Category: Art from Others

Songs for November

Pauline Seawards shared this and I just had to share it as well. David Byrne sings Heroes with a choir who had practiced for just an hour beforehand. It’s utterly beautiful and hypnotizing.

I also love what David Byrne said about the performance:

There is a transcendent feeling in being subsumed and surrendering to a group. This applies to sports, military drills, dancing… and group singing. One becomes a part of something larger than oneself, and something in our makeup rewards us when that happens. We cling to our individuality, but we experience true ecstasy when we give it up. So, the reward experience is part of the show.

Quoted on

Then walking home, I listened to Spanish Translation by Low:

Both songs send shivers down my spine. Perfect for a cold November night.

Escape into Another World

There is a persistent view that refuses to be shaken that science fiction and fantasy are pure escapism. Usually, this view is from people with limited experience of the genre. People like Ian McEwan, who when promoting his last book was sniffy about the escapist aspects of science ficiton:

Be quiet and listen

Open mic nights are wonderful spaces. They are brilliant places to try new work in front of audiences and get instant feedback. But more than that, they are places where you can listen to the voices of others and learn from them. It’s essential in these times to be in the same space as others and listen to their words.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been going to a lot of poetry nights in Bristol. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the different nights the city has to offer. I read, nervously at first, but then relaxing into having a space to speak. More than that though, I appreciate listening to varied voices in each night. The joy of open mics is everyone gets their turn to speak. So you hear a huge variety of people from all different backgrounds reading poetry. It can be hugely powerful to hear marginalised voices that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

There are people in all open mics who turn up, read their pieces and then disappear. I’d argue these people are missing the point. You read your stuff, yes, but the whole point of the night should be to listen to the other people around you. The nights are not only about you. It’s an exercise in quieting the ego and making sure you stay grounded.

Making art, especially writing, can be a lonely business, so it’s nights like these that link you to a community of people who are doing the same thing. It shows you are not alone in your endeavours and helps you carry on. By listening to others, it also exposes you to different stories, different references, different ways of seeing the world.

Politicians and reactionary tabloids often push simple narratives as a way of managing dissent. The world works like this. Those people are not like you. They exploit and perpetuate prejudice for power. Open mic nights dismantle these simple stories. They allow you to hear other people’s stories from all different backgrounds and empathise with them. It can be incredibly powerful to be in the same room as people and hear their poetry. In these days where we form so many of our opinions online, it is essential to have real-life spaces where marginalised voices can speak freely. It’s also important for privileged people like me to be quiet and listen. Listening becomes a revolutionary act because you are giving your attention to others. It would be a better world if we stopped shouting and allowed others to speak. So stay and linger a while, engage with voices that are not your own. It might be good for you and the world.

Best of 2018

It’s that time again when I examine what media I’ve consumed over the past twelve months and pick my favourites. Defining the best of anything is an entirely subjective act that nevertheless, I try to do every year. I’ve moved away from trying to pick the ‘best’ of anything as they are all different experiences, so instead, I have chosen a few in each category I like.

Here’s the last couple of years- 2016 and 2017.

Let’s dive in.

Favourite Albums

Double Negative- Low

See, this is where the list is entirely subjective and changes from day to day. Is this album the most fun? Does it have the catchiest songs? Absolutely not. But it’s such a unique album whose sound perfectly sums up the chaos of the political situation of this year. After twenty-five years as a band, Low take a sharp left turn and bury their beautiful harmonies under layers of distortion and fuzz. At times it is like being in the middle of a maelstrom. It’s also got moments of quite stunning fragile beauty, such as the gentle and aching ‘Fly’. It’s absolutely not for everyone, but more than any other album this year, this album has grabbed me by the shoulders and hasn’t let go. They are also one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen, hypnotising and powerful.

Cocoa Sugar Young Fathers I listened to this album on a whim and I’m glad I did. Hard to pin down, their third album sounds like nothing else, spanning multiple genres from hip-hop to dance and gospel.  It’s such a unique sound and is thrilling.

Wide Awake!- Parquet Courts Another new band for me. Parquet Courts made uncomplicated guitar music, but it has such propulsive energy and is so much fun that they deserve all the hype they are getting.

Bonfire Night– Talk Less Say More Technically this was released last year, but I only found it recently. Talk Less Say More (aka. Matthew Jennings) writes stupidly catchy electropop that sounds like nothing else. This is the last in the Three Birds trilogy and a suitable culmination of all that’s gone before.

Favourite Films

Sorry to Bother You– A razor-sharp critique of capitalism and race roles, this is a bizarre and wonderful trip into an alternate reality that is not far from our own. Tech bros haven’t come up with the idea of voluntary slavery yet, but with the gig economy it can’t be far behind.  It’s also very, very funny and uses humour to disarm you and lower your defences. There’s a part about two-thirds of the way through that I did not see coming at all. However, it’s not out of nowhere. The more you think about the final act the more it ties into the themes of the film.  Urgent and angry, this is a film that demands to be seen.

Coco- Every time I go into a Pixar film, I swear I’m not going to cry. Then they hit me with another sucker punch. Visually inventive with brilliant music, this is a superb meditation on ageing, memory and of course, death. You know, kid’s stuff.

A Quiet Place- Monsters have taken over the world and have super sensitive hearing, so a family survives in near silence. Unbearably tense in places, this film explores every angle of its premise. It’s also in and out in an hour and half, which takes real skill.

Favourite Books

I read 42 books this year, from non-fiction to poetry. You can’t compare any of the below and find a ‘best one’ as they are so wildly different to each other.

Blankets- Craig Thompson– An autobiographical graphic novel about falling in love as a Christian teenager. The art work is beautiful, expressing a huge range of emotion. What’s most impressive about it is how Craig Thompson takes a personal story and spins it into a meditation on religion and the trials of life and the stories we tell ourselves to keep going.

Stories of Your Life and Others- Ted Chiang I loved Arrival, so I was excited to read the original short story that it was based on. I wasn’t disappointed. Each story in this collection is brilliant. Ted Chiang packs more detail and ideas into a short story than most people put into a novel. This is inventive, thoughtful science fiction based on proper science.

How Not to be a Boy- Robert Webb In a similar way to Sara Pascoe’s Animal, Robert Webb blends autobiography with jokes and a serious examination of gender roles. Attempting to conform to rigid masculinity made him struggle throughout his life and made him bury his true feelings in booze. Despite that, it is a laugh out loud funny book, with jokes on every page.

That’s it for 2018. I’ll see you in the 2019, where I will try to keep this blog updated more regularly. If you like this sort of thing, I have a semi-regular newsletter where I send out recommendations.

Let me know your favourites down below.

Whiplash and the Dangerous Myth of the Suffering Artist

Spoilers lie ahead.

I finally got round to watching Whiplash. It’s a great film about a drummer, Andrew in a prestigious school who wants to be the best jazz drummer that ever existed. He’s shooting for genius, nothing less. He manages to draw the attention of the best music teacher in the school, Fletcher. Only problem is, Fletcher is a bully and his methods are abusive and dangerous.

Making it up as you go: Twin Peaks and Welcome to Nightvale

Spoilers ahead

I spent a highly enjoyable few months last year watching Twin Peaks, both the original seasons and the revival. Even now, twenty-seven years after the original series debuted, it remains a strange mix of police procedural and occult mysticism. The revival plunges even further into the mysticism and dream elements of the show. It’s not always entirely clear what the story is, but as an experience it is incomparable. Many parts of the show work on a dream logic, with images and moments that only seem to make sense in a subconscious way. The last episode, in particular, is terrifying, even though I could not fully articulate why.

Best of 2017

Much like I did last year, I thought I’d take some time to linger on what I enjoyed this year. I’ve already written up my thoughts on the terrible events in politics. This will be much more positive.

Suspend the outside world for a while: Thoughts on Glastonbury Festival

Posts on this blog have been a bit scarce for the last couple of weeks, mostly because I spent a several days in a field in Somerset. I listened to music, watched comedy and saw the odd politician1 I was lucky enough to attend Glastonbury Festival, a cornucopia of delights that I have gone to since I was fifteen.  This was my seventh time at the festival. I have been to others in the meantime, but it remains the original and the best. It is a marvellous tent town where the outside world is put on hold for a while, where the normal rules no longer apply and where art and hope rules above everything else.  I thought I’d write about why it remains so special to me and many others.

Dispatches from the Uncanny Valley

Uncanny valley

Kodomoroid communication android by Osaka University and ATR Laboratories, Japan, c. 2014. Photo by Melissa Wiseman

As I stood before the seated figure, my stomach turned. Every part of my brain was screaming that the face before me was alien. It looked so lifelike. So much like a human. Then it moved and everything felt wrong. I moved on from the robot to the next exhibit, trying to shake the odd feeling those semi-lifelike eyes had given me.

This robot was featured in a fascinating Science Museum exhibition that details the cultural history of robotics. It was the Kodomoroid communication android that weirded me out. The combination almost realistic skin, blank expressions and slight movements gave me physical chills. The feeling I encountered was a strong example of the uncanny valley. By its nature, it is an uncomfortable feeling. Your instincts are to avoid the almost-human. Yet increasingly we find this feeling in the media we consume. It recurs again and again in computer games, in movies and in all culture around us. We have entered the valley and there is a long climb out of it. The robot I saw at the exhibition was just the latest example of a trend that has reached fever pitch in recent years.

Jerusalem, Ambition and the Power of Ideas

It’s taken me three and a half months, but I finally finished Alan Moore’s magnum opus Jerusalem.  Made of a number of interlinked short stories set in Northampton, it tells the history of the town as well as the nature of life, death and time itself. It is ridiculously broad in its scope while remaining funny and down to earth, with a serious message about the abuse of the working class. The entire second book occurs whilst a child is choking on a sweet. Each chapter, especially in the last book, uses its own style. There’s an epic poem, a play, a Joycean wordplay chapter. In short, it is a hugely ambitious work that in my opinion succeeds wholeheartedly.

Distraction by Design: Observations on Television

Over three years ago, I stopped watching TV. I didn’t have one in the house I was in, so I just stopped. At first, it was strange to not constantly have noise and visual distraction. But soon, I didn’t miss it. I preferred the silence and space to think, giving myself time to immerse myself in reading and writing. Television felt mind-numbing in comparison. I did not miss switching my brain off. In the same way as I occasionally need to disconnect from the internet to improve my attention, I never got another television because I found myself more attentive and more engaged with the world around me. As these things usually go, it soon became a pledge. I didn’t need television and I could no longer understand the obsession with it. Sure, this removed me out of a lot of conversations, but I preferred the space and time not watching the box gave me.

‘Hope in the Dark’ is more relevant than ever

If you are a woolly liberal like me, someone who believes in compassion for all and the importance of civil liberties, then these are dark times. The prevalent mood, both in the UK and the USA appears to be an inward turning nationalism, a conservative rhetoric that is looking backwards to some imagined age rather than forward to the future. There’s an emphasis on military spending and reducing the state. The hard-won luxuries we enjoy, such as the NHS, are continually being eroded, while at the same time the super rich refuse to pay any more tax. The gap between the rich and poor is growing. Trump is in the White House, whereas in the UK we have the authoritarian Theresa May hell bent on sending the country over a cliff. It’s easy to despair and hard to see any hope.

George Saunders and Normalisation

In these days of increasing insanity in the world of politics, I find myself thinking more and more about the fiction of George Saunders. He understands that humans will adapt to any situation, however bizarre and will build their identities around it, even if that situation is horrifying. Many of his characters rebel against the situations, or come to the realisation that, like Brexit or Trump, this is not normal. Since I read Tenth of December last year, the beautifully crafted short stories have become more and more relevant to the modern age. We seem to be living the surreal sci-fi world that Saunders created.

Spoilers ahead

Enduring art (Same as it ever was)

I was listening to the rather excellent Book Shambles podcast the other day. It is a rambling discussion about books and literature, usually with a guest to guide the discussion. One of the hosts, Robin Ince, mentioned The Great Gatsby, saying that every time he reads it he finds new insight in its pages. It’s my experience that despite being a relatively slim novella, the complex characters and removed perspective provides a wealth of wisdom and observations. It got me thinking about art that endures throughout your life, that helps to shape you at different moments. I think this is one of the qualities of the best art, that each time you go back to it it is richer and more in-depth than before. Re-readings and re-watchings allow for greater emotional impact, instead of diminishing returns. The art endures throughout your life.

Best of 2016

2016 was a curious year. Politics ate itself and the internet took over all discourse. But personally, it was pretty good. I published two books, one a collection of short stories and one playscript. I wrote this blog every week, made a website and got in the habit of producing things regularly. I went to Skye for a long week and went to loads of gigs. It’s odd having this dichotomy between the terrible news of politics and the quite good personal life.

The year end is a natural time to reflect, so following the lead of everyone else with a blog, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on some of my personal cultural highlights.

Optimism, empathy and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Science fiction is an escape from our mundane reality to another shinier, brighter alternate world. There’s a whole universe of unusual aliens to discover. It reflects the times it was written and what the hopes were, or extrapolates based on available data. As well as providing an escape, it can also show us a way forward at the moment.. We go halfway around the universe only to discover ourselves.

Nick Cave and music that is too difficult to listen to

I finally got round to listening to the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree. It is an incredible listen, but also quite harrowing. After twenty-three years as a band and sixteen studio releases, the music still manages to sound fresh and different. Warren Ellis’ sparse but haunting instrumentation adds a strange melancholy air to the proceedings. I’ve listened a few times now and I think it might be one of my favourite albums by the band. But also, I don’t plan on listening to it too much.

‘The Shock Doctrine’ and the Modern World.

Oh boy. If ever there was a book that was designed to make you furious about the current state of the world, this is it. Although The Shock Doctrine was published in 2007, Naomi Klein’s insight into the conservative mindset still remains sadly relevant to the world today.

The Ambiguity of Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic is a brilliant film. Sensitive and compassionate, it tells the story of a family isolated from society, who are forced to go cross country to attend their mother’s funeral. In doing so, they have to enter mainstream society for the first time. It is remarkably beautiful, with an excellent script and nuanced performances, especially from the children and Viggo Mortensen as Ben.

Ben is a dropout from society, obsessed with Noam Chomsky. He has removed his children from society and taken them deep into the woods. There, he raises his children on a steady diet of exercise and books, forcing them to think deeply and analyse what they read. He is anti-society and anti- establishment and forces these views on his children.

Theatre and the Art of the Possible

I’m just back from a week in Scotland. I spent a couple of days at the Edinburgh Fringe, then onto the incredibly beautiful Isle of Skye.Then back to Edinburgh for a night. It was an excellent trip, filled with delight.

One of the particular delights was seeing so many varied and interesting shows at the fringe. Living just outside London, I should be able to see as much theatre as I wanted, but the cost of tickets and transport to the centre is often off putting. As a result, I have not been able to see as much live performances as I would like. Surrey often feels artistically bereft. It was a delight then, to see eleven different shows over two days, for little money.

Stranger Things and the art of Pastiche

There be spoilers ahead

Last week, I binge-watched Stranger Things on Netflix. It’s been awhile since I mainlined a tv show like that, but Stranger Things is worth it.

The plot involves a boy going missing in a small Indiana town, a mysterious government facility and a girl with telekinetic powers. There’s teenage parties and a monster that stalks the town. Basically, it’s a combination of many different eighties movies and books, most notably Poltergeist, ET and Stephen King books. Look at the main logo for example, a pitch perfect recreation of eighties horror titles. It’s also brilliant. A gripping mystery that builds to a fantastic climax, with unique, interesting characters.

Just Walk Away: On Cynicism and Subjectivity

I was at Tramlines music festival in Sheffield at the weekend. There was sunshine, there was music, there was booze. Lots of good times were had. One of the bands I was most looking forward to seeing was Public Service Broadcasting, who did not disappoint.

I think the band are really something special, with a unique blend of live music and retro samples. However, I can appreciate they are not for everyone. They were oddly scheduled as well, on the main stage before the headliners Catfish and the Bottlemen.

Free speech, Twitter and ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

Free speech is hard, especially on the internet. You should have the ability to say almost anything without fear of legal repercussion. Other than words that actively harm people, like shouting fire in a crowded room, or death threats, you should be able to say any stupid stuff you like. The beauty of free speech is that if you say something objectionable or offensive, people can argue with you and say you were out of line.

Just to pick an example from the last few days, there was a controversy on twitter when a former MP called a man a ‘Scumbag’ and a ‘loathsome tit’ for having a different opinion to her. What makes it worse was he was waiting on an operation for his disabled son.

Ponyo and Adaptation

Ponyo is a joyous film, a celebration of childhood and youth with beautiful visuals. It’s pure joy from start to finish, with inventive twists and a unique style. Generally, Studio Ghibli films are among some of my favourites because of the rambling yet emotional stories that feel very different to any other film. This film is no exception, with a wide ranging plot involving prehistoric fish and mysterious spirits of the sea.

Ponyo is the story of a fish who is swept ashore and rescued by a human boy, Sōsuke. She refuses to return to the sea and wants to be human, which throws the whole balance of nature off kilter. The only way she can survive is to have a true kiss with Sōsuke and then become fully human, or else become sea foam.

Always more to learn: Thoughts on ‘Wonderbook’

I’ve finished reading Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. It’s a great read, full of useful information and exercises. Mostly, it is a nuts and bolts guide to stories and their various elements, characters, plotting, but the way it presented and the advice it gives about the imagination make it truly unique.

There’s a whole industry of books that tell you how to write. This one isn’t aimed at the absolute beginner, but at those who are already writing fiction. The best advice for a beginner is to write often and write lots, whereas this focuses more on the structure and building blocks of stories. Generally, I find this construction work to be more useful in the second or third draft, when you are polishing the writing. The book is filled with extensive ideas help optimise drafts, from varying character’s perspectives to the role of settings. These are really useful as references when you need to change a story that isn’t working. Although you can read the book straight through, I found these lists to be more useful as guides to refer to later. The wealth of resources in this guide is staggering. In addition, there are pieces from well established fantasy writers throughout that offer different perspectives, as well as a whole host of online articles.