel
2. The devil has a pitchfork because he is bad
3. The angel has a halo because she is good
4. The thing in the angel’s right hand is a candle
5. Yes, he knows that being naughty isn’t a boy thing and being good isn’t a girl thing
6. Oh yes, and Spiderman. Spiderman is in it too
7. That, um, that blobby thing underneath. Can we talk about something else now?
8. The candle is because. [This was probed further, but no further information was forthcoming. Apparently the candle was its own justification]
9. It’s all drawn in black because it is
10. Because it is
11. Because it is!
12. This is all the information he wishes to share on the matter, or as he put it, “I think I’ve finished talking about this now, mummy. Let’s read The Faraway Tree and talk about Lego.”

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