In Search of Pizza Spaceship…

Pizza Spaceship… … and yes indeed, in under a fortnight I'm flying off to Italy… #PizzaSpaceship #LiveLongAndPizza

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Live long and pizza…

Things don’t necessarily have to make sense. Things don’t have to have a reason. Their underlying meaning needn’t be clear or logical. Things can be and happen ‘just because’ and ‘just because’ is okay. In fact, ‘just because’ can be mind-blowingly brilliant when two beautiful things are brought together for no apparent purpose other than to make something even more amazing.

Pizza Spaceship is one such thing. It doesn’t make sense and we don’t know how or why it came to be. We don’t really need to know, because ‘Pizza Spaceship’ is fantastic just because it’s Pizza Spaceship. It is the meeting and blissful union of ‘pizza’ and ‘spaceship’ – two great concepts on their own. Together, their powers combine to make possibly one of the greatest notions that a human mind could conceive of.

For context, my first encounter with the idea of Pizza Spaceship occurred a year-and-a-half ago. Fittingly, I was in Italy and I and a good friend were working at an English-language summer camp in a small town on the outskirts of Milan. The town’s name will remain a secret for security reasons. I’ll refer to my friend as Sandy because her name is Sandy (at least, it is when she’s sober). Regardless, this summer camp proved to be quite a challenge for Sandy and I, for a variety of reasons. We were mentally and physically exhausted, we were often semi-delirious (inevitable at summer camp) and we were singing ‘The Pizza Song‘ every day. Even so, in spite of all that, we didn’t collectively hallucinate or imagine Pizza Spaceship. We didn’t wish it into existence or make it up. Pizza Spaceship was and is real.

We ran this summer camp in an elementary school building and this school had a large hall which we used for big games, art activities and lunch breaks. On one of the walls in the hall was a display showcasing art works produced by school children during, we presume, the academic year. Kids had taken paper plates and stuck bits of coloured tissue paper and card onto the plates to make them look like meals (for example, spaghetti, salad, chicken and chips and so on). On the wall alongside these plates someone had pasted a cardboard rocketship. Instead of a porthole window this rocketship had a pizza. “What is that?” Sandy and I both asked ourselves at exactly the same moment. “It… it’s… it’s Pizza Spaceship” we both responded, simultaneously, the spark of enlightenment catching fire in our eyes, minds and hearts.

It was like a flash of enlightenment or a revelatory ray of hope hitting us from somewhere beyond the stars. We felt blissful euphoria. Our base existence was blasted and our state of mere being was altered and blessed with radical new flavour. We had Pizza Spaceship and it was sublime and spectacular. Mundane reality was swept aside as this fantastical prospect transcending time, space and matter moved into our consciousness and captivated us completely. Post-Pizza Spaceship, life would never be the same again. We paid homage to that corner of the hall every day and showed our gratitude for its sheer awesomeness.

We should pay tribute to this cosmic combo. Space travel is immense and exhilarating and I love the idea of boldly going beyond Earth’s stratosphere into the vastness of the wider Universe. (People who know me know that offworld sci-fi is my jam or, indeed, my pop-cultural pizza.) Pizza is a supreme gastronomic invention and a signature article of Italian cuisine (the greatest type of cuisine in the galaxy, in my humble and quite-biased opinion). Put ’em together and I’ve got two things that get me really excited working together and opening up realms of wonder beyond tangible, imminent reality. I mean, Pizza Spaceship could take us anywhere.

This thing – genius in its simplicity – offers unlimited potential and possibility. Infinite joy is within reach if we don’t question it and Pizza Spaceship is not really something to intellectualise or rationalise. We don’t know who created it and we don’t know why. (Pure imagination? The result of divine inspiration? Is its origin extraterrestrial?) Its purpose is also a tantalising mystery. Is this some kind of pangalactic delivery service? Is it a message from another galaxy? Is it first contact, related to the human race in an appealing format? Is it someone or something telling me that I really need to start writing a kitschy sci-fi novella series about interstellar voyagers on-board a flying pizza? (Working titles for instalments include ‘Martian Margherita‘, ‘Prosciutto to Polaris‘ and ‘The Kuiper Belt Calzone Conundrum‘.)

We also don’t know what a Pizza Spaceship actually looks like. The crude card-and-poster-paint representation we found in that hall was a 1950s-style rocket with a pizza riding the cockpit but I can picture a whole fleet of alternative craft. I see the Starship Enterprise and Millennium Falcon as pizzas. I see a space cruiser made entirely of dough, tomato sauce and mozzarella string. I see a square-shaped cardboard takeout box the size of a small moon spinning through deep space, occasionally flipping open its lid so the living Pizza-Titan inside can survey the stars and work out if it’s travelling in the right direction.

Still, the details don’t matter and we don’t need any definite answers. We just need the words ‘Pizza’ and ‘Spaceship’ joined together and Pizza Spaceship is fantastic ‘just because’ it’s Pizza Spaceship. If anything, to me, Pizza Spaceship acts like a religious icon, Tarot cards or a mandala. It’s a symbolic conduit that transcends reality and opens up the acolyte’s mind, body and soul to something beyond. In times of darkness or confusion, I can fix my thoughts on Pizza Spaceship and instantly I’m transported far away to either Italy (my spiritual second home and the home of real pizza), outer space (a stimulating and fascinating otherworldy immensity) or, indeed, metaphysical and macrocosmic space (where you are liberated from the world of illusion and reality itself, becoming one with the Infinite).

Think on Pizza Spaceship. Feel Pizza Spaceship. Realise the wonder and joy and awe-inspiring actuality that is Pizza Spaceship. This is perhaps the ultimate soul food – nourishing Earthly substance and advanced astro-science transfigured into a totem on which we can project all our desires and dreams. Through this vessel we can escape and travel to another world, another reality and/or a superior state of enlightened being.

All aboard Pizza Starship and full speed ahead. Live long and pizza…

(P.S. In under a fortnight’s time I’ll be flying off to Italy again. In reality, I’m flying to Malpensa on a Flybe plane but in my imagination, I’m going to be gliding towards Milan on Pizza Spaceship…)

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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Four Things I Learned on a Four Week Course to Become a Better English Teacher…

Remember when Antarctic explorer Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates said “I am just going outside and may be some time” and didn’t come back? Well, I said similar things around a month-and-a-half ago but, hey! I came back!

(Note: I’ve got doubts about Titus Oates’ death. They never found his body. Personally, I like to believe that Oates encountered Shoggoths outside and that they took him to the resting vaults of the Elder Things. There he discovered incredible extraterrestrial technology which he used to increase his longevity and radically alter his physical form. Neo-Oates is now 135-years-young and reigns over a subterranean krill kingdom beneath the South Pole. He will eventually come back – supported by his devout crustacean subjects – and you will know him by the whistling of his gills. Yes. Absolutely.)

Way back just a shade over a month-and-a-half ago I shut everything down and stepped outside because I had a mission. That mission: go through an intensive course to gain a CELTA qualification. Progress through and successfully pass a CELTA course and you acquire special skills and fresh status as an especially qualified, quite-excellent Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. I can break that down into an appealing, easy-to-understand 16-bit format: CELTA is like the power-up Super Leaf that transforms you from regular Mario to Tanooki-Suit Super Mario. Then you have a funky weaponised tail and the power to fly and with that ability you can reach the secret bonus areas hidden in the clouds and the roofs of the haunted castles of the Mushroom Kingdom.

In total, it was an intense month of giddily bouncing about on a quest to become a better teacher and sometimes it felt like Super Mario Bros. 3. (It was nothing like Super Mario Bros. 3. but I wanted to drag out the crap analogy for cohesion. Yeah, that wasn’t great. One thing I’m better at thanks to the course is necessary self-evaluation and I acknowledge that crap analogies are a weakness and I will strive to improve in this area.) I learned a lot about teaching English and mastered double-sided photocopying but I’m not going to regurgitate it all here. Instead, I’m putting down four particularly significant things I (re)learned over the four weeks for posterity. 1-2-3-4! Let’s go…

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox... *awestruck smile...*

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox… *awestruck smile…*

#1. Teaching is brilliant

I love teaching. Getting back to teaching action and returning to the classroom re-affirmed this and reminded me that I’m pretty good at it and have a lot of fun doing it. Give me a chance to craft lesson plans, create extra materials and assault a whiteboard and I will go all out and be a happy guy. What’s more, the other people in the room will have an engaging, stimulating experience and may even learn something. (I’ve failed if they don’t.)

To be involved in learning, to share knowledge and to actively play a role in other human beings’ developments is a beautiful thing and a privilege. Teaching is hard work, but it’s enjoyable and rewarding. Teaching a language is even more rewarding because you’re helping people to communicate, enhance a whole set of practical skills and potentially bridging cultural gaps (among many other things). I had a good time with the international ensemble of students during my teaching practice sessions and I’m psyched to get back teaching real students again as soon as possible. (Self-promo-moment: “I can help you with your English, whatever your needs are! For personalised assistance and tuition from a qualified and experienced mother tongue speaker, call now!” *thumbs up, cheesy smile*.)

I'm all about pizza and grammar lessons...

I’m all about pizza and grammar lessons…

#2. The English language is brilliant

The English language is rich, beautiful and endlessly fascinating. It is vast, dynamic and it can be played with and creatively handled to infinite ends. I knew that, but over the past few months I’ve been getting down to the nitty gritty and focusing on the fundamental mechanics of the language – not the fancy stuff I can do with all these words, words, words. I’m talking grammar, guys, and grammar is groovy. (*struts and clicks fingers at the beat of the drop of that full stop*)

I’ve been expanding my language awareness and will continue to study this stuff because it’s important and actually really interesting. It may be that I’m a bit affected after a lot of hardcore study. I mean, it’s been an intense period and there were moments where – deep in the cut-and-thrust of lesson planning – I started getting very (too) excited about pure modals, collocations and the Second Conditional. I realised that things were getting serious during a ‘conversation’ with a relative in which my contribution to the dialogue was nothing more than “Y’know, it’s interesting that you’re using the First and Second Conditional a lot.” And then there was another time – once upon a daydream – where I was musing on word classes and became aware that the word ‘adjective’ is in fact a noun. That must be a terrible identity crisis, poor thing. Imagine if your entire existence was built around the purpose of defining something that you are not and could never be. Only verbal nouns can be happy and free in this Universe, ordered as it is.

Yeah. Absolutely. But seriously, English is brilliant. I get high off studying it and have high times fighting with online dictionaries when they don’t agree with my Northern pronunciation.

It's the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow...

It’s the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow…

#3. Manchester is brilliant

By ‘eck, I love Manchester, I do. This one I didn’t really, truly know, and it sort of blindsided me. Being in Manchester city centre every day and being in a open and reflective state of mind I had a ‘seeing what was under my nose all along’ epiphany. Manchester is the best city in Britain (yes it is) and I’m happy that it’s my hood.

It’s also easier to appreciate how excellent your hometown is when you’re meeting outsiders from all corners of the globe telling you just how happy they are to be here. (Especially true of asylum seekers freshly arrived from Sudan after a month in transit.) All the foreign students I engaged with liked Manchester and it was only the weather that was a downer. In truth, it’s only bad weather and an increasingly unacceptable homeless crisis that bring Manchester down. Otherwise, Manchester is wonderful and it’s even more wonderful in the build-up to Christmas. Yay for Manchester’s Christmas markets!

I’m now resolved that, whenever the opportunity arises, I will harp on about how great Manchester is where once I was a bit indifferent and ambivalent. In brief, this place has got pretty much everything – Manchester’s an idiosyncratic mix of tradition and modernism, gothic industrialism married to shiny 21st century style. It’s gloriously cosmopolitan, is full of distinctive character and has a youthful spirit. It’s always moving forward but it knows its roots. Plus, the population are friendly, good-humoured people and the sound of the city is Northern accents. In total, eeyy-aaaah, Manchester’s aaaalriiiiight.

#4. Disconnecting from social media is brilliant

Titus Oates was never on Twitter, but when it came to starting the course I realised that it would be best to channel his spirit with regard to social media. I needed to concentrate. I needed to cut out distractions. I needed to focus on what was really important, get on with the work and devote all my energies and attention to the mission. Thus, I uninstalled all the social media apps on my phone and abstained from Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr for over a month. (I also didn’t go to the cinema and watch TV. I basically just did the course and in downtime spoke to my family and watched the news. I told you: give me something to do and I will go all-out and method actor-ish on the task.)

What did I miss? Aside from keeping in touch with distant friends and being in the loop with some news, nothing really. I also – in spite of the heavy workload and all-consuming rush of the course – felt more relaxed when I wasn’t hooked up to social media. My mind wasn’t as cluttered with trivial stuff, irritations and constant noise. I also found that I was, actually, more aware of the wider world because I was reading the news rather than reading reactions to the news (or just reading unfiltered, self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness ramblings or memes).

I had such a pleasant time being offline that I turned it into a lesson for my teaching pratice on the CELTA course (inspired by this article on a Danish study of people taking a break from Facebook). Now, having finished the course, I’m back connected and it’s good to be in touch with lovely people again but I feel a change. I intend to be less attached to these cyberspaces so I can reap the rediscovered benefits.

Those then, are things I learned and relearned on an excellent course that levelled me up as an educator, galvanished me and made me a happy Mancunian. On to the next quest… (possibly trying to find the Lost Kingdom of Neo-Oates, Lord of the Krill.)

Summer Camp Lunchtime Doodles August/September 2015: Drawing Pictures in Padova…

You know what I doodly-do when I do English-language summer camps in Italy every summer? Well, one of the things I do – aside from singing, dancing and struggling to control Havoc Beelzebambini while I teach them essential vocab like ‘tape’, ‘shame’ and ‘toilet plunger’ – is draw diary sketches during the lunchbreaks. Sì, signore e signori! Its time for another round of lunchtime doodles from summer camp! *fanfare*

As it was in Torino in June, so it was again in the countryside near Padova in late August/early September. Technical background and insight into ze process for those interested: this time I had to use standard paper rather than canteen placemats because there was no canteen arrangement at this school. Doodles were therefore done in the public park next door and were powered by packed lunch (mostly tuna sandwiches). Furthermore, I was determined that I’d make these daily diary doodles the most Jamazing yet and I sought to raise my game from ‘Yeah! Alrighty!‘ to ‘Oh Gods! Thor Almighty!‘. More sketches! Better sketches! More imagination and in-jokes and off-the-wall absurdity and semi-topical creative lunacy!

I think I did a decent job of that and rate these as my best batch of lunchtime doodles so far (until next year, if I make it that far and if they have me back). I won’t go into detail or try and explain ’em – just appreciate them for what they are. Then again, if you wish you can always try and dive deep into esoteric theory and try and discover the occult symbolism and the secrets of my subconscious manifest in miniaturised ink dribbling.

Here are the fortnight’s daily doodles from Summer Camp No. 2 collected together for convenience (you can also see them and my other arty bits on Instagram y’know). And stick around after the two weeks are done with – I promise that there are bonus extras…

(more…)

(The Ultimate) Pictonaut Short Story Challenge: ‘Flowing, Flowing, Flowing…’

Pronto! Okay, the Cosmos has decided that it’s storytelling time and it’s storytelling time even though I’m currently moving through minor mountains of bureaucracy, lesson plans and the all-round busy-ness of being an English teacher in a foreign country with little time to spare. Circumstances aren’t ideal but, hey, circumstances tend to come up to me and mumble “Erm, circumstances?” and then I laugh at them, ignore them or walk through. I do this because I am delusional, in denial, a Conqueror of the Impossible or all three.

I don’t know, but what I do know is that circumstances won’t prevent me marking something a little bit important, and that something that’s a little bit important is the Pictonaut Challenge. The Pictonaut Short Story Challenge is (soon to be ‘was’) the brainchild of Sir John Steele. Every month for so many months (to be precise, 42) the Venerable Meister Steele has been sticking an image up on the interwebs and saying “Alright, write a story inspired by that and try and make it around a thousand words long and have it done before this month is out“.

This is and was an excellent idea and I’ve gamely joined in and taken up the challenge every month for a while now (and when I lagged behind due to last summer’s travels I managed to catch up). I don’t know whether my efforts are good or bad and I’m aware that few people read them but ultimately it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the Pictonaut Challenge gave me an excuse to write something and it gave me an opportunity to experiment a bit with writing (and, in some cases, not writing) while trying to meet (or just haphazardly grope at) a specific target. As a time-dependent creative exercise it was a fantastic activity to get frequently excited about and devote myself to for a fleeting moment.

Altogether, I realise that I never really cared much about the end results and that I never dwelled too much on what I was putting down on cyberpaper – the main thing was simply the process of creating. For me, Pictonaut was a means of practical way of channelling energy and imagination and it was a constant impetus to create for the sake of creating and then share just because. Sometimes we need those kind of stimuli to keep us sharp and keep us growing.

Now, the Pictonaut High Chief has decreed that he’s calling time on this thing and, thus, February 2015 is The End. As I say, I don’t have time to conjure up something expansive and elaborate but I’ve got to do something as a one-last blast. This month’s inspiral image is the picture below – a picture by the Russian artist Andrei Pervukhin

Concept art by Andrei Pervukhin inspires this month’s Pictonaut effort…

It’s a nice picture. I’ve decided to use it as the basis for a handwritten story image-type thing. It’s not a thousand-word piece but, then again, my approach to this has always been a bit maverick and off-beat. What follows then is a free-flow spontaneous Zen thread scribbled out on paper without excessive thinking or pausing. I’d like to dedicate this to and express my thankyous to John Steele, Alan Watts, water, you the reader and everyone else flowing through life and existence in this Universe. That’s sorta-kinda what this piece of work is about if you want to absorb it that way. I’ll call it ‘Flowing, Flowing, Flowing’ and it’s the last Pictonaut creation from me. Thank you, and flow on…

Pictonaut Challenge: 'Flowing, Flowing, Flowing'…

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To Italy – Again! – for Adventure and the Unknown and a Fresh Exciting Exile…

GPOY, badly drawn but showing kind of what I’m about right now…

Allora, andiamo! It’s time for me to say goodbye, go and get my ass to Italia. Why? Because it’s time for a new adventure and I’m heading back to my favourite place to work a new gig and hang around in a slightly warmer climate. I’ve got children to teach English to (hey, I can try), people to see and experiences to experience. Aside from those knowns the rest is mostly mystery. One of my favourite Coen Brothers movies once advised me, “Please, accept the mystery” so I’m going to do that.  Indeed, I don’t know how long I’ll be off home soil and what’s going to happen with my online activity and various other usual bits ‘n’ pieces.

I do know that I’ll be back in the UK at some point – if only to check in with my family, pick up my summer wardrobe and vote those sick, sick, sick and venal fiends out of Parliament when the election rolls around (if they’re still in power come June I’m never coming back to this country again). Erm, yes. Anyway, moving onto more positive things, as far as creative action goes I can guarantee that I’m always going to be creating.

Some stuff might end up online and I’ll probably file a few things on this site at intermittent points – maybe some blogging, maybe some short stories, maybe something altogether entirely different. Definitely less Twitter, probably same-to-more Facebook, maybe Instagram. As Italians say: Boh?! Who knows? I don’t know! The future is enigmatic and as-yet-unwritten (unfilmed, unillustrated, etc.) and I’m venturing off into some unknowns. I’m not sure what’s going to happen but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be good because I’m an optimist -an optimist going to the land that he loves to live in Milano, the city of miracles, for a bit.

Andiamo, then. Having celebrated my farewell cinema trip (Ex Machina – a perfect science fiction film) and shared a final family meal at my favourite curry joint, I’m done. I’ll now wrap up this overwrought and overlong rambling farewell thing (I’m really bad at goodbyes) and go get my bags together ’cause I’m not completely ready yet and am in pre-travel all-over-the-show anxiety state.

I’m in this state because I’m excited (read: EXCITED) and an adventure lies ahead. Onto that then. Thanks for reading and I’ll be thinking of you all while I’m in bella Italia (yes, I mean you, you). Take care of yourselves while I’m in exile and enjoy the very British things that I’m going to be missing. Ciao ragazzi! Adventure on… 😀

I picked up a new travel buddy. It's-a almost a-time to go…

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2014: Cue the Upbeat, Uptempo Montage Moving Through My Year Gone Past…

It’s the end of the year! So there! Yeah! 2014, then -. thanks, ta-ra. Aww, but I feel like it wouldn’t be the right thing to just skip on into the shiny/shitty future without noting its passing and pondering a (short, very short) moment on the past twelve months. I don’t really want to dwell on things and get caught up in zeitgeist ectoplasm and retrospective navel-gazing so I’m going to fly through it in an upbeat, uptempo montage. Cue the montage…

*OOGA-CHAKA, OOGA OOGA. OOGA-CHAKA, OOGA OOGA…*

(… and I’ve filmed everything in Dutch angles so we’re all anxious and on edge, ’cause this is the age of being-on-edge and anxiety…)

Hey! I am James Clayton and I am moving through space-and-time-and-emotions-and-ideas. Pleasure, pain, ups, downs, upside-downs, down-upsides, maybe-sideways. Uncertainty, near-certainty, false-certainty. Something of nothings and nothings that might actually be something. Ambiguity and ambivalence. No, I don’t know. Really, I’m very lost and reckon (hope?) that time and, in fact, the entirety of existence is an illusion. Even so, conventional time-comprehension and the calendar says that we’ve been going through 2014. What happened? The following things happened, in no particular order. (A lot of current affairs and huge real-world socio-politico-economic things occurred, flamed and roared over. They’re all rounded up, reacted to and wrestled with elsewhere. A lot of those things make us sad and angry, so I’m going to stay in my ludicrous world of 2014 for this, pausing only to say that’s its not as ludicrous as Kim Jong-un’s. Hey Little Kim! You ludicrous, man!)

Personal shenanigans: I wrote some things, doodled some bits ‘n’ bobs, ran a few month-long projects here and there and daydreamed a lot. Things I wrote and doodled went up on the internet and in zines but the best stuff is still in my head. Alternate reality incarnations also unleashed groundbreaking epics and art masterpieces but I’m playing catch-up to those guys (Yeah, they see me comin’). Lots of stuff on the internet, and then I flip between my things and the fog of information, disinformation, Wikipedia entries and basketball highlights reels. The pixels burn me out a bit, cyberspace seethes, the Twitter stream turns into a steaming torrent and portals on Facebook show me prettier pictures of places that seem more appealing. Andiamo! Adventure! Go travel…

I discover Dublin this year, find solace in a Shropshire countryside writing retreat and dig London again during the annual videogame convention bro-trip. The most epic adventure, however spans the summer and takes me further afield. I jump on a plane and then I jump on another plane to go back to and, again, go back to Italia. Lo adoro – è il luogo dove il mio cuore è. Italian friends old and new. Refamiliarised with familiar places and enjoying an array of new cities and experiences. I realise that I have a spread network of extended families for life and I feel alive, connected and soul-fulfilled. And then there are all the old and new friends from all over the world and we’re all brought together and share the sacred summer camp tutor bond. (It is sacred. We have rituals, shared hallucinations and an unshakable faith and sense of vocation.) It’s all-singing, all-dancing, educational entertainment English-teaching action. It’s fun and games and frustration and trauma and battle scars and war with demonic bambini. It’s physical and mental exhaustion but it’s also triumph and exhilaration and it’s the greatest time of my life. This summer was the best summer, so grazie.

Away from the best place with the best people, best food and best quality of life (yeah I’m in love), the other most-excellent stuff is culture. A vast celluloid sea of supreme movies inspired many smiles, many tears, many emotional and cerebral moments in the dark space of the cinema. Oh my Godzilla: Inside Llewyn Davis; Her; erm, Godzilla; Guardians of the Galaxy; Boyhood; The Wind Rises; Edge of Tomorrow; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Nightcrawler; The Babadook; Pride; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; FuryThe Raid 2; Black Sea; The Double; Calvary; Only Lovers Left Alive; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Lego Movie; 12 Years a Slave; and so many more to make this movie-maniac go wild over and over. There are too many genuinely awesome films, so I have less time and inclination to watch much TV. The most terrific telly is Cosmos and BBC documentaries in my 2014.

There are also lots of books and comics, but they’re mostly old books that weren’t published in 2014. Fresh music moving me most would be Monster Magnet Milking the Stars and Weezer telling me that Everything Will Be Alright in the End. “EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIIIIIIIIGHT… IN THE EHHH- EEEEEEHNNNND!” Now I’m dancing and all the freak misfits of the galaxy are having an empathetic moment where we realise that we’ve been losers and been through some noxious crap but that, hey, we’re okay. We’ve grown and we’ve learned some things. We’re better for the experience. We’re moving forward together into the future, ’cause we’re slightly crazy, cosmic quirky heroes hooked on a feeling and high on believing…

I think that’s what I’m taking from 2014. Am I forgetting a lot of things? (most definitely yes) What did it all mean? I’m not really sure and I don’t really care anymore, to be honest. I’m already in 2015. See you there, in the future. TO THE FUTURE!

*blows a kiss to 2014. Love you and remember you always, sugar…*

Saying "Bye!" and jumping off 2014…

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Andiamo… ancora! Going AWOL and Escaping to Italia Again…

Ciao ragazzi! Allora, devo andare. Io viaggio da Italia ancora. Perché? Perché sono in amore…

That means ‘Hey guys! Right, I’ve got to go. I travel to Italy again. Why? Because I’m in love.’ Hurm, I’m doing okay with this learning Italiano schtick. I’m looking forward to the extra, full-immersion practice as I return to the place that’s become a spiritual soul-home to close out the summer season. I get to do another kids’ English language camp, experience la dolce vita a little more and spend time with some of my favourite people. I’m very happy to have that opportunity again, so off I go…

Andiamo! Just like Gelsomina, I'm off to clown about and travel around Italy again…

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The upshot is that I’m going to be AWOL all over again and not very active on the wider interwebs. This blog will be silent, there’ll be no tweeting and all the assorted blogs will most likely not have any fresh matter to offer until mid-September. Still, all being well there’ll be a Den of Geek feature that’s something of a film noir special on the site next Friday (22nd August) so keep your peepers peeled if you like the sound of that.

Otherwise, I’m away again and you’ll have to come find me somewhere in northern Italy where I’ll be educating i bambini by singing things like “do you like broccoli?” at them (only people who have worked this gig will appreciate the nuances and hilarity of the ‘Broccoli Ice Cream’ song. I apologise for this esoteric in-joke. To be honest, the kids don’t get it either). Andiamo. Until mid-September, be excellent to each other, take care of yourselves and I’ll see you when I get back.

*Hard Arnie face* “I’ll be back…”

(* = In Italiano that’s tornerò. Just so you know, Terminator 2 is ace in Italian, and so is Star Wars…)

I’m Back from Italy and I’m Confused but I’m Gonna Create Some Stuff…

Ciao ragazzi! I’m back. Here. Here I am, sono qui. Mi scusa, I had to go off and have some adventures and abandon ‘th’norm’ for a bit because I’m in love with a state (both a geopolitical state, state of existence and a psychological state of mind) called Italia. There are lovely people there. There are amazing experiences there. There are children there who have been sent to summer camps to learn English and they need people like me to draw things for them and sing at them for their entertainment and education.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the past six weeks but now I’m back in Blighty, plugged into this laptop and connected to the wider internet and ‘th’norm’ again. This feels very strange. Where am I? What am I doing? What is this alien land? I’m in a weird-and-confused state (both a geopolitical state, state of existence and a psychological state of mind) and I’m very tired, lost and listless. I haven’t had much sleep these last few days. I’m all out of kilter and discombobulated. Mamma mia, I’ve left my love behind.. *cue beautiful memories, bittersweet sensations and then the inevitable melancholy when imminent reality seeps back into conscious awareness…*

Allora, because I came home from Italy but want to still be in Italy…

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Allora, anyway I’m back and I’m now trying to adjust (re-adjust?) to the stark change. I’m doing this as a changed person because I think I have changed or have been changed because travel changes you. In spite of that, I’ve got to get back into some of the loops I’ve not been looped into for a while and move to some ‘old’ grooves I’ve not channelled for six weeks. For a start, I’ve got to get back some keyboard mojo and relearn how to type stuff on a computer.

I’ve also got to get these camp songs out of my head (no more ‘No More Monkeys On the Bed’, per favore) and condition myself to stop automatically responding with words like sì, grazie and salute! (that last one for when someone sneezes or farts). Mainly I’ve got to accept the fact that I’m not in Italy though I still think I’d like very much to be in Italy. È troppo difficile, so I’m going to find some progressive and therapeutic comfort by doing what overemotional creative types do when they need to perk themselves up or deny reality – imagine up some stuff and create things. I then might share it on the internet, ’cause I can do that again now that I’m reunited with my beloved laptop. (But it doesn’t show me as much affection as all the sweet Italian children and their families and hasn’t even touched the frittata I made for it yesterday afternoon. A laptop is a poor substitute for real love…)

In summary, avanti, creative action is go and there will be writings and doodlings all over the show again (on this site, on my art blog, on Instagram and possibly other cyberspaces). There may be some blogposts about my adventures, there should be some fresh fiction bits, maybe some new ‘projects’ and ideas and there will definitely be a lot more sketching. At least there will be when I’ve refound some rhythm. Anyway, welcome (or welcome back), I’m here again and – in spite of my melancholy and yearning to be somewhere else – I’m psyched to get back to earnest, online creative action again. Here, have some of my delusional fancies and some frittata. I’ve got a lot to spare…

 

Travelling Back Through Time to the Temple of Doom…

“Okey dokey, Dr. Jones! Hold on to your potatoes!” And your hat. Oh, and your heart as well. You wouldn’t like it if someone else got a hold of it…

Let’s roll, ideally in a runaway mine cart. 30 years ago this week, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom hit movie theatres. To commemorate this milestone anniversary, Paul Bullock – the man behind the brilliant From Director Steven Spielberg archive website – is hosting Temple of Doom week. He put out a call for thoughts on the movie and, because I love it and got caught up in sweet nostalgia just recalling the second Indy film, I duly responded with an enthusiastic email.

Paul has, very kindly, taken those transcribed thoughts and uploaded them on to the blog as part of the celebration. You can read my reflections by heading over to the site and I hope people enjoy them or, perhaps, are moved to re-appraise Temple of Doom. I’m very happy to have been able to make a small contribution to an excellent blog that I recommend to all cinema aficionados. Paul’s devotion is amazing and I’m in awe of the hard-work he continues to put into building and curating his free online archive of all-things Spielberg-related.

Roll on, and here’s to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Oh, and here’s also to Dr Jones holding on to his potato…

"Okey dokey Dr. Jones! Hold on to your potatoes!"

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Pictonaut Short Story Challenge: ‘What’s Behind the Door in the Forest?’…

It’s time to tell a tale, and that tale is this month’s effort for the Pictonaut challenge. The nature of the challenge is this: every month the very excellent Sir John Steele picks an evocative image and throws down the gauntlet to writers. “See this picture? Write a thousand-word short story based on it. Alright?” Alright, it most definitely is and I duly give it a crack and see what I can come up with. What have we got to work with a February 2014’s image? This photograph taken by, it’s believed, Eric Peterson…

What’s Behind the Door in the Forest?

It’s a picture of a door in a forest. The key question that needles me: ‘What’s behind the door in the forest?‘ I couldn’t decide, so I decided to write a short fiction-bit about that question and spin a yarn with a slight fairytale-ish/olde folk storytelling edge to it. It’s no doubt influenced by my enthusiasm for fantasy, myths and legends and fond memories of my own grandfather. I don’t rate it much at all, as far as things go, but it is what it is and it’s always good writing exercise to have a go at the Pictonaut challenge. I was shooting for a freewheeling, simplistic oral legend feel and I think it works if you read it aloud in an elderly Eastern European accent. In fact, read everything aloud in that accent. Life is more fun when your internal monologue speaks with an exotic and/or ludicrous voice.

The positive thing I take from this month’s Pictonaut trip is that it’s got me looking forward to future adventures in the open outdoors when the bleak winter is behind us and the weather is not unbearable. As I look forward to that future, feel free to have a glance at ‘What’s Behind the Door in the Forest?‘ and keep on opening doors in real life. If you don’t you won’t discover anything and you’ll be stuck in one room for eternity (both metaphorically and literally. You need to get out. Damn. I can’t wait for the weather to get better…)

Thought Bubble 2013: Reflective Post-Comic Con Round-Up…

Thought Bubble 2013 happened and it was quite a happening. I had a great time over the weekend and came away in a discombobulated state of upbeat energy, worn-down exhaustion and fresh creative impetus and inspiration. All those different forces are not necessarily compatible so I’ve been sort of drifting around in a smiley-but-weary slightly-dissonant post-geekout Zen fog. Still, even though I think I’ve recovered now I’m still feeling the comic convention rush and that is a right-on feeling that can just run and run and run, heck yes. (And I feel like I’ve been overdosing of awesome experiences lately. A couple of days before the con I got to see the Pixies live and meet comics writer hero Matt Fraction on a pre-con signing tour within the space of a few hours. I’m on a high! I’m surfing waves of euphoria and beatific double rainbows all over the damn show! Yeah yeah whoop whoo!)

Back to Leeds, and at TB I occupied an exhibitor’s table in the Allied London Hall which was an overfill venue rigged up to meet high demand. There I sat/stood touting my wares and here is an iffy action shot of me and my wares at my table…

Showin' off my stuff with jazz-hands showmanship...

I took the James Clayton show on th’road…

Though it can get a bit lonely sitting behind a table for long, quiet periods (as you can see from some of the pass-the-time con doodles I’ve posted on my sketch blog), I really enjoyed it. People might not buy much of your junk and shower you with coins but it’s worth it just to be there, in that space and soaking up that atmosphere. Having people pass by my stall, speak to me, spend a moment contemplating my creations and pick up my cards is a bonus. Smiles, compliments and positive responses when I explained my ‘Meanwhile, in an alternate reality…’ shenanigans, talked about The Working Barbarian and my other activities were an extra-bonus. I’m a lonely guy who spends most of his time creating in complete isolation so I appreciate those rare occasions of social engagement. I therefore would like to say a big thank you to all those souls who hung around for a bit and said nice things. You are all lovely.

(more…)

Come Find Me at Thought Bubble Comic Convention…

Pa-zow comics people! The Thought Bubble comics convention is hitting Leeds this weekend and I’m going to be there. I’m going to be there as an exhibitor (because I’m a repressed exhibitionist) on Table 105 in the Allied London Hall. That’s on the map below so please do come and see me to say hello, show off you amazing cosplay efforts and maybe take a look at stuff I’ll have to hand.

Things I will have to hand and available to buy will be the first newsletter edition of Alternate Reality News and some new horror Christmas cards that have nightamarish Lovecraftian dread angels on them (because some people like that kind of thing, right?). Plus I’ve got old stuff like the Subspace Radio Marriage zine and some postcards and prints though the most bitchin’ bits I’ve got to give away are my free calling cards (I’m loath to use the term ‘business cards’).

Things I've doodled that look a bit like this will be available...

Things I’ve doodled that look a bit like this will be available…

If you don’t see me at my table in the Allied London Hall you’ll probably find me wandering around the Royal Armouries and New Dock Hall soaking up the  atmosphere, spending small fortunes on comics and prints and generally trying not to be too starstruck around artists and writers I really admire. When I’m doing that you’ll probably find ace artist/environmental scientist Chris Fairless manning my stall and he’s lovely, so make sure you say hello to him.

To round-up then, I’m all psyched up and ready to adventure over the Pennines for Britain’s biggest comics party. Saturday and Sunday in Leeds is gonna be a good time and I’ll be hanging around. Say hey, and yay for comics!

 

I'm at Table 105 in the Allied London Hall.

I’m at Table 105 in the Allied London Hall.

Rise of the Working Barbarian…

You are faced with a blog post discussing an online fantasy fiction project. At first glance it looks like it might be interesting and relatively well-written, but you’re wary. You’ve been burned before and are still smarting from that article that postulated that Game of Thrones was a bit like a soap opera. (It might actually be more like a 16-bit SNES RPG game.) Still sore and nursing the wounds inflicted while mourning the loss of several in your party, you tread cautiously and consider your options.

If you would like to retreat to something safer and potentially less risky, turn to this page of the internet. If you would like to read the blog post, carry on and continue below…

Ah, you chose wisely. I have an fantastical thing to share with you, friend, and that thing is The Life and Times of the Working Barbarian (or The Working Barbarian if you’re into the whole brevity thing). It is the brainchild of John Steele (Magus John the Steele) who is the venerable mastermind behind the monthly Pictonaut challenge. His wish is to make a Choose Your Own Adventure story happen on the internet, crowdsourcing the choices of people in cyberspace to make the narrative happen. A rag-tag bandit band of writers will then prolong that narrative and keep the quest going. I’m honoured and humbled to be one of those writers charged with the task of taking this forward. I’m not sure where it’s going to go or what I’m going to be contributing as it goes about getting there but, by Crom, I am all stoked up for it.

I think you should be psyched about it too. Now that The Working Barbarian has gone live I encourage you to head over to the site, follow it or bookmark it and start voting to make the adventure happen. It’s a fresh chance to channel the spirit of Fighting Fantasy adventure books and play a small part in the development of a story and mythos in a public space, all happening before your eyes and affected by your whims.

As I said, I’m looking forward to being one of the people involved in its unfolding. It’s not only a fresh creative challenge but something of a psychic throwback to childhood when I got high playing videogames like The Secret of Monkey Island and trawling through those Fighting Fantasy books. I always tended to make really bad choices and so repeatedly died or ended up doing silly things like opening treasure chests to discover deadly gemstones that blinded my character. I lost every fight, came out worse in every wager and was utterly humiliated in every drinking and eating contest. Thus, I had to cheat to actually finish the adventures and my compulsive personality and constant curiosity led me to flick through all the pages and explore all the options anyway. Ah, those were fun times and my fond memories encouraged me to back the recent Kickstarter campaign to turn Hamlet into an RPG novel and, yes, conjure up my magicks and excitedly commit to this.

Turning back to the project at hand, then: go forth and follow The Life and Times of the Working Barbarian. It will be epic. It will be entertaining. It will be high adventure of the highest quality and you will be helping it along. Make your choice well…