Monday, 30 April 2018

WatchSeeLookView With Words - Vol 02

I’m trying to make a bit of a conscious effort to read more. I absolutely love reading  but, with a recently reduced commuting time, I have to make sure I put aside time to read a bit more. Here are some of the morsels of wordy goodness that have passed in front of my bespectacled peepers of late.

The City And The City
By China Mieville
I’ve read a few China Mieville in the past and I’ve enjoyed them. His style has been described as The New Weird, largely as it blends genres such as horror, fantasy, sci fi into something strange and hard to pin down. This book is no exception. Ostensibly a murder mystery/political thriller, it’s the setting that makes this one strange and little tricky to get your head round at first. It’s set in the twin cities of Besel and Ul Qoma - two cities that occupy the same geographical space, meaning that the citizens of each city are trained from birth to “unsee” the other one. This isn't normally a genre that would draw me in but the unique set up really drew me in. (It’s recently been turned into a series but I haven’t watched that yet.)

Discovering Scarfolk
By Richard Littler
Probably in a slightly similar vein to Welcome To Night Vale but with a slightly more nightmarish fell, this book is largely an excuse to parody 1970s public information and literature in a twisted and off-kilter way. It’s a fun and quick read with an extremely pleasing ‘70s design aesthetic. There’s also a blog which you read here.

Norse Mythology
By Neil Gaiman
Since reading The Sandman way back in the day, I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing. He’s clearly fascinated by myths and legends, by where stories come from, so it makes sense that he would provide his own spin on classic tales from mythology. It’s a really engaging read - he does a great job of making quite convoluted and occasionally contradictory stories (based on the remaining records we have of these tales) into something compelling and cohesive. I went through this in just over a day and thoroughly enjoyed it.

That’ll do for now. I need to read some more first before I can say anything about it. It’s a traditional way to review things, sure, but I’m going to stick with it.

Friday, 27 April 2018

In Conversation With Peter Sellers - Part The Last

Dream or no dream, I was starting to get a bit offended at this point. Lifestyle advice from a cat? A creature that spends up to eighteen hours a day asleep and uses a tongue to wash down its unmentionables? Who was he to give me lifestyle advice?

“How old are you, Henry?” asked the feline in question.

“Thirty six. Thirty seven in a couple of months.”

“Right. And you think it’s a good idea to have curry night on a Tuesday, pizza night on a Thursday, Chinese night on a Friday - following post work beers - and then drink yourself silly on a Saturday, do you?”

Cats lack the facility to arch an eyebrow but I swear that, if it was possible, Peter Sellers’ eyebrow would have arched to its fullest extent. This really was the limit for me. I felt I’d been coping remarkably well with the sudden revelation that my cat was blessed with the capacity for human speech. I'd go so far as to say that I’d been doing a frankly rather splendid job of taking it all in my stride in a stoically English sort of a way. I was prepared to draw the line, however, at having my culinary choices criticised by an animal that was intimately familiar with the taste of its own testicles (or at least the general area where they used to be) and I said as much to Mr Sellers.

“Look, I’m a cat. I’m fond of you in my own sort of way but my main reason for this isn’t a sense of care and duty towards to you. No, if you want that from a pet, get one of those bloody dog things. Let’s just say that I’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle here - it’s by far and away my most favourite of the three to four places that I like to think of as home - and I would hate to see anything happen to that. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be able to move in fine to one of the other places - probably the one where they call me Fluffy and think I’m a girl - but I’d much rather carry on living here and not come home to find you face down in a chicken pasanda after a curry-and-beer-induced heart attack. That’s all really.”

He considered me for a moment before idly licking a paw and commencing to wash his face.

A moment of clarity comes in many shapes and forms. For some, it’s one too many mornings waking up in the wrong place with the wrong person covered in your own sick. For others, it’s the shocking sight of blood where no blood should be. For me, it was a furry quadruped who didn’t much fancy being called Fluffy on a permanent basis.

I still like a curry night but it’s a less frequent treat rather than a regularly scheduled meal. Drinking myself silly certainly hasn’t gone away but it’s been tempered by a bit more activity and even, dare I say it, exercise. The weekly tin of tuna is still part of the schedule (well, the discussion wasn’t about his lifestyle after all).

Does he still speak to me? Some things are just better left between a man and his cat.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

In Conversation With Peter Sellers - Part The Second

Once in the sitting room, Peter hopped up onto the sofa and settled into his customary upright seated position, looking up at me expectantly. I shuffled my way into the room and stood there, continuing to go with staring in the absence of any other prompting.

“Come and sit down, Henry, you make the place look untidy.”

As I did so, I began to smile. At this point, you see, I had figured something out. I was asleep. Had to be. Or maybe in some sort of coma but that was a less appealing option to contemplate so I was going with dream for the time being.

“You can wipe that dopey smile off your face as well, you’re not dreaming,” said Peter Sellers, flicking an ear in an irritable fashion.

“Could you… could you always talk?” I asked.

“Oh yeah. Just never felt the need beforehand. General meowing and pawing always got the point across well enough so why rock the boat, you know?”

“Can all cats talk?”

“Well,” said Peter Sellers, “I haven’t met every cat in the world so I can’t speak with authority for my species as a whole. Certainly all the ones I’ve met round here can, anyway.”

If this was a dream, it was certainly all being pretty rational so far. Well, with the exception of the whole talking cat scenario.

“Why don’t you just talk to us all the time then?”

Peter Sellers swished his tail in a telltale sign of irritation.

“How long have we been - to put it in terms you’ll understand - “owner” and “pet”?”

I shrugged. “Oh, about four years now.”

“Right. And what’s the main thing you’ve learned about cats in that time?”

I thought for a moment.

“That the whole thing about you being graceful creatures and always landing on your feet is definitely a lie?”

Peter Sellers sighed with an accompanying tail swish. “No. Well, yes, that is true but that’s not the main thing.”

“It’s not?”

“No, it’s not. The main thing that you have learnt about the way cats behave is economy of expenditure.”

“I see.”

He stared at me in silence for a moment before deciding that I really didn’t see and he had better carry on.

“Cats don’t do anything that they absolutely don’t need to. I had no real need to speak to you so I didn’t speak. That’s how cats roll.”

I must admit, that certainly seemed to make sense. Cats have elevated the whole concept of laziness into a form of performance art. This did leave only one question.

“So why break it now? Why speak to me?”

Peter Sellers hunkered down and languidly stretched out a paw towards me.

“It’s like I said - you’re not getting any younger and I’m worried about your lifestyle.”

To Be Concluded

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In Conversation With Peter Sellers - Part The First

It was a Tuesday when Peter Sellers first started talking to me. Not the comedian and actor Peter Sellers, of course. That would be pretty unlikely for two reasons: one, I never knew him; and two, he’s been dead for quite some time. No, the Peter Sellers I’m talking about is a four year old tabby cat.

I’d better make something very clear here. I’m not being cutesy in a nauseating cat owner sort of a way when I say that he started talking to me. I don’t mean that he made mewing sounds that could be construed as human speech (after a bit of aural squinting). No, no, not at all. He spoke. To me. Using actual words. 

I realise at this point that you may feel that I’m pushing your willing suspension of disbelief somewhat. I have, after all, just given a hefty disclaimer about the ludicrousness of holding a conversation with an extremely dead comic actor only to follow it up with a claim about a chatty pet but, quite frankly (and I mean no disrespect), I couldn’t give a stuff what you think. You’re not the one with a talking cat.

It was a Tuesday when it all started. I can say this with some degree of certainty as Peter Sellers and I are creatures of habit. Tuesday is curry night (for me) and tin of tuna night (for him). We live alone (seems like an oxymoron, I know, but saying “I live alone” seems dismissive of Peter Sellers and saying “we live together” implies an altogether unwholesome aspect to our relationship) and the routine of the weeknight gives a comfort and familiarity after the daily grind of the working day.

As it was curry night, I placed my usual order with the Regal Kerala. I was greeted with the traditional “Is that Mr Henry?” when I reached the dhania green chicken part of the order which indicates two things - 1) I’m possibly the only person who actually orders that dish; and 2) I order from the Regal Kerala far too frequently if they recognise me by my order. Curry ordered, the ceremonial opening of the tuna tin for His Nibs then took place (it’s the tea towel draped over the arm that makes it really rather fancy). As an additional treat while we await the arrival of curried comestibles, Peter is allowed to lick the lid clean of any remaining fishy residue.

“I do hope that sir enjoyed his apperitif,” I said, disposing of the lid once it had been scrubbed clean of any remaining tuna at a molecular level.

“You know, you shouldn’t order so many dishes for one person,” said Peter, head tilted in that slightly quizzical catlike way he has as he looked up at me.

I froze. My brain seemed to lock in place. I could clearly a picture a spinning beachball of death whirring away somewhere inside as processes were attempted resulting only in failure. It wasn’t that usual cat owner thing of hearing a meow-like sound which resembled a word (usually “hello”) and passing it off as human speech. This was a fully formed sentence. Also, I’d been looking at him the whole time and his mouth had moved as he spoke. Admittedly, it hadn’t quite seemed to move fully in time with the words (much like a cheap 1960s family film) but there was no mistaking that the small tabby cat had definitely gone with something other than the standard cat-style noises. I herded my dangerously wobbling mental faculties into a corner and cobbled together a response.

“What? Er… what?” OK, I didn’t say it was an erudite response. Look, you try and come up with a pithy bon mot when your previously mute pet has suddenly decided to break silence.

“You’re not getting any younger, man. You could stand to lose a few pounds.” Peter idly licked a paw and ran it over his head a few times before returning his gaze to me.

“You can talk!”

“Yeah, and so far, mate, I’m carrying this conversation. Doing the lion’s share, as it were.” 

I stared at him.

“That’s cat humour, by the way. Feel free to laugh.”

It seemed at this point that two “whats” and an “er” were all that I stored up in the conversational arsenal so I decided to stick with just staring. Peter sighed and moved out of the kitchen.

“Come over here and sit down,” he called as he slinked his way into the sitting room. Thankful for some concrete instructions to work upon, my brain happily complied.

To Be Continued

Monday, 23 April 2018

WatchSeeLookView With Words - Vol 01

I don’t just watch film-y and TV-y stuff; sometimes I use my eyes to take in words put together in order in the form of a book. Here are some word-based entertainment units that I have taken in via my brain.

Welcome To Night Vale / It Devours
By Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Definitely a product of modern times, these two novels are spin offs from a podcast which details the fictional goings on in the bizarre and twisted town of Night Vale, a place which has its own bizarre rules and regulations which make perfect sense to its strange collection of inhabitants. I like the concept of the podcast but find it a bit of a struggle to listen to as it’s a single narrator (presented as a weekly news report about the town) and I find his voice quite difficult to focus in on. Translated to the page, it’s a more satisfying experience for me - their working is very suited to being either aural or prose as, life a twisted sci fi version of The Goon Show, it’s about the wordplay fo surreal concepts sometimes that couldn’t be realised on the screen. I imagine they’re probably in talks for a screen version of this in some way, shape or form but I think that actually pinning it down visually would rob it of some of its appeal. If you like your fiction strange and surreal with a bit of humour to it, give these a try.

James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes
By James Acaster

Being a bit of a comedy junkie, I like a good comedy book and they generally fall into two camps - the spin-off book of new material (a la The Goodies, Monty Python, League Of Gentlemen, Mighty Boosh) or the largely autobiographical. James Acaster's falls into the latter camp. I haven’t really seen mushy of his stand-up; just the odd appearance on panel shows so was going into this one a little bit cold. I really enjoyed it - he has a very engaging way of spinning the occasionally mundane into something more eventful. On some occasions the material feels a little bit thin but it was carried through by his engaging way of writing. A good, quick comedy read.

A Closed And Common Orbit
By Becky Chambers

Sci fi is, of course, the other main source of entertainment for me, This is the second book (so far) in the Wayfarers series and to say too much about this one would spoil a fairly major moment in the first book. I hesitate to use the term “plot point” as there’s a fairly loose structure to these books - it’s more a series of incidents that happen to these characters as they go about their lives. That’s by no means a criticism - both this and the first book are immensely readable slice of life overviews of a set of characters. Chambers has also crafted a compelling universe to situate them within and I’m looking forward to the third one which is out later this year.

So there you go. Some word-based entertainment for you where you have to make up the pictures to go along with using your mind. Give ‘em a go if that’s your sort of thing.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Actual Physical Non-iPad Based Games

So I’ve talked a bit about the game books and board games of the past (well, past-ish, most of them are still around in some way, shape or form today). That’s not the end of it, though, oh no. There’s quite the board and card game boom going on these days with far more choice available than there was when I were a nipper. You can even go to specific board game cafes now for your gaming fix (The Library Pot in Richmond is a favourite). But where to start with so much choice available? Well, here are some that have become firm favourites with Stepson The Youngest over the last couple of years.

Exploding Kittens
Type - Card game
In a nutshell:- Russian roulette with cards
This is a good introductory game, especially for younger kids. The aim of the game is very simple - don;t get the Exploding Kitten card. All of the other cards help you avoid, defuse or pass on that card to other players. Good fun and can be relatively quick although you probably want to mix it up after a while.

Type - Card game / board game
In a nutshell:- Constantly shifting rules and goals
Developed by former NASA scientists(!), this is a game that starts off simply and becomes more complex as you play. The initial rules are simply pick a card and play a card. As you play, you put down more rules, goals to help you win, keepers to help you meet goals or just play actions to mix things up. The beauty of this one is you may be about to win when suddenly the goal of the game is changed and you;re back to square one. Can be surprisingly quick or go on for ages. Also comes in themed variations (Monty Python, Doctor Who, Batman) and a board game variety with moving board pieces.

Ticket To Ride
Type - Board games
In a nutshell:- Compete to claim train routes across a map
A good fun and simple to grasp on again - you have a set of cards detailing train routes that have to build with other players possibly competing to claim parts of the same route first. At the end of the game, any routes you have claimed give you points with any unclaimed costing you points. Good train-y fun.

Type - Card game
In a nutshell:- Make your family as miserable as possible before killing them off
A nicely macabre and twisted one. You each have a family of characters which you play cards on to in order to make them miserable before killing them while simultaneously trying to cheer up your opponents family. This one encourages an element of storytelling as you describe the unfortunate events befalling your woeful family. It's a really nice design as well as the gloomy action cards you play on top of the family members are see-through. Good, miserable fun for the family.

Those are just a few of the many and varied games out there these days. See, kids don’t just sit on their iPads all day every (just most days). Sometimes they do get up and interact with other human beings. Well, until they get bored and go back on the iPad that is.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Dice And Boards And Cards

I had somewhat of a misspent youth. No, no, it wasn’t sex and drugs and rock’n’roll and that is precisely why you could label it as misspent. I didn’t spend it doing any of those things (although there was a fair amount of drinking - I am English, after all). No, my teenage years were spent in the grip of a far more insidious vice.

My name is Nick and I was into fantasy board games.

For those of you who either know me or have taken the time to trawl through previous witterings on here, this should come as no surprise (and if it does come as a surprise then you clearly haven’t been paying attention). I know what you’re thinking*, you’re thinking, “Ah, one of those nerdy Dungeons & Dragons types, eh?” and you’d be partly right. We certainly tried Dungeons & Dragons (which I’m betting has had something of  resurgence recently thanks to Stranger Things) but it was too loose and freeform a structure for us and none of us had the requisite improvisational skills necessary to really get into a game.

No, the preference amongst my group of fellow nerdy types was for something with a board, pieces, cards and dice, with a definitive beginning and ending and a winner (depending on how the long the game was and whether we got bored by the end). Favourites included:-

In which:- You play a fantasy character attempting to navigate the levels of the board to the centre.
Why it was good:- This one could go on for days when you added in the various expansion boards that could be played across as well. It was very easy to get lost in it.

Blood Bowl
In which:- You play American football with teams comprised of orcs, dwarves, elves, skeletons, trolls, etc. Vicious play encouraged.
Why it was good:- To be honest, we actually played the game very infrequently. The majority of our time was spent rolling and creating teams and swapping players. That was the fun bit.

Space Hulk
In which:- One of you plays the plucky space marines and one the dastardly aliens.
Why it was good:- It’s basically Aliens The Board Game and who wouldn't want to play that? Exactly.

In which:- You explore a dungeon killing monsters and getting treasure.
Why it was good:- Well, this guy sums it up pretty well...

There were quite a few around back in the early days of the 90s but nothing like the sheer number of board and card games available today - more on that another time...

* I don’t, obviously, but I still haven’t grown out of this particular conversation-style literary tick so just stick with it.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

To Explore Further, Go To 73 - You Are Now Dead; Return To 1

The times they are a-changing. I can remember a time when phones were things only attached to a wall by wires (and you had to wait if someone else was using it) and, if you wanted to see a programme and weren’t in, you had to find a blank tape and programme the video recorder to tape it (there’s still part of me that wants to use the word “taping” in reference to capturing a programme to view later). We did have computers, though. Admittedly our first computer had a cassette drive and you had to leave it loading for a while before turning the tape over to finish the process but it was a computer with games and everything.

However, given the slow nature of the computers back in those days, we had to find another way to get some game-style action. In the 80s, books came to the rescue. There were two main types of books that were also a game. The first was for the younger reader and was your entry level into the world of booky gaming…

Choose Your Own Adventure
It was a brilliantly simple concept and an early example of interactive storytelling. You read a bit of the book, it gives you a choice where to go next and then you go and read the chosen numbered paragraph. Simplicity itself. Of course, the frustration lay in picking the wrong outcome and ending up dead meaning you had to go back and start all over again (or just skim through until you found the winning solution and cheat. Which I never did).

They had cracking titles like Prisoner Of The Ant People, The Third Planet From Altair and War With The Evil Power Master. Naturally, they inspired imitations - we also had a couple of the Time Machine books; unsurprisingly, my favourite was Search For Dinosaurs which had a picture of T Rex in the front.


Of course, after a while, that started to become a bit stale, especially as I got a bit older. So a couple of smart chaps realised that there was a gap in the market. That there were nerdy types who liked the idea of a Dungeons & Dragons-style but didn’t necessarily want to play in a group and they created…

Fighting Fantasy
Created by Steve Livingstone and Ian Jackson and much like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, you pick your way through the book but, this time around, you need pen, paper and dice to combat the various monsters you’ll encounter along the way. Basically, a roleplaying adventure that you can play on your own. They also were fond of a good title like Deathtrap Dungeon, Seas of Blood or Appointment With F.E.A.R.


They’ve been reprinted on and off over the years with the occasional new title - they’re making a bit more of a substantial comeback at the moment thanks to a new book written by Charlie Higson (of Fast Show and Young James Bond novel fame).

Of course, these books were a gateway drug. An initial taste to hook you in and draw you into a deeper and darker realm. More on that later...