Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Ten Things That Made Life Better in 2014

And so the year winds down and I've been incredibly remiss about blogging.  So here's an utterly non-comprehensive list in no particular order of things that have made existence better this year. Take it as read that my family and friends are more important than any of this because ultimately other people are THE most important thing one way or the other. As the hippies told us, we should all try to get along man.  Even if, as Douglas Adams points out, they nailed up the first bloke in history who suggested it.  Anyway...

1.  Doctor Who

It comes first because it's always been there for me and there's so much of it, even if I go off it, there's so much of it I can always revel in the love I've had for it since I was six. This year we got lifelong fan Peter Capaldi taking over the role and basically pulling off the spikier Doctor in a way they failed to in the 80s.  And even better the stories were there to support him - while obviously some stories didn't work as well as others the baseline was high.  None of the stories for me didn't work and all had some sublime moments.  And in Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline and the season finale there were stories to rank with the best of previous years.  Let's remind you of the very best things about this year's series (along with Jamie Matheson):

Michelle Gomez as Missy vs Capaldi.  Oh yes. MORE please!

(Special mention for Paul Magrs' sublime The Annual Years, a book which neatly balanced childhood nostalgia with a proper history and criticism of perhaps Doctor Who's most neglected corner).

2. Doctor Who Legacy

Yes, so it's still Doctor Who. But hey, after thirty plus years of substandard computer games we've finally got a decent Who game.  It's a relatively simple premise - you have a five by six board of gems of different colours and by forming lines or three or more gems you battle opponents from the tv series.  The more you play, the more Doctors and allies you accumulate (via winning characters on certain levels and accumulting 'time fragments' and 'time crystals') and the more potent you can make them.  There's a main game (currently on its fourth chapter) with a storyline and sundry offshoot games for a bit of fun. It's simple, addictive and often frustrating as all the best games are.

Seriously, for Who fans there are fewer more fun ways to waste your life.

3. Seasons Of War

One last Doctor Who related one...

More of this early in the New Year but over the last six months I've been involved with Declan May's charity anthology which aims to tell the story of the War Doctor between Night of the Doctor and Day of the Doctor. You might notice from the above that I'm in some fine, fine company.  You can find out more here and donate to obtain an ebook and details of how to get the print version here.

I'll preview my story for the book closer to the release date.  But as a teaser... it's called Always Look On The Bright Side of Life and features pantomime horses, giant purple gorillas and lethal custard pies. 

4. Terrors of the Theatre Diabolique

Something I really should have blogged about a while back and will devote proper time to in the New Year...

Early in the year Dan Barratt, Dalek operator extraordinaire, asked for submissions for a horror anthology he had in mind, one which paid tribute to the old Amicus portmanteau movies of the '70s. As originally conceived it was based around Shakespeare's Ages Of Man speech, structured around a theme that took us from cradle to grave (the latter more than once).   I bagged the 'second childhood' slot and started playing around with an idea of an infernal bargain.  Everything clicked when Dan made a few general requests to the authors and... well, I'll say more very soon.  But along with Always Face The Curtain I think it's the best thing I've ever written.

But why should you buy it?  Because within a simple but beautiful structure that's a beautiful homage to those old films whilst being something uniquely its own, there are six stories that play with the idea of the horror story in very different ways. There's traditional ghost stories, very modern takes and outright horror comedies which combine to form a hugely satisfying whole with a sublime pay-off.  Go donate here and grab your digital copy today and get a link to purchase one of several rather lovely hard copy versions.

5. Red Or Dead

Liverpool FC are one of the great loves of my life.  Literature is another.  David Peace combines the best of both worlds, turning Shankly's time at Liverpool into something almost biblical.  I loved it so much I wrote this  for the fine Two Unfortunates site.

6. Fantasy football

Not so much the standard UK version where I magically managed to kill teams with long term injuries but more the NFL version where you play weekly head to heads against other teams.  In one 14 team league where I'd been a cellar dweller for a good few years I turned things around and finished 12-1, pipping the 11-2 second place team to the regular season title by beating them on the last day.  Course, as things turn out I'd have been better off losing that as I'd have ended up winning the playoffs but by topping the league I ran into the only guy to beat me during the season and won the third place game by a whisker (stealing it by having Emmanuel Sanders of the Denver Broncos score 19 points while AJ Green scored none).  And in my work league I was running in second for most of the year before dumping Odell Beckham right before he hit form... and telling the guy who eventually got second to pick him up.  And I finished third there too for the second straight season.

I know it's totally pointless, but it's a great deal of fun.

I'm of around the same age as Tom Ewing, the site's founder.  His slightly insane project is essentially to review every UK Number One record (along with small offshoots such as their 100 Greatest songs of all time which finishes here with a sublime piece which makes a watertight case as to why this particular song is the greatest of all pop's myriad artefacts).  I've never met Tom but he's got an uncanny ability to burrow to the heart of what a record means (even if it's something as nebulous as a feeling) and communicate it. Hit the search facility and look for any record you love that made it to the top (currently he's just finished the No 1s of the twentieth century). And keep going, because it's addictive and even when he's dealing with bland or mediocre records he's always worth reading. This is what became of the Smash Hits generation.

8. Uptown Funk

Record of the year, no contest.  I love Ronson's production on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black and his own Version (heresy as it is, he does sublime, joyous things to Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before).  Here he even makes me love Bruno Mars, an artist who's output's simply bounced off me before.  The lyric's a standard boast but dammit, the music's distilled joy and irresistibly danceable. Happiness does prevail.

9.  Before The Dawn 

In the modern hyper-connected world there's little better than total surprise.  David Bowie managed it with  the release of Where Are We Now?, somehow conjuring magnificence to a grey January morning by breaking a near decade of silence with a melancholy wander through his own past. 

Arguably that was trumped in February with Kate Bush announcing that she'd be performing in concert for the first time in 35 years.  Take one moment to look at that gap.  Thirty five years. I'd barely started primary school last time she went before a paying audience. And so I blagged a morning off work and, colluding with a friend, managed to grab tickets for the weekend of my wedding anniversary (one of the later shows in the run). Only the six months to wait...

Friends saw earlier shows in the run, and kindly declined to spoil details. But the word was overwhelmingly positive.  Possibly I shouldn't have been surprised given Bush has an incredible attention to detail.  But without, even now, spoiling the experience... it wasn't quite like any gig I'd ever been to. It mixed relative obscurities, big hits and managed to thematically connect two suites that formed full sides of albums and present them theatrically, always teetering on the edge of pretension and silliness but never, quite tumbling over.  It's a trick only the bravest and boldest artists even attempt and even the small number with the nerve rarely pull it off completely.  But here there an incredibly tight band combined with ambitious theatrics to utterly nail it.  And an audience admittedly predisposed to love her showered their adoration down throughout the show, with Bush herself seeming shyly surprised at the affection for her. Sublime and ultimately it's one of the finest live performances I've seen.  And I've been to a lot of gigs in my time.

10.  The continued existence of Clive James

As I type this I've got one of my Christmas presents close at hand - Georg Lichtenberg's 'The Wast Books'.  It's something I added to my wish list after my dawdle through what's probably Clive James' masterwork, Cultural Amnesia. It's a book where James takes a quote as a starting point (ranging from political dissidents who've undergone unimaginable hardship to much ridiculed Hollywood lines) for a series of essays exploring what he sees as humanity's major themes (mostly the major themes that crop up in his lifetime, notably the virtues of liberal democracy).  You can criticise the essays for only skimming subjects in many cases but then the balance between erudition and populism is a fine one. And if the book had delved in such depth it'd probably be an unwieldy three of four times the size.  No, in this case James had applied a lifetime of curiosity to notes down the years and the result stole the breath at times, panoramic, wise and witty.  It finally banished the memories as the batrochoidal chap chuckling at Japanese game shows in the 80s.

It's only over the last decade that I've come to really appreciate James.  In many ways I was the worst age to appreciate him, being too young to read his TV criticism and precisely old enough to watch him chortle and subject audiences to the camp fun of Margarita Pracatan.  Knowing him from those TV shows was like thinking you knew literature by having read Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code.  The form is (barely) there but there's so much more delicious substance beyond that. Silliness is a minor, but vital part of his armoury.

In the early part of the century, having talked to friends or founds an article online - I forget precisely how - I acquired the three volumes of his collected TV criticism.  I followed up with volumes of his literary criticism (At the Pillars of Hercules and From The Land of Shadows) and ended by picking up the collected Always Unreliable, his memoirs of his life until 1980.  There was the endearing self-deprecation, the dazzling way with a sentence and always, always a total lack of contempt but a clear-eyed view of what was possible in various media and why things failed if they failed.  Popular intellectualism has rarely been so dazzling.  

Anyway, this year  I finished the dawdle through the works I own and managed to catch Howard Jacobsen's Brilliant Creatures, a documentary about James and three fellow Australians who'd shaken the cultural world (the others being Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes).  So that's why he's here this year.

As is the fact that with his illnesses he's likely not to be long for the world so should be appreciated while he can.  And in tribute I'm going to continue reading as widely as possible and constantly bettering myself is possible.  Because it's a better world that way.

And it continues with that Christmas gift.  Thanks Clive.

Anyway, happy new year!