Month: December 2012

Farewell 2012


2013Well, what do we make of 2012? It came, it stayed a while, and now it’s off on its way again.

I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed with it, standing at the precipice of 2013 and looking back. Part of it is, as Julian Ware-Lane said, that we have had another twelve months of fairly disasterous Conservative governance — including a double-dip recession and probably putting us on track for a triple-dip.

There was also the profound disappointment of the, ahem, “end of the world“. T.S. Eliot’s prophetic line turned out to be a bit off, as rather than a whimper it came with a cynical spasm of bad jokes.

There were good points, naturally. Most notably, after over a damned year of searching I am now gainfully employed. It’s such a relief to actually a) have something to do all day, and b) have money coming in and being able to plan ahead. I know I’m one of the lucky ones, and for that I am grateful.

I have also become a parish councillor, which sounds a whole lot more important than it is. But it gives me a say over local planning applications, and I am already resolving to take a hard line on building on the floodplain. This year has been beset with flooding, and paving over more drainage areas will only make the situation worse.

This is usually the part where I make pledges for what I’m going to do in the new year. Whilst I have some ideas of what I want to achieve, I’m not going to lay them out here. Simply, I’ll only say that I want to be happy. A noble aim, I think.

So have a good new years, my readers. And I sincerely hope that your 2013 will be even better than your 2012.

A Post-Apocalyptic Christmas


It started slowly, almost imperceptibly. A slow, fine mist descending from a cloudy sky, barely even noticeable until it reached the ground and settled. It was snowing.

Each tiny flake was invisible insight, except for when a section of the snowfall caught and reflected the light of distant fires in brilliant colours. It looked like a shoal of fish,dancing and darting their erratic journey earthwards.

And for a moment — for the barest and most bittersweet of moments — the burly man in the church clocktower, watching it all through a high-powered scope, could believe that all was right with the world.

Until he spied the lights on the horizon.

One at first, a flickering shimmer that might have been a cluster of snowflakes. But then it was joined by another,and another, swelling to an unmistakable host. Even among the reflective dance of semi-frozen rain they stood out, unmistakable as the dawn. Individually they flickered and stumbled, but their combined might illuminated the blasted landscape and picked out each crater and imperfection.

The man in the clocktower shuffled within his winter clothing, eventually extricating a gloved hand, which squeezed the button on a hand radio.

‘They’re here,’ he said into it, curtly and emotionlessly.

After a moment’s pause came the reply, ‘Roger that. Stand by, and maintain visual observation.

The man didn’t reply, but withdrew back inside his warm cocoon, and adjusted the rifle beneath the blankets. Through the scope he watched the horde approach as he tried to count the falling snowflakes.

They’re here.

The four of them in the church froze, all eying the radio on the altar. Stephens was closest, and he picked it up, but hesitated before responding. His grey sergeant-major’s eyes looked to each of them in turn before he pushed the broadcast button.

‘Roger that. Stand by and maintain visual contact.’

Markus didn’t answer. The dour Frenchman was thrifty with the few words of English that has knew, and wasn’t given to waste them.

‘We’re going with the plan then?’ Lucy asked. They had already discussed this to completion several times. She drummed her fingertips against the pew she sat on in a stacatto and disjointed rhythm.

‘Yep,’ Tim replied, launching himself into action. ‘If you’ve got any prayers left to make, do it now. Ladies and gentlemen, the service is over, it is time to leave the church!’

Stephens — the Colonel — sprung into action immediately, with a career of military discipline behind him. He started loading up their camping equipment, and spreading it evenly between the four packs.

‘Harry, go and see to the generator would you?’ Tim asked. ‘Syphon off the bulk of the petrol, but leave enough to keep everything running for an hour or so yet.’

With a stifled groan, the gangly IT Technician levered himself off the floor. In better times he had worked for the same marketing firm as Tim — albeit in a different department. Lucy had worked behind the bar of a pub on the same street. Markus and Stephens were just lucky survival nuts.

‘I still say we should take the genny with us,’ Harry complained.

‘And carry it with what?’ Lucy asked, before Tim could find the words. ‘The sled is busted, and I really don’t fancy hauling that monstrosity across two hundred miles of wasteland.’

‘Besides,’ Tim added quickly, gently, ‘these savages aren’t going to stop chasing us until we’re dead. The plan is the only way.’

With a resigned nod, Harry headed off to the back room where they’d linked up their small generator to what remained of the church’s electrical system.

‘Huh,’ Lucy exclaimed softly. The other three turned to face her with curious — and worried — expressions. ‘Merry Christmas guys!’

She held up her watch. 00:03. 25 Dec.

‘We always used to spend Christmas Day with my dad and his girlfriend. After he retired, he left my mum for his secretary, and bought a cottage in Cornwall. We’d spend Christmas there and then go to mum’s for new years.’

Lucy rambled on whilst she packed. Tim didn’t mind. She was a nervous girl and talking seemed to keep her mind off the situation.

‘Christ, what I wouldn’t give for a roast turkey with all the trimmings now.’

Tim’s stomach gave a painful — but thankfully inaudible — rumble. They hadn’t had enough food for weeks, and the scant rations which remained were being stretched so thin that it was becoming painful to even think of food.

‘A turkey, a turkey, my generator for a roast turkey, and all the trimmings!’ he muttered sardonically, but it evoked a cackle of laughter from Lucy. In the dank, shadowy surroundings of the church the seemed darkly out of place. Tim couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed or heard laughter.

He realised he was smiling, just as another strange sound broached the air.

‘What the fuck is–‘

‘Music!’ Lucy cut him off with a gleeful cry. She was right, it was definitely music, the tinkling and ethereal opening notes of a piece which tugged at the atrophied threads of his memory. Momentarily he recalled a film, the moment in Apocalypse Now when the helicopters come over the Vietnamese village.

But no, this is different. Gentler, more atmospheric, more…festive?
‘Have…yourself…a very merry Christmas…’

‘Harry, you mad bastard,’ he growled under his breath. But he was smiling. They all were. Lucy was grinning like…well, like a kid on Christmas morning. Even the surly Colonel was not immune to the tugging at the corners of mouths.

‘Well, I thought it fitted the mood,’ Harry said, coming back into the church with a shiver and a mischievous grin.

But the elevated mood didn’t last. From above came the sound of gunfire; heavy, echoing shots from Markus’ rifle. A hail of automatic fire answered, rattling against the stonework of the tower. As Markus issued a loud rebuttal, they all spurred into action.

The Colonel sprayed bullets through the rotten wooden door, showering Tim and Lucy with splinters as they hurriedly finished their packing.

‘Did you get that petrol sorted?’ Tim shouted over the sporadic busting of gun reports.

Harry nodded. ‘Six jerry cans, and enough juice left in the tank to make this madness look convincing.’

‘Good. Whether or not we can get another genny together, petrol’s always good for trade.’

He could see another objection — or a repeat of the same objection — but he never heard it. Two, or maybe three, explosions outside blew the door in, knocking them all to the ground and making their ears pop viciously.

The Colonel was first up, firing more bullets through the smoky orifice. Tim followed, shouting across to the self-appointed quartermaster. ‘Colonel! Gun! Fucking now!’

He plucked the automatic rifle out of the air as he turned to the other two. ‘Time to leave! Is the mistletoe ready for our guests?’

Harry waved a small cylinder topped with a red button, as a few more shots boomed overhead and a cluster of hostile bullets flew through the door.

Tim only noticed he was hit when he was lying on the floor, his friends shouting over him. He noticed idly that it didn’t hurt, and that the song was still playing.

‘Oh fuck Tim!’ Lucy was saying, repeating ‘Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck’ under her breath like a mantra. Her hands were red, and when he looked down he couldn’t make any sense of what he was seeing. But there was a lot of blood.

As he realised that he was dying, that to all intents and purposes he was already dead, the most surprising thing was how calm he felt. It had become so damn normal, death.

‘Time to go kiddies!’ he managed to gasp. ‘Make for the coast. Stick together. And hang onto that petrol! Harry, give me the detonator.’

‘What?’ Harry suddenly looked very young, and very frightened. It was upsetting for Tim to think that he had no idea just how old any of his companions were.

‘Harry, mate,’ he whispered. ‘I’m not walking away from this one. Give me the detonator. I can at least take some of these bastards with me.’

As Harry sheepishly handed it over, Lucy started to sob and wail. Tim saw Markus climbing down from the clocktower, rifle strapped across his back, swinging down off the ladder. he took one look at Tim’s stomach and gave him a sad nod as he carried Lucy away.

‘Go on lad,’ the Colonel said to Harry, kneeling next to Tim’s shattered and dying form. ‘Go on with them. I’ll follow.’

When Harry was gone, Tim tried to speak. He wanted to tell Stephens, to make the old soldier promise to get the other three to the coast, and across to Ireland. But there was too much blood in his throat, and it merely gurgled up with a sound like a blocked plughole.

‘Save your strength lad,’ the Colonel whispered. He pushed something into Tim’s blood-slicked hand, something it took him a moment to identify as a pistol.

‘Set the dead man switch, and leave the party. You’re a brave man Tim, and you don’t deserve to go out like this. I’ll get them to safety, don’t you worry.’

Tim was almost loathe to break the tenderness of the moment and connection with a man he hadn’t thought capable of it.

‘Go!’

Tim lapsed in and out of consciousness over period which could only have been minutes. Each time he awoke clutching the deadman switch with a trembling hand. He wasn’t sure if the smoke was in his fevered mind, or if more grenades had been set off.

The music still played in the background, some long-dead singer crooning about making the Yuletide gay. He chuckled, a spasmodic cascade of blood.

When the first of the savages walked into the church, he looked at Tim with an unmistakable expression of surprise; even through the tattoos and piercings on his face Tim could see it clearly. The dark shapes of the rest of the horde loomed behind the outrider.

The last of his strength ebbing out of him, Tim lifted the gun that the Colonel had given him.

‘Merry fucking Christmas!’

The shot blew clean through the young man’s forehead, and he fell to the ground with that look of surprise still on his face. The retribution was as swift as Tim had known it would be, but between the bullets tearing him apart and the song wishing him a very merry Christmastime he felt the deadman switch slip from his grasp.

Black Static #31 (Nov/Dec 2012) – A Review


Black Static #31So here it is at last. My long promised review of Black Static issue#31.

I’ve been reading TTA Press’ horror mag for the same length of time that I’ve been reading its sister magazine Interzone, and the heir to The Third Alternative was even then established as a monolith of the UK genre scene. I think issue #10 was the first one I read, and as I opened the glossy cover and dipped into the stories I think that was the moment I became truly hooked on the short story.

I think there’s room for a whole blog post of my musings on short form fiction, but this is neither the time nor the place. Instead, what I will say is that whether you love short stories or are simply curious about them, whether you are an adoring devotee and junkie of horror or just want to know what makes it tick, Black Static reallyought to be your first port of call.

Its present form is somewhat different from that first one I tore the plastic off. A recent redesign has seen it taking more of a comic book look — strongly reminiscent of the late Murky Depths. And if this issue is anything to go by, editor Andy Cox is moving towards including “novelettes” — loathsome terminology, in my opinion — as an integral part.

The stories, though, are still what the whole thing turns on, and so without further ado, my thoughts on them:

  • “Barbary” by Jackson Khul: We open with one of the above mentioned novelettes. I don’t think I’ve read any of Khul’s writing before, but this is a very good piece of fiction. It follows an ailing sailor, who discovers that the cure to his chronic pain is the embalmed deceased of ancient Egypt. I won’t go into details about the plot, as although it was very good, it was the peculiar and slightly archaic way in which it was written – fitting the plot like a glove – which fascinated me. It has a flavour of Lovecraft, with its dark subject matter, and its style of writing. Thankfully no racism here though. An excellent piece of fiction.
  • “Sister” by Seán Padraic Birnie: In contrast to the preceding story, this is a raw, personal and emotional form of horror. After his sister’s death, the main character builds an effigy of her, a monument into which he pours all his grief. The writing has a hollowness to it which will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever suffered loss, and the beautifully crafted ending is both moving and decidedly chilling.
  • “The Perils of War According to the Common People of Hansom Stret” by Steven Pirie: I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this. I liked it, I’m fairly certain about that, but it’s a rather strange little story. Set during the blitz, it’s unclear whether “…Perils…” is alternate history or not. It shows a bombing — or possibly German invasion — of an English street from the perspective of the various peoples present, with all the while one character looming like a spectre of death made incarnate through the War itself.
  • “The Things That Get You Through” by Steven J. Dines: another odd one. I spent most of the time reading it thinking that it was much too long, and that whilst the writing was sound it was dragging like an insufficiently supported canvas. However, once I reached the end I changed my mind completely. This is another grief-themed piece, using the five stages of grief as a mechanism to drive the story. The slow pace drives perfectly the process-like nature of bereavement, and sets up for a fantastic final conclusion. A really excellent story and piece of horror.
  • “Skein and Bone” by V. H. Leslie: the final novelette, this one following two sisters on a holiday to France. On their way from Paris to La Rochelle, they stop off at an apparently abandoned chateau, and – well, you can see where it’s headed. This is a tour de force of horror ideas, exploring sibling relationships, vanity and intrusion/isolation/otherness. You know the ending is coming, but it’s the manner in which it does that provides the fascination, and a thoughtfully sinister pay-off at the end.
  • “Two Houses Away” by James Cooper: Cooper is undoubtledly a very gifted writer, with a lot of ability, but I’m afraid to say that I often feel like his stories go over my head. And that’s true of “Two Houses Away” in many ways. Another grief-themed story – a theme for the issue, perhaps? — the central idea around which the plot revolves is the mysterious reappearance of an old man’s deceased wife. It’s well written, and raises a powerful atmosphere of anticipation, but I’m afraid the climax just seemed too ambiguous and open-ended for me.

So there we have it. If I’m honest, I more frequently find stories which don’t quite resonate with me in Black Staticthan in Interzone, and I think that’s because of the former’s tendency towards the experimental cutting edge of its genre. Horror is a very personal genre, and what doesn’t do it for me might well have the opposite impact on someone else. And, actually, I can’t recall reading a single bad story I’ve read on Black Static’s pages.

The magazine also features book and DVD reviews (which, again, I won’t review here). Additionally, it has two non-fiction columns, from screenwriter Stephen Volk and novelist Christopher Fowler. Volk’s column this issue is the concluding section of a two-part retrospective on his brilliant TV mockumentary Ghostwatch. And Fowler gives a frankly excellent summation of the career of a professional writer, particularly his thoughts on compromising your brand. Well worth a read, both of them.

If anyone reading this thinks that horror is just ghosts, gore and serial killers, I urge them to get hold of a copy of Black Static. I’m a firm believe that you can tell a lot about a society from the things that terrify it, and the stories which are on the front lines of the genre at the moment are a psychological, introspective crop focusing on grief, lost and exclusion. Make of that whatever you like, except that it does lead to some brilliant storytelling.

Star Trek Into Darkness – Theories and Speculation [Contains potential spoilers]


star trek into darknessSo today saw the release of the first trailer for the next film in the rebooted Star Trek franchise, entitled Star Trek Into Darkness. Speculation about it has been rife for months, but has hit a particular fever pitch with it. Primarily this has been around what character Benedict Cumberbatch (Yes, he’s in this, as well as every other film of the moment) will be playing.

And, after watching the trailer on my lunch break (as a true geek should) I’m ready to make my prediction, and to stake it on line for prosperity to be either vindicated or humiliated in time to come.

I think that Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing Gary Mitchell.

Gary Mitchell, for the uninitiated, featured in the first proper episode of Star Trek: The Original Series as Captain Kirk’s best friend from the academy. I won’t give specifics, but it doesn’t end well for Mitchell. Mitchell is a name which has been mentioned a fair bit amongst fans, along with Khan Noonien Singh (of Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan fame). There are a few reasons why I think Mitchell is more likely than Khan:

  1. Khan would be just too predictable. When Abrams and co rebooted the franchise, they made a special point of turning the concept upside down. To then, for their second film, to follow the track of the orginal second film… It just feels too easy.
  2. There isn’t time for Khan. Khan’s appearance in The Wrath of Khan was actually a follow-up to an episode of the TV series. Cumberbatch specifically says in the trailer “I have returned, to have my vengeance.” There doesn’t seem — to me — to be enough time in a film to do the two storylines justice. He could be taking revenge on humanity, rather than Kirk, but still…
  3. Cumberbatch is wearing a Starfleet uniform. Mitchell, in the original story, was at the Academy with Kirk. Of course, Kirk attended the academy later in the new timeline, so its likely that he wouldn’t have been at the Academy with Mitchell. Hence, Mitchell’s backstory could be told during the film itself.star trek into darkness trailer benedict cumberbatch
  4. Benedict Cumberbatch is white. This might seem a silly point, but the character of Khan was not a white character. At the first suggestion that it might be Khan, there were rumblings about why Abrams would cast a white actor in a (rare) minority ethnic role. I think there’s potential for it to seriously piss off people in the “how dare you mess with the cannon?” camp as well as non-white audiences.

So there we have it. I’m by no means certain that it will be Mitchell rather than Khan. And, indeed, it could potentially be neither and we’re just all being led down the garden path. But I’m leaning ever closer to Gary Mitchell.

Of course, the most exciting image of the film wasn’t Cumberbatch flipping around like a slimline Bane, but rather this:

star trek into darkness trailer handsThis frame (only appearing in the longer Japanese version of the trailer) will be familiar to anyone who remembers The Wrath of Khan. It is, of course, Spock’s death scene. It’s a bit of a hint towards Cumberbatch being Khan, but again it runs up against the first point I made. I don’t believe that JJ Abrams would be content to rehash the originals.

Of course, if I was writing the film (which, as you may have noticed, I’m not), I’d reverse it. I’d have it as Kirk’s death scene, rather than Spock’s, especially as the first film moved towards a more emotional Spock. I’m not sure that’s what will happen, especially since you don’t kill off your lead character so early into your new franchise (well, unless he’s played by Sean Bean).

But still, the net result of this trailer is that I’m now very much looking forward to 17th May 2013.

Call on Cameron to implement Leveson


Leveson reportSo the Leveson Report was released (all 2,000 pages of it), and as I predicted the press has gone feral. Even more so. I’m not going to bother listing all the ways that it has been claimed that Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals will result in the apocalypse, but you’ve all seen them.

The thing which strikes me is just how unrepentant the printed press, as an industry, are. We have just had a lengthy — and expensive — investigation into how newspapers broke the law and trampled over the privacy of celebrities and victims of tragedy alike, and then abused their considerable power over politicians and the police. All of this whilst an entirely voluntary system of self-regulation was in place and powerless to do anything.

A statute backing a new regulator does not amount to politicians controlling the press. What it does do is give the regulator power to investigate press wrongdoing, and to hand out punishments which the papers have no choice but to accept. It means that newspaper editors and owners cannot ignore judgements.

Now you see why those papers are feeling nervous. You can also see why their arguments against Leveson are nonsense.

A free press is undeniably essential to a free and fair society. Nobody is claiming otherwise. But that press cannot be allowed unfettered power with such potential to be abused.

Which isn’t to say that Leveson’s Report is perfect. Guido Fawkes is right (and that one is going to haunt me for a long time) that it  focuses far too little on (ignores) social media and the internet. But as his proposals stand, they represent an absolute minimum of what has to happen to ensure that we aren’t facing another scandal and inquiry in ten to twenty years time, and to ensure that we retain a free, responsible and trusted press.

To that end, I’ve started an e-petition. I gather it’s the done thing in such circumstances. The petition I’ve laid out, on the government e-petition website, is as follows:

We call upon the government to implement, in full, the recommendations of Leveson LJ following his inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.

Over the last 70 years the printed press has repeatedly and consistently demonstrated that it is incapable of adequately regulating itself. A free press is a just and essential requirement of a democratic society, but the power that the press wields cannot be allowed to be abused to serve the powerful and privileged.

The broadcast media has long been governed by the statute-backed Ofcom, without its independence and effectiveness being compromised. We regret* the suggestion that such a regulator would weaken the printed press.

*(Yes, that is a typo. I meant “reject” not “regret”.)

This isn’t a petition backed by any group, by Hacked Off or any political party. This is just me. Gobsmacked at the continued arrogance of some elements of the press. No other industry is trusted to police itself, and the press has proved that it cannot adequately do that. As Leveson correctly said, the press has been “marking its own homework”.

If you agree, please sign the petition. It’s unlikely to reach the 100,000 signature threshold any time soon, but it’s a show of feeling. And its a way of showing the government that the press must be held to account.

The Work Programme – a first-hand view


job centre queue

News last week that the government’s Work Programme only managed to get 3.5% of participants into long-term work (six months or longer) caused a lot of shock and outrage that, surprise surprise, the government wasn’t succeeding in getting anything like necessary numbers back into work. There have also, since, been a number of “I called it” articles.

Well, I didn’t call it. But I could have done.

See, I recently found a job. But prior to that I had been searching for work for some fourteen bleak, despondent months. And during that time I was put on the Work Programme. The Department for Work and Pensions describes the Work Programme as such:

The Work Programme provides tailored support for claimants who need more help to undertake active and effective jobseeking. Participants receive support to overcome barriers that prevent them from finding and staying in work. It is delivered by DWP contracted service providers who have been given complete autonomy to decide how best to support participants while meeting their minimum service delivery standards.

Now, there are a few interesting elements to that. The “active and effective jobseeking” part for example. Granted, for some people such help is invaluable. Many entering the job market won’t have much idea how to go about finding a job. But really, that is a very minor part of the problem. The main “barrier” to be “overcome” in “finding and staying in work” is a sheer shortage of jobs available.

I won’t say the name of the company I was assigned to, but there really wasn’t much they did for me. Aside from being dragged into Reading once a fortnight for both I and them to shrug at each other about what to do going forward, very little was achieved. By the end I was applying for 40 to 50 jobs a month. The fact I wasn’t getting them was almost exclusively down to the number of others applying, and the fact that I slipped into an infuriating gap where I was either too qualified or lacking sufficient experience for most jobs on offer.

And as for the “minimum service delivery standards“, well apparently the target set by the government was 5.5%. Which doesn’t seem groundbreaking to me, so how was it missed so badly?

Honestly, because whilst throwing money at private companies might be Conservative ideology, it’s neither an adequate or effective response to high long-term unemployment. Participant companies have taken thousands of pounds for the easy cases, the low-hanging fruit — the people like me who are desperate to get into work, qualified, and who will find employment given enough time. Those who have genuine barriers to finding employment are left exactly where they were.

Ed Miliband suggested on Wednesday:

…someone is more likely to get a job if they are not on that programme…

And from my experiences, it certainly seems like a possibility. I definitely don’t think my getting a job had anything to do with the Work Programme. And I wonder if the the 3.5% who also found employment feel the same?