Category Archives: Books

He Died with his Eyes Open, by Derek Raymond

He Died with His Eyes Open (Factory 1) is a stunning, shocking novel which manages to transcend the genre of crime fiction in a similar way that, for example, James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler do. I rate Raymond above either Ellroy or Chandler though: his books, like the very best of literature, hold the reader’s attention throughout but continue to provoke thoughts and questions long after you have finished reading.
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Clean Code by Robert C Martin et al

Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship, by “uncle” Bob Martin & his associates, is a great book, and one which any developer will learn a great deal from. In most respects, it is a five-star book, but… the title is misleading. By rights it should be called “Clean Java Code”.
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Intellectuals Like Us

Re-reading The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky (marvellous book), I came across this passage in a letter to the protagonist:

At that time you were interested in palaeontology and you had discovered the hypothesis of someone called Dollo – I think you called it overspecialization. It dealt with the mystery of extinction. Dollo, as far as I can recall, claimed you could paradoxically explain the dying out of some species by a too successful struggle for the sur­vival of the fittest. It seems that some animals underwent a rapid development of certain anatomical features that seemed at first to give them an advantage: herbivorous reptiles grew to such a size that smaller carnivores could not harm them. The sabre-toothed tigers developed huge tusks which could pierce even the skin of a dinotherium. But sometimes things go awry and the development of advanta­geous features doesn’t cease at the point of greatest advantage. The brontosaurus keeps on growing, the sabre-toothed tiger’s tusks get longer. This growth continues ad absurdum until, according to Dollo, “there appear animals which are no longer adapted to survival, and these die out.” The four-metre sabre-tooth’s tusks curl round and close its jaws so that in the end it can only feed on mice. The brontosaurus reaches gigantic proportions and its brain, which is the same size as a cat’s, can no longer manage the huge body; another brain develops in the pelvic region, but the two never manage to get coordi­nated and the brontosauri die out as a result of anatomical schizo­phrenia.

Thus far Dollo. You, ever the cynic, applied this to mankind. In the struggle for survival man’s brain has grown, giving him an undisputed advantage, but once again this growth has not stopped at the point of maximum advantage. His rational abilities have grown, while his emotional and volitional capacities have remained unchanged. Thanks to this hypertrophy of the rational part of the brain, reality has become more and more complicated, leading to increasingly irresolv­able conflicts of the reason with the emotions and the will, in turn pro­ducing individuals incapable of action – which can only be the product of the instrumental, not the reflective intelligence. Such individuals are no longer able to deal with life. Their numbers are increasing. Today there are already whole classes, or more precisely, whole strata of them. And when this overspecialization overtakes all mankind, Homo sapiens will die out.

I know you didn’t mean it entirely seriously, Dan, but perhaps you happened on the trail of a disease that Marx and Engels were clearly aware of too. Fortunately all of mankind hasn’t yet been afflicted -only intellectuals like us.

Dénouement

I’ve written here before (perhaps a tad obsessively) about my love for author David Mitchell. It’s been a while since I read anything by him – in fact, it’s been very slightly over a year. I know this because I polished off most of his last book, Black Swan Green, in one sitting while I was acting as a polling clerk at last year’s May local elections.

So when I saw that David Mitchell’s had written a new short story, Dénouement, for last weekend’s Guardian Review I felt a moment of excitement. Then I stopped myself. Perhaps I’m slipping into hero-worship. Perhaps this would be just a so-so short story, but perhaps my cognitive dissonance would have me persuading myself that I like it. It was thus with some hesitation that I began reading, fearing the worst.

I needn’t have worried. The story used a plot-twist that’s probably as old as fiction itself, but managed to make it feel fresh. Above all, it created an indescribable feeling inside of heartstrings pulled, vertebrae tingled, emotions set to vibrate at simultaneously happy, sad, longing and incredulous wavelengths. It was unmistakably David Mitchell’s writing.

I’m not quite sure how he works his tricks, and I’m loathe to over-analyse his writing (or even to re-read his books) in case the wonder is shattered, but whatever it is he does, he does it so well. If only I’d read the paper on Saturday, when it came out, I’d have jumped straight in the car and pootled off to Hay to hear him talk and perhaps even congratulate him in person.

Photobooks for sale: Ponderosa and Party People

I am planning to publish two books of my photos. This is something I’ve been thinking of for some time now, but I’m opening up my house and showing off my photos as part of Open Up Sheffield open studios event, and I want to have a few things available for sale.

I am going to use Photobox for the books – so they will not be of quite the kind of quality of a properly published and bound photobook, but from what I’ve seen they are pretty good for an off-the-shelf type product. I would like to do more than the standard 20 pages, but I really don’t think I can afford to at the moment.

The first book will feature images and text from my Ponderosa (traces of crime) project.

The second book will feature a selection of my as-yet un-named (suggestions welcome) project which I provisionally call Party People.

I have one small problem, which is the complete and utter lack of any funds, so I hope to be able to get a few pre-orders in to help pay for this. So… I am offering the book to any of my blog-readers at a special reduced rate of £24 per book (or approximate $/€ equivalent) – this should just about cover my costs including postage to you, but because there is a 2-for-1 offer on it means I get an additional book for each one ordered. I intend to sell the books for £35 at the open-studio event.

So… please email me or leave a comment here if you are interested in buying a copy.

I need to move quickly on this – I would like numbers confirmed by next week (22nd) and payment (Bank transfer or Paypal) by 25th.

Learning Lines

We’ve just started rehearsals for the latest Next Best Thing Productions play – Shakespeare’s Richard III (I play Lord Buckingham, Dicky’s best mate. Or, in Will’s words “a sort of cross between Goebbels and Göring”). I realised during our last performance (when I only had a couple of paragraphs to learn) that I’m starting to discover some useful strategies and mnemonics for that bane of all actors, line-learning. Here are a few of my methods, in the hope that they may prove useful to someone somewhere.

To start with, don’t worry about the daunting task ahead of you. The first 2, 3, 4, 5 or even 6 times you read the script, you should do just that. Read through it, and try not to be put off by the fact that one day soon, you’ll have to know all of this by heart.

After a couple of reads, you should start to get phrases and sentences into your short-term memory. Read through a line, and then try to recite it back in your head without looking at the page. If you can’t manage a whole line, do it with a few words, then the next few words, then try to string together the whole sentence. But don’t get too caught up in any particular part: if you’ve gone over the same sentence ten times and the words are still eluding you, move on to the next sentence or take a break.

As you start to become more familiar with the text, try looking at it from different perspectives, and from both semantic and syntactic points of view. This is where the really effective, deep learning comes from. Don’t just think of it as a sentence in a play. Examine each word. Think of its meaning. Think of another word that could serve in its place, and/or of another thing which could be meant by the same (or similar sounding) word (I often find that doing this reveals to me a lot about the playwrite’s intentions, and why they chose one specific word over another). Then ignore the word’s meaning(s) and look at the structure of the sentence. One very good way of doing this is to just look at the first letter of each word. Say the letters, either (or both) by name (Ay, Bee, See) or phonetically (with “nursery style” a, b, c sounds). Try pronouncing the imaginary word formed by the first letters of each word in the sentence. This mnemonic is incredibly helpful towards the end of script-learning, when you have the bones of a sentence in your head but keep substituting incorrect words.

Basically, think of as many different approaches to the text as you can. Play games, have fun with it. Reverse the words in the sentence if you want to, or think of words which rhyme with them. Every different approach you use strengthens the memory of the lines in your head. On top of this, it’s a lot more fun than just reading and re-reading the same old words over and over and over again.

Context helps too: I tend to read my lines while walking the dog, for several reasons. Firstly, it removes most external distractions (apart from the obvious ones such as crossing the road safely and avoiding walking into trees). Secondly the time I spend walking the dog (about half-an-hour) seems, to me, to be about the right length of time to spend line-learning: much longer than this in one chunk and my mind starts to drift. And thirdly… well, it kills two birds with one stone 🙂 Oh yeah, I think something about walking at the same time as reading is also better for mental recall than just staying sedate in a chair or bed.

When I started on the Shakespear, I had expected it to be harder work than previous plays, because of the archaic language. Actually, I find the opposite is true. The frequent use of poetic devices: rhyme, alliteration and, in particular, iambic pentameter, mean that many of the mnemonics I use for line-learning are already built into the core text.

One other thing I have learnt through studying drama: a good text just keeps on revealing new things to you, no matter how familiar you become with it. When I played the title role in Molière’s The Miser (l’Avare) many of my realisations about the character and the plot came in the week running up to the performance of the play, when I already had my lines well under my belt. This is a wonderful thing to experience, but it also makes me a little sad: often when I read a novel, I find myself wanting to read it a second time as I know that many subtleties eluded me the first time around. Very rarely do I actually find time for a second reading, but my experience with plays has made me feel that sometimes, if I were able to read the book so many times that every word became imprinted on my memory, only then would I fully appreciate the author’s craft.

Annual Cardiacs pilgrimage to London

I had a hectic-frantic two days in London last week. Arrived on Thursday evening just in time to have an early dinner with Martin and then head to Forbidden Planet to meet M John Harrison, who was signing copies of his new book Nova Swing. We were slightly delayed because we all thought that Forbidden Planet was in New Oxford Street (it was, but it’s now in Shaftesbury Avenue. London keeps shifting and changing when I’m not looking). Forbidden Planet was slightly depressing, too many memories of a life I thought I’d left behind. Martin wandered around pulling out random books and making cutting comments about them.

After the signing, we headed around the corner to the Phoenix Arts Club, underneath the Phoenix Theatre in Charing Cross Road, where an elderly camp barman in a colourful waistcoat served us overpriced drinks. Meanwhile, the hits of the musicals provided an aural backdrop, like some kind of light-night version of Elaine Paige’s Sunday Radio 2 show. Very strange. Even stranger, among the theatrical ephemera were hung posters advertising all the latest sci-fi/fantasy doorstop novels (I presume something to do with the proximity to Forbidden Planet).

I made my excuses and left early, as I had to get to Islington in time to see Arthur and John’s band, Animal Maths, playing at the legendary Hope & Anchor in Islington. Animal Maths were great, although they could have been a bit livelier (I think I’ve been spoiled in this respect, having seen loads of great Sheffield bands recently who put on a good performance as well as playing good music). Both lively & musical (and photogenic) were headline band The Mighty Roars. After the gig I had a good chat with their Debbie Harry-esque Swedish/Swiss singer Lara, until another woman positioned herself between us and said to me accusingly “are you trying to hit on her?”. More photos of Animal Maths and the Mighty Roars on my photographers website.

After the gig I walked down to Angel tube station, only to discover that, at 12.30am, I’d already missed the last tube (London is such a lame-ass city!) so I went to the bus stop, where I witnessed a crash between two taxis, before catching a bus to Ed’s studio. Sat there chatting to Ed, Taku and Rachel, who were making leather reindeer for some film or shop-display or something. I read a chapter of Nova Swing to them before collapsing, almost unconscious, into “bed” at 4am.

The next day started slowly, a gentle walk around London (if only I didn’t have to lug my heavy bag everywhere), I meandered over to the BJP vision (the British Journal of Photography’s annual event for aspiring professionals). I wasn’t quite sure of my purpose in being there, I thought that perhaps I’d doze off at the back of a lecture theatre while picking up Photoshop tips by osmosis, but in the end I didn’t go to any Photoshop lectures, just one talk by portrait photographer Brian Griffin. Brian was charming, fascinating, eccentric in just the right measure, and inspiring. Although I’d promised myself I was going to keep my London trip on a tight budget, I couldn’t resist splashing out on a signed copy of his absolutely luscious Influences book BRIANGRIFFINFLUENCES.

Motoring on, I walked the South Bank to the Tate Gallery, where I disgusted myself by being too chicken to ride down Carsten Höller’s wonderful slides (even though I thoroughly enjoyed watching the excited faces of every single person emerging from the bottom), then continued towards Waterloo and over the river to the National Portrait Gallery where I took a lengthy look at the finalists and winners of this year’s Photographic Portrait Prize which I entered but didn’t make the grade for. There was some wonderful stuff there, but also some confusing choices, including initially the winner, although some time spent absorbing it and the information printed alongside helped me to come around to it eventually.

By this time, it was almost 6pm, time to meet Arthur in The Tottenham for our annual pilgrimage to the Cardiacs gig at the Astoria. While I was waiting for Arthur to turn up, I bumped into Andy Wilson, maintainer of the Faust Pages, who I hadn’t seen for several years. Andy alerted me to the fact that on the 1st December, the ICA are screening a film of the best Faust gig I ever went to (also, apparently, the best Faust gig ever). My review of that gig still lives on via the Faust pages. Damn, I shall have to get back to London for 1st December.

Arthur finally arrived and we went in to the Astoria. First up were Jon Poole’s band the God Damn Whores. They played some great mungey punky metal. I’d planned to keep my camera in my bag for the night, but the number of camphone-wielding fans tempted me otherwise: I started snapping away. Bad move. I was spotted and singled out for using a “pro camera”. I thought this would come to nothing when the bouncer wandered off again, but at the end of the support set he tracked me down (not easy in an audience of thousands) and hauled me out of the gig. I had to hand my camera over to the box office, in exchange for a cloakroom ticket, before I was allowed back in to see the Cardiacs.

Meanwhile, Arthur had bumped into some friends of his, Scaramanga Six. This band are (almost) local to me – from Huddersfield, and I had previously met their drummer (who lives in Sheffield) and been told many times that I ought to check them out, but I still have not to date (I’m determined to see them on December 16th, when they’re next in Sheffield – at the Grapes). So it was good to finally meet them and all freak out to the Cardiacs together. I can’t say it was one of my favourite Cardiacs gigs – I was already too drunk when they came on, plus my mind was on my camera for much of the night. Still, it’s not really possible to have a bad Cardiacs gig, and from what vague memories I still have, it was a lot of fun.

Afterwards I collected my camera and tried to revive myself with a coffee, before boarding a tube to Old Street where Scaramanga Six smuggled us into the Cardiacs after-show party. Much madness I am sure ensued, but I’m sorry to say that I was too drunk to really remember any of it. All the band were there, I got to say hello to William D Drake and the DJ played Gong and King Crimson. Woo-hoo! I just hope I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself. Arthur and I stumbled outside at around 4am, realised the only way of getting back to Twickenham was in a taxi (ouch), I forked out £40+ (ouch!) for the cab and then collapsed on Arthur’s living room floor, aware that I had to wake up again in about two hours to be sure of catching my train back to Sheffield. I checked and re-checked several times that the alarm on my phone was set for 6am and was switched on.

Several weird dreams later… I’m one-quarter awake, thinking “I could get up now, but the alarm hasn’t gone off yet”. I decide to check the time anyway. It’s 9am. Shit! I check the phone and there’s no sign of the alarm – I must have switched it off “in my sleep”. I’m normally very good at waking up to alarms at any time of the day or night, but once in a while, when I’ve pushed my body too far, it switches to automatic mode and “deals with” the alarm for me without any need for my waking mind to kick in. My train to Sheffield was at… 8.25am. I meandered, still drunk, into St Pancras and instead caught the 11.25, but as I had a time-restricted ticket I had to pay another £52 for the privilege. Ouch! (again).