Monday, 12 October 2015

Black Roses

Over the weekend,the BBC played Simon Armitage's Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, and a follow up drama Porcelain about the trial afterwards.

The links are here:

Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster


In 2007 Sophie was kicked to death because of her appearance when a group of boys decided that being a Goth, and being happy, was enough of a reason to attack them. She died in hospital afterwards.

Her mother set up the Sophie Foundation afterwards, a charity that aims to educate people about hate crimes directed at people in subcultures. Sophie Lancaster Foundation

Please have a watch and a listen and remember that the way someone looks isn't reason to discriminate against them.

Friday, 25 September 2015

An Interesting Development

We live in interesting times.

The long sought after clear blue water between Labour and the Conservatives is starting to reemerge after a long period where both parties seemed to be swimming the same laps of the pool. I remember a lecturer at Edge Hill, where I studied Politics in the 1990s, saying Britain had three Conservative parties, just with different leaders. The political centre ground truncated, and shifted rightwards; almost in an echo of America. The fringe, all too often painted as dullards, extremists and worse, have been pushed to the sides; excluded from the discourse. Big boys and girls, big beasts, have pushed them out, citing a need to be realistic, grown up, about politics. What that seems to mean is allowing the Market to have its head, and has slowly mutated into a situation where it is the chief concern of government, arguably culminating in Mr Cameron's drive towards a 'weightless state' which seems to involve turning government and state into something that has almost no ability to impact on the real world as it is forced to operate though private companies.

What has become clear is that this sort of hands off, managerial, style of politics is unappealing to a lot of people in the UK. Too often it speaks to the head, not the heart, and from a street level view, it skirts about the issues, thinking in terms of balances of payments, exports and imports and so on. It views things in terms of money and capital, not lives. It's hardly a surpise that we have seen a swing back towards something more people orientated on both sides of the political divide. On the right this has resulted in the rise of UKIP, their concerns slanted through the lens of immigration; on the left we see it in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour party.

Corbyn was the only candidate to offer something different, to step outside the current neoliberal paradigm. His platform looks like a call back to Old Labour in many respects, and I suspect that's why he's been so popular. Against a political hierarchy that looks increasingly helpless, seemingly content to wave its arms and say 'oh we can't do anything because', the idea of renationalising the railways or building our way out of recession are radical ideas that offer people something tangible; concrete. It asserts the primacy of the nation state, rather than suggesting that countries be at the mercy of international trade or the likes of the EU.

Judging from the way the media has torn into Corbyn, over a series of storms in a china set, there's a goodly amount of fear about what will happen if he wins. I've never seen such a visceral reaction to the election of a party leader and at present it look as if they run the risk of tearing the British public between our seemingly innate tendency to tug our forelocks and our desire to support the underdog; a situation where the latter impulse will almost certainly win. There seems to be some confusion over what we actually want to see; a politician with principles who espouses something outside the current orthodoxy, or someone who is just another face in the crowd. His appeal derives from the latter, and has tempted back many voters who had deserted Labour for the Greens, as well as apparently galvanising young people.

Even more baffling is that at present we have no idea if Corbyn will be electable, or if he can do the things he talks about. Given the way that the SNP's plans to put extra tax on alcohol to discourage drunkeness were shot out of the air by the EU, it may be that any attempt to stretch the  influence of the state is doomed to failure. In addition, we may see a reversion to traditional voting lines; especially if Corbyn sounds too radical. Its estimated that without the female vote the Twentieth Century would have been dominated by the Labour party, not the Conservatives and it would have looked very different. It may be that we see something similar happen again, or that new lines are drawn in the sand as politics becomes more fraught.

The reality is that we just don't know what will change, or even if it can. Corbyn seems to be trying to change the nature of the House of Commons already, attempting to make Prime Minster's Question Time a more civilised, informative affair. I suspect this won't work, or if it does it will only convince more people that politics isn't worth bothering with. As a species we are wired for excitement, and polite questions with thoughtfully given, truthful answers will only drive people away in droves (which makes me wonder why it hasn't already happened).

The other thing is that the UK is now a signature party to so many different treaties and agreements that it may be that we're literally hemmed in by red tape. Whether it is Kyoto or the looming issue of the TTIP, it may may be the case that even if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister he is effectively powerless to change anything, and that's before we consider the deep pockets and litigious tendencies of multinational companies, who have proven themselves more than willing to take national governments to court if their profits are endangered. Even the squeaky clean Swedes merrily muck into the scrum to open up markets if they have to, as the German government has found to its cost over nuclear power. I am unconvinced that the train operators in the UK will take attempts to renationalise lying down, and bluntly, they have deeper pockets than UK PLC does.

There is a danger in thinking in terms of borders and boundaries when, thanks to the internet, these things are becoming more and more irrelevant. Parts of both Left and Right seem to retreating further into a narrative that pushes nationhood to the fore, firmly ignoring the changes that have bypassed the state entirely. While the support for this on the ground is understandable, unless we are willing to tackle a much bigger set of questions, and I fear that's where that wiring I mentioned earlier kicks in.

I feel we are at a fork in the road, if we go one way we further dilute the notion of nation in favour of internationalism, greater powers for the unelected and a stronger form of Capitalism. The leads back to a stronger state, more robust borders and a controlled state. One way will be easy, the other hard, almost to the point of impossibility. Corbyn is right when he warns that Labour will have to fight for every line in his plans to renationalise the railways; he will have to fight every step of the way, as will anyone who wants to push for the primacy of the state over the interests of international capital.

At present we are in the 'wait and see' territory, with no clear way forward. I'm sure the next couple of years will add more clarity, but at present who knows what will happen?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Two Pieces

Sorry for the interruption in service, I've been running around like a  wotsit, stressing and winding myself up.

In the meantime I've had a couple of pieces published on Jed Phoenix's site.

You can find them here and here. They discuss the reaction of the general public to Goths, and how technology is changing things; making the scene the same, but very different.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

My Geekiness: Things I like.

Geek is hot these days, its everywhere you look; a trend that's been building up for at least a decade. We have a superhero films that don't suck and TV shows that are openly fantasy and immense hits. Science is hot and some of the most influential people in entertainment are gamers, geeks, and other formerly maligned groups. There seems to be more and more to be geeky over too, from the things mentioned above to computer games, comics, novels and a hundred other things. It's an expanding field, taking in new view points, including more and more people until its starting consume the mainstream.

We don't just live in Gothic times, but geeky ones too.

Perhaps as a result of this, I find myself looking at all the things out there cherry picking what I like out there in geekdom. I'm not a huge fan of television, simply because I find it a bit too passive; if I do watch stuff it tends to be cartoons and anime, though I would like to see Sens8 and Penny Dreadfuls as I've heard good things about them. Most of my geek stuff lies in books, comics and games and I tend not to think about television very much at all these days. I also have a somewhat regrettable tendency to dig my heels in if someone tells me I will love something; so sorry to anyone who has said that and then found they got a bit of an odd look.

As a result I thought I'd talk a bit about some of the geeky things I like/love and what attracts me to them.

Starting with video games: I love Skyrim, so much that I've got about four characters that I'm trying to take down different paths. The main character, a straight forward warrior has completed the main game but we've kept her to play the Dragon Born expansion, which is a bit more difficult than the main game. Other than that I'm experimenting, and have an Argonian assassin, a Dark Elf spell slinger and a Red Guard warrior, who is currently a werewolf and who I've finally cracked the archery skill with. One of the things I like is that I can come up with all sorts of different characters and explore the world in slightly different ways, acting how I feel the character would (the Argonian is far less sympathetic than the mammals I've been playing for example, even without the assassin aspect).

What I like about Skyrim, aside from the general plot of the game is how beautiful it is; the art takes my breath away frequently and there are times when I could just travel the area looking at the scenery (if only the game allowed such things), It is so well realised, I feel I could step into the world and feel quite at home. Add to this a complex backstory that actually mirrors what's going on in the rest of the game (love it when that happens), and brings up questions about power and rulership, faith and justice and it starts to become a heady mix that gets richer as you play, even if you are rolling your eyes because it is the fourth time the quest to rescue x or clear out bandits from location y has come up.

One of my absolute favourite anime shows is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It is a cyberpunk show, with a touch of philosophy in that it asks what makes a human in the first place (as all good cyberpunk should) and is filtered through the adventures of Section 9 in a near future Tokyo. The cast is great, wonderfully voiced and compellingly written. Every character serves a purpose and has a niche, so there's no deadwood. The story arcs are well put together and the society feels like its on just the right side of mad; it feels plausible as we teeter on the edge of a truly wired society, and that's a little scary.

The animation is lush, and well rendered, the vision of the future beautifully portrayed. Again, it feels plausible, fitting well with the ideas that drive the show. At the same time when I watch it I can see how it ties into current fears and themes about the growth of technology and the relationship between technology and the state. Which rather clicks with my love of politics...

Also, the theme tune is wonderful:

Onto print media and the first thing I love is Charles Stross' Laundry Files. A heady mix of spies, Lovecraft and geek memes, all centred on the final remnant of the SOE, hidden deep within the machinery of the British government. The first four novels were pastiches of various famous spy writers' work while the last two books the series has dived into new territory, taking on urban fantasy tropes. So far we've had vampires and superheroes, both delivered in a way that makes a worrying amount of sense within the universe. Stross has made a very flexible world, with a lot of potential and the novels really work. Even better we're seeing development happen, not just in the sense of characters growing in occult power but in the way that sees them move and change. Bob, the protagonist of the first five novels, is now an 'NPC' because he's been promoted into management. His wife, Mo, has just seen something similar happen as she's reached the end of her active status as an agent. The next novel focuses on a new character, one who was introduced in book five,

We're onto Laundry generation 2 and that's almost unheard of in these kind of novels where the protagonist is often so deeply embedded into the world that moving them on to a new role would defeat the purpose.

In the hopes that I have whetted your appetite, here's Overtime, one of the short stories lurking for free on Tor's website.

In comics I have a definite love for some of the kookier British voices out there, and while I do
like superheroes it feels as if Marvel and DC have really drawn things out too much and I have a touch of event fatigue. Also, it feels as if they don't really know what to do with a lot of their characters anymore, which is a shame. As a result in the past few years I have been picking up more indie books, and Image has become my 'go to' for comics. Of the books that have caught my eyes my favourites have been Trees, which I've reviewed on this blog, and The Wicked and the Divine.  Telling the tale of twelve gods who incarnate every ninety years, for two years, the book feels like a mixture of Neil Gaiman's myth building and Warren Ellis' real politic, but with Kiren Gillen's voice melding the two expertly into something that is uniquely his.

Drawing on pop music motifs, the book explores the price of fame and power, the idea that popularity is manipulated and the effects of the pop super stars on the world around them; all wrapped up in a mystery about who the gods are, why they incarnate and if there is a deeper reason for the events that occur.

It's a fun read, and a gripping story so far.

Finally it feels as if this would be incomplete without at least a hat tip towards RPGs. This is still a tricky one, partly because there's nothing that's standing out head and shoulders over the rest and partly because I've reached a point where I'm of the 'no gaming is better than bad gaming' school of thought. I haven't actually gamed in over a year now and Skyrim (and Rune Factory) is very much scratching my gaming itch). I retain a deep love for the World of Darkness, there's something about it that really works for me and so... given that the 20th Anniversary edition has just come out I'm going to say that my favourite game is, probably, Mage: the Ascension (I'm not going to type out an explanation of what the game's about so go ahead and click the link).

At its heart the game is one about the horror of absolutism, the idea that taken to the nth degree anything becomes scary. In a world where reality conforms to belief, this is terrifying because it suggests that not only could anything happen but that we are not gods, because we do not want to be (a theme in the third edition suggested that apathy was the main enemy of all sides, apart from the guys who want to drag us down into Hell).

What I like about the game is that it makes me think; it is apologetically about stuff from the real
world, rather than airy fairy fantasy, A story set in a secondary school is as valid as one out in the wider reaches of who knows where, a game where you blow up bases is as plausible as one where you dig into the history of the Ascension War.  There are no clear cut answers and it forces you to confront the fact that the ideas we live by are no more perfect than anything else. This makes a quandary that gives depth to a game about wielding magic and fighting a war, which is appealing. Well that and "freaks fighting the 'good people'" has always been one of my favoured stories, and I have to admit the Traditions stole my heart a long time ago and I adore the Hollow Ones.

But I think the thing I like most about it Mage is that it does not push towards a horrible end of the world, a point where we might as well give up and go home. It is a game that exhorts you to keep trying, to stay true to your beliefs and values and never give up: and that's pretty cool.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A Dream Home

I've been thinking about my dream home a lot recently, building it as a retreat from the world, if you like. Being a writer, I decided to set it down and share it.

Climb the lane, the one that's barely used and is bounded by dry stone walls. Keep going for about twenty minutes and you'll find our place; a little cottage set back from the road. You'll know it when you see it, there's a little wooden gate, stained almost black, set in the wall. It's got a little American style post box next to it; one of the ones that has a flag to raise when there's post inside. Don't worry about cars, they're rare as hen's teeth around here. The last one came by weeks ago.

Pause by the gate for a moment. Take in the garden; tightly packed flower beds full of roses, red and white, hellebore and poppies. An apple tree sits over to one side, just big enough to bear blossom. In a few years it will have branches heavy with fruit.

Open the gate, and step through; wander the path. It winds a little to make it more interesting, you can't see the front door from the street anymore, because the plants are too tall. You might spot one of the cats out here, sunning themselves among the roses. Shadow usually spends the afternoons like this, showing her belly to the sky, paws folded over into soft paddles. If  you're lucky she'll greet you, escort you to the door; she sees herself as our security detail, and she is fearless.  I've seen her chase off foxes, and a stray dog once. Sometimes I think she must be half panther, just from the way she walks.

The front door is dark stained oak with a gargoyle knocker, a metal head with the ring through its mouth. Give it a thump and hear how it resonates against the wood. Push the door open, we didn't lock it today and let Shadow dart past you, heading towards the back of the house, her tail held high.

Step inside and cross the busy hallway, peek into the front room, though it's more like a library. Book shelves sag under the weight of books, everything from novels and graphic novels to art books and academic studies. Chairs and a settee cluster about the log stacked fireplace, and lamps sit close by to light our reading time.

Behind it there's a small dining room, nothing fancy and barely used. A table, some chairs and a dresser, that's all. About the most interesting thing is my dice bag, a guilty pleasure from a previous life, one that only rarely gets indulged. The end of the room opens out into a small conservatory, looking out over the kitchen garden; rows of vegetables and flowers; a cherry tree wrapped up in meshing to keep the birds off it. If you peer, you'll just make out the beehive with its inhabitants buzzing about, busily making honey.

The kitchen is small, spare. It has the triangle between cooker, sink and fridge, and a preponderance of fridge magnets, many of them rude. Nothing clutters the surfaces apart from a kettle, a toaster and a box of tea. A small cafetiere hides in a corner, in case a coffee drinker calls. A row of mugs hangs from hooks, decorated with Goth band logos from the Eighties. A door to the cellar lurks in the corner, locked. The key, a heavy iron thing that might have escaped from Castle Dracula, hangs on a hook nearby.

Let's head upstairs, it's airier up there. The guest room sits right at the front of the house, dominated by a big bed and bathed in sunshine. Dita and Hobbes sleep close to each other, letting the rays spill over them. As you enter Hobbes twists, viewing you with friendly eyes. He may be old but he's fast and he likes to play. This is his favourite spot, so if you're staying over you'd better get used to him. The view out of the window is amazing, you can see for miles across the village and countryside. It lays out like in a panorama that beckons; as if you could just reach out and pick it up.

Our room is different, a lot simpler; more spacious. Almost bare but for a tatami mat on the floor, a dressing table and a couple of wardrobes. Its neutral, apart from the ceiling, midnight blue with constellations of stars that glow when the lights go out. The back room is a contrast, brightly coloured, filled with beads and other crafting supplies. Strings of jewellery dangle from the ceiling, from hooks on the wall. A PC lurks in the corner, an order book for Eve's business sits there, ready to be filled. The door is kept shut, in case of cats stealing in and making a mess.

They do that in the bathroom instead, pulling the toilet paper to the ground and knocking down anything else they can reach. Hobbes likes to get in the shower and sniff about after anyone's used it and don't even think about going to the loo without an audience.

Lastly there's the attic, where I work. Climb up the spiral stair and take a look around. Sorry it's a state, things get messy up here. There's a computer and lots of notebooks, one wall is covered in a spider graph of plot, all radiating out from a central point. The only other thing up here is the TV with the PS3 and a couple of gaming chairs, for the evenings when we want nothing more than to curl up and play something. When we do that, all of us end up here, clustered together at the top of the house; cats on laps or by feet and humans sitting close, being silly.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Fairytales For Boys

The fairy tale is one the bedrocks of western culture. Cautionary tales of wonder and delight, they were created, and eventually written down, to provide moral or simple lessons to live your life by and became of particularly significance for the education and socialisation of children in the early Nineteenth Century. They are about more than just entertainment, but imparted disguised wisdom and common sense.

The Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson twisted their purpose a little, to make them fit the aspirant middle classes and the gender roles of the Nineteenth Century, which were becoming steadily more separate as women were pushed into the home and men became the principle bread winners. In Jack Zipes' Fairytale and the Art of Subversion, he notes that in just two years, 1810 and 1812, Snow White goes from simply having to tend the Dwarves' house to keep her place there, to a long list of chores and the threat of punishment for failing to do so, for example. This was a trend that largely continued up to the end of the Victorian period, though elements of it have never quite disappeared; they crop up frequently in early Disney films for example, and are part of what caused the German Democratic Republic to create The Singing Ringing Tree in the 1950s.

Others kicked back against it too, Angela Carter famously created The Bloody Chamber, a feminist reading of the stories, which spawned Company of Wolves in the 1980s. This opened  the gates to other interpretations, a trend that continues to this day. Horror writers have become keen to reinvent the form, embracing its darker side; returning it to what they see as its roots. While the original stories were certainly darker than the saccharine versions dreamt up by writers convinced they were only fit to be read by children, who must be protected from the rigours of the outside, grown up, world I am unsure that modern authors can recreate the originals with any success. Our culture is inured to horror, to an extent, and we go further even than children baked into pies or girls devoured by wolves. You only have to look at Saw and other slasher films to see that.

But while there have been developments, there has also been a backlash, possibly an unconscious one. The fairy tale has become increasingly associated with one market: teenage girls. The Hollywood blockbuster machine has created and recreated Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood so many times that it's almost hard to believe that other stories exist. They tread the familiar boards too, there's nary a hint of the idea that 'if there's a beast in man, there's a beast in woman too' that Carter espoused. No, woman has become again the holder of civilisation, the tamer of the savage beasts and men.I suspect that this is because Hollywood is incredibly conservative, relaunching franchises is safer than expanding their repertoire: everything boils down to money, Given how expensive films are to create, it's hardly a surprise. They make what sells and part of the rise of the fairy tale, in this form, is that it gets bums on seats. The core of the story, even sexed up for an all too knowing generation, remains the same.

What's interesting is how focused on girls and young women things have become. Nobody is suggesting making a film of The Boy who Learned to Shiver, or The Tinderbox; fairy tales are for girls. Marina Warner's Fairy Tale: A Short History, notes that in the last thirty years the form has become more and more focused on the female, to the extent nothing is aimed at boys at all. I admit this saddens me, I like Fairy Tales and think they're quite magical. One of my favourite poems is Neil Gaiman's Instructions; Company of Wolves gets a regular viewing at our house.

This begs the question, what do boys have now that fills this gap? I know there's a wide range of media that's targeted at young males, from Saturday morning cartoons to superhero films. I'm aware too, that girls and young women are more than happy to claim them for their own, and without the unfortunate overtones that have accompanied young men adopting My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I'm not going to judge either group; fair play to them if that's what gets them through the day. My concern though, is that the things that fairy tales teach are perhaps missing from boys' lives now. Does  a superhero film fill the same space that the fairy tale does? It might teach about being resourceful, about standing up to bad things, even about realising when something is a monster that needs to be defeated; having seen Antman recently, I think those themes are present within that film, so are they simply repackaged for a world where boys largely view fantasy with suspicion?

What concerns me here, is that at the end of the day the solutions in superhero films boil down to violence, to hitting and punching until your problem is defeated. They are no more revolutionary than the fairy tale films. Both genres are serving to further the socialisation process begun by the Grimms. Add to that a culture that increasingly embraces toxic masculinity and femininity, whether that's pink everything or boys clothing that glamourises violence and war and it seems as if the split between the sexes is growing larger and more pronounced.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Five Poems

Something of a cheat, while I work on something a bit bigger and pondery, I wanted to post some of my favourite poems, because I'm thinking about poetry a lot at the moment.

Catherine Smith: Heckmondwycke

Catherine came to do a Master Class at the course I did and this poem struck me as sweet and funny and so very earthy.

Kirstin Heibel-Steitz: Sublime

A friend, who is a poet, a damn good poet. This poem makes me feel the winter days and appreciate them all the more.

Philip Larkin: This be the Verse

This has been stuck in my head for a few years, I like the gently humourous fashion Larkin's reading of it here brings it to the fore.

William Blake: The Tyger

A beautiful poem that speaks of such majesty.

Dylan Thomas: Do Not Go Gentle into That Goodnight

Lastly I love the defiance in this, the clinging on reluctant to go into the dark and dissolution.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Liverpool and Lesley

Yesterday I went off on an adventure, off up to Liverpool to see a friend I haven't seen for years, probably more than a decade. I haven't been to Liverpool since 2001, when I lived up there, I always meant to go back but for some reason I hadn't, just got caught up in life I suppose, and when I did go off from Birmingham it was always south, to London and all its museums and galleries.

As my wife was off meeting a friend and normally I would have stayed home to write, or do something hum drum, but I wanted to do something different, and which didn't involve being pestered by cats (I love them but they're not always the most peaceful company, and as Hobbes is being kept indoors at present, he's decided I'm the best toy). So I wanted to get out, and sent my friend Lesley an email to see if she could get a day away from family. 

As you might be able to tell... she could, and so I bolted out of the house yesterday morning and headed up that way on the train from Birmingham New Street, past the many buddleias that line the railway tracks, to Liverpool. 

I went university up that way, not in Liverpool, sadly, but at Edge Hill up in Ormskirk, reading Politics and History, and enjoying my first time away from home, away from the parental thumb. It was my introduction to the stuff I was late to discover, parties, subculture, roleplaying, and so on. Not comics, I already read those, though I abandoned superheroes in favour of the likes of John Constantine or Sandman, started reading vampire books not Michael Moorcock or fat fantasy tomes. I also learned about hugging, and Lesley was the person who taught me... not in a rude sense but, my family is pretty non tactile, they don't touch really. I had few friends as a teenager, owing to various circumstances and had retreated into a world of books and listening to Radio 1. Lesley was the person who brushed all that aside and made me realise it wasn't weird to make human contact. Looking back, I can only admire her persistence. She was one of my closest friends all through university and in the few years afterwards.

We'd lost touch, going our separate ways and reconnected via Facebook, and email. It was an odd sort of thing, ephemeral. We would make contact, lose it for a while, and then get back in touch (say what you like about Facebook, it's very good for that). But we hadn't seen each other, over all that time. As I say, Eve and I usually head south, so it wasn't really on the mental map of places to go.

After such a long time away, it was inevitable that there was going to be some changes, it's a bit like when I go back to Coventry these days; there are things I remember that have been replaced, and my memory hasn't quite caught up with that yet. Liverpool Lime Street, for instance, is much airier than I remember, and cleaner too (though that seems to be part of every city these days, which makes the warnings about air pollution seem strange, if everything's so clean where are the pollutants?). The city centre seems more open, and more developed, though that's a shame in someways, as it means the creep of the glass monoculture has robbed the city centre of some of its character. We wandered about Liverpool One, the shopping centre, in the afternoon, and it was just like being in the Bullring or the Pallisades, even down to the way the shops looked. Quiggans, where I bought my first pirate shirt and drainpipe jeans, where I got my first piercings, is gone and Lesley says the replacement isn't the same; it lacks the atmosphere. We didn't go in, so I can't comment, though the windows at street level are very dramatic, with a gold, spiky flame effect rising from the frames. Again, it had that strange feeling of familiarity mixed with strangeness. I don't know the city and I feel like I should. I lived up in the North West for eight years, after all.

We ate at Cafe Tabac, looked for books in charity shops, and mooched around the Blue Coat Gallery a bit, before popping into Worlds Apart (and with a teensy bit of civic pride I would say Nostalgia and Comics, my 'local' for that sort of thing, is tiny bit better). Mostly, though, we sat and drank tea, and talked, catching up on, well, everything; family, children (hers), cats, jobs... life in fact and all those little bits that contribute to it. Lesley hasn't changed, though I'm sure she'd dispute that, and she remains charming, witty and caring. She's one of the easiest people I know to talk to; a natural counsellor as it were. 

I came away feeling refreshed, and like it had been a day well spent... along with a small determination that I should head back that way before another decade passes....


Friday, 31 July 2015


What do we mean by patriotism?

It seems simple, a love of country, a pride in country that does not reach the heights of jingoism, or nationalism. My country right or wrong, but without the nastier connotations of superiority, ethnic cleansing or simple lunacy that these last two elements can contain. A love of country that draws the line at marching headlong and blindly into a war that will kill most of a generation, as it did in World War One. Is it so straightforward though; are we actually so blind as to hand-wave everything away under the strains of Rule Britannia or the Star Spangled Banner (or whichever national anthem you choose to mention)?

A note here: I don't consider myself particularly patriotic. There are things I'm proud of, that happened in my country; I'm not sure if that's sufficient to make me dyed in the wool. In the way of these things, one of those internet quizzes you find at sites like Buzz Feed or Play Buzz, got me thinking about what it meant to be a patriot in the UK. 

World War One is, in part, why the UK doesn't really do patriotism... or if we do it isn't in the same way that the Americans do. There's little chest thumping, or indeed tub thumping, about how great the country is. If it surfaces at all it's with an element of depreciation, anyone who gets too enamoured with it is probably looking to get taken down a peg or two. Part of the cringe factor for UKIP is the way they wrap themselves in the Union Jack. Contrast that with what we see of America on the TV or in films; Stars and Stripes on show and speeches about how great the USA is. 'God Bless America' is probably one of the statements most associated with the country/collection of republican states, and is recognisable throughout the world; bordering on stereotype in places.

Over here, this would be unthinkable. Whilst British politics is just as capable of 'playing the man', accusations of being unpatriotic would be as unthinkable as the Prime Minister praying in public. That was encapsulated by Alister Campbell's quashing of Blair and Bush praying together in public during an American state visit: 'We don't do God'. Religion and patriotism have shuffled in the private sphere, and in the case of the latter become bundled up with negative associations with war, pride, racism and stupidity. The Union Jack was claimed by the Far Right long ago, only becoming rehabilitated in the 1980s, as the National Front and its ilk were dealt with. Even now, the flag is largely eschewed, you see it at Last Night of the Proms, a camp spectacle if ever there was one; St George's cross is now the favoured flag of the right wing extremist and you can see those in abundance in certain places, especially during the World Cup.

My feeling, however, is that the people who wave that flag have crossed the line into nationalism; they are not patriots, no matter how they protest; it produces images of UKIP, and the associated nastiness that party must contend with in regards to immigration, homosexuality and so forth. This strand of thought conjures up a largely imagined past where Britain was a green and pleasant land, doors could be left unlocked and there was a bobby on the beat. No need for Human Rights or legislation to protect workers (or at least British versions, which will somehow be inherently superior to the EU version).

The fact that this is a very different picture to reality seems to pass such people by, in the same way that liberals who rhaposdise Magna Carta ignore the limitations inherent in that document. Both ignore the fact that the past is no place to forge a future; both smack of overly indulged children, trying to reach the cookie jar after they've been told they can't have a midnight snack.

Genuine British patriotism seems trickier to define, in part because you're dealing with four different nations, each with its own identity and history that reaches back further than many other countries have existed. Part of the problem we face here is that the Union is slowly but surely splintering, even if at present that's only seems to be effecting the left wing vote, perhaps because that's traditionally been the side of politics that supports pluralism and many voices; as opposed to the sole voice favoured by the Right.

Glossing over the fact that the country is getting more patriotic, the less important it seems to become, what are the elements of patriotism over here? A love of the monarchy would certainly factor, as might a certain amount of pride in historic achievements of the Twentieth Century (to put it another way 'two World Wars and one World Cup, doo dah, doo dah'). This attitude was fostered by the Second World War, the legend of 'plucky little Britain standing up to the foreign bully', which handily overlooks a lot of the facts, the legacy we'd inherited, the Empire, and that the Allied victory was a team effort. Take part of the Allies away and you're looking at a longer war, and a more costly one.

Our sense of humour is also trotted out as a key plank of the British identity to be proud of, and its true that most of us probably hold to the idea that we are somehow funnier than the other nationalities in the world. Certainly this is an area where the non English speaking world gets short shrift, where we see ourselves as better than certainly the European countries we border (the butt of our jokes are usually the Germans, shown as efficient but humourless in the popular imagination). It's a little different with America, because so much of the television shows we see and comedy films come straight out of Los Angeles or New York, places that we know because we have the illusion of familiarity.

There's also a certain affection for the Victorian era, though I don't know if that's actually connected to the notion of Empire. I think its more likely to be projected sense of nostalgia, harking back to a time when the nation seemed secure, and the world was understandable. This view may be bunk, you only have to look at the way America and Germany created economic consternation and unease and the fears about Fenianism, the so called 'yellow peril' and Anarchism to see that the Nineteenth Century was as turbulent and anxious as we are today. Time preserves certain things, but history is a cold, unemotive subject if you look at it academically. I'm sure the monuments of the period are part of the reason it's so well thought of, so much of the UK is effectively Victorian, their legacy is everywhere we look.

Setting these things aside, do we have anything concrete to base it on? Senses of humour are subjective, as are historical facts to an extent. Nothing is as certain as it seems, and what might look like a solid piece of cultural identity might well prove to be an import (the Christmas tree for instance, or brides getting married in white, which both only date to Victorian times). Our nations are mishmashes of cultures that washed up on our shores and became normalised, naturalised over time. There are parts of our culture that still rankle over them sure, look at the oft referred to German heritage of the Royal Family (which seems odd to me, because the Saxe-Coburgs took the throne before there was a Germany, and my own Prussian ancestor came over somewhat later, during the Victorian period), but in the main everything foreign eventually gets subsumed into the mainstream. So Flemish, French and German immigrants became part of the nation with little incident... It seems unfair that the Windsors, as they became in the Great War, should be beaten with a stick because some people are unwilling to accept that they've been here for over two centuries.

The whole thing feels rather thin to me, especially as we seem to have given up on building 'Jerusalem' here, in England's green and pleasant hills. It feels more like the Plain of Armageddon out there, if you know what I mean. As our social contract warps, I find myself wondering what we're loyal to, an idea? Or is that too weak a concept? If the Prime Minister genuinely wants a 'weightless state' he needs to come up with reasons for us to support that state and pronto; for me geography doesn't come into it so strongly and if everything is privatised, I'm not sure I see what the point of the government or Parliament actually is. Perhaps they want to sit at Westminster to decide who we go to war with next; that would suit the jobs for the boys mentality they seem to have down there.

To bring this back to a very personal level, let me tell you what I'm proud of about my nation. I'm proud that we invented Punk and Goth music. I'm proud of the likes of Byron, Shelley, Milton and Shakespeare who defined so much of our language and created beautiful thing. I'm proud of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, of Ada Lovelace and Robert Louis Stevenson; I'm proud of the war poets and H.G. Wells. I'm proud of our explorers, our reformers, our creatives and the way the country has grown, not necessarily in terms of economy but in conscience, justice and understanding.

The flip side of that of course, is that there's lots of stuff I'm not in the slightest bit proud of; the growing gap between rich and poor, the anti democratic 'professionalisation' of politics, or the way we ape anything the Americans have done, even when they have abandoned the thing we're running to adopt. I'm also not proud of parts of our history, the way that the Victorians sent children up chimneys, or the conditions that brought on the Indian Mutiny for example, make me sick. And I hate the way we push that under the rug, dismissing it as unimportant. We have to own our bad as well as our good, or we'll never face up to the things we've done in the name of progress, nation and faith; back when those things mattered.  As do revelations about the current political situation, or the economic strategy that the UK is currently pursuing, one which leaves families scrambling for food, shelter, and the basic pieces of life. I'm afraid I don't care about the World Cup or the Olympics and can't be bothered to get excited by things like Wimbledon. I'm not proud of the way we treat our poor, our sick, or anyone whose face doesn't fit.

So am I a patriot? Where is the line, between being a slavish sycophant to something that's just defined by the lines on a map, or a harsh critic of the nation? Do we even have the concept of 'the loyal opposition' anymore? If not, is that because our nations feel so embattled that tribalism is taking root and we're on the slippery slope to nationalism?

And if I am, what does that even mean in a world where the nation state is of diminishing importance?

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Edge Lit 4

On Saturday Eve and I made our annual pilgrimage to Derby for Edge Lit, a one day convention for Fantasy, SF and Horror. It's a small affair, but that only makes it better and more impressive. This year it was particularly nice to see that despite the fact they've slashed the number of panels, the day was still busy and there seemed to be a bustling crowd, one that seemed larger than in previous years.

Our first event was Mike Carey (now publishing under the name M R Carey, the R is because M J Carey takes you to an erotica writer on Good Reads apparently), as he did readings and a Q&A.  I'm not sure what the first thing he read was, beyond it being a very human tale of punishment in a prison, but the second was from the second book of short stories he has written with his wife and daughter, The House of War and Witness. Both tales were compelling and the imagery they evoked was stark and fascinating. The second story in particular was very strong, but I may have liked it because it was a Stone Age set piece of dark fantasy and I'm becoming interested in that. As ever Mike was friendly, open and informative, and its a pleasure to listen to him read.

The first panel was on the subject of Fantasy and History, and how much one needs the other. The panellists were drawn from a wide range of authors, including some that write pure fantasy and others, among them Joanne Harris, who have written 'real world' fantasy, which is to say the sort of books where you take a historical period or mythology and give it a twist. The panel discussed a number of things, from the history of settings to the use of history within works, with a shout out to the wonderful Fevre Dream by George RR Martin. They also discussed the frequency of historical periods as settings, noting that though Ancient Rome is often used in crime and historical novels, there's not a lot of fantasy based there.  All in all it was an interesting panel with a lot of wisdom and knowledge among the panelists.

After lunch, and meeting up with some friends who were trading at the con,  we went to Monstrous Regiments, a panel about monsters in horror and whether they are overused.  It was an interesting panel, though it did get a bit sidetracked into self publishing and the huge amount of zombie and vampire novels that market produces. My own feeling is that we're a bit saturated with monsters and that it'd be nice to see some of the emphasis taken off them, especially the undead (this may be because I find zombies dull). The main thing I took away was that there's nothing new out there and that perhaps we need to look at other sources of horror.

The third, and best, panel was about whether literary and genre fiction are closer together now than they've ever been. This was my favourite panel of the day, and the panelists were brilliant, opinionated and vociferous, levened with the occasional minion impression. They tackled the apparent contradiction of wanting and fearing the genres to be taken seriously and adopted by the mainstream - that 'out stuff is as valid as yours' and the 'hey we cared about Aragorn son of Arathorn years before you'd even heard of him'. They made good points throughout and thoroughly explored the subject, from the nature of genre, and if an orc needs to be a symbol of something, to the fact that in French story and history have the same word, 'histoire', and beyond.

Lastly, we attended the Knight Watch Press launch of... lots of books (I'll leave you to Google them). The readings were good and the anthologies sound brilliant, so I would encourage you to support them if you can. They serve brain cake, which I did not partake of because brains give me the wiggins.

All in all, a good day. Its a shame we didn't get to talk to some of the people there, and next year we're thinking of staying over in Derby to avoid travel worries and hang around for longer.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

A Love Like Blood: My Favourite Literary Vampires

I love vampires, though I do think they're overused. There's something iconic about them that is attractive and their games, the cut and thrust of vampire politics, coupled with their exotic, sensuous nature makes them attractive. I'm trying to stick to literature only here, so I'm skipping over the likes of Spike, Angel and the like .

I do wish there were more strong female vampires, admittedly but the way the genre has evolved still harks back to Lord Ruthven and Lord Byron (upon whom Ruthven was based).

Zillah: Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite

A novel set in the sleazy, liminal, back worlds of the American nightmare, replete with runaways and auto eroticism, Zillah is in many ways the perfect vampire for the times.   Omnisexual, hedonistic and cruel, he is the leader of his pack, a surrogate father who guides their steps. The fact that he usually leads them to the next meal or debauchery is perhaps something we should overlook.

His influence runs throughout the novel, tempting and chastising the other characters and even though he is hardly a figure to emulate (though many of us might try with his attitudes towards drinking, drugs and sex) he makes his mark even more than the protagonists. The fact that his defeat is largely pyrrhic, the damage has been done and the heroes only limp away, adds to his attractiveness. He may be damned, may be killed but he takes his due.

Sonja Blue: The Sonjah Blue Stories by Nancy Collins

Punky and raw,  Sonja is the titular opposite of a lot of vampires. She's a mean bitch from the streets, a vampire killer, what would be called a diablerist in Vampire the Masquerade and Requiem, and she doesn't give a damn. There's a lot to admire in her story, that of a woman who is broken and rebuilds herself into a new form, jettisoning her weak past to become something new; something terrifying.

The attraction here is in the character's rebellion, the way she captures the spirit of the age in many respects and the fact that Collins has created an honest to the gods 'bad ass' female character.

'Polidori': The Stress of Her Regard, Hide Me Amongst The Graves by Tim Powers

 'Polidori' is only one mask the vampires in these novels wear, they are alien and confusing; something Powers pushes to the fore. Creatures of stone, their intelligence is quite different to humans' and that adds something else to their natures. Powers is clever in justifying traditional weaknesses and strengths; twisting them to his own design. The horror he evokes, beginning with a statue that comes to life and murders the protagonist's bride on their wedding night, is truly chilling. The fact that he ties that to history, initially to the Romantic Poets' short lives and inevitable demises only makes it more heart rending. Hide Me Amongst the Graves' focus on the Rosetti family has a similar effect as he takes elements of their lives and ties them to the horror of the vampire myth.

The thing that attracts me to these vampires is how damn strange they are. There's almost nothing to overlap them with the more traditional iterations of the vampire, and yet everything you need for an undead monster that thrives on drinking blood is here.

Kate Reed: The Anno Dracula novels by Kim Newman

Pale, Irish, and Socialist; Kate Reed is perhaps an odd choice for a vampire. Originally a throwaway character from Dracula, Newman gathered her into his collection of misfits for Anno Dracula and has made her his own. Like Wyndham, Newman specialises in writing highly practical characters, especially women, and Kate is no exception; showing her wit, wisdom and tenacity throughout her unlife. As Newman's series spreads across more than a century we get a scattered view of her existence, from London rookeries, the battlefields of Flanders, 1950s Rome and, finally, the brave new world of modern America. She remains stolidly on the political Left and fervently opposed to Dracula. As a result she takes her place along Genevieve Dieudonne as the backbone of the vampire resistance and serves as a sharp contract to Penelope Churchward, who prevaricates between serving the Count and resisting him.

What I really like about Kate is that she's so different to most vampires, rejecting the selfish, controlling path that most walk.

Count Dracula: Dracula

Lastly we come to the figure who has become synonymous with the word 'vampire'. The Count is perhaps the epitome of the Byronic male, easily eclipsing Ruthven (who was based upon Byron in the now infamous spat between Polidori and his employer). Suave, commanding and terrifying he is everything we imagine the vampire to be and he retains his affiliation with the dissolute aristocracy; exercising a twisted droit de seignur over the lower classes in the form of his blood drinking. Not only that but Stoker created the concept of the 'Renfield', a stooge enslaved by the vampire to serve as his daylight proxy, something that has become part of the culture since then.

What I like about Dracula is that he's so unapologetic about his nature. There's no angsting over who he is, and his origin is shrouded in so much mystery that he may have willingly become a vampire.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Gaming; More Game Ads

The Strange & Numenera

The Bestiary

An alien machine
A database of marvels… and monsters
A quest to catalogue the fauna and flora of the multiverse
Unlikely heroes lost in a web of worlds

Join the quest to explore new worlds and catalogue their species.
Plunge into the Strange Dark Energy Network

A campaign for the Strange

Will you ever make it home?

Strange Horizons

The bodies were found in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub
A new drug was in their system
Something that isn’t local….
That isn’t from Earth.

Now the hunt is on for the source
An investigation that will lead to new worlds
New dangers

A campaign for the Strange

Run to the edge, don’t look back.

Numenera: Impossible City

A city in the middle of the desert
A map to something strange
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Will you discover the city’s secrets?
Will you break its code?
Or perish amongst its ever changing avenues?

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Beware the City
Beware the Light


The Nine Worlds are waiting

The long winter is ebbing
Ice cracks in the fjords
Spring is in the air

Take up arms and fight
Take up your lute and play
Take your oars and row

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For good or ill