Experiencing Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport

Out of all the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport had the most arresting summary: a first-person one-sentence inner-monologue spread over approximately 1,000 pages, covering every thought that runs through the Ohioan housewife speaker’s head, including worries, observations, clickbait headlines, jingles, and wordplay.

More accurately, the book is 988 pages, although that number increases to 1,030 if you include the glossary, appendices, and front matter. It’s also not just a single sentence; punctuating the stream of consciousness is another narrative about a lioness told in third-person prose with the blessed inclusion of full-stops. There are, by my count, 17 instances when the main stream pauses for the lioness’s story, each time for 1-2 pages. The pauses occur every 100 pages or so for most of the novel, the gap between pauses decreasing to as little as 10 pages towards the end. The two narratives are linked thematically and eventually the plots intersect.

I was curious to know how such a novel could work; whether a single sentence could be maintained for that length without degenerating into nonsense word soup, and whether the extreme page-length was justified.Read More »

Brexit: The View from the Moon

Edgar Mitchell steps onto the powdery grey surface, plumes of dust swirling around his feet. The land, empty except for rocks and shadows, stretches to rolling hills and a close horizon. Above him, the huge blue and white disk gleams in the black sky.

‘You develop an instant global consciousness,’ he told people after he’d returned to Earth. ‘From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”’

The Brexit referendum has encouraged some of us in Britain to see, like Mitchell, the world from a new perspective. If we are not going to be part of the European Union, what should we be part of? If we are to remain inside the EU, what are our reasons for subverting the vote? Where is our home — Britain, Europe, or the world?

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How to Dig Graves in the Snow: A Story of Grand Forks, Yukon, and Jews in the Klondike

Last winter I wrote a 1,000 word story titled ‘The Kevura’, about the discovery of a dead body in the snow. It’s now been published, in the online Flash Fiction Magazine.

The story is set in the town of Grand Forks, Yukon, a place now so forgotten that it only has a 72-word entry on Wikipedia. First established in 1896 as a small settlement of forty buildings, the town grew to house 4,000-10,000 people (the number varies according to accounts) after gold was discovered nearby in 1897. The town had electricity, a public bath, a dentists, a famous roadhouse, and a municipal government.

In 1899 gold was discovered in a more accessible location, in Alaska, and Grand Forks fell into decline. By 1911, just fifteen years after the town was established, the town was completely abandoned so that the ground underneath could itself be mined for gold.

This is what the town looked at in 1902, around the time my story is set:

Dawson City Museum (1984.139.1). Reproduced with permission. The annotations were added by someone who lived in Grand Forks from 1903 to 1907 (when they were 10-14 years old).

The annotated panoramic lists some of the towns amenities, including a Japanese restaurant, a German bakery,  and a photographers’.

This is the same site in 2017:

Google Earth aerial photograph.

Almost nothing is left, except for a single derelict building and the remains of the cemetery, carved into the hillside, protected from mining by (let us assume) reverence for the dead. In 2009, historian and conservationist Ed Jones began restoring the cemetery.

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The Thing about the Thing Itself

9780575127739I recently finished The Thing Itself (2015) by Adam Roberts. I don’t want to reveal too much about this book because one of the pleasures of reading it is being surprised by the plot twists. And when I write ‘plot twists’ I don’t just mean revelations about the characters or developments in the order of events, I mean actual twists in the plot; moments when the plot twists into a new form or setting whilst adhering to an overall structure (albeit a structure which doesn’t become fully apparent until the end). Reading The Thing Itself feels like tracing your finger along one side of a Möbius strip: you go inside out and upside down, but eventually the twists connect together seamlessly.

The main plot follows Charles Gardner, a ‘Reading born and bred’ astrophysicist, and his experiences with Roy Curtius, a Kant-loving sociopath. There are other plots as well, which I won’t spoil.

Roberts knows how to use the perfect image to convey setting and character. Take this description of the sun in Antarctica, for example:

The sun loitered near the horizon. A cricket ball frozen in flight.

– p. 8

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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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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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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!™