Archive for December, 2010

JG Ballard on writing

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

There’s a lot of it about. Quite why the end of the year should prompt a lot of people to find appropriate quotes I don’t know – maybe to sum up this year and look forward to the next? But I thought I’d follow the trend for once rather than try to buck it.

James Graham Ballard (1930–2009) was, as many of you no doubt know, an English novelist and short story writer whose work was often thought of as science fiction although this would be a very limited description of the range of work he published, much of it not fitting neatly into any genre pigeonholes. He will probably be best remembered for Crash (1973, which later became a controversial film by David Cronenberg), and Empire of the Sun (1984, an account of his childhood that was also made into a film by Steven Spielberg). However he wrote 18 novels and probably hundreds of short stories, and among many other things was a major influence on a whole lot of British musicians from the 1980s to date. And much of his work influenced my own younger self.

Enough of that. Things he said about writing:

  • Any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it.
  • Given that external reality is a fiction, the writer’s role is almost superfluous. He does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there.
  • Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.
  • Sooner or later, everything turns into television.

(I’ve never been sure if that was just an ironic comment or a warning!)

  • In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace.

(I guess the implication is: write short things, not long ones…)

  • Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessels are the written mythologies of memory and desire.
  • Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.

A warning there about how what’s imagined and  written today becomes the reality of tomorrow?

And finally:

  • A lifetime’s experience urges me to utter a warning cry: do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player. Perhaps what’s wrong with being a writer is that one can’t even say ‘good luck’ – luck plays no part in the writing of a novel. No happy accidents as with the paint pot or chisel. I don’t think you can say anything, really. I’ve always wanted to juggle and ride a unicycle, but I dare say if I ever asked the advice of an acrobat he would say, ‘All you do is get on and start pedaling’.

Yes, I’m still pedaling…

I haven’t given detailed sources but if anyone’s desperately interested, the quotes are all google-able.


Looking to the future

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Just before Christmas I came across a piece on the BBC website, ‘Futurology: The tricky art of knowing what will happen next’. And I’ve spent Christmas in a pensive frame of mind, wondering what kinds of predictions we might be able to make about the next fifty or so years.

The BBC piece is based on a 1972 book by Geoffrey Hoyle that’s recently been reissued, and to some extent the predictions made in it are less to do with scientific advances and more to do with social developments.

For example the book depicted everyone wearing jumpsuits, a style that back then, with the film of 1984 still in the public consciousness, had connotations of centralised planning and loss of individual liberty. A great deal of science fiction – and I assume this well known – is less about science per se and more about social and political critique, which is often carried in such apparently trivial details. So if I were to try to make any predictions, they wouldn’t be sweeping and scientific ones, they’d be relatively modest, devil-is-in-the-detail type ones.

If you want big and sweeping ones, earlier this year the New York Daily News (23 June 2010) carried a piece called ‘A Global Status Report: January 1, 2050 – predictions of year 2050 world scenario’. Among other things this concluded on the basis of a poll that more than 71% of the US population thinks cancer will be ‘cured’, 74% that most of our energy will come from renewables, 53% that ‘ordinary people’ will travel in space, almost 90% that a woman will be president of the US by 2050, and 69% that the president will be Hispanic (there’s no separate figure for the proportion who think there will be a Hispanic woman president by that tine). Oh, and 72% see a looming energy crisis while 59% think there will be another world war and 53% a major nuclear terrorist attack on the US.

Finally, to keep matters in perspective, 41% say that by 2050 we’ll see the second coming of Jesus Christ: whether that will happen before or after the energy crisis and the world war isn’t reported.

Certain predictions are almost not worth making. For example I wrote a short story some time ago in which people had jackets and other fashion items with communications technologies – phone and video – woven into the fibres. But of course such things already exist as prototypes, as followers of will have seen.

So – my predictions? More socio-political than technological, I think.

1. Life will become more complex and interconnected, in an attempt to try to keep everything going. It will also become more random, as the resiliance of our systems against everything from the weather to volcanic ash and earthquakes to social protest and financial crises will be tested to the limit. The interconnectedness of systems will itself become problematic. That’s the thing about interconnectedness – when one system goes down, it affects everything it’s connected to.

2. Life will become more complex as rules and regulations increase. But mostly we’ll all end up ignoring the rules and regulations because they’ll become impossible to comply with, mutually contradictory, etc. We’ll find ways round them, multiple identities, whatever. Even today, a large proportion of crimes are seen on CCTV, but the proportion of crimes actually solved through CCTV is a bit over 1%. My prediction is just that phenomenon, writ large.

3. Small will be beautiful. Here’s a story. A music shop near me just closed. Trwenty years ago it was an independent store. It got bought up by a chain of stores, which was sold and re-sold a number of times to ever larger and more remote investment and venture capital companies. Eventually the local store was just a branch of a subsidiary of a company that was owned by some larger company that tried to micro-manage it and knew nothing about the music industry. So the company went bankrupt and the store closed quite suddenly. Now, round the corner from the empty shop unit, there’s a new small independent music company. That’s the microcosm; I can see a lot more of that kind of thing happening in the future.

4. Hats will become more popular. Especially ones with wide brims or veils that partly hide the face.

Any other thoughts, suggestions or predictions welcome!

Paper bags and drinking responsibly

December 26, 2010 Leave a comment
Bag from India

Bag from India

I got V a Christmas present. It came from the Amnesty International gift shop and was sourced from India. It came in an ingenious newspaper bag from a recycled Hindustan Times.

Bag from India

Bag from India

So far as the bag is concerned, it made me wonder why these aren’t used everywhere instead of plastic bags – eco-friendly with no real landfill implications.

The other thing that caught my attention was an ad in the paper that ended up on the outside of the bag.

In the UK, we have ads that urge people to ‘drink responsibly’, i.e. not go binge drinking in clubs, start fights after ten pints of lager and half a dozen vodka shots and then try to drive home.

In India, the newspaper carries an ad from a company that’s urging people to ‘drink responsibly’. The company sells water purification equipment.

Interesting cultural shift of perspective there. Interesting difference in priorities. Makes you stop and think…


Christmas lists

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment

It gets me every year. Christmas isn’t a two-day public holiday but a three-week build-up, a festive campaign, a laying-in of supplies. It would, I suspect, be simpler to work out what’s needed to survive a zombie apocalypse than it is to work out what’s needed for Christmas. Or is that just me?

My way of organising myself is to write lists. Here are some I found in the pockets of my trousers and coat, on my desk, and on my computer. I’ve annotated the ones where I remember what they were about. It’s pretty random stuff but I’m bored, so I’ll share…

Trouser pocket

  • Dongle (in case the broadband goes down again. I can’t use it with my laptop because MacOS 10.3.9 is too ancient, apparently)
  • Acidopholos (sp?)
  • Pen – soft tip, high quality
  • Presents


  • Laptop story, other story (I’m writing two stories at the moment, but one is on my laptop. Which one I work on depends on whether I’m in the study or the living room)
  • Speaker (we’ve reorganised the living room, so the CD player needs extension wires for the speakers. Went to buy some but got rock salt for the path instead)
  • Tinsel (me buy tinsel for Christmas? Nope, I must have had something else in mind!)
  • Interview (me interviewing someone else in connection with another project – postponed till the New Year)
  • Suet (this was because V wants to make her own gluten-free Christmas pudding, which requires suet. As it turns out, the supermarkets only sell suet that has wheat added. Why?)
  • Pickle exploder


  • Blackboard (reminder to check the virtual learning environment for a university I work with?)
  • Tx (transfer something? But what, and to where?)
  • Soc Hsg (a reminder to get on with a project on social housing, I assume)
  • Blog (this one, I guess?)
  • Library vice (no idea! Any suggestions?)


  • HS2
  • EM detector
  • Snake keeping
  • Bad poetry
  • Harley Davidson codes (related to a previous post)
  • Macbeth
  • Gothic novel
  • Magistrates court design
  • Images of justice
  • Retort stand/clamp

Most, but not all, of the ‘computer’ ones are related to things I’m writing at the moment – I hope! At any rate I’m not buying anyone bad poetry or a magistrates court for Christmas…

Have a good Christmas, anyway!

Thoughts from a comfortable sofa

December 19, 2010 5 comments

I’ve spent part of the day looking at reports of snow and snowbound people on TV, and one thing that struck me is how often people said ‘we can’t get any information about what’s going on’. And a couple of thoughts occurred to me about the complexity of modern life.

First off, a lot of transport links are high-volume places and when the means of transport grinds to a halt, an awful lot of people find themselves in places where they don’t want to be and the number increases rapidly. Heathrow normally shifts in the order of 43 million people a year, almost 118,000 per day (I got the figure from Wikipedia). The current Wembley Stadium, by way of comparison, has a capacity of 90,000. So the scale of the problem ramps up pretty quickly.

Second, as we’ve been hearing, network problems tend to spread. Planes can’t land because there’s nowhere to put them; they can’t take off either because they can’t be moved off the stands, or because the places they’re supposed to be flying to are also closed. We haven’t been hearing much about problems elsewhere (except that other countries deal with it better, apparently – my experience has been some do and a lot don’t).

Third, there’s going to be more of this. Some level of disruption is actually normal and natural, and major transport hubs have to be closed for a day or two for all kinds of reasons, from weather, natural disasters, other kinds of disasters and terrorism through to the completely banal. I used to live somewhere where the central library was closed for months because the wrong kind of glue had been used to stick tilework on the front of the building and they had a distressing habit of falling off and injuring people; last year I had an 8-hour train journey to London, which is normally less than 2 hours, because rats had chewed through signalling cables. The more complex and high-volume the network, though, the more difficult it is to cope with problems – especially if they occur unpredictably, as of course they tend to.

And fourth, I have a shelf-full of books on the sociology of disasters that offer one awkward conclusion: when there is an unexpected problem, information networks are often the first casualty. In some cases it’s because information about the situation ‘on the ground’ can’t get through and/or there aren’t enough people or isn’t enough processing capacity to deal with it (several nuclear disasters bear this out). In other cases it’s because the disaster itself prevents key decision-making people from making decisions, or knocks out ways of communicating information to the public (phone lines overloaded, power outages etc.) or even to staff trying to deal with the situation.

It’s cold comfort, I know, to say ‘just take it easy’ if you’re a passenger in the middle of some major travel problem, or to say ‘never mind, at least it’s not as bad as it could get in the future’. And I’m saying that from the comfort of my own home, having abandoned plans to travel next week. But at least armed with those thoughts, people can start to make informed decisions about what they would do and how they would cope… Thermos of coffee, big leather coat and a good thick book in my case, I think.

Good luck, everyone. Take it easy and and just be grateful it’s not as bad as it will be next time!


How many writers…?

December 19, 2010 7 comments


How many writers does it take to change one?

How many writers does it take to change one?

…does it take to change a lightbulb?

In the course of writing another post (over on my criminology blog) I wanted a couple of lightbulb jokes.

Don’t ask… it makes sense, sort of, if you read the post about youth crime.

To get the two jokes I wanted I trawled about 300 lightbulb jokes of which several started ‘How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?’


None. Writer’s don’t change lightbulbs, they can’t afford the electricity bills.

Only one, but he/she has to give it a surprising twist at the end.

Only one, but three days later the writer will change it back again because it doesn’t fit the plot.

Two. One to change it, the other to offer a  critique as to how it could have been done better.

Two. The original author to change it and the TV scriptwriter to mangle the characterisation of the lightbulb and the ending.

Two. One to change it and the second to point out that someone else had already changed a light bulb, so changing another one is unoriginal.

Four. One to change it, the other three to say that they’d already had the idea for changing a light bulb, but didn’t want to show anyone what they were doing until they’d finished.

Ten. One to change it and nine to say, “I could have done that.”

Ten. One to change it, nine to write blogs criticising electric lighting because traditional candlelight-based writing won’t survive.

You’ll find more answers (and other twists on some of the same ones) at




How time flies…

December 17, 2010 3 comments

It occurs to me periodically that we’re all getting older, and people who were students at the time when being a student almost automatically meant being radical – May 1968 – would typically now be in their sixties, at or coming up to retirement age. And the same would be true of a lot of the people who were in the subcultures of that era – the mods and rockers, and so on.

I was reminded of this when I saw my local paper this week, with an advert for a local shop that sells mobility scooters – the electrically-powered sit-on scooters Old People use for getting to the shops. Recently one Old Person in my town was given an ASBO for driving hers through the market, at speed, waving a walking stick and shouting at people to get out of her way. And she’s not the only one: here’s another news item on the same theme (and it has a wonderful pic with it…).

But I digress, and anyway I have a half-done draft of a story with a similar scene in it, which I must dig out and finish sometime…

The shop’s most popular mobility scooter? It’s called the ‘Rascal’. A little further investigation tells me that Rascal is actually a manufacturer of scooters and they’ve recently had a ‘Pimp My Rascal’ contest.

Old People aren’t what they used to be…

V commented that sooner or later, surely Harley Davidson will notice this trend and start marketing mobility scooters for ageing rockers… It could be fun, though, if they ever go into the stairlift market… No, I’m not going to finish that thought…

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