Saturday, 28 February 2009

Continue? #3 - Toki

Since I may be without internet access for a few days, I thought I'd go ahead and post another continue screen. This is one of my my favourites, winning the coveted 'Most Shamelessly Manipulative Arcade Game' award. What makes it worse is that Toki is one of the hardest platformers ever created. You've got a huge, cumbersome, one-hit-kill sprite surrounded by scores of fast-moving, projectile-launching enemies and lots of super-cheap traps that will nail the unwary. Actually, they'll nail the wary too - this is a game where memory and repetition outweigh skill and reflexes. You pretty much need to learn exact patterns then execute them perfectly to get through. Bleugh.

Also, to add insult to injury, if you do pump sufficient credits into it to reach the final stage, you suddenly find yourself limited to five more continues before it restarts from Stage 1. Apparently your money's not good enough anymore!

Friday, 27 February 2009

Thursday, 26 February 2009

We Can't All Be Astronauts - The Official Comic

The shrewder amongst you may have discerned that this blog, far from being a innocently whimsical aggregation of my daily musings, is in fact a massive shill for my forthcoming non-fiction debut, We Can't All Be Astronauts - which comes out on June 4, and you can preorder now (at a substantial discount). If you're thinking of getting the book when it's released, preordering it would help me out. Preorders confuse my publisher into believing that there's a colossal groundswell of anticipation amongst the reading public. Although frankly, if you're thinking of reading it all, you're already my best friend, in which case I can only weep with reverence and hope you enjoy it.

When people ask me what the book's about, I struggle a bit. Do I give a mini-synopsis? Do I go for the elevator pitch? Do I talk about themes? Do I turn one of the sections into an anecdote? What is it about, exactly?

It's at times like this you need someone with a little distance from the project to step in. Fortunately, the interdisciplinary sorceress Line and a Dot has thrust the book into the crucible of her creative mind, burning away all the ancillary prattle until only its purest essence remains. This comic sums up what I suppose you'd call the 'soul' of We Can't All Be Astronauts far better than any amount of my discursive verbiage could ever hope to. Click on the image for a bigger pic.

Oh, and by the way, you should listen to Line and a Dot's songs. I've been a fan for years. You're late to the party.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #2: Polarbear

Last week, I spoke to Dockers MC. This week, it's the turn of the prodigiously talented Polarbear.

How did you get into performance poetry?

My best mate told me it was just rhyming without a beat and that I should get on stage at a poetry night in Birmingham. He had no idea what it was really and neither did I. I was first to perform that night and if I hadn’t been I probably wouldn’t have got up.

It definitely wasn’t a bunch a rhymers spitting to no beat.

How would you describe your work?

Stories about people and things with a nod of the cap to my first cultural love.

Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?

There are people who write very well, whose work loses something in performance and there are people who perform well who seem weak on the page. I’m a big believer in the adage ‘good is good’ and that the best can cut it either way.

None of that is an answer to the question really. Yes, I think there is a difference. I think that when you are speaking your work on stage there are demands in terms of immediacy, delivery and personality that are not present in the same way for page poems. On the page, words work without the packaging of a stranger and must stand on their own. The goal of both is connection and imagery plays a big part.
For me it becomes clear early on in the writing whether a piece is meant to be spoken or read.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?

To remember that words and their use can actually be fun, powerful and important.

What do you think your best poem is, and why?

I’m selfish. I don’t share anything until I’m happy with it and when that point comes I think it’s good. Once something is finished and I’ve shared it how I wanted to I move on. I think this is the main reason why I’m probably not cut out to be a performance poet because I get no real pleasure from performing the same pieces again and again.

I think that the best piece I have written is called ‘Fingers’. It was the first and only time I have attempted to sum up a direct personal sentiment and the fact that I’ve never felt to return to the subject matter directly speaks for itself. ‘If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me’ was pretty satisfying as it was something that I hadn’t seen done in the realms of spoken word and I’m very proud of the story. The new piece I’m writing currently is looking like it could be alright too.

If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?

For me so much of the enjoyment, disgust or indifference I have towards performed pieces is down to my own reactionary thoughts as to an artist's motivations and personality. I genuinely believe there are people who I wouldn’t enjoy no matter what they did and others find interesting regardless. With that in mind anything I do like a lot feels intrinsically linked to the person I witnessed speaking it and couldn’t imagine myself speaking. That’s a shit diplomatic answer which although true is really boring.

Kim Trusty wrote a piece called ‘A Quiet Heart’ and I’d steal that from her sleeping fingers.

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?

A self-satisfied rant in a desperate need for applause.

What do you think of the state of the UK performance poetry scene at the moment? Is it okay to talk about a 'scene', or is that a bit unhelpful?

To be honest I’m not sure. I get asked this a lot and give pretty much the same answer every time. I don’t really go to nights and watch stuff. I don’t really feel part of any scene. I actually perform pretty rarely and so the only thing I can say is that due to the opportunities that have a risen since I started doing this in 2005 I now earn a living from writing, performing and teaching about writing and performing so something must be ok.

Oh, and there’s too many frustrated comedians and crap rappers.

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.

I genuinely am constantly surprised by reactions. I’ve not really had a stinker of an experience so it’ll have to be positive ones. The most vocal are usually from people who were either a) not expecting to enjoy something called ‘poetry’ or b) not even expecting to see a stranger just talking on stage.

I love the sink or swim nature of what we do. The raw immediacy of a setting where attention is not guaranteed is something that I think a lot of artists shy away from and hide behind the idea that their work has moved on.

I believe I'm right in saying you're just finishing a run of your debut full-length solo show, If I Cover My Nose You Can't See Me. Can you just say a little bit on what the show was about and how the experience was for you? You had Goonism producing visuals live for the show - how did you come to include that element and how did you feel it worked out?

The story is about how we create things to fill gaps left by other things and what happens to what we used to want. It revolves around the lives of two characters who live in a tower block and have something they're trying to do.

I'm really proud of the piece. It was a story that I'd been thinking about for a while and I knew what i wanted it to be and what i wanted to say so i just started and it sorted itself out. I'm happy that it is entertaining enough for people to enjoy live, but also the nerd in me is smiling at the detail that is there both in terms of content and form. If I go on I'm gonna sound like a knob.

The best part of the experience was working with Yael Shavit, who both directed and developed the piece with me. It was so important for me for it to exist in it's own right rather than serve or be served by my Polarbear persona and we achieved that. To be in a story when you tell it and hold people for an hour but also let them leave with questions was a goal I think we achieved.

Once the story had been written I wanted to play with what we could do regarding the experience of seeing it live. I'm not big on cross art collaborations sharing a stage (for my own work anyway) and knew Goonism from seeing Secret Wars (live artwork battling event that tours all over the world). I loved his work. the emotive simplicity and basic moodiness of his characters felt perfect for the story. i approached him and he liked the story and was interested in exploring narrative in his work so we started playing around. he likes drawing live for an audience and it's magical to watch a white wall get turned into what is in effect a huge movie still. So when you come to see the show, we take over the venue. Goonism artwork all around the space and foyer, him drawing live outside while i speak the story in the space so when you come out after the story you get to watch him create a scene from the film you just listened to. It's pretty exciting and really feels like you're stepping into the world of the characters and that's Goonism's doing as much as mine. We have begun developing a graphic Novel of the story but it's such a long process it'll be ages. proper ages.

So yeah. I'm pleased. As we say in Brum, it's not shit.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Continue? #1 - Blue's Journey

Lest we forget, video games are commercial enterprises designed to cajole/extort as much revenue from punters as possible. With the decline of the arcade, comes the death of the 'Continue?' screen. Coin-ops used a variety of strategies to try to convince players to reinvest - over the next few weeks, I'll post up some of my favourites.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Pre-Emptive Commission #1 - Andrew Motion

Dear Andrew Motion’s agent,
I am writing to offer my services as the new Andrew Motion Laureate. For just £500 per annum, I will compose poems in response to every major Andrew Motion event. Here is my first poem, in honour of the poet, Andrew Motion.

Ode To Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion
O Andrew Motion
You damnable fucktard
Take the plums out your mouth
And pull the stick out your arse
And if
As you wrench it loose
That stick’s excrement-smeared tip
Should graze a wall
Why, that single ochre smear
Would be a greater gift to culture
Than your whole career

Cry your jealous rivals
Through fits of brackish tears

I enclose an invoice for £50, which I trust you will honour within the next 30 days. I look eagerly forward to working with you.

Yours sincerely,


Saturday, 21 February 2009

Rhymes Against Humanity

In contemporary page poetry, rhyme occupies an uncertain position in the technique hierarchy. If you're a performance poet, it's pretty much indispensible.

That's not to say that every poem you write need be in pat, metrically-tight couplets, but even if you're delivering a prosey monologue, if you want it to flow satisfyingly you'll need to be aware of internal rhymes and half-rhymes. I think this is one of the reasons I enjoy performance poetry a lot more than page poetry - there's a greater appreciation of rhyme in performance poetry, and, as a writer, you've got far more latitude when it comes to using both subtle rhymes and big, audacious, multisyllabic hip-hop style rhymes.

But when it comes to choosing rhymes, performance poets tread a narrow and oftentimes smudgy line. On the one hand, there's little point in trotting out the hackneyed usual suspects like night/light, love/above, heart/fart, but on the other, one man's witty, original feminine rhyme is another's 'what the fuck that is the shittiest piece of poetry ever'. Elaborate, unusual rhymes can be like farts - you enjoy your own, and wrinkle your nose at other people's.

I still feel rather pleased with some of the rhymes from one of my oldest poems, Cameo Hundesser: Style Consultant To The Wicked, particularly incognito/Hirohito, virtuoso/oh-so, and trifle/rifle/stifle, but it's precisely this sort of palpable smugness at one's own ingenuity that puts people off tricksy techniques in the first place. It's really hard to pull off a decent run of feminine rhymes or a big multisyllabic couplet without jettisoning most of your content in service of the form - your poem ends up as Macbeth's 'tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.' Of course, if you're going for sound and fury, or trying to tell an idiotic tale, then dense rhyme patterns may be exactly what the physician prescribed. They can help you impress an audience with scattergun lyrical showboating, emphatically hammer home a broad emotion like anger, or make people laugh with goofily convoluted sentences.

Context is key. Take this example from John Cooper Clarke's Psycle Sluts:

on a bsa with two bald tires
you drove a million miles
you cut your hair with rusty pliers
and you suffer with the pillion piles

Admittedly, the metre looks a bit fudgey on the page (that's why it's a performance piece - it needs JCC as an intermediary) but, for my money, that triple rhyme of 'million miles' and 'pillion piles' is a classic. It combines an elaborate, original rhyme (where both phrases are alliterative) with a funny, specific image, and doesn't require any 'dead' lines to set it up or finish it off.

The great thing about using rhymes is that they often force you to discard your first and second choices for a next line, and present a totally different set of words for your perusal. Your brain is then left to work out how one of those words might logically fit into the story you're trying to tell - often the result is a progression of surprising, entertaining images that keep the audience on their toes.

However, if you're not going for humour, feminine rhymes can be perilous. This couplet, from John Clare's Song: 'She Tied Up Her Few Things', is borderline, for me:

'Twas Michaelmas Season;
They'd got corn and peas in

It's not just the ever-so-slightly forced feel of 'peas in' that makes this, for me, unintentionally funny - I think it's also the disconnect between the 'high' tone of 'twas Michaelmas' and the mundanity of 'corn and peas'. For some reason, it reminds me of Florence Page Jacques' poem There Once Was A Puffin, which has some lovely, intentionally funny feminine rhymes:

But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn't play nothin',
For he hadn't anybody
To play with at all.

So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.

Ah bless.

Since we're on the subject of bad rhymes and tragic birds, I might as well crowbar in an extract from a poem by John Skelton called Philip Sparrow. The dexterous wordsmith Paul McJoyce first alerted me to this lament over a sparrow killed by a cat. It's written in a form known as Skeltonic Verse, which uses short, irregular lines and multiple rhymes. In many ways, Skelton's sixteenth century work prefigures contemporary hip-hop rhyme patterns, which - as Paul McJoyce pointed out - is rather appropriate for someone who hailed from Diss. However, before we get too carried away with hailing him as a visionary, it's worth noting that John Skelton is fucking awful. Here's an excerpt from Philip Sparrow, where the narrator shares fond memories of the pet bird:

Sometime he would gasp
When he saw a wasp;
A fly or a gnat,
He would fly at that;
And prettily he would pant
When he saw an ant.
Lord, how he would pry
After the butterfly!
Lord, how he would hop
After the gressop!
And when I said, ‘Phip, Phip!’
Then he would leap and skip,
And take me by the lip.
Alas, it will me slo
That Philip is gone me fro!

But for all his inadequacies as a tragedian, there's something to be said for John Skelton's line in scabrous barbs. Take his pithily-titled How the Doughty Duke of Albany like a Coward Knight ran away shamefully with an Hundred Thousand Tratling Scots and Fainthearted Frenchmen, beside the Water of Tweed. What he lacks in nuance, he makes up for in gusto:

We shall break thy bones
And hang you upon poles
And burn you all to coals,
With twit, Scot, twit, Scot, twit.
Walk, Scot, go beg a bit

Skelton's godawful rhymes matter less when his tone is one of crowing triumphalism - it's almost as if the very crapness of the rhyme serves to rub in his contempt, like back in 2001 when Derby County fans used to sing: 'We've got Fabrizio / You've got fuck all-io' to this tune.

But when it comes to truly miserable rhymes, one man takes the crown... then attempts to rhyme it with 'gone'.

Here's the opening couplet from Andrew Motion's bitingly satiritical 2005 piece, Regime Change:

Advancing down the road from Nineveh
Death paused a while and said 'Now listen here.

I mean, sweet creeping Jesus. The man's just life support for an anus. He's so criminally poor that criticising him feels akin to strapping on a pair of steel toecapped boots and kicking an aged, disease-ridden shirehorse to death - i.e. necessary and satisfying. People talk about abolishing the laureateship after his disasterous tenure, but I fear even abolishing the monarchy won't be enough to contain the infection. Let's nuke Great Britain from space - it's the only way to be sure.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Tiny Art Director

(via Metafilter)
My favourite website, the community blog Metafilter, has yet again led me to something great online that really cheered me up. Tiny Art Director is a blog where Bill Zeman's little daughter requests pictures, which he then draws for her. Each picture is accompanied by a description of the brief, and the Tiny Art Director's response. She nearly always hates them. Here, for instance, is her reaction to the commission the picture of crocodiles:

The Brief: Crocodiles
Preliminary Sketch (no longer extant): Upon seeing the preliminary sketch, the art director, in a rather unprofessional outburst, collapsed on the floor sobbing and screaming.
The Critique: The back is so so so bad I don't even want to look at it! You always do that to the crocodile's back!
Job Status: Rejected and Destroyed

The Tiny Art Director has some favoured themes - dinosaurs feature heavily - but her true talent as a visionary is made manifest in what I believe to be the high watermark of all Western culture: the Poo-Poo Airplane.

Her commissions have been collected into a book, which is available via the blog - perfect for the discerning aesthete's coffee table or nursery.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #1: Dockers MC

Hey folks. Here's the first in my promised series of weekly interviews with the great and good of the UK performance poetry scene. Hopefully they'll build into a nice little collection for anyone looking to find a new fave poet or find out a little more about an old one - I might give everyone scores so you can use them as Top Trumps. I've deliberately gone a bit cookie-cutter in my interview technique, so I don't squander the whole thing grinding axes. Don't worry, I'll be continuing my impotent clench-fisted jeremiads in-between.

This week - Dockers MC:

Biog: Born in Brixton, 1986. Went to Brit School to study theatre and then to Middlesex University to study creative writing. Taken part at both Royal Court and Soho Theatre Young Writer's program. Art work, cd covers and merch for Kate Nash.
'Hold To My Ear' released June 2008, 100 print limited edition with Pure Groove Records then 'Mistakes In The Background' published in October 2008 by Harpercollins Fiction.
Next book is out June 2009 'Ugly Shy Girl' - there will be a big event to launch the book at the book at QEH on the 11th of July.

How did you get into performance poetry?

I've written poetry since I was little and always performed it at home. What I really wanted to be was an actress, but I found the audition process way too scary mixed with soul destroying. It wasn't until Kate Nash put on an event at The Foundry, Old Street, and asked me to do something, I thought, I know I'll read a poem. From that gig alone I got three other offers to play nights and it went from there really.

How would you describe your work?

Somebody once said like a baby and an old lady mixed into one person which I think is true.

Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?

Yes, certainly, there is lots of work that I wouldn't bother boring my audience with. I think with performance poetry you have to write with an audience in mind; every poet (I'd hope) would like to be listened to, and if you write too enclosed it's a lot to ask. In my case, my page poetry can be a lot like a stream of conciousness and I don't expect an audience to have to listen to four minutes of that. I'd say the difference is your audience - there are just some things that read better on page.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?

To expand their imaginations, to inspire, to not put artists into boxes. Poetry is so diverse. I try to put music, comedy and art into all my poetry.

What do you think your best poem is, and why?

It's a poem that nobody has heard yet because it's too long and difficult to learn, but I'm proud of it because it's a good story, and structure is what I struggle with. I can safely say it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Its working title is 'Cowboy'.

If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?

'The Leanover' by Life Without Buildings.

I'm just jealous because she has the guts to talk about whatever she wants... plus her voice is lovely.

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?

Performance wise... I don't like heads tucked into paper/books too much. If you are going to perform... PER-FORM. I come off stage... and so do you Mr Clare, sweating, starving hungry with a migrane... for fuck's sake... per form.

Poetry wise in general, write about what you know or believe in - you need to believe in your poetry and yourself as a writer.

What do you think of the state of the UK performance poetry scene at the moment? Is it okay to talk about a 'scene', or is that a bit unhelpful?

No, scene works just fine. I think it's really exciting. We have got so much to say. I'm pretty proud of it, because we are all apart of this movement, plus because it's such a small circuit it makes us look like we're big names... so that's lucky... phh... No really, it's very exciting for me - when we were young there was no myspace, no poets playing at underage gigs, it was impossible to know where to go to put your work up or get feedback. Nobody to show your work to, poetry was not cool to any of my friends - now they love it. The trick is to fool everybody that you are some cool, new scenster type poet, get them in the trap and then feed them your heartache, angst poetry...

Plus we have some amazing talent, all the Aisle16 boys, MC Angel, Scroobius Pip, Nathan Filer, Byron Vincent, Derek Meins, Excentral Tempest, Berkavitch... who couldn't be totally excited?

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.

It's lovely when people just shut up and take it all in, but there is always someone, always, always, always, who thinks just because you are on stage, you are now blind and they can pull any distorted, unimpressed face they want at you. I had one of these at GOLD. He was sitting there, with a grimace on the face of death, sometimes looking dramatically confused at my work... (really putting me off actually) So I worked him out and I thought, I bet you're one of those 'serious' readers aren't you? So I performed Refulgent, a poem about a suicide, and I did it for him and him only... (it was totally dramatic) and at the end he clapped and said 'Amazing. Absolutely amazing.' And in my head and my heart I had a party.

As a performance poet, you end up appearing in front of lots of very different crowds. Some are music audiences, some are literary, 'bookish' audiences, some are comedy audiences, and some - heavens above! - are poetry audiences. How have you found having to face such a wide variety of people?

Luckily, I now get to be picky about what gigs I agree to do or not. I usually can suss a night out (thanks to the internet, obviously) beforehand and that is really just to see if the audience are likely to 'get' poetry or not. It is taxing though, working out every single audience, every single time - you just sit there, lurking in the corners of the venue thinking, 'is this going to work? is this going to work? how am I going to get out of this?' The audience is the TOUGHEST part of what I'm doing - it's the most necessary and unnecessary part of the game.

Do you have certain poems that work with one type of audience and struggle with another?

Funny ones work mostly in most places, but in music venues, where people come to see music, they go down like a shit stand-up - it's horrible. I hate it. In those moments, I wish I had a trap door in the stage.

Do you have a favourite type of crowd?

Yes - sitting down people who are quiet and know that the performer and audience have to play a tennis match. If they hit me, I'll hit them back... that's when they will see my best show.

Do you think UK performance poetry needs a club circuit like stand-up has, or do you think poets benefit from not really fitting in anywhere?

I do and I don't... that fitting in bit really gets on my nerves, promoters think: ooo she's poetry, she can fit in anywhere, we shall just chuck her on while the last band clear away their drum kit, and I'm changing the lights, and we don't have to pay her... cos she like fits in anywhere...

On the other hand, I get the benefits of raising my profile, performing in environments where people wouldn't normally get to see poetry. I've often been the first poet that has ever played in a venue or that a promoter has ever booked... and that means that the times they are a changin'... I'm just not sure if it's for the better or not?

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Secret HIStory

The story you're about to read involves scandal, creative genius, and a 15 year conspiracy of silence. Oh - and Sonic the Hedgehog.

So, after a long, long hiatus, I started playing Sonic 3 again. When I reached the Carnival Night Zone, a few bars of the awesome soundtrack were all it took to propel me back in time. Not literally, of course, just in the Proustian sense. So taken was I by the catchy riffs and thumping beats, that I whimsically suggested sampling it and laying down a sort of furious Juggalo tag-team rap over the top. I got as far as dumping the whole track into Audacity before I remembered I haven't the most rudimentary inkling of how one might start being a 'DJ', and I have never 'rapped' in my life.

I mean, just listen to that. It's tasty as you like. Here's the slightly remixed version from Act 2:

If you can't imagine two peeps dressed as clowns spitting sick lyrics up and down and all over that fucker, your soul is dead to music.

A few years after it came out on the Megadrive, Sega released the Sonic & Knuckles Collection for the PC, allowing home computer gamers to play Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and the linked-game, Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which was originally created by plugging the Sonic 3 cart into the port in the top of Sonic & Knuckles to create a double-length game. But what's this?

Euuugh! More like Sonic Torture the Hedgehog! What in the name of the Inscrutable Immutable is that? What did you do with my beautiful ghetto circus?

Well, because I'm obsessive nerd with too much time on his hands, I wanted to find out. Little did I realise that, in the process, I would stumble over one of the most awesome yet benign conspiracy theories to ever grace the internet.

Here is the list of composers lifted from the Sonic 3 & Knuckles credits:

Let's take each one of those in turn. Google Brad Buxer and you discover that an impressive list of credits as a keyboardist, precussionist, producer, and arranger/composer. As a sound engineer and mixer, Bobby Brooks worked with such greats as The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Prince and Black Sabbath. Darryl Ross made his name as a producer, composer, musician and sometime vocalist. Geoff Grace has a broad range of credits as a keyboardist, songwriter and producer, working with everyone from Elton John and Boyz II Men to 'Weird Al' Yankovic. Doug Grigsby III has a large mainstream backcatalogue from his work as a bassist, keyboardist and composer. Googling 'Scirocco' leads you, rather unhelpfully, to the Volkswagen Scirocco, but 'Cirocco' leads you to a writer and producer who has worked with TLC and Stevie Wonder, amongst others. Look up Howard Drossin's work, and he seems to be the odd one out. His composer credits are largely for video games and adverts, plus some session guitar work. Curiously, however, when you play through Sonic & Knuckles on its own, Drossin is the only musician from the original septet to get a credited for the music. (check out 2:32 in the video)

So what makes Drossin the odd one out?

Well, the most conspicuous difference is that he's the only member of the group who hasn't collaborated with Michael Jackson.

In an email interview back in 2005, Roger Hector, ex-Director of the Sega Technical Institute revealed that, during the development of Sonic 3, 'Michael Jackson was originally brought in to compose all the music for the game'. This isn't quite as mental as it first sounds - after all, key Jacko tracks had already been appropriated for Moonwalker on the Megadrive, and, at the time, Sega were keen to position themselves as cooler and edgier than their family-oriented rivals, Nintendo. (as dyed-in-the-wool Nintendo fanboy, watching friend after friend fall prey to what I perceived as Sega's triumph of style over substance wound me up no end) MJ's cultural stock with the core 10-16-year-old console gaming demographic was at an almost unrivalled high.

So what happened?

Well, in 1993, one year prior to the game's release, allegations that Jackson had molested 13-year-old Jordan Chandler happened. According to Roger Hector: 'at the very end, his work was dropped after his scandals became public. This caused a lot of problems and required a lot of reworking.'

So, according to Hector's version of events, Sega lost their lucrative superstar contributor, his involvement was airbrushed from the records, and all his songs were replaced. Or were they?

There is a considerable body of literature on the internet espousing the theory that Jacko's tracks weren't removed from the game at all.

It turns out that people had claimed to have noticed similarities between music from the Carnival Night Zone music had the work of Michael Jackson even before the Roger Hector interview - namely, Jacko's 1991 hit single, Jam.

The most charitable thing I can say about this comparison is that it's rather inconclusive. Yes, the two pieces are peppered with orchestra hits, and they share the sampled 'glass smash' and beat drop, but by 1993 all these elements had become so ubiquitous as to become toe-curling rap clichés. The two pieces may borrow some moves from the same playbook, but by and large they are substantially different. As far as I'm concerned, claiming one rips off the other has no more merit than claiming that the Elecman stage of Megaman pinched its melody from REM.

More noteworthy, however, are the obvious similarities between the opening of the Sonic 3 end credits theme, and the start of Jacko's 1996 single Stranger In Moscow. Even without being primed to spot a connection, I think most people would agree that these two opening sections sound very close indeed.

Diligent online Sonic scholars have paid particular attention to the tracks that were replaced in the 1997 PC version, (specifically the music from the Carnival Night, Ice Cap and Launch Base Zones) speculating that these might have been penned by Jacko and thus removed for legal reasons. The result has been some rather tortuous trawls through MJ's back catalogue, suggesting that, when sped up, the theme from Ice Cap Zone resembles his single Who Is It? Which is sort of true, if you strain to hear it, but hardly a smoking gun.

However, just this month, ex-Sonic Team President Yuji Naka gave an interview in which he stonewalled when asked about Michael Jackson's role in composing music for Sonic 3.

Naka first told the interviewer: 'It's best that you ask Sega!' When pressed, he responded (in what sounds like an attempt at good-natured banter): 'This information is on a need-to-know basis! One day, when the time comes, I will give you the information!' Why would he be so evasive unless there was something to hide?

It's a tricky one. This youtube video, summarises most of 'the case for'. Be warned, it's narrated by Sonic-o-phile 'Qjimbo', someone with a voice so stultifyingly monotone that every time he opens his mouth, it lulls Satan into a doze and a thousand chartered accounts escape from Hell.

On the one hand, I think there's a great deal of confirmation bias at work here. Eager theorists have a lot of data to mine, given MJ's sizeable back catalogue. Is it really that surprising that people have found musical phrases amongst his prodigious output that sound akin to phrases within the soundtrack to Sonic 3?

There's an innocent explanation for what connects the replaced tracks on the PC version, too. The music used in Sonic & Knuckles Collection has all been converted to MIDI tracks. The Carnival Night, Ice Cap, and Launch Base Zone themes all use samples - the glass smash, the low-fi yells of 'C'mon!' and 'Go!' - which, if my woefully limited knowledge of audio formats serves me correctly, couldn't be reproduced in MIDI files. I'm not sure why someone went to the trouble of writing new music rather than using the old tracks with the samples removed, especially since the new tracks are, frankly, shite. This whole 'legal complications' subset of the theory looks especially shaky when one considers that, as far as I'm aware, the tracks remain unchanged in the various Sonic and Megadrive retro compilations that have been released since. (including the Sega Megadrive: Ultimate Collection that comes out this month on Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and PS3)

On the other hand, that credit roster is pretty much Team Jacko, the openings to Stranger In Moscow and the Sonic 3 end theme are very alike, Roger Hector says Michael Jackson was originally onboard, and Yuji Naka's reticence is hard to account for without some species of behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

For a while, I richocheted back and forth between the two positions - some of Jacko's songs did get left on the Sonic 3 soundtrack, no, it's just a (not very impressive) coincidence - ping pong, ping pong... every time I dismissed one side as silly, the inconsistencies of the other would rise to the surface like a corpse trapped under the ice. Then, after much pondering, I formulated an unwieldy, less exciting, but ultimately (I think) more plausible explanation.

My theory (which is no more than an idle exercise in 'what if' hypotheticals and shouldn't be construed as a statement of historical fact) goes like this: we have no reason to doubt Hector's claim that Michael Jackson was originally drafted in to write the music for Sonic 3 - certainly, to my knowledge, neither Sega nor anyone associated with the project have ever publicly denied his involvement. The official line on Jackson's songwriting methods is that, rather than writing on paper, he would sing songs into a tape recorder then recite them from memory in the recording studio.

While this compositional style is far from unusual, it does make it hard to pinpoint what proportion of the final sound of his songs was created by him, and how much was the product of members of his studio team - i.e. Buxer, Brooks, Ross, Grigsby and Cirocco. So, in practice, 'bringing in Michael Jackson' to compose the music would likely constitute 'bringing in Michael Jackson's team', meaning it's not clear how many of the songs would start life with Jacko humming them into a Dictaphone, and how many would be worked up by his collaborators in the studio, with subsequent 'input' from the J-man. After all, the value of the commission was based on its yielding a high-quality soundtrack, and on the bankability of a Michael Jackson writing credit. When sexual abuse allegations not only destroyed the value of the latter, but turned it into a liability that might well have a negative impact on sales, it wouldn't have been hard to simply strike Jackson's name from the record. From a legal point of view, it's easy to see why establishing exactly how much input Jackson had into each of the tracks already developed and negotiating the various technical and legal in-and-outs necessary to see what work - in any - could be salvaged and used without a Jacko writing credit, would have 'caused a lot of problems and required a lot of reworking' as Hector has it.

And look, it's not as if derivativeness and pop music are perfect strangers - over a lifetime in the studio, working to a brutal schedule with some of music's biggest names, you wouldn't sometimes retread familiar ground. I mean, how many people can whistle the end theme to Sonic 3? Or any game, for that matter? I can, (I have a whole repetoire) but that's because I'm peculiar. If you'd written a strong song opening only to see it relegated to an obscure corner of 16-bit history, wouldn't you to be keen to reuse it? Or might you simply forget that you'd written it - a touch of the old cryptoamnesia - only to have it resurface later, in a flash of inspiration, when you were called upon to pen a new track? Whether a touch of conscious or unconscious recycling took place, I don't think it's beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that this may have been on the part of the six MJ collaborators, rather than by MJ himself, and that the 'signature style' that they'd been hired to reproduce in the first place surfaces in their earlier and later projects.

Or perhaps not. I don't know. But it's possible, isn't it?

All of which leaves one big, thorny problem.

Okay, so - imagine you're overseeing publicity for the launch of Sonic 3 in Europe, an alleged sex scandal's just wiped out your internationally-renowned headline-grabbing pop star asset, and you need some way of letting one of the most hotly-anticipated video game sequels out of the traps with an appropriately huge bang. Who do you bring onboard to replace the King of Pop? Who on Earth could fill Jacko's colossal moonboots?

Who else... but Right Said Fred?

Friday, 13 February 2009

Q. E. friggin' D.

So, some of you may have read the post I wrote last week, called 'Why Gaming Matters'.

In it, I complained that child literacy promoters too often present their task in terms of luring children away from video games, into the rich cultural world of books. I argued that video games have had just as much influence on me creatively as reading, if not more. They opened up my mind to a whole world of possibilites. At a young age, they empowered me, fired my imagination, and made me enthusiastic about art, storytelling and music.

Here's the money shot paragraph again:

'Video games are a fantastic opportunity. Rather than trying to prise joypads from children's enraptured grasp, we need to shed all this pig-ignorant stuffed-shirt prescriptivism and adapt our education system to reflect genuine interests and needs. With not even 5 hours a week, but just 5 hours a term for every child, spent on encouraging ways in which they can critically and creatively engage with interactive media, we could lever disproportionately grand benefits to hundreds of thousands of children's intellectual and artistic development. Poets with books to flog may huff and puff about children reacting with indifference, but it seems to me that if you want to establish a dialogue with people, it's only polite to find out what they'd like to talk about.'

But oh, a mere week later, and - what's this? A report from the EU which concludes that 'computer games are good for children and teach them essential life skills'? A study which 'called for schools across Europe to consider using games for educational purposes and urged parents to take a greater interest in them'? A study which argues that video games 'stimulate learning of facts and skills such as strategic thinking, creativity, cooperation and innovative thinking, which are important skills in the information society'? JUST LIKE I SAID?

To be honest, I feel slightly wrongfooted. I was looking forward to stridently asserting my maverick opinions for a good few months more, impressing various industry luminaries with my prescience and basically coming off like a visionary. Now I'm just hitching a ride on an increasingly crowded bandwagon.


Thursday, 12 February 2009


Maggie's obituary appeared in the Guardian today. Maggie was my friend, and latterly my agent. I don't think I can add anything to Francesca and Alison's simple, eloquent tribute, except that reading it made me feel very very sad, whilst making me smile with recognition. Maggie made a huge positive difference to my life, and she was a wonderful person who I admired and cared about. Words are a bit inadequate. I, like everyone who knew her, miss her terribly.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Getting Started In Performance Poetry

Over the coming weeks, I'm going to be running a series of interviews with the great and good of the UK performance poetry scene. The nice thing about doing stuff online is that I can embed videos alongside the Q & As, and turn appropriate sections of their replies into hyperlinks so that, for example, if someone were to say: 'My favourite performance poet of all time is the erudite and compassionate Mr Timothy Clare,' you'd be able to click through and appraise this promising gentleman's work for yourself. Over time, I hope it'll build up into a useful and interesting little online archive of who's who on the circuit and what we're all up to. I'll do my best to archive it with decent tags and links, etc, so it'll be straightforward to navigate.

I was interested to see that on UK poetry organisation Apples & Snakes' website, they have a section with ten 'top tips' for 'Getting Started' in performance poetry. I'm by no means an old hand but I'm not exactly a newcomer either, so I thought I'd take a look at them to see whether they match my experience of establishing a toehold in the scene.

'1. Practice [sic] performing.'

They mean 'practise' (the verb's spelt with an 's' in British English, look it up), but pedantry aside, it's a simple but nonetheless important point.

It's embarrassing to stand alone in your room trying to recite a poem from memory, perhaps acting out different parts or testing out various ways of delivering a line, but it's far more embarrassing to stand in front of a real live audience holding a piece of crumpled paper, reading them a poem you only have a passing familiarity with. I've done it myself and it made me feel grim.

I absolutely believe that delivering a poem from memory is preferable to reading from a page. Memorising a poem forces you to engage with it in a different way. For a start, it encourages you to edit - if you have to learn every line, you've got a strong incentive to get rid of everything but the essentials. Memorising a poem makes you far more aware of the cadence of each sentence too - as you repeat the piece over and over, clunky lines start to stick out more. In my experience, one of the most frustrating things has been hearing poets that have a few good lines mired in dozens of lazy ones. Editing and redrafting don't have quite the mythic caché of the divinely inspired one-shot masterpiece, but they're essential tools for the serious performer, and, in my opinion, far rarer than flashes of brilliance, which come to most people once in a while.

In addition, dispensing with paper allows you to turn your full attention to the audience. You get to maintain eye contact over the entire poem, and you've got an extra hand free, so you've got more freedom of movement. Of course, this doesn't mean you're obliged to prance about like a forest sprite - there's a real power in stillness, when used purposefully.

Memorising your poems is just better right across the board. At the very least, it's a courtesy to your audience. It demonstrates a rudimentary level of effort, and audiences tend to reciprocate with a greater willingness to listen.

I'm glad they put this point first. Every other 'tip' is completely worthless unless you're obeying this one religiously.

'2. Make a tape of your performance and a collection of sample poems.'

A tape? Cripes, I'll have to dig out one of me old C90s, though it'll pain me to record over my only copy of 'Doop' from the Pepsi Network Chart Show. I love that song (although I missed the first three bars and Dr Fox talks all over the end).

This advice is basically sound though. Having audio tracks up on Myspace and videos up on Youtube gives you an easy promotional platform. Although the few people that stumble across your work randomly are unlikely to give your career a noticeable boost, it's very useful to be able to email a promoter links to your poems being delivered.

This process is a little harder for stand-up poets than it is for 'drama'-ish poets, since really, for many good comic poems, the audience reaction is part of the piece. Recording a comedy poem 'dead' into a mic is a bit like delivering a stand-up routine to an empty room - it usually feels awkward and, fatally, not very funny.

On the other hand, unless you've got a solid gig schedule and regular access to a camera, it's not always easy to pick and choose which gigs you record. Most of the live stuff I've got up on youtube is from Aisle16 scratch night, Homework, where we performed a new show every month, and wrote brand new material for the support slots. To say my bits are a little ropey in places is a very charitable assessment - I'm nervous, I stumble, I'm reading off the page - and while I'm proud of the work we eventually developed out of those nights (and very grateful to the Arts Council for helping us fund them), I wouldn't want anyone to think it was representative of my sets. The more organised you are about getting your gigs filmed, or maybe handing a Mini-Disc player or similar to the sound tech so he or she can record direct through the PA system, the more chance there is of you landing a good take of the night you absolutely murdered every last man, woman and child in the room - figuratively speaking, of course.

'3. Research organisations who are likely to programme your type of work and send them your tape/poems with a covering letter telling them a little about yourself.'

Yeah, good luck with that, fucko. These 'organisations' are so few and far between as to be practically non-existent. I think what Apples & Snakes mean here is 'you could try sending your work to Apples & Snakes'.

There are certainly a few performance poetry promoters round the country, but that's a bit of a misleadingly glamorous term - for the most part, the promoter is the person who phoned the pub to book the function room, and who posts the invitation on Facebook. They're unlikely to respond well to formal letters of introduction and po-faced CVs; far better to find the Myspace pages or Facebook groups for different nights, then drop the organiser a quick message with a link to audio of your poems on Myspace or a Youtube video. If the night has an open mic section, and is nearby, you could always try just turning up and performing - if you're good enough, and the person running it isn't a total knobhead, then after one or two appearances you'll probably be offered a featured slot.

'4. Exploit the open mic format.'

Yes. Do this. If you want to get good, you should be fiending for opportunities to practice working an audience and delivering your poems. I find it odd how, in stand-up, for example, it's not unusual for more established acts to turn up at open mics to try out their new five minutes, whereas in poetry, there seems to be an attitude that the open mic is something you maybe do once or twice, then graduate from, unless you're rubbish.

Be warned - poetry open mics are usually terrible. I've seen the worst live performances in my life - the worst in any genre - at poetry open mics. Not only are they full of mediocre poetry, but the promise of a captive audience tends to attract both the boorish and the mentally ill. Open mic performers may or may not be an appreciative audience for their fellow poets - prior to their performance, they're often anxious and preoccupied, afterwards, they're notorious for buggering off home. With this in mind, if you get the choice, try to go on first or second, so you can perform to as big an audience as possible.

Many nights with featured poets have an open mic section or an open 'slam'. As a punter, I'm not in favour of this - the simple truth is that most open mic poetry is shit, and its presence on the bill discourages non-poets from turning up. If I went to a concert, I wouldn't expect to have to sit through 45 minutes of random audience members noodling hamfistedly on an acoustic guitar before the first band was invited onstage. If, however, you're an aspiring poet, these are good places to cut your teeth and observe a bunch of other amateurs, to see what they're doing wrong.

'5. Time each poem.'

Yes. Do that. It's useful - especially knowing which poems come in at under 3 minutes, since these can be used in slams. Also, if you've got any poems that last more than 5 minutes, you should be taking a very serious look at them to see if they justify all that stage time. When you perform them, look out for any points where the pace and the audience's attention seem to sag. Then cut them.

This 'tip' goes on: 'Overrunning your allotted time slot is a guaranteed way to preclude a repeat invitation.' Which is bollocks. Most places where you'll be starting out don't care, unless you run on by ten minutes or something and refuse to leave the stage. Later on in your career, you might want to think about reining it in a little bit, but having compered the poetry tent at Latitude for the last two years, I can tell you that a significant proportion of performance poets go over their allotted time. Sometimes it happens by accident, often it's because they're greedy, unprofessional fuckers who don't care that they're eating into a fellow poet's stage time. The bottom line is, people wouldn't do it if they thought they couldn't get away with it. I've done it. It's selfish, but as long as you go down well with audience, it's unlikely to have any bearing on your bookings.

'6. Go to as many readings as possible.'

Now, as a promoter of performance poetry gigs, Apples & Snakes clearly has a bit of a vested interest here. All I can say is, if you're not going to performance poetry gigs of your own volition, why do you want to do it in the first place? There's very little chance of financial reward, little public recognition, and it's a lot of hard work. Unless you enjoy poetry anyway, it's a really stupid career move.

These days, I rarely attend a gig I'm not performing at. That might sound arrogant and shitty, but it still means I see live performance poetry almost every week - often multiple times a week, during my 'on' seasons. I don't have some nebulous passion for all poetry, but the really good stuff on the UK scene makes me laugh and punch the air and grimace with jealousy unlike any other artform. I enjoy writing it, I enjoy performing, and I enjoy watching it. That makes the bulk of the process relatively easy.

'7. Take as many writing/poetry classes and workshops as you possibly can.'

In my opinion, this is a rather transparent shill. Apples & Snakes run lots of workshops, and they'd obviously like it if you signed up to them. Most poets I know on the scene didn't come up through a series of workshops - they learned through watching, and practising (see Tip 1). Workshops can be fun, and the money they bring in helps plug the huge gaps in jobbing performance poets' salaries, but don't think that classes are in any way necessary. If you're keen to do one, make sure it's being run by a poet whose work you know and like. No matter how prestigious their biog makes them sound, you're unlikely to learn much from someone whose artistic output is total guff.

'8. Promote yourself relentlessly - without being a pest.'

Excise 'relentlessly' and I agree. You shouldn't waste too much time doing this - your main focus needs to be on writing material, practising it, then testing it in front of audiences to see what works - but it's good to exploit the various user-friendly applications online to make it easy for interested parties to find you.

Loathe as I am to admit it, however, the truth of the matter is, being a pest sometimes pays off. There are plenty of characters on Myspace who plaster other people's walls with e-posters promoting their gigs, who send irritatingly chipper messages saying 'love your stuff - check out my new poem on my player!', who can't sneeze without sending out an update about it, and who ruthlessly cull correspondence to create mailing lists, to which they send monthly 'news' about themselves in the third person.

Almost without exception, the people who do this are shit poets. They have no time to write and practise because they devote their lives to trying to make people pay attention to them. Indeed, the only reason they write poetry is in an attempt to monopolise every waking moment of other people's lives with the insipid gruel of their musings.

Yet they get gigs. They get gigs because everybody has heard of them. They get gigs because some promoters are too polite to say 'fuck off'. They get gigs because they put their name up for everything and try to befriend everybody in the entire scene and eventually someone suffers a lapse of judgement or books them sight unseen, and soon even the promoters who were alienated by the constant barrage of self-promotion start to feel that by not booking the person, they're taking some kind of conscious stand against them, and that, sooner or later, they'll have to bow to the pressure, because it's not as if there's a vast an inexhaustable well of talent out there anyway.

So. Don't be an attention-seeking arsehole. But don't be surprised if attention-seeking arseholes get booked for more gigs than you.

'9. Explore the web for poetry feedback sites.'

I think A & S is starting to run out of ideas here, and this is their way of saying: 'Err... you could like, go on Google or something?'

I used Abctales for many years, posting short stories and poetry, but the main reason I found it useful was that I had a real world group of friends who also used the site, and it was an easy way of sharing work. For the most part, if you post a poem in an online community, if you get any sort of response it'll largely consist of 'Really enjoyed this, thnx' and 'LOL - very funny!' sort of comments, rather than detailed line-by-line breakdowns of what you've done and how you could improve. Also, if it's intended as a performance piece, there's a massive segment not represented by the page version, so much of the feedback will be incomplete anyway.

Again, if your craft is performance poetry, then there's really no substitute for time with a live audience. Whatever they say is right. If they're bored, then however great you think your poem is, in its current form, it bores audiences. If it kills across five different nights, then no matter what people online think, you've got yourself a sweet, sweet peach you'll be dining out on for years.

'10. Go to the Poetry Library - often.'

Monday, 9 February 2009

Racism Is Bad

I was on my way to the train station this morning when I happened upon this sign in a Turkish grocer's window:

Initiatives like this are, of course, to be lauded. With the economic downturn biting huge chunks out of manufacturing and retail, we're constantly being told that rising unemployment equals white, working class disillusionment equals increased racism.

My main problem with this whole line of argument is that sometimes, it sounds perilously close to an excuse. I mean, you're either a bigot or you're not. Your employment status can't have any bearing on that.

'All right, Keith? Heard you got laid off. How you bearing up, mate?'

'Um... I've been feeling a bit racist, actually.'


'Yeah. Since the factory closed down I've gone right off Venezuelans. I can't be bothered with them.'

Ensuring every citizen has a decent standard of living and opportunities for gainful employment should be one of our central aims as a society, but the media needs to be careful not to act as unwitting apologist for ignorance and prejudice. Much of the coverage of the recent wildcat strikes was padded out with editorial reflections on a wider social malaise spreading through white, working class Britain, with a tone of 'the government needs to nip this in the bud, otherwise there'll be a fascist resurgence and we'll only have ourselves to blame'.

I'm not suggesting that legitimate concerns about a depressed domestic market for skilled labour are tantamount to frothing xenophobia, nor, on the other hand, do I think that short-sighted protectionism and the concomitant suppression of foreign investment are good ideas, but no matter what the economic circumstances, racism is inexcusable. I mean, I don't think I'm being overly simplistic here. I believe in freedom of speech and allowing ideologies to slug it out in a free marketplace of ideas, but there is no place in modern Britain for the BNP's brand of ugly, craven demagoguery. They don't even have the guts to publicly admit to their own bigotry.

I rarely have much sympathy for the current government, but they've got a difficult task ahead when throngs of disaffected workers with a hazy grasp of economic fundamentals show far more interest in the old-fashioned culture of scapegoating and easy answers, than in the dull but workable long-term strategies that will get our country out of recession. A recession brings many challenges, but it doesn't necessarily imply incompetence on the part of the government. Indeed, it can help correct inflated markets and help make living affordable again for the average worker. We need to be intelligent, and compassionate, and look at ways of managing the human consequences of economic upheaval, rather than analysising things purely in terms of dry data, but the bottom line is, racism is unacceptable under all circumstances. Treating sections of the British workforce as a kind of hivemind whose beliefs are uniquely vulnerable to the vagaries of world markets is patronising and dehumanising. Anybody who chooses to embrace bigotry is personally accountable for their decision.

Of course, it's easier to preach a 'racism is bad' line to the converted than to take an honest personal inventory of one's prejudices, or to contribute something positive. Imagine my surprise, for example, when I glanced behind the 'Racism Watch' poster, to see this caricature of a pigtailed, conical-hat clad South East Asian gentleman, on a board inside the shop:

Admittedly, the blackboard at which he is pointing with apparent delight did not read: 'This Image Is Representative Of All Chinese Men', so it's probably mere cultural insensitivity rather than fully-fledged racism. Still, it just goes to show that none of us should rest on our laurels, and that all Turks are unreconstructed xenophobes.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Knockin On Heaven's Door

I was skittering and crabwalking my way through Northampton town centre yesterday when I came across a guitar-wielding busker outside the Grosvenor Shopping Centre, plodding through a workmanlike rendition of 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'. I'd barely had a chance to roll my eyes at his lack of imagination when a teen chorus chorus started up across the street, drowning him out. Egged on by a whooping, air-punching twentysomething youth leader, they worked through a succession of slightly off-key hallelujahs, singing into a single microphone hooked up to a portable PA. Then the man stepped aside, and the teens began stepping up to the mic one after the other, to preach.

They had a lot of gusto.

'You can go out at night,' shouted a young black teen in a dayglo pink puffa jacket, 'you can get your diamond rings and stuff, but at the end of your life, you're going to have to face God, and you're going to be judged.'

I don't think I'm the first person to observe that Christianity lacks a certain intellectual rigour when it comes to weighing up the balance of probabilities, but I felt that there was an underlying merit to what the girl was saying. Most people are seduced by transitory pleasures. We all pay lip-service to the notion that amassing possessions and status does not bring happiness, yet most of us find it hard not to judge ourselves based on how much we earn and our social standing. Most people act as if they don't realise that they're going to die some day, that they might die at any moment. They're oblivious, to the extent that someone can scream it at them through an amplifier, and they carry on with their shopping, the even tenor of their thoughts undisturbed.

A lot of what secular Britain offers teenagers is hollow tat. Nature abhors a vaccum, and this ideological and spiritual gap tends to get filled by people trying to sell things. I really felt like I empathised with the teens' hunger for something more substantial, and their eagerness to share it with a public who give every impression of having been numbed into oblivion by consumerism.

That said, when it came to esoteric wisdom, their particular brand of Christianity didn't appear to have much of an edge over Skins.

The girl went on: 'You might lie and cheat and steal, but God loves you so much, He sent His only son to die on the cross.'

That doesn't work, does it? God loves me so much He sent His son to be killed? That's like saying: 'Oh, Colin's so selfless that he sold his next door neighbour's Nissan Micra and gave the money to Comic Relief.'

Call me ungrateful, but I don't feel comfortable with someone having their child murdered in the name of doing me a favour - particularly when the 'favour' is that person agreeing to forgive me for everything I've ever done wrong on His eyes. If God created everything, He created physics, moral law and sin, and He created human beings as fallible creatures that - as an omnipotent being unhindered by time or space - He knew would fall short of His expectations, then He created a son, and had him slaughtered using techniques of His own invention. Talk about sadism - if God exists, He makes Josef Fritzl look like Geppetto.

Just because I'm an atheist doesn't mean I don't want easy answers. I'll probably flip out at some point and join a cult with a charismatic leader and pseudo-scientific underpinnings, because questioning the nature of existence can be dismal and lonely, and the information it yields is often unpleasant. It's difficult to whip adolescents into a frenzy of song with assertions that human knowledge will forever be incomplete, corrigible and fallible, but that, in all likelihood, we are sentient aggregations of meat in a universe slumping towards heat death.

Hmm... now there's an idea!

A Cone By Any Other Name Would Spin As Sweet

A couple of people have asked me where this blog got its name. Well, the answer certainly isn't this:

For me, this video dances on the event horizon where 'utterly shit' and 'strangely intriguing' seem to blend into one. I find lots of small elements weirdly compelling - the fact you can hear the creak of someone switching the camera on, the snippets of directorial advice from out of shot, their marked ambivalence to being on film, the crappy editing, and the way 'Dario's' pubescent voice rollercoasters from high to low and back again. Somewhat inexplicably, they seem to have filmed it once, then run the whole lot back through a PC monitor, which they've filmed a second time, before putting it on youtube - as if the shitty quality was by design. I love the section with the world's slowest, jerkiest stop-motion animation on the Lego man.

I don't know. Maybe it reminds me of my own forays into film and animation as a teenager. I made a stop-motion Lego man animation on the family camcorder, called Pobin Nood And The Time Machine, which was as shitty as it sounds. I put it onto VHS and sent it to Aardman Animations, the creators of Wallace and Gromit. They wrote back with an encouraging letter, which I promptly exploited to secure a grant for better equipment. My friends and I also did live action projects - the Vietnam War satire Who Gives A Nam, the psycho-thriller Brain Damage, and the martial arts spectacular Fucking Solid Kung Fu Bastards, amongst others. They were all shot without scripts, using mostly improvised props, and lots of ad-libbed fight scenes. We had two 12" LPs that we had found under some boxes in the school Drama department, one of soundtracks by the BBC Stereophonic Workshop, and one of BBC sound effects. These appeared, in some capacity, in every film we made. By the time Sixth Form started, I had given up film making forever. On the other hand, my partner in crime, Will, now has his own film production company.

But I don't think bleary-eyed nostalgia quite describes what I'm feeling when I watch the above video. It's closer to parallel states of fascination and complete boredom. Those two sensations don't usually run in tandem, and perhaps that's what makes it such a singular experience. Despite the mundanity, there's a mildly uncomfortable intimacy to it. After I showed it to my girlfriend, she said: 'I feel like I just watched the video out of The Ring.'

Best of all, I know that it lacks all the necessary elements of a viral video. It's too long, there are no payoffs, it's not spectacularly bad, just mediocre, and we don't quite get the delicious frisson of feeling we're privy to something that we weren't meant to see, because they clearly made it for an audience. Yet, even though it was pretty boring the first time through, there's something about it that makes me want to watch again. Most perplexing.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Mercy Recommends

Hey. You should put Mercy Recommends in your favourites list.

It's a new blog by the talented folks behind Mercy, covering lots of their interesting artsy projects and random assorted fascinating stuff culled from the interwebs. I'm going to be contributing a feature semi-regularly (or at least until they tell me to bog off), where I map out the neglected cultural history of video games.

The Kingdom Of The Blind

Look, straight up, I think the blog format where a writer picks whatever stories happen to be making the news then gives their opinion on them is hackneyed and crap. We have a culture of analysis over content, because analysis is a piece of piss, and content is hard.

The opinion piece I wrote for the Guardian ages ago was really easy to write. Why? Because I wasn't required to line up facts in support of my argument. I didn't have to interview anyone or do any research. I didn't even have to leave my room. The only criteria was that I said something guaranteed to piss people off, and said it stridently.

I bring it up because this is one of those posts. And, you know, I guess I can understand why bloggers resort to it - it's hard to think of new things to write about continually, and if you choose a little-reported story, you can draw people's attention to it.

This doesn't even count as under-reported, but meh. Calls are being made for Jeremy Clarkson's head after he referenced the fact that PM Gordon Brown has one eye in an insult. Apparently, calling Gordon Brown 'one eyed' is the height of insensitivity - even though it's a simple statement of fact, albeit intended perjoratively - because it draws attention to a disability. On the other hand, the media consensus seems to be that, in the case of Heather Mills, having one leg is not such much a disability as a comic misfortune.

Sure, I find Senor Clarkson a bit irritating, but that's his job. Don't MPs have anything better to do than complain about a hack humourist's off-the-cuff remark? Apparently not.

Friday, 6 February 2009

This American Life

I feel as if posting this will mark an unshouldering of sorts - a chance for me to finally let go of baggage accrued over the past eighteen months.

I first discovered This American Life via the superb community blog Metafilter, a website which has introduced me to almost everything I like on the internet.

This American Life has influenced me more profoundly than anything else in the last year and a half. After listening to my first episode, I was hooked. Essentially, it's an hour long weekly radio show, where each episode has a loose theme. It's mostly non-fiction, with the occasional short story or dramatic monologue.

What first hit me so hard about it was the way in which the producers manage to tackle both very large stories and very small ones, often combining the two types on the same bill. It introduced me to a whole new genre of non-fiction storytelling - small incidents or little ideas that somehow shed light on something greater. Until I listened to This American Life, I never realised that people were allowed to tell those kinds of stories - stories that aren't the news, exactly, but often aren't exactly memoir either. Stories that are interesting, funny, real, surprising, and sometimes beautiful, but without being glib or glurgy.

Although I'm not exactly the perfect archetypal hipsterish agnostic liberal, I realise that I'm fairly close to the centre of their ideal demographic, so it may be that TAL's appeal doesn't go right across the board, but, for me at least, it feels like it scratches an itch that, until I discovered the show, I was dimly aware of but could never quite locate.

All this discursive meta-theorising can't quite convey it though, so I suppose I should apply the age old writing axiom of show, don't tell. Here are some of my favourites. If you click through, you can stream them online, or download each episode for 99 cents. If you listen to a whole bunch, it might be nice to donate a little something via their website, to help pay for bandwidth. I did, and I felt right pleased with myself.

My Big Break
- the story of Charlie and Mitzi's gig on The Ed Sullivan Show is a beautifully-constructed piece of radio journalism, and Shalom Auslander's true life story of his strict Orthodox Jewish school's 'blessing bee' is one of the best bits of memoir I've ever heard.

Babysitting - I love the brothers talking about when their big brother was left in charge of them, and pretended he could turn into a werewolf. It reminds me of that weird period during your childhood, when the border between imagination and reality is blurry, and you can quickly work yourself up into a state of terror. Also, the final story in the show is just amazing. It's funny, it's sad, it's got twists... and it's just great to hear the participants talk about it themselves.

- this is one of my favourite Ira Glass intros. I just think the chap's so cool, and he tells an engaging, intimate autobiographical story without being self-indulgent. The first story, about the delinquent teenager who discovers his dad's been taping his phonecalls, has a really satisfying plot arc, and it's a great example of a story that is ideally suited to radio.

Break-Up - all of Starlee Kine's stuff for TAL is, in my opinion, brilliant, but this story about the embarrassing intensity of a break-up is probably my favourite. The moment where she blurts Phil Collins' lyrics to her (ex)boyfriend in an attempt to make him stay is both cringe-inducing and beautiful in its honesty. The way she develops the story from there is an object lesson in why TAL isn't just good, but great.

Another Frightening Show About The Economy - along with the earlier show, Giant Pool Of Money, these shows feature some of the best popular economics reporting I've ever heard. They're a little more 'of the moment' than most of the TAL shows, given that they're responding to contemporary news events, but I still find it mind-boggling that TAL can shift so seamlessly from charming, folksy anecdotage one week, to understandable, content-rich economics reporting the next, then back again, executing both styles exceptionally. Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson make for very likeable, very listenable hosts.

The Super - the theme for this show, apartment superintendents (essentially live-in maintenance men for big blocks of flats, I think), doesn't sound very promising, but it's a killer episode. Jack Hitt's stories are as robust as they come - you could drive a tank over them and they wouldn't break - and the one the starts this show doesn't disappoint. It's got hilarious moments, frightening moments, and sheds light on wider things. The second story, about the building superintendent who thinks he may not have long to live, had me laughing till some snot came out.

One of the best things that came out of my discovering TAL, was that I began to write non-fiction. I'd written video game reviews, opinion pieces and feature articles, but I'd never attempted journalism where I was a character. I'd never realised that there were situations where that might be okay, where stories about myself might be interesting to someone else. The ultimate product of all my TAL listening has been We Can't All Be Astronauts, my first book. I'm sure some parts are a bit cackhanded and prolix, and it was largely a case of learning on the job (my interview technique could do with a spell in bootcamp), but it's been wonderful to discover a whole new form of writing I'd never considered before.

As a newbie to non-fiction, I was desperate for all the guidance I could get. These four videos, where Ira Glass, TAL's host, explains how to create a story for radio, had more influence on my writing than anything else. I'm not claiming to have implemented the principles he suggests with any particular aplomb, but having them as a kind of North Star was a lifesaver. Even if you have no intention of writing non-fiction, or if you find his prescriptions for story-building somewhat facile, I think they're fascinating and thought-provoking nonetheless.

I might as well finish with a clip from the This American Life TV series, now two seasons old. It features the animation of cartoonist Chris Ware, author of the funny, melancholy Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth. The person interviewing him is Ira Glass. The 'turn', at 1:30, is something I think typifies TAL stories. Something about the whole piece makes me really happy. It's small, and human, and captivating - or, as the TAL TV series tagline would have it: 'Funny. Surprising. Dramatic. True.'

Okay. Splurge over. This has been very cathartic. I feel like I can finally put the rampant fanboy to rest, and stop boring people at parties - or, at least, find new things to bore them with.