Archive for March, 2009

Love Hotel City

Posted in Books, Fiction with tags , , , , on March 31, 2009 by richardblandford

I have a short story, ‘The Koshino Animation Company of Japan’, featured in the new Tokyo-themed 3AM anthology, Love Hotel City, out April 1st.  It’s edited by Andrew Stevens, and also features contributions from Stephen Barber, Paul Ewen, Steve Finbow, Michael Gardiner, Ken Hollings, Richard Marshall, Ben Myers, John-Ivan Palmer, Lee Rourke, Kenji Siratori and Steven Wells.  

Apparently I’m one of the UK’s ‘most subversive authors’.  I’m not sure what they mean by that.  I hope it’s a compliment, and they don’t think I fiddle with kids or anything.


It’s Twittertastic!

Posted in Life on March 28, 2009 by richardblandford

I’ve been on 140-characters or less novelty social network Twitter for several weeks now, and I have to say it’s surprisingly fantastic.  It certainly has its knockers, with the tiny character limit leading people to believe that everybody on it can only be saying inane things like ‘I’ve just eaten a turnip’, ‘My wee smells funny’, or ‘My mum’s died’.  Often when expressing this opinion, knockers will engage in clever wordplay and refer to Twitter users as ‘twits’ or, if they’re really sharp, go one better with ‘twats’.

Now, I have a mixed history with social networking sites.  I probably would never have entered this area at all if it wasn’t for the fact I had a book out, and I’d realised it was standard industry practice to promote literary fiction by hiding the books behind a pillar, painting them a particularly light-swallowing shade of black, and have a big scary man stand in front of them smelling of B.O., going, ‘There ain’t no books right?  Anyone who told you there was is a fucking nonce.  You mention those books again and you won’t live to see Christmas, and that’s not a threat, it’s a promise.’

(I am of course JOKING, and merely expressing frustration at the situation an author finds themselves in when writing anything other than obvious bargain table fodder.  A lot of hard work went into promoting my books by various individuals which I fully recognise.  Literary fiction is just very hard to launch, and there’s only so much room in the market.  Not everybody gets to be Audrey Niffenegger.)

Anyway, I decided to be pro-active about the whole thing and noticed that there was this new site called ‘Myspace’ that the kids were down with where you had your own page and could tell people about what you’re up to, which in my case, was writing books.  Consequently I set myself up on that and did quite well out of it, selling a fair few copies and making some worthwhile contacts and some good cyber-friends (who are just like real friends, but without the inconvenience of having to genuinely interact with them).

There were drawbacks to Myspace, however.  To really do anything with it, you had to send ‘friend requests’ to people you didn’t know at all, but guessed from looking at their page that if hypothetically they were to meet you, they wouldn’t immediately hate you as a matter of principle.  The drawback to this was that it would leave you feeling rather grubby, like a virtual door-to-door salesman, and sometimes you would just misjudge completely, and be met with the same level of fury at your easily-ignorable friend request that most of us save for that moment when someone breaks into your house, does a big steamy dump on the carpet, and anally violates your grandmother with a splintering broom-handle.

By the time of my second book, however, Myspace was a ghost-town.  This was, of course, because of Facebook.  Visiting the pages of people who had bought and liked my first book to inform them of my new release, I was generally greeted with a message more or less saying, ‘Not really here much anymore.  Gone to the Other Place’.

I could never be doing with Facebook.  I tried it, but was unnerved by the fact that it was became so popular that everyone I had met in my life ever signed up over one weekend and got back in touch, even people whose fleshy counterparts I wasn’t on speaking terms with.

Also, the amount of private material that washes up on Facebook, regardless of whether you want it there or not, is truly frightening, and I felt very uneasy as the wall that separates the private and public ‘me’ began to break down before my eyes.  So, save for a Facebook group I don’t really do much with, I pretty much withdrew from the site, at least as a way of contacting a wider reading public.  

Now along comes Twitter.  I’m not sure why I went on it.  I think it was the fact that some comedians and public figures I admire were not only there, but actually talking to people.  Most of these already had Myspace pages, but you rarely sure it was actually them, and even if you were, they wouldn’t actually reply to messages.  With Twitter, however, they were not only interacting with their audience, they seemed to really enjoy it!

(As an aside, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Jonathan Ross signed up to Twitter in the aftermath of Sachsgate.  That whole incident now seems like a cry for help from someone who was getting away with more and more extreme things, and wasn’t being told to step on the brakes by the very people whose job it was to do so.  With Twitter, Ross would now be immediately answerable to many thousands of people if he were ever to cross lines that made his own audience uncomfortable, as was happening with greater frequency on his TV chat show in the months before it all went wrong.)

What makes Twitter so attractive to comedians and public figures is that saying something in 140 characters does not inevitably lead to inanities at all.  Rather, it presents a challenge to say something funny, enlightening or even profound as simply and directly as possible (and if you do need to expand, you can just post a Tiny URL link).

Compared to Myspace and Facebook (and Bebo, I suppose, whatever that is), there aren’t that many people on Twitter.  The people who are there, however, are amongst the funniest, most culturally engaged and stimulating people I’ve ‘met’ in Cyberspace.  It’s like an Enlightenment coffee shop without the serving maids who double as prostitutes (is that a historical fact?  I might have just made that up).  Perhaps more superficially, it’s also great fun when everyone’s watching the same TV programme.  Then it’s like having a bunch of very witty friends round your house for a viewing party (as opposed to real life, where the bloke from down the pub insists on coming home with you to watch something and just sits there shouting ‘prrrickk!’ at the screen every few minutes).

It’s not just about being funny or clever either.  Graham Linehan used it very effectively to raise awareness of the Scottish Express’s appalling article that savaged the Dunblane shooting survivors.  I’ve also seen it used to promote intelligent political debate and engage with elected representatives.

The way it works is also inherently polite.  You don’t send a message asking to be someone’s ‘friend’.  You just follow them.  Whether or not they do the same to you is entirely up to them.  If they do, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t.  So no one gets hassled, and it’s all lovely.

Twitter will probably be out of fashion this time next year and everyone will have moved on to Hummer, a social networking site currently in development in which people communicate entirely through transcriptions of their own non-verbal noises (strictly NO recognisable words allowed).  

Until then, however, I say enjoy it, as interesting people are there, now, being interesting, and being accessible.  It’s like the Saturday Superstore phone-in, but you actually  stand a chance of getting through and talking to Kajagoogoo.  And if that doesn’t sway you, nothing will!

The Sound of No Hands Clapping

Posted in TV on March 17, 2009 by richardblandford

I was amazed by the first episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle last night, not just by the quality, but by the fact that the BBC had actually thought to commission it.  I was under the impression they had a strict ‘No Quality’ policy when it came to comedy (with even talented performers such as David Mitchell shoved into sketch-show formats that do them no favours) so it was with some surprise that I found a show so unashamedly daring and intelligent had washed up on my TV screen.

In one particular segment, Lee went into a long, rambling, strange and disorienting non-description of the nature of rappers, who apparently can be distinguished by their appearing on ‘the Top of the Pops’ and propensity to jump up on bins.  It was obviously an homage to the work of the legendary Ted Chippington, a comedian who appeared on the circuit in the Eighties, telling jokes that were barely jokes, engaging in rambling monologues with obsessive repetition of details, and reciting and subverting the lyrics of songs in a deadening monotone.  Lee is a huge fan of Chippington, as can be seen in this item from the Culture Show, which also serves as an introduction to the great man’s work:

The thing I like about Chippington is that, like Andy Kaufman, he wasn’t afraid to end up with an entire roomful of people hating him. In fact, if he got that much more of a favourable reaction, it was a disappointment to him, and he retired for some years as too many people were getting the joke (He has since come out of retirement. I saw him last year and he still has the power to divide a room. I found it hilarious, but realised on the way home that I’d forgotten practically everything he said. It was as if I’d been hypnotised).

All too often these days, being creative in any field seems like a popularity contest, with work only gaining any validity in the mind of the consuming public (and sometimes the artist themselves) when enough other people can be seen thinking of it as worthwhile. We’ve come a long way, it seems, from the idea of Van Gogh painting masterpieces for no one but his brother and his postman. I once stumbled on a former Britpop star of yesteryear giving a seminar to a handful of young hopefuls, telling them that unless their band had a following after five gigs, then it meant they were no good. That’s it. No room for manoeuvre. No extenuating circumstances. Five gigs and you’re out. No point doing it because no one likes you. Fail (I encountered said former Britpop star of yesteryear later on at a pub quiz. He suggested that we merge teams the following week. He didn’t turn up. Cock).

As Adam Ant said, ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’, and never was a truer word spoken in the history of pop music. If you feel something needs to be done, in a particular way, and cannot be convinced otherwise, then you should do it (In art anyway. Annexing the Rhineland and invading Poland, not so much. Unless that is your art, in which case, carry on). Just as long as you believe in it. Ted Chippington knows that, I think.

Our Day Out

Posted in TV on March 8, 2009 by richardblandford

Delighted to see that Our Day Out, Willy Russell’s BBC Play For Today from 1976, has been posted in its entirety on YouTube (Go here to see it all).

Amazing to think that in the 70s, Russell, Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale, Lyndsay Anderson and many other notables had work commissioned for this one-off drama slot, resulting in intelligent, brave and entertaining pieces that spoke to a mass audience and yet challenged them at the same time. Now virtually the only serious writers the BBC appears to act as patron to are Jimmy McGovern (whose work has descended into emotionally bullying Catholic guilt-fests) and Steven Poliakoff (who for the most part only seems interested in writing about posh people).

The role of programmes such as Play For Today, in which the audience often had aspects of their own lives projected back to them as drama, has been taken over by soaps. These are incapable of consistently good storytelling because a) they’re in a ratings war with each other, so have to regularly go for extreme plots just to get the punters in, regardless of their appropriateness to the overall situation they depict and b) the cast is never stable, so perfectly good marriages improbably break down, and singletons decide to move, pack and go forever in an afternoon in order to get an actor out in time for the panto season.

Our Day Out is beautifully written. I don’t know if Willy Russell came up with anything quite as good again (I’d take it over Educating Rita any day). There was a musical stage version in the Eighties, but for me the TV version is in no need of elaboration. In it, a group of remedial class Liverpudlian kids are taken on a day-trip to Wales by Diane from Emmerdale and one of the ex-coppers from New Tricks. Along the way, both teachers and pupils discover that there is more to life than they realised. The details are wonderful – the boys smoke at the back of the bus, the girls flirt with a male teacher, and when they go through the Mersey Tunnel, everyone cheers. Politically it’s of it’s time, and maybe it’s a big ragged around the edges, but all in all it’s a fantastic thing, and i guarantee it will touch and stay with you in a way that the latest japeries of Minty and Gary and the conflicts of various shouty East End bald men never will. As a nation, we’ve forgotten how to tell little stories about ourselves like this one, that seem to do so little but say so much. A shame. I think we might have lost something important.

Diary of a Madman and Other Stories

Posted in Books with tags , , on March 3, 2009 by richardblandford

A while back, I embarked on a project designed to provide me with a working knowledge of world literature by the time I’m ninety. I like to call it ‘Project: Well-Read B4 Dead’.  Every so often, using a complex system incorporating informed opinion, astronomical charts and the I Ching, I select a book that I may not necessarily be drawn to just on personal taste, but is undoubtedly very good. Hopefully, once the project is complete, I will be able to say, ‘now, I truly know literature’, and expire, content.

This time round, I read Diary of a Madman and Other Stories by the early 20th Century Chinese author, Lu Xun. There’s always a danger when reading what is clumsily known as world literature (and I say this fully aware that English language writing is ‘world literature’ to others) that however good the author is, that their writing is just too tied up with the historical and social specifics of their time and place of creation to be able to communicate that much to those not overly familiar with them.  A case in point would be some of the later writings of Borges, which are so tied up with Argentinian history and identity, getting through them requires a lot of dedication and patience with translator’s footnotes.

With the writings of Lu Xun, you need the footnotes. He wrote during a relatively short historical moment, in which China gradually moved away from being a feudal society, a sometimes violent process of modernisation that ultimately resulted in the Communist Revolution led by Mao. Fortunately, the footnotes in William A. Lyell’s translation are absolutely excellent, as is his conversion of the author’s colloquial Chinese into American English (Example: ‘Let that be a lesson, you fucker!’)

Lu Xun’s principle concern was highlighting the things that China needed to discard in order to move forward, such as superstition and the social injustices that traditional hierarchies inflicted on those at the bottom of the heap. Consequently, a lot of his stories follow the blueprint of much literature of the Left of this period, which is, essentially, ‘bad things happening to poor people’ (see the short stories of Jack London for an American variant on this).

Conditioned by the sentimental feel-good structure of more recent stories of poverty and woe, I kept on waiting for the initial grim set-up to be turned upside by some unexpected good fortune. In Lu Xun, however, the good fortune never arrives, and things turn out just as badly as you fear they might. Grim reading, perhaps, but then no one ever brought about social change by telling people that everything will magically be all right if you just wait around long enough.

Not all the short stories are this bleak, however (and even the bleak ones have a sad, stark beauty that rescues them from wrist-slashing territory). Others are more ambiguous, with a balance of elements so subtle it sometimes wasn’t until a full twenty-four hours later that I saw how they added up to actually constitute a story.

Indeed, there’s quite a variety of tone. ‘The Story of Hair’ quirkily details how the recent history of China is reflected in trends in hairstyles. ‘Mourning the Dead’ is a beautiful and sad love story that’s crying out for a film version and a Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar. ‘Village Opera’, meanwhile, is an autobiographical piece that weirdly mirrors my childhood experience of a Radio 1 Roadshow with Peter Powell.

Perhaps Lu Xun’s writing is most immediate, however, when he’s writing about madness, a theme he returns to several times (insanity induced, of course, by the strictures of an unfair society). Here’s an older translation of the Gogol-inspired title story of the collection. Why not give it a go?

All in all, I’d say reading it was a valuable experience.  I feel stretched and satisfied.  Now I’m just off to find something where unexpected good fortune makes everything all right in the end.