Friday, May 26, 2006

Desmond Dekker 1941 – 2006



"I don't want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde."

Details here and here.

Speechless and gutted. I know what I'll be listening to for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Final Punch Playlist

OK. Further to my earlier blatherings, and in the Spirit of the New, this is the last Punch Playlist. Far too much of the blog is being devoured by details of my aurgasms these days, and it has to go. In a clutter-clearing exercise, I’m taking this short-lived feature out the back and terminating it with extreme prejudice. In the exceptionally unlikely event that you still care about what I’m listening to on a regular basis, you can refer to the Funk Fiction box halfway down the right-hand side of the page.

And so, here is the Punch Playlist Special Swansong Edition:

Create your own Music List @ HotFreeLayouts!

Projectiles

Be warned: Lots of thinking out loud coming up…

“Learn to write well, or not to write at all.” John Dryden

It’s been almost exactly a year since I last had something published with my name attached to it. My last published article (a film review) was actually a pretty good piece. I can tell by reading it again, though, that I was ready to holster my keyboard and hang up my spurs for a while.

The article was the last in a run of twelve reviews written in the space of about a year for a music website. For that year, I held the title of “Film Editor” for that website, which was just a meaningless euphemism for “The Only Guy Who Really Writes About Film For This Site”.

So, I walked. (Not that anyone noticed). Partly due to circumstance, partly due to personal desire, partly due to changes behind the scenes. I knew I was done with film journalism. Maybe permanently, maybe I only needed a break to get the blood pumping again. Either way, I needed to walk away for a bit. Now, that may sound like an ending to you. To me? Sounds just like a beginning…

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” Cyril Connolly


Nevertheless, a writer writes, right? I can’t not write. I don’t know how to. It’s a compulsion. If I don’t write for a couple of days, I get restless and twitchy and need to get the words out to keep myself sane. A curse or a gift, depending on which way the wind is blowing on any given day.

So, with the film journalism on the shelf indefinitely (maybe even permanently), my mind wandered onto thoughts of What Happens Next. And it didn’t take me long to decide. I was going to take myself out of the game for a while. No pitching, no structure, no editorial constraints, nothing. Just me and words for the foreseeable future. If I just ended up with a shapeless mess of language, all jagged edges and lumpy blobs? No problem. It’s all a writing exercise. Gets the juices running. Gets the synapses sparking.

Hell, it’s all writing exercises. Film reviews? It’s writing to length, to house style, getting to the point, keeping it accessible, try to entertain, try to keep a bit of yourself in there. Blogging? Scribbling on scraps of paper? They’re all writing exercises, if you allow them to be. Nothing is a waste, everything has a purpose.

And it’s been good. I’ve had the freedom to dick around endlessly with whatever takes my fancy. And it’s all just for me. Learnt a few tricks and got a few things out of my system. But I’m getting that gnawing itch again. Time to jump off a cliff and think about What Happens Next again.

The Year of Film Reviewing for a Totally Inappropriate Website is sooooo 2004, and long gone. And now, The Year of Self-Indulgent Word Wankery is also drawing to a close. So, what next?

Well, it’s time for The Year of The Project. Get my name back out there. Impose structure once more. I’ve been playing with the art of writing for long enough. Now is the time to get back into the craft of it.

And ideas? Man, I gotta bunch of ‘em…

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.” Neil Gaiman

So, this is it. Day One of my New Year. Film journalism will be back on my slate of projects for the coming months, but not in the way it has been in the past. Not quite ready to make any announcements about that yet.

Short stories, comic scripts, screenplays, long-form novels….it all starts here. I’ll spend a while pulling together all the disparate threads I’ve cast out over the last year, and when they are nice and taut, twanging with tension, then the work begins. But it’s not really work if you enjoy it so much, is it?

“I am a galley slave to pen and ink.” Honore de Balzac


Something worth mentioning: One of the many things that has inspired me recently, for many reasons, is Monster Island by David Wellington. A novel originally written and published online as blog postings, it has recently been published as a print edition. And it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Want a quick bite-sized one-sentence review? OK: If Charles Dickens was a New Yorker who wrote zombie stories, he’d write Monster Island.

Monster Island bear-hugs every zombie clichĂ© imaginable, before spinning them on their rotting heads and weaving something consistently surprising and original with every inventive twist and turn of the story. As it was published as blog entries over a period of time, almost every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, pushing you forward to the next bit. And, like every true Romero acolyte, Wellington doesn’t use the word “zombie” once. Top man.

And it’s made me think about the nature of serial fiction quite a lot. Monster Island, like the work of Dickens, started out as serialised fiction, which forced the author to think about making every scene and moment count, ensuring that you return for the next bit. So that’s got my wheels turning too…

The best bit? You can read Monster Island in its entirety online right now, for free. And the two sequels in the trilogy. And his latest, currently incomplete story, Thirteen Bullets.

Me? I’m old-school, so I’m forcing myself to wait until Monster Nation is in print later on this year before I dive into the second novel in the series. Also, the man deserves my money for giving me such a damned good read. I’m so tempted to nip into Chapter One though…

Anyway, enough of my yakking. There is work to be done.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Punch Playlist 12/05/06

Create your own Music List @ HotFreeLayouts!

It took me three full listens to get to grips with the Gnarls Barkley album, but I think I’ve finally cracked it. I’m a Danger Mouse fan anyway, so I just had to grab it by the guts and cram it into my ears until I yielded. It is, as they say, a grower. Obviously, I have the loping, heroically infectious pop of Crazy skipping around in my head now, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do about that...

Also, this seems as good a place as any to talk about my reignited passion for The Ink Spots, with their innovative melange of bluegrass, blues, doo-wop and jazz, swathed in irresistible vocal harmonies, particularly in their early stretch of hits from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. In addition to the hypnotically mellifluous Whispering Grass, they are the legends behind the best song ever written about coffee ever. Yes. Ever.

Proof? Here’s a snippet of the masterpiece known as Java Jive:

“I love coffee, I love tea
I love the java jive and it loves me
Coffee and tea and the java and me
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup

I love java, sweet and hot
Whoops Mr. Moto, I’m a coffee pot
Shoot the pot and I’ll pour me a shot
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup

Oh slip me a slug from the wonderful mug
And I’ll cut a rug just snug in a jug
A sliced up onion and a raw one
Draw one -
Waiter, waiter, percolator”

Obviously, this is better when you hear them singing it. Honest. No, really. Trust me.

The Stationary Agent

Hey, Crabman.

Today, I come to you with a confessional of sorts. I’m a stationary addict. There, I’ve said it. It’s out in the world now, and I can’t take it back. But, you know, admitting it is half the challenge, right?

Before I dive into the fine print of my obsession, allow me to indulge in a moment of pedantry. I think it’s worth drawing an important distinction. Writing involves the usage of some kind of utensil such as a pen, in conjunction with some kind of media such as paper. Using a computer is typing, not writing. OK? OK.

You may disagree. And you may not be wrong to disagree. But this is my view of the world, in all its skewed majesty.

Amongst the many reasons why writing is superior to typing: paper doesn’t crash, it doesn’t need upgrades, it won’t erase your words, it won’t be infected by a virus, it doesn’t need batteries or a power source of any kind, and it can be used anywhere.

This reminds me of a line from an episode of cult 80s dystopic cyperpunk TV show Max Headroom, in a scene where Blank Reg has to explain what a book is: "It's a non-volatile storage medium. It's very rare. You should have one."

Non-volatile storage mediums. Gotta love ‘em.

Also? I’d rather stare at a blank white sheet of paper than the blank white screen of my monitor. Better for my eyes, anyway. Not to mention the fact that transferring scrawled words from a notebook to a Word file can also be called “a Second Draft”, as you do away with the misspellings, clunky sentences and just good ol’ fashioned shit ideas. In the immortal words of Errol Brown, “Everyone’s a winner, baby, that’s no lie.”

But I digress. I was talking about my stationary addiction. I love stationary with unashamed abandon. I love creamy white unspoilt pages just waiting for me to violate them with my unruly words. I love the whorls of dark ink as my pen glides across a page, seeping into the dead trees, leaving behind a mixture of divine inspiration and useless bullshit.

I carry a notebook around everywhere I go. You never know when an idea, or a character, or a line of dialogue, or an observation will drop, unprompted, into your mind. Also, I have a diabolical memory sometimes, so if I don’t write something down straight away, I might lose it forever. Other times, when I have some minutes to kill, I’ll whip out my notebook and just start free-writing, throwing up whatever shimmies across my parietal lobe at that moment. Sometimes all I end up with is a haystack, but occasionally I find the needle too. And that’s what counts.

And when I have trouble articulating something that I can visualise, I just sketch out a frame or a panel of action, knowing that when I refer back to it later, it will make more sense than if I had rambled on for a page or so trying to describe what I can see in my third eye. Can’t do that on my PC, either. Only on the Mighty Paper.

So, I’m a whore for stationary. I think I’ve made that clear by this point. But what kind of stuff punches my buttons? Well, for portability, I do love me a Muji notebook. Simple, elegant, takes a licking and keeps on ticking. I can cram it in my pocket or in my bag, beat the shit out of it, and it still stays perfectly bound at the spine, so I don’t lose any pages. A perfect receptacle for my scribblings. I’ve got a small pile of these, and I still need to grab a few more.

For long-from writings, I have a gorgeous Paperblanks Saddleworn Old Leather Wrap Journal, something that I treated myself to when I received my first paycheque from my current job, lo those many months ago. (I’ve also got one of their Back Pocket minis that I haven’t broken in yet).

And then there’s the functional Ryman hardback notebook with unruled pages where I stick newspaper and magazine clippings for reference and inspiration. And the battered old WHSmith journal that is filthy and damaged, well-used and much-loved. She’s the madam in my brothel of stationary.

To extend the metaphor past its break-point, the virgin in my stable is an Italian suede-bound journal that must have cost Mrs. AKA a small fortune when she bought it for me a couple of Christmases back. I haven’t managed to bring myself to write in it yet. I feel intimidated by its purity, and I don’t want to sully the pages with anything substandard. I’m saving it for something special.

I am powerless to walk past anywhere that sells paper in any of its forms, and I gaze longingly at displays of journals, forcing myself not to reach into my pocket for my wallet. (Thankfully, I haven’t been bitten by the Moleskin bug yet. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I weaken).

Anyway, just wanted to share the love. (And I didn’t even start to talk about pens…)

If the stunning London weather holds up, I might take a notebook for a walk down to the side of the canal, and share a beer and a chat with it at lunchtime.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The 'Show

After 26 years, London comic shop Comic Showcase is closing its doors for the last time…



Another London landmark freighted with memories is going to disappear, as my ever-evolving metropolis chews up some more real estate and spits it out looking like, no doubt, another Starbucks or something else the Big Smoke doesn’t really need.

As a young boy, when I was first hypnotically entranced by the monthly adventures of Stan Lee’s radioactive children, like many, many others, I used to depend on the local newsagent for my regular fix of sound effects that could shatter panel borders, with the reassuring sound of a “Thwip!”, a “Snikt!” or a “Bamf!”, or the rallying battle cries of “Avengers Assemble!” or “It’s Clobberin’ Time!”

But newsagents weren’t enough. It was easy to miss issues to the byzantine distribution methods that got American comics into British newsagents. But I discovered an alternative: shops that sold nothing but comics!

Occasionally, I managed to get my Dad to take me to two places that were ceiling to floor, wall to wall, four-colour picture palaces. The original Forbidden Planet on Denmark Street, and the original Comic Showcase on Neal Street, nestled in the margins of Covent Garden. Both stores were slightly crowded, messy, dusty, shambolic and utterly magical. I was always slightly awed by the Comic Showcase logo, a Brian Bolland-designed Joker fanning a deck of cards. I still absolutely love that picture.

Fast forward, and Comic Showcase relocates to its current and final resting place on Charing Cross Road, a prominent strip packed with book shops, and a perfect spot for passing trade, from locals to tourists. At the beginning of the decade, when me and many, many others were making a good living working in what was laughably referred to as “New Media”, before the dotcom bubble burst, Comic Showcase was a perfect central meeting point for lunchtime shenanigans.

Many a Thursday morning was spent with e-mails and IMs fired across London between B and I.

“Meet you 12.30pm at the ‘Show?”

After scooping up a small stack of comics, we would move on for coffee or pizza or maybe even a cheeky beer. But it started with an amble around The ‘Show.

Nowadays, I just don’t have the time to go and hunt down comics on a weekly basis. I just get them delivered to my door. But whenever I was in the vicinity, I always popped in to browse the racks.

And on Saturday, June 17th, it’s all over. By all accounts, the reason for closure is a 50% increase in rent, the leaseholders want to redevelop the area, and the management have decided not to relocate. (Another one of my favourite Charing Cross Road haunts, Murder One, has already moved across the street away from that strip).

Forbidden Planet may be bigger, Orbital may be cheaper, and Gosh! may have a broader selection of indies, but there was always something reassuring about Comic Showcase sitting right there in the middle of them all. I’ll have to make some time to get over there before they close to grab some of their going-out-of-business sale stock.

Farewell, Comic Showcase. Excelsior!

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Punch Playlist 08/05/06

Brand New Words are forthcoming, but I can't weave my addled thoughts together properly at the moment. I have been squeezing this stuff into my head in the meantime, however...

Create your own Music List @ HotFreeLayouts!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

And bambina makes three

Aaand we’re back with the previously advertised final instalment of my Neapolitan narrative…

Travel broadens the mind, right? But let’s not forgot G.K. Chesterton’s addendum to that hoary old saw: “They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind." And there ain’t no mind like the mind of a 19-month old little girl on her first holiday.

As usual, Buttercup impressed the hell out of me. Cabin pressure didn’t bother her in the slightest as our flight ascended and descended. At one point, she wiggled her little finger into her ear to indicate a minor discomfort, but that was all. And all around us, the other tykes in the air were wailing and screaming in agony as their tiny little eardrums popped. Buttercup couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about…

Another thing about travelling with a little child? You can never have too many pockets. Pockets are your friends. A jacket with lots of pockets is like the Minivan of clothing. In addition to the detritus of your own existence (wallet, keys, mobile phone, etc.), you have all the additional pockets you need for toys and books and, most importantly, tissues. You can never, ever have too many tissues. Tissues are also your friends. Banish spillages! Vanquish runny noses! Destroy the crumbly remnants of snacks that besmirch the face of your first-born! (Also? Mrs. AKA can get through more wipes in a day than Adrian Monk.)

From what I could see, Italians absolutely adore children. People just could not get enough of Buttercup. Waiters would smile and make noises and funny faces at her. Cleaners would scoop her up and kiss our little bambina, to her delight. If the same thing had happened in the UK, I would have been screaming "Take your stinkin’ hands off her, you damn dirty ape!" But in Sorrento, it felt like a totally normal and natural thing. It’s all about context…

Buttercup quickly got used to having all eyes turn to her, and big smiling faces looming over her. She’ll get over it after a few weeks back in the UK. When she smiles at a stranger here, and doesn’t get a smile in return, she scowls back at them.

It was amazing to hear her vocabulary slowly expanding. Her repertoire of familiar phrases like “up and down” and “thank you muchy” were joined by “ciao” and “grazie” by the time we left. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard my daughter say “grazie”.

One word she struggles with is “banana”. She really tries, but whatever she says, it always sounds like “dumbass”. (Which is interesting when we are out in public, and she looks at me and says “DUMBASS!”. My wife sometimes does the same thing, but for entirely different reasons). One afternoon, sitting by the pool, her desire for dumbass was so powerful, that she crammed far-too-large a piece of banana into her mouth and, very quickly, undigested banana spattered against the concrete at my feet. (Note: This is one of the many occasions when you can never, ever have too many tissues.)

Before I had a chance to scoop up and dispose of the banana glop on the floor, a small lizard skittered out from behind a plant, clamped the regurgitated dumbass between its teeth, and quickly ran off again.

You don’t see that kind of thing every day. And that’s just one of the many joys of getting another part of the world under your feet. To see the new things. Even if sometimes that’s only a lizard eating a banana that your daughter just puked up.

On our final morning in Sorrento, Mount Vesuvius was invisible. Hidden behind a haze of cloud and mist, the volcano had decided to say goodbye to us before we had a chance to say goodbye to it. But that’s OK. We’ll see it again one day…

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Punch Playlist 02/05/06

Create your own Music List @ HotFreeLayouts!

Ballsalicious!

A brief interlude from my holiday reminiscences to bring you this tour de force from the weekend, which was far, far too good to ignore.

But first, the set-up (courtesy of Wikipedia): At the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, which was broadcast on C-SPAN and MSNBC, Stephen Colbert delivered a blistering satirical attack on the White House and the journalism establishment that left many of its audience, including President Bush, decisively uncomfortable and silent.

In a world where the news media is increasingly and shamefully timid and toothless, it takes a satirist to stand in front of Dubya and deliver a withering smack-down of ballsalicious proportions. I am awe-stuck and downright delighted.

A full transcript of Stephen Colbert’s routine can be found here.

Don't forget to go and say "Thank you Stephen Colbert!"

Monday, May 01, 2006

Cliffhanger

Luckily for us, we set off early and managed to stay one step ahead of the holiday traffic all day long.

Our coach driver looked like a cross between Peter Falk and Jimmy Durante, and he was introduced to us as “the finest coach driver in all of Italy, from a long line of coach drivers”. This dubious accolade wasn’t particularly reassuring, seeing as there was a long crack spidering across the coach windshield.

The tight bends were still pretty scary, especially when little motorini kept trying to squeeze past us. The corners didn’t bother me that much to begin with, but fear can be infectious, and Mrs. AKA held her breath now and then, which didn’t help.

Our tour guide for the day was called Brigitte, who had been doing this day-trip twice a week for 32 years. Neither English nor Italian were her first languages, but she was knowledgeable and charming in a brittle, Scandinavian way, hurling out anecdotes and history lessons in her clipped English accent. Brigitte was wizened and weathered, her blonde, bouffant hair had come straight out of a bottle, and you could tell that she had probably been quite desirable in her youth, but those days were long past. She managed to evoke other times, pointing out the house that Rex Harrison used to own, where he used to sit on the sea front drinking champagne for breakfast with Laurence Olivier.

The coach first passed through Positano, the entire village consisting of houses clinging precariously to the mountainside, before we finally arrived in Amalfi. There, we jumped into a boat so that we could see the town from the water, particular attention being paid to the homes of Roger Moore and Gore Vidal. The weather was starting to change, so on disembarking from the boat, we rushed off to buy Buttercup a sweatshirt to stop her teeth from chattering.

The day ended with a stop in Ravello, by which time we were all tired, so we just sat in a café in the piazza, drinking coffee. I never did get the opportunity to drink as much Italian coffee as I would have liked, but I always enjoyed those moments when I could sit with my family, drinking coffee and watching the world go by.

It’s always interesting to see and meet new people in a new place. It throws a completely different perspective on everything. There was the builder from Bolton on holiday with his teenage daughter, enjoying his first holiday in 15 years. He was booked on excursions every day, and he was loving the endless diet of pizza and pasta. He worked mostly on houses in France, and he was focussed on the fact that “every nail I hammer is another Euro toward my holiday.” He was making the most of his week away.

Then there were the newlyweds from Yorkshire, who were always smiling, and the elderly couple from Cambridge in the room next to ours, who were utterly charmed by Buttercup.

Everyone was utterly charmed by Buttercup…

To be concluded…