Paying Attention to Birds

I’ve never taken much notice of birds. I’ve known they’re a thing, and appreciated their music, but apart from the ones that nested in the guttering around my bedroom and would wake me up with their chirping and rustling every AM in the spring, I’ve not interacted with them much.

Readers of this blog will note that I’ve been doing my best to be more active and to be more mindful. I thought a good way to do that might be to take more notice of birds and learn a few of their names and faces. It occurred to me partly because my girlfriend has a birdhouse in her garden that we can see from the living room windows, and this spring, like every spring, a pair of great tits have made their nest there. I’ve always known that we had great tits nesting in the garden, because my girlfriend tells me and points them out every year, but this has been the first spring where I’ve really had a good look and ponder, really thought about what a great tit is, what colours it is, what its movements look like. I am thinking of it a bit like a mindfulness exercise. I’ve read before about paying attention to people’s shoes, or reading license plates, as a way of getting out of your own head and managing your anxiety. I thought, well, why don’t I try pay attention to the birds around me? Other people I know seem to get enjoyment out of it.

I borrowed a book on birds off my girlfriend, and a similar book off my grandmother, and I’ve been asking them questions and picking their brains about what kind of birds to expect in the garden and what kind of food they like, and where they like to nest. I’ve also found out that a bag of wild bird seed for like, a quid, and a flat surface, such as a sundial, is a great combination if you want to attract birds. I knew a few birds before all this because they are so (I hate this word but it’s the best fit) iconic, such as robins, magpies, and blackbirds. Now I am passably good at identifying great tits, starlings, and sparrows. I’ve also got a pretty good idea of what a goldfinch is. And the seed I’ve been putting out has been monopolised by some wood pigeons and collared doves.

It has also occurred to me that having a better knowledge of the local wildlife would better my fiction. Consider for example the difference between,

“The birds sang in the morning mist”

And

“The robins and blackbirds sang in the morning mist”

(Pardon the differences in rhythm. Also pardon that I’ve probably made a mistake and they sing at different times of the morning, or something.)

People (like me) who know fuck all about birds are going to hear the same thing in their head regardless, but people who know what a robin or a blackbird sounds like are going to really benefit from the specificity; it’s going to be a lot easier to imagine and seem a lot more real. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve just finished reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. He knows a lot about wildlife and is always very specific when it comes to describing it. Not being able to picture some of the things he was describing made me feel inadequate. I could only imagine what a wild cornucopia Area X is to someone who can follow all of VanderMeer’s descriptions. I’m glad for the feeling of inadequacy, because it’s always nice to have a signpost or two as to what you don’t know.

You know, Corbyn’s fascination with manhole covers might fulfil a similar function to my nascent birdwatching. It’s nice and relaxing to just take a moment to wonder what birds are in the garden, or in a tree that you’re passing, and for a moment it focuses your attention on something that isn’t your worries. I’ve not often had so little knowledge bring me so much pleasure, and I look forward to learning more about birds. In the future I plan to learn a bit more about insects and plants, too, and I’m just glad that Peterborough is a place that affords me opportunities to look at and think about this stuff. There’s a lot to complain about with regards to Peterborough, but I am doing my best to see the positives in it and see what I can do to try and make it better for myself and others.

PS Talking to people about birds means you get to use the word “jizz” in polite conversation and if that’s not the best thing ever I don’t know what is.

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Some Thoughts on William S. Burroughs’ Exterminator!

I’ve been fond of William S. Burroughs for a long time but never got around to reading any of his short fiction. The library had a copy of Exterminator!, and I decided to pick it up and see what Burroughs was like out of the cut-up novel he’s most known for. I quickly realised that any distinction between his short fiction and his experimental novels is arbitrary at best.

Burroughs’ short stories are not discreet; the same events are recalled from different perspectives, timelines bleed together, characters disappear and reappear in different stories. Exterminator! was apparently marketed as a novel, so this makes sense. If it wasn’t for the page breaks and the titles, this would really just be a standard Burroughs novel.

And I do mean standard. Like, there’s lots of babbling about mixing the image track and the sound track, lots of sexual psychoses, plenty of seedy unhinged characters flitting about in a shadowy world. Unmistakably Burroughs, but it is a bit less coherent than even the most fucked up and cut up of his other works, and this feeling is only increased by the fact that the two strongest stories in Exterminator! are the most discreet, coherent ones.

“The Discipline of DE” is an odd little story about a retired colonel that decides to start living in the moment. It has such a pleasant, even tone that it’s hard to believe it’s Burroughs; it could be right out of a self-help manual. And then it hits you. This *is* a self-help manual, in the guise of a short story; Burroughs’ DE (Do Easy) is just a mindfulness practice. If you’ve ever read that you should take your time while you brush your teeth and really focus on how it feels, then you’ll be familiar with the kinds of practices that Burroughs is describing. Don’t think it’s just boring and didactic though, there’s plenty of odd interjections about not spilling tea on the duchess, and an exploration of the idea that DE might make a good gunfighter. This story has an odd charm all of its own, but there’s an adaption of this story that’s only about nine minutes long, and is well worth your time.

The other story in Exterminator! that really stands out is “The ‘Priest’ they Called Him”. An archetypal Burroughs story about a desperate junky looking for a fix, but with a sweet twist; this is a Christmas story, and the ‘Priest’ charitably gives up his fix to help out a neighbour in need. This is one of my favourite Christmas stories, and I was familiar with it before I read Exterminator!, because what lead me to Burroughs?

Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain in particular, who collaborated with Burroughs on an excellent recording of the story that you can listen to below.

I need to read more Burroughs. I haven’t read Queer yet, and I’ve only read the first of The Red Night Trilogy. When I get around to it I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if you like Burroughs, go read Exterminator!, particularly if you’re in the mood for some self-help, or a nice Christmas tale. I know, right?

My Conscience Catches up with Me

I have eaten meat all my life despite knowing that it is unethical and, probably, indefensible. All that time, I was able to just ignore it. I knew it was bad for the environment, and I knew I loved animals and didn’t really want them to die, but it was tasty, and that was enough for me.

Well, you might know that over the past year or so, I have made quite a few changes to my lifestyle. My diet, inevitably, was going to come up at some point.

I’ve already trialled not eating meat, because, except on rare occasions, I’ve never eaten meat when I’ve been around my girlfriend, who is a pescaterian/vegetarian who has also been a vegan before. I know you can have a perfectly nice diet without eating meat because half the time I don’t anyway.

Having tried vegetarianism and spent a lot of time around vegetarians, the voice in my head that tells me that eating meat is unethical is getting louder and louder, and I’m now at the point where if I eat meat, I feel pretty bad about it afterwards. It still tastes good, but not good enough to make that feeling bearable.

So I’m going to stop eating meat. I’m probably going to transition over to not eating fish/seafood at some point, but for now I think not eating meat is going to be enough to quiet my conscience. I don’t think I am ever going to transition to veganism because I love cheese too much, but I have tried various plant milks and found them to be more than fine, so never say never I guess.

There is one thing I am going to find difficult though, and that is that so many sweets (so, so many), use bovine or porcine gelatine, including some of my favourites, like blackjacks, or Haribo Starmix. I’ll just have to carefully read packets and look for alternatives. Or eat less sweehahahahahaha.

I’m not going to turn this into a food blog, don’t worry. But I did want to tell you about these bad boys that my girlfriend got me to try.

haribo

Vegetarian Haribo!

I think these are fantastic. Lovely taste, nice chewy texture. My girlfriend’s daughter tried one and said it was like eating a crayon, and I was just like, damn, that is spot on. These taste exactly the way you imagined crayons would taste, way back when you were a toddler and thought crayons looked delicious. Well, crayons do look delicious, and so do these.

P.S. Chewits are vegan too!

A Reading Update

I hate forcing myself to finish books, but I just had to do it with Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was a library book, so it wasn’t like there were any sunk costs at play, but I did borrow it along with Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn, which I just couldn’t get along with at all. I would have felt bad returning two books unread, and I’ve loved everything else of Bradbury’s I’ve read, so I felt like I owed it to him, even if I did skim the last fifty or so pages.

First of all, Feersum Endjinn. I’m used to Banks’ experimental turns; I’ve read Use of Weapons, so his fragmented narratives don’t surprise me. And I did really like the structure of Use of Weapons, the way it goes forwards and backwards and somehow arrives at the same devastating point. It’s cool, and I like it when that kind of formal inventiveness comes off. When it doesn’t, like in Feersum Endjinn, hoo-boy. I’ll describe it to you if you haven’t read it. Four different narrative threads, one chapter of each in each section. So it’s like, 1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4. If you see what I mean? I very quickly lost any handle on the story at all. And one of these narrative threads features a character that has an implant that lets him dive into other people’s consciousnesses. And another narrative thread is written entirely phonetically. I applaud Banks for his attempt to represent the writing of someone who is neuroatypical, but in the context of this particular novel, it just adds to the mess. Probably the fault is mine. It made me think of all the people who bounce off Infinite Jest because of the first Wardine section, or who put down Ulysses when it goes “Ineluctable modality of the visible”. I just couldn’t get any handle on Feersum Endjinn at all, and I couldn’t just let it go and enjoy it on its own terms. Oh well. I’ll try it again someday. The next Banks I read will probably be a Culture novel. Maybe The Hydrogen Sonata, because there’s a copy of that in my local library.

Ok, sorry for the tangent. I just finished Something Wicked This Way Comes and I really didn’t enjoy it. It’d be too easy to say I found it trite, but… no fuck it, it is trite. Maybe the way to defeat evil… is love? Ugh. A lot of Bradbury’s themes boil down to simple moral judgements, (correct simple moral judgements I might add), but in this case it being novel length exposes the weakness of the idea, I think. Fahrenheit 451 might have a pretty simple moral judgement at its core, but Guy Montag experiences doubt, experiences shades of morality, and changes his mind. In Something Wicked, Jim and Will are utterly one-dimensional by comparison. Which makes sense considering that they’re kids, but that brings me to my next point.

I think a lot of Something Wicked is supposed to hinge on nostalgia, on a wistful looking over lost youth and a contemplation of what that youth still means in the young people you see around you. It is supposed to evoke that nostalgia and get you to feel it so you can drag you along. And it just didn’t work on me. I didn’t grow up in the American Midwest, I’ve never particularly liked carnivals, and the abdication of father figures in my own life has made me eternally suspicious of them. I can tell that this is the kind of novel that people might read and say “it wove a spell on me”. I can see why they might say it, I can see how Bradbury tries to do it. It just didn’t work on me.

I love Banks, I love Bradbury, and I don’t want it to be their fault. Feersum Endjinn is probably just too complex for my tiny insect brain. Something Wicked This Way Comes probably can’t work its magic on my cold husk of a heart. I returned both books to the library with a sense of failure and guilt.

Some Thoughts on Philip K Dick’s Short Stories

As you probably know, I’m very fond of Philip K. Dick, fond enough that I intend to read everything he published, and in that vein I have been working my way through his collected short stories. I just finished the third of five volumes and had a few thoughts I wanted to share.

I read the first three volumes of PKD’s short stories over the course of about three years. At first I wasn’t conscious of it, but now I think that I am kinda taking my time over it because I will, eventually, have read all of them. And I really like the short stories! So I don’t want to exhaust them too quickly.

Not that I’ve been reading them in strict order. My first encounter with his short stories was a collection of his more famous (made into films) ones. So I read Minority Report, We Can Remember It for You, Faith of our Fathers, and some others that slip my mind now. I knew then that I’d want to read all of them.

The short story suits PKD really well. I recently read The Simulacra, a novel of his that perfectly exemplifies the weaker PKD novels. In short, the weaker ones tend to be unfocused; to have a lot of interesting ideas but to not develop more than a couple of them in any interesting way. They’re still worth reading, because the ideas are still great, and you can still run with them a bit yourself, but the singularity of vision isn’t there. The constraints of a short story force PKD to focus on one or two ideas closely and develop them towards the conclusion of the story, and in terms of ideas this makes the really great PKD stories as good as the novels if not better, because there is less fluff.

Not that every PKD short story is a masterpiece, of course, but I feel like the form suits his strengths as writer, and masks his weaknesses. He still ends up relying on the framework of “everyman oppressed by modern technology/society” to hang a lot of his stories on, and not all of them hit the mark. The best PKD stories normally manage to exhibit, if not hope, then at least some other way, some other direction that we might take. The worst ones, like the story Sales Pitch in the collection I just read, don’t really manage to say anything except that advertising is bad. A story in the same collection, The Chromium Fence, has a similar structure and even a similar ending, but the protagonist arrives at it in a way that there is always space for freedom, even if that space is in your own head.

I don’t mind a downer, no-hope story, but I’d prefer it if there’s a bit of nuance, and this is what we find in the story Foster, You’re Dead. It’s the same basic idea as in Sales Pitch, “advertising is bad and pernicious, and is becoming more so every day”. But in Foster…, PKD takes this idea and takes it further, adds nuance and character. It’s not just advertising that’s bad, but capitalism itself, and how it inevitable shifts the military industrial complex into the home. It’s not just the effect it has on you, because even if you can ignore it, and not mind the peer pressure, maybe your spouse or your kids can’t. This story is fantastic demonstration of how fundamentally evil it is that they play adverts for life insurance on kids TV.

The third volume of PKD’s short stories also has some fantastic examples of how good he was at writing mousetrap stories. I love stories that close on you with a snap in the last couple of sentences (I mean, I often end up writing them), so reading someone who can invert an entire story like PKD can is always a pleasure. Shell Game and Misadjustment are great examples of this, and I think Shell Game is now one of my favourite PKD stories. If you’ve heard that PKD is the literature of paranoia and you’re interested, give Shell Game a try.

I’m sad I’ve only got two more volumes of PKD’s stories to go. I have the fourth volume and haven’t purchased the fifth one yet, so I should be able to string this pleasure out for another year or so before I have to re-read. I still have a bunch of his novels to go, so that’s something at least.

Some Quick Thoughts on Brian Aldiss’ Last Orders

I started reading Brian Aldiss’ short story collection Last Orders last year, when he died. That was on…

(goes to check)

…the 19th of August 2017. It’s pretty short and I’ve only just finished it, which means each page was an exquisitely crafted masterpiece that I wanted to savour, or I put it down a lot.

I put it down a lot.

All I knew about Brian Aldiss going in to this collection was that he was a British SF writer and that he was associated in some way with the new wave of SF in the ‘60s/’70s, a period that I’m fond of. This meant that I expected Aldiss to be pretty far out and experimental, which he was. But in most instances in this collection, Aldiss is not far out in a way that seems purposeful, like say, Zoline’s The Heat Death of the Universe. Aldiss is more far out like Burroughs is at his most dissipated.

There are some great stories in Last Orders, but these are broken up by the Enigmas, as Aldiss calls them, which are mostly just weird, cut-up like prose, you know what I mean, like-

The clockwork goblins are all of a whirl, and the cosmic face turns and looks at you, but there’s nothing you can do about it, because you ate the cheese, and now the cheese eats you. You wonder where she is now.

The above is not in Last Orders, but it bloody well could be. I like that kind of stuff as much as anyone who has read a lot of Burroughs, but it’s really jarring mixed in with the other, more straightforward, stories. This is my first encounter with Aldiss, so maybe I’m missing the point. Please tell me if I am.

Of the straighter stories, the title story, which is also the opener, is fantastic. It ends the world, what’s new, but it has an elegiac focus on the last conversation on Earth, and explores the idea that, for some people, it might be better to die along with Earth.

The story An Appearance of Life stuck in my mind, too. In it, we explore a galactic museum housed in a giant alien structure whose original inhabitants are long dead. It’s a very clever look at what history might come to mean if humanity ever manages to become an interplanetary species, and packs a surprisingly emotional punch.

There are great stories in Last Orders, and I’m interested enough that I’m gonna continue to pick up any Aldiss I come across, but damn, I hope those Enigmas aren’t the most of his output, because there are plenty of people who have done the same thing, better, and I’ve read them already.

Some Quick Thoughts on Annihilation

I picked up Annihilation on a whim while I was in the library the other day. I remember hearing about the Southern Reach Trilogy and not thinking much of it, but I saw the trailer for the new Netflix movie and it looked like something I’d enjoy. Weird secrets and forbidden zones, very Stalker or Ballard, the kind of stuff I inevitably enjoy. And enjoy it I did, finishing it in a couple of sittings and finding myself enraptured.

I haven’t read the other books in the trilogy yet, and doubtless my opinion will change when I do, but what has really stuck in my mind about Annihilation is how little resolution it affords the reader. It would have been easy to go “ayyyy, government experiment gone wrong,” or, “ayyyyyliens”, but it resists this. In some ways this is mirrored in the plot. Area X resists interpretation, and it changes whatever it comes into contact with, including the reader. You begin burning to know answers. You come to hope the biologist can find some resolution regarding her husband’s death. She is changed, she comes to accept that Area X doesn’t need to be interpreted. It’s just different. You feel similarly about the novel.

Annihilation reminded me pleasantly of Ballard. I’m thinking of The Crystal World, and The Drowned World. There are probably others, but I haven’t read all of Ballard’s stuff, or even all his elemental apocalypse stuff. I love Ballard’s work, and I love stuff like it, but it does leave me cold. Ballard’s heroes (haha) always enter some kind of Forbidden Place and are changed by it, but they are only changed in the sense that it allowed their innate animality to act out. Structures break down, but then they reform, and the most willing and able to be violent are left on top. Annihilation subverts this, and I am so happy it does.

For starters, the very crux of the story is that a woman wants to know what happened to her husband. A mix of curiosity and hypnosis drive the biologist on, but the main motivation is always her wanting to know what happened to her husband, her feelings of regret over the last few weeks they spent together, her insecurities about their marriage. This is a very human story, and doesn’t reduce this humanity to something that can have its animal nature brought out. I think about how those Ballard novels end up being westerns set in The Forbidden Zone, and how, in Annihilation, the biologist’s one act of violence is not just out of necessity but also enabled by Area X itself. It wasn’t something that was in her already.

Annihilation is horrifying, it’s fascinating, and it will subvert your expectations. Maybe my expectations have been warped by reading a lot of Ballard, but it’s something I can’t help thinking about. I look forward to seeing the film.