Thursday, 29 October 2009

Short story!

Check it out, 2min story :)

Camden

'Steve? Steve come on, pick up,' said Dave into the phone needlessly as it rang. He jumped up the steps of the underground station two at a time, dodging old people and couples.

'Mate, where've you been?' came the reply.  'I've been waiting here for ages.'

'Sorry man the tube got held up,' apologised Dave hurriedly.  He fumbled with his ticket at the gates while holding his phone.  'One day they'll get mobile coverage underground.'

'Huh, one day,' said Steve on the phone.  'Are you here or what?'

Dave burst out into the grey daylight outside Camden tube station.  'Yeah, I'm here now, where are you?'  He scanned the crowded pavement, getting jostled by people on all sides, but couldn't see his friend.

'I'm right here outside the station.  Standing by the signpost.'

'Really?'  Dave looked awkwardly through crowds of smoking youngsters and chatting friends, but saw no-one by the signpost.  'There's no-one here.'

'Seriously mate, I'm right here, have been for the last twenty-five minutes.'

Dave pushed through the crowds, coughing on the air.  Everyone seemed to be smoking around him.  He made it to the signpost, where still Steve failed to appear.

'Look mate, I'm sorry I'm late, but there's no need to pull my leg.'

'I ain't pulling your leg mate.  What happened did you get off at the wrong Camden?'

'Don't be stupid, there's only one—'

Dave stopped, then looked around him.  Young men with coloured mohawks shared cigarettes by the railing, while old men in flat caps shuffled by with newspapers tucked under their arms.  Above him, the old buildings were stained black with soot.

'Oh no,' he moaned.  'I've got off at the 1976 branch.  I knew I should've changed at Edgeware Road.  Go and get a drink, I'll be there in half an hour.'

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Atheism and Secularism - spot the difference

Just a quick blog to explain the difference between atheism and secularism.

Atheism, as most people know, is the belief that there is no god of any type. Strictly speaking this just refers to god(s), but most atheists also reject ideas about spirituality, afterlife, and other unseen concepts such as chakras, auras, energies etc.

Secularism is the belief that religion should not be a part of government, public institutions, large organisations and/or (to a greater or lesser extent) public life itself.

Many people lump them together, but they are very very different ideas. To look at them bluntly, sure, they are both technically "anti-god", and many atheists are secularists because they simply don't like religious influence over their lives. However it's quite possible for spiritual or religious people to be secularist too.

I am atheist because I don't believe there is a god. Very straightforward. I won't bang on about it here.

However, my atheism personally leads me to secularism, and it's more than simply due to disliking organised religion. I am allowed to be atheist without fear of punishment or persecution because society allows it. I'm grateful for that tolerance, and I think everyone should have the freedom to personally believe in whatever religion they like, no matter how wrong or crazy (unless it hurts people). This is why I am a secularist, and I think everyone should be secularist: it is, ironically, the only way to protect people's religious freedoms - whether they have a religion or not.

I know there is much confusion over these issues - I'm going to post another blog with some detail and examples about secularism, so if you've got any queries, give me a shout and I'll include your questions.

For now though, I ask you all to please support the cause of secularism, whatever your religion or culture.

P.S. No-one expects the-!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Chelmsford, Essex

As most of you will know I am not a fan of my native Chelmsford or Essex. For those of you not familiar, Essex has a reputation, largely about Essex girls. This is not news. But it's been interesting to visit while being back in the UK to see friends and family, and I thought I should write down and explain the reasons why I dislike(d) it quite so much.

Firstly, I can't be too harsh on either town or county because that's where my friends and family live, and still live - for whatever reason, almost all of them still live there, so it's not quite as horrifying as say Darfur or Iraq. Also, as one friend pointed out, it's the place that's made us (our group of friends) who we are today.

That said, I've always felt I was a reaction against it - both Chelmsford and Essex have a thorough lack of culture, variety, things for young people to do, and anything cosmopolitan. This is reflected by its lack of cities, and the fact it's next to London, where many people work and have fun. The only thing that distinguishes Chelmsford from the county it's relatively safe and middle class, although this kind of confirms its thoroughly boring nature. Obviously I was always going to have a hard time for being an unconventional young person anywhere in the world, but as a whole, Essex is somewhere where ignorant youth and conservative old age manage to find common ground.

I'm generalising of course, and I should remind everyone that prejudice is a bad thing and it's important not to judge people you don't know. However, if we weren't able to generalise, we'd be unable to describe a LOT of things in the world; if we have to put caveats and exceptions in every statement we made, it would take a long time to actually say anything. Also I grew up in Essex, so there's nothing much "pre" about my judging ;) My point is, there is a definite culture in Essex where it's hard to be openly different, progressive, intelligent or left-wing. Use long words in the pub and you get funny looks. Walk up the High Street without slouching and you get a troop of kids in bling and track suits trailing you, doing impressions.

So ... what was my impression of Chelmsford the last few weeks? Has it changed? Yes and no, I think. Certainly it's different, mostly in the form of new developments - the centre is starting to look like a functioning town, rather than just a high street with some odd pubs scattered around. Sadly there's still a dearth of independent shops and cafes - I swear that for every £1 of investment in Chelmsford, £2 goes back out via the chain stores with their head offices and shareholders elsewhere. But there's still some hearty people putting on live music, and even a promising venue in the form of Barhouse, where I had a great night playing with other local acoustic acts and seeing friends. There's still interesting people hanging out on the fringes, which is good. I saw several foreign people while out and about in town too - not muslims, as you might stereotypically expect - which in my view is a promising sign in terms of having a cosmopolitan mix of cultures.
Overall, in general while it looks a bit different, I'm not sure the place has changed that much really.

The sad thing about Chelmsford is that a lot of interesting young people who like interesting things go to university and never come back. Then comfortable to well-off conservative couples move in because it's safe and a great place to have kids (apparently). Combine this with a large number of professionals working and partying in London, and you have very little pressure for the dynamic cultural exciting things that a large town should have. I say "should", I guess it really depends on your point of view. Also I should point out there are these kind of things going on - they're just not so many, under the surface and disconnected. You have to root around and get to know the right before to find them.

And of course, it doesn't help with people like me leaving and complaining, instead of staying and doing something about it. But sometimes tides are very tough to push against.

So there you go, a rather meandering and quite biased view of Chelmsford and Essex. I could go on and on with details of varying relevance, but a) thankfully I shan't, and b) I'd like to leave you with one of my lasting images of Essex. I was handing out anti-war flyers in early 2003 on Chelmsford High Street, and a girl no older than 10 walked past saying "I think we should bomb the cunts".

Some of you might not understand the many reasons why that moment still horrifies me so much, nor why I think it sums up a dominant streak in Essex culture. But hopefully you will.

Adventures without sleep

I'm writing to you from the transit lounge of Hong Kong Intl airport. I've got a lot of time for Hong Kong airport, which is lucky because I have to spend so much time here. I'm in the middle of my longest-ever flight - "longest-ever" purely because my stop-off is 8 hours long. Maybe it doesn't even count as one flight. But it does for me becuase I can't be bothered to leave the airport - maybe I should, but it's always a lot of hassle to leave/enter airports, especially ones you don't have a visa for.

So to recap - I got 6 hours sleep on Tuesday night, then 3 hours sleep on Wednesday night, before leaving Heathrow at 12noon on Thursday and arriving 12 hours later here at 7:00am in Hong Kong. Yes - 12 + 12 = 7. Bizarre. Thankfully though, when you fly with the world, the night is very short (unlike the 12-hour flight I made the other way to LDN last month, completely in the dark). This afternoon, I have do it all over again - a 12-hour flight departing at 3:00pm arrives in Auckland at 7:00am - and yet somehow I'm feeling roughly okay. I'm still feeling pretty rough though as well.

Back to HKG. It's hard to compare it to Heathrow when I've never come in or gone out of Hong Kong, but the transit and depature gates area is quite nice - a looooong central channel, splitting into 2 at both ends, with all the gates next to each other, together. There's racks and racks and racks of seats so you'll never be made to stand, and there's FREE WI-FI, confirming it as a proper airport (I'm looking at you Auckland!). Heathrow has free wi-fi, but then again Heathrow a horrible mess of grey on the outside and a horrible mess of shops, crap and confusing layout on the inside. And I didn't even have to go via Terminal 5 - a lady next to me flying all the way from Newcastle to Sydney is probably 16,000 miles away from her luggage right now. (I've just noticed the Wikipedia article for Terminal 5 has no reference whatsoever to the debacle of its opening in 2008 where several hundred thousand items of luggage were delayed by months or have never been receovered.)

So, in terms of my favourite airports, or maybe make that leastunfavourite (a new word I declare!), Hong Kong is up there with Wellington's charming and practical small airport and Rarotonga's wonderful "is this really an airport?" collection of palm trees and outdoor benches.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Currency

Normally the rate of British pounds (GBP) to NZ dollars (NZD) is between $2.5 and $3 for every £1. So consider my horror when I recently checked the rate and saw it's about $2.1 or $2.2. I don't have riches and I don't make my living playing the finance markets, but it still affects my money.

However, I've found one silver lining. I'll be ordering a test copy of my new book soon, and in the next month ordering a bunch for the launch at the Pit Bar (Bats Theatre, Wellington) on 2nd December. Buying these in dollars suddenly makes them that little bit more profitable. Huzzah.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Moving TV/radio

I saw and heard a couple of things on TV/radio this week which moved me. I'm not usually squeamish or sentimental, but for whatever reason I found these accounts very sad and quite chilling.

Last night was the The Force, a TV documentary of a real murder case from start (discovering a burnt, unidentifiable body in a suitcase in the countryside) right through to its end. The whole account is tragic, right from the start where they can't even identify the body. But towards the end, they show the killer on CCTV carrying a large suitcase up to his flat with one hand, light as a feather; then straight afterwards, it shows him dragging it out along the ground, clearly holding something very heavy. Very few films or programs have made me feel so cold.

Earlier in the day, I listened to Michael Buerk's program The Choice, starting a new series on BBC Radio 4. This interviewee was Stuart Howarth, a man who was abused as a child by his stepfather in lots of horrible ways I won't mention here. It was strange and yet very human hearing the man's obvious love and adoration for the father figure he remembered despite the terrible nature of abuse. But what I found most interesting was his reaction to his mother, after his stepfather had been sent to prison, finally revealing that he wasn't Stuart's real father at all: "I hated her". It seemed very strange to hear how a man could love his abuser so strongly and yet hate his mother for something which seemed comparatively irrelevant.

Not the most uplifting blog post I know, sorry if I've darkened your day somewhat. But I think it's good and right that these kind of programs are on and out there. They remind us that bad things really do happen, in a way that doesn't glamorise or trivialise the mundane and human side of these events.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Yes, it is an outrage

AUTOTUNE. You probably know it from wonderful fellows like T-Pain who use it to sing like a robot. But autotune has been around for ages helping pop stars sound plastic and inhumanly glossy.

In my last band we found it useful for ironing out some glitches - basically, we weren't pro singers and you want to make a nice recording. Our producer would draw a tiny line on a graph just in the little bits where our voice had done something funny.

But I was fervently against the use of it all the time. Relying on it like some kind of crutch! Especially the true EVIL of automatic autotune - letting the computer automatically work out what note you wanted, which would barbarically destroy the individual nature of your vocals. It's an outrage against music and creativity!

Except now I have found it's very helpful for my album. So now it's less THE DEVIL ITSELF, and more kind of my friend.

I've been peeking around at the draft files for my forthcoming 10-track acoustic-rock album, and the good news is there's a lot of promising stuff laid down already. And since I'm recording with extremely limited equipment - my laptop's in-built webcam microphone! - I'm quite happy to use anything I can to make it sound nicer. And this includes autotune, particularly on backing vocals. Say for instance I've got 4 tracks of vocals that all have single-note "ah"s - I can just group them together, add autotune, and click the box that says "automatic pitch correction". And the backing vocals all come out neat and tidy!

I'm a philistine aren't I?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Tories wetting themselves

David Cameron had a big speech today where, as usual, he tried desperately to be his hero Tony Blair. For all that Cameron criticises Blair, he acts like him and appears tragically jealous of the genuine (if a bit weird) adoration Blair inspired.

Cameron made his big pitch on a personal basis rather than policies, which gives a fair indication that the Tories don't actually have any. It's fair to say that Labour have run out of steam and run out of ideas, but at least they had some in the first place.

There was a moment of shocked indignation where Cameron rightly pointed out that Labour have not helped the worst-off as much as they should, but wrongly claimed that it was "left to the Tories to help the nation's poor". Cue the entire Conservative Party wetting themselves like over-excited puppies with excitement that people might think they, the right-wing party of right-wing British politics, are on the side of the Average Ordinary Common Man In The Street. Yes Labour have alienated ordinary middle and working class people as well as the rich, but it's mostly on an emotional level about things like red tape and Political Correctness Gone Mad - things which are equally a result of the state, not just the government of the day.

The worst part was finding out that William Bloody Hague is likely to be our next Foreign Minister. WBH was the first leader of the Conservative Party after 1997 and took the party dramatically to the right, appealling to xenophobes and racists when they made Europe and immigration their top priorities. Foreign Ministers have to TALK to other countries about stuff! WBH doesn't even LIKE other countries!

The sad icing on the cake was hearing a clip of The Killers playing as Cameron got up on stage. Massive Attack made a public statement in 2000 after the Conservatives used their music without permission, saying "Massive Attack have not and will never support the Conservative party or their policies". I know the Conservatives are likely to win the next UK election, and that The Killers are not overtly political themselves and not British (they may not know the Tories' policies, or the policy-shaped hole where there should be some), but I like The Killers and I do not like the Conservatives. So this made me sad.

The Flight

I've been back in the UK more than a week now but still wanted to tell you about the flight from NZ. This is the third time I've done a 28-hour flight, and it was probably the least worst one. I flew with Cathay Pacific stopping off in Hong Kong, and was pleasantly surprised to find the entertainment gear had been upgraded since my flight out to NZ last year - you can select movies and pause them and just watch/listen to stuff when you want. It doesn't sound exactly space age, but it's better than having to wait for that film to come round again to catch the 10-minute bit you missed the first time round. I saw several films which weren't that amazing but certainly enjoyable - I recommend Monsters Versus Aliens, a highly enjoyable film with a great turn by Hugh Laurie as a cockroach-man-scientist (doing his normal English voice!). I was also very impressed by Cathay Pacific having the Manic Street Preachers album Journal For Plague Lovers on the music list!

Then again, all the distractions in the world can't help the fact it's two 12-hour flights, one after the other. It's bad enough being underslept and not knowing what day it is, but when you find yourself saying "wow only 3 hours to go", that shows how horrible it gets.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Clarification - Tarantino

Re: my previous post, just wanted to clarify that I actually like Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 very much, together they make a great double-film with an excellent story that explores lots of themes along the way. I even enjoyed some of the more obvious "references", such as they cartoon-sequence of the girl slaying her master in Vol.1. The film is almost a cartoon anyway and it really added an extra dimension to the movie.
The kind of thing I was talking about are the grossly-extended fight scenes that go on forever, such as the House of the Blue Leaves scene where she kills about a thousand zillion bad guys without a scratch, inbetween killing several bigger bad guys like bosses in an arcade game. I can't tell whether Tarantino is being serious with these or taking the piss, but a) it's a reference lost on people like me, and b) I was bored either way.

Writing a trilogy #2

Let's talk about references!

There are lots of references in my trilogy - some are accidental, some are deliberate, and a few are highly deliberate. A very select few people in the world who might guess one or two references might work out one of the major twists in the story. However, I have a firm policy on references not being the core part of the story - many many times, directors and writers use this excuse of "homage" to create work that is either copied or boring or both. The biggest example that comes to mind is Tarantino, who seems to stitch together entire films out of references to parts of popular culture and sub-culture that many people have missed (e.g. large parts of Kill Bill). If the fun of insiders understanding a particular reference is the only thing of credit in a book or film, then ordinary outsider readers/viewers will find get bored and won't be able to connect with it.

I've worked hard to make sure references in this trilogy are simply fun additions, icing on the cake etc. Most in this trilogy take the form of anagrams and throwaway jokes from sitcoms or comedy books - I'll admit to a strong love of Red Dwarf and Terry Pratchett, both of which who I grew up with. Or sometimes the references are simply in larger, broader themes; just as my sci-fi book Devolution takes the war on terror (T.W.A.T.) as an important theme, this trilogy refers to political and cultural ideas in Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and other classic dystopias which are brilliant and ask questions that remain valid decades after they were written.

But still, they are just sideshows to the story and the plot and the action that drives it all. This story, its concept and ideas/combination of ideas are mine, and likewise it's essential for any author who wants to build a career or an identity as a creative person to create work that is individual to them.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Gig

This is kind of another test- I'm seeing if I can attach a picture with a mobile blog post. My camera phone is actually terrible but if you can see three guys sitting down, that's my mates The Library Suits! Just an acoustic set, I'm on next :)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Writing a trilogy #1

I've just finished writing my new book which is coming out in December - it's called "No Never", as you might know, and it's the third part in a trilogy. So I thought I'd write a little bit how and why I've been writing this set of books and what writing a trilogy involves in general.

I started writing this trilogy about 18 months ago in March 2008. Just a little back story - my band F451 had finished a few months before, and I had some vague plans, but I definitely lacked purpose. It was on a train journey from Slovakia to Poland, via every snow-covered hill and village (yes, even Zywiec), that I had an idea solid enough to start creating an entire trilogy from.

I started writing the trilogy like I write all books - with the end first, and maybe the start too. Some authors wax lyrically about how they just "let the story flow", how they're just guiding for the characters and don't really know where the book will end up. Excuse me, but this is mostly claptrap. Yes, it's important to give your characters flexibility and let things like conversations and connections develop naturally. But any published writer who doesn't know how their story ends either a) is lucky to end up with an exciting read or b) has written a godawful boring story filled with dozens of pages of characters having everyday thoughts and doing everyday things. And believe me, there are lots of these books around.

That said, I have a personal taste for starting with the end - my favourite films include Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, and I've definitely been inspired the last couple of years by Iain M. Banks' sci-fi books. These all have stories with a big plot twist right at the end, which almost demands that you go back and read it or see it again. This "watch/read-again" tactic isn't just satisfying from a creative point of view - it also increases the dedication of fans who appreciate skilful craftsmanship, and doubles the reader's value for money. They can read the same book all over again and get a completely different experience from it, watching out for cleverly-laid hints and ambiguities that had them fooled the first time round.

Talking of tactics, I must admit, straight up, it really is technically only one book. One main reason for splitting it into three small books was getting the extra coverage (and maybe a bit more cash). Imagine if it was one book - author spends 12-18 months slogging his guts out to write one big book, everyone looks and says "meh", then forgets. This way, I've brought out 3 books in one 12-month period - people say "meh" at first, but then they say "meh?", then they say "meh, I've heard of him twice now, let's have a look at this book". Furthermore, publishing each chapter for free every week after release gives me a chance to keep shouting about it.

Actually, if we're doing confessions, here's another one: I really started with the title. I just had a single word phrase in my head, "noupnoliesnonever" - I thought it could be a futuristic thriller or something a little bit cheesy. But this merged with ideas I already had for a story, and it turned out to be the 1 in every 100 ideas you have that works and becomes something you can run with. True, I've had to work hard with this 3rd book to fit the title "No Never", but a) it's a trilogy, 2/3 ain't bad, and b) it sounds COOL. Which is sometimes way more important.