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…

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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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…)

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…)

A Long Time Ago in a VHS Player Far, Far Away…

May the Fourth be with you! It’s Star Wars Day! I love Star Wars! We love Star Wars! Let’s all dance like the happy Ewoks at the end of Return of the Jedi and celebrate the glorious saga!

I believe we should do this because Star Wars is a bit special and as a fan I think it’s important to take a moment to cherish the precious pop culture phenomenon that’s touched us all, whether we personally wanted it to or not. I will be doing this by listening to John Williams’ scores and by flagrantly dropping quotes and references into as many conversations as possible (this is easy if most of your conversations are with yourself). I will also snatch a few moments to watch some classic movie scenes and may also consider upping the ante on my inactive ‘I Am Han Solo’ campaign.

Swept up in the excitement I thought I might head out today for a frenzied shopping spree and pick up a load of action figures or some Star Wars Lego but I’m best off keeping a tight hold of my few credits and remembering that a Jedi does not value possessions. Still I do have some Star Wars paraphernalia from my childhood knocking around and today is the day for looking at it with a little extra love in my eye. It’s the day for digging it out of cupboards, holding it in a suffocatingly tight grip to then exclaim in your Vader voice “I have you now!

Here’s what I have: triumphant orchestral blast to salute something from a long time ago…

Star Wars! Interactive video board gaming! Destroying the evil Galactic Empire with plastic pieces and cardboard thermal detonator cards!

Star Wars! Interactive video board gaming! Destroying the evil Galactic Empire with plastic pieces and cardboard thermal detonator cards!

Manufactured in 1995, it’s Star Wars: The Interactive Board Game.  It’s here in my hands and I’m desperate to play it with my Rebel comrades for some timely competitive fun on May 4th. Alas, I can’t because I don’t have a VHS player. Star Wars may be eternal, but technology marches on and out-of-date devices die out. Cue sad Wookiee howling or, if you can stand the prequels (and you should stand them and enjoy them), press that Anakin Skywalker Wail button.

Nevertheless, my memories don’t die but linger on and talk to me in moments of cold despair (they’re just like Ben Kenobi appearing to Luke when he’s freezing on Hoth after his escape from captivity beneath the claws of the Wampa). I remember fun sessions in front of the gameboard and TV, listening the instructions of Darth Vader on the screen before me. I remember trying to thwart his villainous plan to destroy the Rebel base on D’rinba IV by depositing bomb cards around his Death Star recreation. Look at those figurines and the nice artwork that graces the playing area!

... nice game with nice details..

… I don’t know what they’ll achieve by putting an R2 unit in the Detention Block…

At a particular point in the game Lord Vader would point at players and say something along the lines of “You! You now taking your turn! I have you now! You will now serve me and exchange your playing piece for the Stormtrooper figure!” And so, the Power of the Dark Side claimed a helpless innocent and they were compelled to bow down and serve the Sith Master. As a child this blatant undermining of any notion of freewill in a boardgame shocked me to the core. Still, the Rebels tended to get it together and triumph over Evil by the time the 60 minutes were up. The Force was strong with them… and they had the remote control to pause if the clock was working against them.

All in all, it was great fun and I’d be forcing it on my family tonight for May the Fourth celebrations if I had the right kit. I don’t so I’m just going to sit and look at it while listening to the Cantina Band tune. It’s also highly likely that I’ll have done a whole load of other saga-related stuff to pay tribute to the space opera that raised me. I urge you to do the same. May the Fourth be with you and May the Force be with you, always…

... and now I'm all choked up...

… and now I’m all choked up…