Thursday, 30 May 2013

Nine Steampunk Novels

Shameless stolen from Jonathan Green's blog, I thought I'd post this:

It's a list of nine novels that define steampunk as a literary genre and it's interesting to see what makes the list. I feel it very much underscores the differences between the genre and the subculture.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Why I love Birmingham

I love the city I live in, over the past decade it's become my home.

I love the buildings, the strange mixture of old and new; the way the Digbeth Dalek dominates the view as you approach the city centre. The old Victorian brick of end of Corporation Street with the law courts fills me heart with joy as I walk down it every morning, it's so beautiful. I love the old buildings, though criminally I hadn't realised how much of the city's architectural heritage remained until I visited Leeds (where you're hemmed in by old buildings). I even have a soft spot for the old library, which is a big slab of Brutalist architecture, an industrial ziggurat reaching up into the sky. In addition to that the location feels so much better than where I lived before, for someone who's Chinese horoscope suggests a need for water in my surroundings I really don't miss the sea (but then I lived in Southport, I never saw the blessed thing!) and I like the feeling of being central. Beyond that there's something about the city that feels welcoming to me, it always has. I feel comfortable as I pass Millennium Point on the train when I've been away.

I think I was fortunate that a good friend of mine, Phil Kavanagh, already lived down here when we moved south. He introduced me to the Waylands Forge and Nostalgia and Comics, the local gaming and comics stores respectively (geek priorities) which are still rather brilliant.  As a result the city's always felt friendly and welcoming, far from the forbidding place it could be. I've made good friends here, some of whom I don't see nearly enough, and the cats help too; nothing feels like coming home more than seeing my lovely wife and kittens. If we feel like places are home because of good memories and associations, it helps to feel loved and appreciated; and I do feel those things here.

I don't feel more divorced from nature, Birmingham isn't a dark Victorian realm of 'satanic mills', at least not yet, and whilst there may be light pollution and lots of cars, I've seen wild animals here; foxes in the garden, a heron in the local parkland. We do seem to have a lot of corvids though, which is a pity because it affects the number of birds that prosper locally.

I know these are things that could apply anywhere, or at least to any city, but I feel them most keenly here.

Perhaps a little context would help here. I was raised in Kenilworth, went to school in Princethorpe and when I fled north (desperate to get away from the Midlands truth be told) I wound up in Ormskirk and Southport. Most of my life has been spent in small towns and I'm keenly aware of their limitations. To live in a town I would have to be dependent on a car to get to culture or even decent shops; and whilst a car could be useful it would also drive my costs up to ridiculous levels.

I like the feeling of size too, it feels big enough to get lost in, if you want to. Towns feel too pokey, too personal; as if you have no privacy. Whilst I like to feel as if people know me, I also value time to escape and I find that far more possible in a city than in a town.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Great Fire of London and Pandemic

Tonight's gaming was board gaming, as our Shadowrun GM wanted a week off to take stop after the first part of Harlequin, which we completed last week.

So we played Great Fire of London and Pandemic, and it was the first time I'd played either of them.

My initial thoughts on Great Fire of London are that it's a good game but a little difficult, with hard choices for the players. It felt very easy to lose your pieces to the blaze because it was very hard to be everywhere at once. I think you have to take the view you'll lose some buildings and hope for the best, though it was a little galling to lose one of the special buildings I had to protect in the first round, though I did feel a bit better when I used my last move in the game to destroy the last of the six point buildings.

Pandemic was a different kettle of fish, I'm not really sure I enjoyed it and can't put my finger on why. The game seemed a little pointless, and whilst I liked the co-op style of play. something about it just didn't sit right with me. I think the escalation might have been too fast and it felt a bit like there were no right decisions; we were screwed whatever we did. Even when we got a cure under our belt it felt a bit hollow, especially because the game ended right after as the pandemic track reached its end. Hopefully another game of it will be more fulfilling.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

A Minx in Disguise

This is how we met our second cat.

For a long time we'd been concerned about the boy cat, he's one of those rare gregarious felines who seems to struggle being on his own. We thought he needed a companion, a little kitty friend who could be all his. So we started to plan to get a second cat.

At one point we took him down to the RSPCA to see how he got on with other cats, specifically queens. That ended up with a scared tom cat being bullied by girl cats, whilst the staff said confidently that he was quite a submissive cat, and whoever we took home would rule the roost (how wrong they were).

We didn't take any of the cats we saw there home, to be honest whilst there were a lot of nice cats none of them were what we looking for.

That summer we went back again, this time without Mr Fish. We looked up and down, seeing many lovely cats but my attention was attracted when I thought I heard Eve say 'Dita?". Upon investigation she'd actually said Dee Dee (what is it with the rubbish names the poor cats get given at these places?). The feline in question proved to be, what we thought was another tabby, resting in her basket in a lazy fashion. We asked if we could see her more closely and when the door to her pen was open, she just lay there letting us give her fuss. She was a most incurious animal, just content to sniff our hands but otherwise seemingly unbothered by our attention. She had been one of a pair, her sister had been taken the week before. I think in part our choice was tempered by that, she was a lovely cat, and we felt slightly sorry for her being left behind.

We said we'd have her, the charity sent an assessor around, it was at this point we learnt that the girl in question is a dark tortoiseshell (it makes her sound like a fantasy race) and we were approved.

This is the point where things went slightly wrong. We had a week off at the end of July and wanted to coincide her arrival with that, so that we could settle her in safely. The charity wouldn't agree to it and said we had to take her immediately, implying that if we didn't she would be put to sleep. Colour us both rather unimpressed.

Nonetheless we hurried down and brought her back, trying to set up her up in the spare room. You're supposed to keep cats separate when one moves in, so that they can slowly get used to each other. There are issues with scent and presence that they have to adjust to.

Needless to say that didn't happen. Mr Fish burst in and sniffed our new girl's bottom, which rather set the pattern for their relationship. Even today he's keen to establish his dominance regularly.

As for the little girl, we soon learnt her character when she mewed in delight when I brought fish and chips home for tea. She's a greedy cat  but one that's charming to carry it off. It's a different kind of charm, whilst the boy is suave, she has a wide eyed ingenue quality to her that's endearing.

Today she seems to have settled in, she's blossoming and growing even though she's an 'old' cat. Oddly its only in the last few years that she seems to have developed an interest in hunting and her energy levels seem to be growing. Perhaps she's a kitty time lord...

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Expo (and a shopping list)

This weekend is the UK Games Expo, in what I think is becoming one of the biggest gaming conventions in the UK. This year sees it open up in a new home, abandoning the Clarendon Suites and shift to the Metropole Hilton by the NEC.  Despite the new home it seemed busy, bustling with people and traders. It was, perhaps, a little less crowded than it was before but not so you'd notice really.

This year I had no money, the downside of having overspent earlier in the month (depression's not good for that sort of thing - buying shiny things like Journey into Mystery graphic novels with the wonderful kid Loki). So, aside from a ring and a copy of My Life with Master, bought by my lovely Evie, I came away with nothing more than a shopping list and a burning desire to get rid of more games I won't play so I can get new ones; shifting from RPGs to board games for the most part.

It was good to see Pookie, even though he was rushing off to a meeting (actually I'm really happy to see him getting work in the field he loves). We talked about getting back to the Legend of the Five Rings game we started a while ago, with the PCs as magistrates from minor clans in the City of the Rich Frog. Angus from Chronicle City was running around from meeting to meeting so I didn't get to see him properly, but again I was chuffed to see him doing so well.

Sadly Sarah Newton couldn't make it this year which is a huge shame, and I think my friend Kate didn't come up to work for Esdevium either; both of them were very much missed.

As ever the Expo makes me want to make games and I think I'm going to dig out one of the ideas I have for a board or card game and tinker with it a bit. Who knows, I might even get around to making cards and trying it out.

Elsewhere on the gaming front I've organised some gaming for the summer, when I'm only going to be reading up on my dissertation subject (fear) and trying to get some background reading in for either poetry or screenwriting before term starts up again. I've settled on the Laundry, the game based on Charles Stross' novels which marry spy fiction, the Cthulhu Mythos and weird science in a glorious melange. Must admit I'm really looking forward to running it.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Lazy Friday Music Thing: After the Bomb

It's Friday and, like most of you, my enthusiasm for this week was limping at about 9.00 am Monday morning. So let's do music and ease ourselves into the long weekend.

... I promised you apocalypse stuff didn't I? We can do that.

I have a deep and abiding love of post apocalypse books and films, I've done quite a few reviews of novels set after this or that disaster (and have a long list of books to read still). The appeal of the genre lies in seeing people survive against all odds and reading the ways in which society distorts to cope with great pressures. My background's in social science and I find it fascinating to see what writers and other artists come up with. This kind of horror and science fiction really throws a mirror up to society, reflecting its fears. I must confess that it frequently fits my mood, the idea that we can rip up the world and start again is a tempting one.

Its interesting to see how the nervousness that feeds post apocalypse fiction has evolved, becoming more intimate as the golden age of 'big tech', that period of nuclear power and the "white heat of technology", as Harold Wilson put it, seems to have died away. Our fears are biological, bacterial; super-bugs, avian flu. Alternatively they're connected to the environment or oil running out; a graceful if inevitable decline into barbarity as the wonders of the Twentieth Century become the only ones we'll ever know. We fear a demise to the scientific age: no more space programme, no more cars. Back to the horse and cart, steam power; a black future, not a bright one. Even so, the closest we get to the mushroom cloud is the image of a dirty bomb; in the west at least, and even that is more a passing fear than the shadow the atomic bomb laid across the late part of the last century. We've come a long way from the spectre that inspired the show Threads.

The first post apoc novels I remember reading were Patrick Tilley's Amtrak Wars, where the grass had been blasted red by nuclear fallout and the plains were ruled by mutants. 'Good, true Americans' (all white, as far as I remember) lived underground in a huge techno base where the promise of the 'blue sky world' was held out to them like a parent's promise of sweets for a child on a visit to the Doctors.

Interestingly post apocalypse fiction seems to become more popular when things are a bit rubbish in the real world. I suppose it acts as a sort of panacea but, given that the last thirty years have, to an extent, been dominated by visions of dystopia, it's interesting that the credit crunch and the subsequent recession have produced a new wave of 'after the bomb' art in all fields. Whilst most people think about this sort of thing in terms of 'big art' there's no denying that some bands have made their mark here too, encapsulating apocalyptic scenes in music videos.

Perhaps the brightest of them are a twin pair by My Chemical Romance, for songs from Danger Days. Linked by a common setting and action, there's a definite superheroic atmosphere to the way they've been put together; they're almost 'superpunk' to coin a phrase, post apocalyptic, plastic, but taking on the role of freedom fighters against the big bad company that seems to manufacture everything, in a situation that's reminiscent of Tank Girl's Water and Power. The band were accused of being 'unamerican' by Fox News because of the lyrics for Sing. Perhaps because I'm a terrible, terrible British person, but I'm not sure I can think of a higher accolade or a sign you're doing something right.

Nah Nah Nah


The whole thing is very comic booky, it ties into the idea expressed in Grant Morrison's Super Gods that the superhero is the last, great hope and the reason they've become so popular is because they're so much part of modern mythology they really have become like gods. His hypothesis suggests that as politicians, economists and religious leaders do little more than find deeper holes to drop us into, we've turned to something that's fictional but always comes through to literally save the day.

Morrison, by the way, is the bald headed guy playing the assassin in the frilly shirt; he and Gerard Way are great mates.

My other choices are a bit older, dating from the 1980s in fact (the last great heyday of the post apocalyptic form). First up Duran Duran's 'Wild Boyz'. I found this when I was mucking about with a post apocalyptic roleplaying setting. I found it stark and arresting; it seemed to tap into Storm Constantine's Wraeththu books (or should that be vice versa) and with modern culture's obsession with clean cut, asexual, young men.

Wild Boyz

Similar sentiments can be found  in the Sisters of Mercy's 'This Corrosion', which is set in what looks to be the remains of an industrial complex with the band wielding surprisingly well preserved instruments and having found a power source from somewhere. Perhaps that, along with the prospect of fresh meat, is what attracts their obviously mutated audience. The thing that really strikes me about the whole thing is how surprised Patricia Morrison looks a lot of the time, as if the camera keeps creeping up on her.

This Corrosion

Of course the Sisters have an advantage here, the heavy drum machine beat from Doktor Avalanche sounds post apocalyptic, with that deep, heavy thunder that makes the blood race.

Lastly Fields of the Nephilim's 'Preacher Man' is a tour de force, tying in very much with nuclear fear. Here we find a radiation marked pulpit with Carl McCoy leaning over it in his best impression of a rabid preacher, alternately condemning and blessing his followers. What amuses me about the video is the very careful way the instruments are abandoned and guns taken up. There's something incredibly British about it. What impresses me is general lighting and set up the band had, it looks properly apocalyptic and unpleasant. In keeping with their Spaghetti Western gone bad theme, its also the most low tech of the apocalypses, a futuristic western in a world gone bad.

Preacher Man

Carl McCoy appeared in the film Hardware, an SF film set in an irradiated world where war was fought by killer robots. McCoy's role was that of a nomad, scouring the desert collecting salvage to sell. Amusingly about his only line in the film was 'Where is the little man?', which given that McCoy himself isn't exactly a titan, cracks up both my wife and I whenever we watch the film.

Five slices of the desperate aftermath of whatever destroys civilisation and dumps us into a terrible world of mutants, strange science and weird societies. I'm almost tempted to ask what we're waiting for?

But only almost.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

A Poem

I started writing this when I was in a bad mood... It shows.

The word falls from your lips,
And my heart dies a little,
Turns from warm and full,
To cold and brittle.
What a slimy, shifting word,
Devoid of all meaning,
A linguistic chimera,
A false, shining seeming.
A traitorous turncoat term,
Does it mean yes, or no,
I fear we all know.
So why not just say so?
Have you no conviction,
Are you so determined to please?
That you hide your meaning

Behind your damn maybes?

(Not) Keeping Up With The Jones'

I came to a realisation about myself a few days ago.

I've stopped caring about what people think, for the most part, and have become increasingly ambivalent about the must have, must see things the world tells me are important. I know what matters to me and that's enough.  I feel no need to traipse after the latest gadget, especially if the thing I have works; I've not bothered with the Wii U for instance, the Wii (and Gamecube for that matter) still work so why would I need a new console? Whilst I'd like to travel, and see more of the world, again I don't feel the need to compete. I'll travel for myself, not because everyone else is.

Perhaps more oddly this feeling also embraces culture, I find I'm not bothered by 'water cooler' moments; whole series of apparently gripping television has passed me by like ships in the night. This does mean some of my conversations with friends have become strained. In many ways the old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon about the power of media is correct, television has become the opium of the people... one reason traditional media is so full of internet scare stories is that there's a real fear that the 'net could render newspapers and TV obsolete.

Despite my general antipathy to it, there's a strong instinct within humanity to keep up with others, be it through possessions, experiences, culture or what have you. Even subculture isn't immune, as unfortunately the system (capitalism in this instance, if you're playing multiple choice on the controlling 'system' of the day - there are so many to choose from after all) takes cultural deviations and turns them into brief trends. Normally by the time mainstream media catches hold of something its days of innovation and rebellion are over; lest we forget the Sex Pistols were just a cleverly marketed boy band. Some subcultures are so 'stuff' orientated that  it's impossible to participate without buying new gear and keeping up with your peers (New Rocks and Dr Martens spring to mind). We're a social species; it's hardwired into our DNA that we need a place to fit and our society, which is still largely troupe based, forces us towards conformity. So it's no surprise that we feel this pressure to be the same, but different. On one level it's beneficial; it lets us identify tribes and trends, but we're always caught in a flux between two extremes, happy with neither of them. Fear seems to govern our response to both elements, fear of loss of identity on one hand and fear of losing community on the other.

At one extreme we're left with the stark reality that all of us have things we don't want other people to know, which naturally damages communities; its a cliche that the 'quiet ones' are the people who have the most dangerous secrets. At the other we have anarchy of a sort, as people struggle to find social connections. Humanity walks the line between the two extremes with ever increasing problems as technology becomes more intrusive and our respect for authority lessens. Who now can imagine the awe that politicians may have been held in in the past, or the respect accorded to people simply because they were on the television? In the UK the royal family has survived surprisingly well in this regard; something I would attribute in part to the air of mystique they have consciously cultivated about themselves. Prince Philip aside there are few outbursts that would lead them to have problems with the press. Even people who don't really care for them, or find the concept of a hereditary monarchy ludicrous (guilty as charged) can't fault the current family's survival technique, even if it does mostly boil down to smile, nod and keep your opinions to yourself.

I'm not sure if the way I feel is common, I suspect not. Honestly, I'm not sure I care. Life's too short to stuff a mushroom or spend your time being constrained by other people's opinions: at the end of the day we're all freaks, geeks, sinners and saints just struggling to get through from one day to the next. Anything that even sniffs of security is a lie. As long as you don't break the law, then what you do shouldn't matter surely? To quote Dr Seuss, "those that mind don't matter, those that matter, don't mind", and whilst that's a little ballpark, assuming everyone sings from more or less the same song sheet, there's a truth to it. In reality we all carry our little secrets, and all condemn those who are different to us. I'm afraid that's just human nature.

Calvin and Hobbes copyright Bill Watterson

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Enchanted Burlesque

Last month it was the 5th anniversary show of Enchanted Burlesque, which started off at the Flapper as the Silk Stocking Striptease Show. The team that run the event laid on a dazzling night, inviting back old friends and providing an exciting evening of entertainment. It was sad, however, that Angel LaVey was unable to perform.

In some respects it would be right to call it their gala show, breaking out the best talent in a grand celebration. This included bringing back Mysti Vine and Mr Joe Black, who are both talented, intelligent, sometimes challenging, performers. Terms of Unnervement, Joe Black's new burlesque double act performed two short skits, both challenging and slightly sleazy, though what left the most impression on me, aside from the cleverness of the acts was how well Aran tucks! Joe went on to perform some of his own songs later on in the show, an area that he's focused on a good deal more recently. I think some of my fellow audience members were a little perturbed by the cry of 'sing or I'll fucking kill you', but what do you expect from a man who sings gleeful little songs about kicking babies down the stairs?

I must confess that burlesque dancing leaves me a little cold. After the first couple of turns I start to get a sense of deja vu, spotting the same moves repeated over and over. I appreciate you can't really throw in anything that different; the human body only does so much after all, it just all gets a bit, well samey (I'm not sure if I get kicked out of the male half of the human race for saying that, but oh well). Perhaps this is why I appreciate performers like Mysti so much, the routine she performed for the5th anniversary show, silhouetted behind a screen seemed innovative and interesting, whilst her pimp routine was funny and provocative. Its a mark of a good burlesque dancer, in my opinion, when their performance goes beyond just taking off their clothes and into something else; fortunately this is something that Enchanted Burlesque's performers have been excellent at achieving, dating back all the way to the days at the Flapper.

This isn't to say that Enchanted Burlesque hasn't come a long way, whilst the quality of the dancers they attract has stayed more or less the same, their productions are definitely better now than they were five years ago. The cabaret is the area that has really improved with the move to the Old Rep however. Silk Stocking had navigated a narrow course between the good and the abysmal, featuring racist comics and a guy with a guitar who (barely) sang rockabilly songs. Enchanted Burlesque however attracts a far better range of cabaret performers, I don't think you could argue that opening a show with a performance from Drag's lead singer is in anyway comparable to the rather anemic offerings of a few years ago. It remains risque but, well, I don't miss jokes about 'pakis' or a guy in a bunny suit trying desperately to make an indifferent audience laugh. Tellingly, however, the organisers aren't afraid to take risks, as evidenced by the Frank Sinazi performance at the first show they held at the Crescent Theatre. I feel that this is an important part of the way they operate, always moving forward, innovating. Recently they've really raised the game, attracting international stars like Cherry Shakewell.

The show officially changed hands at the time, from James to Angel LaVey and the ethos of the show quite plainly changed at that time. It became perhaps slightly camper, safer, and comported itself with more of a knowing wink. The change of MC has probably helped. Dapper as the Decadent Gent was, funny as was Al Grant was, they weren't really suited for a theatre audience. In contrast Joe Black and Mister Meredith have the advantage of not only being performers themselves (useful for when you need a little time to establish props) but they also have the skills and charm to sell themselves as risque but ultimately safe, (even when dragging members of the audience up on stage to effectively molest them for comic effect).

All in all the show continues to go from strength to strength, I feel it's safe to say that in the next few years Enchanted Burlesque will become one of the big names amongst burlesque shows.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Sunday Sins

Well good evening,

This weekend has been one of housework, writing and baking.

I've broached my story for this year's Asylum anthology, a sequel to Prometheus Enslaved, where I've had to do some serious rethinking about the story I want to write. I've been quite worried that I'll end up writing a carbon copy of the first story. I think that I've worked out a way to avoid that, one which involves expanding my protagonists' repertoire; from mere resurrections to alchemy and strange elixirs. I've also settled on the people they're dealing with, eschewing the military option, partially because I found out that the American Civil War was about ten years before the original story and since neither Pinter nor the Doctor are time travellers (it's not that Doctor) that's obviously beyond their reach. In addition the long, dragged out American Civil War seems to have become something of a cliche so I abandoned the idea in favour of something else. The odd thing is the source of the new direction, something my Mum said after she read the first story about wanting to know more about one of the characters. Obviously there's going to have to be editing but so far it seems to be going okay and taking shape nicely.

Also on the writing front I've been taking stock. The latest issue of Cogzine has the last part of the Angel Serial that I've written, where Kat meets an angel and a demon. One of the things I wanted to do with the chapter was present the celestial beings in an utterly bizarre fashion, making it clear that they saw the world and universe in an utterly different way to humans. I also wanted to leave some doubt as to which side of the table each character was on. This is partly because I find the traditional images of angels and demons boring, even if the Angel in London does confirm to the human with wings image.

It's been a long time since I thought about the serial so now I'm working out the next steps. I know where the series is going but I need to work out individual chapters. I think we may snap back to Earth, rather than spending more time in the compay of Acrimony and Scorn (who I love writing).

I also need to start work on the next essay for Jed Phoenix, which will be a short essay on Gothic as an aesthetic ideal. I think it's going to be a short history of Gothic touching on things like the growth of Gothic cathedrals, the Romantic poets and the early horror films from the 1920s and 30s.

I've also started playing Metroid Prime: Other M, on the Wii, and so far I'm liking it. It's a lot easier to play than the Gamecube versions were because they're first person shooters, which I find difficult.

Lastly I've made a roast dinner and chocolate brownies, which I don't think is too shabby, so I suppose I should be thinking about bed...

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Fuelled By Tea

I've spent most of the day trying to write a story and it's resisting so I'm not going to do much of a post tonight.

What I am going to do is give you a link to a friend's tumblr blog; Fuelled By Tea.

I'm supremely honoured to know the lady in question and think her work is beautiful.

Please go and enjoy her work and we'll get back on track tomorrow.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Lazy Friday Music Club: Teen Songs

Yes, yes I know... this was meant to be post apoc music videos wasn't it... We'll get to that... later. Promise. Maybe.

 I said I was making this up as I went along remember?

Anyway... Before I turned Goth I was an Indie kid. That probably sounds like an unhealthy move, Indie to Goth, but the stuff I liked as a teenager was probably more angsty than the music I listen to today. Remember that Thom Yorke was considered the singer most likely to commit suicide after Kurt Cobain died and I loved Radiohead's first album, Pablo Honey. The bands I liked weren't really 'mad for it', nor were they shoegazing, pseudo psychedelic types with big coats and bowl haircuts. The closest I got to liking the Manchester scene was James; a band my sister introduced me to when she was at Uni. If I recall right she gave me a mix tape with them on, along with a load of other bands, most of which I don't remember. Other than that, well, I was weird enough, tightly wound enough; alienated enough to want songs that showed that and let me vent - something I couldn't really do in real life. So I gravitated to other bands, the Levellers, the Manics, stuff like that. I might have dabbled in Blur and Oasisbut they weren't a huge influence on me.

Tonight I'm taking a trip back down memory lane to drag up the songs I loved when I was spotty and self conscious (or more self conscious I should say).

1) Radiohead: Creep

When I was, what, sixteen or something this was my song. It perfectly encapsulated how I felt, the shyness the lack of confidence that shot through me. It feels a little painful to listen to now, knowing how much I identified with the words at the time.

2) Methodone Pretty: The Manic Street Preachers

I'm not sure now if this was my favourite Manics song when I was a teenager. The album it's from, Generation Terrorists, was definitely the one I liked best (utter heresy I know but I thought the Holy Bible wasn't that good, though I like Gold Against the Soul). If I'm honest I think the song I liked best was Spectators of Suicide but listening back to it now, I'm not sure how much I like it; its a bit dreary and I find I listen to Methodone Pretty a lot more.

3) Kingmaker: Ten Years Asleep

The first Kingmaker song I heard was Queen Jane and I liked it a lot, enough to buy Sleep Walking. Ten Years Asleep was the song that really hooked me on the band though, with its sharp lyrics and bouncy tune. I suppose I should say that I've always songs where you can hear the words, one thing that puts me off a lot of Metal music is that the singers really just seem to grunt, their words are lost behind the wall of sound... whilch is rubbish. They could be singing any old nonsense.

4) Bjork: Play Dead

Iceland's kooky pop princess burst onto the British music scene early in the Nineties, leaving the Sugar Cubes behind and going it alone. She was fantastic and this was the best song from her first album, a really dramatic, over the top piece that sent shivers down my spine everytime I listened to it. I think its the violin combined with that soaring voice.

5) The Wonder Stuff: On the Ropes

Another band my sister introduced me to, it wasn't until Construction For the Modern Idiot came out that they really clicked with me. I like the drive in this song and its energy, pushing forward at the listener, a lot more than a lot of their earlier work, even today; though as I've grown older I've grown to appreciate songs like Size of a Cow a lot more: but this is still my favourite.

Bonus Tracks

6) James: Laid

A bit of a naughty one, I love Laid, even now, for the obvious reasons...

7) Depeche Mode: Walking In My Shoes

Lastly... I know this isn't an Indie song but it was something I loved in the early 90s and perhaps pointed out where I would eventually go. Depeche Mode are a weird band, they fit into lots of camps, are they Goth? Probably not, but they're close enough for Goths to like them, whilst at the same time a lot of other people do too. Again this was a song that just spoke to me when I was growing up and the way the music has a slight grating sensation to it still thrills me; its not a song designed to make you feel relaxed, it aims to unsettle and does it really well.

I could pick other tracks (there's nothing by the Levellers or Elastica here after all) but won't.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Meeting Mr Fish

When we met our older cat, the boy, for the first time he lied to us.

We had gone down to the local RSPCA, about twenty minutes walk from our house, to look at cats. We'd finally bought our house and one of the first things we wanted to do was get our own cat. This was partially because we both wanted one but also because we had mice coming into the kitchen, which was disturbing. We would find the soap chewed on the windowsill and mouse droppings on the worktop. We were not happy bunnies, by any stretch of the imagination.

It's a sad fact that fewer black cats are adopted every year than any other type. Even needy, whingey Siamese get more love than the humble black British shorthair. I've no idea why that is, but it's something that saddens me deeply. We were quietly determined to get a black cat to make up for it, something we've done  twice and it didn't happen either time.

The staff at the Barnes Hill were friendly and let us look at the cats they had. There were a few contenders, all beautiful but many impractical. A kitten called Rainbow was adorable but both of us work, it wouldn't have been fair to her as we would have ended up leaving her alone for a long time. Instinctively we knew we were looking for an older cat. Finally it came down to two choices, a black female called Nikita, who was running around like a crazy thing, and a ginger tom in the next cell, called Tango. In contrast to Nikita he was quiet, cat flu the volunteers explained. It seems a little cruel that the best way to innoculate cats against cat flu is to inject them with it but apparently it is and the poor boy, with his beautiful white spike going up his nose, had come down with it. He was quiet, dignified; the only clue to his true nature was the undigested pill that sat in the corner of his area but we were taken with him. He was charming, sweet and the card said he was a shoulder cat. Both of us liked the sound of that. Hang having a black cat, we wanted him. My wife thought he'd be a good, trouble free cat. We said we'd take  him, I think we paid the adoption fee and went away. All week we talked about him, trying to pick a name. Neither of us wanted a cat called Tango. We wondered about Baron, after the Studio Ghibli character but eventually settled on something else.

A week later we went back. He was feeling better, much better. We found out how adorable he was. Keen to know of us, clambering out of my arms up onto my shoulders, purring hugely as he went. He sniffed me, rubbed his head on me and stepped onto Eve. This went on for a time and every time we tried to put him back, so we could confirm with the people we wanted him, he'd swap humans. He was even more charming, handsome and friendly.

The day we brought him home, he climbed right out of the basket and up onto my shoulders, purring loudly. It was one of the best days of our lives.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Review: Iron Man 3

Before we get started; Spoilers Ahoy!

The third of the Iron Man films and the first of Marvel's Stage 2, I was unsure about this movie for a while before going to see it. I enjoyed the first film and very much enjoyed Robert Downey Jr's performance but the sequel left me cold, using a poor pair of villains (Whiplash and Justin Hammer are distinctly D list) and really seeming to serve as a vehicle to expand the Marvel film universe and introduce SHIELD as a major player, as well as setting up things up for Captain America.

Given how unimpressed I was with Thor (same weak plot, with a cast that mostly left me cold; apologies to the people who enjoyed it but I don't really see the appeal of either Tom Hiddlestone or Chris Hemsworth), I was unsure about this film, worrying it would stick to the tried, tested... dull plot line that's come to characterise so many of superhero films.

Having been to see it tonight, I can safely say that I needn't have worried. It's a fine film, albeit with a few niggling things that I would have liked to have explained and mixed feelings over the villain. Its a film that sets out to address the question of what Iron Man is, aside from a guy in a suit and does it by taking Tony Stark's toys away from him and forcing him to rely on his wits and intelligence. The only link to the wider universe is the presence of War Machine, ah I mean Iron Patriot (I can see why they chose to use the name but come on, it's nowhere near as cool) and in some ways it actually seems a little odd. Surely with someone as dangerous as the Mandarin, you'd want Nick Fury in the room. Maybe he was off being all mysterious and bastardy. This is very much Tony on his own against the world.

The arc in the film is, again, about what it means to be a hero but this time rather than having a journey from cocky bastard to hero we have a self repair story, with Tony damaged and over compensating from his experiences in Avengers Assemble, building more and more suits of armour. This reaction ties perfectly to the character, as he says he 'fixes things'. The story premise is also perfect for the character, some of the great comics stories are tales of Tony fixing himself, even if it means clawing his way back from the dead; something seen most recently in Stark: Disassembled. I don't wish to offer too much in the way of spoilers, but suffice to say that Stark is more self assured and level headed by the end of the film than he is at the beginning.

There's also an element of flesh versus metal to the whole enterprise, with villains who are based on upgrading biology to grant upgrades (aka superpowers) and the Iron Man suit as both a support and a crutch for Tony; something he must rely on and work around.

The fight scenes are beautiful in many places and the final fight (the one with all the suits is a thing of wonder) but its here a few of the cracks of the film start to show. The maguffin it utilises to create the antagonists is a cool idea but, in the film, seems woefully limited. I can appreciate the special effects budget was needed for more important things but it felt a little lazy in places.

There were a couple of things I would have liked to have seen explained, why was AIM using the ten rings symbol from the first film and why was Killian so mad about the Roxxon Oil disaster? Both were neat touches but it would have been really nice to have an explanation for them.

The use of the Mandarin was something I'm in two minds about. On one hand it was a really cool idea, a beautiful way of including a classic villain, arguably Iron Man's A list foe, without succumbing to racist stereotypes that arguably date from Fu Manchu and the days of  the Yellow Peril. On the other hand... it's the Mandarin for crying out loud, making him a half soaked actor, stoned out of his head on drugs, is a waste of a character whose presence always means that bad shit is about to happen and who's a formidable foe all on his own! I realise that he had to be the villain for this film, closing out the series with anyone else would have been ridiculous and the Iron Man rogue's gallery is patchy at the best of times - he doesn't need lots of villains, when he's his own worst enemy.

The film works very well, closes out the trilogy nicely and puts us in no doubt of where things are going, setting the character up for Avengers 2. The end of titles scene is nicely done, but sadly doesn't set up anything up for the next film in Phase 2, perhaps it doesn't need to, and is definitely worth staying for. It's a good film, if you like superhero films, it gets away from the daddy issues and even the angsting to an extent. Go, see it.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Immortal Kiss

Tonight's a busy one for me, I'm either gaming (playing an Ork Face in Shadowrun for those of you that follow such things... everyone else, don't worry it's a roleplaying thing) or writing short stories for a couple of anthologies I want to send stories to.

So in the grand tradition of UK children's television programme Blue Peter, 'here's something I prepared earlier' (did anyone actually believe that the presenter had had anything to do with preparing it?)

This is a vampire poem I wrote a long time ago (it's at least fifteen years old, probably older) and I've never done anything with. I don't consider myself to be much of a poet but I think it's okay.

Enjoy and I'll try to put together something more substantial tomorrow.

Immortal Kiss

I watch you across the room
Your face so filled with shade
Perfect, flawless
You’re everything man made
I watch you light a cigarette
Obscures your form in gloom
Vulnerable yet predatory
Freshly risen from your tomb
Come to me, I beseech you
Lead me from this shallow light
Ply my neck with tender kisses
Take me from this pallid life

Wrap me in honeyed shadow
To wash me quite away
Too cold to be living
Too fragile to flee the day
I watch you with a soft gaze
Awaiting your cool kiss
Like a wilting flower
Broken by the coldest mist
My heart beats too loudly
A loud monotone drum
That only knows one tune
And yet remains so numb

Enshroud me, rise above
I long for winter’s touch
To still this too warm flesh
That promises too much
For my tears are bloody
I hunger for sweet rest
To hide amongst my dreams
Within your cold caress
The world has worn shallow
Diseased, broken and thin
I’m lost within this storm
Please won’t you take me in?

I’m fallen, upon my knees
Give me to eternity
Break my limbs, set me free
Blind my eyes to help me see
The night’s frozen beauty
Framed in crystal lines
Turning all to statues
Into still life most divine
Drink of me, all bloody
Swallow down my life
Drown me in your kiss
Help me see your light

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Cthulhu Investigators: The Cavendish Foundation

One of the things I'm trying to do is put up some groups for British investigators to be part of in Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.

Characters in this game often find they're dependent on family and friends for leads into adventures and, given the somewhat fatal nature of the game, it starts to stretch credibility at times. Groups also make it easier to add new characters when the worst happens, and can galvanise a game at the start as it gives characters a reason to work together without the horse trading that can happen when you're trying to put a game together.

The group I've linked to is a club or foundation that investigates strange phenomena, collecting information for the Foundation.

Unlike the Farnham Circle, I feel this may need a little more expansion, so I may be adding a second document in due course.

In the meantime, I hope you like it and find it useful for your games.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

On Death...

This week Ray Harryhausen, the stop motion animation wizard whose work was a feature of so many fantasy and sword and sandals films of the 1960s and 70s, passed away. I don't remember which of the films he worked on I saw first, probably Clash of the Titans as that was always on telly when I was a kid and I remember it fondly.

I don't want to say too much about Mr Harryhausen or his life, the people who knew him can do that, and my information would probably end up coming from Wikipedia (bad of me I know).  Rather, I want to say a little about  the reaction that surrounded his death on sites like Facebook.

Most, in fact all, of the reactions I saw related to his passing reminded me uncomfortably of the response to Ray Bradbury's death last year. People seemed not only upset that he'd died but also seemed to think that it was a terrible thing, which given that Mr Harryhausen was 93 seems a little odd to me, and frankly, a little selfish.

By any account 93 (or 91 in Bradbury's case) is not a  bad age to reach. Few people reach it and most that do often have serious health conditions, their quality of life is likely to go down not up and their best years are behind them. Certainly Ray Bradbury died after a lengthy illness, so surely our reaction should be to thank him for his stories and be glad his pain is over? Not to come across, on something as superfluous as Facebook at least, as if his death is a slap in the face.

It reminded me a little of the way the Blair government rushed to vaccinate pensioners against avian flu, only to be sternly rebuffed by the very people they were striving to help. The point was made that they had lived long, usually happy, lives, and that if anybody needed to be inoculated it was parents. It strikes an interesting chord between a world that is terrified of the aging process but at the same time, utterly dependent on the old for caring for children and picking up the slack if younger generations fail.

Perhaps my view of these things is a little out of step with everyone else's. I don't see death as a terrible thing, not because of any faith, but because I tend to see it a release. My maternal grandparents both got nasty diseases towards the ends of their lives, the kind we can't cure yet, and died by inches. It was a relief when they passed over, both changed beyond recognition from the pillars of my childhood, to the extent that my Granny reminded me more of a bundle of sticks than a human being.

Nonetheless, I'll raise a glass in salute and wish the departed well. May they rest easy, knowing their legacies are secure and they will live on in hearts, minds and memories. But let them rest, they've earned it.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Darkness In Me

I work best to music, it's my preferred option. Silence is too all consuming whilst spoken word is too distracting, I focus on the words being said not on what I'm writing (of course despite saying that I'm typing this with Radio 4 Extra on in the background).

The music I like tends to be dark, sometimes its funny but I fled the cheese pop factory in my early teens and never went back. My teenage listening was indie, usually bands like Kingmaker and the Manic Street Preachers. When I became a Goth in some ways I took a step towards a less self loathing kind of music!

As I'm feeling lazy tonight I'm going to post links to five of my favourite songs and perhaps give you an idea of why I like them (gosh its like a sadder, more pathetic version of Desert Islands Discs isn't it?)

Anyway let's get it on:

1) The Cure: Burn

The Crow is one of my favourite films, it's beautifully shot and wonderfully poetic. I adore the scene where Eric Draven is transformed from a man spat out of the grave into a clown faced revenant vigilante and this song just makes it for me, stirring all sorts of passions inside me.

2) Sisters of Mercy: Lucretia (My Reflection)

If I recall rightly this is one of the first songs my wife, Eve, introduced me to, and whilst its a great song, its the video that really sold me on it. It's so cool, I love Patricia Morrison in it, looming like an expressionist phantom.

3) The Cruxshadows: Winterborn

I found this band when Meltdown magazine gave away a free Dancing Ferret CD. It was love at first listen, as I'd been interested in the more Gothtronic side of Goth ever since Cara had introduced me to Rosetta Stone back in '95 (another band I love but I must admit that Cruxshadows get played far more than them when I'm working). I love the feeling of defiance the song has, the acknowledgement of pain and sacrifice and the way it then drives you onto do great things anyway.

4) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Red Right Hand

Ah Nick Cave, my only real man crush and, really, I'm after your brain with its wonderfully macabre sensibilities. This, again, is my first song, the one that popped my Nick Cave cherry and whilst he's not exactly Goth (and he'd hate to be described as that anyway), there's a drive and an energy to his music that's close enough to satisfy that hunger in me, at least. What's more his music is for grown ups, he writes funny songs about death, for people who know that dying isn't always a terrible tragedy; and dark songs about love for people who can bear to see past the first blush of attraction.

5) Voltaire: When You're Evil

Voltaire, clever, witty, funny and Goth, no wonder the ladies swoon. This is a really good song for writing to, it's got a really good energy and the way the tune moves keeps you moving forward. The fact that its quite funny helps too.

And that's your lot, think I'll do another of these next Friday... Post Apocalyptic music videos anyone?

Thursday, 9 May 2013

First Look: God Game Black

I picked this supplement for the Laundry Files by Cubicle Seven up from my Friendly Local Spider um Gaming Store yesterday and now that I've had a chance to look at it thought I'd throw some stuff together for it.

First off this book is a big step in the roleplaying game, bringing it in line with the latest novel in Charles Stross' Laundry Files series, the Apocalypse Codex. As a result it gives you details of the events of the novel as well as an insight into External Affairs and the series' bete noir among the various occult intelligence agencies the Black Chamber in addition to some other goodies. The write up for External Affairs gives an overview of this part of the Laundry, going into a great deal of detail about their status and operations and how to best use them in your campaigns.

The chapter on the Black Chamber gives them a detailed history and organisational insight into how they work. Worryingly there are also details for running Black Chamber campaigns, presumably for players who want to be able to be complete arseholes (as most of the Black Chamber do seem to be that way inclined). One thing I'd be very interested in is seeing how official the information presented here is. I'm guessing Stross and Cubicle 7 will have been very close and careful in developing it so there's no danger of future novels contradicting what's here, but stranger things have happened.

The meat and drink of the book, for me at least, is the chapter on the sleeper in the pyramid, a figure that's become very important in the latest Laundry novels, acting as a Lovecraftian variation on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, something that needs to be woken in order for the stars to be right and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN to come to pass. This section of the book is well written and very useful for GMs.

The idea of playing the Laundry in other times than the present was introduced in the Agents Handbook and God Game Black pushes this further, actually detailing the setting before the Laundry came into existence. This makes an extant tie to the rest of the Call of Cthulhu game books (including Cthulhu Britannica). This seems to be a smart move by Cubicle 7 but I'm a little ambivalent about it. For one thing, much of the joy of the Laundry lies in the weird mixture of espionage, the Cthulhu Mythos and computer based shenanigans, which earlier periods simply don't have. On the other hand it seems foolish to ignore the wealth of history available to Cthulhu players or to take advantage of the many campaigns that are out there (how long before someone takes the proto-Laundry and uses them in Masks of Nyarlethotep or Horror on the Orient Express I wonder).

Interestingly we get updated profiles of the series' protagonists Bob and Mo' (even if she is presented as Agent CANDID), as well as a score more, mostly relating to characters from the Apocalypse Codex and the Fuller Memorandum. In many ways these feel like the least useful part of the book, but at the same time they do allow you to include the likes of Perephone Hazard in your campaign, which can be no bad thing.

Finally then to the adventures at the end. I must admit to only skimming these, as I tend to only read adventures in full when I'm going to run them. They seem good and tie nicely in with the escalation theme running through the book.

All in all this is a good addition to the line, one that moves it on apace. There are some typos and grammatical errors, but that's inevitable in any roleplaying book. Sadly it's not a book that I'll be using any time soon, as the Laundry game I run is nowhere near the point where I'd use the information in it. This is definitely not a book for beginning players or GMs.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Into the Night

Welcome to the start of 30 Blogs of Night, an attempt to blog every day for a month. No idea what I'm going to talk about (well a few ideas, but a lot of this is going to be making up stuff as I go along... which my gaming group would define as 'business as usual' I imagine).

Night is a funny time, one of mixed emotions for me. Ian Marchant in the pitch for his book 'Something of the Night' (available in all good bookshops I'm told) talks about the wonder of night, how it's a transformative time. You can be anything in the night, a hero, a villain; a rock star, anything you like.  I see that now, but when I was young my experience of night was a little different; one of fear.

As a child I swore I saw a woman fly past my window in a basket. In hindsight it was probably the influence of too many fairy tales and the workings of an overactive imagination, but when you're a toddler you don't really discriminate about this kind of thing, you run to your parents in a blind panic. Something I did a lot. I swore the shadows on my walls crawled menacingly, that I heard a witch's voice came through my curtains one night.  There was a monster under my bed and in the wardrobe. I slept with the light on until I was twelve, protected by an Animal marionette.

It was only in my teens that things changed. I abandoned safety, slept with the curtains open: embraced the night. I started reading about paganism and witchcraft, terrified my mother by asking about tarot cards (only to be told that they were pure evil, the spiritual equivalent of radiation poisoning). Whilst there were habits I couldn't quite shake, I still can't sleep with an arm hanging over the side of the bed just in case, my attitude changed. There were monsters in the night? Well they could come and get some.

At university I learnt to enjoy the night's other pleasures, nightclubs and pubs opened up to me and were okay, but I'm an introvert at heart. I preferred walking through the dark in the early hours of the morning, stealing back from campus to the house I rented down in the town. Ormskirk at two in the morning was beautiful and eerie; the huge quiet and the empty streets almost post apocalyptic. I realised during those years that night is a special time, almost holy. If you're lucky enough to be in a place without light pollution, night really puts things into perspective. There are few things more awe inspiring than sitting on top of a hill staring up at the night sky, feeling how old and vast the universe is. It's a time for thought, for introspection, no wonder we fill it with noise and light, try to drive the dangerous things away.

Today night and I are passing acquaintances, it's been a long time since I went walking through the night for fun and a friend of mine wants to go stargazing. Perhaps it's time to step out again and embrace the dark.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

MA Fiction Module and the 30 Blogs of Night

Hello, hello.

Sorry, got caught up again, I really must try to blog more (more on that later).

My hand in for my Fiction coursework is Wednesday, but I am aiming to get it in on Tuesday, gods willing, fingers crossed and with a good wind behind me. Honestly, short of a massive panic induced rewrite the stories are good to go and the commentary just needs me to go over it a couple of times.

Next up I have two short stories to write one for Fringeworks Raus Untoten collection, a story of zombies at Stalingrad which I suspect will be taking a different tack to what the editor's going to get otherwise and a follow up to last year's Asylum story. If you've read Prometheus Enslaved, I'll be picking up some of the characters from that story and taking them to America, where other dangers await.

Also, starting this week I'll be starting a concerted attempt to blog everyday, for a full month, in a so called 30 Blogs of Night. I'll be making it up as I go along so gods know what I'll end up posting (nothing rude obviously). I do have some stuff I want to post, the much promised Victorian politics blogs for instance and the system/System piece which was trying to break my brain last time I looked at it.

In the meantime please put suggestions in the comments.

I'll leave you with this:

It's not just a song for me, it's a manifesto...