The Brief 2016 Beat-Down: or, Blowing Up the Death Star and Blasting On to a Better Year, Yeah?

We need to blow this thing up and fly on.

Yes, indeed. In my mind – a mind that seems to comprehend everything through Star Wars analogies – 2016 is the Death Star and so I’ve come back at the climax to fire some farewell shots to set-up the spectacular finale where we destroy the big gloomy grey sphere o’doom and swoop off into a starry future full of hope. (Woohoo!)

So here we are primed for the finale and here I am, back out of nowhere (Hyperspace) after going missing for a while. (Sorry about that. I’ve been busy, y’know?) I’m Han Solo/James Clayton, it’s the end of the year and we’ve all had enough of 2016 so let’s be done with it and get on with 2017. In (very) brief, here’s my beat-down of the year that’s been this year, and the year that hasn’t been this year. (I really liked the year that wasn’t. Can we go back and have that instead?) After a cursory glance over some photos, I reckon that this is the image that encapsulates 2016 best…

Ruins, rumination...

Ruins, rumination…

Yeah, I’m feeling that (and as a big believer in ‘Show, don’t tell‘, I won’t write an essay explaining why this particular photo of me moping in Pompeii is the perfect summary of 2016). In total, 2016 has been, erm, ‘interesting’. To paraphrase the lady who works in the Asda down the road and who’s convinced that she’s the re-incarnation of Charles Dickens: “It were, like, sometimes like the best a’times, weren’t it? But then it were like, y’know, the vurry worst, in’tit y’know?

She’s right (about 2016, not about being the re-incarnation of Charles Dickens) but because I’m sick of dwelling on the dark, depressing, disappointing and just-too-damn-deathly I’m going to focus on the fun bits. Thus, [INSERT YOUR OWN END OF YEAR ROUND-UP OF POLITICAL AFFAIRS AND CELEBRITY OBITUARIES, ‘CAUSE I CAN’T DO THAT CRAP ANY MORE AND I HAVE NO DESIRE TO NOW… *single tear*]

First up, the personal stuff: over the course of 2016 I’ve taught a lot of English lessons, doodled many doodles, had a number of adventures and misadventures, geeked out on some great culture and not written as much as I’d have liked to. I’ve shared good times and bad times and rad times with ace old friends and excellent new friends. Lots of learning. Lots of experiences. Lots of stuff that is worth talking about, reflecting on and sharing with people. In total, I guess that means that the year can’t just be dismissed as a bad one to write out of the history books.

I’ve been places this year (geographically, I mean). I returned to Milan at the beginning of the year and enjoyed it afresh for a couple of months. Moreover, I explored Italy further this year and highlights include falling in love with all the creatures in Genoa’s aquarium (awww, the manatees!) and with Naples and its surrounding historical wonders (see photo above).

Later on I had a fantastical time in Prague with my bro, my dad, the Golem and Franz Kafka’s nightmares. Moving on to summer school work, the Surrey countryside and weekends hanging around in London were lovely and then I got to autumn when I completely upped sticks and moved to live and work in Bologna. Bologna is beautiful and now, at the end of the year, I find myself in Italy again – teaching at a superb language school and based in a city that, in so many ways, is brilliant. I’ll write at length about Bologna in the future. (Yes I will. I promise.)

As for cultural stuff, shout out to all the art galleries and museums I’ve popped into this year; thanks for blowing my mind. Shout out and thanks as well to Welcome to Night Vale (now 100 episodes weird!) and the Bruce Lee Podcast for stretching my mind and accompanying me on all these long walks I keep on taking. (Why? Because Bruce Lee once said: “Walk on…“) Musically, this year my favourite fresh things have been Babymetal, Weezer’s White Album and Square Hammer by Ghost (which I believe is one of the greatest rock songs of all time, for the record).

The vast majority of new movies I’ve managed to see have been terrific and my top five flicks of 2016 would be: Kubo and the Two Strings; Captain America: Civil War; Tale of Tales; The Revenant; and, of course, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It always comes back to Star Wars, and that brings me back to blowing up the Death Star and hurtling on into 2017. Right now – with a slightly fatalistic head on – as I face up to Reality and the challenges ahead I feel that my spirit animal is a bizarre amalgamation of all the lead Rebels in Rogue One. (In other words, in my mind I’m running around a cruel and ruined galaxy, fighting for impossible causes and I know I’m going to die but I know that I am one with the Force and the Force is with me and it’s all fantastically cinematic so I don’t give a crap.)

More optimistically, I’m psyched for 2017. I’m resolved to do even better and have some fun. I’ve got fresh inspiration and motivation to create things and I’ll be blasting ’em out as a work ’em out. (Yes I will. I promise.) I’ve got a very, very long New Year’s Resolution list but I won’t bore you with that. Ultimately, it’s all about positive energy and enthusiasm, essential humanity, creative action and love. It doesn’t matter if that sounds simplistic and vague – love is easy and it’s blatantly clear to me that, after 2016, we need to go forward with more love.

Let’s go do that then. Now I’m going to blow up a Death Star ’cause it was just too doomy and hug a Wookiee. So long, 2016. Here’s to 2017…

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Write Time, Wrong Energies or: Why I’m Running Away from Depressing Politics and Going to Play in Alternate Realities with a Zebra-Technoshaman and Other Possibly Fictional Friends…

Hey! Hey hey! It’s been quiet around here. Too quiet. Then again, sometimes quiet is good. In the quiet you can hear things that you rarely ever perceive: the flap of moth wings; the secret song of the solar winds; the prolonged death howls of Hope as the Heartless Heptagon Clan slowly destroy her in their tantric torture chambers far away beneath the cold, further canyons of Forever. Y’know: all the cult sounds you’d stick in the ‘Ultimate Me-Time Moop-A-Doop Mixtape Vol. 3’ playlist if they were on Spotify.

Me? In the quiet I can hear my mind working (or, indeed, not working) and lately it’s been running hot. It’s been raging and raring to write stuff, but not much stuff has been written and shared on the interwebs in recent months (in stark contrast to past times where I’d be pumping stuff out every single day and then some). I can tell you why, though, and I have good – well, reasonable enough – reasons.

First, in practical terms, travel and intensive work spells aren’t necessarily conducive to writing productivity. You can always make time to write but I poured my energies into enjoying my travels and summer school teaching as priorities when those things were going on. (Some writing still happened though. For instance, while at summer school I wrote a fantastical role-play experience/social experiment/intellectual ordeal for twenty students. It had them journeying around London (without physically leaving the classroom), solving a series of puzzles and – at the climax – looking for secret instructions in Iron Maiden lyrics then defeating the Devil himself in the Tower of London to reclaim a stolen diary that could potentially start World War III/upset several lovestruck teenage boys. It was a lot of fun.)

Energy is a key word, and it brings me to the second and main reason why there’s been a lack of writing action. That reason: the energies were all wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The Zebra-Technoshaman just stuck its head out of the monitor and confirmed that, yes and truly, the energies were all wrong so take that as a verified fact.

(Note: I had a moment of doubt there because when the Zebra-Technoshaman surfaced it said “Right!” to which I replied “Right? No, wrong! The energies were wrong!” Zebra-Technoshaman then whistled and said “Oh, no friend, I meant “You’re right to say the energies were all wrong! I was agreeing with you! Definitely yes, the energies were wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” I smiled and winked at it, “Got you, friend! Thanks for confirming my belief!” and then it whistled, grinned with all its eyes, pixellated and dissolved. The path to true understanding is plain if you persevere through the sometimes confusing speech of the Zebro-Technoshaman. I mean, it doesn’t help that the thing has fifty-five tongues.)

The energies were wrong because my thoughts were bent towards – and itching to write about – politics and current affairs. Oh, did you hear that? That was the sound of Hope screaming “AWWW NO! JUST DON’T GO THERE!” and punctuating it with the most obscene oaths that the Universe has ever known. The Heartless Heptagons were so surprised they stopped torturing her for precisely six seconds before returning to their tantric torturecraft (Phase 48,231: Christmas Tinsel-Clad Caterpillars in All-Remaining Orifices).

*agrees and refuses to accept this 'reality'...*

*agrees and refuses to accept this ‘reality’…*

Politics is a bad place to go. Politics has been even more unbearably potent (pungent?) of late and it’s causing me much dismay and despair. “The political is personal” and I take things very personally. Sometimes I take things very, very personally on behalf of myself and other people when grotesque political abominations occur. In the midst of a constant churn of bad stuff (wars, human rights abuses, corporate evils, institutionalised and ingrained -isms of various flavours, Donald Trump), Brexit is like a cluster-bomb of grotesque political abominations all rolled into one. It’s proving to be a giant, possibly bottomless can of radon-worms and the toxic fallout is terrifying. It’s everywhere and I’ve been trying to grapple with it (on top of most of the other stuff happening in the wider world) for the past few months.

I recommend writing as a cathartic exercise but in the case of political crises I find that other methods are more soothing and possibly more effective. For example, I feel better after shouting at TV screens for a few minutes or after rudely gesturing at a garage in my neighbourhood that’s been stencil-stamped with the word ‘BREXIT’. (Appropriately labelled because, like Brexit, we don’t know what the thing actually contains if anything at all. I’m guessing some second-rate powertools, a broken hoover and a fridge freezer full of white bread, crinkly chips and swan corpses). I would not feel better (and I wouldn’t have felt better) if I’d spent ages hammering a keyboard and pushing political posts out onto my small corner of the internet. And those who occasionally pass by my small corner of the internet wouldn’t feel better either.

I’m aware that when I write about what’s conventionally figured as ‘reality’, I tend to melt into a mess of emotions and earnest incredulity. I lose any sense of Zen flow and, in a state of apoplexy, end up soapboxing (and soapboxing shadows or, indeed, myself). I get angry and upset and any words I summon up – for what they’re worth – are irrelevant because I have no control or influence on political affairs. (I’m not an eminent journalist, public persona, expert, community leader or saviour of the human race. I’m just another human being armed with a laptop and opinions.) They’re even more irrelevant because things have been moving so fast in UK politics. They’re also even more irrelevant because I know that, if anyone does read my angsty essays/exorcisms they’re probably Facebook friends or Twitter followers and of a like mind. I don’t want to preach, and if I am preaching there’s little point in preaching to the converted. (No, I’m not going kickstart the ‘Utopian Space Missionary Plan’ yet. That project is pencilled in for 2265 and depends on certain technological advancements. I’ll let you know.)

In conclusion – because writing about politics is making me feel nauseous – I haven’t been writing about the stuff on my mind because the stuff on my mind shouldn’t be written about by me. Every blogpost would be a spluttering gloopshoot that could be summarised like so: “What the hell is wrong with people?! I don’t understand?! Why can’t people just be compassionate and level-headed! Look at what this Guardian article says! Here are some more Guardian articles written by people who can articulate and encapsulate everything far better than I can. I recommend you read them and, in the meantime, gah! What the hell?!” And all the while I’ll be looking like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, except I’m eyeballing what’s left of Big Ben and all the apes have been shot and turned into internet memes in order to promote that rare sensation, ‘Empathy’. Awww, damn you. Damn you all to hell.

Wretched hive of scum and villainy...

The author, in a wretched hive of scum and villainy…

Over the past few months I’ve also thought about getting back on the blog-trail to write about an array of other things but, yeah, that wouldn’t be a good idea either. (I can hear Hope screeching in horror again at the mere mention of it.) Mood whiplash and dissonance are likelihoods. (“This week I watched a fun blockbuster flick, read a vintage Japanese novel about morality, found a crumpet that’d turned into a mould-demon in the bread bin and here’s a link to a very upsetting photo-essay from the streets of Aleppo.“) Furthermore, what would be the point? Personal blogging is dead (possibly in the freezer next to the swan corpses) and Twitter now covers those ‘I’ll give the internet a piece of my mind!’ urges in real-time with emojis and easily-searchable hashtags. (Note: specialised blogging – like travel blogging, food and cookery blogging and Utopian Space Missionary Plan blogging – isn’t dead.)

I’m alienated from Twitter and I’d alienate myself and everyone else if I went on further self-indulgent, narcissistic rambles through my imminent reality for very little purpose. I like creating annotated photo albums on Facebook to keep track of what I’ve done and where I’ve been and to share with people who I actually know, in case they’re interested. That’s more than enough for me (and for everyone else), thanks, and I’d rather devote my energies to sharing in private conversations (ideally face-to-face, though videocalling and messaging will do) or actually living life rather than chronicling life (the sublime and the asinine) in excessive detail on a blog for the benefit of very few people. That’s one of the reasons I backed away from Twitter and that’s why I haven’t followed up those impulses to express myself in personal blogging.

So, where does that leave me with regards to writing? Well, I’ve re-realised that what I really, really like doing is writing about things that are not ‘reality’. Having had my head stuck in ‘real world affairs’ too much this year, I’ve remembered that fiction is where the fun and, indeed, the truth is. (Even more so in this era of ‘Post-Truth Politics’.) This is where my energies should be, and I’m channelling those creative energies towards fantasy, alternate realities and other worlds formed in my imagination. And also, possibly, the Utopian Space Missionary Plan because that’s just speculative fiction at the present moment.

Whether any of it ends up on the internet (on this site or another) remains a mystery. Tomorrow I’m moving away to Italy on a longer-term basis and the practicalities of pumping my creative action into cyberspace are heavily dependent on how I settle in to a new work schedule and, indeed, settle in to a new home. Regardless, though, I will be writing at least a little stuff and I can guarantee that it will be powered by the right energies and of a fictional nature. It may be that no one else sees any of it but, hey, it’s writing all the same and I’m having fun if I’m writing. I will also, of course, be doodling in my free time and you can continue to see my sketches on Instagram, on the Jamazing Things Facebook page or on this Tumblr blog if you want to see my miniature doodles in close-up.

And now my energies are directing me towards packing some bags. And the Zebra-Technoshaman coalesced into neon-stripey coherency and whistled me towards the righteous and sensible path. Aww, Zebra-Technoshaman my friend: we’re so on the same wavelength. Until next time or whatever, keep your head up above that which would drag you down and drown you and take care. Thanks for reading, and be excellent.

Referendoom: There is no Great Britain, there is only great grief…

This blogpost was originally typed up on my Tumblr blog which is where I’ve been publishing my writing, recently. Still, I’ll re-post it here ’cause this is quite important…

Boh?!

That’s a good word. It’s an Italian expression that doesn’t translate easily. It basically means “I don’t know. How the hell am I supposed to know?! Who could possibly know?!” and it carries with it an extra sense of confusion and bewilderment.

It’s a good word for these dark days and it’s a suitable response for many of the questions that I’m asking, that are being asked of me and that all of us are asking or trying to respond to.

The other appropriate word – an English word – is “fuck”. I’m getting a lot of mileage (nay, kilometre-age) out of that and its infinite derived variations. So are my family and many of my friends. It’s doing a pretty good job at covering a whole host of confusing emotions while suitably summing up the situation(s). Beyond those words, however, I’m often struggling. Lots of words are being said and written but as I continue to hear and read these words (reading with blurry and sometimes weepy eyes) I find myself even more unable to articulate myself.

How are you, James?” “What’s happening?” … boh?

I’ve been in shock. I’m in a state of acute anxiety. I am despairing and feeling either very angry or very sad. Some time has passed since Friday morning but I’m still a bit of a mess and I keep on finding myself stuck, just stood still and and staring into space (the Abyss?). Or I try to sit comfortably, but this mind on overdrive can’t relax and I have the restless sensation of invisible insects crawling just beneath my skin.

Aside from those Psychosomatic Anxiety Bugs, my body feels hollow and a heavy, foggy weariness weighs down the space behind my eyes. But it’s difficult to find the right words, even after several days of going through this. Erm… boh?

I recognise these physical symptoms and feelings as grief, but this time the grief is greater and goes beyond the personal kinds of grief I’ve experienced before. This is more than a loved one dying, a relationship ending or a medical event happening. For a start, you can get over and recover from those most of the time. This, however, is a national catastrophe that affects all of us Brits, and all of Europe and, in fact the entire world in more ways than we can easily comprehend.

I feel like I need to reach out to others – kindred spirits, like-minds, fellow victims, the demonised and vulnerable, potential comrades in a resistance – but the words are failing me. I want to call people up or send messages to a whole host of friends (from the UK and from the EU) and ask them if they’re okay, ask them what they think and offer them my support, my sympathy or my apologies. I’m unable to do these things, though. I end up in a total-body equivalent of lockjaw and I have nothing to say. It’s all choking, freezing, moping or crying. *sighs*… Boh?

So I go out and take walks when I’m not watching the news or scrolling through liveblogs, to pound pavements and trudge a trail of tears. The past few days I’ve been walking around my neighbourhood and Manchester city centre, partly to try and shake myself out of this unfunkiest of funks.

I’ve also been going out to test reality and confirm that this little part of the World I know is still there and functioning. It appears to be, but I know that things have changed and are changing. In the city centre I hear foreign voices and see stickers boasting ‘this thing was partially funded by EU development funds” and I mourn even more for the lost future in which these things will most likely be less prominent. Parliament seemed calm when MPs recovened, but the House of Commons isn’t a picture of the entire national actuality. (And there’s a lot of politicking, party in-fighting and coups going on in Westminster behind closer doors/vivarium ventilators.)

Out there in ‘reality’, I eyeball people’s faces and want to ask them, “Are you feeling it too?”, “Did you by any chance vote Leave?” or “How? What? Why, oh, why, why, why?” but I can’t summon it all up. I avert my gaze to either the sky, the moors or buildings. I look at my little world around me – a world that felt so familiar – and wistfully rue the fact that it’s either got no future, that it’s changing out of recognition or that it’s not the home that I thought it was. Or perhaps both. Boh?!

There’s a lot (too much) to process, and major media outlets are processing it all (at least, the ones interested in reporting and deconstructing current affairs rather than spreading vicious lies and mistruths are). I’ll leave the working out of the political, economic and socio-cultural ramifications to them while I’m feeling a bit inarticulate and am gagging on incredulity. Instead, I’m going to try and type up what the UK’s exit from the EU means to me personally. As I say, it’s far beyond personal but I’m taking it personally. Very personally. This thing hurts a lot, and when you’re hurting you try and work out why. (Unless you’re the kind of person who blames all perceived problems on immigrants.)

How does Brexit (a hideous word that sounds like a brand of conjunctivitis medicine) affect me? I like foreign cuisine and I like travelling around the EU, so it’ll inevitably hit my wallet but I don’t care that much about money. More crucially, as a teacher of English as foreign language my work will be affected. Without freedom of movement, instant right-to-work, free healthcare and so on I anticipate a lot of hassle with visas and suchlike in years to come if I wish to work within the EU as I do (and employers sometimes specify that they can only hire EU citizens to avoid extra bureaucracy and costs).

If I work in the UK, on the other hand, I anticipate a possible decline in students due to lower migrant numbers and a decline in goodwill. Why would foreigners want to come and work and study in a country that has, in effect, turned its back on them and suggested it’s only interested in itself? I teach the ‘international language’ and have nice notions of it being a tool to transcend boundaries. Now, however, the source of this language is putting up fences and behaving in appalling, antisocial fashion.

Ruminating on it all, I realise that a lot of this heartbreak and heartache comes down to ideology and identity. The truth is that I’ve spent decades dealing with my Britishness and it took a long time to get to the point where I was comfortable with (and in fact, proud of) my home nation.

I accept that identity is a fluid thing and that, ultimately, we’re all human Earthlings. From a cosmic perspective, those arbitrary categories don’t matter so much. Even so, there are certain elements in the ‘Who I Am’ brew that I figured are somewhat essential and that I’m quite attached to. As far as ethnicity goes, I understand myself as a Northerner, as English, as British, as part-Italian (thanks to exposure, love and personality quirks) and all of these different identities exist simultaneously and at peace with one another.

Post-referendum, though, they’re fragmenting and fading away. Psychologically, the Leave vote distances me from my ‘more European’ traits and from Italy – a spiritual home of great friends and second families who’ve adopted me as one if their own. Brexit not only drives a wedge between us, but it emphatically insults my loved ones and an entire continent of good people while simultaneously demonising them.

As a British person – by birth and by current residency – I’m tethered to that. I fear that all of us are going to be tarred with the same brush (’guilt by association’) and and dragged down by a strange new stigma on a worldwide stage. Saying “Not all Brits” won’t cut it. And why would I want to be English and British, anyway? Right now – after a spell of summoning up something resembling national pride – I have zero interest in being English or British and that’s a pretty significant identity crisis.

As an English teacher I’ve travelled around telling a whole host of foreigners just how brilliant all the countries of the UK are. I’ve hailed our cosmopolitan society, our tremendous history, a past and present full of scientific and cultural innovation, our marvellous idiosyncracies, our quirky customs and the beautiful sights that make these islands so remarkable. Even though I’m relatively atypical as a Brit in many ways, I do my best to act as a good representative of my homeland.

Now I can’t do that. I couldn’t push my specially-prepared PowerPoint presentation on the wonders of the UK on anyone if you asked me to. Honestly, if someone asked me to tell them about the UK right now I wouldn’t be able to enthusiastically gush about the BBC, Shakespeare, tea, curry houses, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the NHS, porridge, Snowdonia, tolerance and diversity, or the many accents and dialects spoken by a nation of reet good people (etc., etc.). I’d respond “Fuck the UK”, and it really hurts to say that. And it really hurts all the more when you know that all those good things have been either overshadowed by or destroyed by this Brexit ominishambles which is the end result of a Tory government determined to completely crush the people of this country beneath a sick, misguided austerity regime.

This isn’t the country that I’d grown to love – a process that, in earnest, really started during the 2012 London Olympics. I’d got to the point where I could cheer on the England football team with considerable gusto, but now it’s all gone. (Rock on, Iceland.) I’m witnessing stuff that I’d complacently assumed I’d never see in my own back yard, like the racist incident that took place on a tram on Market Street, Manchester yesterday. (The main shopping street of my city – a cosmopolitan, modern city famed for its diversity, three international universities, its gay quarter, its two football teams replete with talent from all over the globe and its socialist heritage. This city once stood in solidarity with the black slave populations of America, cotton mill workers sacrificing their own work in order to support oppressed foreign minorities.)

If this is England and if this is the United Kingdom of 2016 and beyond, then I’m out of here and I’ll do my ‘Byronic èmigrè’ thing for eternity (I’m already working out my way out for the autumn, and I hope that I can secure EU citizenship in the future when the UK does eventually leave.)

I’m ashamed to be British again, though this time it’s not because of hooligans or because of the lingering guilt of Empire and colonialism. This debacle, for Britain and possibly for the wider world, may well be the biggest disaster of the century (potentially, epoch). I find myself ideologically opposed to the prevailing mood and position of my country – as an outward-looking humanitarian who believes in co-operation across borders, communication and friendship.

As a humanitarian and an idealist I also believe that people are fundamentally good and considerate – that they are compassionate and that common sense, open-heartedness and an inclination towards collective progress and social inclusivity triumph. Every UK election proves me wrong and forces me to question my faith whilst demonstrating that human beings are pathologically destructive and doomed to self-sabotage. This is, therefore, a crisis of faith and a crisis of identity and that’s why I’m hurting so much.

I can regain that faith in humanity, but I can’t recoup my faith in Britain if Brexit occurs (it might not, and I’m basking in every ray of hope that it may not be formally passed through). As it is, I’m a human with a broken heart who finds themselves without a country and I know that I’m not alone in feeling like this.

I will continue to go through the motions in this cycle of grief, processing the trauma while searching for my own progressive way forward in a changed World (truth: it’s taken me four days to type this mess up. Yeah, those words don’t come easily). What I do know is that I will never accept the loss and that I reject Brexit wholeheartedly. As for what else I know? Ah fuck. Boh?!

Winter of Post-Discontent, or: How I Learned to Stop Griping and Just Chill with the Killer Chill…

IMG_0704

Into the winter wonderland woods…

Oh, snow way! Yes way. Everything went white and the temperature turned subzero. Winter came and my neighbourhood transformed into something resembling Narnia or an Ice King freakout. It’s really, really cold. Even prior to the snowfall it’d been nippy and, to be honest, pretty glum weather-wise most of the time (you probably know what they say about rain and Manchester). It’s winter, so all the green things are dead and now all those dead plants are symbolically buried beneath several inches of snow.

I tend to associate winter with death. I’m a summer sun child, somewhat afflicted by SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and I’m uncomfortable if the temperature dips below 15°c. I’m charged by solar energy and I feel best when I’m wearing only one layer of clothing. My natural temperament is entirely at odds with the winter and, to put it simply, winter kind of kills my buzz. (And in the UK, if winter takes up roughly 2/3rds of the year, then I’m at odds with the season most of the time when I’m here.)

Thus, musing on death happens more often in the bleak midwinter. All the trees are dead. All the flowers are dead. By 4.30pm daylight is dead. All my summer spirit is dead (or, at least, it’s ebbed away). And what’s more, in the real world, great famous people keep on dying and the news reads as a list of obituary notices and posthumous tributes. There is much mourning. It’s dark and cold. Chilly shivers course through my marrow, and then I go to the movies to watch dark, violent films about people dying in unforgiving winter conditions (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight).

And then I take all of this death, darkness and dreariness and I dash out into the snow, slide around a bit and say to myself “Hey, you morbid drippy bitch! Smile! You’re alive and life is beautiful!” And I am smiling and I am alive and life is beautiful (it always is, in spite of it all). Good news! Somewhere along the way I seem to have found a way to co-exist with winter and reconfigure the whole experience as something that’s actually pretty cool (cool as in ‘good’ good and not ‘mildly cold’). Somehow I managed to significantly downgrade my level of SAD and I did it without resorting to indoor hibernation and death by tea, heavy metal and hot water bottle burns (my usual survival remedies for the season).

I’m not sure how this happened, and all I can conclude is that I just acquired a more enlightened and upbeat attitude. I also probably got bored of being freaking hostile to forces far beyond my control (keeping up constant bitterness and antagonism is wearying, y’know). Winter has to happen so I may as well just accept it and enjoy it as best as I can. I operate in this fashion in the summer months – soaking up as much sun as possible while others hide in the shade because I know that the heat of the moment will pass. Winter shall also pass and the cold won’t linger forever (this isn’t Narnia or Hoth). Neither will the fleeting flakes of winter magic that I’ve noticed when I’m not too busy muttering: “Damn, it’s too bloody cold!

Simple pleasures like knitwear, hot showers and steaming teapots after a day out in the cold make winter alright. I’ve also found tremendous beauty in the season this past week. Those aforementioned films showed me humans (and horses) suffering in extreme winter conditions, but they also reminded me – through film artistry and the language of cinema – just how beautiful winter can be. Winter isn’t a war on nature or on me or the pretty precious little flowers and suchlike – it’s a part of the grand cycle of life and has a wonder of its own.

(I apologise for turning into Captain Obvious here. Try and appreciate that this is written by an over-sensitive, simple soul with poor circulation and he’s only recently come out of the cave and cast off his snow-blinds. You may take this stuff for granted but, for me, it’s a psychological breakthrough and personal psychological breakthroughs deserve a “woohoo!“)

Yonder lies Manchester at the break of dawn...

Yonder lies Manchester at the break of dawn…

When I emerged from the cinema having watched The Hateful Eight this weekend, I discovered that light snow was falling. Frost had been on the ground when I entered but now little floaty motes of white were lighting up the early evening dark. It felt a bit magical, and I wandered around Manchester city centre marvelling at the sight, well-aware that I’m about to leave this place for few months. I stuck my tongue out to catch snowdrops. I idled around in neon-lit Chinatown a while, just watching snow fall on the Chinese Arch. Then I got on a train home and, arriving in my neighbourhood, found that the Saturday snow was even thicker up here.

Sunday morning it was thicker still. I woke before dawn and went out on a trek through white stuff at sunrise just to appreciate the winter wonderland that had occurred. I made my way to a vantage point and gazed across the landscape, from Winter Hill right across to the redlights atop Beetham Tower. It struck me that Greater Manchester and the moors of Lancashire in my relative backyard have never looked so beautiful to me. I felt connected to my homeland, and that was the work of winter.

Walking onward, the world woke up and I started encountering people – some walking excitable dogs, some clearing driveways and de-icing cars while kids built snowmen and played around with sledges. Little birds bounced around the frosty branches overhanging the footpaths and all the familiar roads looked so picturesque and clean coated with snow. So much for death and dreariness – there’s life, energy and pleasure in winter.

I’ve made peace with the season and had a profound moment the past week that helps me appreciate home all the more before I head off to foreign climes (and those climes aren’t much warmer than Northern England right now). I’m now going to head out for a walk in the snow and enjoy it while I still can. The moral of this winter’s tale, then? Acceptance; living in the moment; appreciation of natural magic and the beauty in all things; opening your mind and venturing outside of your comfort zones (though be sure that you have a hot shower and a cup of tea ready for the aftermath.)

Brrrrr, it’s so pretty…

There's Winter Hill in, erm, winter...

There’s Winter Hill in, erm, winter…

2015: A Brief Blast Back Through the Year Fantastical…

2015: thanks and ta-ra to the Year Fantastic…

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2015! Whoa! Yeah, that happened. Way back on New Year’s Day I doodled up a unicorn and, with a hopeful spirit, hailed 2015 as the ‘Year Fantastical’. Turns out that it lived up to that title and then some. From my perspective, it’s been a pretty damn fantastic and quite incredible year.

So much happened in 2015 and I feel like I’ve done a lot, experienced a lot and learned a lot. Come the end point where we get all reflective and retrospective (it’s customary and inevitable) I’m struck by how ‘big’ and full of stuff this year seems. I’ve got so many memories of moments streaming through my mind and from all of them flow a multitude of thoughts and feelings. Some people say that I think and feel too much (tsk and hush, you people!) but, hey, I can be no other way. Plus, thinking and feeling are what make us human beings and what make us realise that we’re alive. The alternative is living on autopilot and if you’re living on autopilot you’re probably not engaging with life and consciously appreciating it. Hey! Life! Existence! Appreciate it!

So then, here I am thinking and feeling over 2015 and appreciating it before we say ta-ra. It’s been a year in which I thought and felt a lot. I smiled a lot. I cried a lot. (It was the death of Spock, the Norwegian Eurovision entry and Inside Out) I had triumphs and I also had some disappointments, but the good stuff far outweighs the bad bits. I’ll focus on the good in this brief personal look-back, ’cause there’s no point me dwelling on the crappy and/or grave bits here. (Though I will give a shout-out to several late, great cultural icons and my all-time favourite t-shirt which is lost somewhere in Italy. *sighs* I miss ’em all.)

Off the top of my head, here are some of the things I did and experienced that made 2015 genuinely awesome (as in they inspired awe and made me go “awwww!” or “awwww yeah!“): I got a tattoo; I levelled up as an English teacher by passing a CELTA course; I got to explore Dublin and Zürich among several other culture vulture trips; I took a train ride through the Swiss Alps; I saw what’s left of the Magna Carta; I got to enjoy la dolce vita over and over in bella Italia in places familiar and new (including Verona, Padova, Venice, hitherto unexplored sections of the Liguria coast and Emilia-Romagna to name a few); I went to the opera and enjoyed that experience in Verona’s ancient Roman arena; I became a hero to a whole new set of Italian children in Milano, Torino and the countryside near Padova; I composed the summer hit single that was ‘Pineapple Hands‘ and that became a minor cult phenomenon; I gave ‘Free Hugs’ on Valentine’s Day in the world’s most beautiful shopping arcade; I witnessed Italy’s biggest food fight – the all-out insanity that is Ivrea’s Battle of the Oranges.

I like this photo as an image to encapsulate the beauty, adventure and feeling of 2015...

Yeah, this photo sort of encapsulates the feeling and adventure flowing through 2015…

Throughout, I doodled like a demon and have spent most of the year with inky fingers. I also wrote some pretty good stuff and had a lot of fun working away at various creative projects. Daredevil , WiiU videogames and hanging with my family made home downtime a good time when I wasn’t off on (mis)adventures. Otherwise – turning to ‘important stuff’ and current affairs for a second – in spite of it all, there were progressive political and social moments in 2015 that gave me hope. The same goes for technology and science (there’s water on Mars!) and, sportswise,  I’ve been enjoying the Boston Celtics’ continued upward trajectory towards contender status.

Sonically speaking, my soundtrack to 2015 was mostly Dinosaur Pile-Up and Ghost and they gave me immense live shows to experience and brilliant new albums to crank to death. As for films, there have been so many superb movies released this year but my two favourites of 2015 were Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road. They beat all the rest for spiritual reasons, sentimental reasons and because they are stand-out supreme imaginative visions and masterpieces of cinematic storytelling.

I decided to close the year in suitable style by watching The Force Awakens again and that makes me even happier as I head into the future. Having had my nice nostalgia moment I’m now going to close this self-indulgent rear-view-mirror ramble. First though, before I hurl myself heart and soul into 2016, I’d like to hail all the human beings who shared the experiences and really made 2015 something special. I had a blast with both old friends and new friends this year and I’m grateful for all the energy, the companionship, the generosity and the niceness that people have directed my way over the past twelve months. It means a lot and I truly appreciate it. High-fives, hugs and ‘awww yeah!’s to everyone.

So, that was 2015 then, and thank you 2015. I say it’s high time we hit the New Year and moved on to the fresh adventures and experiences lying ahead in 2016. Awww yeah. I’m excited…

Heart…

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Merry Christmas from Me to You, You and All of You…

Fa la la la, ha ha ha muhahahaha! ‘Tis Christmas Eve and all the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are in the aether and haunting my brethren’s beautifully decorated Christmas tree. (The Ghost of Christmas Future Perfect will have arrived by the time I finish writing this timely blogpost.) Altogether, I feel that there’s some irrational, uncanny spirit upon me and am experiencing the realisation that “Whoa! I’m in the midst of Christmas ritual!

'Tis the season! Have a cup of good cheer…

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It’s all happening: Doodling up Christmas cards; Watching Christmas movies; Rocking out in celebratory style to ebullient party metal and Christmas tunes; Going to a Nine Lessons and Carols service and having minor crises (I can’t settle on one key when I’m singing and struggle to work out how my Zen Buddhist principles fit with this Christian festival).

Tomorrow is Christmas Day and the rituals will continue: gift-giving; gift-receiving (I like socks); videogames and board games with my lovely relatives; feasting on sprouts; cleaning up all the greasy pots and cutlery that my lovely relatives have left for someone (me) to tidy up. That’s what my Christmas looks like every year and it’s always nice. I’m now going to go and enjoy that very typical and very nice Christmas, taking a conscious moment to: be with my blood-clan, be present, be (semi)relaxed and be grateful as I meditate on the good stuff amidst the bleak (erm, unseasonably mild) midwinter.

I hope that your Christmas is, likewise, lovely. If you’re finding things hard, this article on being depressed at Christmas is a good and possibly helpful read. Otherwise, take care of yourselves and each other and take the opportunity to reach out to your fellow humans and realise that, if anything, this holiday is all about reconnecting with the best of the human spirit. The best of the human spirit is within you and you’ve been working too hard, handling too much stress and you deserve a break and warm fuzzies. Yes, I’m talking to you, you and all of you. And that thing too. I have no idea what that is but I’m going to invite it in, feed it roast parsnips and dance with it.

Allora, enough! Christmas! The spirit is upon me and I’ll now spirit away. (There are greasy pots to wash and gifts to wrap in ham-fisted fashion.) All my festive best wishes, thanks for reading and have an excellent Christmas… 😀

 

Thoughts about Time: a Hot Mess and a Fluid Thing That May Not Be an Actual Thing…

I’m going to write about ‘Time’. (I am writing about ‘Time’. I have written about ‘Time’.) Time is a hot mess. It is, it always has been and it always will be.

Time perturbs me. It’s always all over the place, running around with knives and scissors screaming “I happened! I am happening! I am going to happen!” Really though? I’m not convinced. Time doesn’t know what is in itself and – for all the havoc it’s causing and attention that it’s trying grab – it may not even actually be a real thing.

I’ve been thinking about Time a lot lately, just as I think a lot about things that possibly aren’t real. Last night the clocks went back and we slipped into Greenwich Mean Time (and oh it is so mean, bringing Winter back again and why they Hell would I want Winter? What am I meant to do with Winter?). I was asleep so didn’t consciously experience the timeslip while my senses were engaged. How do I truly know that it happened then? How can I be completely sure that Europe dialled back an hour while I was in bed?

The clocks tell us that it’s a particular point in Time, but clocks can’t tell the Time themselves. Clocks are mechanical devices that lack sentience, except the clocks that are connected to advanced hyperintelligent supercomputers and that clock over there that has been possessed (the exorcism is scheduled for Wednesday). What if I approached a clock and re-adjusted it so that instead of, say, 08:34 it read 19:22? How about 11:11, 12:51 or 21:12?

I can have some fun playing with clocks (generally un-fun) and change the Time so that it’s a reference to a rock song but the changed Time wouldn’t be the accurate, genuine Time. Then again, what makes the Time right now the accurate, genuine Time? It was decided that last night Time would go back one hour and I still, in my ignorance, don’t have a solid grasp of who decided that or why. (To give people an extra in bed? So cow-farmers can see the udders they are pulling when they wake in the morning? So we have more excuses to jump into a spontaneous rendition of the Time Warp?)

Of course, Greenwich Mean Time is a human-made type of time tied into what is only one of a number of possible artificial calendars (others aside from the Western/Gregorian – like the Chinese, North Korean JucheMayan and Babylonian – are available and probably not fit for your imminent needs). All these calendars and notions of timezones and systems were created by people (or ancient gods). They are artificial installations, and that once again leads me to question the whole dubious notion of Time, however we conceive it or record it.

Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Years. So on, so on with all these human-made units designed to mark out the immense thing (non-thing?) that is (is not?) Time. Are these units just there to provide structure and systematic shape to something that is intangible and possibly unreal? Is this just another expression of our collective neurotic need to categorise and label everything? Are we clinging so hard to this possibly-fake notion because we can’t comprehend and stand the mindblowing prospect of complete chaos and absolute freedom from regulated order? Is this just an elaborate means of trying to enforce meaning onto a Universe that may in fact be meaningless?

(more…)

Devastated and Confused: Soul-Searching the Day After the Election…

No. No. No. No. And throw in a few more ‘nos’ with tears, screams and profanities. Remember yesterday? I was so full of hope and optimism. Ahead of all the ballot counts and the actual post-count reality of this morning, I genuinely thought that we’d see a new government and the death of the current Conservative regime in charge. I had an inkling that maybe lovable Ed Miliband – both real-life Aardman Animations character and a nice guy who actually cares – might become Prime Minister and that better times might be ahead. I woke up to find that not only are David Cameron and his cabal still in control, but that they have more power.

That’s awful news, but even more awful is acknowledging that the people of this country have come out in force and given this gang of smiling, smug pantomime villains the greenlight. I’m devastated – devastated as in ‘like the razing of Carthage’. I am at a complete loss. What’s more, I feel that the United Kingdom is at a complete loss. It’s a sucker punch to both mind, soul and spirit and I’m an emotional wreck. Bad news is bad news and is a daily occurrence, but this? This election result has thrown me into a black pit of depression, despair, disgust and despondency. All the deadly and disastrous Ds, and it’s all because of the deadly and disastrous D who will continue to be our Prime Minister. I can think of a few more D-words to describe him and his fellow kind.

I just don’t understand. I’m trying really hard to work out what would make someone vote for the Tories and endorse this government and I’m not getting anywhere. Keeping this business in layperson terms, I get that people are different and have differing opinions. For instance, I don’t like coffee but I understand that it’s an appealing option for some people. I like heavy metal and you might like cheesy ’90s pop and we might not like each other’s ‘thing’ but we can respect and come to comprehend our dissimilar perspectives and tastes.

Nonetheless, I can’t understand why or how anyone would vote for the Conservatives with a good conscience. Maybe in terms of policies there are things that may seem logical or sensible to these mysterious minds but, ideologically and in terms of human feeling, I can’t see how you can be a right-winger and support this party. It perplexed me when I was a naïve high school student with a mancrush on Che Guevara and it continues to perplex me even more as a more mature, more open-minded and better-informed adult over ten years later. (And I feel more far-left now, by the way, and that flies in the face of that ‘you get more right-wing as you get older’ jazz I heard over and over.)

It’s simple – if you support the Conservative Party you’re in favour of selfishness, self-interest and injustice. The needs of the many are outweighed by the needs (or agendas) of a select privileged few. If you support this current manifestation of the Tory Party you are actively opposed to care and compassion for the entire population of this country. You are opposed to equality. You are in favour of what is effectively a modern continuation of ye age olde class system and you value big business and private profit more than the public good.

How can you endorse that? In your heart, soul and conscience, how can you stick up for that and put your own X-mark seal of approval on that on a ballot paper? Plus, the policies are an ill-conceived grab-bag of measures inspired by kneejerk fear, laissez-faire recklessness, stultifying myopia and just plain mean lack of concern. The austerity programme and the cuts aren’t working and are hurting this country and its people (and this country is its people, which the government fails to recognise).

I’d like to know how you can get behind that. Please, if you did vote for the Conservative Party or are a far right-winger, reach out to me and let me know what’s in your mind and in your soul (if you still have a mind and soul, which I fear you don’t but I’ll try and accept you on your terms and engage in a conversation.)

As I say, I’m at a loss and I’m devastated. The thing that hurts the most isn’t the fact that we’ve got a Tory government for another five years, but the fact that my faith has taken such a blow. I had faith in humanity, but this election puts it in doubt. Don’t people care about the most vulnerable in society? Is the majority of the public really that indifferent, or really that lacking in compassion? Are the people of Britain really that short-sighted, bigoted, easily misled and/or self-interested?

I’m looking ahead at the next five years and I’m very scared. ‘Doomed’ is a heavy and desperate word – another D word – but unfortunately it feels apt. I’m not a great patriot but I’m proud to be English and British and my stints abroad have augmented that. This is great nation – even if the Union were to break up (and that’d be okay and it’s appalling how the ‘threat’ of a break-up has been manipulated in this election). The things that make this nation great – its intellectualism, its culture, its National Health Service, its spirit of innovation, its welfare state, its humanitarianism, and its people – are all under attack and its the government of the UK that’s attacking them. We’re now even more irrelevant and even more of an embarrassment and I can’t go abroad and speak fondly of my nation with such confidence any more – as long as David Cameron and his saboteurs are destroying all that’s good about us.

They have been treating this country like toilet paper and they’re going to continue with more vigorous aggression. I’m thinking about five more years – potentially five worse years – of this and I’m filled with dread. I’m thinking about students and would-be students priced out of education. I’m thinking about children who won’t even get a decent education because the government is screwing schools and teachers. I’m thinking about the impoverished people who’ll only get even poorer and who’ll be demonised even further. I’m thinking about the rise in numbers of folk who’ll have to rely on foodbanks or choose between eating or central heating. I’m thinking about all the people exploited by zero-hour contracts or forced to desperate measures like work in the sex trade, payday loans or gambling addictions. I’m thinking about the immigrants and asylum seekers who are going to get an even colder reception thanks to the ugly political narrative that far-right parties have been getting high on of late. I’m thinking about the public transport services in further decline and public amenities and services that are going to dwindle or be taken away altogether. I’m thinking about all the charities that are going to go under and all the people they serve who will thus receive no care or assistance. I’m thinking about all the artists and talented creative people who will never get funding or any kind of support and who won’t reach their potential. I’m thinking about all the sick people who are going to pay for the misfortune of being ill. I’m thinking of all those caught up in this massive mental health crisis who have no chance of ever getting treatment or getting anywhere near the possibility of getting better.

I’m thinking about this country not getting better and I’m thinking about all of this and so much more and it’s a major headache and it hurts. Maybe I’ll be able to see more clearly in a few days when the devastated sensation has passed and I can get beyond the confused anger, but the hurt isn’t going to disappear while these soulless crooks are in power. It feels hopeless, but we have to do what we can to opposed this and get over this. Here’s to saving Britain’s soul and here’s to the human beings of Britain. We’ve taken a beating and we’ll continue to take a beating, but here’s to hope and here’s to surviving and thriving, together, in spite of it all…

*hugs Britain and hopes we’ll be okay…*

Our country under this government… *flushes*

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Facing Up to Bleak Films and Historical Atrocities on Screen…

The Den of Geek website took a more-than-well-deserved Christmas holiday and that meant I didn’t offer up a weekly film column for a few weeks. That holiday has passed, however, and the Geek Den is now fully-operational. Thus, I’m back with my first article of 2014: a look ahead to some of the depressing films due in UK cinemas in January and February. We’re in ‘Serious & Sombre Season’ which coincides with Awards Season and that means that a lot of heavy duty, heartbreakingly bleak and weighty movies are appearing on screens. You can read the column for extra thoughts and a look forward to some interesting-albeit-unhappy-looking pictures if you like…

As an extra note, I did get to see 12 Years a Slave (one of the films on the bleak-list) the other night. I’d urge others to seek it out at the cinema if possible because I think it’s important and stands as an artwork that needs to be experienced. That experience is a very unpleasant and distressing one (though there are, erm, some beautiful shots and nice period production design details). I spent a lot of the film squirming and silently pleading “Cut! Cut! Please, no more!” but I’d argue that we need to go through these ‘ordeals’ (relatively speaking, watching upsetting films is not an ordeal) and confront brutality so we not only come to terms with actual reality but also historical fact.

I’ll restrain myself from a grandstanding soapbox moment (I am not a Master of Soap Boxing and, to be honest, I’m more interested in being a teetotal Master of Drunken Boxing). I’ll leave it at this: I’m happy (for want of a better word) that slavery as an incomprehensible historical taboo is being tackled more on film. We’ve got to face the atrocities of the past and cinema is an ideal medium by virtue of its viscerality and multi-sensory nature. Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years a Slave is even more affecting than any other movie about institutionalised inhumanity I’ve sat through because of his meditative style. What the audience is presented with is an unflinching and brutally realistic picture made up of long, passive sequences where we have no choice but to just watch and absorb the ugliness before us. We’re forced to feel the pain and endure the torment of the characters (even calling them “characters” feels glib and inappropriate). We need to experience works like this so we remember and so we can learn and develop as human beings.

I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious or soap-boxy. As I say, I recommend it and, in general, I recommend tremendously disturbing, bleak films. They’re good for your soul…

Rock ‘n’ Roll, Sonic Sensations and My Retrospective 2013 Musical Mixtape…

Rock ‘n’ roll! I hope you, reader (hey you! Thanks for stopping by!), had a very excellent Christmas. I did (thanks for asking. Sweet of you.) and I’m now in the post-Christmas, pre-New Year place of reflection. I am reflecting. I’m like a mirror. No, I’m like a looking glass. No, I’m now through the looking glass, Alice, and everything just gets curioser and curioser. I don’t know – bear (white rabbit?) with me. Everything is all a bit weird in this still-Christmas-but-not-really-Christmas-anymore phase. It takes time to get into some kind of rhythm and reason, y’know?

Anyway, back to rock ‘n’ roll action after a rest and on to rumination at the end of the year. ‘Tis the season to do navel gazing, drink down some Nostalgia-Lite (it never goes down smooth) and work out what you did over the course of the past 12 months, just because that’s what people do. This stuff gets really boring and self-indulgent really, really fast so I’ll keep it brief because I don’t want to be really boring and self-indulgent and you don’t want me to be really boring and self-indulgent either.

The vital info: last night I joined my Old Man and Sean McGinty on BBC Radio Lancashire again for the final FNAT show of the year. We talked about curry-dusted parsnips, Professor Brian Cox and the phenomenal lack of body odour in Korea (none of them are related but, actually, all of them are related because everything’s connected and we’re all made of the same matter that exploded out of the Big Bang at the very beginning of the Universe and it’s amazing). We also did a fair bit of retrospective stuff looking back at the past year in rock music and if that sounds interesting to you you can find it on the iPlayer for the next seven days.

To prepare for that programme I took a sweep across the year’s sonic landscape and, in doing so, I realised that I haven’t been listening to a massive amount of new music. Altogether it reminds me that my approach to music is still shamefully immature and rigid and that’s a rut I’m eager to get out of. The majority of the time I’m on autopilot, listening to the same things over and over and over again, ad nauseum until I get bored. Too much of a good thing is actually overkill, Liberace

When I do consciously attempt to take control over the reflex insta-groove it takes a while for fresh material and new (or ‘new old’) artists to sink in. I can put this down to several factors: 1. I (ab)use music as background noise and that means that it’s degraded when it deserves to be appreciated properly as something more than supplementary aural wallpaper; 2. I’m using digital streaming services and that means I’m no longer buying CDs and physically handling music which, in spite of the positives (space, instant availability of near-infinite material), also induces passive indifference and decreased imminence when it comes to listening to music; 3. I’d say I’m still slightly hindered by the sensory damage done during a prolonged past period of depression in which enjoyment of music was impossible. I have to work a bit harder to establish a relationship with music but it’s well worth doing ’cause I want to rock out and feel some rhythms.

The moral is don’t get depressed and take time to consciously experience and enjoy music in open-minded, highly-aware fashion. Attempting to take my own advice and embrace aural exploration, I put aside some time and space to go over the new releases of 2013 that I actually got round to listening to. I then picked my top 10 tracks from the records I’ve really dug and compiled my 2013 Primo-Grade Supreme Sonic Splash Playlist Mixtape on Spotify. Here’s a run-down of those righteous jams…

  1. KvelertakÅpenbaring from the Meir album. I can dig Norse metal that makes you want to rip holes in mountains.
  2. Föllakzoid9 from the II album. I can dig Chilean cosmic psych-dirges that make you want to go for a float through interstellar space.
  3. AirbourneReady to Rock from the Black Dog Barking album. I can always dig stright up fist-pumpin’, headbangin’ Aussie rawk ‘n’ roll.
  4. MelvinsDoctor Mule from the Tres Cabrones album. I can dig bizarro bludgeon riffola that makes your eyebrows dance of their own accord.
  5. Monster MagnetMindless Ones from the Last Patrol album. I can always dig more psychedelic space rock jams from the Bull God.
  6. KavinskyProtoVision from the OutRun album. I can dig French electro instrumental concept albums about an undead ’80s Testarossa crash victim who’s come back to haunt his girlfriend..
  7. Queens of the Stone AgeThe Vampyre of Time and Memory from the …Like Clockwork album. I can dig it when QotSA get really dark and broody and produce the most beautiful and poignant soundtracks to an existential crisis.
  8. Dinosaur Pile-UpLip Hook Kiss from the Nature Nurture album. I can dig surging, bittersweet alternative rock anthems that make me want to fall in love with a girl with a lip ring.
  9. PixiesAndro Queen from the EP1 EP. I can always dig Pixies, especially when they do the washy-dream surf guitar thing.
  10. Daft PunkContact from the Random Access Memories album. I can always dig Daft Punk and RAM was my most-played, favourite album of the year. Electric throwback French disco was, thus, my jam of 2013 and the absolute absolute of the whole thing is the final track which sends me a transcendental cosmic trip. I hear this and feel at one with the Universe. Yeah, after the disco comes the deep and metaphysical…

I guess that works as a Top 10 then and probably does a decent job of representing the kind of stuff I’ve been crankin’ repeatedly alongside old familiars and a few ‘new old familiars’. Gigwise I got to see The Sword, Whitesnake, Avenged Sevenfold, Pixies and Airbourne supported by Orange Goblin so they were all a bonus. Back home, I also listened to a lot of movie soundtracks – my personal favourites of 2013 being the Maniac OST – because I love film music and its easier to write and work to scores because there are fewer distracting singalong moments. I’ve also got an extra shot of impetus to seriously delve even further into classical and opera music. That came from watching the BBC documentary series Howard Goodall’s Story of Music and from visiting La Scala in Milano when I was over there in the summer.

I need to open my mind and ears more in 2014, so feel free to throw sounds at me. I’m all amped up for aural exploration and new sonic sensations and I will now go and listen to them and curtail this self indulgent, boring ramble about what I did in 2013. A few more brief retrospective blogposts may surface in coming days before 2014 but I’ll keep ’em brief. Less talk, more rock. Cut the chatter, spin the platter.

Ah enough, I’m getting up and going off to dance to some French disco…

Pictonaut Short Story Challenge: ‘They Were in My Head and Allah was Dead’…

Oh grief! It’s that time of the month again and you’re going to have to suffer through some disturbing horror for a short period. I’m talking about my Pictonaut Short Story Challenge effort, of course, but don’t worry because the ordeal doesn’t last that long and you may actually find it a worthwhile experience. To recap, every month I study a picture picked by John Steele the Just and Steely and write something inspired by it. It’s a nice challenge and I encourage people to have a crack at it to get their creative juices flowing and conjure up some fresh short fiction. For May’s wordascope the Rogue Verbumancer opted for a photo from designer Mike Kim and it was electric with exciting potential…

Audionaut photo by Mike Kim.

Can you feel the exhilarating charge? Techno-techno headgear! Bright jumpsuits! Futuristic minimalist spaces! So many ideas come to mind and I got high on the possibility of spawning some futuristic sci-fi. I thought about tapping the human-mind-and-tech fusions of films like Paprika and Inception and exploring virtual realities fabricated out of beautiful dreams. Alternatively, I thought I might get a bit dystopian and write something that ripped of Neuromancer or The Matrix. It’s an image used to advertise a high-fidelity audio symposium, so how about harmonising with the sonic resonances of all the electro music I’ve been listening to lately to write something that rides on synthesiser riffs and is all about dynamic aural energy?

What did I do in the end? Well, the sweeter hard sci-fi plan spontaneously dematerialised and the words that came out were not righteous techno-techno thrills. They were instead informed by the War on Terror and the piece of work I’ve titled ‘They Were in My Head and Allah was Dead‘ is way different than what I thought I was going to end up produce. I’ll leave you to make of it what you will (the golden rule: show don’t tell) though I’ll preface it with a warning that it is not intended as pleasant reading.

They Were in My Head and Allah was Dead is my Pictonaut effort for May, then. It’s not fun so I may make up for that by spawning something else inspired by the image to accompany it before the month is over. All being well I’ll be back with a fresh story in July after a break in June but for now, go forth and write your own Audionaut-inspired story and read mine if you like…

Inspirational Heroes Emerging Out of Shame’s Shadow…

This is a serious post and serious posts are not something I enjoy writing. I’d rather dwell in the realms of light-hearted whimsy and enjoy myself rather than getting down into the dirty moop. I’m more eager to follow a  “Why so serious?” mantra in my online activity and push an upbeat, perky and proactively positive persona. There’s a lot of bleakness out there and the web doesn’t need another dour avatar face doling out the grimness, bitching and moaning about bad stuff. This is all good and keeps me happy, but there’s also a downside. That downside is denial of reality and that denial may have a detrimental effect in the grand scheme of things.

I try not to get drawn into depressing current affairs debates and dive into popular shitstorms. I also try not to overshare and force my personal daily life problems down people’s throats. I have a history of heath problems and used to blog extensively about them but it got too painful and I felt like a raw, exposed nerve. I felt defined by illness and found myself engaging with communities and cyberspaces that were all about disease and depression. It was very unhealthy and unhelpful and it got me down so I shut it all down, closed off those connections and channelled my attentions elsewhere. The bare shame and scar tissue were hidden and covered by a thick jumper, out of sight and out of mind.

It was the right thing for me to do way back when but it was also, in part, a retreat into denial. The end outcome is that there’s a separation of self-image from sombre real life issues in public spaces. I keep on with conscious self-censorship and try not to talk about my past and present health crap online. (There’s a lot of it, it’s boring and I’ve more than had enough of it for a lifetime thank you very much) I’m ashamed, both because of my shame and because the shame prevents me from being totally honest about myself and then I wonder whether I should just rename myself “Shame Clayton” and live in the wilderness in an igloo made of frozen, guilty tears.

All the wider world gets is occasional cryptic outbursts on Twitter that elicit confused sympathy from some very nice people. (And I’m grateful for the concern and best wishes in those moments, so thank you!) When I do have those moments I end up blurting out because I want to urge others to enjoy their lives as much as possible and cherish good heath while they’ve got it. My power to do that, however, is limited though because of the taboos I’ve taken on. I don’t have the courage or conviction to back it up and run with it, so I stick to irreverent discussion of pop culture and 99% of the time that’s perfectly okay with me.

I’ve therefore got a tremendous amount of admiration for people who actually do what I can’t do – genuine human beings who are so much braver than me in that they actually power through silence, shame, stigma and various other hang-ups to talk about the things that just aren’t talked about. I’m in awe of people who open themselves up and express themselves eloquently and creatively  to inform, educate and inspire others. It’s a risky move and it can be incredibly painful, but there’s a chance that in publicly discussing problems they beat stigma and ignorance. They may potentially save someone’s life.

As I say, I can’t do it but several events move me to write this short, serious post in praise of those that do. Today Angeline Jolie has written a piece in the New York Times explaining her decision to get a preventative double mastectomy. Here an infamous public figure is putting their physical and mental scar tissue on show and doing so to raise awareness of breast cancer. The issue is, for the present moment, out in the open and people are enlightened and possibly empowered if they were living in doubt and fear. That’s a win for knowledge and wider worldwide wellbeing. It’s a blow for cancer and the result is that much suffering may ultimately be prevented. This is why I don’t agree with those who sneer at celebrities for preaching about serious health issues from positions of comfort. By virtue of their fame they have way more influence and reach than any public service ad campaign or initiative. When someone like Russell Brand describes drug addiction in the Guardian or Magic Johnson makes a documentary about HIV people take note and come away armed with knowledge and possibly entertained and uplifted.

That’s showbiz, but I’m even more awed by those who aren’t celebrities and don’t have massive media attention or media resources supporting their bold decision to put it all out in the open. My main inspiration for writing this post is the artist Katie Green who is both a lovely person and a brilliant illustrator. For years Katie has been working on her graphic novel Lighter Than My Shadow which is an autobiographical memoir of her experience with eating disorders. She’s delved into all the pain of the past to write and entirely hand-draw a 507-page chronicle in comic panels. That’s immense and insane. It defies comprehension. It is possibly the boldest creative project I’ve ever encountered yet and I’m looking forward to finally getting a hold of the thing when it’s released in early October.

Katie says it all best in her blog in which she provides insights into her reasons for writing and drawing Lighter Than My Shadow. She is so right about breaking the silence and challenging secrecy. Her artwork is beautiful, her voice is authentic and it’s a guarantee that the final published thing will be an astounding work that will inform and inspire people. We’re dealing with a devastatingly destructive illness and I’ve experienced its awful impact firsthand (but we don’t want to go there). By making this graphic novel, Katie is effectively providing hope and education, putting up a strong fight against eating disorders through a creative medium.

Comics are an ideal format through which to explore health issues – the Better, Drawn blog and this recent webcomic chronicle of depression are two examples. I believe that  Lighter Than My Shadow will be an important graphic novel work, even if it’s only regarded as such by a niche, special interest audience. Regardless, it’s a worthy project and I can’t adequately express how much I admire Katie for embarking upon such an epic personal endeavour. This book will potentially do so much good, prevent so much hurt and heartbreak and I believe it will save lives.

Shame and silence kill people and cause awful, unnecessary suffering. People who courageously rise above shame and earnestly open up in public to raise awareness are heroes in my eyes. We should listen to them, learn from them and thank them for their bravery and honesty. If you’re going to take anything from this inarticulate, awkward attempt at writing a serious post, please take this – take care of your health and do whatever you can to help others take care of theirs.

Fight! Fight! Fight! Clash O’ Th’Captains…

FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! Captain Haddock vs Captain Birdseye

FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!
Captain Haddock vs Captain Birdseye

Avast ye, slubberdegullion landlubbers! I’ve been writing violent fan-fiction again for the very excellent Andrew Blair‘s Fight! Fight! Fight! blog.

For this round, I set up a depraved sea shanty between two nautical legends held in high esteem by many from an early age. When the Adventures of Tintin encounters the frozen seafood industry it turns out the outcome is profane and particularly savage, indeed. I present for your entertainment, Captain Haddock vs Captain Birdseye.

I encourage you to read it, I hope you enjoy it and I recommend returning to the Fight! Fight! Fight! site to sample more inspired warfare written by great writers.

Irrelevant Judgement and the Doctor Who Feedback-Amplifier…

I have opinions but they are unimportant and irrelevant. You have opinions but they are unimportant and irrelevant. They have opinions but they are unimportant and irrelevant. Yet they are all out there on the internet clamouring for attention, expressed through various social media channels.

We live in a democratised information age that allows and encourages freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Simultaneously, though, it also empowers pompous arrogance and self-entitlement in a public space. At least that’s my opinion, and my opinion is unimportant and irrelevant.

I’m just blasting on my own blog – an ill-informed personal opinion zone – here but there is a wider sociocultural concern on my mind (on my Twitter feed, on the comments section of every single article I read, in the articles themselves, etc. etc.). Our society is very judgemental and technological advancements and changing times have conspired to make us even more judgy. What do you think? Like or dislike this? Vote for your favourite! Give us your feedback! Comments? Stick up your star rating!

We’ve got to a situation where we’ve got to have something to say about everything that happens or that we experience. (We don’t, by the way, and if we do that we’ll exhaust both our minds, mouths and fingers.) The thing that’s most troubling in this idea though is how there’s an explicit suggestion that there has to be a value judgement in that. You’ve got to like or dislike something. You’ve got to have an opinion on it, rate it accordingly and mark it down for posterity. You can’t be ambivalent or just let something be – it has to be categorised and subjected to a review treatment.

You realise that this goes beyond enjoyment of pop culture art when you find yourself batting off emails asking you write a review and provide a star-rating for a USB stick you ordered off Amazon. I’ve got to have an opinion on a pendrive? What if I don’t want to have an opinion and subsequently share it? Does anyone actually want to know what I think about the crap I buy, the stuff I watch or the experiences I immerse myself in?

Maybe, maybe not but most of the time it’s probably the latter because I’m not a person of immense wisdom or significance (Yet. I’m working on it, a’ight?). I’ve got some awareness and expertise in certain fields and likewise, I respect the thoughts of others who I know know about specific things. I flock to them and consult their personal experience if I wish to get an enlightened perspective and I figure that most people do likewise. Or do they? Do people put what people think – subjective opinions and not objective intellectual appreciation – above all else or, in fact, are people putting their own subjective opinion as the paramount truth?

Have we now got to the point where the opinion is more important than the actual original thing that we’re forming an opinion on? Across journalism across all media formats there’s now a greater emphasis on what the Twittersphere is saying and it’s mostly in my opinion (and my opinion is irrelevant and unimportant) asinine and adds nothing. Opinions are like arseholes in that everyone has one (some people have two) and they are best dealt with artfully one at a time in beautifully-lit private spaces. Everyone’s arsehole all at once forcefully shoved in your face, however, is a violent pornography nightmare.

Social media is a giant magnifying window in which to advertise your arsehole and all that dribbles out of it and collectively our culture encourages expressive incontinence. I’m moved to muse after contemplating the kind of things that I’ve observed in cyberspace over the space of the past week – lots of judgement and a lack of judicious, conscious thought on behalf of a lot of people (myself included). So many people rushing forward to spray their self-righteous opinions all over everyone else, but no one cares but that doesn’t matter ’cause everyone’s entitled to our opinion and this is how we do this right?

Skipping past current affairs and the spheres of politics, sports and suchlike – all infernal flame grills that require a Hazmat suit which I’ve left at the drycleaners – I’ll round up by coming back to the entertainment arena and the thing that prompted this on-the-fly thread in the first place: Doctor Who. It’s a popular BBC TV programme that airs on Saturday nights and follows the adventures of a Time Lord and his blue police box. It’s got wide appeal, tradition, history and oscillates between all kinds of stories, themes and settings each week. There’s a lot of interest and things that are worthy of note here – it’s a pop cultural concept encompassing multiple concepts and it inspires further thought and discussion.

In the aftermath though the emphasis appears to be judging each episode and then by extension the entire current ongoing series. In particularly the judgment is a value-based one of whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s a rating review and as soon as the closing credits have rolled I get the sense that people are falling over themselves to race onto the internet to slam down their opinion. But who cares if you enjoyed this week’s Doctor Who? Your opinion is unimportant and irrelevant! No one cares because they care too much about their own unimportant and irrelevant opinion! To log on to the internet at the weekend is to bear witness to the Doctor Who Social Media Spitting Contest. Everyone seems desperate to gob off and regurgitate their personal bile in the aftermath of eating up the broadcast episode. I sometimes wonder whether the draw of Doctor Who is now working out what you’re going to say about it after watching, how you’ll publicly judge it and how sure you are of your position in case you end up engaged in a spitting contest with someone who just happens to find exception to your hacking phlegm.

I think (and this is my unimportant and irrelevant opinion) that too often we, as pop cultural consumers, are approaching everything through a paradigm of “is this good or bad?” as if we are pre-emptively reviewing or rating the experience as we go through it. That affects your mindset and locks you into judgementalism. Sometimes this is required if you work or write as a critic  but on a functioning human level, it’s unnecessary. You don’t need to judge everything or form an opinion on everything and then weigh in by sharing it on Twitter or another online space or in real life. (And there is no real life. This is all an illusion and that’s not an opinion but actual fact.)

If you let go of that obligation – an obligation encouraged by all this technology and the social media connections we’re slavishly hooked up on – and you detach yourself from the evils of judgementalism you may be able to experience life as it is. Doctor Who just is. The film you watched just is. The product you just spent money on just is. The meal you just ate just is. Life just is. You don’t need to rate it, review it or stick a thumbs up or thumbs down on it every single time. What’s more you don’t need to tweet it out to everyone and force your judgement on everyone else. Attachment is the cause of suffering, and that’s Buddhist wisdom. Ah, satori

The side-effect of everyone forcing their judgement on everyone is that these opinions become even more unimportant and irrelevant and everyone’s just drowning in noise and even more apt not to listen. That’s just my opinion though and my opinion is unimportant and irrelevant…

Mass-Mastermind of the Hieroglyph, Awesome Utopian Future…

I am very much interested in science fiction. I am very much interested in visualising bright futures. Thus, I am very much interested in and excited about The Hieroglyph Project.

In brief, it’s an online space devoted to discussing the future with the aim of advancing progress and making the world a better place in years to come. People from a wide-range of backgrounds and areas of expertise can pitch optimistic ideas, debate possibilities and try and work out how we can move forward and make the utopian visions in our individual minds an actual shared reality. Science fiction speculation becoming science fact in the future, basically. A free think tank/brainstorm cloud in cyberspace led by the Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination.

Convinced by an explanatory article that it could be a very cool website to engage with, I immediately registered as was given the ‘all clear’ for membership. Now I – an enthusiastic science fiction fan but a complete amateur and novice when it comes to science fact – can talk to experts or at least observe their conversations. I can start dialogues with them if I wish but mainly, I’m eager to simply sit back and absorb their expertise and seek to learn off the community. I dig sci-fi films and novels and am always asking: “Why can’t we make that happen in this reality?” I watch the news and think “Why aren’t we using technology or the wisdom and skill of the most intelligent and inventive humans on the planet to resolve these probems?

Maybe now I and others will get some answers or at least get fresh, enlightened approaches to difficult, anxiety-inducing issues. I want to help generate solutions and create a better world and I feel that this fresh online initiative can help people achieve that. It also, undoubtedly, will enable me to expand my mind and interact with some of the most inventive and smart minds on the web.

First impressions suggest that Hieroglyph is both stimulating and fun and that it has the potential to be a fruitful, inspiring forum. If anyone wishes to join me there to explore and attempt to get their head around possible progressive futures inspired by sci-fi fantasies and the knowledge of adroit users, I can send you an invite.

Back to reading science fiction and imagining awesome, optimistic futures…