Category Archives: Books

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).

Lady Susan

Next Best Thing productions - Lady Susan by Jane Austen

I recently took part in another Next Best Thing production: Lady Susan by Jane Austen. This was very different from previous shows, a “rehearsed reading” rather than a full play (which meant that it took a lot less preparation); the novella consists of 41 letters between the seven main characters, and seven of us read these letters in sequence with some acting (and a limited amount of direct speech, which we had to learn). The production was part of Sheffield’s Off The Shelf literary festival, and was for one night only. I played Reginald de Courcey, the somewhat dashing younger brother of Lady Susan’s hosts, who starts off mocking Lady Susan as “a very distinguished flirt” before soon being reeled in by her flirtation and falling hopelessly for her.

It made an interesting and slightly less stressful change from previous acting roles. I only had two paragraphs to learn (makes a change from The Miser where I had about an hour’s worth of speech to memorise), and everything about the proceedings were much more laid back than usual (the fact that we were acting in a church – Saint Oswald’s on Abbeydale Road – also made a nice change from more formal theatre settings).

You can read Lady Susan in its entirety on this website.

Next up: Richard III!

In Persuasion Nation

From time to time I’ve ranted, here and elsewhere, about the amazing writing of George Saunders (“one of the funniest and most insane writers ever published in the New Yorker”, according the the New Yorker. And the natural successor to Kafka and Gogol, according to me). Actually, I’d been meaning to rant about how bloody hard it is to get most of his books over here – The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp was out of print when I tried to get hold of it, so in the end I had to resort to EBay, and when I recently tried to track down copies of Civilwarland in Bad Decline and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, I tried four bookshops (including the huge London Waterstones at ULU, which used to be Dillons) before finally tracking them down at Foyles.

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah… Saunders’ new book In Persuasion Nation is out now in the states, and over here in a couple of months. And it has a pretty cool new Persuasion Nation website to go with it (with a great short story MP3 download).

The End of Faith

I’ve been holding off writing this entry, but now seems like the right time. I have been reading (almost finished now) Sam Harris‘s book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. It’s a frequently heavy-handed but nonetheless vital treatise on why religion is a black hole which will suck all of us to our eventual destruction unless we can rid ourselves of it.

Actually, it is a little more suble than that. The book’s real target is faith, which I would define as belief in an idea in the absence of (or even in opposition to) evidence. Harris, perhaps a little boldly, pinpoints faith as the cause of every major human conflict, including secular faiths such as Naziism and Stalinism. He also finds remnants of religion worth saving, in particular he has a lot of time for mysticism and exploration of the inner-self.

I’m frustrated that Harris frequently takes such a deliberately confrontational stance. I’m reminded of something Zaid told me a few years back, an impression he formed during a trip to America that for many Americans it’s not enough to be on the right side, to really win big you have to do your best to belittle and bludgeon your “opponents”. Of course this trait is not exclusively American, nor is it common to every American, but it does have a ring of truth to it and it’s certainly the case where Harris is concerned.

But… this book certainly provided me with plenty of quotes from religious texts on how our gods like us to smite the unbeliever, some shocking teachings which nowadays most Jews, Christians and Moslems choose to ignore or, sometimes rather torturously, read as metaphor (in the case of Islam, Harris gets rather carried away with himself, providing five tedious pages of quotes from the Koran telling us how Allah likes to treat unbelievers). You can see how easily a literal mind could find instructions in these millennia-old works of literature which would lead them to perpetrate acts such as yesterday’s bombings (and as a result I have spent the day listening in frustration to various pundits saying “this will not help the terrorists’ cause”, without apparently entertaining the simple thought that perhaps this is the terrorists’ cause?)

Anyway, below is the review I’ve just written for Amazon. I’ve also talked about this book at length on the Empty Space Reading Group, starting here.

I agree largely with Richard Morgan’s review, although I have given the book a higher rating because I believe that most of the fundamental arguments are correct and it is for the most part a good and very informative read.

The big shame, for me, was that Harris’s “pugilistic” stance is only likely to win him fans among the already-converted (which I confess I am. Goodness… “converted”, “confess”… this religion business really is quite pervasive, isn’t it?), but this book deals with such important topics that it needs to be made more palatable to those of more neutral persuasion, and to the religions moderates who Harris demonises. He frequently makes uneccesarily snidey side-swipes which do nothing to bolster his main argument, and for somebody so convinced of the importance of evidence-based rational discourse, he is irritatingly fond of the phrase “needless to say”.

I am not familiar enough with all of the sources quoted by Harris to know whether he always does a good job of representing them, but from the one or two examples (as quoted by Richard Morgan) where he doesn’t, and from his general (dare I say rather American-confrontational) “I’m gonna get you religion” attitude, I am left wondering about the reliability of some of his evidence.

And, yes, he doesn’t offer much in the way of a solution. This is ultimately a very depressing book: religious nuts are out there, they’re violent (because their god tells them to be) and sooner or later they will get hold of weapons of mass destruction.

But all that said, this is a fascinating book which tries, and sometimes succeeds, to get to the heart of a topic which is absolutely vital to our times.

Review of iCon: Steve Jobs

It’s been far too long since I wrote anything for publication. So last week, I was happy to put the finishing touches to a book review, for Brand Republic, of the book iCon – Steve Jobs, The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon. There’s something very different about writing for publication: I take so much care over it, I must have gone over this article at least twenty times, ironing out grammatical errors and unclear sentences. And the feeling of having done a job well leaves me with a little glow inside. You can read the review here: I hope you enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed writing it.

iCon

Yay! A parcel arrived in the post this morning: a copy of iCon – Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey S Young and William L Simon which Brand Republic have asked me to review. The cover says “advance uncorrected proofs – not for sale” which makes me think I ought to be quick with this one: I’d thought it was already out, but Amazon UK put the release date as 31st May; it would be nice to get a book review in ahead of the publication date, for a change.

It will be a very interesting read, especially to see whether it was worth all the fuss that Apple made, withdrawing other books from publisher Wiley from their Apple Store shelves. The title is, of course, a rather wonderful piece of word-play, although the publishers seem to insist it was un-intentional. If so, then they really ought to take a bit more care over their book titles, because the “second act” part seems to refer to F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line “there are no second acts in American lives” which as I learnt the other day is usually, incorrectly, taken to mean “you don’t get to make a comeback”, but what Fitzgerald really meant is that the American Ideal is no gap between desire and achievement (Act I establishes motivation; Act II is about overcoming obstacles; Act III is about achieving gratification. No Act II = no obstacles: desire leads directly to gratification with nothing inbetween the two). (Thanks for that, Al). Still, I suppose Jobs has faced a fairly monumental struggle, so the “greatest second act in the history of business”, although hyperbole, might not be entirely wide of the mark.

Cooking with Fernet Branca

Another book I mentioned I’d read recently was Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson. I picked it up in Bochum – it was the only book in the small “English” section in the bookshop which looked in the slightest bit interesting.

It was actually very funny, not out-of-this-world special but a good read. Its main character, Gerald, “effete Englishman, culinary adventurer, and ghostwriter to the stars” is an absolute up-his-own-arse tosser. But one of the wonders of the book is that by the end you really come to love him, despite his remaining throughout an up-his-own-arse tosser. His neighbour, Marta, the “ghastly Slavic slut” (she’s actually a marginally famous Voynovian composer, staying in Italy to write the score for a new Pacini film) keeps popping around with bottles of Fernet Branca; Gerald beomes convinced that she’s an alcoholic with a taste for the sickly stuff (Marta, meanwhile, forms the same opinion about him). Actually, Marta has just been donated a crate of the stuff and is desperate to get rid of it somehow. By the end of the book, though, they’re both hooked, but meanwhile Gerald keeps working Fernet Branca into his somewhat avant-garde recipes. Here’s an example of such a recipe (although lacking one of Gerald’s favourite staples, smoked cat), other favourites include “garlic & Fernet Branca ice-cream”, “otter with lobster sauce” and “alien pie”.

Fish Cake

No – we are not talking about exquisite fish and potato patties rolled in breadcrumbs and fried, that classic of English cuisine. This is a good deal more exotic, a Gerald Samper creation designed, as any work of art must be, to remind us that the world is an unexpected place full of unfamiliar challenges. I perfected it while compiling a small volume provisionally entitled The Boys’ Reformatory Cookbook whose witty asides proved too much for the fifteen hidebound UK publishers I tried to interest before I lost faith in the project. (The typescript joined many others in my bottom drawer that together constitute the graveyard of my literary hopes. These include the libretto for a delightful and lubricious operetta, Vietato ai Minori, that I now despair of ever seeing set to music, ditto my ballet Jizzelle.)

Ingredients
377 gm self-raising flour
151 gm semolina
62 gm cornmeal
149 gm granulated sugar
83 gm unsalted butter
1 tinned mackerel (about 74 gm)
Grated peel of 1 lemon
99 gm freshly ground almonds
26 gm sultanas
Pinch of black pepper
2 tablespoons plain yoghurt (optional)

Stir the flour, semolina, cornmeal, sugar, eggs and almonds together. The mixture will be severely crumbly. Now use your fingers and work in the butter and the fish. Don’t despair: after five minutes or so it will confound you by taking on the correct fatty consistency. Add the sultanas, pepper and grated lemon. Still on the stodgy side? The optional yoghurt will cure that. Go on working until the dough is uniform, with no individual flecks of mackerel. Your fingers may ache but you can console yourself with the thought that your nails will be all the cleaner (also one of the hidden benefits of making one’s own bread). Set the mixture aside to rest for an hour. Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 190°C – what used to be Regulo 5 in the dear dead days of the Radiation Cookbook – and oil a baking tin. When the hour is up transfer the dough to the tin and bake for forty minutes, or forty-four minutes if you become distracted by a drunken slut in a neighbouring cottage.

To taste GS’s Fish Cake at its best it should be left to stand for twenty-four hours. This enhances both texture and flavour, though don’t ask me how. On the grounds that lilies are much improved by gilding, this cake benefits from an austere icing: 226 gm icing sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons Fernet Branca. This will top off your masterpiece with a toothsome cap of an interesting ginger shade.

For incurable R&D types, a word of warning. You would be amazed by how few varieties of fish are really suitable for this recipe. I have found by far the best to be ‘Pinocchio’ brand tinned sgombri al naturale, readily available in most Italian supermarkets. Raked salmon runs them a close second. In the past I have also tried eel, baked halibut and kippers. This last was not a success and I gave it to the birds. There was something a little too fantastic about fish bones in an iced cake, though it may be just that I’m getting old. Once upon a time my bird table in the Home Counties was an oasis of cuisine expérimentale in a desert of dull fare. Birds must surely be bored by an unrelieved diet of worms, bacon rind and burnt toast. My slow path to culinary mastery was marked by offerings that became the height of avian fashion – the dernier cri, one might say, which occasionally they proved to be. One of the victims, a green woodpecker, was in turn converted into a tasty mouthful by glazing and truffling.