October 29, 2015

Living in the margins (a short story)

There’s a book in a second-hand bookstore. It’s an unassuming book, by an author you won’t have heard of. If pressed, about ten people would call her their favourite author, but none of them have ever met each other. To most people, it’s just another book.

This unassuming book by an unassuming author with its unassuming story goes unnoticed by most, but inside that book, something wonderful has happened. Written in pencil and scraggly handwriting in the margin of every page is another tale. A second story that deftly weaves it’s way around the book’s printed narrative. Picking up on plot points, themes and characters it expands, expounds enhances the story, turning it into something far greater. In many ways, the story in the margin far surpasses the story of the book itself.

But for all it’s brilliance, the story in the margin is never part of the book. It might react to the events of the book, it might comment, reflect, sneer or applaud at the happenings, but the book itself remains stoic. No matter what the story in the margin may do to the characters, no matter where it may take the story, the book itself will never acknowledge it. The book remains isolated, separated. Its story is already written, and while the reader may branch off into something new when they peruse the margins, they’ll eventually return the unmoving core of the book itself.

And that story in the margin? Alone, it’s nothing. It’s taken the book and made it a part of what it is. Without it, it’s simply the disjointed scribbles of a mad man. But it knows that while it may be part of the book, the book will never be a part of it.

One day the bookstore owner absentmindedly picks up the book and flicks through it. Noting the scribbles, he figures that can’t be right, and spends the afternoon cleaning up the ‘damage’ with an eraser. By the evening there’s no evidence left that the story in the margin even existed other than the fading scent of rubber and few scuff marks.

The writer of the vanished tale sits at home and knows that one day he’ll find someone that wants to tell a story together.

September 24, 2015

Cameron: does it actually matter?

So what does the Cameron-pig incident actually tell us?

One you get over the visceral horror of the image – the Prime Minister sticking his dick in a dead pig’s mouth – one starts to wonder what it means. Beyond Cameron forever being seen as “a bit gross”, does it speak in any way to his political ability? I think, in a way, it does – though not necessarily the way you might expect. Here’s some of the “defenses” I’ve seen used of Cameron:

A man’s sexual proclivities are none of our business
See this one is true. Even though necrophilia is illegal, and beastiality is illegal, if you do both at once it’s not actually a crime. Nor should it be, really – if we’re allowed to eat it then defiling it sexually doesn’t seem much worse. It’s just… sorta gross. The thing is, we’ve all done things in the bedroom others would consider weird or even gross. And the media, Twitter, et al would have reported this with just as much glee had it been revealed that he ever did anything remotely kinky. And that would piss me off.

But then, this isn’t about sex is it…

“It was just a silly student dare”

And this is where I start to worry. I was a student. On occasion, I was dared to do stupid things. Occasionally I did. We got up to all sorts of “wacky behaviour” – y’know, like stealing traffic cones or climbing a thing you’re not meant to climb. But I can, hand on heart, honestly tell you, that were I, or anyone I hung out with at university, dared to get our cock out and stick it in a dead pig’s mouth, the response would be a clear and undebatable “fuck off”.

And that’s a worry, isn’t it? If we accept there was nothing sexual about it, that Cameron got no pleasure from doing it, then the conclusion has to be: he didn’t want to do it. And yet, he (allegedly) did it. Isn’t that a problem? That he didn’t have the backbone to stand up to a bunch of bullies asking him to put his cock in a dead pig’s mouth? Much was made before the election about how Milliband just wasn’t “tough enough” to be PM. That if he was in a room with Putin, he would just fold. That might well be true. So now instead we have a PM, who, in a room with a bunch of friends, was convinced to stick his knob in a pig’s mouth. And yes, he was drunk. Best hope Putin doesn’t offer him any Vodka before the negotiations.

[On the other hand, if we’re going to governed by a Tory, maybe I’d prefer being governed by the one that got bullied rather than the ones who did the bullying.]

“But we all do stupid things when we’re young, don’t we”

Generally, yes we do. But perhaps more telling is a variation on this:

“If there’s a dead pig’s head in the room, someone is going to stick their cock in it”

That might well be true. I wouldn’t know. Neither would most of the country. Because most of us have never been to a party where there happened to be a dead pig, especially not as a poor student, and even if in our later years we’ve been to a hog roast, we’ve never been to one where it would be appropriate or permissable to even take one’s todger out, let alone put it in to the food.

And that’s why Cameron wouldn’t win another election. It’s somewhat of a moot point, as he won’t be running again, but the problem for most people won’t be the initial disgust at what he did, it’ll be them asking themselves “how does that even happen?” We, the “not-rich”, comprehend things like the Bullingdon Club in abstract terms. It’s where rich students make “trouble”, smash up “things”, burn £50 notes infront of “beggars” (who even the middle and working class tend to look down on). This brings the nature of those rich, domineering institutions right home in a way the abstract ideas about them never did. In a sentence it explains graphically the level of decadence in which our PM lived. That he could go somewhere as a student, where there happened to be a dead pig, and that people would get their cocks out and violate said pig. And it’d all be fun and games. It marks him and his experiences out as truly alien to 99% of the electorate. It’s like not being able to eat a fucking sandwich.

The electorate need one of two things in a PM. They need to believe that they’re “one of us”, have had similar experiences and are relatable. Or they need them to be so far above us, so unflappable and statesmanlike so as to appear perfect. Milliband had neither: he was a bit nerdy and awkward, which would be okay, but rather than embrace it he ran from it trying to be the statesman figure instead, and ended up in the middle ground which was useless. Likewise this one story both destroys any attempt Cameron makes to be above the fray, while also ruining any chance he has to be seen as “one of the people”.

All academic of course, at least until someone offers Lord Ashcroft a lot of money for information on George Osborne’s initiation.

August 19, 2015

An Open Letter to the Labour Party

Dear The Labour Party,

Hi guys! I know you’re having your election at the moment so must be very busy, but just wanted to drop you a line to just make sure you were aware of something. I’ve always voted Labour. I’m politically on the left, and generally I like you guys. I’ll probably be voting for you in 2020! But I want you to know, regardless of who you elect as leader, you do not have my vote.

I like you, you’re probably the party I’m most aligned with politically, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get my vote by default. You’ll have to earn it. You’ll have to do something. You don’t have to be perfect (who is!) and I get that to win an election, you’re also going to have to do things to appeal to those in the middle who maybe voted Tory last time round (the little buggers). I do get that. But if you focus entirely on them and ignore me, then you won’t get my vote.

Despite a second Tory term, politics is exciting at the moment. The Greens made huge gains and while they have their problems, they’re an option. And y’know, I do okay. I’m actually better off under the Tories! I don’t vote Labour for my own benefit, I do it because I genuinely believe we should be helping out those less fortunate than us. But faced with a choice between Tory and Tory-lite… part of me thinks maybe we should just commit to something, y’know?

And in your own party, Jeremy Corbyn looks great. I’m not going to tell you who to elect – that’s your business. Some of my friends have upped and joined you in order to vote for him, they like him so much. That’s not me. I just don’t feel that way about you, sorry.

Still, Corbyn has been making noises that would get my vote, but I’m sure some of your other guys would too. They just haven’t explained how yet. But don’t forget, no matter who you decide is best for you, if you want my vote, you’re going to have to try. You’re going to have be a Labour party I want to vote for. If you don’t, you won’t get it.

I’m not being mean, this isn’t blackmail, I just wanted you to know this now, because your election thing has had a lot of people talking about how to get Tory voters back. Not about how you’re going to keep people like me. I don’t want you waking up the day after polling day in 2020 and going “WTF guys?” because I didn’t vote for you and you were sure I would. So I just figured I’d say something now.

Anyway, have a good election-thingy, hope you have fun!


A life-time Labour voter.

August 03, 2015

Why Corbyn is the logical, centrist move

I like Jeremy Corbyn. But I’m also not an idiot. I can perfectly well comprehend the argument against the Labour party electing him leader. He’s a gamble. The rest are not. The others will make minor gains from the Tories, which will be enough to oust them from their majority, and SNP-willing, put Labour back in power, albeit in an uneasy, difficult coalition.

Corbyn is a roll of the dice. I believe he’s the only candidate capable of winning an outright majority in 2020. I also believe he’s the only candidate capable of actually losing Labour seats. So on that evidence, it’s too risky, right?

Except there is no real risk. The next election is five years away. If Labour elect him as leader (and give him a genuine chance, or at least don’t actively undermine him), they can spend a few years watching what happens. If he crashes and burns, oust him and put someone new in. Hell, Corbyn is the one person standing in this election that would step down of his own accord if it looked like he had no shot at an election.

The reason he was on the ballot in the first place is a bunch of Labour MPs supported him in order to broaden the conversation during the process, and incorporate a greater variety of views. They didn’t expect him to win. And that’s actually sound thinking, but it’s thinking you can apply further – why not do it on a national scale, broaden the debate nationwide for a couple of years, show what a true alternative looks like and see if anyone might be interested in voting for it.

Yes, there will be some damage, that’s a couple of years that you’re not building up the media profile of a fresh new face, and yes, it might put off a few people for good. But honestly, if you’re one of the other leadership candidates and you’re worried two years isn’t enough to overturn a Tory majority of six then you really shouldn’t be here.
The irony is, of course, that the only reason this approach is possible is because of Cameron’s Fixed-term Parliament act. Without that, a Tory majority this small, watching a recently elected leader crash and burn, might well call an early election in order to strengthen their numbers while they had the chance. That’s no longer an option.

May 06, 2015

Is it fear–mongering or are they afraid?

One thing I’ve found odd this entire election is the Tories attempting to blame the recession on Labour, and take credit for the recovery themselves. While we can influence a little the impacts of both, this was a worldwide recession, and we account for 3.9% of the world economy. If we look at that in terms of alcohol content, the idea that Labour were responsible for the crash is as realistic as running my car on Stella.

But the Tories are perpetuating this idea that letting Labour in is dangerous, as under them, the economy might crash again. Weirdly, they’re right. The fact is, the economy of the entire world is in a delicate state of recovery right now, and a second crash is certainly possible. And if the world economy tanks, it’s taking us with it, regardless of whether it’s Cameron or Milliband in Downing Street.

And that is what the Tories are afraid of. They know another crash might not be likely but is certainly possible. Now, you may say there’s very little difference between Labour and Tory economic plans, and you’d be right. Neither will make great shakes either way. But that’s the plan now. That’s the plan for recovery. What happens if we do crash? What if we end up in a Greece-like situation but with no EU bail-out available? How will we cope in that crisis?

It’s in a crisis like that you will see the true difference in the parties. What emergency fixes would Milliband consider? 90% top-tax rate? A raid on the bank accounts of the richest? Perhaps. One thing is for certain: those won’t be policy that a Tory cabinet even consider. They’ll first be looking at 30% VAT and a 25% basic tax rate.

And that’s why they’re afraid. It’s not about which party might ruin our economic recovery. It’s about who’ll be in power if the plans that both parties are mostly agreed on don’t work. It’s about who will bear the actual cost of a genuine economic emergency, should it occur.

May 05, 2015

How to use a vote

There’s a lot going on with this election, a lot of questions and suggestions as to how or if to use your vote tactically, about coalition agreements, about confidence and supply and so on. They’re all focused on how you, using your vote, can best get the result you want.

But an assumption has been made, by pretty much every party on the campaign trail, about what the ‘result you want’ is. Namely, the ‘result you want’ is the Government that will do the most for you. You may well read that and think it’s self-evident, and wonder what I’m going on about, and that, is very much the problem.

Let’s be frank: there’s nothing wrong with voting purely in your own self-interest, and if someone wants to do that, then I’m not going to complain. What I have a problem with is the the notion that anyone may want to vote for different reasons has been roundly ignored, by the media and those standing for election.

The vast majority of us do things on a regular basis that are not in our self-interest. We donate to charities. We volunteer. We take care of our friends and family when they’re suffering. And so on. There are some people that do none of that, that care for no-one but themselves. But I’m happy to live in a world where those people are in a minority.

Why then, is the assumption being made that everyone wants to use their vote to benefit themselves, and not in a more altruistic fashion? Why is this entire election about what you get rather that what we can give?

I know people who have a problem with immigration. It’s easy to dismiss them as backwards racists or such. Indeed, that’s what most left-wing columnists do. Or talk about some nebulous numbers about how immigration is a net benefit to the economy or such. Taking that approach to people who live in areas where immigration levels have been high, and has changed the culture of the community and environment in a way they don’t like is pointless. And when you’re in an area with either little immigration, or one where your environment is changing in a way you do like, it’s an easy approach to take.

But I haven’t seen a single person make the argument that, while they understand the personal effects it might have on that individual, there are huge improvements to the lives of those who, by pure accident of birth, were born elsewhere, come to our country in search of a better life, and we offer them that. I was going to write “proudly offer” right there, but I’m not sure we have any pride in it anymore. No-one is making the argument to them that, “yes, voting UKIP might marginally help you (but they can’t turn back what’s already happened), but it’ll hugely hurt a tonne of other human beings”.

Likewise I found myself utterly depressed by the Green copyright fiasco. Regardless of the truths or otherwise behind the policy, the number of creative liberals, many of whom I respected, suddenly declared they couldn’t possibly vote Green any more because of the negative financial impact it would have on them directly (with no though given to the huge benefit it could have for everyone else) showed up the fact that, while it nice they were going to vote Green, they were only doing so in their own self-interest. Let’s face it: it’s easy to vote for a party that is promising to give you and your interests more money. Green is an easy call if you’re an artist and they’re promising more arts funding. And again, it’s fine to vote in your own self-interest. But pretending you’re doing it to help everyone else out is disingenuous.

So what do I want people to do? Simple. Before you make your final choice about who you’re going to vote for, stop and asking yourself how you want to use your vote. Do you want to vote in your own self-interest, or do you want to use that vote for the benefit of other people. It’s an important question to consider, doubly so as it’s clear that no-one in the media or the parties you’re voting for want you to do so. And if, in the final reckoning, you choose to vote in your own self-interest, then own it. Don’t pretend you’re doing everyone else a favour, and don’t pretend that you actual believe in Tory trickle-down-wealth nonsense. And do that in the knowledge that you could have voted differently, and you did have a choice. You just had to put other people first.

July 28, 2014

The 50 Shades Problem

So the 50 Shades of Grey trailer came out the other day, setting off another round of conversation about the books and what’s within, to the point that, for some reason, I feel compelled to write about it. Partly because I don’t see my thoughts on the matter represented anywhere, and because thousands of people are at each others’ throats over it and seem to be missing the point. And partly because I have mixed feelings on it myself. I should stress I’ve probably read significantly more about it than I have of the actual books, and am happy to be corrected on any points. So here we go.

1) 50 Shades of Grey presents an abusive relationship
It does. The folk at 50 Shades of Abuse cover this pretty well, even though I disagree with their belief the book should be banned, for reasons that will become clear. But the relationship, as portrayed, is abusive. Now here is important distinction A: it is not abusive because it involves whips, pain, nipple clamps or bondage. It’s abusive because of everything around that. The way it gets to that point, the lack of consent, the way those things are used to control her in a way she does not want. It is perfectly possible to have a healthy, loving BDSM relationship, but that is not what 50 Shades depicts. Indeed, anyone who knows anything about BDSM tend to be very unhappy about how it depicts BDSM relationships, especially because for many people, it’ll be the first time they’ve read about anything like it.

2) It’s totally okay for 50 Shades of Grey to present an abusive relationship
Because it is a piece of fiction. A fantasy. And it’s a novel, with a plot, a plot that has to go somewhere and thus requires drama and conflict. If you have no knowledge of the BDSM lifestyle, it’s quite possible you’d find a book that documented a real-life, loving BDSM relationship pretty interesting. But those books do exist. And they don’t sell as well as 50 Shades because, ultimately, once you get over the novelty, without conflict and things actually happening there’s not much of a story to tell. This isn’t about how BDSM works, it’s about how storytelling works.

The second thing to note is that the book is, in many ways, a literal sexual fantasy. Now, our brains are capable of amazing feats of cognitive dissonance. We’re able to get off on stuff in fantasies that we know in real life would be abhorrent. Somewhere between 31% and 57% of women have rape fantasies but it goes without saying that those women do not actually want to be raped. It doesn’t mean that “what women really want is to be raped!”. Yet after 50 Shades was published, the media got all excited and started talking about how “what women really want is their own Christian Grey”. No they don’t. Speak to anyone who enjoyed the fantasy of that book, and ask them if they would actually want to be Ana, with all that entailed. The answer will be ‘no’. They enjoyed the fantasy of Christian, perhaps even enjoy the idea of someone doing some of the things in the book to them, and should maybe explore that with a partner in a safe, sane and consensual fashion. But they don’t want to be in that relationship. This is important distinction B: enjoying the fantasy of being Ana, or even trying some of the techniques show in the book, does not mean someone wants to live out the fantasy wholesale.

To me, that’s where the media excitement around the book has been far worse than the book itself. Holding up Grey as some sort of role model is harmful. At this point, it’s worth noting that EL James has been problematic herself in some of the statements she’s made after the book came out, claiming that the relationship show isn’t abusive, when it clearly is.

3) Ignorance breeds confusion
So what we end up with is a clusterfuck of ignorance. Some people don’t see that that relationship is abusive (remember: it can be abusive and still make you horny without making baby Jesus cry), and so try and defend it. Some of those people have a vague notion that people actually have similar BDSM relationships that work and are not abusive, and so think that the same applies here. People in those relationships get angry because now people think they are like Christian and Ana, when actually they’re nothing like that. It’s a mess.

And it’s problematic. The idea that what’s depicted in the books isn’t abuse is a problem. But the solution to that problem isn’t to ban the book. There are plenty of books that depict abusive relationships, either as a side-plot or the main thrust of the story. We don’t ban them. The problem is when we (or the media) start treating that abusive relationship as aspirational, rather than just a cheeky fantasy. When “actually, I want to try being whipped” somehow becomes “I want to be unwilling seduced and pushed into a world I know nothing about with no way out”.

I once went to a Buffy The Vampire Slayer convention and dressed up as Spike. I don’t actually want to be a soulless vampire. Is that so hard?

January 01, 2014

One Interesting Thing

So this was meant to be a post on a new blog I was setting up, but my PC just up and died, so that’ll have to wait. But I’ll just write about the new ‘thing’ (writing project) I am doing this new year here instead. It’s called ‘One Interesting Thing’ and it’s fairly simple: for every show I see, TV series I watch, gig I go to, game I play, album I listen to, book I read, etc… I’m going to write about it.

Now, the issue with doing this before was getting hung up on the concept of a ‘review’. These are not reviews. Instead the task is simply to pick the one most interesting thing (good, bad, or indifferent) about it and write about just that. This will generally mean pieces will be shorter, maybe even just a few hundred words, but it also doesn’t preclude larger pieces when something raises a particularly worthy point.

This does three things:
a) it gets me writing again;
b) it gets me writing interesting stuff that people might want to read, rather than just another review and;
c) if I ever consume a piece of culture and can’t find something interesting to say about it, I’ll know it’s something I should stop wasting time on.

If anyone else wants to join me, you’re quite welcome to, either on your own blogs or on mine when I get it up and running (damn PC). You can also set your own boundaries of what you’re going to cover (I’m not doing every episode of a TV show, or gigs that I run myself, or restaurant trips) – though I’d encourage people to set boundaries and stick to them, rather than just pick and choose interesting stuff, because that’s far too easy.

December 31, 2013

My Sherlock prediction

Just to get this up before it airs.

I don’t have a full-blown theory for how Sherlock faked his own death, but I do have an idea about the one obvious clue that everyone missed that Moffat mentioned a few times.

The preceding episode. The Hound of the Baskervilles one. There’s a chemical there that makes people hallucinate their own worst fears. When Watson sees Holmes fall off the roof, his worst fear would be that Holmes is dead. So when he checks the body, that’s what he sees.

I won’t speculate on the rest of it, but I’m almost convinced that will factor in somewhere.

October 02, 2013

The medium is not the medium

For a good while debate raged on the internets over the truth of McLuhan’s claim that the medium was the message. These days, when it comes to the arts, I’m not sure that the medium is even the medium any more.

Exhibit one: Gone Home . Gone Home claims to be a “Story Exploration Video Game”. In it you play as a girl returning home after a year of traveling, to find the house your family moved to shortly after you left strangely empty. By exploring the house you piece together what happened to them over the past year, and discover why no-one is there. You do that by picking through rooms and finding scrawled notes, diaries and, well, things. Your Dad’s collection of old, unsold novels. A mixtape given to your sister by a school friend. Your mother’s correspondence with her best friend. The whole thing is tied together with entries from your sister’s diary, narrated out loud at various points as you progress through the story.

Now Gone Home looks like a game, it controls like any first-person 3D game, but unlike most, you don’t have a gun. It’s distributed on Steam, a digital distribution system for games, and it’s created in the same software used for Temple Run and plenty of other games.

But the game elements are close to non-existent. At no point should you get stuck – you simply wonder around the house, exploring, reading and listening. Discovering a story. There are a couple of places where you get keys in one room that will open up another, but these aren’t designed as puzzles, they’re merely there to restrict your exploration slightly, so the story unfolds in roughly the right order. It’s also perhaps notable that Gone Home was created by a bunch of people with a background in video games, rather than theatre or elsewhere.

A few times in discussions I’ve claimed that Gone Home isn’t a game for a fairly simple reason: Gone Home could have been made at any point in history. Because Gone Home does not need to exist on a computer. You could build Gone Home. You could get a house and stick all this stuff in it, and let people explore. And at that point, no-one would try and claim it was a game; it would be an interactive-theatre experience or a piece of installation art. The idea of telling a story using objects in a physical place isn’t new, it’s just generally not financially or logistically viable. Especially for something like Gone Home, where to create the right atmosphere, you’d have to open it to just one person at a time.

That said, the principle of it is used all the time in historic sites and museums, where you may wonder around an old building while reading signs or listening to an audio guide telling you how that space was used in the past. It’s just far rarer to do that for fiction (though it has been tried, and we’ll discuss Mark Watson’s The Hotel in part two).

So Gone Home is essentially an installation-based narrative, that just uses the technology and grammar of video games to make its existence feasible. It’s not actually a game. But what’s interesting is that it works the other way around too. Enter exhibit two: Hint Hunt . This is a room escape game similar to the online game Crimson Room or The Room on iOS. You explore a room, find clues, solve puzzles, and eventually find your way out. Except this isn’t on a computer. This is a real-life room whose puzzles you tackle in a team of 3-5 people, with a time limit of 60 minutes.

It is, undoubtedly, a game. The puzzles are the focus, and while both current rooms have a back-story to give them context, it’s extremely brief, and the narrative doesn’t develop at all as you solve the puzzles. In some ways that’s a shame: the focus is solving puzzles, not trying to solve a mystery, though it’s somewhat understandable as with a one-hour time limit, you’re not going to have time to piece together a story and solve a bunch of puzzles.

But the lack of any narrative element to Hint Hunt means that however you try to describe it, it’s in the context of it being a game. It offers it a certain purity that makes it interesting in this discussion (a purity that something like a murder mystery party doesn’t have). It’s not interactive theatre and it’s not installation art. It’s not trying to tell you a story or evoke an emotional response. It’s just trying to give you a game to play for an hour.

So there we have it. A narrative-driven interactive art exhibit that thinks it’s a video game, and a video game made flesh in the real world.

There’s going to be a second part of this where we’ll look at non-linear fiction through the work of Christine Love and new project by Mark Watson, then I might do a final bit about The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze, The Shrewsbury Quest, and Tales of the Arabian Nights. At which point I hope you’ll all be sufficiently confused about where one medium starts and another ends.

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