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Archive for May, 2010

The plant that eats sheep (or: the virtues of patience)

May 31, 2010 Leave a comment

About two years ago I half-wrote a SF story that concerned a retired space marine type character who returned to his home planet with a bunch of seeds, and the intention to spend his life gardening. Of course other stuff happened to him… However I reached a point at which I got stuck, other stuff was more urgent, and it’s been sitting patiently in my ‘works in progress’ file all this time.

I was watching TV coverage of the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show this week, and one of the things that got my attention was a display that included Puya chilensis, a large bromeliad (thus relative to the pineapple) native to the Andes.

Sheep-eating? Not quite, not exactly. But I’ll quote from Lindie Naughton’s blogspot: ‘There is a sinister aspect to the Puya: the margins of the leaves are edged with fiendish, hooked thorns. These are bad news for the weeding gardener, but far worse news for the sheep of the Andes. Woolly fleeces become easily entangled and a grazing sheep can find itself pinned helplessly to the fringes of the huge clumps of Puya like a piece of wind-blown fluff. Marooned, the sheep will perish from starvation. On the positive side, the unfortunate creature does provide a handy slow-release fertilizer for the Puya.’

So two years on, I’ve randomly come across something that (a) actually exists and (b) admittedly with some extension and adaptation, allows me to get on with the story – when I’ve finished the half-dozen currently stacked up in the queue, that is.

Horror and other genres

May 29, 2010 2 comments

This is just a quick ‘note to self’ more than anything – through a chain of chance links I found the Liars’ Club blog, which has on it an elegant version of an argument I’ve occasionally tried to put in a more halting and kludgy way.

In essence their argument is that ‘horror’ as a genre was killed off by the arrival of gorefests and splatter, where the main plot motivation was serial torture and murder. This undercut a lot of the more cultural, social, psychological stuff that had been going on. Many of the big acts in the horror field thus went on to find other labels for themselves. So ‘horror’ lives on, but under new names.

There you go. Simple observation, maybe with complicated implications I haven’t started to work out yet. For a start, I should probably stop describing some of my stuff as ‘horror’ and invent a new label to encapsulate the kind of thing I do…

Things come in threes

May 28, 2010 Leave a comment

There’s a folk saying (or was when I was growing up) that things happen in threes – three good things together, or three bad things, or three strange things.

Here’s a ‘three’ thing.

Weekend before last I drive to the end of the street, stop to look for traffic. A guy is walking along on the other side of the road. There’s no traffic so I begin to pull out and the guy collapses before my eyes. I stop, check him over, he’s unconscious but breathing, and bleeding from a head wound caused by the fall. Call emergency services (112 in the UK of you call from a mobile, incidentally – 999 will transfer you to a national control centre but 112 connects to the nearest centre to you as determined by the mobile network). I stay with him, do what I can about the head wound and reassure him as he comes round, by which time paramedics are on scene.

Last weekend V was stung by a bee. This isn’t normally a medical crisis but V’s condition makes it problematic. We’ve had the appropriate training, fortunately, and deal with it. If you’re wondering, vinegar soaked into a tissue and applied to the sting appears to be a good home remedy for cutting down pain and swelling, though in V’s case we also had to sort out some additional medication…

Last night, coming back from a meeting, I’m at the airport and a guy collapses about ten yards away from me. Actually two other people get there first, and luckily one of them is a doctor – I just get to be the one who calls the paramedics.

I’ve held a first aid qualification since the days I worked in an organisation, but the worst I dealt with there was someone who sprained a wrist, someone who smacked themselves in the eye accidentally while opening a car door, and someone who cut their hand while trying to move a filing cabinet. I seem to have met far more first aid situations since I’ve been freelance…

What struck me about the three recent incidents was this. Two of them happened in a public place (street, airport terminal building) and in both cases, some of those who became passers-by assumed the problem was alcohol. In the first instance, I had people standing around saying ‘He’s pissed, isn’t he – bloody alcoholic’; last night people were more restrained in their views but I’d lay money that some were thinking it. Nope – the guy in the street turned out to be diabetic and suffering a drop in blood sugar; the guy at the airport was having an epileptic seizure.

It is fair comment that many of those who do collapse on the street these days are suffering from alcohol intake (or drugs) – we know the UK has a binge drinking problem. But does this assumption have a corrosive effect? Because, for example, a diabetic suffering blood sugar loss will, for a time, look and act like they’re drunk before they collapse, and after they do collapse they look like a drunk who’s sleeping it off. Except unlike a drunk, they’ll go into a coma without treatment.

Short conclusion: despite any ‘common sense’ notions that might key you in to the context of ‘collapsing in public = falling down drunk’, you can’t assume that’s what’s going on.

My 2p worth. And maybe the ‘rule of three’ means that’s three similar things all in a short space of time and I won’t have to deal with first aid stuff again for a while…

Shortfuse last night (and a rant)

May 19, 2010 Leave a comment

We got there late, unfortunately, but it turned out to be something of a miracle we got there at all.

Intriguing collection of stuff – a range of semi-autobiography, well-crafted tales and wonderfully evocative language. Also, unusually, some live music from The Orange and then from the First Monday Ukulele Club, which was as unlikely as it sounds – a stage filled with people playing rock’n’roll on ukeleles… a sight to behold and extraordinary (in a good way) to hear.

Shortfuse is next on 18 June, I believe (their website should soon have updated information – shortfusefiction.com). The theme for that night will be ‘taboo’. Then it’ll be taking a long break for the summer, so it’ll be a case of ‘get there or miss out for the next 4 months or so’.

Discussions afterwards were interesting and left me musing on how hard it is to organise any kind of arts event – and how much harder it’s likely to become in future in the current financial climate. So this is the ‘rant’ part of this post.

I don’t just mean things like literary readings, but art exhibitions, dance performance, theatre… we’re already at a stage where a huge amount of cultural activity is done for free, or for pennies, because the people who do it have some longer-range vision or dedication and are essentially prepared to put time and effort into making it happen.

This is so even in ‘popular’ culture – I’ve been to places like goth/industrial music events where the DJs organise the event, put in huge amounts of time flyering and advertising on social websites, etc., all for a split of the door takings after they’ve paid venue costs. They do it because they’re dedicated, which they have to be to put in the number of hours it takes in background work to make something happen and walk away at the end with less money than it will cost to get a taxi home.

And that’s just for an event with DJs. If you have a PA system, props, admin costs, or any of the myriad of other things it takes to get some kind of performance together, anything that might be called ‘alternative arts’ is going to struggle. Sure, it always has. Think for example of the number of artists whose paintings now sell for small fortunes, but who never saw a penny from their work in their own lifetimes (and whose work wasn’t even thought to have artistic merit in their own lifetimes!). And there are plenty of writers with experiences on similar lines…

But it does leave me wondering if there’s any financial model (other than working off arts grants) that would help keep ‘marginal’ events alive, because so much of what they do can’t be valued economically. I’m just thinking here of the many painters, dancers, actors, and writers whose work starts off in the margins of culture and develops there until the mainstream is ready for it…

Well, ok economists will usually say everything has an economic value; what I’m arguing here is that the value of fringe cultural events doesn’t lie in the present but the future, and usually exceeds the extent to which it can be monetised in the present. Does that make sense?

If anyone wants to start a debate or discussion about this, I’m up for it.

Small minds are easily amused…

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

And the implication is that I must have a very tiny mind. I’m writing a distance learning module on criminology. And I found a context in which it became quite sensible and rational to get students to consider and make notes on the following questions:

• Do you think Mr Bungle should have been toaded? Why, or why not?
• What ethical principles would you cite to support your view?

As I said… small minds are easily amused.

If you haven’t got the context to make sense of the question – try looking at the tags on this post, they’ll lead you in the right direction!

The law of lists

May 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I was passing the time earlier today discussing list-making. You remember Parkinson’s Law, the one that says work expands to meet the time available? Or the Freelancer’s Law that says the first 90% of a job takes 90% of the available time and the remaining 10% takes the other 90% of the time? I’d like to propose a law that says on any given list you will only ever manage to do half of it in the time allotted.

My own list for today was:
- mark student essay. Done, but two more arrived in my inbox.
- write next chunk of distance learning module. Done some, ‘chunk’ is a variable quantity! I’ve probably done enough to get one study guide finished by the end of the weekend and that’s a good thing.
- write next segment of story. Yes, at last count all of 86 words! My target was 1000.
- revise rest of rejected story to make it urban and gritty. Pushed on a few hundred words with it, deleted a scene I thought wasn’t needed. So some progress.
- mentally plan a piece of flash fiction I might do quickly tomorrow for a magazine deadline. Only just remembered I was going to do this!
- go and collect friend’s washing (see my last blog entry and this will make sense!) and see if I can get him a doctor’s appointment. He didn’t want me to do either but at least he’s made his own arrangements (whether he keeps them or not is another question).
- buy more birdfood for the garden. Done. Also more potting compost.
- buy a couple of bits of food shopping in passing, No. Forgot.
- cook dinner. Didn’t get back home in time, fortunately V had done it already.
- watch two TV programmes that caught my eye in the listings. Managed that one!
- invoice for some distance learning work I finished a few days ago. Nope.
Also not on list, because I forgot to put it on – do the last part of some distance learning admin work. Tomorrow.
On the plus side, also bought new pillows (am finally fed up with having a pillow with about as much support as a piece of paper) and got a spare fuel cap key cut for the van.

So it goes. None of it’s rocket science or horrible stuff I don’t want to do, it’s just I could happily manage if I had about 28 hours in a day and 9 days in a week. The realistic approach is probably to write the list and decide it’s for two days, not one…

The default for tomorrow is the stuff not done today, plus making a phone call to make sure washing and doctor’s appointments actually happened, plus throwing student essays back in the post. Apart from that a bunch of stuff I ordered from Amazon arrived, so I just need to find time to read it…

Fertile but febrile

May 12, 2010 Leave a comment

So how have I been these last couple of days?

Fertile to the point of being febrile would be a good description. I’ve had a few days where almost anything that happens – dreams, books I read, snatches of TV, overheard conversations, even the bloody pencil on my desk, spark off trains of thought that could be either new stories or elements within stories i want to write. I have a working file of notes – i.e. one-liners, a sentence or two of description, a couple of sentences from a TV or radio news item or book quote, each of which captures an idea I want to use at some point. And the file is 13000 words.

And actually this is a bit of a problem because what I’m trying to do at the moment is (a) write a story that’s already mapped out in my head, (b) rewrite a rejected story that’s a bit too Dennis Wheatley-ish in tone and feel so it’s more gritty and urban, and most importantly (c) carry on working through writing a distance learning module – currently this involves an overview and discussion of the occasionally complex links between ethics and law, which will enable students to make sense of the readings they’ll be required to on the topic. Being fertile and febrile is not a good state of mind for this, it’s too distracting.

While I think about it, I’ll also mention that as part of the distracted state I also wrote 1000 words last night diarising some conversations I had with a friend of mine who’s having a very hard time. Looking back at the things that have happened to him in the last month, it reads more like a horror story.

Sample (these relate to April: there’s more from May I have yet to write up):
- Some low-value items including a jar of loose change was stolen from his flat by visitors.
- Was assaulted coming out of a nightclub resulting in a short hospital stay for bruising, laceration and suspected concussion. He’d been at the club with a friend who tried to make out with another guy’s girlfriend; the guy initially attacked his friend and then him. This was caputered on CCTV, the offender arrested but later cautioned.
- As a result of stress (including threats made against him by dickhead lowlifes for fairly trivial reasons) had an episode in which he lost the plot and self-harmed resulting in outpatient treatment for severe cuts to a finger.
- Was threatened with eviction due primarily to complaints about noise from his flat, which admittedly has been an ongoing thing. He’s had a long-standing problem with some people he does know coming round with people he doesn’t, who know he’s easy to bully and want to use his place as a drinking den. Some of the disturbance was them; some of it was him trying to prevent them busting into his flat.
- Had a toothache which he refused to see a dentist about (he has a longstanding phobia of dentists). Eventually he went to the dental department at the local hospital which confirmed three abcesses, prescribed DF118s for the pain and told him to return next day for treatment. Instead he drank (why do young people always think they’re immortal?) which was an extremely bad idea due to the interaction between DF118s and alcohol. As I understand it he want into a kind of manic state during which he threw a bottle through the window of the people he believed had stolen from him. For this he was arrested and cautioned, and missed the hospital appointment.
- His flat was burgled a few days later. Not much stolen, because he doesn’t have much. But a window was smashed for entry and some other damage done.

The bottom line seems to be that if you live in a not-so-good area and don’t choose your friends with care, you end up in a situation where others try to exploit you; stuff that happened a while back can haunt you; small problems can turn into huge problems; you don’t have the resources to cope with small problems when they’re small, let alone when they become big; stress kicks in and you make bad choices; and you’re much more vulnerable to random bad stuff when you’re stressed. That’s not to deny that mixing DF118s and alcohol is an extremely bad idea, of course, not least because it could have been life-threatening and in that sense he was lucky. But there’s also the existentialist side of it – in some situations hell really is other people.

So maybe my own issue with getting distracted isn’t such a major thing after all…

Earnings, prices, politics, pensions and the cost of food allergies

This is a rant, and there’s a certain amount of slipslide from one theme to another – so try to keep up, please!

The story started with the general election. Out of interest I did a questionnaire on votematch.org.uk; you’re presented with a list of around 60 questions and agree or disagree with each one, and at the end it tells you which party most closely fits the political views you’ve chosen. On it was a question to the effect of ‘pensions should be tied to average earnings’ – yes/no.

Now this is actually a more technical question than you might expect. At certain periods in recent history earnings have risen faster than prices, so pensioners would do well out of this. At other times, prices have risen faster than earnings which would disadvantage pensioners.

I’m not there yet, but given that my rather modest private pension plan has come back for the past couple of years with a statement that essentially says ‘oops, we lost a load of your money’ it’s going to matter quite a bit to me if I get to reach retirement age.

I guess what pensioners really need is an option that wasn’t on the list; pensions should be tagged to earnings or prices, whichever rose more in any given year. And then you get issues like whose earnings, and whose prices.

The ONS website says it will discontinue the average earnings index from Sept 2010, for a start. However seasonally adjusted quarterly figures have dropped from over 4% in mid-2008 to around 1.7% in early 2010 (or 2.3% if bonuses are included). However this is against much higher increases in sectors such as finance, apparently up 6% in 2009, and very much more than this for the top dogs. I’ve had to pull figures from a bunch of different sources because some are quite coy about what exactly they’re reporting, but the basic point seems valid.

So I’d quite like my pension to be tagged to city bankers’ salaries including bonuses, please.

As to prices, then: financemarkets.co.uk reports inflation of 3.4% in March 2010, so pensions would at the moment do better if tagged to prices than to earnings (unless they’re finance sector earnings, of course). But there’s a sting in the tail – because pensioners tend to buy different stuff to younger people, and more of their money goes on utilities and food, which have increased by higher rates, they are actually experiencing a higher rate of inflation than the rest of us.

And it’s not just the elderly: I live with someone who has a number of allergies, which restrict the kinds of things we buy in our weekly shopping. And to take a number of little, everyday examples:

- hash browns up in the last year from 99p to £1.47 a packet, (48% increase)
- dairy free margarine (remember there aren’t too many brands to choose from) up from 85p to £1.15 (35% increase)
- baked beans, gluten and dairy free, up from 40p to 64p (60% increase – and why on earth do most of the major brands put milk and cornflour products into their baked bean recipes??)

At a conservative estimate, our shopping bill, which is based on the fact that we’re shopping for specialised dietary requirements in this household, has probably increased around 20% in the last year.

There are things we could do to minimise this – make our own potato cakes out of actual potatoes, and cook our own baked beans for example (I’m frankly not sure about the viability of home-made dairy-free margarine!). But at the same time I’m trying to turn out 1000 words/day on this or that project, so I face another issue here, of whether I spend time earning money or trying to save it.

So by way of a roundup: first, when I get to a pensionable age I want my pension to be tagged to either prices or earnings, whichever is growing fastest, And it would be a good idea for that to happen now, so the actual money amounts are decent by the time I get there, thank you. Ideally I’d like my pension tagged to that of bank directors but somehow I don’t see that happening…

Second, whatever the arrangements for pensions, indexing them to the general rate of inflation will always leave pensioners short-changed because they spend proportionately more of their income on the areas where prices historically have risen faster – food and utilities.

And third, it’s not just pensioners who have an interest in all this. If you have dietary restrictions or allergies you may well find your food bill is rising even faster still at the moment because the prices of gluten-free and dairy-free products seem to be increasing even faster than food prices generally, and these rises are massively outstripping current earnings increases unless, of course, you’re working in senior levels of banking…

Okay. End of rant.

Goth – black shoots of recovery?

May 6, 2010 4 comments

I’ve been busy commenting on other people’s blogs, writing stories (3000 words in one day – phew!) and dealing with distance learning assessments. But I thought I’d share just one thought with you. This is prompted by the fact that I tracking what people look at on this blog, and the most popular blog entry appears to be the piece I did a while back on the state of goth.

In that piece, Now We Are All Goths, I mused on a number of things, but one was that goth seemed to go into decline at the point the mainstream (fashion, for example) began to plunder the style.

There are still many, many traces of goth in the mainstream – consider the ‘look and feel’ of Florence and the Machine for example, which borrows some goth elements, and the continuing fascination with goth style evident at Trendhunter.

But gothic seems to operate on a cyclical pattern, and after a drought of maybe a year or so in which venues closed, goth nights stopped running, niche clothes shops stopped stocking the fashions and a bunch of internet traders to the goth market folded, there are some, er, black new shoots of recovery. Events are starting to run again, though not that well attended as yet. There’s a bit more action on some of the LiveJournal goth discussion forums. Even the BBC is back in on the act, with an upcoming BBC2 documentary series on the 1980s that will cover goths and New Romantics. So goth didn’t die: like some batwinged and lace-covered flower, it allowed its flowers to shrivel, put energy back into its bulb and sat out the seasons waiting for an appropriate time to emerge again.

Whether it will come back exactly the same as last time is yet to be seen. The flyers I’ve seen for upcoming events seem to suggest a bit of fusion going on – mixes of goth with psychedelic, trance, dance/rave and so forth. On the fashion side, Trendhunter seems to like rebranding goth as ‘postmodern postmortem’ or lump it in with ‘dark grunge’ or ‘edgy punk’, but it’s there all right.

So it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ I think.

Incidentally my CD player (I’m too retro to go with an iPod quite yet) is largely playing Angelspit and Emilie Autumn at the moment. Emilie Autumn seems to be very divisive, people love it or hate it even within the goth scene, but you have to admire someone who’s not merely coping with her bipolar but turned it into an art form – it’s a brave and out-there thing to wear on your sleeve!

I was going to write something else entirely about pensions and politics, but as it’s an election day it would be in bad taste – so that’s one for tomorrow.

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