Stuff I liked in January

In the spirit of Cheathco’s ‘Things I have faved‘, here’s a bunch of stuff I pulled a hard fave on in January.

Most of ‘The Seven deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’

A qualified fave for this book, recommended by Mark and Ella. I was caught up in the plot – a looping muder-mystery – right up until the moment where one character explains why it’s all happening.

I didn’t really need or want any of that. I guess that’s the biggest way my tastes have evolved over the last few years: I just want to get caught up in plots, not whys. Still, a great start to booking in 2019.

Ann spotting a kestrel in Letheringham

A few of us holed up in a beautiful holiday cottage over new year, an old mill, surrounded by farms. Ann took herself off for a walk in the copse on New Years day while I sat reading by the stream, and as she came back through she startled a kestrel. It took off and gave us both a really graceful display.

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Russell’s wrapped up his podcast. I loved it. I feel smarter and more literate for having listed to it, a bit like LRB for the ears. Sad to see it go.

Into the Spider-verse

Vibrant and delightful, Into the Spider-verse got me all caught up and emotional. Connected a little too sharply with the gone-to-seed Peter Parker dragged into Miles Morales’s world. I’m looking forward to giving this another watch, hopefully at the Prince Charles when it hits its second run.

Ghosts of the Tsunami

A book recommendation from Robin Sloan’s newsletter. About the survivors 2011 tsunami, I founds passages in this absolutely devastating.

I usually read on commutes, and pretty much each journey to and from work I had to put this down and blink through tears.

Juno

I work at Juno, a start-up that offers legal services. I’m working on a real thing, with actual users, doing a mixture of writing, product-development and typing out code. I bloody love it.

Since October I’ve been working closely with Charlie, a lawyer at Juno, to rebuild our system for handling house purchases. It’s been hard work, made a damn sight easier because I’m surrounded by a supportive team, who have a really good attitude.

In the last few years I made career decisions that put me at arms length from working digital products. I discovered I find that deeply unsatisfying. Depressing, if I’m honest. Course-correcting last spring was draining and difficult, but the reward in the last couple of months has been amazing.

The Favourite

I felt unsettled throughout The Favourite. Very good. Would Lanthimos again.

Fältinspelningar

Live album by 1900. I keep going back to this, and Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia by Hannah Peel which I found a little before Christmas. Music for typing and journeys.

Sydenham Hill

Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999

Ann and I fell hard for James Acaster after Katie recommended Repertoire, and we watched his stretch on Taskmaster. His new set is more explicitly personal, and less weird. We loved it.

Circe

Madeline Miller’s retelling of a bunch of ancient Greek myths from the perspective of goddess Circe. I dropped a few other books to burn through this, and took myself on a couple of reading dates towards the end so I could soak in it. Beautiful stuff.

TBH, I think part of why is because it dovetails nicely with the bits of trashy Warhammer fiction I like so much. Special shoutout there to The Undying King, in which the deathless servants of the god of the dead come to terms with the facts he’s gone mad.

Fallow Cross

Went for a one-day design workshop at Fallow Cross with a couple of designers at Punchdrunk. As with all group teaching stuff, I squirmed and bristled at lots of it – I don’t work well in those environments – but the teachers and space were terrific. A few things/stories/project idea kicking about as a result, which was the real reason for going.

The Mae Martin Experiment

Terrific night watching Mae Martin do her best to handle a bucket of questions from a trashed Soho Theatre crowd. Nicely handled, very funny, definitely up for watching her again down the line.

Right, let’s see how February goes.

A lonely isle

A lonely isle is an audio project I’ve been working on with Ann and Richard. It’s a collection of anecdotes about Rockall, a remote island in the Atlantic ocean.

A lonely isle cover

You can check it out on alonelyisle.co.uk, Apple podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn and Soundcloud. The soundtrack is up for pre-order, and it’s bloomin’ lovely.

This is my version of how it came together…

Dead reckoning

This project, which I’ve always thought of as ‘Rockall‘, has been in the works for quite a while. I first read James Fisher’s book about the island in 2012, while I was looking up names for a new company (this was the era of BERG codenames and I liked the idea of naming a company after a sector in the shipping forecast).

Rockall is a tiny, tiny island in the north Atlantic. Fisher’s book is a weirdly cold account of its human and natural history, full of drama but somehow still at arms length. I was pretty taken by it. I tried to spin it into a comic anthology, a couple of video blogs, then costed out a trip to get there and film it… but something never quite gelled. I was going about it the wrong way.

In his book, Fisher talks about how the weather on one trip forced his companions to get to the island by dead reckoning. In the end that’s kind of what happened with A lonely isle. In each of these early attempts I had a very definite idea about what it should be, but I didn’t have the skill to actually make it happen. I had to surrender to the process a bit more, and just let go at each step, waiting to see where it took the idea.

Drift

Rockall was one of the ideas floating around when Ann put out a call inviting people to record with her. After we’d recorded Markov Blake I went back to Fisher’s book to trawl for anecdotes – little fragments of the island’s history we could pull together into some kind of shape.

I tried a few ways of framing these, but in the end it we kept it simple. We held onto the anecdotes, stripped out a lot of the framing material, and wound up with a script that let the islet’s visitors speak for themselves.

At the time that felt tricky. I wasn’t sure that I was actually writing anything. But in retrospect it makes sense, especially alongside projects like The Bureau of Small Observation, A barrow by a beacon and even Her Wilderness and Waves back in 2009 (a zine/album review designed to be read in a random order).

I like projects made up of fragments and facets.

Meanwhile, I’d been chatting to Richard about doing something with music for it. I think this is around the time he and Tom Armitage were working on Songs for Spoken Words, throwing open the possibility of what the project might morph into. I’d had different versions of a Spotify playlist kicking around for a while, so I shared one with him, sent the script his way, and let him take it from there.

By the time Ann and I recorded the script with Matt Addis, Richard had already thumbnailed some beautiful fragments for us. Between recording soundtracks, albums, and sessions at Abbey Road, Richard gave these little pieces room to breathe.

The six tracks tell the stories in a way that the words can’t. You can hear the clouds surrounding Fisher’s plane in We waved, they waved, feel the ground coming up in 18th September. It’s great.

The landing

Rockall’s been kicking around in one form or another for about six years now. I’m proud it’s out and, frankly, relieved. Slow projects are tough (Russell’s got a nice ‘bit’ about that in the talk he did about making a contraption for Howies).

Momentum and motivation comes in fits and starts. That’s a world away from my professional life. It’s nice to let this little bit of my brain spin down and let the project go.

Anyway, go and have a listen. If you like it, let Richard, Ann or Matt know. They did all the hard work.

Anecdotes and arguments

I did some teaching last week. It was brilliant. I met two groups of thoughtful, critical students at the Royal College of Art and The Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

In both cases I’d been invited to talk about storytelling. To give students a lens for thinking about how they present what they do.

Instead, mostly, I talked about collecting anecdotes*. Blog posts, photos, films… the kind of thing Giles has written about before. With a large enough pool of anecdotes about how and why you’ve made something, you can be selective about how you share work with the world.

In the lectures, I called that ‘building an argument’. I always picture it like using anecdotes as Lego bricks. Clicking things together to make something that stands up.

I told them to steer clear of “narratives” and “storytelling”, because I don’t really trust those ideas.

I get why people who do things for the internet talk a lot about narrative. Mostly, people who work on the internet spend lots of their time typing. Making that typing part of some epic mythology introduces some romance and drama into it.

Arguments are flexible, changeable things. I think being flexible and changeable is much more valuable than being tied to a story that you can’t critically examine.

There are no monsters. Typing isn’t battles. There is work. The best way to communicate work is show it. All the little pieces, and all the people involved in making it.

Anyway, it was a great time. I didn’t take any photos of the classes, because I thought that’d be rude. Instead, here’s a picture of some stairs the stair-making class at AHO built. It’s probably a metaphor or something.

*I also talked a lot about Rupaul’s Drag Race, which is an amazing example of TV built on anecdotes and snippets from a billion places. Like Ella says “Professional blogs are a lot like reality TV”

Moments in time

I really enjoy watching a message coalesce in an organisation. I didn’t know that until recently. I like seeing a thing come together that defines the company’s perspective for a while.

The Transformation programme was my first at GDS. Government as a Platform was a good one after that. Sprint 16 was fun for that too. The latest is Sarah’s talk for O’Reilly (yep, like all good talks there’s a version done as a blog post).

It’s the moment the threads of what IF is and how IF talks come together.

It’s also (probably) the sign that things are about to jiggle a bit.

At GDS, these moments would be the end of a journey. We’d have written it after playing with different versions of the messages in it for a few months. The talk would spell out the mission for the next year or so, and form the basis of the script for the senior team.

But for my lot (‘Creative’, basically) it’d also mark the moment we’d move on to different problems. We could, broadly, trust that people would stick to the script in the wild, quietly thinking about the next thing in the background.

I gave a version of Sarah’s talk at RightsCon earlier. It went well! I’ll do a version of it at the next event, and the event after that. And I’ll help the rest of the team use something like it at the events they attend over the next few months. Meanwhile, in the background, it’s time to think about the next one.