Tuesday, 30 December 2014

New Year Thoughts

Another year is approaching a new dawn, prompting many to look back at the last twelve months and forward to the future. In some ways my own year has been one of the worst of my life and yet I don't really feel that's entirely accurate. I'm writing this as a press conference is being held in Indonesia announcing that 162 families will never get to see their loved ones again. As awful as losing a parent is I don't think it really compares at all with what those people are going through.

This has got me thinking about how important it is to live your life as part of a society, as a cog in a greater machine. When my dad died I was overwhelmed with the kindness of strangers, friends and family alike. The strength they gave so generously got me through those first confusing and distressing weeks, so that four months on I feel like I'm processing and learning to live with the new reality. Without that support I genuinely don't think that would have been the case; thank you to everyone who was there for me, even if it was just a text message. You'll never know how appreciated it was.

So if I've learned anything from the last twelve months it's to be kind, even if you don't think it will make much difference. I've also learned to live well, and as happily as you can. Embrace the lessons life gives, even if it was unasked for. I learned what loss feels like. I also learned how amazing people can be. I learned how much I appreciate the people in my life.

So whatever you're doing for New Years, give someone you care about a hug, even if it's a virtual one. Raise a glass to those who you've left behind and to those you haven't met yet. And above all: Be excellent to each another.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Book Review: The Borgias

The Borgias
Christopher Hibbert
Kindle edition, 2011

I'm currently suffering from Fiction burn-out. For some reason my brain has decided it does not want fantasy lands full of warriors and goblins, nor wizards, witches, and Queens in disguise. It doesn't want far-flung worlds, with desperate attempts at survival against the odds. Instead it's been crying out for fact - or at the very least possible facts, depending on your point of view. So I've been reading history books, and just finished The Borgias by Christopher Hibbert.

I got interested in the Borgia family with the excellent TV show starring Jeremy Irons. If you've not seen it I highly recommend it. It's like Game of Thrones but real(ish). And without the White Walkers. Schemes aplenty and rumpy-pumpy at every opportunity. Sadly they didn't get the chance to finish the story of the Borgias as the show got cancelled in it's fourth season, and it ends before we see what ultimately happened to Pope Alexander and his adult children. So I picked up Hibbert's book, as it seemed to cover what I wanted to know.

If you have no knowledge at all of the Borgias this is an excellent place to start, as it covers everything, from the time of Alexander's ascension to the Papal throne, to the last days of his children. The Borgias are a big deal because of the scandals that surrounded them; Spanish by birth, they were never happily accepted into Rome, and Alexander was a man of extreme ambition. He was clearly someone who was willing to do almost anything to further the gains of him and his family, and he had great plans for all of his children. Sadly the family were to largely vanish from the wheels of power, but their lives have inspired countless fictional stories. Hibbert gives a good run down of the key events and attempts to cast some light on this intriguing family. I should mention that the book includes a lot of detail about clothing and materials at the time, which at first seems odd until he quotes from sources; they too talk a lot about what kind of dress a person was wearing, so it's no wonder Hibbert does too. And eventually I came to be grateful for it as it coloured in this historical time and made the characters within it all the more real.

The book is written in a style very reminiscent of a novel, albeit with regular quotes from chroniclers and messengers. Though the book moves swiftly through the events of the Borgia's reign in Rome, all the way up to the death of Lucrezia, the last of Pope Alexander's children to survive, it really brings the characters out in detail. Some are a bit more indistinct than others; Cesare is a difficult character to get across, because the man was so mysterious even in his own time. But I definitely came away knowing he was not as nice as he is portrayed in the TV show. Or as handsome, I imagine. In fact this book should be a must-read for anyone who has seen and loved the show, which inevitably changed a lot of the actual history to create drama. Here you can find the real drama and make your own judgements about this fascinating family.

One thing I really appreciated about Hibbert's book is that he takes time to ensure that motivations of sources is known to the reader. A lot was written about the Borgias and most would be considered slanderous by our standards. While some of the terrible stories may be true others are fabrications, and Hibbert makes the point of trying to point out one from another. Some may feel he is overly sympathetic to the Borgia family but I felt this was much needed, as so much is accepted as true about them that is nothing more than rumour (for example the whole Lucrezia having sex with her brother and her father thing - no evidence exists of this and yet it's often assumed to be true).

If you too are in need of a bit of edifying, or want to see what Rome was like during it's height, I can highly recommend Hibbert's book; fantastical, colourful, intriguing and inspiring.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Internet Holidays Are Highly Recommended

At the risk of giving away my age, I grew up without the Internet. It didn't come along in my life until around the age of 16. It was very blue from I remember. Seriously, it really was. MSN and local messaging services freaked me out - once I was sitting in the computer room at college doing something when suddenly a little box appeared in the corner of the screen saying, "your cute, what's your name?" - so I never used those, except for rare occasions. Hotmail and Yahoo search were the main sites I remember, and I seem to recall reading lots of things that looked like entries in encyclopedias. Hell, they probably were exactly that. I never bought anything online, and I never had a My Space page, though I knew people who did.

I was not that fussed about the Internet or what it had to offer. Now though I not only work for one of the biggest online companies in the world, but I also have profiles on almost every single social media platform going, accounts with tonnes of online shops and a Twitter feed that I can't stop checking a few times a day at least. In essence, I am as much an Internet junkie as plenty of others. And this weekend I was pretty much cut off from all of it, because I was away and my phone throws a fit whenever I try to do anything with it beyond text or call someone. And you know what? It was wonderful. 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Making Plans

This past week I've mostly been consumed by the day job. But I am now on a much-needed holiday, which I'm doing in proper stay-cation style. Monday, I plan to see the poppies at the Tower of London before they get taken down, and then I'll be watching Interstellar in the afternoon at the Odeon. From what I've heard it needs a big screen and they don't come much bigger than there.

The rest of the week is going to involve chilling, before going to see a friend of mine who lives up in Derby for the weekend. I'm glad that the week has turned out to have a variety of activities in it, as I don't think I want to be sitting around thinking about things for the whole week. That path would inevitably lead to tears and feeling sorry for myself. I even had a little lump in my throat with the minutes silence held today for Remembrance Sunday. It's strange, the difference between knowing intellectually that people have lost loved ones to war, and knowing first-hand the pain of losing someone so close.

All this talk of the two world wars has also made me think that 2015 will be the year I finally go to Denmark. My grandmother, my dad's mother, was from Copenhagen and the Second World War had a devastating affect on her and the family. When the Nazi's occupied Denmark my family were involved in the resistance, as so many other Danes were. Unfortunately, all of my family, except for my grandmother, was killed or captured. All I know about what happened is that they were attending my great-grandmother's funeral when the Nazis came into the church and opened fire. My grandmother escaped and was in hiding for the rest of the war, until Denmark was liberated by the British. She met my grand-dad, who was with the Navy, they got married and my grandmother went to Irvine in Scotland, to wait for my grand-dad's return. She never talked about it and we're not even sure where exactly she was from; until her death bed my grandmother told no-one anything, and the details my mum managed to get are few and far between.

Dad was never keen on looking into what had happened to his mother's family. His attitude was to let sleeping dogs lie, a mindset I don't doubt he got from my grandmother. But the history buff in me isn't happy with that; and I feel like I owe it to the family to find out about them if I can. And in an odd way I think it might help me process that dad is gone. Even if all I get out of it seeing Copenhagen, it will feel good to reconnect with that bit of my lost past, and maybe a little side of dad too.

As they say at this time of year: "Lest we forget."

Stonehaven War Memorial, 2013

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Happy Bonfire Night - However You Celebrate

This week has mainly consisted of this:

And because it is in fact November it means Guy Fawkes Night is upon us, a night I'm not really much of a fan of. You see, I am old and boring, and have been since about the age of fourteen. I hate fireworks and think displays are massively overrated. You spend hours out in the cold, freezing your bits off to watch some explosives way up in the sky make pretty colours. Bah humbug.

The other thing I've never liked about the 5th of November is the whole "burning of the Guy" thing. I love a good bonfire and a traditional pagan style burning ritual, but knowing the history of the Gunpowder Plot stops me from really embracing the fun of burning an effigy of a man who was killed horribly. Told you; old and boring.

One latest addition to Bonfire Night is quite interesting to me though; the "Million Mask March" that occurs in central London, near parliament by the group labelled as "Anonymous". I say labelled, because the actual group are probably long disbanded and/or arrested and the people who now go under that moniker have chosen it for themselves. What I find interesting about it all is how much effort this relatively small amount of people will put into getting the masks from V for Vendetta, creating placards, and marching around London protesting against... something. I'm not entirely clear what precisely they're marching for and even their own website lists a variety of motivations; they march against austerity, infringement of rights, and against mass surveillance. What exactly they want though is unmentioned and for that reason alone it seems utterly pointless to me; a protest without a clearly defined goal is just a bunch of people standing out in the cold, freezing their bits off... hopefully without the explosive bit.

But each to their own - some like to watch fireworks, some like to carry placards and others like to tuck into a nice fish and chip supper while watching The Wicker Man. Happy 5th!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

It's That Scary Time of Year Again

As October wanes there is a terrible, daunting and spine chilling event on the horizon. If you're thinking Halloween, you're not thinking scary enough. No, I'm referring to Nanowrimo.

Not a greeting from an alien being, but an event that occurs every year in November, where thousands of would-be-writers lock themselves in their fortress of solitude and attempt to hammer out 50,000 words before December 1st. That might be a whole story, it might be a couple of stories or it might even just be the first quarter of an epic fantasy with a dark lord and mysterious strangers appearing at opportune moments. The important thing is getting 50,000 words written on your story(s) before November ends.

I've done Nanowrimo once and it was really, really hard. I don't actually remember if I managed it or not (which suggests I didn't) but it was a great experience for a few reasons;

  • It made me sit and write almost every day.
  • It forced me to write over 2000 words in every sitting. Well, actually it made me write 500 words one day and then 3500 on another.
  • I realised by the end of the process what an incredible ball-ache writing a novel is.

That last may sound like I didn't enjoy it; I did in fact and would highly recommend it. But it is still an indescribably painful, frustrating and emotional process to actually get 50,000 words on screen in such a short time. Even more painful when you read your manuscript and see you've created a monster that should be locked away in the darkest trunk you can find, and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. But that bit doesn't actually matter (another thing I learned). What matters is actually getting those words down and realising that you are capable of doing it. One of the biggest hurdles to writing is the fear factor, and a big fear is that you just can't hack it. But actually, you probably can. It may make you white haired and gibbering in a corner of the room by the end, but you can do it.

I won't be doing Nanowrimo this year, though I am using the month as an incentive to write at least 500 words of something everyday. I have a spreadsheet and everything:

DateMonthWord Count GoalWord Count ActualDifferenceAccrual GoalAccrual ActualDifference

As you can see I doubled my goal yesterday. This blog post will get me today's target. Geeky? Yes. Useful? Definitely. I am a master at procrastinating, even though I really enjoy writing once I'm sitting down and actually doing it. But it's a game me and my subconscious have to play; I'll tell myself to do something, and the other me will say "okay, in a minute". Five hours later and I'm practically screaming at myself to do the thing I want to do. But I still find distractions and shiny things. In fact to understand just how bad this can get go to Hyperbole and a Half to read the post that I think may have been stolen from my own head.

So, in the face of my own never-ending ability to not do the thing I need to do, I need to come up with ways to trick or force myself into it. The above spreadsheet is my whip with which I will hit myself to get shit done. It has worked before, but I think I made the goal too high, so I soon just threw the whip away and played Plants vs Zombies instead. This time I've kept it low; I know I can clear 500 words in under thirty minutes, if the wind blows right, so it's not as daunting as setting 1000 words as the target instead. Hell, this 'ere blog post is already 790 words so I'm totally on target for today.

If you do decide to take on the Nanowrimo challenge - I highly suggest you do if you want to write novels or short stories for a living - then I can only offer the following advice.

  • Do play the numbers game: you will not always be able to hit your daily word goal, so there will be some days you can allow yourself to write very little, as long as you write a lot on another day.
  • Schedule days off. Seriously, it will stop your brain from dribbling out your ears and down your neck. No one wants brain matter on their clothes.
  • Try to get some sort of story plan together before you start. Even if you only plan each day as it happens, it really helps to have thought about what you're going to write before you sit in your writing chair. Otherwise you'll end up staring at the screen as though you're looking into the great empty eyes of Cthulhu before it devours you.
  • Do not beat yourself up if you don't actually write 50,000 words in the time frame; the point of this challenge is to get into the habit of writing, and prove to yourself you can churn out the words when you need to. Think of it like exercise: you may not be able to run the whole marathon and get to the end drawing on your hands and knees, but just getting over that finish line is proof that you are a super-amazing wonder-person who may not be able to fly, but it is not through a want of trying. And you have the broken bones to prove it.

If you want to be as geeky as me I really recommend some kind of spreadsheet too. Not only does it allow you to track how you're doing it also means you can make really nifty graphs and stuff to show your good and bad days, or if you add it, your best times of day to write. And then, when you see the fruits of your labours in those pretty charts you can give yourself a pat on the back, and proudly say, "I am a geeky writer".

Victory hedgehog believes in you!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014


Feelings are weird. They rarely behave how you expect them to and when they do it's more puzzling than reassuring. The last two months have been a strange ride, and a big part of me can't believe my dad's been gone for that long; yet it's no time at all. By and large it's been an odd mixture of feeling not a lot before either crashing into a pile of tears or laughing so hard I am yet again crying. But in a good way. I think.

One weird thing I've noticed is anything can set me off laughing or sobbing. I was standing waiting for a tube train at a station I've used a gazillion times. It is also the station my dad used for the 37 odd years he worked in London. This tiny thought barely passed through my squidgy brain and it left behind an emotional storm akin to Hurricane Bawbag. Only a sheer force of stubbornness stopped me from sobbing on that platform.

Two days later I read a tumblr post about a guy playing the Sims while drunk, and it made me laugh so hard I couldn't see or breathe. It's not even that funny. Well, it is, if you're a gamer who also tortured poor little sims in a variety of fucked-up-this-is-what-hell-is-like ways. But it cracked me up to the point my sides hurt.

The rest of the time is even stranger. I can have perfectly normal conversations, I enjoy people's company, I am genuinely emotionally engaged with what's going on. But afterwards it seems like someone turned the volume down or forgot to paint the colours in. It's all just a bit "meh".

Essentially this grief business is a complete and utter mind-fuck; just when you think you're maybe getting a grip on it all, a page from a newspaper will drift past on the wind and remind you of that time your loved one did a thing or said a thing. There's absolutely no frickin similarity between that damned bit of paper and the memory but nevertheless your brain goes, "huh, that reminds me of this time you probably don't want to think about right now, but I'm going to make you think about it anyway, because I'm a sadistic prick who is going to make you have feels - whether you want to or not."

The one thing I can say about all this is I am definitely getting a much better understanding of how to write more rounded characters with major emotional issues. In an odd way keeping a part of myself as an observer is helping, as it provides a distance when all of these feelings get a bit too much. Writing what you know has never rung more true for me than right now.