Two Month’s Hospitality: What Henry Learned Waiting Tables

Last week, I finished waiting tables at a burger joint. Yes, I officially threw in the towel. Two jobs down in three months, it’s confirmed, I’m a quitter.

I’d taken the job because I realised without one, I couldn’t keep telling everyone I was a down-and-out writer. Like, there was no way anyone was going to believe me when I tried to rewrite Down and Out in Paris and London, after lucking out and convincing one of my rich friends to fund the novel.

No, I needed real world experiences. Experiences away from bright offices, dual monitor setups, misguided aspirations and meetings about the merits of shared calendars. (I’m lying, I actually needed the money)

And, after two months I can attest, the experience was revelatory. Definitely worth it.

First and foremost, it taught me that the people who work in restaurants are rad and lovely people. They’re not even mean when they realise you’re the worst goddamn waiter they’ve ever met.

So, to save you from going through the same harrowing struggles that will lay the foundations for my bestselling book, Waiter to Hater, I’ve spent this Friday afternoon writing down everything I’ve learned from working in the hospitality industry:

1. It helps if you know what you’re serving people

I’m proud to say that while I was a waiter, I got a lot of people’s orders wrong. Probably more orders than anyone has ever got wrong (no, I’m not that cool)!

Even when I wasn’t getting people’s orders wrong, I was at least pretending I had, by incorrectly announcing what I’d brought to the table.

Here’s a gem of story, to help you understand. By way of background, some guy at table 67 had ordered a milkshake. I picked up said milkshake from the bar, and proceeded to take it to his table.

Henry: “Sir, here’s your lager.”

Discerning patron: “But I ordered a milkshake.”

*Look down at the glass. Yes, it’s clearly a milkshake*

Henry: “Oh, yeah, it’s a milkshake. Look, it’s milkshake coloured, in a milkshake glass and has a straw. I said it was a lager because, um, I have a drinking problem.”

Discerning customer: “Hmm, I’m not sure that looks like a milkshake.”

Henry: “Why not taste it and see?”

Discerning patron: “Ok.”

Discerning patron tastes the milkshake.

Discerning patron: “Hmmm.” Takes another sip. “Hmm, yes, that’s definitely a lager.”

At which point, I proceeded to take the milkshake back to the bar, told the bartender I needed a milkshake, not a lager, to which the bartender replied, but that’s definitely a milkshake.

So I had to go back to the discerning customers table, and tell him it was definitely a milkshake.

It’s as if I was doing it on purpose, you know, to make him look stupid.

I think some people thought scenarios like this were a routine I’d invented. It wasn’t, I just couldn’t see very well without my glasses on.

Lesson 1: If you’re a waiter and you don’t know what something is, just leave it at the bar and get someone else to take it for you. It’s best that you never talk to customers, because they’ll always think you’re trying to patronise them.

2. If someone’s sick, you’ve made an honest tip

There was an eating challenge at the burger joint. 

Customers had 15 minutes to eat an ice-cream float covered in chilli, some peppers stuffed with couscous and chilli, and um, a five litre box of sweet potato fries covered in chilli. I mean, it’s at least 26 minutes worth of food.

If someone managed to eat this monstrous concoction in fifteen minutes or less (and I mean all of it), they wouldn’t have to pay for their meal. 

You guessed it, the prize was free stomach ache!

Anyway, occasionally, people would request to do the challenge, and just to make sure no one was cheating, waiting staff had to stand there and watch them gorge themselves.

On one occasion, I was trusted to time someone competing in the challenge. By the end of it, had a £10 tip.

How do you ask?

Was it because I was so great at timing? Cheering the boy on? Telling his friend not to call him a fat little piggy? 

Not at all! It was because after attempting the eating challenge, the poor lad went into the men’s room and was sick everywhere.

He was so sick that there was vomit on the bathroom walls.

Now, I’m not complaining about sick. I mean, I regularly drink too much, and have to clean up mysterious vomit, that I assume is deposited by housemates next to my bed, almost every morning.

But, when the customer ordered another double JD and coke, he must have seen me walk out of the bathroom wearing rubber gloves and a look of disdain. 

He promptly dropped £10 on the table and left.

Lesson 2: People being sick = tips! To subsidise your wage, you need to make people sick. Then make sure they know you’re the one who cleaned all the vomit up! It’s genius.

3. Stag dos promote nondiscrimination

A lot of people on stag dos booked tables at the restaurant, and then arrived drunk and on the lookout for hot dogs. 

Sometimes, I was allowed to take their orders. 

When doing so, I often discovered a lot of inebriated men, who liked to ask me to perform fellatio on them. I guess it’s great, they must think I look pretty, and they’re much more into experimentation than they probably are when they’re sober.

Lesson 3: Drunk men in groups really care about the service, and don’t make judgements based on gender.

4. It’s all about the booths man

Did you know restaurants that only have booths (you know, those American-type diner seats), get way more customers. 

The most common thing you’ll hear when interviewing people about what makes a restaurant is, “God! I’d never go to a restaurant if I couldn’t sit in a booth. I mean, come on. That’s the only reason I go out.

Seating at the restaurant I was working at was made up of a mixture of booths and not so booth-ey seats.

Sometimes I had to take people to their seats. 

Customers routinely became irate when they were led to the not-so-booth-ey seats.

Lesson 4: People really care about where they sit. Why? Because they’re stupid.

5. “When you gaze long into [a restaurant], the [restaurant] also gazes into you…

Before Nietzsche started working at DC Comics, he worked in a restaurant. How else can you explain that overused quote?

Having read a lot of comics, I can tell you what it means.

If you work somewhere too long, it has a habit of becoming part of you, and when you have a bun toaster embedded in your abdomen, it’s hard to remember how magical a trip out to dinner once was.

Instead, spectres will swirl around whispering, “Clean the menus. Stop those tables from wobbling. Did you take an Amex payment from the couple sitting at the bar. Why didn’t they pay service? How did you get so much sauce everywhere when all you had to do was squeeze the bag and try to get the sauce in the little pots for the customers.”

Working in a restaurant, even for a very short amount of time, made me feel like they’re kind of like DIsneyland. You know, like it’s all fake, and however much I want to take the adolescent man in a disney princess suit back to my shared accommodation, there’s a certain type of sweat that you can just never get out of your sheets.

Every time I now go into a restaurant, I just see cardboard boxes. And how part of my bill’s paying for the privilege of sitting on them.

Lesson 5: If you still get butterflies when you think about going to a restaurant, don’t start working in one.

6. Government intervention doesn’t always help individuals

London’s expensive and working in a burger restaurant doesn’t pay that well. I mean, it pays better than some other jobs, but it’s still not great. 

One of the biggest challenges my colleagues spoke about was zero hour contracts, and how your hours (despite the best efforts of management) were speculative. In practice, this meant you could be booked to work eight hours, but as the restaurant wasn’t very busy, you’re sent home early, and paid less. 

Zero hour contracts aren’t the problem I’m writing about though. I’m writing about zero hours contracts and mandated 20 minute breaks, for every six hours worked.

In practice, breaks could be given based on speculative hours, which didn’t materialise. So, while you would have previously expected to have earned 4 hours pay for four hours work, this quickly becomes three hours, 40 minutes pay, because it seemed like you were going to be staying later, and were asked to take a break. 

While there’s no doubt that everyone should receive breaks (I mean, we live in the west), when you’re already having trouble paying rent, forcing people to have their pay cut by 20 minutes, could easily be interpreted as a kick in the teeth.

Lesson 6: People working in restaurants really need to pull their fingers out. They should all be working much harder to reply to all public Government consultations on labour market reform.

7. The Sandman’s a vengeful bastard

Over the last two months, I frequently found myself volunteering or writing something for someone during the day, then going to work in the evening. 

If I’m honest, the flexibility was great, allowing me to focus on what I really wanted to do during the day. However, I found that working shifts really messes with your sleep pattern.

Although the latest I ever finished was 12:45, I routinely found myself getting home at 2:00am, proceeding to eat, then going to bed at 3:30am, to repeat the same cycle, often for eight or nine days running.

It’s something that’s easy to forget when working a nine to five. Even if you’re working less hours than someone on a forty hour week, if they’re sporadic, it can make you even less productive in your free time.

Lesson 7: If you’re working shifts, stop watching TV in bed. You’re never going to get that time back

8. A lot of people seem really bored with their lives

I served a lot of couples. 

They sat in booths, drank too much and stared at their phones. 

I’m not suggesting that I don’t do the same thing, but watching it made me feel pretty sad.

It was as if it was a weekend cycle: 

Get out of bed, take the train to London, go the restaurant, buy too much food, drink too many cocktails, get a little passive aggressive with each other, feel like you’ve done something for the day, get the train back to Kent, die.

Lesson 8: Weekends as a couple living outside of London can be bleak. Point me in the direction of the nearest bus stop, because my bones need a’ breakin’.

9. Whatever you do, it’s hard not to let it dominate your life

Whatever you do, when you spend all day with the same people, doing the same things, it’s hard not to repeat the same conversations, and it’s difficult not to get hung up on little changes to things.

Whether it’s a dish that’s been removed from a menu, a lime in coke, or the appointment of a new Director of HR, the conversations follow the same structure and the revelations are the same. 

Lesson 9: A lot of things about work stay the same, whatever your occupation.

Maybe working’s just not for me.

The Deep and Human Music – Three Free Gigs #9

There are a bunch of free gigs in London. Each week, I try and go to three. 

The rating system is simple, how many beers did I buy (drink)? The more, the better.

Trump must be quaking, and fists a shakin’, because funk’s totally where it’s at man.

The Deep & Human Music at the Shacklewell Arms

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Last night the Shacklewell was rammed. The busiest I’ve seen it on a Wednesday in years. And who was filling the space, smoking atop the astroturf where they shouldn’t? A whole lot of strange looking people. 

In pursuit of objectivity, artistic freedom and focus, I’d ventured to this gig alone, with only three rollie’s worth of tobacco in my denim jacket. In hindsight, I should have brought more.

This Wednesday, out of four performances, I only saw two. So unfortunately, there’s no review of GFE or Dominic McGuiness, but I can assure you that if they were anything like the two bands I did see, I didn’t miss much.

Third, or first up, Human Music. The first thing that strikes is the name.

I think their name was a reference to a cartoon. Probably Futurama, with it’s zany wit and relatable characters. Human Music’s probably something Dr Zoidberg invented to get his Earth Citizenship, involving bagpipes or a dreidel.

I mean, I could totally accept bagpipes and dreidels were the inspiration for Human Music (the band). They were completely brimming with tomfoolery. Dressed like clowns, their front man lumbered around the stage, let the audience know how much he hates Donald Trump and whoever the Prime Minister is. The music was akin to Irish folk in a cemetery, with demented, but relatable organ (synth) parts, that inspire images of the circus.

Human or primate. Is there really a difference? Human Music @ the Shacklewell Arms, 19 June 2019

As music that I assume was inspired by 7 billion people, it was pretty damn uninspired. 

But the crowd seemed to like it.

That’s how, despite a bearded fat man trying to cut the set at time (10:15-ish), the crowd just screamed for more. And they got what they wanted.

Which says a lot. Beware, when a room full of people stops respecting the borough’s strict, but fair, permitted noise levels on residential streets, and potentially cuts the main band’s set short as a result, we should all be worried about how torn the fabric of our society really is.

Maybe that was the point.

Anyway, they finished playing after another three songs.

Then I was left with the relief of the intermission. And what better way to spend it than sitting alone, replying to my many fan emails.

I was interrupted by a pale Australian girl. She has the gall to ask me for a fag. I still feel bad about the colonies, so I offered her what dregs of tobacco I had left, and lashings of opportunity to immediately exit after amply fingering my filters. But she kept talking.

Apparently she knew the band, thought I’d think they were great, really loved wearing fur coats in the summer and was too ill to go to work that day, but cigarettes and gin had sustained her for the gig.

She then asked if I was Australian, and then kept trying to figure out what my name was.

A bit of a dicey situation, I know.

That’s when I noticed everyone was in the bathroom. Twos and threes. And then she let me know, damn, the Deep were a funk band.

And as everyone knows, funk band fans are like hippies. Completely insufferable.

I had to escape.

So I suggested that the band were starting and we really didn’t want to miss the show. I let her walk ahead of me, re-enter the gig space, and then I slunk away to the bar at the front; unseen.

After waiting a while at the bar, I went back in to see the band. I didn’t have much choice, I hadn’t come to the Shacklewell Arms to not review the headliners.

And that’s how I got to the Deep.

Oh the Deep.

So Deep, so deeply cliched.

There was a trombone.

There was a guitar.

There were dual vocals.

There were sing alongs.

The crowd jumped up, got antsy, and it seemed like the people in front of me wanted to start a fight with something. Maybe their libidos.

The songs were punctuated by horns, the bass wobbled and everyone sang about being in love.

Then, as always happens at the shows of touring funk bands, the crowd secreted a rogue saxophonist, who clambered onto the stage to great applause, donned some pretty ridiculous sunglasses, because you know, he wakes and bakes, and then wailed and wailed and wailed.

How Deep? Too Deep. You’re hurting me,
The Deep, and some weird saxophone player at the Shacklewell Arms, 19 June 2019

I left after four songs.

It confirmed to me again, that there’s nothing worse than funk, unless like, you studied music man.

2 BEERS

COPYWRITING TRAINING: Men frozen in steel sperm tanks, two dollar dinners, and stains that we just can’t find

Or how Henry finally discovered that he didn’t need to learn how to write (by reading Strunk & White’s, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition)

As part of my ongoing struggle to become the greatest copywriter EVER, today I picked up a copy of William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White’s, The Elements of Style from Homerton library.

Why?

The reasons were twofold:

  1. There isn’t a great selection of instructional books about writing in Hackney, and
  2. My sister, an English grad, keeps telling me that my blog posts are complete hokum (she uses big words because she’s super smart).

At 85 pages, the book’s small, but appearances are deceiving as it’s jammed with loads of life lessons that are meant to make you better at writing.

The edition I borrowed was really old, published in 1979, but the English language is ancient and definitely hasn’t changed since then, so it probably didn’t matter.

Having now finished the book, I can confirm six things:

  • My writing will forever be hokum (whatever that means).
  • I was always right to tell everyone that they should never use exclamation marks!!!! (thanks Fitzgerald).
  • Business words are been purposefully designed to help people feel better about their life choices.
  • Some of the most common words in advertising are portentous and should never be used.
  • SEO, search engine optimisation, is ruining the written word for everyone.
  • Copywriters are the lowest, seediest, and most despicable people in the world.

All six of those lessons came as a bit of shock.

I’ll explain exactly why they are definitely true below.

Epiphanies happen in the garden. Especially when you’re a twat with an instagram account.

1. Why my writing will always suck

The book’s first four chapters are dedicated to lessons about proper grammar and punctuation.

After reading them, I decided to ignore them. That’s because:

  • I didn’t really understand any of concepts (what the hell is present participle?)
  • None of the lessons seem to apply to writing on the internet.

The book also emphasised that Copywriting, apparently, is about writing improperly; aka, in a way that the plebs understand, which I understood as an instruction to ignore everything it said.

If you, the reader, don’t think I made the right decision, get ready to be surprised.

You’d think I was an idiot if I started doing anything of these things (adhering to proper grammar):

  • Omit the s after apostrophes that follow conscience. The correct vernacular being, “for conscience’ sake
  • You can’t use a colon to sunder a sentence in two like a garden worm, instead that a full sentence must proceed it, for instance “A shrink needs: a degree, psychotic patients and a lot of patience.” is incorrect. It should instead be, “A shrink needs three things: a degree, psychotic patients and parents to blame.

2. No one should ever use exclamation marks, ever! (except sometimes)

The book agreed with me and said no one should ever use exclamation marks.

Between the lines it also said we should murder anyone who does, unless they’re being dramatic!

I’ve adapted this lesson for 2019 and now confirm that you can also use them when you’re being ironic too.

But that’s it.

You can only ever use an exclamation mark if you’re being dramatic or ironic!

Have you guessed what I’m being?

3. Corporate language is designed to make business sound like it’s about slaying dragons rather than counting paper clips

Here’s what the book said about business chat:

Portentous nouns and verbs [like deprioritise, action those reports, relations with the secretary] invest ordinary events with high adventure; executives walk among toner cartridges, caparisoned like knights.”

p.82, The Elements of Style

The book goes to length about how these words are about expressing the user’s dreams, rather than the explicit meaning of what they’re doing.

So, I learned that when writing for business people, you need to make the banality of their lives seem more like jumping the shark; full of exciting cliches that they think are new, definitely not overused, and completely non-applicable to their lives.

4. Words that I now know you should never use

There are a load of words you should never use. Here’s a few of them and why:

  • Meaningful is a bankrupt adjective. In place of meaningful you should shoot yourself.
  • Chaired is not a verb (or even a word). You should instead write, “the iguana acted as chair of the meeting.”
  • Personalise,“A pretentious word, often carrying bad advice.” Which means it’s still applicable for your mobile data plan.
  • Pistons thrust, restructuring programmes do not. (You’re not allowed to use the word thrust in business, even when you’re, you know, talking about sex)
  • Unique means ‘without like or equal’, so you can’t have a unique coffee machine. Looks like William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White’s were the forerunners of introducing the modern term, snowflake generation. So, um, Chuck Palahniuk, maybe you should publicly admit that coining the term wasn’t that special an achievement?

5. SEO is ruining writing for everyone

Ok, so the book didn’t come up with this one, I figured it out by reading it instead.

We all know what SEO is, right?

It means optimising your written, online content so that search engine algorithms will list it higher on their results pages.

It’s pretty simple. Here’s how to do it:

  • Consider what you’re writing about and how you can make it relevant to what people search for on the internet.
  • While thinking, write down a list of keywords (both long and short) that are related to your content and people are likely to type into google (sexy, porn, why my mother won’t stop crying every time I call her).
  • Delete your previous article or other written content and write some monstrosity indiscriminately littered with your new keywords.

In doing this, I’m confident that everyone is probably just inserting phrases that do not belong in the articles they’re writing. Which, I learned from The Elements of Style, is how you write badly.

Great one Google. You made writing shit for everyone.

6. Copywriters are soulless

Deep down, I knew this one already.

I can’t express why Copywriters are the scum of the earth without it sounding really pretentious though, so I just copied the quote below:

“Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself. The true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.” (p. 84)

p. 84, The Elements of Style

Evidently, proper writers hate copywriters.

Damn.

Conclusion

So, now I’d finally read something about writing, I’d learned that what I was trying to do by becoming the greatest copywriter EVER, was completely selling myself out.

I also noticed that nice living was pretty much guaranteed.

Well, at least it was a better choice than working in a corporate environment.

If you think I’ve completely misinterpreted the lessons of the book, please let me know.

Then I can tell you exactly why you’re wrong (now I know that I don’t need to write adequately to communicate).

Yeah, paid work’s definitely for losers

or how Henry got a job in a burger joint

Hey, I wanna ask you a question.

Imagine I’m pointing my finger at you (the right one).

Yeah, you.

Now you’re looking back at me.

Savings are great, aren’t they?

Now, imagine you’re looking perplexed.

Seriously, are they?

Wait, don’t say anything, I’ve already had this conversation with you in my head. It went like this:

You: “Why are you asking?

Me: “Oh, I don’t know. Do they make you feel warm at night? Could you paint me a picture with a background of green and blue, just like that of the glorious five pound note? Something to help me relax before exiting the cornershop with cans of special hidden under my hoodie?

Me: “Why are you looking at me so strangely?

Me: “Ok, fine. I admit it. I just wanted to talk about money. Or lack of it.

I don’t know why it took so long to get here, but it’s finally happened. The ATM will no longer give me money.

On a positive note, my bank balance now has two letters after it, DR. I’m not entirely sure what it means though. Maybe damn radical? Sure.

At least there’s some solace in Lloyds, Barclays, or whoever, finally realising it’s cool that I can’t pay my overdraft fees. After all that pain in 2008, the banking sector must no longer be full of losers (I’m joking, of course it still is).

I don’t really want to link the two (and I’m not sure if I should), but I keep feeling like I should.

I have no money and I quit my job a month ago. Surely there’s no correlation?

I mean, work just brings pain right?

Let’s move to a commune and reek of patchouli

Initially, no money wasn’t an issue.

It was like I was living in a commune with my flatmates. I, the entertainer, was rewarded with stolen tobacco, half finished beers, and tea spoons of hummus clinging to the pot’s lid.

But then they noticed I was licking the lids of their pots of hummus and stopped letting me use their washing liquid.

Not washing was fine though.

I mean, bin liners are perfect for hiding guts developed in servitude.

What fits better than a bin liner when pretending you can play electric piano?

However, some people didn’t get it, and despite being breezy, it wasn’t helping me find a way to get money.

Finally though, they got sick of the bin liner and the landlord started asking for the rent.

No longer young enough to attract richer older women, I had to find myself a job.

Who’d have thought it? I mean, it was going to totally ruin my quest to become the greatest copywriter ever.

It also seemed ridiculous.

What was the point of quitting my previous job if I had to getting another fucking one?!

Turns out I’ll never know.

A month of failure

I wasn’t worried. Henry’s are grafting men; take Henry the Hoover, and um, King Henry VIII. The latter was so busy he only managed to have one son!

No one else seemed to realise this though.

Despite spending the end of May applying for the lowest paid, hardest, least office type jobs I could find (within walking distance), I didn’t get a single call back.

No, not from Oslo, a bar in Hackney, where I applied to assist k-holing patrons from south London home, or even at Hackney Council as a groundsman, despite how I had two arms and wore a bin bag (so like, my clothes wouldn’t get dirty when I was digging stuff).

It was a real shame. A real shame indeed.

The biggest shame of all though was that as an aspiring and talented writer (yeah, I’ve been unemployed for a month so I can now legitimately call myself a writer), people were definitely not set alight by my CV.

And I didn’t immediately understand why.

It was full of great short and long keywords, like:

‘the hunkiest bar man you’ll ever need’

‘bricks and mortar baby – aka, I’ll stand the test of time’, and

‘I definitely didn’t just walk out of my previous job without giving any notice and they definitely didn’t fire me. It was a mutual thing. They knew that I was definitely not the right fit. The right fit? Oh, you know, I just liked working too hard and taking orders so much and excelling at my work so much. Oh yeah, I mean we agreed I’d leave because I was making everyone else look so bad.’

Henry’s CV, May 2019

And I’d even lied about last job, stating that I was definitely less important than I actually was so people wouldn’t be as intimidated by me.

Clerk of the Stationary Cupboard formerly known as King. The Department for Digital, Media, Culture & Sport (haha, get it?!)
June 2017 – May 2019

Henry

So what the hell was going wrong?

How to get a job that pays £8.21 an hour

Then I realised, I was being way too smart for my own good. The people reading my CV didn’t know anything about long keywords. They probably weren’t very good at reading either! (actually. they were, they just didn’t spend all day sitting around reading things and talking to other people about them at the tea point, so had less opportunity to scrutinise)

The best action I could possibly take was to copy and paste all of the key phrases from the job description onto my CV and title them as previous roles responsibilities.

It was so simple!

Clerk of the Stationary Cupboard formerly known as King
June 2017 to May 2019
Responsibilities: To be proud of Bromley Court Hotel’s rich 200 year history and years of experience offering comfortable surroundings, superb food and personal service to all of their guests.

Henry’s CV, June 2019

So I did. I also moved down all of my recent experience and listed some bars that I definitely used to work at.

It was funny because it actually worked.

And now I have a job, waiting tables for 40 hours a week at a burger joint.

And it’s great.

Where else is a successful Hollywood director going to meet a dashing and incredibly handsome waiter that looks like he should definitely be the next Spider Man (four’s the charm, isn’t it?)

And when he does, I’ll make sure I get his order wrong so he has a reason to give me his business card.

GIG REVIEW: L.A. Peach and Lacuna Common – Three Free Gigs #8

There are a bunch of free gigs in London. Each week I go to three and review them.

The rating system’s simple: how many beers did I buy (drink)? The more, the better.

8. L.A. Peach and Lacuna Common @ Blondies, London

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Henry learns that exceptionally good punk comes from Oxford and L.A. Peach is totally besotted.

Blondies - Inside
Apparently heaven and hell are both teal. Neon lights @ Blondies.

This was my first visit to Lower Clapton’s Blondies.

It’s dark, the space is tight and it’s drenched in neon. The stage is situated right next to the entrance, so beware, once the curtain’s drawn and the band have started, you’re stuck – unless you want to join the performance and navigate whoever’s playing.  

It’s the only hole in Hackney where the stuff on tap is almost exclusive Vice’s beer– bit of a shame because it’s not very good. There’s also a terrace hidden at the back, so there’s at least one reason to go for an actual drink – just remember, the terrace closes at 21:00 (it’s actually quite cool).

Last night, Blondies were hosting Oxford indie / punk trio Lacuna Common and London-based five-piece L.A. Peach (I think they’re a five-piece, but maybe it’s just a singer with a guitar and some friends).

The crowd was made up of animated mannequins from Beyond Retro. I was wearing a white button-up shirt, carrying a laptop and felt like a total prick.

First up, Lacuna Common seriously impressed. They’re really fucking good.

Lacuna Common at Blondies
Not quite a glimpse from the bathroom. Lacuna Common @ Blondies

The band play that ‘blood-in-your-teeth’ kind of punk (defiantly British), the type that somehow makes stories about the banality of life seem interesting (like an imagined pint of vodka). Punchy and almost immediately captivating, their songs were simple, catchy, held the right amount of suspense, while consistently delivering a certain despondency.

The frontman spat out tales of having no money, people not caring enough about him, skinny jeans and twats from Oxford, while the bassist occasionally chimed in with his own wheys and woes. Instrumentally, it’s basic and the lyrics aren’t anything new, but it really worked. Like, really worked. 

(I REALLY LIKED LACUNA COMMON)

Lacuna Common T-Shirt
Do you reckon dad’ll look good in this? Lacuna Common merch @ Blondies

Their dad was at the back selling t-shirts and white vinyl pressings of their latest single, Not the Same. Going on the performance, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone actually bought one.

L.A. Beach didn’t have Lacuna Common’s energy, but I think that’s the point.

The band’s vibe is dreamy and they deliver subdued, low-tempo numbers that build into strangely gritty and unnerving sonnets. All quite melodic.

LA Peach at Blonies
I couldn’t see L.A. Peach, so I just watched the bartender twist out orange juice with a magic orange squeezing robot @ Blondies

Between songs they were kind enough to add liner notes through a lot of one-sided dialogue with the crowd (how post-modern).

Transcribed below, I hope they’ll help you understand a little bit more about the band:

L.A. Peach is the best thing you’ve seen all night,” – they’re not too cocky.

What do you call a chicken with a piece of lettuce in its eye? Sees-a-salad” (Caesar salad, get it?) – they’re masters of comedy.

When I was in year three, I had to run the relay race at sports day. Stick [baton] in hand, I tripped and fell into this girl’s crotch.” – they’ve all had a really traumatic upbringing.

Have you seen my girlfriend? Doesn’t she look like Trent Reznor?” – they’ve got a lot of respect for women.

All of this context helped me fully appreciate their songs. Particularly why they tricked you into a false sense of security by sounding sweet and ethereal (the type of thing you put on when your mother’s round) then suddenly got really psychotic.

It was kind of like this: bright guitar and a slow groove overlaid with tales of loving someone so much you want to flay their skin and wear it when meeting their parents.

One thing that was clear throughout was that L.A. Peach’s singer / guitarist (maybe L.A. Peach himself) was completely besotted with his new lover (the keyboardist). (Check out this feature in Clash if you don’t believe me).

I hope it works out.

Four_Beers

4 BEERS

How the Barbican’s still trying to be the future

Henry learns that Artificial Intelligence is about Golems. Yeah, it’s all definitely about Golems.

This Friday I was dragged to the Barbican’s AI: More Than Human exhibit. It’s about our relationship with artificial intelligence, focusing on the evolution of AI as a concept and its current implications. It’s running until 26 August 2019.

Entry’s steep at £15 and it was totally packed.

I however, didn’t pay (my girlfriend did), so I was able to enjoy a guilt-free evening in what I’ve always thought is the real life set of JG Ballard’s dystopian thriller, High Rise.

For an exhibition about the destruction of social norms through technology, there probably couldn’t have been a better venue. Poor phone reception’s our best defence against the singularity spreading.

But remarkably, the most interesting thing about the exhibition was not the technology, instead it was the narrative.

But I thought Artificial Intelligence meant no more tears (reading)?

From the get go, the exhibition goes hard on the establishing where AI came from. It implies that today’s examples of artificial intelligence (chatbots smart enough to ignore attempts at tomfoolery) are the embryonic realisation of humanity’s long-standing desire to imbue the inanimate with life.

You know, so we don’t have to do stuff that we don’t want to do, or demean ourselves by paying people to do stuff we don’t want to do.

It argues that the first dreams of electric sheep were our own fantasies of mysticism – the Judaic legend of the Golem (a lot of the exhibit’s devoted to golems, I really don’t know why) and the Shinto belief that inanimate objects have souls (otherwise known as the historical obsession of giving objects faces – plush chocolate ice cream emoticons – how far we’ve come).

Throughout, it’s easy to get the impression that the curators were trying to inspire fear, disgust and mild panic. If they were, it definitely worked.

Next to the entrance you’re subjected to looped reels of familiar sci-fi scenes, all depicting the dire consequences of non-human intelligence, from the astronaut murdering AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to scenes from Dr Who (what happens when you let robots write shit for tv), and a clearly-phoned-in-to-fit-the-narrative scene from that Simpsons episode with the Golem (do you even remember that one?).

After passing a table of more Golems and a projection of a video game that utilises AI to procedurally generate greenery (as if Speed Tree hasn’t existed for years), it moves from of the concept of the mystical into practical science; specifically alchemy, mathematics and psychology – as if those things weren’t just made up.

You get to jump from the the philosopher’s stone, to how people in China and Japan actually had their own numeric systems (who knew that maths wasn’t invented in England?), and finally to a really big wall chart explaining the concept of the uncanny valley.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the uncanny valley. You know, the psychological concept coined by Jasia Reichardt about how humans are pre-programmed to experience emotions of disgust when faced with androids that look almost human. It’s made all the more relatable (and less serious) with deliberate linkages to fictional horror, with displays devoted to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Hoffman’s Sandman nearby.

This all gets the point across well, but it can feel like you’re being led.

Scaling the uncanny valley

I’d like to do a really scientific survey to prove whether the uncanny valley’s real.

It’s genius. I’m going to ask a group of teenagers how attracted they are to Lara Croft character models from 1996 to now.

There’s also this low, pulsating track playing throughout, which adds to the feeling of unsettlement and to my argument that throughout the whole exhibit’s trying to manipulate your emotions.

If you manage to get this far (and have a soul), you’ll probably feel like you hate AI.

Getting serious about computer science

As soon as your emotions have been are appropriately toyed with, the exhibit gets all serious about computer science.

I like how it’s made of circles and rectangles! Turing machines are SO fascinating. AI: More than Human @ the Barbican

There’s a sonnet penned by the grandmother of computing, Ada Lovelace (a sonnet?) and a replica Turing Machine. There’s also a bunch of wall monitors that explain the history of computer science and provide a timeline of the long and interesting past of AI grant funding (BORING).

It’s strange though, I don’t recall the exhibition offering a clear definition of what artificial intelligence actually is.

Maybe that’s because there isn’t a very good definition, at least for Luddites like you and me.

But it’s ok, I think I managed to cook one up myself. It’s pretty simple:

  • Computers that don’t have the gift of artificial intelligence are like those people that you manage at work who require step-by-step lists to prevent the unintentional loss of fingers.
  • Computers that have artificial intelligence are the ones who you can give high-level objectives to, and are creative enough to have ideas worth stealing.

Make sense?

Anyway, it then moves onto a lot of examples about the great achievements of AI today:

  • From the Sony robot dog (why would anyone want a dog that’s not fluffy? – Sony, do you want to hire me? I think I just fixed your robot dog)
  • Some chips from Deep Blue, and
  • A mechanical arm that likes to play Go. (I mean, if it was truly intelligent, would that arm really be playing Go? I think it’d be more into Shake Weight.)
I’m sorry lover, but I never bring flowers. Why? Because they’re not thoughtful, machines can think up millions an hour. Computer generated flowers. AI: More than Human @ the Barbican

Towards the end, you’re presented with both positive and negative applications of AI, as if you’re meant to decide whether you want AI to come to your party or whatever.

Good applications included hypothetical robotic bees (because nothing says good better than letting all the bees die?)

Bad applications included Chinese government’s planned use of artificial intelligence to deliver a social credit rating system, which unfortunately wasn’t explained as well as it could have been (there’s a decent Wired article on it here – turns out it’s just the communist version of Experian).

So, if the good things are bad and the bad things are just really boring, is the answer that we shouldn’t really be worrying about artificial intelligence and instead about how awful humanity is?

Artificial Intelligence is more about humans than machines

While the imagined consequences of artificial intelligence can be frightening (aka – the neo-stasi or actual automatic weapon systems), it’s still just computer programs doing things that humans want to do.

I guess that would change when machines have the capacity to set their own objectives, but if we don’t have the imagination to do anything better than reenact the plot of WarGames how likely is it that we’ll get there?

Instead, it made me think that the scariest thing about artificial intelligence is how it has the potential to make administration really efficient and the potential to rob a lot of fun from the world (inspire social homogenisation).

And that made me think that one of the main things that the exhibition did wrong was that it applied human characteristics to machines, rather than the characteristics of machines to humans.

If it had been inverted, I believe that the exhibition would have forced more people there to reflect on their own humanity.

Like, isn’t it funny how we don’t actually know what our hands look or feel like, we just have some weird image in our brain, inspired by a solution of chemicals and electrical pulses.

Vicious, you hit me with a flower. You do it every hour. Machines trying to understand the motivation behind our favourite words. AI: More than Human @ the Barbican

So yeah, the exhibition was alright. But delivered the message the wrong way round and had way, way, way too many Golems.

GIG REVIEW: False Advertising – Three Free Gigs #7

There are a bunch of free gigs in London. Each week I go to three and review them.

The rating system’s simple: how many beers did I buy (drink)? The more, the better.

7. False Advertising @ Old Blue Last, London

Monday, 3 June 2019

Is it False Advertising if they were definitely playing alternative rock?

False Advertising at the Old Blue Last
False Advertising pretending not to play alternative rock @ the Old Blue Last

Today, I saw False Advertising, a half female / male fronted alternative rock trio at the Old Blue Last. They were there to launch their latest single, You Won’t Feel Love. It’s pretty cool. Listen to it.

As the night’s only band, False Advertising didn’t need to do much to hold the crowd’s attention. Despite this (maybe they didn’t realise), they still delivered a solid performance that didn’t seem to lose momentum despite two drummer / guitarist switches. (I have no base comparison, but their parents seemed delighted, so I’m going to stand by that statement)

The songs were the standard alternative rock stop / start affair, mixed with some jarring hardcore rhythms and the usual discordant guitar. The lead single inspired memories of Veruca Salt’s second effort, Eight Arms to Hold You. That’s meant to be a positive. Also, it was definitely better live. They’re actually pretty decent live.

To mark the single’s launch, the band bribed the audience with a mason jar filled with swirly-pops. I didn’t take one because my reviews are totally impartial, but apparently the track’s lyrics were singed into the stopper. Sweets are obviously the natural extension of the concept art that’s accompanied a few of their singles (You Won’t Feel Love, You Said and Give It Your Worst) – yeah, actual examples of false advertising.

The rest of the performance sounded a bit more like Shudder to Think mixed with a bit of Jawbox– but less hardcore and alternative now it’s 2019.

Good gig for a Monday.

NB: If False Advertising find themselves stuck for inspiration for the next single, I’d recommend Head & Shoulders (visibly reduced flakes at a distance of 2-feet – yep, the claim was investigated in 2006 but it’s still on the bottle).

Four_Beers

FOUR BEERS