Thursday, May 14, 2020

All Mixed Up.

My reading selection has been a real mixed bag recently. A couple of Spec-Fic books and collections, some rock biographies, a memoir from a fan who visited a band while they were recording, and some non-fiction. I'm currently reading some short stories by Victoria Hislop, and I'm really enjoying them. A great selection of vignettes set in Greece.

I've also been ripping through some magazines. The Fortean Times, Popshot Quarterly, Mojo, and an odd little journal called the Teatles. This is not a misspelling, and it is about the Beatles, but mostly drinking tea. If this is your thing, as it is mine, follow them on twitter.

In between all this, are the academic journals, articles and texts I'm reading for my studies. As you can imagine, they are a right hoot to read - especially after a long day at work. But it needs to be done, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Every now and then I get an itching to read an old classic. At the moment most of my books are stored away, which saves me from pushing these to the top of the TBR stack. But there are a few I want (and need) to revisit. It's incredible how different these books can be after many years. But for now it's Victoria Hislop in Greece. Somewhere I've never been, but somewhere I will visit one day.

Next on the list, however, is some old fashioned fantasy from Andy Remic. About time I dug back into a world not like our own.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Our Own Exclusive Spheres.

As a teen, I remember spending hours perusing the racks in the record shop before handing over my saved money to purchase an album. Once home I would throw it onto the turntable as soon as I could, and sit and read the album notes. Anything, in fact, that was on the cover, the inner sleeve and even the copyright notices on the label.

The names seemed strange, exotic. Pink Floyd, for example, were Waters, Wright, Mason and Gilmour. There were no photos of the band, they didn't appear on Countdown (Australia's music programme), I didn't have any books about them - I simply had to imagine what they were like based on the music.

The same with Steeleye Span. The first of their albums I bought, Commoner's Crown, had pictures of little figurines, with their names alongside it. Vocals by Maddy Prior. I'd never heard the name Maddy before, and I must admit I imagined the band as living in some kind of medieval village as minstrels.

There was no internet, no way for a lad in the suburbs to learn more about these artists. I knew about the Beatles and the Stones from TV and books, but the libraries and shops I went to didn't have books about anything other than the most popular of bands.

I never dreamed that one day it would be possible to make contact with my heroes, or even to have conversations with them. We moved in orbits in our own exclusive spheres. These days, those spheres can touch.

Recently, I ended up having an online chat with one of my guitar heroes. A guy I listened to in High School, and loved. And when I started playing guitar, spent hours working out a couple of his riffs. And yet, all those years later, here I was having a chat as he shared a few little bits about the album I didn't know.

Also recently I had 'likes' and comments from another hero.  It is a strange, strange feeling when that happens.

The world is a smaller place, because of the internet, and our heroes are now within reach. Sometimes, it can be terrifying for them. We read of celebrities chased from Twitter or Facebook by a rampaging mob carrying metaphorical pitchforks and flaming torches. Some have had mental health problems following harassment by the public.

I just hope that I was respectful, and am extremely appreciative of the time given to me.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Walls Around Me.

I've been working from home for a few weeks now, and whereas others on social media seem to be looking for ways to remain entertained, I don't feel like I have enough free time.

I work in Digital Education for a University, and during this crisis we have been busier than we usually are as we assisted academics in getting their courses online in a hurry. Now we're focussing on assessments, as exams aren't possible, and how they're going to be handled remotely.

And in between times, I continue my studies. And so I'm planning to take a couple of days over Easter to do nothing. Got to stay sane.

I'll read, watch some film, and spend time with my wife.

We exercise daily - either going for a bike ride or a longish walk, as is legally permitted. We're doing our best to follow the guidelines and not go out. Only one of us goes to the shops, and that's generally once a week and only to get our essentials. I still hear of people ignoring the rules. Not only are they risking their own wellbeing, but the health of others around them.

Am I going stir crazy?  A little. I don't mind being at home. I wish I could devote more time to reading and writing fiction, but I have commitments and responsibilities at the moment.

In the meantime, I sure hope NASA is paying attention to the psyche of the people as it plans for 2 year missions to Mars.

I think I'll stay at home and watch it on TV.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Lockdown.

Last night the Prime Minister announced the UK was going into lockdown.

This was not unexpected, and I must confess I thought it would occur on the weekend just gone - maybe Sunday. Once announced, it really hit home exactly how serious the pandemic has become.

Two weeks ago I couldn't have imagined the world as it is now. We seem to be living in a science fiction movie. Last night there were paramedics down the road. They had on the full suits and masks, and looked like those people in films who visit the alien that has been captured. It was a little unsettling.

Two weeks ago I was travelling to my office daily, working face-to-face with the team, meeting with academics and other staff, and generally learning a new role. I've recently commenced as a Digital Education Developer. Little did I know the team and our duties were about to become pivotal to the University. I was just starting to feel comfortable in my job, and then we were suddenly told to focus on migrating all programmes online. We did it. The team I joined have been superb, training staff, running workshops, creating resources and solving all the problems we encountered on the way. Well done.

A week ago we were told to work from home. I set up a desk, replicating the one at work as much as possible. It took a day or so to get into the swing of things, to remain focussed and get used to the work environs. I looted my office, taking home an extra monitor and the chair - both of which helped immensely. We have our online communications, meetings and laughs, but it's not the same as being physically in the same office.

But it's what we must do. This is how the world is for the foreseeable future. One walk a day, not too close to others, most shops closed. We follow the rules, and we adapt.

Last night we had drinks with our neighbours. We have a low gate between our back yards, and we sat at our own tables, with our own drinks and snacks, and chatted and laughed across the fence, all about 15 feet apart.  We plan to do it again tomorrow night. This time, however, we must prepare quiz questions for the other side.

People have several times reminded me that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth (or was it King Lear?) during the plague. What they forget is that was his job anyway, and he would have written regardless of a pandemic or not.  Of course, with people having more time in the evenings, and some people not being able to work from home, it is indeed a time, an opportunity if you like, to let your creative side run free. Paint something, write something, read more, watch films you would never normally consider. Oh, and be good to each other, at an appropriate distance, of course. These are trying times.

And don't forget to wash your hands.

Stay calm and carry on.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Ben's Country Music Show.


I've recently had the privilege of getting to know Ben Atkinson, host of Ben's Country Music Show, author, digital education developer, and all-round good guy.

Ben loves his music - mostly Country and Americana, and those are two areas in which our tastes have some overlap. While I mostly lean towards Americana, country rock and alt-country (Ryan Adams, Wilco, Son Volt, Golden Smog, Gram Parsons, Jayhawks), I do like some country, bluegrass and country swing.

Ben's radio show is now in its 12th year, and is syndicated across a bunch of radio stations as well as online. I've started listening to it, and am really enjoying it. Great music, news and interviews. Seriously, what's not to like?

Do yourselves a favour, (and Australian music fans will get that reference), go and check out Ben's programme.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Raining on Parades.

Why do some people insist on raining on other people's parade?  If something gives you joy, then I'm happy for you.

There are, of course, writers, musicians and film-makers I don't like. Even somewhere I question their talent. And, of course, there is always a matter of subjective and personal taste. I know someone who, if they don't like a musical artist, loudly declares how the music is complete shit - even if the person who is playing that music is standing right there.

All that can do is bring you down.

I recently saw a FaceBook post from someone who declared how much they enjoyed dancing around their house to Mariah Carey. Her music lifted their spirits and made them feel free and happy. Personally, I'm not a fan, but I was pleased this person had found pleasure in music.

A few years ago I was away for a writers weekend. Someone took it upon themselves to look at the playlist on my iPad, and inform me in no uncertain terms exactly how terrible my taste in music is.  Why did they feel the need to do that?

I occasionally see someone posting about movies or books I love and again informing me just how terrible they are. Once there was even the comment that if you liked that film, you have no understanding of film or comedy. So that person is the universal determiner of quality?

A couple of years ago I shared a post about how Oasis were on the verge of reforming. Someone immediately commented, "Who cares?"  Well, I do. That's why I posted it.

Each of these instances brought me down, just a little.

And this happens a lot in FaceBook groups. People are very quick to comment how much they hate something, think it's rubbish, or name call over tastes. It seems like we all have a need to feel superior over our refined tastes.

I have a good friend who told me he doesn't have any guilty pleasures. If he likes something, he'll just play it, watch it, read it, and doesn't care who knows. And I think that's great.

Enjoy your art, no matter who produced it. Me, I'm going back to listen to my Bay City Roller albums.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

This Is My Blood.

I'm thrilled to announce another publication. My story, This Is My Blood, is included in the January 2020 issue of Outposts of Beyond.

While it's disappointing the publishers are retiring the magazine, I'm excited to have been selected for inclusion in the final issue. Fortunately, they are creating some new titles to take its place. Alban Lake has always been great to work with, and I look forward to subbing future stories to them.

This Is My Blood is a fantasy story, a genre I don't explore too often. I originally wrote this story very quickly to meet a themed anthology. Unfortunately, at the time, I had missed a single word when reading the requirements. Urban Fantasy. Yes, I'd missed the word Urban and written a Fantasy story. I didn't realise until after the story had been sent and had been sitting in the publisher's slushpile for about a week. But I did the right thing and emailed them, asking to withdraw it from consideration.  There was no point wasting their time.

The story has undergone a couple of minor tweaks since those days, but it's essentially the same tale. I love this story, and I'm very proud of it.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

A Weekend of Words.

I managed to escape my work, my studies and the city for a weekend of writing, laughs and red wine. Over the past two years, I haven't done anywhere near as much writing as I would like. This is mostly due to studies and other life events.

With four other writers, I headed into the countryside to a small cottage for a writers' retreat. We were all very good - well, most of us - and actually spent a lot of time writing. I brought a couple of stories I wanted to revisit. One I particularly like, but it needed work. I've attempted minor adjustments over the past year or so, but this time I went in and attacked the whole ending, which to me was the part that didn't quite work.

Now it does. It still needs another look, and a polish, but I feel it's much closer to the story it promises to be.

The other story is one I'm rather proud of.  Again, it's close but needs something. Before I left Australia, a writer friend gave me a solid critique.  This weekend another writer friend (both excellent writers, by the way) also gave me a critique.  What stunned me was how similar their comments and advice was. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect collusion.

At least I now have a clear plan for the story.

We went out for a meal, drank wine, talked a lot, laughed a lot, and played a fabulous card game for many hours on end. Thanks, team, for the retreat.  I really needed that weekend.

Meanwhile, it's back to work and onwards with these stories.

Monday, January 20, 2020

On Being A Scottish Australian.

A busy cultural weekend coming up.

Friday 25th January is Burns night. A Scottish evening in which we partake of haggis, neeps and tatties. And whiskey. Oh yes, there will be whiskey.  And yes, I have booked in for a Burns supper.

Saturday 26th is Australia Day. The local Rotary club is hosting a Big Australian Breakfast. From what I gather it will be bacon, sausage, eggs, and beans (which is considered a Full English Breakfast, and still far more Australian than Walkabout, a chain of allegedly Australian bars).  I don't hold out too much hope for any real Aussie delicacies, but I am going to support the event, as they are hosting this to raise money for the bushfire appeals.

And while these two dates are somewhat part of my character, the weekend is also the Chinese New Year. I spent a few weeks in China (twice) on Study Tours, in which my two colleagues and I were tasked with setting up a sister school relationship. And I'm pleased the exchanges continue all these years later. While I don't plan to celebrate with dragons or fireworks, I am planning on some Chinese food.

Happy cultural day to you!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Deep Sleep and Vivid Dreams.

The new year has brought heavy sleep. Although I set my alarm for 6.30 am, it has actually only woken me about three times in the past two years as I seem to automatically wake about 30 minutes before it goes off. The past couple of weeks, however, I have regularly slept until 7.30 or as late as 8.30. And then on my first day back at work (alarm set, of course) I woke at 6.05. I think the back of my brain instinctively knows I need to get up for work.

And it has, for the most part, been deep sleep. Much deeper than I usually have.

I think this is partly the time of year, as we have very short days and long nights. Partly it was my body recharging after a year of work and the trip down under, and partly just because I could sleep in and didn't have to get up.

Interestingly, this has brought vivid dreams as well. I won't give too many details or specifics as I know some budding psychology students will do their best to psycho-analyse me.

  • I dreamed I was invited to a party at Bob Dylan's house. It was a lot of fun, and he sat off to one side, not being bothered and simply enjoying himself. I did chat to him briefly.
  • I dreamed I was back in Japan, where I was supposed to see an ancient book, but they wouldn't let me see it. The people in charge were connected with the Yakuza, and killed a Japanese man who asked for the same book. They let me live.
  • I dreamed I was with a group of people when one of them received a letter informing him it was time to go. Kind of a Logan's Run thing. He had to find the entrance to the afterworld, and once we did he said goodbye and off he went. There was no sadness.
  • I dreamed Paul Young (the 80s pop star) visited us at our home. Also there were some colleagues from work. We had a great time, and he signed an album for me. I have no idea where this came from. I liked his music, but haven't listened to it in a long time.
  • I dreamed about an incident at a swimming pool, which I can only catch glimpses of and don't recall all the details.

And last night, for the first time in ages, I had a lucid dream. I really enjoy these, as I can explore and create adventures. I can never control every detail, but can at least guide and direct them. Last night's, however, was very unusual. At first I could control it, but then it wouldn't permit me to do what I wanted, or anything. Instead I had an experience that I didn't expect. Something I'm still trying to understand. (And no, I won't share - see the comment above about amateur psychologists)

I have looked at dream interpetation books and websites in the past, but they generalise. You dream of a goldfish, it means this.  But what if the dream was about a goldfish that was blue and 20 feet long, while riding a bicycle?  Surely that changes all the meanings.

Or sometimes, a cigar is simply a cigar, and dreams are purely our brains re-organising memories and creating narratives to entertain us. Whatever they are, I sure enjoy them.