Thursday, February 28, 2013

Starry Wisdom - Warren Ellis in Conversation

On Tuesday evening, after being disgorged from the gaping maw of the Tottenham Court Road Station Construction Site, I settled down at Foyles to infect myself with a concentrated dose of Warren Ellis. Here are just a few of the best bits:

Following on from the “experiment” of his first novel Crooked Little Vein (“an exercise in discovering whether I could write a book”), Gun Machine was borne out of a desire to write about “old, weird America” and to show that “history is leaking up through the streets of New York as well”. (After all, publishers “don’t really care much for things set in Southend”). Ellis finds America “endlessly fascinating", referring to the idea of “the American Experiment” and observing that: “When you have a country that big full of that many people with that kind of cultural and financial pressure-cooker, you’re going to get some very strange chemical reactions happening.”

“It was definitely always going to be a book. The things that I wanted to do with this story were not going to work in a comic, not least because I knew I wanted to write a protagonist that was very internal, which can be quite difficult to do in any depth in comics, not least because it means you’re asking your artist (who you have to be aware of at all times) to draw eighteen pages of headshots.”

"Prose is almost like a theatre of the mind - it doesn't come alive for you until you're given the freedom to imagine the pictures yourself."

“If you walk around London with any kind of awareness of where you are and what’s around you, you do get the sense that everything is built on something else, and there are maps superimposed on maps all over the city, and you’re walking through several histories at once.”

“The most loathsome characters I've written are the ones that people want to see again. I've had twelve years of 'When are you going to bring Spider Jerusalem back?' I wouldn't give that bastard house room.”

“I grew up reading 2000AD and that taught me that the job of a writer is to generate new stories all the time, finding things to say and respond to time as it progresses...The idea of bending all my output to service, of all things, company-owned mythologies just seems weird to me.”

“Dad would buy me Superman comics and so forth, but it just didn’t compare to opening the first issue of 2000AD and seeing a fucking great dinosaur showing you a mouth full of chewed-up cowboy and a ray-gun dangling from a severed arm. American comics were all over for me at that point. I was nine...this was like giving me a full crack pipe.”

“Predictions, in general, are a mug’s game. It’s one of the reasons why people have such a downer on science fiction these days, because most science fiction has failed to predict the present day. Surprise surprise. 'Science fiction, that’s a bit shit, isn't it? Where were you five years before the mobile phone was everywhere, you and your rocket ships?' I don't think of science fiction as a predictive genre and I really try and avoid prediction, not least because it will help me look less stupid. I tell you what, though, the Apple iWatch is gonna be crap.”

On writing:

“Get it out in front of you so that you can have a good look at it. You've got to write and write and write, and then read it. Write something and then literally put it in a drawer for a month in a sealed envelope and set a reminder. Look at it with enough distance and see what you did wrong. And then repeat and repeat and eventually you’ll get all the bad words out and you’ll get to the good words.”

"I hate everything I've written ten minutes after I've written it"

"You're only as good as the available you on that day. If the available you on that day only got five hours sleep with a cat sat on your head, then that limits how good you’re going to be that day.”

On structure: “Don’t live and die by the skeleton, give yourself space to freestyle because you may end up going somewhere better.”

Monday, February 25, 2013


Last Friday, I attended The Story, London’s annual one-day conference about stories and storytelling at Conway Hall in Holborn. After taking my seat, armed with a bag of Witches’ Brews courtesy of the Ministry of Stories and Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, I noticed the words above the stage: “To thine own self be true”, the advice that Polonious gives his son Laertes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (Took me a while to get the gag...the line from Hamlet begins “this above all: to thine own self be true”. This. Above All. Geddit?)

Those words hold special significance for me, as it was the motto of a man who was like a second father to me. He strived and succeeded to live by those words. Those six words could similarly apply to the speakers who took the stage throughout the day at The Story. In a whirl of dense twenty minute chunks, the whole day was rammed with information that has only just finished percolating through my headmeat three days later. Here is a random smattering of my personal highlights of a day that was full of ‘em:

Producer Rebecca O'Brien spoke of her most recent collaboration with director Ken Loach, the forthcoming part archive footage, part talking heads documentary The Spirit of ‘45. Somewhat inspired by Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City and conceived as a way of keeping Loach “out of trouble”, the film documents life in post-war Britain, with O'Brien wrapping up with the killer line: “Kids learn about the war, but they don't learn about the peace”. So much interview footage didn't make it to the finished film, but will find a home at the film’s website.

Laura Dockrill gave a relentlessly passionate, ebullient and energetic performance of an excerpt from her first Darcy Burdock novel (to be published on Thursday 28 February), complete with a convincing portrayal of an octopus. (The octopus was going to have an Australian accent, but her husband told her that would be too distracting). She then went on to discuss her discovery that many of the children she meets are convinced that a career in writing is something that is unattainable to them. She is dedicated to proving to them that (and I’m paraphrasing here) writing isn't the sole preserve of lesbians, vegetarians and old people. She likes to remind them: “If you can talk, you can write.”

Artist Molly Crabapple gave a rousing speech full of eminently quotable soundbites. Here are just a few of them: “Nothing makes you think about money and power more than posing naked in jam for dentists with cameras.” “Artists are blue-collar workers with pretensions to the sublime.” And, as a closing statement and a call to arms: “Use what you love to interrogate the world”.

Ben Bocquelet is the man behind the Greatest Show on Television. The Amazing World of Gumball. Yes, The Amazing World of Gumball is even better than Breaking Bad. I've known this for quite some time now. And by the time his twenty minutes were up, everyone seated in the auditorium knew it too. For some people, it was the breathtaking and insanely detailed denouement of the wonderful episode The Job that sealed the deal. For others, it might have been the dancing banana:

Without a doubt, The Amazing World of Gumball must be an incredibly complex and time-intensive show to make, which is why Bocquelet exhorted us all to "please make sure you do something you love, that way you know it will turn out good". And on the subject of time...

Stop-motion animator Mikey Please discussed the way in which “we experience time as a fraction". He pointed out that stop-motion animation is a fine metaphor for this. He works on something for ages, just to end up with a few seconds of footage, “like running through treacle.” But the jumping off point for this train of thought was his fourth birthday party: “When I was four, I was told I had to wait a year for my next birthday party – a quarter of my life at the time. I flipped out.” All of his thoughts about the relative passage of time were poured into his short film The Eagleman Stag which you can watch here.

Fiona Romeo gave a fascinating talk about something that I hadn't ever really thought about before: the way in which museums think about narrative and story to propel people through exhibits in a compelling and engaging way, with particular reference to the High Arctic installation at the National Maritime Museum, and The Science of Spying which appeared at the Science Museum in 2007. The creation and gestation of these projects in turn inspired some of the individuals involved to create further narratives based on their work, such as Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother. It was also interesting to hear Romeo talking about adopting the Walt Disney theme park idea of “plussing” - finding ways to improve upon an idea even when you think you've done everything you can with it. (There's a great write-up of Fiona's speech by David Cornish for Wired here.)

Writer and academic Alice Bell has always been fascinated with the history of poo in children’s books. Which led to the observation that “we call it ‘kid’s media’, but it's made and designed by adults”, arguing that performers like Timmy Mallett are taking part in a kind of “generational drag” - adults who dress up and behave like children in a way that children never actually do. The revelation for me was discovering that Don Cheadle appeared as Captain Planet in a series of Funny or Die videos. Like this one (which has embedding disabled. Damn you, Captain Planet!)

The day ended with a blistering and very funny rant from B3ta co-founder Rob Manuel on that pernicious phrase “the bottom half of the internet”. As in “ignore the bottom half of the internet” or “don’t read the comments”. In an all-too compelling, excoriating tirade (in addition to adding the word “commentard” to my vocabulary), Manuel tossed out the following:
“The 'bottom half of the Internet' is like the servants' quarters below the house.”
"The word troll is the equivalent of chav for cyberspace. It's a loaded term, used to demonise those without power" 
"The bottom half of the Internet is the people!"
"Media, don't kick down, kick up. The work could disappear and you could end up at the bottom of the Internet"
“Lob word bombs at the top of the page”
"Fight back: Don't retweet the top half of the Internet."
But that doesn't do him justice and certainly doesn't capture his vitriolic energy. Click here to read his “Open Letter to Columnists” on the same subject.

Oh, and I can’t remember which speaker referenced this on the day, but here is Noam Chomsky’s “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream” from 1997.

I've barely scratched the surface. I haven’t even written about how great it was to see Edwyn Collins singing and talking and recalling how he found his way back after his stroke in 2005, which led him to last year’s album Losing Sleep and the work-in-progress documentary In Your Voice, In Your Heart. But it’s impossible to capture everything from that day in one blogpost. You had to be there. The countdown to The Story 2014 starts here...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Breaking Glass

Yesterday, Google launched Glass - “wearable technology which allows users to take pictures and navigate the web using a built in camera and see-through computer screen”. Last week, I was reading Rule 34 by Charles Stross:

"While you’re waiting at the bus-stop (expect five minutes between vehicles, according to the flickering sign - more like ten if you account for traffic jams) you put on your specs and log in to the daily news flow.”

Today’s desirable technological innovation rapidly becomes the unremarkable accessory of tomorrow’s everyday drudgery. Science fiction becomes science fact in the space of a few swift revolutions of the news cycle. If you’re reading this on the screen of something the size of a cigarette packet that you just pulled out of your pocket then, on some level, you already understand this. Which is both incredibly exciting and a real shame all at the same time.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


Having one of those weeks where everything is much, much harder than it should be. Instead of fighting it, I’m leaning into the curve. Which is how I find myself poking through some old files and excavating stuff that I clipped for future reference. I guess that future must have arrived, because I’m hurling some of the more interesting chunks up here. Let the Copy-And-Paste Fun Begin!

"We’re deathly afraid of that stabbing word “pretentious,” the word that students use to curse each other’s ambition. It’s a young person’s word, a shortcut-to-thinking word. I’m a big fan of pretension. It means “an aspiration or intention that may or may not reach fulfillment.” It doesn't mean failing upward. It means trying to exceed your grasp. Which is how things grow." 
Warren Ellis

"In film, because you know where the ending is, characters can change, but in television, you substitute revelation for change and that can be hard to pull off."
Hugh Laurie on Gregory House

"It’s fantastic! I have never seen the collective dreams all in one place."
Werner Herzog at Comic-Con

"Most directors make films with their eyes; I make films with my testicles."
Alejandro Jodorowsky

"He’s a sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator."
Federico Fellini on why Donald Sutherland was his perfect choice for the role of Casanova.

"When I write, I must not censor my own imagery or connections. I must not worry about what critics will say, what leftists will say, what environmentalists will say. I must ignore all that. If I listen to all those voices I will be paralyzed, because none of this can be resolved. I have to go back to the voice that spoke before all these structures were imposed on it, and let it speak these terrible truths. By being irresponsible I will be responsible."
David Cronenberg

"Tomorrow’s Sam Fuller won’t emerge via Sundance: he/she’ll be shooting porn in Rio or Rotterdam for obscure satellite channels."
Chris Petit

"Quality is the best business plan."
John Lasseter

"It’s not the job of fiction to present people with whom one might like to be friends."
Zoƫ Heller

"Actually, I jade very quickly. Once is usually enough. Either once only, or every day. If you do something once it’s exciting, and if you do it every day it’s exciting. But if you do it, say, twice or just almost every day, it’s not good any more.”
Andy Warhol