Monday, 27 June 2011

Sketches 002

Following on from my first post, Sketches 001, I decided to 'sketch' a locale instead of a person this time. This piece was born out of some half-remembered dialogue from Neil Gaiman's Sandman, something the comedian Dylan Moran said, and other tales I've picked up along the way.


Hotel rooms have their own unique resonance with the rest of the universe. Or rather they don’t. They operate on a level of existence outside of normality. Like a discordant note that’s just barely audible under the thrum and whine of everyday life. They exist just outside of time, outside of sense, in a locale where anything can be justified.

All the stuff you block out each day catches up with you in hotel rooms. Specters made of mental malaise stalk the corridors of every airport hotel and inner city stop over. All those thoughts you drown out with iPods, Ikea catalogues and foreign holidays. All those neuroses stifled with gym memberships, new wardrobes and cosmetic surgery. All the creeping paranoia. All of these things find you in hotel rooms. Sat there alone at two in the morning, having drained the mini bar, is it any wonder people commit suicide in hotel rooms?

Other marginally less self-destructive individuals, continue to keep that dogged existential ache at bay with cocaine, prostitutes or meaningless sexual encounters. The sex that occurs in hotel rooms is paradoxically more abandoned and wanton than anything sampled at home, and yet remembered indistinctly, as if it happened to someone else. This is not an untruth, you are Shrödinger’s guest at times like these, dead and yet not dead. The consequences are always very much alive.

Because these events occur on this sub-level of reality they’re easy to wave off. ‘What goes on tour stays on tour’ is the maxim uttered by burned out rock stars and jaded businessmen alike. Until the next time you find yourself alone and remember what you did. It’s at times like these you grow pale and realise the Hotelverse is so very close to our own, separated by a sterile, air conditioned meniscus of denial. You’re sure those crimes will breach the membrane of the real universe, visiting ruin on everything that matters.

Other times you’re a prisoner, a slave to scheduling. Far from home and feeling cut off geographically, and by time itself, trapped far from the Greenwich Mean. These nights are as sleepless as any cocaine-fueled decadence, as restless as any blank-eyed lover, counting the hours until the cab comes to take you to the airport. Every film on the tiny screen is a re-run of a re-run, urging you to dial up more explicit entertainment. Nights like these make insomnia attractive by comparison.

Hotel rooms. Would it surprise you that sigils drawn in blood, consecrated with brimstone adorn each wall just beyond the range of your vision? These demon-drawn embellishments are obscured by bland corporate art in pastel shades, reassuring you everything is just fine. If you could just shrug off that crawling sense of unease. If you could just sleep. If you could just stop thinking. Alone in the Hotelverse, you hope you’ll make it back to reality without leaving too much of your soul with the girl at reception who wears too much make-up.

I’ve seen Hell and there are no demons. No lakes of fire where he damned piss and moan. Just an endless plain of your own anxiety, studded with the detritus of past defeats. Old shames swirl about like dust devils, brushing past, intangible yet visceral. I’ve seen Hell and it occurs in hotel rooms, waiting.


Monday, 20 June 2011

Chris Wooding – The Black Lung Captain

Recently I attended an event at the British Library entitled ‘Why Science Fiction Appeals To Everyone’. The panelists included China Mieville, Tricia Sullivan, Adam Roberts and Erik Davis. One of the main points put forward and roundly supported by the panelists was that cinema had changed science fiction from a genre of ideas (or ‘what ifs’) to a genre of
visual spectacle.

This is an important distinction. I’ve often felt uncomfortable when science fiction proudly proclaims itself ‘the genre of ideas’. I don’t read a huge amount of books outside of genre, but the ones I have read certainly had ideas in them. Those ideas didn’t feature spaceships, alien worlds, zap guns or quantum shenanigans, but there were ideas nonetheless.

Visual spectacle is something I can get behind, and it doesn’t have to occur on the silver screen, a readers mind is just as good a place to project. The turning point of modern cinema is that most anticipated (and often disappointing) of beasts – the summer blockbuster.The Black Lung Captain ably emulates the things that make the summer blockbuster successful and brings them to the printed page.

Much like the farm boy who races off in his speeder, only to find himself racing towards the Death Star just hours later, The Black Lung Captain not only captures the visual spectacle element of cinema but also the constant motion. Huge dreadnoughts and frigates held aloft by aerium gas do punishment to each other as smaller Firecrows and Windblades dogfight in gut-churning aerial acrobatics. The Arch Duke’s Century Knights face off against unspeakable horrors and there, always in the thick of it, is Captain Darian Frey.

I had a real problem warming to the crew of the Ketty Jay in the first novel, Retribution Falls. For the first six chapters I was confused why I’d want any of the characters to survive (a feeling that dissipated quickly I’m glad to say). In The Black Lung Captain Wooding makes good on the faith of the reader. The cast of ne’er-do-wells are eminently more appealing – especially the Captain himself.

As much as this novel is about crosses, double-crosses, epic air battles and the fates of thousands, there is a much more human edge to it. The Black Lung Captain is about family, not of the biological sort, but the families we make for ourselves. The crew of the Ketty Jay go through some very awkward growing pains over the course of the story, but they discover trust, camaraderie, and belonging through their adventures. The character’s personal journeys and the paths their relationships take with each other gives a real emotional core to the book that will have
readers hooked.

Ultimately this book has it all: devil-may-care swashbuckling, aerial chases, cigar-chomping sky pirates, implacable daemons, and the sort of kick-arse characters you want to hang out with all the time. I literally could not stop reading this book. Each chapter made me keen to discover what
happened next.

Book three of the Tales of the Ketty Jay, The Iron Jackal is due out
in October.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Gentleman Geek – Going Underground

No etiquette this time around. Here are some haunts of mine that I’m inclined to share. Curiously the majority are underground, which doesn’t suit summertime hi-jinks, but does tap into a certain Blitz-era mind-set, good for when the Season Affective Disorder kicks in.

Freud’s – One of London’s worst kept secrets, Freud’s is a basement bar that bleeds hipster from ever crack in its dingy concrete walls. Bold art and ferociously good cocktails make this place a good haunt for any Gentleman Geek. The fact that Freud’s is across the road from Forbidden Planet is just gravy. Expect standing room only from 18:00 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Freud’s is much quieter during the day, but doesn’t have Wi-fi, ergo a good place to actually write, rather than just dicking around on Twitter. The music selection seems to be down to the staff and can be quite random, and very loud.

Upshot: Eclectic music selection, great cocktails, creative crowd, near a comic shop.
Downers: No beers on tap, no Wi-fi, seating scarce in the evenings.

Where: 198 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8JL
When: Monday to Saturday 11:00-23:30 Sunday 12:00-22:30

The Phoenix Arts Club – Although the Phoenix is a private members bar (and I lack membership) it has become a favourite of mine. I’ve been to a few book launches at this venue and it’s opposite Foyle’s too. Bliss. The Phoenix has a faded, kooky, shabby-chic vibe that is curiously endearing. The bar was set up by theatre crews with a late license so thespians and their ilk could get their drink on. And now you can too. There’s often several luvvies in the vicinity and you can even spot the odd soap star in there from time to time.

Upshot: Really friendly, attractive crowd, great atmosphere. Lagers on tap.
Downers: Non-stop show tunes can grate on your nerves.

Where: Charing Cross Road
When: 17:00-2.30am Monday to Saturday.

The Book Club – I confess, I’ve only been here twice, but I loved it both times. The Book Club is a converted Victorian Warehouse and is within spitting distance of The Old Blue Last (a long term favourite of Shoreditch bohemians). The private function room is downstairs and recently played host to China Mieville’s launch party for Embassytown (read about that book HERE). Upstairs is a spacious layout with lots of mismatched furniture and plenty of eclectic art on the walls. The staff are uniformly bright young things, but without the frosty attitude so prevalent in many London bars. They also have a lot of events on and book good DJs.

Upshot: Good music, attentive staff, roster of fun events, a ping pong table, and cake too.
Downers: If you’re allergic to hipsters you should avoid.

Where: 100-106 Leonard Street, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 4RH
When: Open from 08:00 Monday to Friday, and from 10:00 Saturday and Sunday.



Monday, 6 June 2011

Thoughts on Gormenghast

This isn’t a natural choice of novel for modern times. The plot ambles around, confusedly, minor characters are seemingly given a great deal of the limelight, and the reader is kept off balance with regards to the protagonist. Should you root for Titus (not easy in Titus Groan, the first book), or Steerpike, who is as brilliant as he is ruthless. Let’s not forget Flay, who lacks initiative but is loyal to the last. Some other readers might yet take a shine to Dr Prunesquallor, who, despite being facetious in the extreme at least has a sense of self awareness the other characters struggle to manage.

Peake’s work is a strange one, deliberately strange. It’s as if Gormenghast (both the book and the castle of the same name) is such a damnably wretched place that the denizens will attach themselves to any fleeting moment of happiness, no matter how unsuitable. The stumbling, awkward courtship of Irma Prunesquallor takes up much of the second book, and is painfully embarrassing. It’s this celebration of the pathetic that lays bare all the neuroses and fragility of the human condition, although magnified through a particularly grotesque lens.

Grotesque is a particularly appropriate word for the Gormenghast books. Barely a single character is described as anything approaching normal. Flay is gaunt and hunchbacked, a gangly and peculiar creature. Swelter, on the other hand is corpulent and immense, as is Lady Groan herself, who has such a close kinship with birds they make nests in her hair. Steerpike is possessed of a bulbous forehead, hunched shoulders and red beady eyes. Even Titus is denied a handsome countenance. All a far cry from today’s airbrushed, waxed and tanned creatures that adorn multiplex posters and magazine covers.

It’s worth noting that Peake was also an illustrator, and it’s an artists eye for the minutia that crops up time and again in his prose. Woodland scenes are lovingly created and lavished with long descriptions. Brooding interiors and lofty halls both come under intense scrutiny, architecturally and by function. Gormenghast itself exists under a cloud of entropy, the effects of which are held at bay by the bitter Barqentine, Master of Ritual. Much of the daily life in the endless wings and annexes of the castle is carried out with a large measure of ennui, the legend and preservation of Gormenghast being the only reason to continue.

These elements combine to create an a gloomy invitation, but there is a lot of comedy, particularly in Gormenghast. The Professors, whilst all quite hateful, go to great lengths to behave as abysmally as any schoolboy prankster or truant, and Dr Prunesquallor’s management of his dim-witted sister (and her hot water bottle) should provide a decent counterpoint to the gloom of this crumbling edifice.


The British Library is holding two Mervyn Peake events:

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Monday 11th July 2011, 19:30 – 21:00, with Sebastian Peake and China Miéville

Mervyn Peake: A Celebration Tuesday 26th July 2011, 18:30 – 20:00