Creating the Dublin 2019 Souvenir cover

Finished artwork – Acrylic painting on 250 gsm art paper.

I was honoured to be asked to contribute the wraparound cover of the Souvenir Book. I’d been heavily involved in the con but doing the cover was by no means a given and was a huge vote of trust from the convention.

This was destined to be a prominent bit of artwork so I did an unusual number (for me!) of preparatory sketches to get approval for the concept.  Since these sketches were aimed at other people for approval, not just for my internal creative process, I did them in colour with annotations.  I don’t normally feel the need to do this (since I am lazy and avoid additional effort wherever possible.) We settled on a combination of two of the ideas with concentric circles, moving out from the CCD to Dublin, Ireland, the Earth and the Universe.

I then worked up a larger pencil prep sketch.  This is fairly close to the final version but there are a lot of different sections to the image so I’m still trying out ideas.  In hindsight I overstuffed it with detail, partly out of a fear that it would be too simple for the cover. Ultimately I decided to trust the concept and simplified it back down for the final painting.

Pencil sketch

The sketch version includes additional elements such as phases of the moon, connecting lines between the concentric circles, and additional animals of Ireland – a salmon, a bat, a hare (the crow survived intact to the final image). The woman’s face became a dragon in space in the final version, for no particular reason except that I was struggling to find something suitably iconic for the back cover, and who doesn’t love a dragon in space? It put me in mind of the Space Bat Angel Dragon from Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man.

The astounding library at Trinity College Dublin is a major part of the cover, along with the 5000 year old spiral carvings at Newgrange Passage Tomb in the Boyne Valley.  Selkies have been a repeated motifs in some of my Dublin art and I really wanted to include one here as well, diving into the ocean of the planet and making for a transition between front and back covers.

For the actual painting I started from the centre and worked outwards, because that’s how my brain works. And besides, isn’t that how you’d want someone to paint this picture?

Work in progress

Here’s an animation of the rest of the process:

Animation of the painting process

In the final stages I did a lot of what is technically known as “faffing” to darken and tidy up parts of the image. I added some red tones to parts of the image, including the CCD building, to harmonise the colour scheme across the cover.

A framed print of the finished artwork was presented to the Lord Mayor of Dublin by the Chair of Dublin 2019 James Bacon. Sadly I couldn’t be there for the event but I was hugely honoured.

The framed print
James Bacon presenting a print of the cover to the Lord Mayor of Dublin

The final Souvenir Book is below. I was delighted by the sympathetic design and placement of the text by Diana Thayer. I had been worried that the standard Dublin 2019 logo would clash with the artwork (bad planning on my part) but Diane’s curving design fits the artwork very harmoniously.

Final souvenir book

See my Etsy shop for prints and original artwork. You can find updates and Work in Progress pictures on my Facebook Artist page here

All artwork © Iain Clark 2019.

“Worldcon”, “Hugo Award”, and the Hugo Award Logo are registered service marks of Worldcon Intellectual Property, a California non-profit public benefit corporation. “World Science Fiction Society”, “WSFS”, “World Science Fiction Convention”, “NASFiC”, “Lodestar Award”, and the distinctive design of the Hugo Award Trophy Rocket are service marks of the World Science Fiction Society, an unincorporated literary society.

Being a Hugo Award Nominee

So I’ve been nominated for a Hugo Award. That’s a thing that has happened.

I’m well aware that I entirely owe this honour to all those people, including my Dublin 2019 colleagues, who were kind enough to vote for me. I’m extremely humbled that you took the time to do that. Thank you. I’m pleased to be in the company of a fine collection of creative women.

2020 Hugo Awards Best Fan Artist slide

There’ll be a Hugo voter packet that includes examples of my art, but you can already see plenty of my eligible art (and some earlier work) on my Worldcon and Hugo Award page. On each Worldcon artwork page I’ve included examples of the artwork in use — as adverts, badges, bookmarks, covers, posters, postcards, slides. The great thrill of contributing the artwork (apart from the enthusiasm with which it is received!) is seeing it in the real world. You can see of few of those real world examples below, and I blogged gushingly about my experience of the convention here: https://iainjclarkart.com/2019/08/23/an-irish-worldcon/

A detailed blog about creating the cover to the Dublin 2019 Souvenir Guide, with preliminary sketches, is here.

I feel very privileged to have had this opportunity, not least because getting involved in Worldcon was very much a case of right place, right time, and knowing the right people. This is privilege in its truest sense, and I don’t forget that for a moment.

It’s been a creative flowering for me. Over the last few years I’ve moved from mainly drawing in pencils and inks to primarily painting in acrylics. I’ve been able to experiment with styles and techniques; contributing to a combined volunteer effort means no pay but it also means a very understanding group of people who graciously accept whatever meandering side-alley my inspiration has taken me down this time. In return I’ve tried to make at least some of my output punchy enough to be halfway-usable, which is always a plus.

I joined Dublin 2019 when it was still a fledgling bid, and I’m currently performing similar duties for the Glasgow in 2024 bid, for which one of my pieces of art was published in 2019 and is eligible for the Hugo. If you haven’t already, pop across and support this fantastic bid, which is (at least partly) to be held in an Armadillo and a Flying Saucer.

Flyer for the Glasgow in 2024 Worldcon bid using my Girder Dragon artwork.
Flyer for the Glasgow in 2024 Worldcon bid using my Girder Dragon artwork.

Putting myself out there

I was fired up by Dublin and the experience of exhibiting and selling my art. So much so that I’ve opened an Etsy shop to sell original artwork and giclée prints. You can find that under the “Shop” menu on this site, or just click here: www.etsy.com/shop/iainjclarkart. Pricing is a tricky thing, but I’m aiming to keep the prints at affordable prices. Originals are a bit more precious to me and I keep being told not to undersell my art, so those have a bit more of a price tag attached.

In another experiment (i.e. new for me, old hat for the rest of the internet) I’ve started a Facebook “Artist” page to share works in progress and prep pieces that never seem to make it as far as this blog. I’ve already added some WIP for a new painting of Drummer from The Expanse, and some background on how I created the cover to the Dublin 2019 Souvenir Book. You can find that Facebook page here: www.facebook.com/iainjclarkart, and if you “Like” the page (it’s what all the kids are doing) then you’ll see any updates as and when I post them.

WIP painting of Drummer from The Expanse TV series.
WIP painting of Drummer from The Expanse TV series.

An Irish Worldcon

My 50th birthday was two days before we flew to Dublin 2019. I was juggling work, family, artwork commission, a presentation, fitting artwork into luggage, and the endless production line of convention signage. I barely had time to breathe, let alone anticipate it.

And then we went. And it was amazing.

So many good things happened to me personally at this convention, but also so many good things happened to other people. Or just happened. I had a small, personal moment of bliss strolling on my own through the dealers’ room and being briefly overwhelmed by the sense of good-natured community in all the people who thronged the room. Worldcon is the kind of place where you can strike up a random conversation in a queue and immediately find you have interests in common. (Which is lucky as there was a lot of queueing). Or look around and just enjoy people in cosplay; or geeky t-shirts whose obscure references you get, or don’t; or the random dragon wandering around the concourse; or the lady in the butterfly dress who donated a butterfly to our daughters; or the cheerful cyberpunk madman who took it upon himself to wrangle the queues.

It’s hard to convey the worlds within worlds. At any given moment there are at least 8 other things you could (and probably should) be doing instead. It should be stressful, but is more often like drifting in a warm bath of opportunities, each as appealing as the next, so that missing any one thing feels like a minor irrelevance.

One such opportunity was the workshop for the Belter creole language used in The Expanse (originally from the books but developed and codified in the TV show). I’ve done fan art of The Expanse, and this was a little jewel of a session, a crash course in another language (an invented one) delivered entirely in character in ‘Lang Belta’ by Hanne-Madeleine (Iro) Gates Paine and Kagan MacTane (@Paine_MacTane), with plenty of funny (and only mildly terrifying) audience participation. The two presenters even spoke to each other and cursed their computer in character. We visited them in the bar afterwards and got our names translated into Belter (Iyeng Kelarek and Dzhanet Kelarek if you’re interested). Such an unexpected joy.

Although I did the covers for the Souvenir Book and the Pocket Guide as well as lots of promo artwork ahead of the convention, this was my first time actually exhibiting original artwork (in the Art Show over at the second venue The Point, a slightly inconvenient 10 minute walk or tram ride from the CCD). I arrived on Thursday afternoon just after the show opened which was fairly flustering, but I had a lot of help getting set up from Janet, Niall, Nic and others. Not only did I sell lots of prints, I sold three original paintings/drawings, which frankly was more than I dared hope. (So much so that I’ve opened an Etsy shop on my return!) More than that, admiring all the other art, being part of that group of fellow artists, and even having a fascinating panel discussion with a few of them (Maeve Clancy, Rob Carlos and Kaja Foglio), was hugely fulfilling.

My wife Janet also had a display over at The Point featuring her Bayeux Tapestry recreation plus Tardis, hand-stitched at the original size using authentic techniques. It’s a shame that the full-size Tardis wasn’t able to be on display as planned, which might have helped more people find it! However she got lots of well-deserved praise for it; it’s wonderful.

The convention staff were also incredibly helpful and gracious. I was touched and honoured to be one of those who got a “Dublin 2019 Hero” medal (from Chair James Bacon and Sara Felix) for all the artwork I contributed – all the more so because so many volunteers gave selflessly of their time in the run up to the convention, and also during it. I felt quite lazy for taking the convention off! Incredibly flattering things like this kept happening throughout the con, like being unexpectedly ask to sign a batch of prints of my art work. (Ten minutes of giggling inwardly and pretending to be Neil Gaiman). Just walking around seeing my art on t-shirts, on covers, on Glasgow in 2024 materials was absolutely lovely. My lanyard said “Convention Artist in Residence” which is both a) untrue, and b) absolutely lovely.

Another personal highlight (and cause of giggling) was walking into the Philharmonic concert and seeing my Kraken image on the big screen with the addition of musical notes (Vincent Doherty’s idea, I later learned!) This was the first piece I ever did for the convention, back in 2014 when my friend Emma England asked me to contribute some art (and thank heaven she did). In all that time I never once imagined that the Kraken was playing the Samuel Beckett bridge like a harp. And yet it clearly is. So funny.

I also got a lovely note on my art show display from someone wanting to turn one of my paintings into a costume design (how great is that?) Someone else wants to make a quilt inspired by my Green Woman image. [Edit: This was Constanze and you can see her amazing progress here.]

Lots of people worked harder than me and contributed more than me at this convention, but I feel astoundingly lucky to have been a part of this fantastic event. To have been seen, to have been thanked, to have seen and thanked others in return.

The other other thread of the event was that we got to catch up with many friends in Dublin, and share an exorbitantly priced meal (whose bill is still being worked out to this day). Janet and I also snuck time in our schedules to visit the Book of Kells and The Long Room at Trinity College (it was booked out online but we turned up at opening time and they were still selling tickets at the door). This visit was another small, spiritual moment for me. Particularly the architecturally astounding Long Room, which is as close to a cathedral of knowledge as you’ll ever see (even if rather male-dominated). I’m not religious but it felt sacred and quite moving. And also fantastical, like an intrusion into our reality from a world made of story.

On the very last day of the convention I did the solo presentation about my art that I had foolishly agreed to do when Sara asked me a few weeks earlier. I barely had any time to write this before the convention and certainly hadn’t managed to do a run through. I was still inserting slides the day before! In the event I wasn’t too nervous. This was probably helped by the fact that although the venue was an Odeon cinema screen and therefore huge, there were only 7 people in the audience — including my wife, and our friend Niall who HEROICALLY came to see me despite having been up all night at the Hugo Losers party. This was still more people that I was banking on for a no-name artist in the graveyard slot on the last day. I focused on several milestone bits of art and on my development over the 4 or 5 years leading up to the con (although as Niall pointed out my narrative sort of falters at the point where I go “and then I decided to do a full painting, so I did”.)

So that was Dublin 2019. Or a tiny slice of one person’s experience of it. I didn’t even mention the Masquerade – part costume competition, part performance art – which is so deliciously mad and wonderful that it makes me happy it exists, even if I will never fully understand it. Or the touching closing ceremony. Or the “Glasgow in 2024” party with whisky and Tunnocks teacakes. Or Jeanette Ng’s firebrand speech at the Hugos. Or learning to use Whatsapp like some kind of young person. Or meeting Jim Fitzpatrick who did the iconic Che Guevara image. Or queueing in driving horizontal rain for Hugo Award Ceremony tickets with Janet and Liz.

And now I’m back, and working on artwork for the Glasgow in 2024 bid (by which time our daughters may even be old enough to come with us – Ulp!) and opening a new Facebook page and an Etsy shop and trying to hold onto some small part of the creative positivity I experienced in Dublin.

One year’s work

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So this is what one year’s creative output looks like (for me). It was a lot tougher to squeeze this year’s art into the photo than it was last year, and I was pleasantly surprised when I got it all together in one place.  (It’s also what one year’s beard looks like.  I was all stubbly this time last year.)

Putting your art out into the world is a strange thing.  I vacillate between bullish self-confidence and agonising self-doubt, often over the same picture, within the same hour.  I can cheerfully post fan art on twitter, on my website, on tumblr, even copying in other accounts, and then immediately cringe and want to take it back and/or issue formal written apologies and point out all the crap bits.

I know I’m far from the best artist out there. I also flatter myself I’m not the worst, and when there’s a particular image I’m proud of, I want it to do well.  It’s like entering your pet dragon into the Best Small Dragon category at the village fair (it really isn’t, but bear wth me). I give it a benevolent little push onto the stage, a bit of encouragement, I’m pleased if it gets a good reception, maybe a ripple of applause, disappointed if the audience runs screaming from the blazing tent.

But I’m also realistic about these things. If after a couple of tries and encouraging nods the whole thing isn’t catching fire then I take my dragon home and we have a nice cup of cocoa and we move onto the next thing.

Okay, now I want a pet dragon.

In a similar vein, I nearly exhibited a few pieces at the FantasyCon gallery in Peterborough. After some exploratory conversations I realised I didn’t have time to get everything framed, packed and sent by the deadline.  I also bottled it.  But it started me pondering about such things so I’m slowly starting to have a few bits of art framed in case I decide to exhibit them at future cons.  I’m quite pleased with how these two turned out.

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My fan art pieces from this year have already found their way onto the internet, here and elsewhere. I’ve done a lot more fan art this year and slightly fewer for Dublin. (I’ve also done a few pieces just for myself, some of which may show up in public in future, some of which were just test pieces.)  I’m still trying to find a good balance, but I have the luxury of coming up with my own ideas and mostly it’s about where inspiration takes me.   This year, inspiration has mostly taken me to Peter Capaldi who has one of those faces that was born to be painted.  I’ve also done old and new school Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Deep Space Nine, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Babylon 5, and Twin Peaks.  All favourites of mine, all done out of sheer affection for the source material.

Moving into acrylics last year (instead of scanning and  colouring my line art) has been good for my productivity, and increasingly I’m painting without a preparatory pencil sketch which speeds things further.  My portraits of Tom Baker, Roger Delgado and Jeremy Brett were one-evening paints (2-3 hours), Mira Furlan as Delenn took two nights.  If I painted like that every evening I’d be a lot more prolific, but sadly I don’t…

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The Tom one even found its way (at postage stamp size) into the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine, which would have delighted the 10 year old me who read it from Issue 1.

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Some of my more complex art has taken much, much longer.  I spent a month working most nights back in January for my detailed painting of spacecraft arriving in Dublin.  A more recent one took me 3 months (on and off, working and reworking).  I abandoned it once and overpainted large sections before I finally completed it to my satisfaction.  I’m glad I did  – I’m quite pleased with it now.  If I’ve learned anything over the last couple of years it’s to trust the process rather than throwing in the towel when a picture looks bad.  But it’s hard, sometimes.

I also tried some larger full face images like the framed Capaldi one above, and the Sandman image, which took about a week each. I might try a few more along those lines.

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I was also quite pleased with the raw emotion I got into this Peter Capaldi image, even though it’s not quite as achitecturally solid as some of my portraits.  I don’t want to just mindlessly regurgitate promo images in acrylic, and I go back and forth over whether this looks good or not, but I wanted that sadness in his eyes.Saint_Capaldi_(c_iainjclark2017_500w

My Dublin artwork generally hasn’t found its way here, and won’t until it’s been used officially by the convention so it’s hard to talk about it much (although if you squint  behind me in the photo at the top you can get a preview.) It’s been a huge year for Dublin, which won the 2019 WorldCon site selection unopposed, and things are accelerating. There’s already a t-shirt based on slices of my artwork available, which is a lovely feeling…

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I also took some postcards of my Dublin art along to this year’s FantasyCon…DK-OuJIWkAEh7dt.jpg large

I still feel like I’m finding my way with paint – a medium that, until last year, I’d seldom touched since A Level art – but just doing art is a great way of levelling-up.  As for next year, my wife just got me some water-soluble oils and some liquid acrylic colour, neither of which I have any idea how to use, so that should shake things up for 2018.  I’m also keen to paint more women and more people of colour — something that could probably be achieved by not painting Peter Capaldi all the time, now I come to think of it.

Star Trek Juvenalia

Another bit of juvenalia for you.  This is an A3 pencil drawing I did back in my youth (1988 to be precise).

It’s the companion piece to the Star Trek movie piece here.  In accordance with the source material that one was 16:9 format, while this one was 4:3!  I think pretty much all the photo reference was taken from my well-thumbed copy of the Star Trek Compendium, and I’ve reproduced the lack of resolution perfectly!

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture tat

Back in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the Next Big Thing.  And then it wasn’t.  Although contrary to popular opinion it did just fine at the box office.

I still have a sneaking affection for it, but at the time it was quite definitely the most exciting thing ever — since the last most exciting thing ever, which was probably Star Wars or a particularly scary bit of Doctor Who.  The complete lack of action in the film didn’t faze the 10 year old me in the least.  And why should it?  In my head the Enterprise and the Klingons were having exciting space battles just outside the frame, and that was enough.

Just in case it wasn’t enough, there was also plenty of merchandise to enjoy, including these lovely survivals I recently came across in the loft…

I can’t remember where I got this one. It looks like the kind of thing that used to come in weetabix promotional boxes, and perfectly characterises the slightly staid, proper, naval approach to Star Trek that the movie embodies. (“Starship Enterprise”.) I don’t remember where all the more interesting characters went, but this is the one I have left.  Here’s to Mr. Scott.

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Meanwhile, here in the UK 45p would buy you this fine poster magazine from the time of the movie’s release.  Here are the front and back.  The poster inside is a huge, grainy version of the small, grainy front cover.

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And here are some interior pages, complete with wildly gushing write-up, and of course that bird guy.  Who can forget that bird guy?  For me, he was the most poignant character in the film.

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One starship poster, well-loved.

Nostalgia time again.  I’ve had this tatty old poster since childhood.

As may be apparent if you read my blog waxing lyrical about the movie version of the USS Enterprise, I have a huge affection for this spaceship in its various forms.  This is a massive(ish) A2 pull-out poster of the original TV U.S.S. Enterprise, painted by by one Joe Petagno, and it’s lovely: just painterly enough to be beautiful without sacrificing accuracy.

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Judging from the small print it comes from a magazine called “TV Sci-Fi Monthly”.  I have no memory of the publication or how it came into my possession, but I do remember owning the poster because it graced the wall of my bedroom for several years back in the 1970s.

I also remember thinking the nacelle caps looked a *bit* too much like a pair of eyes staring at me when I was lying in bed, which might explain why the corners are torn from when I nervously ripped it from the wall one night…  It’s well-loved, in every sense.

It must date to around 1976, because on the reverse is an article that talks about Space 1999 as if it’s a current show, alongside a really quite eccentric illustration by Malcolm Pointer of a young Spock in his bedroom, which definitely did not grace my wall except by association.

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Star Wars Weekly

I picked up this little gem at Tynemouth Market recently.

I originally collected Star Wars Weekly right from Issue 1 back in the day (for values of “the day” that include flared corduroy trousers and bowl haircuts) but I no longer have any of them.

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This is issue 11.  It’s the earliest issue I could find, but I also picked it because it’s a cover that has particularly stuck with me down the years: the trench run on the Death Star screen (impossibly annotated with the names of the characters “Luke Skywalker and R2-D2”);  the proton torpedoes coming right through the glass at Darth Vader.  It haunted my imagination, this weird mashup of events and locations, the dreamlike logic of the image on the screen invading the room like your TV coming alive.  My overly-literal young brain grappled with the impossibility and went *bzzzt*, and I suppose those are the things your memory hangs onto.  The bits of cognitive dissonance that get turned over and over.

The inside cover features Luke and Leia snogging.  Feel free to insert the obligatory “incest!” joke here.

I don’t think Star Wars Weekly was ever better than in those early weeks retelling the movie.  Look at Howard Chaykin’s amazing art in that interior page.  It turned a movie into a comic and made it feel like it had always been a comic.  It wasn’t the intricate, photo-referenced adaptation we later got with Empire Strikes Back but a much looser approach that kept the spirit and the pulpy feel of the original.  I think I’m almost as nostalgic about the comic adaptation as I am about the film. After they ran out of movie, my hazy recollection is that the comic went off the rails a bit.  ‘The further adventures of Han Solo on Tatooine’ or somesuch.  Lifesize blue rabbit-men and bounty hunters, maybe? It felt un-Star-Wars-y. and generic.

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Star Wars is one of those fandoms that slots right in around Doctor Who and Star Trek in my experience of the 1970s and 80s.  It’s ultimately proved to be the lesser of those three loves, for a brief part of my childhood it burned brighter than anything else.  In the summer that I first saw Star Wars my “What I did this summer” report for school was literally just a ten page synopsis of the movie.  Our tiny front garden became the Millennium Falcon for the summer holidays.  Our metal cowboy revolvers that fired little red caps became laser pistols.

We had light sabres too.  Here’s the back cover of the comic advertising Luke’s unfortunately-positioned “force beam”.  I used to play lightsabre sword fights with my brother endlessly, until the rounded ends fell off the blade, and the plastic tubes got bent, and the coloured disk fell out, and eventually it was just a chunky orange torch with a big slidy switch on the side.

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One last thing from the issue. This advert for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, back when the title needed explaining.  How that movie ever became a hit when the poster is a Wikipedia entry is beyond me.

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Nostalgia and Newspapers, part 1

1982
The Wrath of Khan (1982)

I’m not much of a hoarder (except when it comes to books, obviously) and I’ve never kept a diary, but I have in my youth been known to compile obsessive episode lists for Star Trek:The Next Generation or detailed records of my Doctor Who collection.  And, during the 1980s, I went through a phase of keeping newspaper cuttings from my favourite obsessions. Which were, as ever, Doctor Who, Star Trek and a side order of Star Wars.

These are all from the local news rag, the Hull Daily Mail, but they may as well be from anywhere.

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Return of the Jedi (1983)

They’re also not in very good condition, having been callously Pritt Stick-ed into a scrapbook, and being yellowed and foxed by the passage of time. That I still have them at all is something of a minor miracle given my various spates of Chucking Things Out over the years.   For a long while nostalgia for my childhood was antipathy to me. I just didn’t have the urge to hang onto things.  (Fortunately my parents are not so callous).

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The Search for Spock (1984)

These days, more ‘mature’ and sentimental as I am, I’m happy to have a few reminders, and these mini-posters positively glow with nostalgia. I think the tattiness and discolouration only makes them more evocative.

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A Triple Trek (1984)

I’m particularly thrilled to find “A triple Trek to the Stars”, a marathon of the first three Star Trek movies to promote Star Trek III.  These movie marathons used to be a staple of my childhood. Do they still do things like this?  I never seem to see them advertised.  In my time I’ve not only done three Trek films in a row, I’ve also done five (count ’em) Star Trek Movies in a row.  Then there was the marathon of 3 Mad Max movies and two Alien movies.  Or was it Evil Dead?  I definitely saw three Evil Dead movies at one of these.  Movie marathons always seem like such a good idea going in, and then by film #4 your eyelids are drooping and only teeth-gritting stubbornness is keeping you going.  I particularly remember watching the three Trek movies in one sitting because the third one had the extra “Captain’s log” bit at the start where Kirk pointlessly recapped the movie we’d just finished watching.

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Aliens (1987)

Seeing Aliens at the cinema is another strong memory.  Along with Cronenberg’s The Fly this was one of the first two 18-rated films I watched at the cinema.  I remember an almost palpable sense of dread at what I might witness on that 18-rated movie screen.  (When I was much younger my friend had us over to his house to – transgressively – watch the original Alien which his family had video-taped the night before.  Sadly — or, perhaps, fortunately for my tender brain — the tape ran out halfway through so I never got to the really gruesome bits.  The age of video.  See, kids nowadays don’t know about this stuff…)

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The Final Frontier (1989)

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The Voyage Home (1987)

In contrast, I have no memory whatsoever of seeing Treks IV and V at the cinema, although the (in reality quite bland) poster art for The Final Frontier is hugely redolent of that time period for me.  I remember excitedly staying up late to watch an American programme called “Cinemattractions” on ITV where they would run down the US movie box office chart, and I could glimpse a clip from the upcoming movie.  (The silly Turbolift scene, as I recall.)

Next time… clippings from when Doctor Who went on an 18 month hiatus.  Unthinkable…

It’s all behind me

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To round off the year here’s a picture of me with the finished artwork I’ve produced in 2016. Most of it was produced with the Dublin bid in mind, the rest is fan art (which can be found in my portfolio).

skellig-beehives-excerptLooking at it all in one place it suddenly doesn’t seem like a lot (at least to me).  Roughly one a month.  I’m reminding myself that it was all produced in little windows of opportunity, in evenings, fitting around work and the kids. Also I’m really lazy, and the entire internet needed proof-reading.  So given that, it’s not too bad a haul. More importantly, it’s the most productive I’ve been in years.   I’m aware that I owe this surge  to the opportunity I’ve been given to provide art for Dublin, and I’m really grateful to Emma, Esther and the rest for kicking me out of a moribund decade or more prior to this. I’m making up for lost time.  If my art can keep pace with my exponentially multiplying gray hairs I might just come out ahead.

My earliest images this year (as last) were inked, scanned and then coloured digitally.  When I first started colouring my inks the most I might do on paper would be to paint an abstract watercolour texture to be scanned and overlaid in photoshop.  Increasingly this year the colours have become fully painted elements in their own right, making the final image a Frankensteinian assemblage of mixed media.

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This was working well enough, in the sense that it could produce an acceptable result, but was amazingly time-consuming: each part of the image had to be created and composited separately, and I was effectively doing each picture several times: in pencil; in ink; in paint; in photoshop.  One particular [beep] of an image took so long, and progressed so haltingly, that it began to feel like a creative process was turning into a frustratingly mechanical one. I was stifling whatever artistic mojo I actually possess through… well, sheer caution as much as anything.   Fear of making a mistake.  The final straw was when I accidentally saved over my master file with a much smaller version of the image.  Never to be recovered.

the_remnant_1000x738_ciainjclarkThere are plenty of wonderful artists who work only in Photoshop and produce phenomenal results, but I’m nowhere near that level.  And so in August I decided to try a complete painting.  You can see my very first attempt here, using acrylic on un-stretched paper.  It’s a raw bit of art in some ways, but it (and in particular the crater at the bottom) convinced me I might be able to do better.  I haven’t actually tried to paint since ‘A’ Level art, back when digital watches were a pretty neat idea and Doctor Who was still Sylvester McCoy.  I was never very good at it back then, but I’ve sometimes found that art, oddly, is something you can get better at even while not doing it.  Like being born with outsized paws and growing into them later.

tir_na_nog_excerptSince August I’ve produced six fully-painted images (including the two Doctor Who ones), initially at A3 size but rapidly moving up to A2 when I realised that I needed more space to create detail with a paintbrush.  I’ve also started using heavier paper, and stretching it on a board (okay, MDF coated with floor varnish, but you know, whatever works) which has really helped.  I’m still using acrylics, which dry quickly and can take a lot of overpainting so are quite forgiving of trial and error.  I’m learning as I go, but one advantage of workingshamrock-excerpt straight from sketch to paints is that I’m only doing the picture once.  When it’s done, it’s done, and it only needs a bit of a clean and polish in photoshop.  That means I can be more productive and get more more practice, and it feels creative again.  Not every picture suits being painted of course, but so far this is working out very nicely.  And if not doing art makes you a little bit better, maybe actually trying could pay off.  Sounds crazy I know.

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Flight Recorder

The Twelfth Planet
The Twelfth Planet

The Doctor Who images were well enough received on Twitter that I even made them available to buy.  I’m not expecting to make money, but compared to where I was with my art a year or two ago this is a big step.

It’s been a tough year in many ways (and tougher for others than for me).  It’s nice to have something that’s gone well over the last twelve months.

Consensus

There’s a parallel world in which Barack Obama, the worst President in US history (a serial liar, Communist, Islamist, and not even born in the US) is replaced by salt-of-the-earth saviour of the people Donald Trump (repealer of the Obama death panels, vanquisher of Hillary Clinton and her child sex ring), a truly great President who can and will do no wrong.  I know this because it’s the narrative pumped out daily by Fox News and right-wing propagandists.

What worries me is that the only thing that stops it being received as fact is that a critical mass of people don’t believe it. Yet. But a quite alarming number of people wholeheartedly do believe it. At some point will we cross the line between political doubletalk and actual revisionist history? I feel like it’s a line we’re meandering along like a giddily unrepentant drunk driver. In our daily lives we can sometimes see history being consciously, mendaciously rewritten even as it happens, and more and more we don’t seem to care — as long as this new history makes us feel better about ourselves, justifies our prejudices, and relieves us of responsibility.

I suppose politics has always been about selling the best narrative, but it feels different this time, at least to me. It feels like we increasingly lack checks and balances, that we’ve lost the patience for such dry and worthy stuff as investigative journalism, public standards in office, and fact-checking. We’ve devalued the idea that there are lines of public integrity you can’t cross without consequences.

Its already the case in America that there are revisionist tussles over history and science. It’s clear that there are people who would, if only they could, literally rewrite the book on evolution, vaccination and climate change. Maybe even the history of civil rights. Political narratives are that much more susceptible, because their factual basis is that much more subjective. It’s quite easy for the public to lose track of why that recession or that war happened, and who was in charge, and who was really to blame. Is it only in my fevered imagination that I put all this together with the likes of Fox News to raise the spectre of a near-future dystopian version of the US, in which things now widely accepted as historical fact have been quietly spun until they are no mainstream; like that scene in Interstellar where the teacher explains that everyone knows the moon landings were faked, but don’t worry because they’ve been recast as an example of a different kind  of American ideal.

In the UK, any suggestion that the recession wasn’t caused by profligate Labour spending is now met with jeers of derision, even though it demonstrably wasn’t, because that’s not the narrative that won. Here, in a fairly small way, we can see that history has already been rewritten just a few years later. Maybe not rewritten in text books,  but absolutely in public discourse. And there are plenty of politically skewed history books out there too, I imagine. (Aren’t they all?) Some politicians already question whether the British Empire was really a bad thing, whether Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was all that unreasonable. And maybe these voices will always be fringe, like Holocaust denial. But we now have Daily Mail headlines where people who are actually fascist in their outlook are treated as valiant revolutionaries, and “alt-right” is treated a reasonable political position, and suddenly it seems like the trolls have taken over the conversation. It’s really not that big a step to a mainstream politician arguing that Hitler was misunderstood.

Damn: Godwin’s Law. I think that means I should stop. Is it me, or did Not Invoking Hitler used to be quite a lot easier?

Almost famous

Some of my Dublin artwork (my very first piece) in use in the Balticon brochure earlier this year. Which is a lovely thing.

mentioned this piece a while ago, and I might do a proper ‘making of’ blog when I get the chance, as it was the first bit of my inked artwork I coloured digitally and I learned a huge amount in so doing.

Hot take on hot takes

Okay, look, liberal smugness and outrage… That’s a thing. Mea culpa.  It didn’t get Trump elected on its own, any more than any other single factor in isolation. And at least as many of those factors are the people who voted for him, and gave him oxygen, and didn’t disavow him. Some genuine racists and misogynists. The truly left behind, the ones who are genuinely disillusioned with politics as usual, even if the proffered solutions to those things are often illusory and come with a big helping of right-wing politics tacked on as a rider (“The band requests only the Aryan M&Ms”). It’s a complicated mess. Simple explanations and itchy hair-shirts rarely work. 

Blaming the people who oppose Trump’s rhetoric for driving people into his arms is a bit perverse. Just because some people think ‘political correctness’ has gone too far, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to push the wide-ranging principles that get pejoratively lumped under that label. It may mean they need to be explained better, less judgementally, and with more understanding of the person listening. That’s fair. But it doesn’t lay all the blame for the Rise of the Right at the door of liberals.

It’s unfortunately true that the political left in the UK is in disarray, and there’s a real danger in an opposition that isn’t organised, is too ideologically dogmatic, and doesn’t offer a clear and inclusive narrative. (I’m unsure if it’s the same in America – at least in the US a left-leaning candidate can win the popular vote – but in both countries liberalism seems to be constantly at war with itself.) Facing up to the issues of the left, and not demonising the people on the other side, would go a long way towards gaining acceptance for liberal ideas.

Does that require supporting the Government line, meeting in the middle on fascism, turning a blind eye to opportunistic racism and misogyny? Hell no. That sounds suspiciously like how To Normalise Fascism 101. In fact, politicians tactically giving ground on immigration is a big part of how we got where we are right now. About half of voters in both the UK and US don’t appear to support bigotry and isolationism; they may fall on a spectrum rather than being dyed-in-the-wool liberals, but they’ll be left voiceless if we allow a marginal majority to pretend that the public speaks with one voice. Someone needs to put the counter-argument.

Is there a way to speak out against those illiberal ideas and policies, while at the same time engaging more genuinely with the people we’d like to persuade? I know it’s a very fine line to walk, and I’m not very good at it myself. But what’s the alternative? Not speaking out just embeds selfishness as the prevailing narrative. Not reaching out means a victory for bon mots on twitter, a self-congratatory bubble of worthiness, and a defeat for progressive values where they might actually affect people’s daily lives.

P.S. Like most of my blog posts this doesn’t so much reach a conclusion as stop when I can no longer parse what I think about the topic.  Feel free to help me out in replies.

Post-Consequence Politics

Never mind Post-Fact politics, we’re in the age of Post-Consequence politics.

Watergate these days would be no big deal. No lie is too big, no promise too badly broken, no hypocrisy too blatant that it’ll do any lasting damage to a politician’s ratings.  All that matters is that you dog-whistle to the right part of your polarised audience and they’ll follow you unquestioningly — as long as you never stop pandering, pandering, pandering. After all, what else are they going to do, vote for the “enemy”?

I know it sounds like I’m ranting about Trump, and I *am* ranting about Trump, but it’s also about the UK, the Referendum, the last General Election, the tabloids, and the seemingly goldfish-like attention span of the electorate.

Increasingly, it feels like nothing will stick to you provided you position yourself as anti-establishment. Apparently it doesn’t matter that you couldn’t be more establishment if you were a millionaire with your own seat in the Diogenes Club. Just tell everyone you’re an outsider. It’s a consensual mass hallucination.

Better yet, make it clear that what you really mean by anti-establishment is anti-political correctness. Anti-social justice. Anti-feminism. Tell them we’ve had enough of all that awkward, discomfiting more-secular-than-thou nonsense about rights and intersectionality. It’s getting so no-one can say anything any more. They just want a politician who can say the unsayable, tell it like it is, talk about the things you’re not allowed to say any more. You know: those things mainstream politicians have been saying constantly on every news broadcast for the last 10 years.

Trump is Gamergate. He’s Rabid Puppies. He’s Men’s Rights Activists. He’s far-right nationalists. He’s UKIP. They’re all fundamentally the same worldview.

It’s hard for me not to see Trump, Farage and May as all of a piece. They’ve collectively moved the narrative around race and immigration to the point where prejudice unfounded by evidence can be positioned as respecting the genuine fears of ordinary hard-working people. (You may not see May in the same camp as the other two politicians, but she’s spent years peddling outright falsehoods about immigration and human rights with the best of them. And look how that held her back.)

I’m sure it’s possible to be concerned about immigration without being racist. But for every voter in an inner city riven by cultural whitewater rapids, there’s the people in the cosy 95% white areas who’ve never met an asylum seeker in their lives. Are their fears equally genuine? Maybe. But they’re not necessarily rational. They’re not founded in personal experience. Like many beliefs, they’re a synthesis of what other people think: the fears of other people; the myths peddled by politicians; the barrage of tabloid distortions.  The stuff that’s in the social ether. Fear of immigrants is as much a political and social and media construct as it is a huge groundswell of popular opinion. It may be a deep well of frustration but it’s one that was pump-primed by politicians and ripe for exploitation.

These days, it seems, a politician who taps into that reservoir can do no wrong, and need fear no consequences.

Star Trek Juvenalia

And just as a follow-on to my appreciation of the movie USS Enterprise, here’s an old bit of fan art of Star Trek Movies II to IV that I did way back in 1989 at the tender age of 19. How time flies. Not that my viewing habits have significantly changed…

Star Trek Movie montage (1989) (c)iainjclark_1000.jpg

It’s a weird shape because it follows a roughly cinematic film ratio across the middle, then blossoms out at the sides. I think it still looks okay, but I’d hope to do a much better job of it these days. The eagle-eyed reader may notice that Lt. Saavik is drawn in a very different style from everyone else, which is because I did the bulk of the drawing many months earlier, and even by the time I went back to it I was in a different mood artistically.

The USS Enterprise and me

If I said that the sight of the Starship Enterprise calms me down you’d think I was bonkers, right?

tmphd1122.jpgNot any USS Enterprise, you understand. Certainly not the version from the recent JJ Abrams movies with its squashed toothpaste-tube proportions1. Not the eccentric Next Generation version, though I am fond of it. Not even the original 1960s design classic. The one that I love is the refit design from the first six Star Trek movies, from The Motion Picture through to The Undiscovered Country. The very sight of it is food for my soul: its grace, its curves, its balance. Its rightness.

tmphd0729.jpgThere are very few designs that can do this to me, and they all share deep roots in my childhood and adolescence. Another is Doctor Who’s Tardis (about which I’ll eulogise another time). Maybe the Dalek too. Iconography embedded in my psyche at a tender age from endless VHS videotape viewings, cinema magazines, spin-off novels. I look at these things and sometimes I can’t even tell any more if they have an intrinsic merit or if it’s just my childhood speaking to me across the decades.

Since I’m Really Old, I first encountered this spaceship (AKA nicely-lit fibreglass model) at the cinema in 1979 when I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture on its original release. If ever a film fetishised a piece of hardware it’s that one, all lingering pans over structural curves, somewhere between asexual porn and a 2 hour car commercial. But this was also the dawn of movie merchandising as we now (shudder to) experience it, and so I probably didn’t first encounter the design at the cinema at all. Instead I probably inhaled it through magazines like Starlog, and trading cards, and promotions on the back of weetabix packets, and white chocolate bars with weird multi-coloured bits in them. Given that my main memory of the film is coming home afterwards and drawing Klingon spaceships going ‘pew pew’ I think that the content of the film (such as it was) was always secondary to the spaceships in my ten year old brain. And in that supporting merchandise the spaceship has a mythic beauty that even the film’s Male Gaze For Spaceships doesn’t quite capture.

Take this old, scanned promotional photo for example, which not only emphasises the ship’s graceful proportions but a pearlescent, self-illuminated, polychromatic quality that the film only glimpses (and later movies largely dispensed with):

Scan0106.jpg

Blinded as I am by the hardwiring of my brain, I do think that as a spacecraft design it has few equals. The original sixties version is all rectangles and cylinders. In fact it’s easy to forget just how odd that design is, like a Forbidden Planet flying saucer mated with something much more functional and Naval in character. Even so it has a certain sense of balance and proportion, particularly when shot from a nice angle. The movie version keeps only the basic morphology of saucer, secondary hull and engine nacelles joined by struts, but it pushes and pulls each of those elements into something rounded, tapered and elegant. From the swell of the secondary hull to the angles and fins and neon stripes of the engines, it creates the sense of a unified whole rather than parts bolted inelegantly together. In many ways it looks completely different from the original, and yet you could never mistake it for anything else.

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Ageing Spaceship baffles engineers with this one weird trick

In the subsequent movies the design remains the same (it is after all the same model even when technically a different ship) but the iridescent paint job that would catch the light in interesting ways is replaced with a matt chalky white finish, and it’s lit more brightly with less reliance on the ship’s own running lights. The quality of the effects and cinematography varies hugely too. But it’s hard to completely screw up a design this beautiful. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan2, a film I’ve probably seen even more often than the original Star Wars, it’s treated like a classic tall ship in a Hornblower movie: trading ponderous broadsides with its sister ship in a Naval game of cat and mouse. Its a big, majestic vessel not nippy a little X-wing fighter or a barrel-rolling Millennium Falcon, and that’s reflected in its shape and size. Slow to turn, crewed to the nines, wind in its sails.

When I catch one of the original Trek films on repeat, or actually moreso when I stumble across images of it on the web, it’s like looking at a great landscape painting or a classic Lake District view, perfect in every proportion. It fills me with inner peace.

Bonkers, I know.

1 If you didn’t even know there was a difference this is maybe not the post for you…
2 Out on Blu-ray in its Director’s Edition soon. And its Director (and script doctor) Nicholas Meyer is working on the new Star Trek TV Show. What goes around comes around.

You wish for ice cream?

I have to say, I still don’t support overturning the outcome of the Referendum.

But I do very much support the proposal that there should be some Parliamentary process to determine whether, when we leave the EU, we also leave the Single Market.

That’s not ignoring the will of the people, who didn’t demand a ‘hard’ version of Brexit (or even express a view on the single market), nor is it traitorous, or the tyrannical agenda of a shadowy liberal elite operating from their secret base under St.Paul’s.

It’s just the kind of thing that lots of people in the country, including some who voted Leave, might reasonably expect to happen instead of having their answer to a binary question wildly and dogmatically over-interpreted.

It’s like one of those fairy tale wishes that were worded with insufficient care. “You wish for ice cream? Very well, you shall only eat liquorice ice cream! FOREVER! Mwahhahahahahah!”

The inexorable victory of the pod-people

In fiction, stories about fascist regimes almost always focus on the resistance, the few who carry the candle and represent the hope (however dim) that the regime will ultimately perish.

But it seems to me, as I contemplate two dismal candidates for Prime Minister and the backlash from Brexit, that the real story is often not one of idealists fighting back to glorious vindication, it’s about the idealists being gradually smothered as an ever-greater proportion of the country simply accepts the way things are. One by one we disappear, gasping, under a tidal wave of banal self-interest, until we can’t imagine things being any different, or even want it. The inexorable victory of the pod-people.

I’m being a bit melodramatic. I don’t say that we live in a fascist regime right now. I do think that the Overton Window has moved further and further right,and insularity is becoming the prevailing narrative. It’s that gradual shift of the ‘centre’ ground, until large swathes of the country look in genuine dismay and bafflement at those complaining about xenophobia, demonisation of the poor, intrusive surveillance. It’s about experts being decried, education being elitist, lying in public office being accepted with a shrug: “What is truth, anyway?” Even the ideological rewriting of history becomes routine, until our very ideas about who we are and where we came from are distorted by the lens of those who control the mass-media.

I know there are others who feel this way, but I don’t see it ending any time soon. I don’t see that groundswell of anger, that organised public desire to push back in the other direction. Perhaps just as importantly I don’t see any great likelihood that things will improve under the current Government, nor any realistic prospect that the Conservatives will lose the next General Election.

I suppose I’m emotionally influenced by all the ways that Brexit has left me feeling alienated, and by the upsurge in “immigrants go home” sentiment. It’s easy to be too short-termist — I’m no better at forecasting the future than anyone else. Maybe things will get better. Whenever a Blair or an Obama sweeps to power there’s always a false dawn; that rush of “maybe we’ve passed a turning point”. Reality always sets in. Maybe this is the reverse: a false dusk that will ultimately prove to be just another short blip on our journey to increasing liberalism, equality and openness. In some ways those social arguments have felt like a steady win for liberalism over recent decades. But now we have Andrea Leadsom wanting a fight back against “political correctness”, a rolling back of gay marriage, as if we were still stuck in the ‘toddler tantrum’ stage of accepting equality and diversity. I fear that, little by little, from Coalition, to Cameron Government, to May/Leadsom Government, the public mood is changing and no-one is really protesting all that loudly. And the drip-drip-drip of selfishness seeps into our bones.

Aftermath

So many stories of openly racist behaviour emerging.

Some of this, no doubt, is confirmation bias. Racist outbursts have always occurred on the fringes of society and once you start actively looking for an uptick it won’t be hard to find examples. The press does this all the time: one big earthquake means every minor tremor becomes news. But not only does the current run of incidents feel a bit more weighty than that, the character of the incidents is striking. The language is suddenly about repatriation, of ‘why don’t you go home’, ‘back where you came from’. That feels new. Or, rather, old. People openly expressing attitudes that have been culturally submerged for decades.

It’s still anecdotal for now whether Brexit has emboldened these individuals – even if some are actively referring to it – but it’s difficult not to see the influence of this sorry mess of a referendum, this free leg-up for UKIP and the far right.

The Petition for a Second Referendum

I nearly signed the 2nd Referendum ballot today. Nearly. Just to add a stone to the heap, so the scale of dissatisfaction can be seen from a distance.  But I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The time to push for this kind of contingency, for different thresholds for success, was before the Referendum. This just smacks of not liking the outcome and moving the goalposts. The turnout was as high as you could reasonably hope for. The result is valid.

Emotionally I can’t bear this outcome, but I don’t think another Referendum is the answer. If the result had gone the other way and Farage was pushing for this (which of course he did pre-emptively) I’d be angry. Looked at from the outside what does this petition prove? That millions who voted Remain are desperately unhappy. Nothing more.

I understand the argument that Leave sold lies that are now being hurriedly walked back. That was dishonest. But, horribly, that’s politics. What makes this a special case? Even General Elections are increasingly won through lies, misleading statements and ultimately broken promises. I’d love politicians to be held to a higher standard, but they’re not, and so the public has to pick the side whose arguments, policies, ideology and/or smarmy vitriolic intolerance appeals to them the most. In the EU Referendum I genuinely think an impartial view is that Leave not only lied more, but that they were more likely to double-down on those lies and continue to repeat them.  But it’s not like the opposing arguments weren’t aired. Both sides had their say. At length. Over and over again. It was perfectly possible to make an informed decision. If some people choose emotion over fact well, frankly, that’s their right. If they are smart or stupid, racist or progressive, they get to vote the way they want.  Sometimes I wish that weren’t the case, but what alternative is there?

The worst thing is that I think there’s a reasonable chance the Referendum would go the other way if we restaged it now. The reality has sunk in a bit. Would it go 60/40 the other way? Nah. And so we’d need a third referendum surely? And a fourth.

And the very act of not honouring the first outcome would (rightly) incense those who voted Leave. There’d be social unrest. If we do, as some predict, have a General Election within the year then ignoring the first Referendum would mean Leave (and, yes, possibly UKIP) would clean up. Do we really want that? Everything has consequences.

Far better in my view to accept this outcome but implement it in the least bad way possible. Stay in the EEA. Try to hang on to the single market. Try to hang on to free movement. Find a reason to spare the Halkans and make it stick. (Sorry, nerd reference.) That’s the best way forward.

This petition is not going to bring about another Referendum. It’s the same liberal echo-chamber that predicted a Remain victory, and it just won’t happen. I love that echo-chamber. It keeps me sane. But it doesn’t reflect the whole country, and another referendum would offend more people than it buoyed. IMO.

[The above partly adapted from a Facebook conversation with Mark Bowyer]

Sovereignty

*At any time*, for no reason, the UK can give two year’s notice to leave the EU. They literally can’t stop us.

If we stay and the EU ever threatens our sovereignty (even though we are exempt from closer union and can’t transfer powers without a UK referendum) we have enough sovereignty to leave.

So why jump now? Don’t we trust ourselves to exercise our own sovereignty wisely in future? Or is our Government a bit too sovereign for our own liking?

Further poorly argued thoughts on the EU

I don’t think I’ve got the hang of this clickbait headline thing.

This is another stream-of-consciousness political blog. I’ll post about science fiction next time and we can all relax.

Previously on LiveJournal. NOW READ ON.

I vacillate between a resigned belief that even if we vote to leave Europe it won’t be that bad, and a nagging fear that it’ll be bad enough. Things do tend to settle down, and the new status quo is almost certainly probably highly unlikely to cripple the UK in the long run. We have no Control for this experiment, and we’ll never know what the untaken path may have looked like.

I do worry about the short term impacts – the potential increase in the already punitive levels of austerity if the economy suffers a bit from a vote to leave. And yes, the impact on the Higher Education sector where I work1 – where millions of EU students are at risk at a time many institutions can ill afford it. Government changes to international immigration have already made the UK an unwelcoming and risky destination where students from beyond the EU can be turned away at the drop of a hat, or made to leave and return at their own expense, or suffer humiliating checks on their ‘genuineness’ as students. International student applications to the UK have declined as a result of this climate. Extend that same approach, those same hurdles, to EU students, and they’ll stay away in droves. We need those EU students, just as we need the overseas ones. (The Government’s stance on student immigration is largely inexplicable to me when these students bring millions into the economy and are not, on the whole, likely to settle permanently in the UK.)

I also worry that if we do vote OUT it’ll be largely a gut vote, based on sincere nationalistic pride, perhaps, but fed by fallacies and misinformation and woefully lacking in clarity about what lurks on the other side of an exit. There’s so much falsehood around. If we stay with the topic of immigration, there’s this facile idea that leaving the EU represents regaining control of our borders, as if we can’t control them now. I think there’s a myth that anyone from the EU can just stroll in without let or hindrance. But we’re not part of the Schengen Area. We already can and do check the passports of migrants from the EU. We already can and do turn them away when we regard them as a threat. (And, by the way, most of the examples that Teresa May and her ilk cite as EU tampering with deportations are actually decisions made by British courts, but that’s another discussion). If we make migration from the EU even more like migration from the rest of the world it won’t suddenly make us safer. Half of all our immigration, give or take, comes from the rest of the world. It won’t suddenly stick a big cork in Dover and make everyone turn away.

And as for sovereignty, I’m never sure what we imagine this means. I certainly haven’t spent my adult life thinking “If only the British government had the power to make decisions”. It seems to make them all the time. Really big, stupid fucking decisions, but decisions nonetheless. If by sovereignty we mean that there are constraints on what we can do based on certain narrow things we’ve agreed with other countries, which country can’t say that? In or out, we’ll be making deals, signing agreements, joining international bodies, and cheerfully limiting the hell out of our own sovereignty – if that’s what you want to call it. That’s our sovereign right, I guess. We willingly sign up to the treaties and trade regulations that we currently have – not in one fateful decision to join the EU around the time Jon Pertwee turned into Tom Baker, but in all those numerous discrete decisions ever since. We don’t have to leave the EU to make different decisions about what we sign-up to, if that’s what we really want. And if we do leave the EU we won’t suddenly lose all those trade regulations – far from it. We’ll probably need more. Every one of them will represent some kind of compromise in which the UK agrees to something that, yes, constrains it. I’m sure those UK trade deals will be painted as a triumph for the very sense of sovereignty that the EU trade deals seemingly undermine. But they’ll be no different.

Besides which, when it comes to employment law and human rights, I rather like the idea that we sign up to principles greater than the petty self-interest of whichever national governments are in power, here and elsewhere. I like the idea that we all agree on basic standards of decency, and hold each other to account.

So maybe it’ll be okay either way. But I really hope we vote to stay.

1 All opinions are my own personal views not those of my employer.

10 things I think about Europe

Politics again. Sorry.

The debate on Europe is driving me mad, characterised as it is by myths and subjectivity and opportunism masquerading as facts and imperatives. I’m sitting on my hands watching each side characterise the other as hateful scare-mongerers while appearing blind to the excesses of their own camp.

So to get it out of my system, here are some things I believe about Europe. Like everyone else, some of these are evidence-based, and some just are:

1) The principle of being in Europe is more important than the problems with Europe. Joining with others in principles and endeavours that transcend individual nations is positive, and acts as a check on individual nations.

2) Europe is not something which is ‘done to us’, it’s a collaboration we participate in, and help shape. We won’t always get our own way – neither will anyone else – but we have a strong voice. We shape the laws. We win exemptions.

3) It is nonsense to say that World War Three looms imminently if we leave the EU (aka “Stay Off My Side, David Cameron”). It is not nonsense to say that the history of Europe prior to the creation of the EU was one of near-constant conflict and war, and that participating in the EU has been one of a number of key reasons why we have seen an era of much greater peace and stability. Unchecked separatism and nationalism can easily and rapidly sow the seeds of conflict. Even now the EU is straining against an upsurge in extreme right wing political parties and anti-immigrant sentiment.

4) Our locally elected MPs go to the central parliament where they have a local voice but where local interests are balanced against wider ones, and the elected democratic parliament is supported by a vast bureaucracy of unelected officials. But enough about the UK. Ahem.

5) Europe is almost certainly rife with compromise and inefficiency, but it is not actually Evil (like, say, FIFA) and is capable of being reformed. If we do rightly focus on European inefficiency we shouldn’t cherry pick examples while ignoring the inefficiency inherent in our own political machinery.

6) EU membership is a net cost to the UK in terms of monies directly paid and directly received. On that level it’s a drain on our resources. But membership of the EU only has to make the most marginal percentage improvement in the UK economic growth for the gain, year by year, to vastly outweigh the cost. Does it do that? It seems highly likely, but I can’t say for certain. At the very least it’s a low risk investment with the potential for an extremely high return.

7) Putting aside the fact that European migrants provably contribute more to our economy than they take out, leaving the EU might (unless we retain free movement) reduce a chunk of net migration. On that level, leaving the EU would help us “regain control” of our borders. But it would by no means be a magic bullet that would bring net migration down to zero.

8) There are clear and to some extent understandable worries about how immigration is changing our culture, a fear of cultural miscegenation in which national distinctiveness is perceived to be lost, or changed unrecognisably. But we easily forget that our perception of ‘Britishness’ has changed over time. Second and third generation immigrants aren’t generally perceived as immigrants at all. They’re just British. If they’re white (like that extremely suspicious foreign influence Rick Stein) mainstream opinion doesn’t give them a second glance. Our sense of Britishness has always accommodated and been enriched by infusions from other places.

9) The ‘Out’ campaign is not intrinsically racist, and many who are in favour of leaving the EU are not driven by immigration. But I think one consequence of a ‘Brexit’ will be to increase the UK’s isolationism and feed racist views. I’d love to say that slightly curbing immigration would rob racism of oxygen, but in my view the tougher we talk and act on immigration the more strident and polarised our anti-immigration rhetoric becomes. Support for UKIP is often highest in the areas of lowest immigration, and right-wing debate on immigration is not notable for its relationship to facts. If we board up the windows, we’ll only become obsessed with what’s under the floorboards.

10) Whether we stay or leave, we’ll never know for sure whether that decision had a causal effect on our future prosperity, or lack of it. But politicians will cheerfully blame everything on that decision. And it will be So. Damn. Aggravating.

(Follow-up blog)

Oh god he’s talking about politics

I’m not really a Nick Robinson fan, but this slightly smug, waffly article summarises the obvious difficulty in talking knowledgeably about our future in or out of Europe. There are probably many reasons to leave the EU. There are many reasons to stay. Probably neither will be a disaster (though what do I know?) but amid the patent fear-mongering on all sides there’s genuine inability to know what will happen until it happens. The many leaflets that have thumped onto my doormat are equally aggravating whether they are for or against EU membership; although on the plus side they’re all pleasingly shiny and ideal for lining the cat litter tray.

I also don’t like Mr Cameron or his tax affairs, but as with his support for gay marriage I do occasionally find that he deigns to agree with me. It’s nice of him, I only wish he’d do it more often. I do worry that the meta-narrative about political machinations within the Conservative party – Boris and IDS making tactical moves, Cameron’s future, whether tax payers should pay for Government leaflets – is a sly and effective distraction from the real issues. Journalists don’t do it on purpose, but they just can’t resist shop talk. A story about a story is so much more gossipy than a story about an actual thing. It’s fine when there’s nothing much at stake but right now there are bigger fish to fry. (There would be smaller fish to fry, but they’re subject to a strict EU fishing quota). If this becomes a story about politics then people will treat it as a political issue. They’ll vote ‘Out’ to punish Cameron, rather than because they have a view on the EU.

Personally I’m for staying in. You’re amazed, I can tell. It’s not because I feel ‘European’, really. Intellectually I know I’m European, but it’s not my primary national identity. ‘Europe’ still intuitively means “that big bit of continent over there” and not “this little collection of islands that the BBC weather map persists in tipping at an alarming angle so that Scotland looks tiny”.

But neither do I feel any animosity towards Europe. I like the idea of being part of something greater. I guess I don’t know any different. I’ve pretty much always *been* part of it, and Europe hasn’t blighted my life with its evil foreign ways. Mais non. I think it’s quite telling that you can watch an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ from 1981 and hear the exact same stereotypical worries about the EU and its alleged wacky laws. But here we are 35 years later and the sky hasn’t fallen and Britain hasn’t lost its Britishness. Far from it. If we really must define Britishness as a test of cultural purity then we’re more pugnaciously xenophobia than we have been in years. Well done, British people.

But really, what do we mean by Britishness? Boris is no less Boris for 40 years spent in the EU. It hasn’t made Iain Duncan Smith any less strident. I reject the seductive notion that Europe erodes our “sovereignty” – whatever that really means – as if any country can govern in perfect isolation from its neighbours and treaties and trade alliances and human migration and equality and rights for workers and basic human rights. Of course not. We have sovereignty over our own laws in every way that counts; we don’t seem to have any difficulty in passing laws that tax the homeless for their spare pavement. We simply subscribe to international common principles – both within the EU and in parallel with it – because it makes sense.

It’s very easy to talk about isolationism in terms that make it sound noble and patriotic. You can picture Jim Hacker drifting into his Churchill impression. But Churchill was an architect of a United Europe, and I think it’s a very grown-up, civilised thing to be part of a wider society of nations. We can be ourselves and still accept that there are limits on the way you can behave and still get to participate in the world. There’s no reason I can see to feel that being part of Europe diminishes us. It might even make us greater.

Random musings on gender

Last week I entered the communal kitchen at work to find two female colleagues discussing how useless men are at keeping the house tidy. One said that despite being at home all day her partner never lifted a finger to clean the place and argued that he didn’t know how to use the vacuum cleaner. She in riposte had written him a guide to using the vacuum cleaner, with instructions coded in the colours of his favourite footbal teams.

Last month I went to the local sports centre to sign our 6 year old daughter Anna up for swimming lessons. The lady behind the counter was genuinely surprised that, as a man, I knew my own daughter’s birth date and felt the need to congratulate me on this amazing feat.

I don’t know if I’m just a very unusual man who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. Maybe so. I don’t think my wife would mind me saying that I do the majority of the tidying, cleaning and cooking in our household. She does plenty of other things, we strike a balance, and everything gets done. We just don’t divide our labours down the traditional gender lines. (Also I don’t like football, but that’s a separate matter.)

I wonder if this ‘lad’ culture still exists, where masculinity is somehow defined by a lack of interest in your own children or household (or, indeed, anything but football). Are other blokes really like this? Do they just play up to this stereotype because it’s a free pass to be lazy? Is it that domestic chores are still seen as women’s work, so men distance themselves from it for fear of looking less masculine? This is surely what’s behind the child’s birth date example: that the need to know your child’s birthday is primarily domestic, with the mother expected to arrange and the father expected to… show up. (Unless it clashes with football.)

Do some women even play up to this stereotype because as toxic as gender roles can be they’re also reassuring, a source of shared identity and camaraderie? Because otherwise I can’t see why any woman would put up with a partner who acted in such a fundamentally selfish way. Are these men secretly contributing to household chores in other, un-grumbled-about ways that I don’t hear about?

I’m probably overthinking something that’s partly just harmless banter. Maybe we fall into these shorthand ways of griping about the opposite sex without really buying into them. We know it’s not the whole story, but we say it anyway, slotting our relationship grievances into neatly gendered boxes. If so it’s fascinating the extent to which people play their expected roles in polite conversation, adopting banal positions, marking time with small talk.

I just don’t recognise this cultural portrait of a husband and father. It perplexes me that I’m so far out of step from, what? The norm? The perceived norm? Does everyone else feel the same way? I know many women chafe at traditional gender roles and with far more cause than my vague sense of peevish alienation. As adults we’re all affected by the social norms we absorb through our upbringing and the degree to which we identify, conform or rebel. There’s also the degree to which we’re even aware of gender roles as culturally imposed rather than genetically hardwired, and there I’m sure education plays a part.

I suspect I’m traditionally blokey in other ways (like being useless at remembering things my wife has asked me to do – sorry wife!) I guess all I’m getting at is that, no matter how much I think I’m learning about gender, sometimes I still get forcibly reminded that our society is profoundly gendered. The roles we expect men to play are inextricably bound up with (or in opposition to) the roles we expect women to play. And, day to day, we all collaborate in keeping it that way. I didn’t even argue with the woman at the sports centre. I sort of grunted non-committally. I chipped in on the example of the partner not cleaning, but what can I really say? Hey, I do the cleaning in our house. I can’t tell that woman her experience is false. I’m just interested in how true it is more generally.

(Disclaimer: Obviously the above implicitly assumes heterosexual relationships, since that’s the context in which the issues came up. This may all differ with sexual orientation. Or class. Or country. Or degree of geekiness, for all I know.)

Dublin 2019

It’s all Emma’s fault. She was the one who asked me last year if I’d like to contribute some artwork to help promote Dublin’s bid to host WorldCon in 2019. So I did.

I’ve continued to produce more promotional artwork for them , which they’ve been very kind about. I’m really enjoying making some art where there’s a defined audience beyond just entertaining myself and my family. God knows how they’ll end up using it!

I’d put myself firmly in the ‘amateur’ camp when it comes to producing pieces like these but I feel like I’m learning and developing just through the process of trying to make them varied and more… professional in style.  In particular, colouring my own pen-and-ink drawings is not something I’ve done before, but I’ve been experimenting with photoshop and figuring out how to apply digital colours and layer my own painted textures.

The Dublin bid team have just done a lovely feature about me on their website, which features an interview and lots of my artwork to boot:

http://dublin2019.com/an-comhra-the-chat-with-iain-clarke/

Thanks Emma!

Tom McRae – Did I Sleep And Miss The Border

This is not just a return to a full band sound from Tom McRae but a real sit-up-and-shake-the-cobwebs attempt at reinvention.

McRae’s previous release, From The Lowlands, distilled his introspection down to 48% proof; both lyrically and musically pared to the bone and at times painfully raw. It also felt like part of a slow spiral away from the mainstream that seemed in danger of ending in an album of the singer busking in an underpass.

Refreshingly this new release is a big, percussive, even – dare I say it? – commercial album. Certainly the raft of 4 star reviews from the mainstream music press might stir some hope. There’s plenty of angst here, and darkness, but it’s largely directed outwards rather than inwards, into fables of soaring despair, futile hope, and richly crashing instruments. There’s a sense of McRae (and band) experimenting musically and vocally. The opening track, “The High Life”, is almost off-puttingly delivered in an Old West leer that sets a mood of ominous americana. The rest of the album wisely sees McRae’s pure voice used more traditionally, but there remains a ragged quality at times that suits the emotion. These are tales of people driven to the edge of existence; when he wails “I am lost now” over and over in “The Dogs Never Sleep” it’s hard to disbelieve him.

That’s not to say the album doesn’t deliver variety. From the ballad of “Christmas Eve, 1943” to the spare “Let Me Grow Old With You” to the propulsive pop protest of “We Are The Mark” it’s a diverse and rewarding set of songs.

It’s also far from a complete departure for McRae, with seeds of americana and musical experimentation evident in ‘The Alphabet of Hurricanes’ and ‘Just Like Blood’, but there’s an energy and purpose here that belies the apocalyptic themes.

At only nine tracks the album could perhaps use one more killer tune. A tune, perhaps, like the thundering single “What A Way To Win A War” or the joyous “The Breeze Blows Cold”, both relegated to the companion disk ‘The Buzzard Tree Sessions’. Artistically they might be at odds with the feel of the album, but in terms of quality they’re every bit its equal.

Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction

So part 1 of the BBC2 Tomorrow’s Worlds documentary on SF basically ticked all the most obvious boxes (but in a more or less random order – quite bewilderingly so at times). It barely touched on written SF except as source material for movies. Which is fair enough if it’s aiming to be a history of visual SF, but it doesn’t confine itself to TV and movies, which leaves it feeling scattershot. Kudos for mentioning and at least partly discussing Left Hand of Darknesss and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, though.

It was entertaining enough, and with some prestigious talking heads, but for the most part it felt like an extremely well-trodden way to make some fairly unambitious observations about SF. It was also prone to sweeping generalisations such as how no novel prior to the Mars trilogy had ever been so meticulously detailed, no film prior to 2001 had ever been so conceptually ambitious, nothing prior to Avatar had ever realised an alien ecosystem, which seemed prone to counter-argument.

Also on a more trivial note I’d have preferred it if, when talking about the NASA images of Mars that inspired KSR, we saw those NASA images – or at least ones from that era – not a random slideshow of images of Mars from all eras of exploration. Similarly, why stick a picture from Star Trek IV into a discussion of Star Trek II? Why use the remastered CGI version of the original Star Trek opening credits?

I’ll stick with the rest of the series, but my expectations are suitably lowered.

Doctor Who – Listen

image

I wasn’t meaning to write reviews of Doctor Who this year, but bits of these spiky, slightly experimental episodes keep sticking in my head. After the romp to end all romps that was ‘Robot of Sherwood’ (huge fun but yes, please could that end all romps now?) ‘Listen’ is a very different affair, and it’s got me pondering again. On Capaldi’s Doctor. On whether Clara is well-written. And on whether Steven Moffat can write.

You know, stuff.

Spoilers for Doctor Who – 'Listen'

My LonCon, Part Deux

imageI shared my immediate emotional reaction to LonCon3 a few weeks ago. I think the moment has now passed for blogs about LonCon, but since I seem to shed neurons like other people shed skin cells, if I don't write down some specifics I know it'll get lost forever. For my own reference, then, if no-one else's, here's My LonCon, Part Deux.

We couldn't get a cheap hotel near the venue so stayed in Travelodge London Bank in the middle of London. We originally wanted to stay in a Japanese Coffin Hotel but fancied a smaller room. BOOM. It was bijou, is all I'm saying. Also about as hot as midday on Mercury.

Me and TardisLonCon was about 20 minutes on the Docklands Light Railway, with a change of trains halfway, so that was fine. When we got there the registration queue of which we had heard Terrible Things had vanished. That's the nice thing about arriving after lunch. Pausing only for vital business like chatting to Alison, Nic, Abigail and Emma and standing in front of a Tardis, we jumped straight into our first panel.

imageOver the next three days we didn't get into everything we wanted, but we did pretty well, and a good half of the panels I saw were very stimulating. The other half ranged from pleasant-but-unsurprising to frustratingly stalled discussions. Fortunately the panel I participated in was one of the enjoyable ones. (At least from our perspective. Who knows what the audience made of it.)

Friday 15th August

My LonCon

TardisSitting here a few days later, LonCon feels so far outside my day to day existence it’s almost like it didn’t happen to me, but was just part of a particularly immersive novel I read at the weekend (with some surprising plot twists and a setting surreally poised between the utopian and the dystopian. I kept expecting Blake’s 7 to come and rescue me.)

Fortunately I also met and chatted to lots of lovely people, at least some of whom definitely exist. By this marker I’m going to provisionally declare the Con to have been an empirically real event. Or events. Many, many events, coincidentally sharing the same space and jostling for primacy in exactly the same way that parallel universes probably don’t.

As my first major Con (barring a Who convention circa 19841 and a Trek one in 19922) it was an enfolding but kinetic experience, a conveyer belt of ideas and conversation that rarely lasted as long as I wanted before some new sensory input demanded my attention. At times it felt like I was developing mental whiplash, at others it was like the fuzziest, longest-lasting party in the Universe. I was conscious even as we entered Sunday morning of a certain post-Con emptiness lurking in the middle distance. That sense of regret that it would have to come to an end.

From start to finish it was a welcoming, well-organised event with a noticeably diverse range of attendees – all ages, various nationalities and ethnicities, disabled, abled, male, female, cis and trans. Not to mention human and alien costumed individuals (though nowhere near as many as the news would have you believe). You’ll rarely see such a vibrant range of people at most ‘mainstream’ events, or find them so actively catered for. It felt liberal and liberating and very inclusive, but take my views with a pinch of salt here since if there’s a privilege to be had, I’ve pretty much lucked into it.

The range of things to see and do was frankly astonishing — often simultaneously, meaning that tough choices had to be made. Janet and I were reflecting that no two attendees will have experienced the same convention. We sat down with the stunningly useful web app several days before and narrowed our choices from the completely overwhelming to the slightly overwhelming. Enough so that we got to see what we wanted but also did some of the same things together. Call me soppy but there’s some merit in having attended the same event and not two different but geographically similar events. In the end we made some wise decisions to ditch programme events in favour of downtime and chatting, and I think I had a much better and richer time for it. It was so great to catch up with those I’d met briefly (like Tim, Dan, Aileen, Liz and Aisha) and meet people I’d only encountered online (like Alison, Abigail Nussbaum, Alex, Lal, Graeme, Andrew, Chance, and my fellow panellists Ashley, Saxon, Jacey and Abigail.) And all the other lovely people I’m currently in the process of offending by forgetting to mention.

Since I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast, a little note about the panels I attended wouldn’t go amiss. But that can wait. I’m off to wander a shopping mall in search of someone discussing artificial intelligence.


1 The Leisure Hive in Swindon. In 1984. 1984! Jesus I’m old. I mean, okay, I was only 15 at the time, but still. I’ve got the poorly photocopied con guide somewhere. I’ll have to scan it.

2 Contagion in Glasgow

Orphan Black, Season One: ‘Variations Under Domestication’

Since I’m on the LonCon panel to discuss the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form nominees I thought It might be helpful to get my thoughts in order. And in the case of Orphan Black, actually get around to watching the show. That always helps.

Orphan Black, Season One: ‘Variations Under Domestication’

I don’t know if I’m elated or gassy, but it’s somewhere in that zone

My wife and I have seized the opportunity to attend WorldCon while it’s in London this August. It took some determined childcare planning (and our daughters have been duly bribed/compensated with a family holiday) but it’s happening!

Not only that, but I’m delighted to say I’ve been invited onto a panel at LonCon:

2014 Hugo Awards: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Saturday 11:00 – 12:00

The actual nominees under discussion are here.

Having never done this before, at this stage I’m feeling slightly under-qualified, but since a few people may be wandering over to this fairly moribund blog, here’s a quick roundup of my published reviews.

Film Reviews

V for Vendetta

X-Men: The Last Stand

Spider-man 3

Iron Man

Star Trek (2009)

TV Reviews

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Season One)

Torchwood (Season One)

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales

Primeval (Season One)

Doctor Who: School Reunion

Smaller contributions

SF Signal – Mind Meld: Battlestar Galactica Series Finale (waaay down at the bottom)

Strange Horizons: 2007 in Review

Strange Horizons : 2006 in Review


Yes, my eldest daughter is currently obsessed by Frozen, why do you ask?

“Calm down, dear”

There was a great documentary by Kirsty Wark on the BBC last week called “Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes”. (Still on iPlayer if you want to watch it.) The title is from the hugely popular online video last year, with teh naked ladies dancing. (I point this out because I’m so clued up I hadn’t even heard (of) it when it came up in last year’s Christmas Quiz. Finger on the pulse, me.)

The focus of the programme was the culture of abuse, insults, sexual threats and misogynistic remarks commonly faced by women online, including high profile recipients like Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez. [EDIT : Perez has just posted examples of the abusive tweets.] Coincidentally my wife was just telling me the other day about the constant unwelcome ‘approaches’ she faces when online gaming as a female character (“Are you really a girl?” “How old are you?” etc.) and there are examples of precisely that behaviour in the documentary too. Equally there are some in the programme who deny that this is a female-specific problem, and say that rape jokes and abuse faced by women are just one facet of the jokes and abuse targeting men, and that the only difference is women’s (hyper)sensitivity. I don’t buy that. Sure, abuse is faced by everyone. Men get online death threats, and that’s reprehensible too. But to say that women should simply “man up”, as one commentator puts it, is to ignore the wider society in which we live, and the sheer amount and extremely misogynistic overtones of the abuse against women versus the generic nature of the trolling against men. The playing field is not level.

I look at society and it seems staggeringly obvious that women are the subject of systematic objectification, exclusion and lack of respect. I know it’s not all women, and not all the time. I know it’s better in our society than in some parts of the world. I know it’s talked about more openly than it used to be. But it’s in the way TV shows and films are written and cast. In the age, looks and number of female vs male presenters. In comics. In music. In who gets book deals and recording contracts. In who wins awards. In the fact that the Best Actor Oscar gets announced after the Best Actress one (because, why exactly?) In advertising. In magazines. In who gets to participate in debates. In business. In politics. In the lack of respect for older women, or any women who don’t pander to male ideals of beauty. In dismissive attitudes to rape and domestic violence. In David Cameron ‘joking’ “Calm down dear” to diminish a female MP’s opinion. Even in which members of the crowd the TV camera lingers on. In a thousand thoughtless moments of chauvinism by men who should know better. Including me, quite probably. You get the idea. I’m not going to brainstorm the world’s first comprehensive list of all sexism ever.

This may all sound a bit born-again feminist. I know it’s a bit rich, me saying women are oppressed like it’s a revelation. I’m not trying to come off as more-feminist-than-thou. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that, commonly and insidiously, many women face much more of an uphill struggle than many men. In ways so ingrained that often people don’t see them at all, or choose not to. Sometimes it takes real effort for men in particular to step back from the blithe assumptions they’ve benefitted from all their lives.

It’s why it drives me mad when blowhard sideshow-acts like Jeremy Clarkson or Godfrey Bloom poo poo the very idea that sexism still exists. Or, God forbid, claim that men are the disadvantaged ones. These are the high profile crackpots. Almost reassuringly barmy. Obligingly self-satirising. The high profile UKIP donor who says he doesn’t think women should wear trousers. But for every crackpot there’s an army of men who’ve never been near the ‘Have I Got News For You’ studio but who’ll nod along. Why should women even *want* to wear trousers when men prefer to see women in skirts? (Yeah, women. Explain THAT.)

In employment law, the classic feature of unfair discrimination is that you only see the stereotype, not the individual. Someone will decide that women can’t work in construction because they’re physically weak. Never mind that some women could beat me in a fair fight. (Okay, most women). Or they’re too emotionally fragile, or it’s improper, or it’s too dangerous. Leave that nasty stuff to The Mens. Recognising and challenging those preconceptions, treating people as individuals, recognising all the ways in which society is constructed to favour and pander to the desires of (straight, white) men, should not be controversial things.

At the risk of making this all about me, I sometimes feel paralysed in talking about feminism online because, although it’s a subject that I feel a passionate affinity with, it seems presumptuous of me to imagine that I can really understand. I worry that I’ll simplify, offend or patronise. I fear that even though I may imagine I’m a feminist, I’m wearing my own unchallenged sexist assumptions on my sleeve. (Memo to self: donate sexist arm-band to charity shop). I read powerful, illuminating articles on sexism like this or this and I feel that I have nothing to add. So I tend not to say anything at all.

But it’s worth saying something, no? I try to be aware of my stupid assumptions, sexist and otherwise. I try to be conscious that the playing field is not level. At least it’s a start.

(“Join us tomorrow, when our topic will be: Religion, which is the one true faith” – Kent Brockman)

“That makes you the racist.”

I just posted on Twitter the perhaps depressing truth that “At this stage I assume that any party with the word “English” or “UK” in the title is racist until proven otherwise.” And received from a random human being the, I hope you’ll agree, amazing reply: “So you are not pro England or Britain, but favour the rest of the world? That makes you the racist.” Even more amazingly, their twitter profile unironically includes the words “I’m not racist but…” Marvellous.

I know such sentiments are not new. But it feels as if the prevailing political narrative has now shifted pretty far to the right when it comes to immigration. It’s the normalisation of such transparently xenophobic, if not outright racist, sentiments that leaves me feeling frustrated, exasperated, powerless. The major political parties are queuing up, not to argue the value of diversity, not to remind us that we have nothing to fear from change, but to compete for how tough they can look on ‘controlling our borders’.

The UK is not alone in this by any means, with parts of Europe and Australia cheerfully demonising anyone who has the gall to think their country is lovely. It starts of course with ‘dastardly foreigners’ but then, even more perplexingly, travels back along the family tree to second or third generation immigrants like a racist genealogy show: “Who Do You Think You Are and Why Don’t You Go Back Where You Came From?”

It would be instructional to trawl back through the political debates of the last decade(s) to see how we got here. How worries about immigration came to be blandly accepted rather than challenged. I feel like I can glimpse a vicious circle where someone lands a punch with some statistically rare horror story about a sponging terrorist asylum seeker, that gets picked up by the right-wing media, that connects with the public, that the other parties have to respond to. (I say ‘have to’ on the unspoken assumption that they’re spineless and desperate enough for power to compromise their principles, just to lay my biases out there on the table.) And that begets further scare stories of the made-up or cherry-picked variety. And then mainstream news outlets like the BBC decide that the ‘public’ are worried about immigration. Immigration is an issue. It’s going to decide elections. So they start reporting the cherry-picked the stories too, which leaves those picking the cherries in the driving seat (…of their cherry-picking vehicle. Bear with me here.) And then a party like UKIP, that trades in … racist cherries… has a small victory, and that seems important because now the public are worried enough about immigration to vote for complete twats. So it must be bad. And naturally you need to report the complete twats, because in some sense they’ve come to represent the whole issue. And that party winds up looking like a serious contender, one of the Big Four, and somehow you’ve made the extremists look electable. And cherries look bigoted.

All of which still leaves me sitting here in my cosy little liberal democracy looking in blank incomprehension at the popular rise of the far right.

From the Lowlands – Tom McRae

“We come from the lowlands / Dream of high ground.”

On first impressions From the Lowlands (‘Being the second part of The Alphabet of Hurricanes’) feels like a perplexingly spare, small record. An EP with ideas above its station. Certainly not the same kind of diverse, confident affair as its predecessor.

It’s not long before those first impressions are confounded. Ruthlessly stripped-back tracks such as the opener, ‘Lately’s All I Know’, worm their way into your brain with melodic hooks that belie the starkness of the production (or indeed its subject of bereavement). The cover of ‘Sloop John B’ counterpoints a melancholy take with rich harmonies, the beautiful title track blooms into a choir of voices, and when ‘The Alphabet of Hurricanes’ finally makes itself known as a song rather than an album, it’s as an epic 8 minute affair heralded by lush string arrangements. Lyrically it’s also one of the strongest compositions on a collection of sincere songwriting that’s almost painfully confessional, even for Tom McRae. Two tracks, the perky ‘Fuck you, Prometheus’ and the maudlin ‘All That’s Gone’, confront failure to achieve success: “time has worn a hole in me /the place I keep my dreams”. Another two tracks, the opener and the lovely ‘Ship of Blue and Green’ contemplate death and loss. And yet the overwhelming impression is not of gloom but of melancholy beauty.

It’s not the most commercial of offerings; as an introduction to Tom’s music it’s unlikely to convert the unfaithful. The closest thing to a single here is ‘Belly of a Whale’ which is very agreeable but never quite soars, or the sprawling closer. The actual single, or at least the one with the online video, is the low key ‘Nothing on the Dry Land’, my nomination for the least remarkable song on the album.

Ultimately this album has an intimacy that means it never quite escapes the feeling of a maxi-sized EP, but with a full-band album already recorded for release next year maybe that’s exactly what this wants to be. It’s certainly a more addictive experience than it may first appear.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.