The 2016 Man Booker Prize

In November I was lucky (*Kylie Minogue voice* lucky lucky lucky) enough to go the 2016 Booker Prize announcement dinner.

After a difficult journey — the train was cancelled so my Dad had to drive my mother and me into central London from Oxford — we arrived at the drinks reception in the very grand and beautiful London Guild Hall.

It was a particularly special night as my mother remembered going to the first prize dinner back in ‘69 when her father won. That, too, was also a very glamorous event, even though the prize did not yet have the international recognition it has today.

My mother and I at the dinner
My place at the table

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My food in Poland

Part of a series of posts about food I’ve eaten around the world. See: Iran

This year I spent a few days in Poland visiting a friend, Will Badger, who has lived in the country before and speaks the language pretty fluently.

I was looking forward to trying Polish food as I’d never experienced it before, with the notable exception of pierogi (more below). I wasn’t disappointed, and Will knew where to take me to get the best stuff!

My favourite meals were eaten in milk bars (bar mleczny): originally cafeterias for students and workers during the Communist times, still running today, serving good, wholesome, inexpensive food.

Oscypek  (smoked sheep cheese) with lingonberry jam. Salty, warm, melt-in-your-mouth, with a side of sweetness. I bought this one from a street vendor on a cool May evening in Warsaw:


Breakfast! Scrambled eggs, ham, cottage cheese, fresh bread, pancakes (nalesniki), and  coffee:

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My Food in Iran

This will be part of a series of food I have eaten around the world. Everything is delicious.

Koloocheh, a soft bready biscuit with a cinnamon filling (recipe here). This was comforting on a chilly December evening in Tehran, like eating a hug:


This was a nutty stew (probably Fesenjān) that our guide told me I, as a foreigner, wouldn’t like. I ordered it to teach him a lesson, but I did genuinely enjoy it. It had a strong, vinegary flavour, which I was fully prepared for that having eaten my Dad’s pickled walnuts which taste much the same:

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Celebrating Warcraft

Warcraft: The Beginning, the film adaptation of the video game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) is now in the cinemas. It was ravaged by the mainstream press; at the time of writing it has a rating of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it not just ‘rotten’ but rancid. The Herald Sun called it a ‘dull, soulless slurry of sucktastic SFX’. For The Guardian, watching the film was ‘like being bludgeoned by the war hammers of a thousand orcs’. One journalist working for the BBC was so angry he abruptly ended an interview with the director because he dared to defend his own film. To quote King Theoden in Lord of the Rings, ‘What can men do against such reckless hate?’

I went into the film expecting it to be a mess, but one that I would probably enjoy nonetheless, as I’m a fan of the video game series. Instead, I watched a film that I not only enjoyed immensely, but also considered a highly valuable and important contribution to the fantasy genre.

There’s been many attempts to make video game movies, and most of them have been terrible. Warcraft itself has been stuck in development hell for about a decade.

Still, studios keep trying to crack the formula that would translate the huge popularity of video game franchises into box office success, and Warcraft director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) was keen to crack the much harder artistic formula: how to translate a story from a video game, shaped by gameplay restrictions, into a cinematic story, unrestricted by anything except for length. Jones hoped that Warcraft would ‘right the wrongs’ of previous video game movies that had failed to make this leap.

For some journalists, the odds were stacked against Jones before he’d even started; The Radio Times questioned whether a video game movie could ever work, asking ‘can this kind of narrative really compete with the original version, where the adventure is [the audience’s] to choose and experience?’

The Radio Times suggests that game narratives are always interactive and defined by player actions, whilst film narratives are only passively observed, and never the twain shall meet. In fact most video games borrow heavily from the cinema.


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European Heartbreak

Like many people, I awoke to the news that the UK would leave the European Union feeling heartbroken, angry, and scared.

I have been a citizen of the E.U. since I was six, and now that part of my identity has been wrenched from me. I was proud to be European and British, the dream of Winston Churchill. Now I am no longer European and ashamed to be British.

I feel that a mistaken older generation have taken away the future of a younger generation. Vote statistics show that the share of ‘leave’ vote dramatically increased among the oldest voters so there is evidence to support that feeling.

I’ve never been more concerned and afraid for the future, but I I take some solace in nature and literature.

The land itself hasn’t changed. This is a social crisis on epic proportions but nature is as it was last week. The social and political crisis may yet destroy the land if we don’t do enough to tackle climate change, but for now, the land continues unchanged, unaffected by Brexit.

I still have fantasy and sci-fi to distract me, but also to inspire and guide me. I can look to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to see how things can get better despite cataclysmic events.

I can also look to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King to see how nature can guide us:

‘Merlyn had taught him about animals so that the single species might learn by looking at the problems of the thousands. He remembered the belligerent ants, who claimed their boundaries, and the pacific geese, who did not […] Countries would have to become like counties – but counties which could keep their own culture and local laws. The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok [a goose], and would to man if he could learn to fly’.

For the sake of peace and prosperity we must knock down walls and erase borders, whilst keeping our cultural and social identities. We should not retreat into our castles, pulling up the drawbridges. The world’s problems are our problems.

Shakespeare and King Arthur in Iran

Shakespeare never wrote a play about King Arthur, and he only mentions Arthur and Merlin twice each. You’d think there wouldn’t be much to say about Arthur and Shakespeare, and in a way you’d be right. But when the University of Tehran hosted a conference on Shakespeare’s universality, I immediately thought of Arthur; not because Shakespeare had a lot to say about the legendary king, but because other writers have frequently put the two together, despite there being such a tenuous textual link. I figured that talking about why people were keen to make Shakespeare an Arthurian writer — or to make Arthur as Shakespearian character — would illustrate how far-reaching Shakespeare’s influence is, felt in a subject matter he barely wrote about. Shakespeare crosses literary traditions as much as times and national boundaries.


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Speaking in Iran

In November I travelled to the University of Tehran to speak at Iran’s first ever Shakespeare Conference, held at the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

The conference was titled ‘Not of an Age but for All Ages’, and its theme was on how Shakespeare crosses boundaries of time and place. My paper was on King Arthur and Shakespeare. I wanted to speak on this subject because I was fascinated by how the figure of Arthur fits into different contexts, and a Shakespeare conference in Iran seemed to be an interesting context to consider.

I’ve written separately about the content of my paper, and my experience of the wonderful conference, here. This post will be about my adventures in Iran.

The British Home Office Map to Iran
The British Home Office Map to Iran

I didn’t know a lot about Iran before I went there. I have travelled in the Middle East before — I’ve made a few trips to Egypt and Jordan — but I knew Iran would be very different.

Iran felt like somewhere dangerous to go. In fact, the Foreign Office website covers Iran in orange with a bit of red around the sides. The orange stands for ‘Don’t go unless your life depends on it’. The red stands for ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’. At the same time, I knew that Iran wasn’t ‘enemy territory’. 78 million human beings live there. I’m a human being. I’ll fit right in!Read More »

William Morris on the £20 Note

When I heard that the Bank of England were going to replace the historical British figure on the £20 note from economist Adam Smith to someone from the arts, my first thought was that the figure should be William Morris.

I first became a fan of Morris’s work when I picked up The Wood Beyond the World in a second hand bookshop in Machynlleth (who could resit that title?). Since then I’ve written a Masters thesis on his prose romances, and reviewed several books for the Journal of William Morris Studies.

I think Morris would be a good choice for the £20 note for a variety of reasons…

  • Unlike most other artistic figures, Morris produced beautiful art in a wide range of mediums. Literature (poetry, prose, and essays), translation, wallpapers, tapestries, book design, typefaces, paintings, interior design… you name it! This range means he has a wide appeal. I recently visited a friend’s grandparents who have Morris willow pattern curtains and cushions; they appreciate him as a designer. Another friend of mine raves about News from Nowhere (and the actor/author Robert Llewellyn is a celebrity example of someone who has been profoundly influenced by that work). Still others love how he took the best things of the Middle Ages into his own time. If Morris was on the £20 note, lots of different people would appreciate him for different reasons.
  • Having said that, Morris is not as well-known as he should be. Most people would probably only recognise one of his designs, or his name, and not know about his life or philosophy. Putting Morris on the £20 note would increase people’s knowledge of him and promote him as a national figure, rather than just someone that people are vaguely aware of.
  • Morris’s private life is also very inspirational. He worked hard all his life and fought for what he believed in. He was good to his workers and cared for his epileptic daughter, at a time when families were more likely to ostracise members who had long-term illnesses. It’s nice when the person on your money isn’t an arse-hole.
  • Bank note designers often use complex designs to foil forgers. Ideally these designs also need to look aesthetically pleasing. Usually these patterns are completely unrelated to the figure featured on the note, but complex and beautiful patterns is Morris’s thing, so designers have the opportunity to actually use Morris’s work in the note itself.

When I thought of that last point, I couldn’t resist throwing together a mock-up of a Morris £20 note. It gives you an idea of what it could look like…

William Morris £20 Note

My design uses a quotation from Morris’s A Dream of John Ball which I think summarises a lot of Morris’s philosophy. The quotation is set in Morris’s own Kelmscott typeface. The image in the middle is Walter Crane’s sketch of Morris speaking at a socialist rally in 1894.

I’m not the only one to think of Morris, either. The Guardian ran an editorial making the case of Morris, and the BBC’s Art Editor, Will Gompertz, also argued for Morris (whilst at the same time making a separate case for Julia Margaret Cameron).

If you want to nominate Morris for the £20 note, you have to be fast! Nominations close on July 19th.

Astounding Science-Fiction May 1942

I recently got my hands on a copy of Astounding Science-Fiction from May 1942 and wanted to upload it here as a .pdf, partly to share it (because there aren’t many copies out there) and partly to preserve it (because being 73 years old, and produced on very cheap paper, it’s not in the best condition and won’t last forever).

There’s movements to preserve these important literary documents on the internet, but as far as I know the May 1942 issue isn’t available online. So here it is.

Leave a comment if you have any problems opening the file. It’s not the best quality, because ideally I’d need to scan it in rather than photograph it, but that would damage the spine and the binding. Hopefully it’s readable, and better than nothing!

Share and enjoy!™