Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Wigwam: Wigwam

Wigwam, a 2006 collaboration between Betty Boo and Alex James of Blur was brought to my attention.
(They're playing on a roof with a backing band of furries)

Now this is pretty good. There's bits of the music that sound very like Blur* and Betty Boo doing her thing of using her voice as an instrument (all that oo-oo and the cat sounds) is a little intrusive. I think there's a lot of potential here, if they worked on it and tried to get their own sound together...

But they didn't. That's it. Either the police shut them down or the that orange cat wanted in on the action and ruined it and no album was ever recorded. So that's a thing.

* Is it a bit Coffee and TV?
You know what's good about the video? Yes, yes, dancing milk carton. But ALSO at 4:15 when Graham leaves the basement they're jamming in Damon's like "where's he off to?", Dave just drums away and Alex is grooving on, "hey, lead guitarist has gone, looks like it's time for the bass player." That's my interpretation anyway.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Theological Mistakes

This week Thanet Creative Writers had the writing prompt If I Invented My Own Religion. I wasn't going to attempt this writing challenge because if I can't be trusted with a time machine then I certainly shouldn't try to create a religion. Still, one important lesson the tutor of a creative writing class taught me was that you're not on oath when you write your autobiography. You don't have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you god. You can edit, improve things, emphasise here, blur things there. You shouldn't flat out lie, but you can tell the best version of the story. So bearing that in mind...

Some years ago while hiking in Brittany we came up out of a wood, on to a wide clearing with stones in the middle. As it was raised up on a hill top there was a magnificent view of miles of countryside ahead. I stopped and opened my mouth, not knowing what was going to come out. What came out was:

"This is a holy place."

As it turns out there had been a chapel there until the French Revolution, and before it was a chapel it was an older chapel, and before that was a Roman temple, which historians think was built on a pre-Roman Gaulish worship site. So I'm not the first to have had that reaction, having been beaten to it by at least two thousand years.

A year or two later I was in the Orkney Islands on the unhelpfully named island of Mainland. I didn't know it at the time but I was coming down with a bug. I did know, as I strolled along the beach, that everything was very strange and that I was not feeling normal. I came to a dead seagull, lying like a puff of feathers on the sand and had the strongest suspicion that it wanted to talk to me. Obviously it couldn't open the conversation, being dead, and I was damned if I was going to talk to a dead seagull, no matter what it had to say. I went back to the youth hostel and spent a very uncomfortable, restless and, since it was two days after midsummer, very bright night there, the incident rolling around in my head.
Made in a giant teacup by a wizard

The naturalistic explanation is that I am sensitive to this kind of stuff; my brain has access to a spiritual state of mind in which I am receptive to feelings of this sort. As another example there are a variety of foods and drinks that give me particularly vivid and lucid dreams. I'd had them the night before the hike in Brittany, after several glasses of local cidre fermier. (I had been completely sober the night before I went to Orkney as the bus left Inverness at some ungodly hour in the morning).

While thinking about this stuff for the piece you're reading, some of the towns Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on the door and asked me if I had considered the big questions in life. Not being on oath (still) I politely dismissed them, saying that I was working and concentrating on the small questions at that moment. I prefer, for the moment, to seek my own salvation and damnation in my own way. And it was then as I fumbled with my keys to lock the door that I knew - that I had the revelation - that I was going to write this piece.

So anyway, there's some of the raw material, the leftover scraps I'd find myself using for a religion were I to make the mistake of building one. A dead seagull that reveals nothing. A site on a hill that other people thought was holy. Cider, or chartreuse, or absinthe, or rice pudding with raisins. to give vision-dreams. And politely turning away adherents of other religions.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ideas to Steal

Here is a free one-page roleplaying game called Honey Heist about criminal bears stealing honey by Grant Howitt.

Here is an article on using MacGuffins in fiction by Robert Wood.

If you understand these two items then you are ready to plan your first heist*. Please get writing.

If not here are some films to watch until you do understand:
Ocean's Eleven
The Thomas Crown Affair
The Italian Job
Inside Man
Die Hard
Point Break
How to Beat the High Cost of Living
The Ladykillers
The Lavender Hill Mob
The remakes of those first three, and the Ocean sequels
The League of Gentlemen

For bonus marks:
A Fish Called Wanda
The Great Muppet Caper
Kelly's Heroes

Also Swordfish, maybe, and Hudson Hawk if you really feel the need. Sorry.

* Fictional heist. If you are going to try and steal something in real life then that is outside the bounds of this post.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

More on Time Travel

So while discussing Time Machines (see previous post for more details) the song 3000 by Busted was mentioned to me.
There's a lot going on here, although most of it was not worth the time we spent on it. However this part of the lyrics caught my eye:
I took a trip to the year 3000
This song had gone multi-platinum
Everybody bought our seventh album
Which means that the song had been reported as going multi-platinum by the year 3000 before completion of this version of the song. This is paradoxical; the song could not have been written and recorded in this form before the neighbour returned from their time trip to report on it's success*.

This song exists at the intersection between the complexity of self-referential songs** and the paradoxes of time-travel stories. And I'm not a Busted fan and this isn't even the song of there's I like most.

* For the curious I checked and Busted have released three studio and one live album so their seventh album has not yet been released.

** For example: I was 21 years when I wrote this song/ I'm 22 now but I won't be for long which makes a prediction in the lyrics (Billy Bragg, New England, although perhaps the Kirsty MacColl version is better known)

Travelling in Time 24 Hours per Day

If I had a time machine I would bury it in a hole
Or burn it on the waste ground behind the car park
Or dismantle it and post each piece to a different city
Or smash it with a hammer, or several hammers
Or seal it in a vault, deep underground
Lock it tight and lose the key
Tear up the combination
Cover it in concrete three metres deep
Then change the records so that anyone who looked
Would know for sure it was in a different vault in a different place

Because if I know anything about time machines
Then their use has unintended consequences
Unpinning cause from effect
So that events have no history and all of time
Becomes madness and chaos and old night
And no one wants that to happen

So that’s what I’m going to do
But to pay for the vault and all that concrete
I’m going to nip out and get the lotto numbers
For next Saturday
(One little trip can’t do any harm)

This is week two of the Thanet Creative Writers Writers Writing Competition. This turns out to be the fourth Time Travel poem I've put up on this site.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

What Gets Me Writing; Or, I Am Easily Distract...

This is my Thanet Creative Writers Competition entry. The theme is:

What gets me writing

I write because it’s a good way to deal with the thoughts that zoom around my head. Meanwhile as I go about my daily life I keep myself interested by looking for ideas to write about.

Recently my three year old nephew came to stay and introduced me to Planes 2: Fire and Rescue, a fairly straightforward animated film with an excellent scene that is a parody of 80s TV show CHiPs. One of the more notable things about the Cars/Planes films is that not only are there no humans amongst the sentient vehicles, but that there is no animal life at all; tractors replacing cattle and deer, tiny planes for birds, and winged VW beetles in the place of flies.

This ties into my current warm-up exercise, the couple of hundred words I write when I’m not writing something else and I’m editing or need to research or plan the next part. It’s a set of silly science fiction stories starring Lieutenant Commander Tommy “Ray” Gunn of the Deep Patrol, who has crazy adventures in a dark, grim, post-apocalyptic, post-human-singularity future. The all-animals-replaced-by-machines planet/habitat/ecology notes now cover half a page of my notebook.

Including a note on The Transformers: The Movie (the 80s cartoon with the final voice-work of Orson Welles, not the later Michael Bay helmed film) in which every planet except Earth is not only inhabited by robots, but by transforming robots. There are actually reasons for this in the film (don’t ask) yet logically it is a problem. If everything is a robot in disguise then surely it wouldn’t work as a disguise. Better to just be a machine that’s good at what it does rather than a compromised design that does two (or three) (or more) things poorly.

I’m probably not going to write the machine-animal planet episode as it doesn’t seem to generate an interesting story (it may get mentioned in conversation or appear in flashback).

Meanwhile according to my plan I’m supposed to be working on a crime story. Is all this over-analysis of kid’s cartoons a distraction? Well yes. It’s also what gets me writing.

(CHiPs theme tune for no very good reason)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Video Game Romance Poetry

Twitter friend Mumbles has a competition giving away a game to best poem about a video game romance and I don't care about winning but will almost always type out some doggerel on demand.

And then it got a bit out of hand. This needs a lot of polishing but it's basically there as a pantun.

Alicia and Welkin are soldiers
(Valkyria Chronicles by the way)
And inevitably also lovers
Game hidden in my tankpunk anime

Valkyria Chronicles by the way
Turn-based tactical third/first person
Game hidden in my tankpunk anime
With magic, tanks and explosions and guns

Turn-based tactical third/first person
And while their country is being burned
With magic, tanks and explosions and guns
Their friendship grows and deepens and turns

And while their country is being burned
Alicia and Welkin are soldiers
Their friendship grows and deepens and turns
And inevitably also lovers

Too much game review not enough romance. Where it does succeed is my whole thing of trying to get the second time a line appears in a pantun to have a different meaning and/or weight.

(My introduction to the pantun or pantoum can be found here. My best one is here.)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I Read Books: The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu

I've been reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu also published as The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu and I've written up each chapter as I came to it. Now though it's time for considering the novel as a whole.

With over 100 years of covers I was able to get a different image for each chapter
What Can Be Done With Fu-Manchu?

A chapter-by-chapter daily reading is, as it turns out, a bad way to read the novel. Published in sections originally, although they build on each other to add up to something more, you can and should read each individual section which detail one of (mostly) Petrie and Smith's attempts to stop Fu-Manchu from killing someone, or (towards the end) a raid on one of his bases and the fallout. The chapter end cliffhangers draw you in, maintaining the pace and disguising the fact that they don't actually get much done.

The style is almost always overwrought by modern standards. Every appearance or event caused by Dr Fu-Manchu is THE MOST TERRIFYING AND OVERWHELMING EVER, which makes it feel as though Petrie is a teen girl writing a diary in a poor quality horror movie. In fact I like that so much I'm keeping that idea.

Fu-Manchu's technology is mostly biological, and two of his plots revolve around stealing plans for an "aero-torpedo*" and faking the death and kidnapping an engineer. This is of course one of the oppositions the novel sets forth; mechanical vs medical, forthright vs cunning, honourable vs cruel, western vs oriental. As might be expected, the methods Rohmer explains are slightly implausible, although perhaps not totally out of the question, given the state of knowledge at the time it was written. Era-appropriate advanced technology.

Which leads me to anachronistically place it in a genre that it exemplifies; an obsession with accurate locations, technologies, and techniques at the expense of character; a gloss of political and international realities with good terminologies but fanciful detail; a somewhat jingoistic view of country vs country, so that Fu-Manchu operating in England is horrific, but Smith acting as commissioner in Burma is just, you know, the British Empire** doing it's business. Transplant it into the Cold War, replacing the Evil Empire with the Yellow Peril, and it would be immediately obvious that the book is a techno-thriller

Things That Haven't Aged Well

Is it racist? Yes, yes it is. Fu-Manchu is cruel because he is a member of a cruel race and he is the cruelest of them and his cruelty proves how cruel the Chinese are. I'm not going to go too much into this as you know, 1912, people got judged on their nationality and ancestry all the time. You're part of you race/nation/gender/class first and any individual details come in later. There's little characterisation of either the policemen led by Smith or the dacoits who serve Fu-Manchu. The majority of Fu-Manchu's victims are mature men, often single, slightly eccentric and mostly of interest for either travelling to Asia or inventing something. Prominent professionals and upper-class men, the backbone of the Empire. Of course Fu-Manchu might have been murdering lower class enemies - sailors, clerks, soldiers who had served in China - by the boat load and Smith would never know because they never came to his attention or were recorded in the papers.

What is interesting is how complex Fu-Manchu becomes by the end. He doesn't regret the crimes he committed out of "conviction" but he does those of "necessity", self-defence etc. He respects Smith and Petrie and undoes one of his cruelest injuries. At the same time he uses the of curing Weymouth to cover his escape. He's cunning like that, like all Chinese, and he's the most cunning etc.

Talking of complex there's Karamaneh, the only female character who really does anything. She is a slave who rebels against Fu-Manchu - but only to look for a new master in Petrie. This, according to Smith is the way of women in the Orient, who desire to be controlled. Yet by the end she walks away from both Fu-Manchu and Petrie*** with her brother.

Perhaps notably Petrie and Smith would have not only got nowhere without the aid of Karamaneh, they would almost certainly have been killed by Fu-Manchu before they became interesting enough for him to decide to capture them. Yes, I'm calling it here. Dr Fu-Manchu's greatest enemy is not Nayland Smith as most people believe; it is Karamaneh, his own slave girl. As such we might rightly say that he has sown the seeds of his own destruction.

To Sum Up

We can read this as a Technothriller-Invasion-Spy novel straightforwardly, accepting the frame that Fu-Manchu has reached out halfway around the world as the fore-funner of the Yellow Peril**** to assault the innocent people of England. Yet one does not have to be very revisionary to note that many of Dr Fu-Manchu's targets are Europeans deeply embedded in Asian countries. Smith was part of the colonial government in Burma; how shocking that China might have ambitions in that part of the world while Britain's rule is obviously the natural order of things. Both Smith and Fu-Manchu use deception and disguise, both use violence in pursuit of their (national) goals. If we see Nayland Smith and Dr Fu-Manchu as dark mirrors of each other then it becomes clear why Smith does not think Fu-Manchu is a homicidal maniac. And also why, despite his ruthlessness, he has scruples and tries to put right a wrong or two he has done along the way. Both agents of globe-spanning Imperial powers.

Now that's an interesting concept for a series.

Read This: For a fast paced and entertaining hundred year old thriller with one of the all time great villains.
Don't Read This: If hundred year old over wrought prose aggravates you, or you aren't interested in people falling into death traps. Also if you aren't on board for racism, sexism, classism, and possibly some other bigotry of sorts.
Will The World hear From You Again?: Dr Fu-Manchu returns in, um, The Return of Dr Fu-Manchu. Which I will read eventually.

* This may in fact have been an aeroplane.

** Fu-Manchu comes to Europe and is a SPY and a TERRORIST. Smith goes to Asia and is an agent of His Majesties Government.

*** Who promptly stalks her. Reading romantic cues across cultural boundaries is difficult, and the method used in (fictional) early 20th Century England is to stoically say nothing for several chapters then express you feelings in flowery prose for about a page and a half, so maybe Petrie needs to be a bit more straightforward. Anyway, enough of this; let's just say that Rohmer seems determined to keep the romantic tension taut.

**** "People of Europe, Guard Your Most Sacred Possessions," a somewhat mixed allegorical lithograph used by Kaiser Wilhelm II to promote his colonial response to what he called the Yellow Peril.
From the left we have (possibly) Athena for Greece but it's not clear; Britannia, Italia, Mother Russia, Germania who has her arm around Austria, Marianne representing France, St Michael with a flaming sword and in the distance the threatening figure of the Buddha.