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.

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‘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.

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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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. Continue reading

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.
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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.
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