Wednesday, December 17, 2008

OK, there was no puma

Yesterday I accidentally started an urban myth, when my Twitter/Facebook status indicated that I had been on a train delayed 'due to escaped puma at Penrith'. Although I never imagined anyone would think this was literally true, a few people did and the story was spread. In fact I was quoting Reginald Perrin, from the 1970s TV series; Reggie would arrive at work every day with an excuse for lateness, as explained and shown here; one of these excuses as I recall was 'escaped puma at Coulsdon'. So I often say this when delayed on public transport, making it one of my habitual overused sayings, like 'I'll have a latte please', or 'They're just dust beneath our chariot wheels'.

I don't set out to deceive, I just sometimes say things which might appear to me to be more interesting that the unadorned reality. I'm worried now that other (to me) obviously ludicrous things that I've said may be taken as true, thanks to my plausible deadpan delivery. For instance, when I hand down managerial wisdom to my team, I sometimes preface my instructive homily by saying something like 'When I was in prison (or the army, a monastery, on a pirate ship etc) the first thing I learned was...' Hopefully the blank looks with which these conversational gambits are received mean that no-one has noticed, or cared.

Although I can claim not to be a deliberate verbal prankster, the acquisition of a colour printer a few years ago did inspire me to create some unreal physical items. Again, I assumed they would be seen as satirical but a couple of times the recipient (always my friend Paul, for some reason) initially thought they were real. Paul used to be in some kind of frequent-flyer scheme with Emirates Air, which tickled me unaccountably. One Christmas I made a card 'From the customer services team at Emirates Air', adorned with signatures in different inks. The front was a picture of a desert with the festive slogan 'May your offspring own a thousand camels!' Until he found out it was from me, Paul was impressed with Emirates for this bit of customer care... so I suppose everybody was a winner.

Another time, I sent a festive greeting from self-help guru Tony Robbins. Apart from a pic of a grinning Tony on the front, I remember it saying something like 'At this time of year I like to think of the inspiring journey of our Lord - born as a helpless baby and executed as a common criminal. What could be more empowering than that?' Again, the imagined sender got all the credit though with a certain level of bafflement.

However the birthday card from Archbishop Makarios was seen through immediately, and I haven't bothered with anything like that since, unless you count the letter from French rail company SNCF sent (from France) to one of my colleagues demanding payment for an unpaid fare.

Perhaps my new year's resolution should be to leave the plain truth unvarnished.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

1,600 Canaries

Over on my other blog (the good one) I posted about the strange search terms people had used to find it. This insight came from the WordPress 'blogstats', which is there at the touch of a button. It also shows the usage levels by days, weeks or months. (So I have now found something sadder to do than haunting my sites waiting for comments - haunting the stats page waiting for results!)

I don't think Blogger has a similar, easy-to-use function. However I have managed to attach this blog to a Google Analytics account, which gives even more detailed feedback. So I know that 88 people came a'looking for my 'Scouts in Bondage' post for instance...

This pales into insignificance to the 1,600+ visits to my post about superhero Black Canary. Yes, over 1,600 visits - in a month! WTF? Maybe Black Canary isn't the second-stringer I had taken her for?

There is an answer. A picture in the post comes out as the top result on Google Image searches for Black Canary (at least at the moment it does). So it isn't my wit and erudition that's drawing in a four-figure haul of visitors - it's the desire to see a real-life picture of BC that I linked to, which actually belongs the the amazing costume enthusiasts over at Gotham Public Works. These guys really like their costumes and do a great job recreating Batman characters...

So why isn't the original picture on their site the top search result? I can only assume that the tagging, titling and content of my post makes Google think my page is 'the' place to go to for your BC image. Not bad, for a post lamenting the relative lack of fame of the character.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Alternative Practice in the 1980s

My first degree was in Fine Art, but not just Fine Art: 'BA (Hons) Fine Art (Alternative Practice)'. The brackets-Alternative-Practice-close-brackets bit meant things that weren't painting or sculpture, though it sounds like 'general weirdness'. Mostly I made video pieces, some of which surfaced recently in the archives of Lux. They kindly put them on a disc for me, corrupted and damaged as they (like myself) are after a quarter of a century in a vault. Here's one I still quite like. It starts blank and lasts 7'41"

The good and bad qualities of this piece probably result from its having been conceived and made in the space of a couple of hours. I remember being in a presentation by a visiting artist, whose work seemed to me to be entirely referential to other work, though technically very accomplished. I fancied making something that wasn't just about art itself, that was lo-tech and in fact about the contrast between flawed bodies and pristine technology. Based on a conversation I had had (on the bus back from a night out in Brighton) with a guy I was at primary school with who had become a fireman, plus some other stuff, I did the above, basically by walking into the studio and making it. Elb Hall was the cameraman - cheers Elb.

Meanwhile, 25 years later, I'm still doing the same kind of thing. Check out my improv roleplay in this one, filmed when a camera was thrust at me as I emerged from the Guardian HE Summit. I (and sometimes my mutant thumbs) am in various segments starting at 00:01:56

Sunday, June 1, 2008

LX just leave it then...

Big disappointment today - we got our hotel allocations for the LX 2009 Eastercon. Having booked back in March we (us and our friends) were hoping to be in the actual con hotel (in one of the '131 en-suite bedrooms provide a high spec retreat for the weary traveller, enthusiastic conference delegate, excited holidaymaker or party-goer') but no dice. Instead, we've been offered different hotels in Bradford itself, around three miles away.

In the spectrum of life events this is pretty small beer. But I was really looking forward to being part of a residential con - immersed in the atmosphere - able to have a drink, participate in a session or whatever, at will. Losing this is a blow. As the hotel is relatively small, the rooms (and therefore the opportunities to participate fully in the con) have of necessity gone to a lucky few. I personally would find it to galling to be bused in for a temporary con experience, then return to a cheerless corporate hellhole - glimpsing what could have been then having it snatched away. So we'll leave it for 2009, sadly.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hey it's a band with my name

...wonder if we can produce a gadget like this featuring our new advert?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Trax of the ElectroNorns

Some things from the past few days.
Went to a meeting in Bury, with a lift from a driver whose online routeplan, produced with the cold solid-state logic of the electronic Norns who weave the journeys unspooled by such devices, took a direct route infinitely longer and more interesting than a human one.
Pigged out on sandwiches and Hula Hoops.
And later some apple pie.
And later some guacamole and crackers and some cheese.
Woke at 2am, realising I'd forgotten that I can't actually eat food of richness any more. Feel uncomfortable, like the half-egg bloke in the Bosch painting.
Played Scrabulous until 6, when it was safe to lie down. Fitful dreams, devising a 1970s Tree of Life with No. 6 cigs, No. 7 makeup and other numbered items as the Sefirot.
Got up at 9 and went to work. Starved through a spring day.
Went to see Falling Part at the Seams by Mark Edward & Co. Funny, grotesque, beautiful and frighteningly accomplished - the perfect end to a strange day.

Friday, April 25, 2008

After the optician's revelation

I realise now
that I cannot see
in three dimensions -
the world's depths render
into stage flats.
Driving is difficult.

I realise now
that I cannot see
in two dimensions -
surfaces and images stretch
into flickering lines.
Art is disappointing.

I realise now
that I cannot see
in one dimension -
lines and threads resolve
into points.
Sewing is beyond me.

I realise now
that I cannot see
in four dimensions -
story arcs ground themselves
bundled into a promiscuity of places, of only this second.
Staying still won't happen

'Are we in the meganarrative itself?'

asked Robert Sheppard at the launch of his book, Complete Twentieth Century Blues. Maybe we are. We're also in a white room, faint smell of wet concrete, sounds of regeneration drills drifting in from outside. The Bluecoat: 'New logo on an old warehouse': a nice venue, a pleasant evening. Robert's performance, blistering and assured, despite the crucifying stress of the books themselves as physical objects having arrived just three hours earlier.

The data spoor of the book goes like this:
# Publisher: Salt Publishing (15 Mar 2008)
# ISBN-10: 1844712648
# ISBN-13: 978-1844712649

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Government in category error shock

The response to the petition for 'the definition of 'hate crime' be widened to include crimes committed on the basis of a person's appearance or interests' has had a response from the Government, as follows:

"The Government's current definition of 'hate crime' is as follows:

* A 'hate incident' is any incident which is perceived by the victim or any other person as being motivated by hate or prejudice.
* A 'hate crime' is any incident which contributes to a criminal offence, perceived by the victim or any other person as being motivated by prejudice or hate.

Within this broad definition, legislation focuses on hate crimes on the basis of race, faith, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity - and it is these categories which are currently monitored. We do not plan to extend this to include hatred against people on the basis of their appearance or sub-cultural interests. These are not intrinsic characteristics of a person and could be potentially be very wide ranging, including for example allegiance to football teams - which makes this a very difficult category to legislate for."

This is interesting. Following the logic of the statements, they're saying 'faith' is an intrinsic characteristic of a person, therefore deserving the 'focus', 'legislation' and 'monitoring' provided for a subset of hate crimes. Although I don't fully subscribe to the opinions of the secularist lobby (replete as it is with spoilsports, sneaks, blowhards and men with bad haircuts), I think this implicit privileging of faith is going the game a bit. After all, people can change or lose 'faith' just as much as their 'sub-cultural interests'. Conversely, culture (sub or otherwise) can be deeply felt, central to identity, and (as Sophie Lancaster might attest were she able) as dangerous to present to the world as faith (or gender, race etc.)

It would be interesting to see a definition of faith that is genuinely intrinsic to a human being, exists outside of culture and is different from race.

Perhaps it is the whole process of defining exceptional hate crimes that is flawed, leading as it does to perceived inequalities. In this case, it appears that the Government values some types of identity over others - indicating that crimes against some identity-groups are worse than crimes against others - and constructs its legislation accordingly.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Fantastic Worlds of Reality

'Roughening Up Fantasyland', a panel at Eastercon, discussed the introduction of elements of realism into genre fantasy novels. Joe Abercombie, Tanith Lee, Mike Cobley, Maura McHugh and Holly Black debated the various ways that modern fantasy authors are moving beyond the cosiness of genre conventions, the bundle of tropes satirised in Diana Wynne Jones Tough Guide to Fantasyland (eg 'Hovels are small squalid dwellings, either in a VILLAGE or occasionally up a MOUNTAIN, and probably most resemble huts. The people who live in hovels are evidently rather lazy and not very good with their hands, since in no cases have any repairs ever been done to these buildings (tumbledown, rotting thatch, etc.) and there is no such thing as a clean Hovel. Indoors, the occupants eke out a wretched existence, which you can see they would, given the draughts, smoke and general lack of house-cleaning...') Abercrombie's stuff is a good example of the realistic turn - stories where people can hurt and die, using real swear words in the process.

As I recall through the distorting mists of beer and time, here was some dissent from the audience - along the lines of 'isn't fantasy meant to be escapist?' It certainly presents itself as such - I remember all those Conan forewords, inviting the reader to pull on boots and enter a world where villains were evil, women beautiful (etc.) And, just a few weeks after the panel finished, I've thought of something to say: that realism (or perhaps authenticity) is necessary for fantasy to work as escapist literature: an integral component, rather than an invasive element.

Part of my point is that much fiction, not just fantasy, has a world-building element and an escapist function. For instance, I've just finished a (really good) mundane novel: Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks. The novel includes various milieux, atmospherically described: a boarding school, Cambridge in the 70s, London in the 80s, an asylum. I would not wish to be in any of these settings as experienced by the protagonist, adrift in misery and violence. But one reason I enjoyed the book (and chose to read it on trains and after work, as relaxation and pleasure) was the process of being transported to a coherent, believable world - the novel provided escape, as well as insight and poetry. Another example: Exhumus describes the strange attractiveness of an extreme fictional/historical setting in his thoughful post Bookish bereavements - fiction done well seems to offer us a home from home, however bizarre and challenging that home might be.

So I see the escapist bit as being part of the pleasure of any literature, dependent in part on believability - which is where the realism comes in. Jarring elements break the dream, and clichés, outworn tropes and simplistic characters or plots are jarring elements. So maybe fantasy has to be toughened up in order to work at all. In a way, imaginary world fantasy has to work harder to create an escapist setting than realistic fiction - as it has to include made up elements, but still provide a seamless setting. Credible reference points are therefore vital, and recognisable behaviour and language are part of this.

That isn't to say that fantasy novels should become versions of Last Exit to Brooklyn with magic swords, or that works in the classic mould are somehow irrelevant. Authors like Tolkein, Peake, Cabell, Eddison and Dunsany were individual stylists working without precedent: their authenticity comes from the truth to their own vision, their unassailable brilliance at using their own language. However many modern writers are working in a genre, a shared world almost as tightly defined as the 'West' of Westerns; a market with definable reader expectations. The readership wants to have its cake and eat it: genre work with familiar elements, but with freshness, relevance and depth of character comparable with any literature. Luckily authors such as the panel members are up for the challenge.

The craziness of insane madness

A few weeks ago, we went to Leeds for the weekend, using the train. This was a mistake, as UK public transport doesn't actually function on a Sunday - or rather, an absurd parody of transport pretends to function, but only in a 'whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad' kind of way. So we got back to Ormksirk, several hours late, following detours and use of most forms of transport other than trains - to find a ticket on the car we had left parked there. Public transport usage requires fatalism and bulldog spirit at the best of times, and I was inclined to accept this as just another misfortune, a further blow administered by the malign trickster-god who runs the railways on the Sabbath. The ticket had tick boxes for various transgressions, but 'overnight parking' had been scribbled onto it. Fair enough, one could imagine that not being allowed - I didn't actually see any signs prohibiting it, but assumed we just hadn't noticed...

But I went back in daylight to have another look at all the signs (and take pictures, in the rain - looking like a member of some bizarre subsect of trainspotters; or maybe an actual trainspotter jonesing for something rail-related to spot during the long hours between Ormskirk-to-Preston trains...) There was no mention of overnight parking, but it did mention some byelaws and give a phone number. I checked on the Merseytravel website - no byelaws. So I rang the number, got through after a few attempts, and was cheerfully offered a set of byelaws in the post.

I paid the fine, pointing out the lack of signs and suggesting that it was unreasonable to expect people to await the arrival of information by post before deciding whether to park or not. After all, we had met all the other conditions, parked in a bay, were (at least attempting to be) using the railways...

The Byelaws arrived. They don't mention overnight parking either.

Then a letter, saying that a Tribunal had met and decided that on this occasion they would not fine us... Which is, er, fine - I didn't really want to pay £30 (£60 if slow) on top of the taxi fare we'd sprung for to make up for the various train companies' and quangos' failure to provide the journey we'd paid for, in a timely fashion.

However the cool tones of the letter seem insufficient somehow - an apology would be nice, as there was no basis for the fine. Basically they stole the money and handed it back when they were found out. Cheers! How very decent of you! Some evidence of chagrin at their ignoble and underhand action would be nice.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Evil and Violence

I've been pondering the difference between evil and violence, as they occur in real life and as they are depicted in fantasy. Crime fiction, horror and thrillers etc. depict evil things and violent acts - is this a bad thing?

Looking at the qualities of the evil/violence in each mode:

Evil in Fantasy
Purposeful (eg the 'evil genius')
Clever (Sauron has a plan)
Meaningful, eg personifying existential forces, mortality

Evil in Real Life
Often random
Large forces and drives rather than individuals

Violence in Fantasy
Purposeful, eg accomplishing justice
Skillful, eg Batman can knock thousands of people unconscious
Effective (the Shire is saved)
Aesthetically pleasing

Violence in real life
Mostly is its own end
Uncontrollable (massive collateral damage the norm)
Accomplishes little/nothing

Now, I lack the skills of a critic but I do remember my O-level maths. Put these elements into equations and the common elements cancel out, ie the violence and evil themselves disappear. What's left are the qualities - so

Fantasy = purpose, meaning, the possibility of skillful acts, the effectiveness of action in the world, beauty

So perhaps we enjoy Hannibal Lecter and Dracula, not because we admire killers, but because we wish malign forces were embodied in characters of wit and charm.

Let's all wear black forever

I don't normally get upset by events in the news. I'm not a very political person; I've just about figured out that we're supposed to disapprove of Margaret Thatcher (that is right, isn't it?) and am beginning to pick up similar signals about some 'Blair' character...

Add to my indifference a level of desensitisation. A child soldier stares at me/a camera, relaxed in some kind of western leisurewear, a gun slung over his shoulder, not bothered. I stare at him/the TV with matching disinterest. Vast and seemingly immovable forces hold us in our positions.

So it is marked that I've been very emotional about the slaying of Sophie Lancaster by drunken young men, apparently because of her and her boyfriend's goth-like appearance. Like many, I'm distressed by the senselessness of the murder, the innocence of the victims. Added to that, I feel a distant kinship with the goths and alternative folks - they're in my tribe, at least more so than people in high-street sport-related outfits.

Identity, it seems, can be a matter of life and death.

There are desolate voids in society where there's nothing better to do than attack the Other.

In anger, even an educated gadabout like me becomes more tribal. Right now I have opinions not dissimilar from those expressed on the Sun discussion forum (hang everyone etc.) This will pass, but beyond that there is something I fear, that I'm struggling to describe but that isn't easy to dismiss. I think it's the underside of mainstream culture, of the nexus of sport, fashion and alcohol that provides brutality and ignorance with a tone, aesthetics, and emotional fuel. I'd like to simply diabolise the whole lot; posit a malign Sport & Alcohol Industrial Complex, a style council for hate crime; say any baying mob is as bad as another, whether it's a football crowd or a BNP rally. Turn off the TV, read poetry and drink absinthe, sneer at anyone in a tracksuit on general principles... To do so would be to abandon reason and relax into comfortable prejudice, to retreat. A palliative measure, and one that would go against the spirit of Sophie's memorial campaign against 'prejudice, hate and intolerance'...

So I'll resist the virus of easy prejudice. Perhaps the answer (gulp) is to engage with politics after all...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fan Envy

Jennie's post about not being a fan, but enjoying fannish things such as Eastercons, strikes a chord with me. I too come away from cons with mixed feelings. On the one hand, withdrawal symptoms from a kind of protracted ecstasy rarely experienced since I was a teenager and the world was constructed largely for my benefit, with new Howard the Duck comics and Philip K Dick novels drifting like dandelion seeds into an endless golden Saturday. On the other, a sense that I could have engaged more with people; that some diffidence on my part has kept me from having all the con-versations and encounters that I could have had.

So what has held me back? Partly, like Shaun CG, it's a sense of 'being surrounded by intelligent, often erudite, hard-working people who obviously care a lot about these subjects'. I can't improve on this description (cheers, stranger) - I have a fair bit of arcane knowledge, but compared to many Con-goers I'm just scrabbling blindly on the foothills, not much better equipped for the rarefied climate than a Dan Brown reader who thinks the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series sounds like porn, and that the adverts for X-Ray Specs are the most interesting things in comic books.

And partly it's lack of in-depth commitment to particular authors, and the general difficulty of approaching them (about which I've written before.) For instance, there's Tanith Lee a few yards away in the bar. She has written 90 books. I've read, maybe eight or nine of them; I imagine the corseted people surrounding her have not only read all 90, but own them every published edition, indeed in all imaginable editions, including volumes printed on wyvern skin with letters of pale fire. I could saunter over, say something like 'Wotcher Tanith, when Birthgrave came out in the seventies it was like a new oasis appearing in a desert: a genuinely new fantasy appearing in the barren shelves; it was so great that a young Brit was writing fresh stuff... I've read some of your books and enjoyed them... you write like a demonic angel and I'm looking forward to reading the some of your more recent stuff...' Her dustman could probably say as much, so why bother? Best leave well alone.

Having said that, I did come over all fannish whilst acquiring signatures from Joe Abercrombie. (The approach involved drinking a pint of Guinness Extra Cold in about five minutes, which acted like an icicle lobotomy, reducing me to a babbling loon for the duration of the encounter.) I wonder why? Every day at work I do much more challenging things than asking a writer to sign copies of his books - that I have just bought expressly for the purpose - at an event where such behaviour is expected and even encouraged.

So - cons - strange and addictive experiences. There is much I love about them - not least their superficial resemblance to other kinds of events, such as professional and academic conferences, but with subtly different content... It's great to be somewhere where the sentence "Now, it's time to talk about the elephant in the room - Marvel's 'Civil Wars' series" can be uttered and received in total seriousness. Where topics from the surveillance society to the enduring appeal of H P Lovecraft can be discussed with intelligence and verve - with real ale never more than a few twisting corridors away.

I wonder if anyone feels 100% a part of an SF convention (or indeed anything) - or whether we're all orbiting in degrees of outsiderhood?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Now it's 'President' Roy...

I was pleased to stumble across The Flâneur, official website of La Société des Flâneurs Sans Frontières (Liverpool chapter) - a Pandoras's box of alarming delights. Very gratifying to see beards, urban strolls, Ruritania and other worthy items being afforded aetherial electric space. And how handy to have an automated insult generated each visit (eg 'You sir, are a fiendish foul-mouthed dandiprat!')

I was further gratified, in correspondence with the fine fellows who manipulate the puppet strings of that particular pixel-rendered toy theatre, to be made this offer: 'We would also like to lumber you with the presidency of the local branch of SFSF wheresoe'er you happen to be domiciled (unless there already is a branch whereupon you can settle your differences with an absinthe quaffing contest).'

So, like publishing the banns or hurling a gauntlet to the bar-room floor, I hereby declare my presidency of an Ormskirk chapter of SFSF - speak now or forever hold your peace.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Lego Lord

I'm probably the last person on earth to come across The Brick Testament, but it made me laugh anyway.

Here's Yahweh forming (a) man from the soil of the ground:

and Adam naming some cattle:

Plagues, sins, and abstract theological concepts are depicted with equal blocky ingenuity.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Helot in Halesowen

I've been based at my mother-in-law's house in Halesowen (near Birmingham) for the past three days, as it was the logical place to be amidst various meetings. This morning I wandered through Halesowen's excellent street market - had an excellent spicy samosa as I walked past the stalls of paperbacks, crystals, faggots - then sat at the Kinver Sausage stall, eating a Shropshire Special in a bun and drinking instant coffee on a polystyrene mug, that was somehow better than one of my habitual Fancy Dan latteccinos.

There's a tiny secondhand bookshop at the top of the town, with aisles so narrow that I had to deploy reading glasses to read the spines, so close was I forced towards them by the facing shelves. It was a delight for all the senses, as the owner smoked rollups in the doorway, the tang of (I think) Old Holborn mingling with the delirious scent of old pages, bindings, bookdust.

I got a copy of Worcestershire by L. T. C. Rolt, published in 1949, in a series called the County Books,'an unusual combination of social history and topography'. Although it looks like a nostalgic guidebook, it is in fact a polemical work of some poetry and power. I was particularly struck by his vision of the future (of Worcestershire but also of the countryside in general):
A change comparable to that effected by the nineteenth-century enclosures will take place on the land. The smaller farmsteads will disappear, hedges will be grubbed up, coppices felled, and the land redistributed in large blocks of big fields suited to the cumbrous machines of the new "factory farms"...Wire fences will supersede hedges, and the only woods will be regimented plantations of quick-growing conifers.

I suppose that has been partially true, and may have been more fully realised if not for the work of countless conservationists.

Meanwhile the corpse of the Worcestershire which we know may linger on in a few small, scattered islands, preserved by public or private bodies as parks, or sites for holiday camps where, like children let out of school, the mass-minded helots of the Power State may go out to play, or to partake of their planned leisure.

Well, I've been to a few country parks, National Trust and Forestry Commission places in my time so maybe Rolt was prescient in this regard too. Ironically, some of the canals that Rolt helped restore would fit into this category. But am I a 'mass-minded helot'? (A helot was a Spartan, neither citizen or slave, but less free than a full citizen. It's a great word which I would drop into conversation if I knew how to pronounce it; 'hell' or 'hee'?) Rolt probably imagined a gigantic socialised industry, predicated on technology and manufacturing, spreading through the land and absorbing country towns as well as conurbations, an extension of the factories imbued with 'mechanical inhumanity that is cold and passionless' he saw springing up, fungi-like, in the Black Country. It hasn't quite worked like that - retail, transport and leisure have arguably had more of an an impact, though with a backwash of more localised micro-industries. I'm no geographer or economist, but I suspect that many of the products in Halesowen's market and shopping centre come from manufactories more distant than the Black Country - and that the chronic environmental and social disasters once found here can now be found in sprawling megacities on other continents.

Interesting stuff anyway. I expect I'll return to Rolt's thoughts on sense of place as I progress in my walk, as well as looking for more in the County Books series for insights into the places I pass through, and the forces that transform them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One Ball Rally

Read the blog, or donate here... please put your hands in your pockets to give them money and, if applicable, check your testicles.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Phishing the phishers

I love this site, in the same way I love the idea of the Four Just Men, Dirty Harry and others of their ilk, out there somewhere, selflessy defending us, the regular people who only sleep peacfully because 'rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf'.

- fearlessly retaliating against unsolicited, scam emails - fighting fire with fire - daring to reply to the scammers with convoluted, often hilarious emails that trap the reader in loops of bizarre logic.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My guilty pleasures (No. 1 in a series of 934)

Gilmore Girls! It's a TV series, not some actual girls. I believe it was on the Hallmark Channel, which we don't have - but dipping into the DVD version has become our top entertainment moment of the week (since we finished Deep Space 9 a while ago.)

'Lorelai Gilmore, 32, has such a close relationship with her daughter Rory that they are often mistaken for sisters. Between Lorelai's relationship with her parents, Rory's new prep school, and both of their romantic entanglements, there's plenty of drama to go around' is a good summary. It's very much an ensemble show, with some great performances and witty scripts.

To be honest I didn't care for it at first - the early episodes seemed shrill and frantic, and the characters trying too hard. But after a while I found I wanted to find out what happened next, occasonally laughing out loud at some of the dialogue (which tends to happen less often than Halley's Comet visits), and appreciating a show that was funny without being cruel, and dramatic without being tragic.

I think, as with a lot of fiction, part of the appeal is the self-contained world it offers. The town of Stars Hollow (perpetually bathed in a kind of powdery light) is big and detailed enough to be interesting, and discrete enough to become familiar and knowable.

In some ways it's as fantastic as Middle Earth or the cosy future of Star Trek - not least because the characters seem to eat nothing but pizzas and burgers (with the occasional gourmet meal) whilst remaining lath thin.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Well they're not _my_ friends...

I've loved Kay Hanley to mincy bits ever since I first saw her (in her band Letters to Cleo) performing 'I Want You To Want Me' on the roof of a school in the closing moments of '10 Things I Hate About You' - a sublime moment. (The mightiness of the song, the jubilant absurdity of a band suddenly singing on a roof with no-one watching, the pathetic fallacy of it forming a soundtrack to the events of the film...) Solo albums like 'Cherry Marmalade' are great - she does 'exhilerating' like no-one else, and has a fantastic lyrical edge and range.

Despite not being a Hanley completist, obliged to hunt down every bootleg and interview, I was slightly interested to hear that she (alternative diva that she is) sings the themesong to a Disney cartoon series, 'My Friends Tigger and Pooh'.

Now the song is nice enough (though parents who hear it several times a day might disagree.) But the cartoon looks like a living hell - sugar rushing hyper-reality channelled into screaming ugliness. I presume from this that whoever owns the Pooh stories doesn't insist on strict canonical accuracy in every manifestation of the characters, or insist that the visual style and tone match that of Ernest H. Shepard's wistful illustrations to the original books. But even allowing some creative license, the ghastliness of these images makes the original Disney film (crass horror that it is) seem like a masterpiece of subtlety.

I had the books when I was tiny, and like them well enough, but I feel a sneer coming on when I see grown up people with Pooh stationery or 'Tao of Pooh' books. Get out of the nursery, people! I expressed this thought in the office once, giving rise to general mockery given my visible love of superhero comics...

(Check out this guy painting his kid's bedroom with Pooh stuff hen redoing it with superheroes - best dad ever!)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Can I write about nature

when I don't live in a cottage
at the end of a dark
lane swathed in woodsmoke
evenings of infinite depth,
or know the names of birds?

The sea is saltwater, my blood
not much different

I've seen 'rivers' flow into 'bays',
'waves', and something that opens
the guts of its prey
just for the half-digested
fish inside

so I reckon I get to mention
as well as the roofs curved silvery
on a recently constructed
cinema/restaurant complex

Monday, January 21, 2008

What's so hard to understand about 'Black Canary'

Having this poster on my office wall sometimes gives rise to comment

...and the majority of these run along the lines of 'who's the one on the end?'

I don't think this necessarily means that visitors know who all the others are, and just want to plug a gap in their knowledge. Something about this drawing causes more comment than the rest put together. Perhaps having a picture of a fishnet-stocking-wearing female on my wall seems less appropriate than the rest of them - even the equally sexed-up Wonder Woman image might have the redeeming power of kitsch to justify it being in an office (as one of those 'look, I really do have a personality' accessories), whereas Black Canary could conceivably be the deranged passion of a middle aged man with a crumbling social facade, bleeding through into the professional arena.

Still, it could be worse: she sometimes get drawn in a rather cheesecaky style:

Excellent though they are, pictures of real people in her costume might look less like suitable decor for a business office:

and it would be naive to deny any subtext whatsoever in images like this:

One problem with the poster is the unappealing look of all of the superheroes, as painted with admirable realism by Alex Ross.

A group of smug, violent characters dressed in weird costumes: variously, aristocrats, plutocrats, driven outsiders, hotshots, firebrands, geniuses and a goddess. An unaccountable elite comprising new money, old money, unassailable ability and the demiurge-like embodiment of extreme qualities. No necessarily people you'd want to spend time with. In fact, Black Canary (real name: Dinah Lance), who runs a shop called Sherwood Florist, may be one of the more accessible personalities. But lovely though she might be, in this picture she looks sneery as well as sexy, in a 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough' way...

Perhap I should pin up a short biography of her for the benefit of visitors - explaining the origins of her 'Canary Cry' with which she incapacitates criminals, and describing her martial arts talents. Or would that be digging myself in deeper?

Let's just say she's great kick-ass drawn character and leave it at that...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Envying a double colon: intertextual route planning

A pizza-box-like package arrived from lulu the other day, containing a copy of Walking the M62 by John Davies. It has taken me a few days to completely open, with two hunts for suitable tools - compared with cack-handed Amazon, the lulu people are masters of book packaging who in my view could be entrusted with safe transit of all sorts of fragile and precious items (Ming vases, newborn babies…)

On reflection I might have other reasons for delaying cutting through the plastic straps and polythene cauls to actually read the book. Stumbling across a blog reference to John’s journey (during the darkest moments of a bestial Christmastide) gave me the idea of undertaking and documenting a long walk home. The concept landed in me like a compressed file, which is unzipping joyously into actual miles walked, mud spattered, words assembled, pixels ordered into images. A very good thing.

So why not pile into the book?

Basically I think I fear traversing the same ground. Not that I’ll accidentally be lured to Hull instead of Brighton, but that my journey will become a sort of cover version, tribute-band act, or Work in the School Of…

I know John only obliquely, but enough to be aware that we share some cultural touchpoints (Ballard, the Fall) and enthusiasm for technological communication. I worry about seeing and expressing things similarly – a not unfounded fear, as I’ve already quoted a line of Eliot which, I notice, flicking through the book, is one of John’s chapter headings. So there’s a danger that my own journey (‘real’ and ‘personal’ though it might be) becomes a sort of plagiarism, or at least a partially redundant exercise.

And there’s stuff I wish I’d thought of, like the double-colon device in his headings (‘Trafford to Warrington :: 18 October 2007’), or using Twitter…

Still it’s too late now – I have opened the book and eaten the fruit of knowledge. Walking the M62 will become another component of the cultural wampum bag I carry with me. Any similarities should be read as fascinating synchronicity and/or clever intertextuality…

All territory has already been traversed, we’re all gathered at the same storytellers’ fire – and yet, paradoxically, each journey is as fresh as a new cloud formation and there’s always something new to say, albeit in motley borrowed language.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Carter Family's Commandos?

On a trip to Liverpool last week, I bought just one comic in Worlds Apart: Brave and the Bold #9, in which (among other things) the Blackhawks, wartime aviators, team up with the Boy Commandos - "an elite commando squad of orphaned children, led by grown-up Captain Rip Carter" who "fought on all fronts of the Second World War" (Wikipedia entry), originally created just after Pearl Harbour.

The idea of children actively fighting in a fantasy war is a little hard to swallow. Even their victories are somewhat unpalatable - blazing away at the Nazis - but then I can remember family films such as 'Hannibal Brooks' not so long ago with Germans being knocked over like ninepins; it didn't used to seem very odd.

The reality of child soldiers is a grim consequence of poverty, hatred and the economics of war - Save the Children offer a sobering overview.

But back to the world of inconsequential nonsense and comfortable imaginings...

30 years or so after Simon and Kirby created the Boy Commandos, shoe manufacturer Clarks ran a series of comic-strip ads featuring a gang of paramilitary children led by a Kit Carter, who is either a large youth or else an adult, in adventures which involve sole-gripping qualities saving the day.

(Re-presented on Steve Holland's excellent blog Bear Alley.)

Two juvenile military gangs, led by older males named Carter. Manly three-letter names: Rip and Kit. Surely related. The world's worst childcare practitioners. A subgenre seldom explored...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A different kind of rambling

I've started my walk from Southport to Brighton (planned to stretch over the remaining years into my 50th). It has a blog all its own, so I'll stop going on about it here - should you want to follow in my footsteps, bookmarking or the joys of RSS will fix you right up. Plus I'm tagging all the bits and pieces with ,walkinghometo50, so you should be able to track me down...

There's also a bunch of photos and a map...

Friday, January 11, 2008

cutting remarks, rambling tales

So one time I came in between Marc Almond and Jayne County, like the filling in a sandwich...

Let me explain.

As a side effect of tidying the loft space and cathartically giving away boxes of books and comics, I found a pile of old notes, photos, letters and copies, many dating from m time as a footnote in the margins of live art. These include reviews of my stuff, which I had totally forgotten about, immersed as I am in a 30-year-long, site-specific guerrilla performance where I masquerade as a marketing director...

So, here's a side trip into nostalgic egoboo:

Way back in 1983, Chrissie Iles reviewed the Sheffield Expanded Media Show in Performance magazine, and mentioned that 'Roy Bayfield, a student from Brighton, performed three readings from a collection of rambling, narrative, semi-autobiographical anecdotes and tales...He mixes truth with fiction and his own personality with that of 'Jack', creating a separate personality and exploring theories of multiple reality...One finds oneself listening intently to the rambling [that word again]tales, which have the fascination of other peoples [sic] overheard conversation, with a sustained interest, despite the mundane subject matter...the beauty of his work lies in its simplicity and mobility, and his ability to do, as he would like to, a show either in an art space or in the pub where, one feels, he would get an equally good response.'

I think that's a compliment...

Four years later, Tim Etchells reviewed another Sheffield performance in the same mag: 'Roy Bayfield's piece rambled along [there it is again], with much talking off microphone, much pulling of relevant and irrelevant objects from a white polythene bag, and much gulping of beer. Roy's subject matter is himself and the slightly odd and occasionally ordinary stuff he cares to talk about, or carry with him. On this occasion he showed us his STINKOR 'plastic play figure', and read the packaging which implored us to 'swivel his mutant hips'...His lack of performing tricks or well-timed effects suit the simple humanity of his material: it is a frail and generous work...'

Cheers Tim. Fair, and as true today as it was then.

Meanwhile the year before I was mentioned in, of all places, Melody Maker, when Jim Shelley reviewed the Zap Club's 'Taboo Week'. 'After Almond's 'Buck', the second laugh of the week was Roy Bayfield's 'The Man Who Couples With Sufaces' routine. More John Dowie than Ted Chippington, he offered the theory that if a man achieves his first orgasm over a porn mag, soon the magazine, as an item, becomes his own obscure object of desire. "Until, ultimately, he gets his reward from any magazine, be it Snooker Monthly, Airgun World, or best of all, Big Fish." Third laugh was Jayne County's "I Want a Wedding Like Lady Diana's"...'

Gratifying to be mentioned in such illustrious company - and no rambling.

Monday, January 7, 2008

'psychogeography socks'

Various synchronicity roads are leading me towards the work of Iain Sinclair. Yesterday, fancying finding out a bit more about comics writer Alan Moore's magickal practices, I found this

"I tell you what man, one the greatest, most mentally enriching, physically debilitating experiences of my life was going on a walk with Iain Sinclair, when he was doing this art exhibition at a gallery on Shoreditch High Street. He was going [sic] together four male artists and four female artists. And the idea was he was picking sites from his AA road atlas of London, and he got them all to pick a site, and he would either meet them there, or he would do a walk there. One of them was Michael Moorcock, who had come up from California. I was the only one who was actually doing the walk with Iain, the site I had chosen was Moorgate Churchyard, John Dee's place. I went to Iain's place at half eight in the morning and we walked the twenty miles through London, up the river to Moorgate. He had his special psychogeography socks, he was skipping. I was crawling along, sobbing. It was incredible. It's not just the walk - it was doing the walk with Iain....He would say "oh see that grating over there, that's the grating that TS Eliot used to peer up women's skirts from under." "Oh this is where they used to push Ezra Pound along the pavement while he was cursing about the Jews." You suddenly get this sort of...everything becomes light. New age woolly-hat Glastonbury mystics weary me, sometimes, but they talk about energy, the energy of a place, of a person. We all know what they mean, but at the same time it has to be said that this is not energy that is going to show up on an autometer. We're not talking about energy in the conventional sense that physics talks about energy. To me, energy is information - I think you can make that bold a statement. The only lines of energy that link up disparate sites in London are lines of information, that have been drawn by an informed mind. The energy that we put forth is information we have taken in. We will see a work of art and it will give us inspiration, it will give us energy. It's given us information that we can turn to our own use and put out as something else. That's the kind of energy that we - and psychogeography - are talking about. So Iain Sinclair's London is a much richer, more extraordinary place than almost anyone else's" here.

And today my Google Reader (or the daemon within it) served up this from quote from Sinclair in John Davies blog:

"Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siecle decadence, a poetic of entropy - but the born-again flaneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything. Allignments of telephone kiosks, maps made from moss on the slopes of Victorian sepulchres, collections of prostitutes' cards, torn and defaced, promotional bills for cancelled events at York Hall, visits to the homes of dead writers, bronze casts on war memorials, plaster dogs, beer mats, concentrations of used condoms, the crystalline patterns of glass shards surrounding an imploded BMW quarter-light window, meditations on the relationship between the brain damage suffered by the super-middleweight boxer Gerald McClellan (lights out in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel) and the simultaneous collapse of Barings, bankers to the Queen. Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high."

- which has some resonance with how I intend to approach my journey. Psychogeography has been my practice for decades, albeit not under that banner - the videos and performances I made about Portslade; slideshows of found items on the East/West Sussex border; personal mythologies like the padlock that holds the world together.

So - Iain Sinclair - recommended by magicians and vicars! I can't resist finding out more. I've avoided his work for ages for the perverse reason that it looks too much like the kind of thing I might like - but now I've relented and put in some library requests.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

White Wire Man

I had an iPod for my birthday last year (a month ago.) This has little device been a revelation in many ways. I haven't even listened to music on headphones for a long time - probably since my Dad bought a pair for the family stereogram in 1974. (These 'cans' had a brass jack plug that weighed more than the iPod, and one couldn't wander more than a few feet whilst wearing them, listening to 'Switched on Bach' for its freaky stereo effects...)

Now I'm carrying an entire record-collection's worth of stuff, coming to terms with the weirdness of a subjective mobile soundtrack, the random selections of the Electric DJ Imp that operates the 'Shuffle' selection, delivering strange aural overlays to my movements, eg

'I See a Darkness' by Johnny Cash, while walking through a crowd of laughing kids outside the local Primary school;

'I am the Strange Hero of Hunger', a poem by Billy Childish, in the paper goods section of Tesco;

'Space Monkey' by Patti Smith, watching the clouds break open into light above the strangely hunched and provisional-looking buildings of Ormskirk.

I suppose I could seize control back from the Shuffle Imp, construct playlists to map precise moods - 'Leave the Capitol' as we roll out of Euston, 'Hit the North Pt 1' when we pass Stafford - but maybe I'll just let the randomness play on.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Stepping Out

As a lover of purposeful activity (preferably involving lots of planning, special equipment and some pub stops), I'm commencing a special journey. The plan is to walk home for my 50th birthday - a trip that will take me at least 280 miles and getting on for four years.

And what better way to start than to launch another blog. Walking Home to 50 will be the maundering plan, photos, journals and whatnot. You're welcome to join me on the way.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

'heroic generosity'

A web page about my Dad has shown up on the web.
It's great to see his 'heroic generosity' and expertise acknowledged, in this case in transcribing organ music into Braille for the benefit of sightless musicians.
Much of what he does is a closed book to me - I don't read music, let alone Braille - so getting a third-party view of its value is nice.
Some of my Dad's CV reads like something I would write (eg the Royal School of Church Music does not have regional 'Gauleiters'; founding members of choirs probably aren't normally considered 'aboriginal'; 'decanter' would be a better description o hi parting gift than 'urine bottle'.)

However I'm of a generation that would be unlikely to say 'if a woman can do it it must be easier than I thought' without pulling out the 'Irony' stop first...

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Vacuuming up the needles

Usually our decorations come down on Twelfth Night (lest Old Nick takes them down), but this year we felt moved to expunge any evidence of festivity before the sun has set on New Year's Day. A lot of the time, it has been a dispiriting period of mild illness, anxiety and Weltschmerz. As if the Christmas trees, both evil and good, brought darkness under our roof rather than green-ness - not the 'deep and dazzling darkness' of spirituality but plain ol' darkitude.

So away with it - let the sussurus of fallen needles sucking into the Dyson herald a new time.

(I have exaggerated for comic effect - we had some nice times with friends, feasts and fun - but we've come up short on the good cheer account - and therefore need to kick some imaginary seasonal butt.)

I like to plan my way out of negativity, so that's what I've been doing. Next Christmas may be a plainer affair with more focus on visiting people followed by some non-festive vacation. And I've started on a longer-term scheme to walk home for my 50th birthday... in many chunks over the next four years, but doing all the steps back from where I live now, through previous hometowns to my point of origin.