Thursday, June 26, 2008


When some people have just got off the tube, I have to think fast. I stand there, book in hand, taking in the situation. First, I count the number of seats that have become free, assess how far they are from where I'm standing, and if anyone is nearer. Then I look at the people who standing, and the people getting on - I scan for the tired, the pregnant, the old - to if there are any who deserve a seat more than me*. Lastly, if the second test didn't turn up any bellyswell or drooping lids, I make a decision on which seat to stick myself in. This is an involved decision, you look at the stance of those on either side, how sweaty they are, how much they're encroaching, etc. And all of this is done in about 3 seconds. It's a stressful business, commuting.

Today the girl I sat down next to made a funny little muffled noise, turned and snuggled up to me. She continued to sleep, now resting her head on my shoulder, for the rest of the journey. I wasn't quite sure what to say, waking her up would have been more than a little embarrassing for both of us and she was my age, and pretty, so I didn't really mind.

I realised as we were coming into London Bridge (my stop) that she might have missed her stop, so I did the gentlemanly thing. I stood up, stepped back, and trod on her toes. She woke up suddenly, and stared around for a moment. I said 'whoops, sorry' and got off the train. I saw her on the platform a few minutes later, so she didn't miss her stop, and was excused the embarrassment of realising that she'd curled up and gone to sleep on a creepy stranger's shoulder. It seemed like the most humane way of doing things; I didn't tread on her toes very hard.


*I'm aware that now that my knees are OK most people deserve a seat more than me, but what I mean is, 'that deserve a seat sufficiently more than me to make me give it to them'

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


It’s a place in the very far east of the Russian Federation, little more than an ice-bound peninsula, covered with volcanoes, snow, natives, and miserable dock workers. It sits on the other side of the Bering Strait from Alaska, and is about as desirable a residence. You can always tell which parts of a country are of no value, because the government generally turns them into reserves for the nomads and natives who survived long enough to see their persecutors grow some kind of conscience.

The only real claim to notability that the place has in my life is that it’s a region on a Risk board. Which, looking at it now, seems like an attempt to make Civilisation with crude technology – but was quite fun at the time. It wasn’t a game I played often, because games took hours; my parents had jobs and, attentive though they were, they didn’t really have the patience to indulge me and my brother in such nerdy pursuits for so long.

The only time, in fact, that I can ever really recall playing the game was when I was staying with my grandparents*. My grandpa used to have a vast collection of fascinating old board games – ones that were actually fun, that required thought and cunning. When my parents were taking some time out from me and my brother running madly around the house, or if we had a teacher training day off that my mum had to attend, then me and Ed were driven up the road and stayed with granny and grandpa for a while.

Whenever we played that game I generally lost, because I’ve not got a great strategic mind and I’m unlucky with dice. I always enjoyed, however, hearing my grandpa say the names of the places on the map, he would enunciate ‘Venezuela’, or ‘Madagascar’, or, my personal favourite, ‘Kamchatka’. He was a man who seemed to take great joy in words, in speaking them; he used to deliver sermons at the local Methodist church from time to time, and used to read old Winnie the Pooh stories to me and my brother at bedtime – adopting a high falsetto for piglet, a deep sonorous voice for owl, and a dull monotone for Eeyore. I’ve never seen the Disney version of those stories, and I really don’t want to.

The thing that makes these memories so delicate and important to me is that they aren’t even memories anymore. They are memories of memories, fossils. I can’t remember what his voice sounded like, but I can remember the shape, the impression they left on me. If asked, I could say ‘Kamchatka’ as he used to pronounce it, but the sounds that once filled that shape have long since faded away.

I like to think that my personal obsession with pretty words and beautiful voices is in some way a direct descendant of his own, that my personality has some imprint of his left in it, but I don’t think I’ll ever really know. My memory is exceptionally malleable, and such ghosts of memories aren’t a solid foundation for any theories. I hope I’m not being fanciful though, it’s a comforting idea.

The reason I’ve been calling him grandpa, incidentally, is because he didn’t live long enough for me to become self conscious about it, so grandpa he will always be. He died in August 2001, when we were on holiday in France, after spending some months (it doesn’t seem like a long time to me, but I’m sure it was to everyone else) struggling with the after effects of a stroke. I remember becoming slightly nervous about going to see him in that time. I didn’t like to see him struggling to remember words, stuttering and struggling to talk to me. I suppose I’d not really grasped the idea that people sometimes got worse and didn’t get better, and my never articulated unease was borne out of a hope that I could just wait until he was back to normal again.

I don’t think I ever shed a tear for him when he died. I cried, but it was because my dad was crying, which was somehow more distressing to me then. I often wonder what he’d make of me now, what he’d have made of the world if he’d lived to see the events that took place just a month later, but I suppose the closest I’m ever going to get to that is listening to my dad, or myself.


*This might seem strange to Americans, but my grandparents lived about 10 minute’s car drive from my family.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Song Titles

Valerie by Jerry Garcia

Valleri by The Monkees

Valerie by Reel Big Fish

Valerie by Richard Thompson

Valerie by The Zutons/Mark Ronson

Valerie by Steve Winwood

And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. The question is, is Valerie a very common name that I've never noticed, or is there one woman (who must be quite old by now) called Valerie who goes around variously making songwriters "feel so good", "remember just where she touched me", and "make me wish I was dead".


Judge Books by their covers

My work has given me a new found appreciation of good book covers. I've always liked nice design, in whatever form it took, but it wasn't until I was writing a bibliography for a reference book that I began to really dig a book cover. You see, the reference book in question was american; so I had to check to see whether the books I was listing were easily available in the US. This involved looking on (as opposed to the usual for the books I was listing.

Quite a lot of the books I was mentioning (literature and suchlike) are books that I own myself, so I'm familiar with their British edition covers. What I realised, when looking at the books on the American website was that American book covers are really horrendously bad, as a rule.

The overall impression you get is that the design team sat down, picked about 10 different typefaces out of a hat, and then used them all on the cover. Preferably over the top of a really complex and ugly picture. A good example of this difference in approach can be seen in the American and British covers for William Faulkner's dense, gory, and occasionally incomprehensible (but very good, nonetheless) novel Light in August.

US edition on the left, UK on the right.

I don't know why this is, perhaps all the decent graphic designers have come here.

For a lesson on damn fine cover design I think you can't do much better than the cover for the 2001 Flamingo 60's Classics edition of Flann O'Brien's raving masterpiece The Third Policeman.

The front cover was once white, but I'm not very nice to my books, so it's rather dirty and scuffed now. The full size versions of these pictures are absolutely mahoosive, because my scanner doesn't seem to do small, and neither do I.

Just dig the way that it's all fairly simple, and the way that the back cover doesn't give anything away about the story, but gives you a very good idea of the sort of book it is, by simply letting the book do the talking. Which more publishers should do, seeing as often the blurb on the back annoyingly distorts the story told.

The thing that makes this all the more impressive is the fact that the US edition of this book has a cover so horrifically ugly and amateurish that it makes you want to vomit out of your ears like a fire hydrant.



Another vaguely work related post this. In my defence, I am writing about sex all day, so work related doesn't necessarily mean dull. Although it often does, I have to admit - even sex becomes a dull subject after a while.

Today's macabre but interesting little factoid:

The most common cause of death among pregnant women in the United States is murder*.

I'm not sure whether that means that America has really excellent prenatal care programs - that make the rates of illness comparatively insignificant, or that it has serious problems with violence against women.


*well, it is in Maryland, and a few other states, where in depth studies have been done over the last few years. In the majority of cases the killer was the significant other.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

incoherent rantings

It’s a strange thing, looking at a nation from the outside. When I look at my country I see the people, I hear the strange rambling conversations, the arguments and the whispered affection, I see the people I share trains with everyday, essentially. This means that when I hear someone shouting about how the country is going down the shitter, or see reports that say everyone is unhappy I pay no heed. I see hundreds of people everyday, and they seem fine to me. There are shits and saints, but it was ever thus. When I consider another country, however, I see only statistics and cultural output; I get the dispassionate numbers in rows and the emotional Technicolor of words and images. It creates a very different impression. I honestly don’t know whether this means that only outsiders can truly grasp the state of a nation, or that outsiders are always prevented from seeing the picture fully.

There are times when I feel like a vicarious American. I talk to my American friends; I work on American school textbooks in American English; I read the news which mostly seems to talk about American politics. I think that we are, as a country, probably all vicarious Americans to some extent. Whether we consider it to be ‘The Great Satan’ or ‘Magic America’ we are all dancing to their music and caught up in their politics. Through my work I see a lot of information about the United States, census reports, economic forecasts, sexual surveys. I can tell you the proportion of American women who don’t often achieve orgasm during penetrative sex (36%) and I can tell you the tallest point in the state of Montana (Granite Peak). My head fills up with information and I can’t help but start passing judgement, good and bad, on the virtual nation outlined by this stuff.

In practice this generally means that the country in my head, and the imaginary people that live in it, change from day to day, depending on what I’m working on, or what I’ve seen or read. Today I was doing some research into school psychologists, and how they are involved with sex education and counselling. I ended up on the website of the National Association of School Psychologists reading a policy paper on dealing with ‘sexual minorities’ in schools.

The more I read of it, the more horrified I was. It gave the general impression (to me at least) that the poor ed-psych is often left trying to stop the effeminate boys and masculine girls* from getting suicidal or dropping out because of bullying, in the face of indifference from parents and, sometimes, teachers. Schools are afraid to defend the gay kids from the violent nutters, and the evangelicals who want to ‘cure’ them, because they’re quite rightly scared of being demonised by Christians, on the one hand, and printed on t-shirts by every activist in the city of Berkeley on the other.

When I think about the shitty time that anyone who so much as seemed a bit gay got at my school -- a school with rules written in big writing and stuck at the front of every classroom telling the students that queer bashing or racism or sexism would earn them serious trouble, with a significant number of openly gay teachers, and mostly ultra liberal staff otherwise -- It makes me worry about the childhood that the kids in the US get. Which of course, brings me back to the point I made at the beginning. I don’t know. The persecuted kids are in my head, and so are the schools, and the measures made to help them. I’m achieving nothing by writing this, about something I’ve never experienced and won’t ever really understand. All I can say is that based on all the statistics and reports I’ve read over the last few days, I wouldn’t want the situation, as I understand it, to be inflicted on me, or anyone for that matter, and it baffles me that anyone would. They’re just kids, can’t people just leave off demonising them until they’re big enough to fight back?

Eugh. But I suppose society never works that way, anywhere, so my crude rhetorical question will just float around with all the others. ‘“This is perfectly horrible” he exclaims, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”’ I think only James Baldwin properly understood the futility of this kind of activism, of pretending to berate your enemies whilst affirming only the righteousness of yourself and your friends, which is an art no more refined or humanising than it was when Ms Beecher Stowe’s caricatures capered around an imaginary south.


I apologise for the rather florid prose, I spend all day writing in cold, detached, textbook English, and it’s nice to use long sentences, metaphors and pretty adjectives every now and then, even if I don't use them very well. (and look, no serial comma! Oh the decadence)


*I’m fully aware that those are largely unfounded stereotypes, but generally those who beat those kids up aren’t, so it makes little difference.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Today I was standing on the tube, minding my own business. I was holding on to one of the rails above my head with my right hand, and holding my book in the other. As the train accelerated out of Moorgate station I swayed backwards a little, as one arm isn't quite enough to hold me completely steady - I wasn't going to fall over, nor did I move very far, but I did drift backwards a little. I felt the newspaper of the person behind me touch my back and then I felt four pointy fingers and one pointy thumb press into the small of my back and shove me forwards quite hard.

I stagger away from the person, thinking I must have been squishing them unintentionally, but look round questioningly as it was a really irritating and uncouth way of pointing this out (I didn't have my headphones in, they could have just said something) .

When I look round, what do I see but the hard scowling eyes of the angry woman from yesterday.

If this keeps up I'm going to have a nemesis soon.



I remembered this the other day when me and Izzy were comparing stupid youtube videos, it brought back flashbacks to the cave, and made me laugh like an idiot. Izzy's suggestion was equally brilliant though, although much shorter.

The downside of that video is that, of course, you end up with a cheesy pop song stuck in your head.

oh well.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Something Happened

I had a small epiphany today. These are very rare for me, despite the fact that I read shitloads of epiphany-heavy short stories, and read enough 'inspiring' literature to start a movement on its own (Although I have no idea what it would be a movement about).

I was standing on the train, listening to Stevie Wonder (which isn't the usual soundtrack to great revelations) and dwelling, amongst other things, on each droplet of sweat as it gathered pace and trickled down my spine, before absorbing into the waistband of my pants. It wasn't one of the most pleasant journeys I've had, the only respite from the heat was the occasional gusts of dusty, noisy air that blew in when another train passed ours. These would cool me down for a moment, then stick my shirt damply to the sweat on my back, which would make things worse.

I was reading a book that I bought years ago, called Something Happened by Joseph Heller. I bought it after I had my last notable revelation, about the way that I was happily sabotaging my own life, after reading his first book, Catch-22. When I got it I couldn't get on with it, I struggled for a few hundred pages before giving up, in the face of the relentless unlikeability of the main character, and the monotony of his domestic life.

Coming to it now, a few years older and possibly a little wiser (better read, certainly) I find it a much more readable and interesting book. For the last few days I've been reading it, I've been thinking that the main character reminds me of someone, not that strongly, but enough to ring little bells in my head. Today, whilst some part of me was counting the sweat droplets and another was concentrating on keeping me upright, the part that was paying attention to the book had a moment of realisation. The part of the book I'd got to, you see, is titled "My Daughter is unhappy" and details, amongst other things, the protagonist's arguments with his teenage daughter, and his own feelings about the way he conducts them. At this point, somewhere past Lewisham Station, I realised that the person I was being dimly reminded of was me. I don't have a daughter, thankfully, but the pedantic superior tone that the protagonist takes with his daughter was almost an exact mirror of the way that I bicker with my kid sister.

As I've said before, I'm really not very articulate, this is why I need literature, and friends, and the words of those smarter than me. These words can give shape to various half articulated ideas that are sitting in my head, to all the little suspicions that I've not been able to find the words to voice. Reading the main character's analysis of his own conduct, I was able to see the stupid reasons behind my own, and just how much of a jerk I must appear to everyone else.

I went home and when Izzy came up to borrow my metronome, took the opportunity to apologise and to give some idea of why I'm always such a jerk.

After I'd finished my slightly embarrassed explanation my little sister pointed out that she'd always known perfectly well all the things that I'd only just realised myself. I remembered that unlike the kid in Something Happened, my little sister usually wins those clashes, she's got a quicker tongue and a better insight into what makes people tick than I'll ever be able to grasp. She's also kinda thick sometimes, but she is ten years younger than me, so slack must be cut.

The funny thing is that a realisation like that makes me happy, becoming aware of the fact that I'm a jerk in some respect feels a bit like getting some written music, I have the answer written right there, I just need to practice it. Which is something I'm getting quite good at these days.


I think I managed to ruin someone's day today, although I really don't know how. I was standing on the tube and after bank, where loads of people get off, i sat down next to a quite pretty young woman. I felt something touch my foot lightly as I sat down, and saw that I'd knocked over her Thermos coffeecup thingy, she reached down and put it back upright again (it was closed) and I apologised. A few minutes later, as I was sitting there listening to my music, I noticed that she was glaring at me. I could see that she was looking at me, and I could see that it wasn't a happy face. I wasn't listening to my music loudly, or dancing about like I do sometimes. Whenever I looked round, she stared down at her feet, though, so I wasn't sure if it was all in my head. Just as we were coming towards Angel station (where I get off) I noticed that she was quite unambiguously eyeballing me. I turned round at looked straight at her, pulled my headphones out and said
She continued to glower at me with a look of absolute contempt for another few seconds, then got up and walked to the door. I saw her a bit later, stomping angrily up the stairs as if she was working up a serious Huff. I'm guessing she must have said something that I didn't catch, but still, it was a little unsettling to be regarded like that so soon after breakfast.

Anyway, I really should get to sleep now. Please excuse the countless errors I'm sure there are in this, I'll go through it tomorrow.


Friday, June 06, 2008

Future of the Left

I love this video. It's a fantastic example of how sometimes low sound and image quality can contrive to give a far better impression of what a band are actually like live than even the pickiest of high fidelity recordings. Watching and listening to that video gives you an impression of the sheer weight of sound and hair raising intensity of a Future of the Left show. It feels like being kicked in the brains, but in a really good way.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Diamond Joe Quimby

I feel like a heap of crap today. I've for some reason spent the entire day feeling like I'm about to blow chunks - I don't mean I've been feeling nauseous, not in the slightest, just that I've had that weird tickly feeling in the back of your throat you get when you're about to barf. It's not been fun.

Today, I was researching JFK for an article. Which was a bit of an eye opener. It's impressive, i mean, Clinton was a womaniser, but JFK was something else, a womaniser to the point where it looked like some kind of mental illness. He'd shag absolutely anything with boobs, really. I'm not whether that makes him a bad president, after all, if being a complete jerk disqualified you from office then America would have, er, theodore roosevelt? perhaps Jimmy Carter? and neither of them are exactly loveliness incarnate.

The most interesting part of these researches though, was a strange tangent which brought me to the story of Vaughn Meader. Born in Maine, Abbott Vaughn Meader trained as a soldier and musician. When he was 27, he rose to fame for his uncanny impressions of the then President, John F Kennedy. He made an album of satirical sketches of life in the Kennedy white house that sold millions, nearly 8 million copies in fact. He made appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and just about every national TV station and newspaper wanted a piece of him. Kennedy himself used to tell jokes about him, and gave out copies of the album to friends as christmas gifts. His star was in the ascendant right up until bits of Kennedy's brain got splattered all over the seats of a Lincoln Continental.

After that, unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to hear him. All possible follow ups dropped away - people weren't even interested in hearing him exhibit any of his other comedic talents (which, by all accounts, weren't many). He spiralled into depression and drug addiction, wandered the south, getting more and more out of control, with heroin and homelessness. After a while, it seems, he managed to get himself back together and ended up returning to what he was doing before his brush with stardom - living with his wives (there were a few of them), and playing bluegrass in pubs around New England. He refused to ever imitate Kennedy again.

It's fascinating, the way that someone can rise to such high fame, and then plummet down to nothing in such a short time - it seems that it was possible even before the days of pop idol and big brother.


Today's musical links. Ian Dury and the Blockheads, the best jazz/funk comedy band ever to come out of Essex. Dig Hit me With Your Rhythm Stick or Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. Also, on a wildly different note, this performance of Close Your Eyes by James Taylor and Carly Simon, which is probably one of the most mesmerising things on youtube. Oh, and David Bowie and Mick Ronson doing Queen Bitch live.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Games and Sex

An interesting little lecture, makes some interesting points. It's a topic I've never been quite sure about myself. Personally I think it's one that wont be overcome until more and more decent writers become attracted to games as a valid narrative format. As it currently stands games (when they aren't just written by members of the coding team) are generally written by people who have more experience of computer games than they do of narrative or, well, life*.

Until Matt made me play System Shock 2 I'd never really considered games to be a format particularly compatible with good stories. After playing that game though, I was converted - the story isn't particularly great, but the way that it is told, the experience of being a part of the story whilst the context is gradually explored and understood, that made me interested in what else could be done.

I do take issue with the lecture on one significant point, however, and that is the identification of film as the narrative form that games should seek to emulate. This is stupid, games can occupy the audience for anything up to about 60 hours. That places the narrative possibilities way beyond that of the 3 hour film. Games writers would be better off looking to the depth and complexity of novels for their cues on characterisation and plotting.

Ugh. I've just realised that I'm writing about sex outside of work - and it's not even something covered by the book.


*I know it's mean, but there's definitely some merit to the suggestion that those who play computer games enough to want to become part of the industry generally don't have the most mature or developed attitudes to sexuality.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Lord Ben of Plumstead, protector of the peas

I love the anonymity of the internet. Today I one of the writers I've been corresponding with gave me the title 'Dr.' when he was writing to me. Obviously it was just an academic habit, developed to avoid offending the tenured and tetchy, but still, it made me smile. Although I think if I'm going to affect a spurious honorific I'd go for 'Colonel' (which seems to be the military rank of choice for such purposes*).

Also today I learned that all British legislation starts with the following phrase:

BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—

I'm not generally much for tradition, but I love that shit, especially the way that 'the lords spiritual and temporal' come before the commons, despite the fact that neither the lords (spiritual or otherwise) nor the queen have had anything to do with the drafting of laws in a long time.


* See Here and Here

EDIT: In an strange little postscript to this, when I politely explained to the writer that I didn't have a Ph.D they told me that they didn't either. I completely forgot that I too, was just giving them the title Dr. at a guess.