Cutting-Edge Technology from 3500BC

22 Sep

A guest post for the Dyslexia Scotland blog – featuring ancient history, natch 😉

A Life less ordinary

papyrus_featherYou probably don’t remember learning to speak. It happens too early. Most of us are chattering away before we’re out of nappies. But you may have painful memories of learning to read: the anxiety of spelling tests, word lists, and red pen.

That’s because speaking comes naturally to us, and reading doesn’t. Human beings have always talked. Our brains seem to be ‘hard-wired’ to pick up language. Put a normal baby in an environment where people talk to it, and within a couple of years it will have started to speak itself.

But put a normal person in an environment where there’s writing, and they’re unlikely to learn to read without being taught. That’s one reason why we spend such a large part of our childhood in school. Reading and writing isn’t usually something you just pick up.

Writing first developed in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC. It started…

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Typewriter Society author interview 

14 Sep

I did ask author interview about publishing Leda for a website called Typewriter Society this summer. It’s just been released and you can read it here

Four things that are wrong with The Dark Tower film (and one thing that’s right)

9 Sep

This is one for the fans, as I’m afraid this post is going to be a bit of a moan about the new Dark Tower film. It’s not a bad film, as it happens, although it’s not good either, but the issue I take with it is that it is supposed to be “based on the Dark Tower series of novels by Stephen King”, and that is only very loosely true.

I am a big fan of that series, you see, and it is AMAZING. Epic in scope, exciting, moving, meaningful – one of those books/series that stays with you and becomes part of how you think about the world. I more or less had to see the film, since I’m such a fan of the books, even though I knew from the trailers that I wasn’t happy with the casting of two out of three of the main characters. And I was disappointed, as I expected to be. (But is it disappointment if you expected it? Hmm.) So after a bit of rumination, here are the things I objected to (and one thing I liked):

1.    It’s not about Roland

The main character in the Dark Tower books is Roland Deschain, a gunslinger (a bit like a knight of the Round Table, but with guns). Other people come and go through the stories, including a young boy called Jake, but it is essentially a story about Roland’s personal quest for the Tower.

In the film, the main character is Jake. The story is about how Jake is unhappy at home, how Jake dreams of the gunslinger and his world, and how he meets and eventually saves Roland. Maybe this was a marketing ploy, since dystopian sci-fi/fantasy is so big amongst young adults at the moment, but given that the most book readers are in their 30s or older (the books were published between 1982 and 2004), that was probably a mistake. Plus, an unhappy tween is just not as interesting as an ages-old questing knight steeped in ancient lore and with some incredible skills to boot.

2.    It’s not even about the Tower

Roland is defined by his single-minded pursuit of the Tower. It is his monomania, and he will let nothing and no one get on the way of that. That’s part of what makes Roland’s character interesting: he’s basically very decent, but that’s sometimes overridden by his obsession with reaching the Dark Tower.

In the film, Roland doesn’t give a stuff about the Tower. The idea of reaching it doesn’t seem to have entered his mind, and even when the thing appears to stand in imminent danger of being destroyed, he’s not that bothered. He only cares about killing the Man in Black. (They make a big deal of this in the film, about how Roland is deserting his duty towards the Tower in order to instead kill the Man in Black, apparently unaware that there is no conflict between those objectives, since the Man in Black is the one threatening the Tower. That somewhat undermines the narrative tension.)

Now I realise that this is a reboot (I won’t go into the reasons for that here, though it makes sense on the context of the books) but there is no iteration of reality in which Roland is not in pursuit of the Tower, otherwise the ‘reboot’ thing couldn’t make sense. (I know that this point is very obscure if you haven’t read the books, but I refuse to spoil the ending for you!) If they make a sequel to this film it shouldn’t be called ‘The Dark Tower’, but ‘Jake and his Pal Roland Wander Aimlessly around Midworld’.

3.    There’s no emotional weight

The Dark Tower series is full of flawed, broken people in difficult circumstances, mostly (though not always) trying to do some version of the right thing. Roland’s relationships with his companions are hard-earned and deep. His relationship with Jake is particularly special, as he has no children of his own, which makes it all the more excruciating when his obsession with the Tower leads him to betray the boy. Nobody is safe in the books. You can lose fingers, toes, legs, or your life. Main characters die. One main character dies twice (in different worlds) within one book.

In the film, all the main characters are basically going to be okay. Other, hastily-drawn characters (especially parents) are in danger so that the heroes can suffer manfully, and obviously a few baddies and randoms have to die to prove it’s serious, but you know that for Jake and Roland, there will always be a handy portal or other deus ex machina when they need it. Roland receives injuries that are not only life-threatening but inescapably life-ending, but just gets up and dusts himself down. It’s cartoonish, it doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t matter.

4.    It’s actually a mash up of The Dark Tower, The Shining and Monsters Inc.

I very much like the Jake of the books, and I like the kid from The Shining too. However, if you combine the two and add on a couple of extra years so he’s a gawky tween, I do not like him much at all. If you’re coming to the film cold, you’ll assume Jake has psychic powers, since it’s a crucial part of the plot. I have no recollection of Jake having psychic powers. I’d have to re-read all the books to swear that he has none at all (and I’ve only re-read the first two so far) but it’s safe to say it’s not a major plot point.

In The Shining, it’s pretty much the whole plot, and the Dark Tower film makers must have liked this so much that they decided to incorporate it. Now it’s true that Stephen King’s literary worlds have lots of connections (and the Dark Tower stands at the centre, naturally, since it is supposed to be the lynchpin of reality) but a sneaky photo of the Overlook hotel doesn’t mean you can just switch characters around at random. Not without incurring my wrath, at any rate.

And then Monsters Inc. Oh dear. If any of you saw King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (and if you didn’t, don’t) you’ll know that the CGI battles are exceptionally silly, making serious scenes laughable. The Dark Tower is a bit that way, too, since the screams of children being converted into a CGI weapon to attack the Tower just made me think of Sully and co. from Monsters Inc collecting screams. And that’s not a good thing in a fantasy film that’s trying to take itself seriously. It’s also irritating, because efforts to destroy the Tower in the books are a good deal more subtle and insidious than shooting it with a big blue light.

5.    But it’s a good advert for the books

Here’s where I am prepared to admit that there was something good about the film (other than the casting of Matthew McConaughey, which I thought was perfect): it makes viewers want to read the books.

I watched a number of reviews when I was formulating my thoughts for this post, partly to see what people thought if they hadn’t read the books, and many of those people commented that it had made them want to read the books. There are things mentioned in the film that are never followed up, things that hint at a much larger mythology. Who on earth are the gunslingers, and why is Roland the last? Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the Tower? And why does Roland hate him so much? The reviewers supposed that these things must have been explained in the books, and they are, apart from the things in the film that are wrong – but let’s not get into geeky nitpicking when we’ve almost reached the end 😉

So I can’t recommend the film, not even as an hors d’oeuvre for the books, since so much of it is so far out of bounds that it will just confuse you. But I can’t recommend the books highly enough. So do yourself a favour and spend your ticket money on the first book, The Gunslingerinstead. It’s your passport to other worlds than these.

I’m happy to admit the poster’s cool, though.

The Painted Castle published on Channillo

1 Sep

My humorous short story “The Painted Castle” has just been published on Channillo as part of its 2016 competition finalists series. (My entry was joint third so I am officially a ‘winner’ 🙂

Channillo is a reading site where you subscribe to various series of fiction and non-fiction. Unfortunately it’s a membership-only site (apart from a few bits and pieces) so my story is behind a paywall, but subscriptions start from $4.99 per month (cancel anytime) so you may consider it’s worth it.

I’m quite fond of this wee story, actually. It makes me smile, partly because of the humour in it, partly because it reminds me of lovely family weekend in the place that has been fictionalised as ‘Anderswick’. I hope it makes you smile, too.

Life’s a Beach

14 Aug

I’m not long back from my latest excursion to Albania. I didn’t spend as long as usual this time, just the three weeks (I know, your heart bleeds), but I did find some time to get away to the beach while I was there, and thought I would give a quick impression of the differences between British beaches and Albanian ones (or Mediterranean ones more generally). If you’ve spent time at both and know all this already, feel free to skip, but if you’ve never experienced the sweaty hedonism of a Mediterranean beach, or the chilly exhilaration of a British beach, read on.

Seagulls

This was the thing that got me thinking about the differences to start with. I was lying on my lounger (of which more later) in Spille, reading This Must Be the Place, when I heard what I thought was a seagull crying. In Scotland, this sound is so ubiquitous at the coast, and even in cities, that you don’t register it, but when I heard it on that beach I suddenly realised it was the first one I’d heard. So I looked up to see – a man selling squeezy horns for kids to play with, along with other toys and games.

A seagull doing its thing

In Scotland, and the rest of the UK, seagulls hang above the seaside like stringless kites, ready to dive-bomb anyone who is too careless with their chips. At Spille, the avian background music was provided by peaceful wood pigeons, or duduftu (brilliant piece of onomatopoeia).**

Vendors

If you harbour dreams of being waited on hand and foot, or fondly imagine that you were Cleopatra in a former life, Albanian beaches might be for you. Your can turn up with just your towel and your swimsuit, and people will come round selling you everything else you need, including on beaches where this is explicitly prohibited. Here are some of the items that will come to you, if you wait long enough:

  • Doughnuts
  • Playing cards
  • Novelty horns (see above)
  • Newspapers
  • Bananas
  • Cold(ish) drinks
  • Sets of dominoes
  • Candy floss
  • Inflatables
  • Buckets and spades
  • Corn on the cob

Some of the more touristy beaches even have massage and hair braiding. No one seems to sell novels though, so bring your beach read with you. In Britain for sale actually on the beach you will find:

  • Donkey rides

And that’s about it. That’s not to say you won’t find plenty to eat and drink and amuse yourself near the beach, but there’s pretty much nothing on it. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason that lies behind point 3:

Sun loungers

Shezllone in this picture is not the name of a place, it is the Albanian word for sun lounger, which they have clearly borrowed from the French. (Say it out loud and see if you can work it out.)*

Albanian beaches, and Mediterranean beaches in general, are covered with pairs of sun loungers arranged in neat rows, usually with an umbrella compete with mini table. There are obvious advantages to this system: you don’t get nearly as sandy, the sand doesn’t blow over you, you’ve got shade without having to hoik an umbrella around with you, you’ve got somewhere to put your drink and hang your clothes, etc.

The disadvantage is that these loungers belong to someone, usually to the adjoining beachfront hotel or café, and you have to pay to use them. If you don’t want to, you’ll struggle to find an unused bit of beach to lay your towel on. Being a bit lazy, especially when it comes to carrying things in hot climates, I like the shezllone system, but I understand why it wouldn’t work in Britain. Even if we did have enough hot weather to justify permanent beach furniture, there’s a very good reason why nothing is left on the beach overnight, which is…

Tides

On our second day in Spille, it was very windy (though still hot) and this meant that the sea was full of waves. My mother-in-law thought that made it very unsuitable for swimming and was a bit concerned when I went in, but for me it brought back memories of holidays as a kid, jumping over small waves and body-surfing the big ones (and ending up with lots of salt water in my nose). This is because the coast in Britain is full of waves all the time, whether it’s windy or not, because we have tides.

It’s one of those things that feels unrealistic, like the water running down the plughole in the opposite direction in Australia (allegedly; I’ve never been). When you’ve grown up with a sea that advances and withdraws by hundreds of yards twice a day, it just doesn’t feel safe to leave your sandals right next to the water, even though you know they’ll be just where you left them when you come out. I have a vivid memory of seeing my clothing float past me at Southport, even though we had all left our clothes way up the beach. It’s hard to get used to the calm, stationary Mediterranean, with its more-or-less stationary waterline.

It’s easy to get used to warmth, though. Sometimes even the Mediterranean seems too cold to me these days, and I grew up paddling in the Atlantic, and even went swimming in the North Sea at five in the morning. I have become nesh.

Kids

My final observation is really a reflection of wider Albanian culture, not just beach culture. Kids go everywhere, at every time of day. There were kids on the beach in the blazing heat of noonday. If they got crotchety (as you would expect) the solution was to put them down for a nap, tucked under a sheet – on a sun lounger in the blazing heat of noonday. This would not be recommended practice in Britain, to say the least.

But kids go everywhere and sleep anywhere in Albania – including music concerts. In the photo above you may be able to see small children and babes in arms at the Maratona e Këngës (Song Marathon), which started at nine in the evening. “Are all the bairnies in their beds? It’s past eight o’ clock” does not ring true in Albania. In theory they should all be suffering terrible developmental problems due to the haphazard sleeping patterns, irregular meals, excessive exposure to TV etc. But in reality they seem to turn out fine, so maybe they’re doing something right.

Anyway, now it’s back to late summer in Scotland for me, which in practice means cold and rain. It’s been excessively hot on the Continent and, as is often the case when that happens, it’s been unusually cold and miserable here. So no one will see my beautiful tan because I’m wrapped up from head to toe all the time. But if you bump into me, do feel free to compliment me on my wonderfully bronzed hands 😉

 

* Chaises longues

** Please don’t give me any of that rubbish about seagulls not being a real thing. They’re gulls. They live by the sea. They’re seagulls, alright?

In Darkest England 

7 Aug

The August edition of Premier Christianity magazine features my article on William and Catherine Booth. If you’re thinking “who?”, they were the couple who set up The Salvation Army, back when the English capital was a lot grimmer than it is now – “the London of Charles Dickens and Jack the Ripper” indeed. 

Pick up a copy in larger newsagents, or get a free copy online. 

Get my books for free!

21 Jul

Much as I love being paid for my writing, I do occasionally take part in promotions like the Smashwords Summer Sale. That means you can currently get Leda, Office Life (and Death) and A New Year’s Trio for free as ebooks, as well as Running for Cover, a short story, which is always free.

See all the books, and my author interview, on my Smashwords profile.

By the way, I’ve just had my annual author photo taken, courtesy of Studio Genti, Lushnje, Albania. What do you think?

The Power of Purple

14 Jul

If you’re dyslexic, you’re close to a dyslexic, or you’re just the curious type, you may want to read my latest blog post for Dyslexia Scotland. Its working title was “Methods of alleviating the symptoms of dyslexia”, but fortunately I came up with something slightly snappier 😉 

https://alifelessordinaryds.wordpress.com/2017/07/14/the-power-of-purple/amp/

A-maze-ing Graffiti Art at SWG3

3 Jul

Another photo post – give the people what they want.

The story behind this is that I was at ‘Hypermarket’ this weekend at SWG3, an arts space behind the railway arches off the Expressway (if you know Glasgow at all). It wasn’t terribly ‘hyper’ – in fact it was a small-to-medium craft fair marooned in an over-large space, with a half-hearted selection of overpriced “street food” outside in the courtyard, under a dull grey sky.

I didn’t stay long, but while I was there I took the opportunity to photograph the one stand-out item of this whole setup: the graffiti art. There were walls and walls of it, freestanding, arranged into a sort of not-very-challenging maze, as you can probably see from this picture.

My favourite was this picture of ?vultures, painted on sheets of metal – appropriate for an old galvanizing yard.

I liked the joke on this Billy Connolly one. There’s a lot of Billy Connolly art around Glasgow at the moment, since he’s just turned 75.

This fish took me a wee moment to work out at first.

And I still haven’t worked this one out.

Or this. It really looks like a word, but I don’t know what it says. Answers on a postcard (or in the comments below).

There were others, if you want to pop along (check the SWG3 website for events) but these were my favourites.

And finally, the credits (I don’t know which name applies to which artwork, but I’m sure you know how search engines work.):

O For 6,000 Hymns to Sing! 

30 May

I just got my copy of the June edition Christianity magazine through the post this morning, because I have an article on the Wesleys in it.

John and Charles Wesley had very interesting and effective lives – especially the indefatigable John, although I get the feeling that I would have much preferred Charles, if I had known them. 

Charles wrote a bucketload of hymns, of course, including O! For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (as you probably gathered from the title), and the one currently on repeat in my brain, Love Divine All Loves Excelling. If I have managed to get one of his hymns stuck in your head, too, do comment and let me know which one 😉 

Anyway, the magazine should soon be in sale in larger newsagents, if it’s not already, or you can subscribe online. You can even get a copy free, if you’re not a subscriber yet. There’s an interesting-looking article on purgatory (I haven’t read it yet) as well as my own work and usually lots of other good stuff, so you may as well. 

Enjoy!