Category: Link Page 1 of 54

Oops, I Forgot To Include ‘Writing Unnecessarily Long Blog Posts’ In My List Of Things You Can Do To Entertain Yourself

(Or ‘The Jacob Marley of posts – by which I mean it’s heavy-laden with links’)

As noted in yesterday’s post, this is a predominantly indoorsy time, so I thought I’d share some stuff that might be of interest – I am, as I hope is clear, in no way saying “you must do this” about any of the following (especially the physical activities suggested), it’s really just a list of things that I’ve enjoyed, and you might too. So with that (hopefully kind of unnecessary) caveat out of the way, on to the list, with its arbitrary categories:

Physical activities

Being indoors all the time is hardly conducive to a lot of exercise – unless you’ve got loads of weights or one of those Peleton things – so it’s probably useful that in the UK one of the accepted reasons to go outside is once a day for exercise. But for people who can’t do that – no open spaces nearby, for example – a lot of folks in the health and fitness business have made their stuff accessible online; you’ve probably seen that Joe Wicks is doing daily workouts every morning, but I thought I’d share a few others. Key thing, I feel, is to find what works for you – they often say that mental and physical health are linked, so keeping the blood flowing is likely to help you stay chipper at this odd time.

I’ve embraced yoga in the last few years and found it’s very much for me, and luckily a couple of my teachers have gone online recently:

Meg of Real Life Yoga is one of the funniest teachers I’ve ever had, as you can probably tell by the video she’s posted of a yoga sequence to do if you’ve got a hangover; but she’s also posted some short, non-morning-after videos aimed at people who are working from home, which are worth a look.

Charlie is a very friendly and supportive teacher and I’ve attended his lessons several times, including a beautiful session in a candlelit church; he’s posted some instructional videos online especially for this time. They’re free to view, but if you can make a contribution that’d be lovely.

I’m currently six weeks into the at-home programme of Broga, which is (as the name suggests) a version of yoga originally aimed at men (or at least, aimed at getting past male preconceptions about whether yoga is for them). It’s hard work, and more actively so than most yoga I’ve experienced, but it’s one of those workouts where you really feel the endorphins and the sense of achievement when you’re done. I’m using the DVD, but they’re very kindly hosting live classes online; as I understand it, you go to their Instagram page and press the Live button, and you should be good to go (I can’t be sure – I’m not on IG myself). Good news here is that not only are many of their instructors donating their fee to charity for doing these classes, but they’re also running additional classes, including ones for families, so definitely worth a look.

And in the world of yoga, one of the most well-known online instructors is, of course, Adriene – millions of subscribers and dozens of videos, suitable for beginners and expert alike, with a whole variety of durations; basically something for everyone, and a great place to start (the only reason I mention her further down the list here is because I wanted to start off with teachers and styles I have personal experience of).

Of course, yoga isn’t the only kind of exercise you can do indoors, and for many other ideas I heartily recommend Nerd Fitness – a site that doesn’t take itself seriously, but does take exercise seriously, and has a slew of great resources and exercise plans: for obvious geek reasons, I like their Batman Bodyweight Workout, but there are loads of other at-home workout routines. Definitely deserves a look, not least for the great Lego setups that illustrate so many of their articles.

Lastly on the physical exertion topic, I like to run – granted, it’s not for everyone (and not everyone is allowed out at the moment), but if you’re thinking this might be the time to try it out, then a lot of people I know (including m’colleague) have had a lot of success with Couch to 5K, often surprising themselves with just how much progress can be made in a pretty short period of time.

Meditation

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano, as the Romans had it (apologies for that Juvenal joke), and it’s probably fair to say that in the last few years topics of mental health and well-being have been much more openly discussed, with mindfulness and meditation being … well, I’d like to say ‘increasingly popular’, but I have no evidence of that to hand. But I’ve certainly seen a lot more articles on those topics in the papers and magazines, and they seem to get a lot of mentions in podcasts and the like, so I’ll assume this is in some way reflected in reality.

I’ve been a fan of meditation since my teens, and whilst I wish I could pretend that means I’m an expert at it, it still feels like something that I can still learn a lot about – that said, I’ve found it a great way of just getting centred and feeling a bit more in control of one’s thoughts and actions, particularly during turbulent times, so I’d recommend it – here are a couple of apps you can get for smartphones:

Insight Timer – my app of choice, it’s free and you can create your own sessions (selecting duration and background sounds), or listen to the guided meditations or talks by noted experts like Tara Brach.

Headspace – probably better known than Insight Timer, and a lot of people swear by it. It didn’t quite do it for me, but that’s probably just me trying to pretend I’m some kind of maverick, swimming against the tide and not liking the same stuff as everyone else. Yeah, lookit me, I’m a rebel. Ahem.

Calm – again, a very popular app, this one has a particularly elegant style (just click on Get Started and enjoy the interface), and even has bedtime stories read by people like Stephen Fry.

As ever, there are a wealth of resources online for this kind of thing, and since meditation essentially boils down to sitting comfortably, closing the eyes and focusing on the breath (as a starter; that’s not the entirety of it, obviously), you should be able to get started for pretty much the sum of zero pence. The best things in life can, after all, be free.

Right, so that’s enough of you looking after yourself, let’s move on to entertainment…

Streaming TV and Films and stuff

I’m not even going to try to list everything that’s available (I know that, for example, the BBC have put loads of box sets of TV series onto iPlayer, and I’m sure you know what kind of thing you’re into), but here are a couple of things I have found and enjoyed…

Netflix – As well as six seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a delightfully warm-hearted and upbeat comedy, I recently found and thoroughly enjoyed the film Extra Ordinary; put me in mind of a cross between Derry Girls and Ghostbusters, and is a lot of fun. I wasn’t familiar with the cast or creatives involved (apart from Will Forte, who seems to be having a lot of fun), but they’ve all done a terrific job. Really worth your time.

iPlayerAs mentioned above, they’ve put a whole load of shows up to help the nation stay entertained while we’re all indoors, and whilst the list could go on for ages, I’d particularly highlight the fact that every episode of Inside No.9 is there to be watched; they’ve just finished their fifth series, and it’s maintained a consistently high standard, to the extent that I wonder if I, as a viewer might be in danger of taking for granted just how ruddy good it is. If you’ve not seen it yet, this is a great chance to catch up.

And possibly hidden in the films section on iPlayer is the frankly bonkers film Mindhorn, which is funny, clever, and only about 85 mins, so it doesn’t have time to drag. That’s how to do it.

All4I mentioned above that some programmes are so good that it’s easy to almost overlook that consistent quality – and Friday Night Dinner is one of them. The sixth season is currently showing on Channel 4, and there’s no drop in story quality whatsoever, and the performances are just as solid… by which I mean solidly ridiculous, most of the time. All the episodes are currently available to view on All4.

Oh, and I mentioned Derry Girls earlier, which is also on the All4 site, and which is terrific.

Aside from the above (and other streaming services which I don’t have and so haven’t mentioned), there are some interesting cultural whatnots worth checking out:

National Theatre Live – in the last couple of years, the National Theatre have taken to screening filmed versions of some of their plays (and transmitting them to cinemas around the country, which strikes me as a clever way of getting stuff seen by people who (a) don’t live nearby or (b) don’t know if they want to spend forty quid or more on a production they may not like that much).

As theatres are closed right now, the NT has started screening a play every Thursday on their YouTube channel, and it remains there for a week, so don’t feel you have to watch it in real time. As I type this, Jane Eyre is the current play, and I believe that one of the future presentations will be the production of Twelfth Night from a couple of years ago, starring Tamsin Greig, which I thought looked interesting, but never got to see, so I’ll be looking out for that.

Royal Opera House – In a similar vein, the ROH are screening a selection of performances of opera and ballet on their YouTube channel. I’ll cheerfully admit that whilst I like me a bit of opera, ballet’s a bit of a blind spot to me, but maybe this is the perfect time for me to try some, with time and money less at risk if I do so? Worth a look.

Podcasts – are like the radio shows you can pause and rewind, and so are a great way to hear other people’s voices, and opinions, and learn stuff and laugh (or all of those things). Plus you can get on with stuff like washing and tidying while they keep you company. I’m sure you can find a ‘cast (that’s what the cool kids call them, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) on a subject of interest to you, but the following are ones which I always enjoy:

How to Fail – Elizabeth Day talks to successful people, about how they’ve been shaped by their failures… that’s a really dry summary of a really interesting show.

Scriptnotes – John August and Craig Mazin’s long-running ‘cast about writing. Mainly for the screen, but loads of lessons about creativity and the like anyway (this week’s episode has Ryan Reynolds and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as guests! How cool is that? Well, actually I don’t know how cool, as I haven’t listened to it yet. But I’ve listened to the previous 444 episodes, and they’ve all been good, so the pedigree of the show and the guests alike suggests it won’t be rubbish).

The One You Feed – host Eric Zimmer talks to people in the fields of religion, psychology, philosophy and … er, let’s say spirituality, about the quest to live a better life. That makes it sound a bit woo-woo, but it’s usually pretty practical, and I’ve learned a lot from it. Your mileage, as they say, may vary, probably dependent on who the guest is in any given episode, but definitely worth a go.

and of course, a whole host of other podcasts are available, from a whole host of sources; BBC Sounds, iTunes, whatever. It’s kind of like the way you figure out what music you like, I guess – have a look in a chosen area, give something a go, see what happens or what it might lead to. Actually, that sounds more like a general approach to life, I guess? Yeah, why not.

I haven’t mentioned books or magazines here – again, there are so many of them around, and most people I know already have enough stuff in their ‘to read’ pile. But this might be a good time to read that book you’ve been ‘planning to get round to’? For my part, I’m thinking of reading some Jane Austen for the first time since secondary school (any suggestions as to whether I should go for P&P or S&S gratefully received. Whaddayamean, that’s not what the literary establishment call the books? Hmph).

Food and Drink

This is, of course, a great time to eat and drink the whole day long, but that may not be the best idea, and I can already imagine the marketing departments of various weight-loss firms are planning their post-lockdown advertising campaigns and rubbing their hands together with excitement. As with so many things a healthy balance is probably the way to go. As I always say, moderation is the only thing one should do to excess.

Drink-wise, do get lots of water, it’s cheap and hydration’s never a bad thing; I’d recommend loads of tea as well, but it’s up to you.

Same goes for food, of course – it’s tricky enough getting hold of some staple food items that you’ll probably want to focus on hitting the usual food groups, though could be a fun time to learn some new recipes – I’ve recently tried out a three-ingredient recipe for peanut butter cookies, which came out pretty well, and was hassle-free. There are loads of recipe sites online, so if you have some stray things in the fridge or cupboard, might be worth a quick online search to see what culinary magic you might be able to perform.

And I think that’s enough to be going on with, don’t you? I hope that there’s at least something – if not several somethings – in the above that might be of interest to you. But even if not, I hope you’re doing okay, and staying safe.

Social (Media) Distancing

(Or ‘Is this what it takes to actually get him to post on his blog?’)

So, yes, well, hello. Um, interesting times. Hope you’re keeping well, and that those you care about are doing the same.

This is just a quick post, intended to say hello (glances at above paragraph: tick) and to talk ever so slightly about the current situation – or, rather, to talk about why I’m not going to be talking about it here, and then to move on to other things.

If you follow me on Twitter, it may or may not be clear that I try generally to post jokes, silly things I’ve seen, and the like. Twitter can be a rather negative place (though I know this is rather dependent on who you choose to follow), and despite its character limit, it seems to be a place where people are keen to talk about big and complex topics which probably deserve a bit more room to breathe and explore, and I sometimes wonder if the slight frustration of being letter-constrained is part of the reason why people so often end up just being rude to each other, and why differences of opinion can often seem so starkly defined. Whatever the reason, I try to avoid getting into too much political stuff, and if I see something in pop culture which I think is terrible, I try to avoid slating it, preferring if I can to talk about things which others might enjoy. I mean, all of ^this^ is kind of my intention, I’m not going to pretend it’s always how it works out.

All of which is really background to me explaining why I tend not to post online about big stuff; there are, most of the time, people who know more about it (I mean actually know, because they’re experts in the appropriate subject area), and even amongst the people who know about the same as me, a lot of the time there will be people who have more eloquent or funny things to say. So a lot of the time I won’t be talking about the topical stuff, as my opinion usually won’t really add a lot to the discussion.

And so it is with the current pandemic – there’s a lot of advice coming out from people with actual medical qualifications and experience, so instead of me passing on my so-called wisdom, I’d point you towards people like WHO, The NHS and HM Govt; all organisations full of people who know what they’re talking about. Social media can be a questionable source of information, and (both online and offline) unfortunately a lot of people seem keen to be the first with bad news, whether it’s true or not, so for one’s own peace of mind, I think it’s useful to think about sources of information. The writer Warren Ellis recently touched on this in his newsletter, saying:

It’s usually not helpful, and it’s usually completely paralysing, so if at all possible switch your social media down to essential services and trusted friends/comrades and consider disabling RT-posting into your timeline. If you need your social media fix, Instagram may be a better bet, because, if it’s curated like my private account, it shows you pictures of the outside world!

I think that’s a good approach, and I need to look into that disabling RT-posting thing…

Obviously, this is a profoundly unusual time in the world, and whilst I do find it tempting to post about my experience of the changes to everyday tasks like going shopping or out for a run, I know they’ll be well documented elsewhere, by people who are more eloquent and insightful than me; and besides, as these experiences are so widely shared, I doubt I’d have anything to say which is new and unusual, so, um, why would you want to read it? I don’t kid myself that I’m so inherently interesting as a person that everything I do is somehow more fascinating simply because I’m doing it. I mean, egotistical enough that I have a website named after me, but thinking that? Blimey.

Anyway, a longer post than expected (how surprising of me to take more words than needed to make my point), but hopefully it gives a flavour of why my comments (here and on Twitter; I’m not on Facebook or Instagram) on the current health crisis will probably be limited.

That said, I will be posting tomorrow on a tangential topic; I’ll be sharing a pretty long list of things that might be of interest to you during this predominantly indoors time – mainly entertainment media, and almost entirely free to do or enjoy. Until then, stay safe and keep the tea flowing…

Hmm, My Blogging Appears To Have Become An Almost Annual Event. And I Don’t Mean That In A Good Way.

I really do need to post more often.

But in an appalling act of ‘popping in just to talk about myself’, I just wanted to mention that I’m one of the co-authors of an article which was published this week on the popular US comedy website Cracked.com.

It’s about extraordinarily dedicated fan projects, and you probably won’t be surprised to hear that my contribution is the section about an unjustly overlooked UK comedy show. If you get a chance to look at it, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

I’m inclined to sign off with a promise to be back again soon with some moe content, but I’m rather reluctant to do so in case I end up making myself into a fibber… so I’ll simply say that I will return: the timeframe for that… gawd only knows.

For A Post On The Subject, This Is Arguably Rather Unstructured…

I’m currently reading Into The Woods by John Yorke, which (as you may know) is about stories and storytelling. Unsurprisingly, it features quite a bit of discussion of structure, which is a subject I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently, and in the spirit of self-indulgent sharing, it’s the springboard for this blogpost.

Cards on the (perfectly square and clean-baized) table: I like structure. And I like it both as a reader and as a writer. As I’ve written before, my tiny mind was happily bent out of shape many years ago when I started reading and watching things that played with form and chronology and the like, and I still delight to this day in works which don’t draw a straight line from “Once upon a time…” to “… happily ever after” (provided it’s in service of the story; if it’s just done for its own sake, I may wonder if there’s some shortcoming in the story which is being disguised by shuffling the chronology or whatever – and I’d go so far as to suggest that might well be the case with my own first published work. But I digress, and this parenthesis is getting unworkably long, so I’ll close it and then put a full stop and we can move onto a new paragraph).

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think there’s been a bit of a rise of narratives with unusual structure over the past few years – to give a couple of examples,the success of Gone Girl in both written and filmed form was testimony to audiences’ willingness to watch events play out of sequence, and complex structure was a key aspect of Steven Moffatt’s work on Doctor Who (though he doesn’t need time travel as a plot device to enable this kind of thing, as fans of his earlier work Coupling [and I am one of those fans] will be aware). There are often suggestions that audiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated and aware of how narrative works, and I guess that willingness to accept breaking and bending of the A to B shape of a tale may well be a part of that.

But whether it’s part of a wider phenomenon or not, I’ve long been a fan of structure; as a reader, once I recognise it, I find it reassuring (and in the case of Cloud Atlas, it took me until the midpoint of the book to realise what the author was doing, but when the penny dropped, it did so in a very satisfying way), and as a writer – you knew I’d get to this eventually – I find it very useful.

I’m a plotter, through and through, and like to have a pretty firm grasp on where the story’s going before I set down even the first line; I’m not one of those people who conjure up characters and then set them off into the environment of the story and see what happens – as novelist Sarah Perry says at about 2m38s in this podcast…

… the characters are plot devices; they’re adrift in the sea of the story, and they can no more shape the tides than you or I can.

And from a writing standpoint – and especially working, as I do, in the crime/thriller genre where plot is key – there’s something very useful about having a structure to work to; that might be a simple three or even five act structure, it might simply mean having the story starting and ending at the same place or in a similar way to hint at some idea of symmetry, or whatever, but if you have a structure sorted out ahead of time that lets you know what you should be writing about next, then that’s very useful indeed.

My most recent completed novel, Captives, was very deliberately structured from the outset of the writing process, because I knew that I wanted to have an investigation taking place in the present day, but I also wanted to detail the events which led up to the start of the story, to give a sense of what the stakes were and of the players involved. Rather than do this through infodumps disguised as dialogue or anything like that, I opted to alternate sequences set in the present with flashback chapters which grew progressively closer to the inciting incident which happens a couple of hours before the start of the first chapter; once I’d cracked that approach, it made things a lot easier – though I still regret the fact that as I counted down from ‘Twelve years before’ to ‘one day before’, I couldn’t make the time-jumps involved align with a reversed version of the Fibonacci Sequence… though given how pretentious that sentence looks when typed out, maybe that’s for the best.

So, as you can imagine, I was keen to see if I could take the same approach with the next novel (working title: Refuge). Once I’d had the characters sketched out, and the sequence of events worked out, I wondered if it would be possible to create a structure which would serve the story – as the book’s about a kidnapping, I wondered if I might be able to rotate the narrative point of view so that we’d hear from The Detective, then The Kidnappers, and then The Kidnappee, before rotating back to the Detective again. I’m particularly keen to make sure we spend as much time as possible with the Kidnappee, as it often feels that people in such stories run the risk of being little more than a MacGuffin, or ‘item’ to be retrieved, and I wanted to avoid that.

However – and you’ve probably already spotted this – the problem with this idea is that (non-spoiler alert) the kidnappers and the kidnappee unsurprisingly spend a lot of time in the same locale, so whilst I could convey a fair amount of detail on events by jumping from our detective to the villains, there’s little additional material (save for internal monologue and the like) that would be conveyed by the jumping to the kidnap victim. I’d effectively end up spending 2/3 of the narrative time on the baddies and their environment, which would make it hard to describe what was going on outside of that without the book becoming excessively long.

However, given that the story is in itself a ‘ticking clock’ tale with a set ending looming on the horizon and moving closer in stages (akin to most films featuring weddings, for example: the wedding is a fixed point in time and everything we see is drawing us closer to that), it did occur to me that having a race against time which is also viewed through the fragmented narrative of rotating POVs would perhaps be too much to put on top – and given that (again, non-spoiler, given the genre expectations) the paths of the Detective and the Kidnappers will inevitably cross, whose narrative section should I include that in? The Detective closing in, or the Villains realising that things aren’t panning out as planned? I wasn’t sure.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to keep it straightforward, shifting scene as required whilst trying to maintain the sense of a countdown, and to find other ways of including the relevant background information and internal monologue of the Kidnappee. We’ll see how it goes – and given how cathartic and therapeutic it’s been (for me, I mean – I’m sure this has been less so for you) to discuss it here, I’ll see about reporting back on how well (or otherwise) it works out.

Given how writing’s an essentially solitary process, and how every 100,000 words is probably more like 300,000 or so re-written and edited and generally switched around in the writing process, talking about it in this way is very probably just an attempt to provide an almost contemporaneous ‘director’s commentary’ during the process of writing it. Which in itself could be distracting – and is often the reason I cite (with varying degrees of truth) for my infrequent blogging.

Thanks for reading this long sprawling post, and if you have any thoughts, insights or tips on structure, or examples of great structures which amplify or serve the story, please do leave a comment below, I’d like to hear other viewpoints on this.

But enough musing and prevarication: back to the actual writing… 

REVIEW: Dawn of Super-Heroes Exhibition at the O2, London

Well, the book is finished and the submission process underway, so I have time to blog – so thought instead of making apologetic noises without posts actual substance, I’d share a pseudo-review (with photos). Is that okay? Yes? I’ll take your silence as the sound of nodding.

As I may have mentioned, I live in London, and I read comics regularly, so I was intrigued when I saw this poster on the tube recently:

A bit of internet searching dug up that it’s an exhibition which has previously been shown in France (where comics are treated like any other medium), and stated that as well as original art pages from lots of comics, they’d be exhibiting costumes from most of the DC Comics-based films and TV shows, so yep, I was into that.

(Sudden realisation: ‘DC Comics’ is one of those redundant phrases like ‘PIN Number’ or ‘TSB Bank’, but I don’t see myself changing the way I say it in any kind of hurry. Anyway…)

So I booked and went along the other day, and (TL;DR summary) I thoroughly enjoyed it. Good array of items from DC’s history on page and screen, and as they don’t mind you taking photos (in fact, staff seemed keen to let me know about it), here are some pictures – not necessarily in order – and my sillysod comments…

Unsurprisingly, it starts with Superman (who’s 80 this year, though with all the reboots and reimagining, he looks pretty good on it, I think we can agree). Quite a few original art pages from Action Comics both old and recent, but then I spotted this:

Yep, that’s Christopher Reeve’s costume from the first Superman film. And yes, it’s tall, but he was tall, and he also gave one of the most enduring performances of the character (I mean, look at the videos of his transformations on this page – that’s acting). Terrific actor, and great to see his costume up close.

Speaking of up close, I certainly leaned in to look at these original art pages from Superman Annual 11:

The art’s by Dave Gibbons, from a script by Alan Moore, and … well, they’re two creators who have had an immense impact on the comics field (and beyond) – probably because they’re both immensely talented.

The middle of the exhibition is about Batman, one of my favourite comic characters, and spans pretty much all the filmed appearances – here’s one of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler outfits from the 1960s Batman TV show:

A selection of costumes from the Keaton/Burton films:

And then from the Kilmer/Clooney/Schumacher films:

And on to the Bale/Nolan films – both costumes…

…and prop vehicles:

There’s more comic art, including painted pages from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s brilliantly brain-bending Arkham Asylum:

And pages from Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (a series which certainly helped make the Batman films from the 1980s onwards possible).

There are also props and costumes from a lot of the more recent films – the Snyder-era films, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman.

Have to admit that I haven’t seen the Jenkins/Godot WW film yet, but I hear good things about it, and I’m favourably inclined towards it (just haven’t got round to it yet, it’s as simple as that), and it’s interesting to see the differences between the costume from the fondly-remembered Lynda Carter TV show –

and the more battle-oriented costume as worn by Gal Godot:

Granted, there are differences in the materials etc available, but even back in the 70s they were able to make chain mail and other armour stuff for films, so I tend to imagine it reflected 1970s thinking that the emphasis was on a ‘softer’ ambassador role for Diana, rather than the more warrior-based version I gather we see in the recent film. Both are equally valid readings of aspects of the character, to my mind, and show how (as with any long-running character, really) successive generations take what most resonates to the perceived audience at any given time, and focus on that.

But I digress (as my long-time readers will recognise as a statement of policy more than an occasional observation); there’s a lot of interesting and nostalgia-provoking stuff to be seen at the exhibition, as well as a pretty good gift shop, so if you’re interested in DC superheroes on the page and/or screen, I heartily recommend a visit – this link gives more info. It runs until September, I believe.

If you do go along, why not leave a comment about what you thought of the exhibition (or just remind me of key elements I forgot to mention – I’m sure there are some)? Keen to hear other people’s opinions on it!

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

Well, what better way to round off things on this blog than to post a picture which I don’t have the real right to post, but which is, y’know, of me? Seems about right somehow.

Anyway, this blog is not dying, it’s moving – or, to be more accurate, I’ll be moving my attentions to my ‘new blog’ and so I doubt I’ll be posting here again (techical issues permitting) for the foreseeable future.

The reason for the move is pretty simple, really – for some time, I’ve been looking into trying to ‘streamline’ the number of places and locations I occupy online, and so I’ve revamped and reshaped my website so that it now includes automatic updates on my Twitter messages, and so it only seems logical that I shift the blog updates over there too.

I speak with utter confidence about this move, but of course if the server crashes or my technical ability reaches its limits, I may well be here again, so I won’t be deleting this blog. Many of the links which you can see in the right-hand column are on the new site, so you don’t have to feel lost and disoriented if you just use his blog as a stepping-stone to other people’s pages. I don’t mind being the guardian of the crossroads, even if Robert Johnson had his misgivings…

Anyway, I hope you’ll come and visit the new blog, and maybe you’ll even be so kind as to add John Soanes to your list of bookmarks? Thanks in advance.

Finally, if this is your last time of visiting, many thanks for your time and eyeballs over the last few years. It’s much appreciated, and as intermittent as my updates may have been in the last year or so, it’s always been reassuring to know that you fine folks were out there reading my nonsense. Seriously, you’ve been fantastic.

And you know what? So was I.

If I Name This Post ‘Sextuple Mumbo Jumbo’, That’ll Increase Traffic To The Blog, Right?

I think it was the late (and in my estimation rather great) Blake Snyder, author of the screenwriting book Save The Cat who came up with the concept of ‘Double Mumbo Jumbo’, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently.

Double Mumbo Jumbo, put simply, is the idea that “as an audience we can only buy one piece of magic per movie” (or, I’d say, book or play or other medium). Where Blake says ‘magic’, I like to think this equally means coincidence – for my money, Spider-Man 3 suffers from Double Mumbo Jumbo in the plotlines relating to the Venom symbiote (to non-comic geeks, that’s the black costume-thing which bonds first with Peter Parker and then with his rival) when it happens to land first near Peter Parker’s moped (if memory serves; I’ve only seen the film once, and don’t plan to watch it again, even if it means verifying details for a blog post) and then it’s roaming ownerless again when Peter Parker’s workplace rival is out and about in the area.

I think the second story in Pulp Fiction suffers from this sort of coincidence problem as well, though I know a lot of people hold that film in much higher regard than I do.

It’s not just a problem which you see in films, either (though the example I’m about to give was, I think, adapted to film): the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind is very well-respected and was given to me with strong recommendations by a friend, but when I read it I couldn’t get past the fact that the main character had no personal scent (which struck me as being biologically unlikely) and also had an extrememly sensitive ability to detect odours.

This felt like a cheat to me, as if the author realised that someone with a truly super-powered nose would be unable to smell anything beyond the scent of their own sweat and clothing. I didn’t buy it, and as a result the rest of the book felt hard to swallow, built as it was on a foundation that I didn’t find particularly sturdy.

This has been on my mind a bit recently, because in the novel I’m currently writing (due for completion about half an hour before the heat-death of the universe, longtime readers might suspect) I have various ‘secret’ government agencies and bodies, and I don’t want to have too much stuff that looks like a fudge – whilst I’m confident that most readers will accept that there are bodies within government and the military which don’t appear in annual reports and budget publications, I don’t want to make it look as if I’ve made them ‘secret’ just so I haven’t got to do the research on Home Office heirarchies and departmental responsibilities and the like.

In a strange – though hopefully understandable – tangent, thinking about the concept of Double Mumbo Jumbo has partly explained to me why I find the following advert irks me more than it probably should:

The advert doesn’t really make sense to me on any level – and yes, I know it’s meant to be a bit out there and surreal, but consider the things that we’re supposed to accept:

  • He’s so fond of sausage rolls he’s cloned a miniature dog to say what he can’t
  • He carries the miniature dog in a jewellery box in his pocket
  • He had it in his pocket, but initially wasn’t intending to hand it to her (note how he turns away at first)
  • The ‘garage lady’ accepts what appears to be a gift of jewellery from a customer
  • The miniature dog speaks english (with, I think, the voice of Mathew Horne)
  • The dog knows which button to press on its (also miniaturised) keyboard to start the music (which is either drum and bass or garage, I think – I’m not bothered about either of those choices really, though I hope it’s the latter as it would be appropriate given the setting of the advert)

It just feels like the advert-makers have hit the ‘random’ button in an almost cynical way, as if throwing diverse stuff together like that immediately equates to something surreal and/or clever. The main problem I think I have with it is that for someone who’s “just a bloke”, and apparently incapable of expressing himself, he’s gone to a lot of trouble (and a weird kind of trouble) to express his gratitude.

In fact, within this universe where we can create speaking miniature animals to perform tasks we humans can’t, I’m surprised that there are petrol stations at all, as the normal rules don’t seem to apply; surely the pumps dispense some kind of liquid boulders, and the ‘garage lady’ is in fact the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, wearing a human outfit to disguise the fact that he’s come back as an oversized moth (I’m aware that many insects’ tracheas don’t function once they get above a certain size, so this is an inherently unrealistic proposition, but given that the shruken dog apparently suffers no difficulty breathing despite his size and being enclosed in a small box, it seems all bets are off). Actually, it’s strange that this bizarre world they inhabit has sausage rolls and money in it at all really. What are the odds of that?

I can live with the odd quirk or wrinkle to things – and as I understand it, much of the ‘magic realism’ school of writing is based on the world as we know it reacting to strange and unusual things happening – but it needs to be balanced, I think. The Queen in Alice in Wonderland boasts “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”, but that advert seems, to me, to be a case of Multiple Mumbo Jumbo, and so I can’t swallow it (then again, as a vegetarian, I was probably unlikely to swallow anything related to sausage rolls).

Come to think of it, no wonder the chap in the advert accepts the strange world he lives in: it’s clearly the early hours, and maybe he needs to believe the six impossible things I list above before he can have the sausage roll – that is, his breakfast.

One Of The Perils Of Getting Older Is That Many Things End Up Reminding You Of Other Things, Which Leads To This Sort Of Post

Over the weekend, I was on a train, and saw two young-ish chaps talking quite excitedly. They were twenty years old at most, and they were chatting as they passed what looked like a glossy magazine back and forth.

If you’re thinking it might have been a … let’s say ‘gentlemen’s leisure interest periodical’, then I’m sorry to disappoint you; it was, as I saw when they sat quite close to me, a glossy rulebook or other supplement for a role-playing (or tabletop miniature combat) game, and their excitement and interest seemed to stem from the implications of this on their chosen game – I could hear them saying things like ‘magic attacks’ and ‘stats’, which rather reminded me of my teen years.

It probably won’t surprise longtime blog readers to know that I was what is now known as ‘a nerd’, though back in those days you were more likely to be labelled a ‘square’ or ‘boffin’. But we all know what that means – probably wearing glasses, not physically confident, not very good at talking to girls, and so likely to have solitary (or at least indoor) hobbies such as playing Dungeons & Dragons or computer games, or reading books or comics. And of course there were quite a few of us at school, as well as all the others who weren’t like that.

Strangely enough – on a mathematical basis if nothing else – my school’s equivalent of the cheerleaders and jocks so often shown in American films seems to have been known as ‘the popular kids’. I say ‘strangely’ because the school year I was in had so many ‘factions’ in it (why, even the secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off refers to “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads” at Bueller’s school), that if you took out my group of friends, the other groups such as the gothic kids and the very studious kids, and the various loners, there were probably only about fifteen of the so-called ‘popular kids’, and none of us really gave a monkey’s about them and what they did, so I have no idea where the presumed ‘popularity’ came from.

It’s not like we ever took a vote on it or anything… though maybe it was an early example of the kind of ‘implied consensus’ or ‘silent majority’ that you often come across in later life. Returning to a film that was out at the time (and whilst it may seem lazy to refer to 1980s films, they were the cultural backdrop of the time, and I think we tend to try to find something that mirrors our own experiences in films and other stories), there’s a nice exchange in The Breakfast Club which may touch on the truth of this:

THE PRINCESS
Your friends […] look up to us.
THE GEEK (LAUGHING)
You’re so conceited, Claire. You’re so conceited.

… I never actually heard the ‘school dynamic’ verbalised like this, but I hope I would have responded in this fashion, as my circle of friend didn’t look up to the ‘popular kids’. We were too busy worrying that playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on our ZX Spectrum computers would, as legend had it, kill the keyboard before its natural expiry date.

Anyway, when I saw the two chaps on the train at the weekend, I looked at them with a mixture of recognition and almost-pity; I say ‘almost’ because I was genuinely happy with my life in my teen years, even if the things that made me happy were incomprehensible – or risible – to other people: I was more concerned about whether I’d get my D&D character to Level 5 than whether I’d get to home base (no, not the shop) with a girl (and one of those events certainly seemed much more probable than the other during that era of my life). So I can’t honestly look back on that period, and the way I led my life, in such a way that I pity those who seem to be treading the same path.

Yes, I could have shouted to the chaps on the train, “for the love of God, shave off the wispy beards and get some contact lenses and spend more money on cool clothes than 20-sided dice, and maybe you’ll get to touch a boob this year”, but they seemed pleasant and happy enough, and besides it’s possible that they were both total hits with the ladies (or gents, I don’t want to presuppose too much), and that I’m just projecting.

But after I’d thought about this sort of thing a bit, and both wallowed in nostalgia and cringed at the recollection of the clothes and large aviator-style glasses I wore, it occurred to me that there are often articles in papers and magazines nowadays with headings such as ‘The Geeks Inherit The Earth’, talking about how the rise of the internet, and the information age, has meant that many of my pasty cohorts have become very successful in their chosen fields, with the financial rewards attached to that. The heads of IT firms, founders of websites, creators of best-selling computer games and apps, and even the directors of films, are shown to have had classically nerdy formative years – and whilst some of them have made their way in the world by appealing to nerds alone, many of them work in fields with wider audiences.

It’s intellectually amusing to see large crowds of people getting excited about seeing films like Watchmen and Avengers Assemble, when I was reading the source comics twenty-odd years ago, and whilst there’s a slight frisson of ‘Hah! I was right all along!’, I can’t get too triumphant about it – possibly because having that kind of teenagehood doesn’t necessarily prepare you for being the victor, and maybe because of that sense of loving something niche that gets a little soured when it breaks through to a larger market (which of us hasn’t either been or known someone who talks up a band, but the minute they get big, starts talking about them ‘selling out’?). More than anything else, though, I think it’s because the stuff I was into back then, like the stuff I’m into now, was a genuine interest, and wasn’t on my list of ‘Likes’ to impress other people: it was stuff I was actually into.

Which, it strikes me, is probably why there are fewer bold claims of triumph from the swots and nerds and squares; whilst the people who were concerned about looking cool as teenagers are keen to claim they were right all along, when offered the chance to write a book, Bill Gates writes about future technology and the like. Whilst the ‘popular kids’ at school spent a lot of time (and, I’ll wager, their parents’ money) on their outfits for the ‘5th year social’ (aka what would now probably be called a Prom), I was reading and re-reading Batman Year One, and not bothering about what anyone might think about this.

I think that’s why the articles you see about the Rise Of The Nerds will tend to be written in the third person plural – that is, not written by the geeks in question; because they’re still out there, doing their thing – coding, writing, rolling dice or whatever. But the chances are it’s indoors.

They say the best revenge is living well, but I suspect many of those who were made to feel somehow ‘geeky’ will be living well albeit unseen by those who may have ostracised them in the past. Except for those of us who decide to post about it on the internet, of course.

Persona Season 3 Starts This Week (And I’ve Written For It)

The third season of smartphone drama Persona launches this week (the first episode was yesterday, but don’t worry, you can catch up), and I’m the writer on one of the stories in it – specifically, this one:

It looks like the cast and crew have done a great job, so I’ll be watching eagerly – can I ask you to do the same? Persona is absolutely free of charge for iPhone/iPad and Android users, and you get a new episode every day for no charge too.

Interested? Good-o, here are the relevant links:

On iTunes you can download it here

On Android, you can get it here

Please do give it a look, and let me know what you think. Thanks!

It Doesn’t Last That Long, But It Made Me Happy

I’m pleased to be able to report that I’ve had another joke included in Newsjack, the topical radio comedy on Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC7). I’m included in the credits which you can see here, and if you’d like to hear the jape itself, the show can be listened to or downloaded as a podcast here, and it’s probably available via iTunes too (must admit I haven’t checked yet).

It’s the gag in the opening monologue, at 0’56” to be precise, about the passing of the NHS Bill. I think the show’ll be there to listen to or download for another week or so, which is probably about right as the joke itself’ll probably make less sense as time passes.

Anyway, this blog post is a shameless brag really, as I’m pretty chuffed to have a second BBC broadcast credit, even if it has been a couple of years since the first. I shall see if I can narrow down the intervening period between the second and third…

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