OH, YOU PRETTY THING

So, a few muddled, incomprehensible words, because I still can’t quite comprehend the event itself.

Like many of my friends, peers, and contemporaries, I’ve spent the last 4 days wandering around in somewhat of a daze, trying to come to terms with news of the sudden death of David Bowie at the age of 69.

Much like Robin Williams last year, I’ve experienced a form of genuine grief, borne of the fact that Bowie has been an ever-present flavour of wallpaper in my life. I’ve never been without a Bowie song somewhere in my consciousness– on the radio, in my Walkman/disc player/iTunes playlist. When I checked, shortly after I heard the news, I had 98 Bowie songs on my iPod. Whenever I’m interviewed, and discuss my influences, he’s the first name listed. Actor, artist, musician, fashion icon, Bowie was exactly the kind of polymath artist that fascinates and inspires me, and to which I aspire.

My first exposure came relatively late in his first great period– the video for Ashes to Ashes, at age 9, on Countdown (where else?). There was nothing else like it in the world. I was simultaneously awestruck, intimidated, and scared– it was clearly dealing with subjects and emotions I was unaware of, and using a suite of imagery I wasn’t able to process. I was only just discovering music in any meaningful way. My world was still dominated by my parents’ 50s and 60s MOR sensibilities. My mother hated the Beatles for turning into hippies, for fuck’s sake: what chance did I have? The man, the song, and the video stuck with me, and stuck hard, but at the more threatening, deeper end of my experiential awareness. It is, of course, exactly where he would want to be, and where he deserved to be.

Ashes to Ashes. The first Bowie video I recall seeing.

While I grew into a Bowie fan, I grew into a ‘classic’ Bowie fan. I loved the songs, but they were the same suite of songs that the entire Western world seemed to love: those genuine classics that dominated the 1970s and early 80s. Apart from the radio standards, his currency dropped off my radar by the time I was in Uni in the very late 80s, sometime between Tonight and regular sex. A brief flurry of interest around the time of  The Saint movie in the mid-90s, when his song You Little Wonder made the soundtrack and a couple of rotations on JJJ, almost as a curiosity notwithstanding, it was his acting that I was drawn to. Sure, there was his performance in Labyrinth (Oh, the hair, oh the codpiece, oh the second-rate Muppets), but discovering The Man Who Fell to Earth and (of all things) The Linguini Incident opened up a new appreciation for the man’s ability to switch roles and faces. And, of course, he could act. Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence was a revelation, a high watermark he did not surpass until a perfectly-pitched turn as Nikola Tesla in the otherwise teeth-itchingly irritating The Prestige.

The Man Who Fell to Earth.

But there he was, always there. Always Ziggy, and The Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane, thanks to radio and my burgeoning music collection and the sheer weight of his presence within popular culture. He had become an ornament, pressed in amber.

Then, a few years ago, a chance comment to my good friend Grant Watson opened a discussion of Grant’s Bowie fandom, which was gathering strength just as mine was receding. In the process, I was exposed to the music I’d missed, all those synth and electronica-heavy experiments from the 90s, and (what we thought) were the final, atmosphere-heavy mood pieces from (what we thought) his final works, Heathen and Reality. And I fell in love all over again. My favourite songs come from this period, particularly his jungle-and-synth-infused trio Outside, Earthling and Hours. Indeed, apart from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Earthling is the only album I have in its entirety on my iPod. And, in the last few days, Blackstar, as I listen to it over and over, trying to unpick the last messages to the world of a dying man. But that, of course, is a different thing. And, of course, that’s what the man could do. Disappear from public view for ten years, and stop the world with his return. The greatest prodigal son 20th Century art ever had. Even his absence was an event.

So, here I am, with that final statement, like everyone else, not so much listening to the songs as trying to assemble the narrative behind them, the one that speaks of an artist using his last remaining moments not to enfold himself with family but with his art, to shout one last time from the edge of the cliff in the hope that this time, this final time, the world will get it. He’s not the first, of course: he’s not even the first in my playlist. The stories behind Queen’s Made in Heaven, and Freddie Mercury’s long solo sessions in the studio, laying down vocal tracks for the rest of the band to orchestrate after his death, have become musical legend, as has Warren Zevon’s unbelievable last album The Wind. And they’re both legends, and I miss them both and the impact they had on my life.

But this is Bowie. And, in some ways, those four words sum up the man’s impact, not just on my life but on popular culture as a whole over the last 40 years. No matter your argument, over legacy or influence or cultural impact or precedent; no matter who you nominate as greater, or better, or whatever; no matter how I try to rationalise that what I got from him is no more or less than what he gave to the rest of the world– 27 albums, a bunch of movies, some art, some characters; no matter how much I try to rationalise and place him in the context of every other distant, unknowable public figure I’ve only ever experienced as a man-made object. The answer is the same.

Yeah. But this is Bowie.

I still keep waiting for the new that it was all a mistake, that he’s alive and well and there’s a new album coming. I still keep waiting to get it.

Can I pick a favourite Bowie song? Can I even pick a dozen? No. Here’s one that, maybe,
you’ve not heard. Because it seems there’s always more to discover, even amongst those
who’ve had him a our constant travelling companion our whole lives.

FLY, BE FREE

We lost another divine lunatic yesterday.

Robin Williams, who first helped melt my mind when I was a kid with his anarchic portrayal of Mork from Ork in Mork and Mindy, and who made regular incursions into my artistic consciousness through a series of brilliant live DVDs; early comedic movies like Moscow on the Hudson and Good Morning, Vietnam; mature middle-career performances in Jumanji, The Birdcage and others; and stunning dramatic tours-de-force in a range of intense dramatic roles such as Dead Poets Society; Good Will Hunting; One Hour Photo and Insomnia, killed himself.

For a man who had a profound impact upon my artistic, comedic and personal sensibilities, he was surprisingly young: he was only 63.

In many ways, Williams was an ever-present as I grew up. It’s hard to explain the impact of Mork and Mindy on my sensibilities: with a grand total of 3 TV channels to choose from and a much higher quota of Australian programming (not to mention viewing choices controlled by conservative, British parents), there was, quite literally, nothing on television quite like it. Mork was a force of nature, a fox in a chicken coop of cookie-cutter sitcom writing, and at a time when I was already glutting my imagination on science fiction and the Goon Show, I was an instant convert, a mini-Exidor running off at the mouth and driving my parents insane.

And, then, somehow he was always just there. Within a year or two we had purchased our first VHS player–at roughly the same time he was making the transition into movies, and if there was a Williams movie on the shelf, I watched it: Popeye, The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Survivors, Club Paradise…. anyone who was surprised by his range and depth in later career movies should see these early films back to back. The depth was always there, the range always apparent. It was just the quality of production that altered, just the size of the marquee. Once I was old enough to travel the sixty kilometres to the nearest cinema by myself he became a staple of my cinema visits: Good Morning, Vietnam one of the first films I ever went to alone, without even the company of friends, the soundtrack to the movie a permanent fixture on my walkman (it still features on my iPod play list today).

When I took up stand-up comedy in the early nineties a group of comedic friends and I would gather together regularly to watch live videos and dissect them: Andy Kaufman; Richard Jeni; Steve Martin (another ever-present: when he dies, I’ll be just as distraught); Emo Philips, Richard Pryor, Billy Connolly…. the list was unending. Except Williams. Between us we had a mammoth collection, stretching right back to bootleg recordings of early Comedy Store appearances. Those, we just watched, and rolled around, in tears of laughter. Nobody wanted to dissect them. We knew we couldn’t learn anything, couldn’t replicate what he did in any way. We watched them because we wanted to see great art, and revel in genius.

And so I stopped thinking about him. He was furniture, as much as Billy Connolly and Steve Martin and the Goon Show and science fiction and Pink Floyd and my eyesight and hearing and all the things that are woven so deeply into my being that they are little more than autonomic processes. Always an awareness at the edge of my vision, occasionally popping into full view to stun me one more time– holy shit, the man did One Hour Photo, Death to Smoochy and Insomina in a single year— but more often than not just slightly in the background. Let’s be honest, he hadn’t starred in a decent movie since The Final Cut in 2004, and even that’s a flawed work. Supporting roles in Night at the Museum movies aside, it had been fairly slim pickings for a while.

But he was still there, part of my general awareness, a tightly-woven emblem in the pattern of my karass. I’d introduced him to my kids, through Jumanji and the Night at the Museum movies. We’d have gotten to Bicentennial Man soon enough, and Dead Poets Society in its turn.

I hadn’t really thought about his influence on my life, my ways of thinking, my approach to art, until I checked out my Facebook feed yesterday morning and was deluged by outpourings of shock and sorrow.

Now, I don’t know what else to say.

There’s a huge body of work, of various quality. There are artists who have been influenced, and will carry that influence into their own work. But Williams himself is gone, and my karass is wounded.

Mork has finally, irretrievably, signed off.

THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BLOG

Ye Gods. Where does the time go? Busy busy busy. There’s been a 2 week holiday in there, somewhere: two weeks where I kept the hell of Facebook and the internet and writing while I bent my back over exercise and gardening and house maintenance tasks that needed doing—and lost 2 kilos into the bargain—and entertained myself with my Lego addiction. And damn it if I’m not happier for having done so.
So. What’s gone on in that time? Bits and bobs, my friends. Bits and bobs.
DAGGER, DRESNIA, ONE THEREOF

Swancon happened over Easter, and I wouldn’t have paid much attention this year except that, for reasons known only to her, the lovely Satima Flavell-Neist asked me to say a few words in her defence as she launched her debut novel, The Dagger of Dresnia.

Satima’s a fantastic inspiration to anybody who feels like they’ll never achieve their publishing goals:  The Dagger of Dresnia is the result of 11 years of hard work, faith, and perseverance, and it’s pleasing that she’s managed to partner with an aspiring press like Satalyte Publishing, who are looking to stake out a permanent place in the Australian publishing landscape. It’s a bold venture, and I’m hoping that both Satima and Satalyte receive the very best of fortune, not to mention sales.

If you can judge a person by the quality of their enemies then Satima must be rubbish indeed, especially if you can get the likes of Juliet Mariller and Glenda Larke to speak at your lunch. Or maybe that just speaks to the quality of your work, and of you as a person, non?

The Dagger of Dresnia is book one of a trilogy, and you can purchase it from the Satalyte website here. I managed to snaffle a few quick snaps of the launch in between talking-type duties:

A formidable ‘Dagger of Dresnia’ cake, baked by local author Carol Ryles

Satima reads an excerpt

Busy at the signing table
Guest speakers Juliet Mariller, Glenda Larke and Michelle Drouart wonder where to stick the knife, while Carol Ryles stands by and lets them kill her cake.

STEPS FORWARD, SAYS A FEW WORDS

Rockingham children’s author Teena Raffa-Mulligan has started a new blog, In Their Own Write, dedicated to writing advice and experiences from the mouths of established authors.

In her wisdom, she’s asked me a few questions, and I’ve told the world to milk cows and have sex. And some other stuff. Go here and read my interview, and catch the rest of her line-up here while you’re at it.

THE BOY IS BACK!

Almost a year to the day ago, Master 9 came down with a mysterious illness that caused him to vomit more than 40 times a day. School quickly became impossible. A normal life became just as impossible. Luscious withdrew him, put her life on hold, and set out to home-school him while she and the medical profession set out to determine what was wrong.

A year later, with a diagnosis of Rumination Syndrome under his belt, a year of the hardest emotional work I have ever seen a parent put into a child paid off. His vomiting has diminished to the point where he can go entire days without vomiting, and generally, if he does, it’s once or twice a day at worst. He and Lyn have battled every step of the way: against the illness, against despair; and against a medical fraternity that couldn’t give a shit about doing anything more than convering their own insurance premiums. They’ve never given up, never taken negative advice at face value. Bit by bit they’ve dragged GPs, specialists and surgeons in their wake, and changed both our lifestyle and environment until this week, for the first time in 12 months, this:

His first day at school in a year. For now he goes back one day a week, under the care of a teacher who is so understanding of his condition she has organised special care and infrastructure to ensure he has a safe space to retreat to should he be unable to stay in class, and coping strategies for when he can. But even one day is a victory, and he’s already talking about how soon that one day can become two, and two become three, and on until he’s back at full time.

I am so proud of them both I can barely find the words.

STUFF YOUR LUFTBALLONS, I HAVE LEGO

A year ago, a chance remark from Luscious prompted me to embark on a scheme of grand stupidity. I would build all of my Lego sets once more, and when they were built, I would photograph them, because reasons, that’s why.

Naturally, that didn’t take into account the umpteen set I would buy over the course of what I dubbed The Great Set Rebuild of 2013, because things go better with 1950s Hollywood titles, so that, eventually, it became the Great Set rebuild of 2014 and, finally, the Is This Frigging Thing Not Over Yet of It’s Never Going to be Bloody Finished.

And yet, here we are. 99 sets, in all. It would have been 100, but for an incomplete set that arrived last week with filthy, unusable parts that I’ve had to source from third parties. However, sets were built, photos were taken, and here, for what it’s worth, you can wallow in the glory that is my Set Rebuilding Fu.

I’ll tell you this for free, though: I can’t wait to get back to building bloody MOCs…..







99 sets. Count them…. or better yet, don’t count them, I already had to…. 99.

And theme by theme:

Classic Space, Alien Conquest and Star Wars

Atlantis

City

Creator and Racers
Various themes, all celebrating the power of flight…
Possibly my favourite of all themes, Galaxy Squad

And proving why it’s my favourite, each of the sets separated into their playable ‘second mode’.
Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, Kingdoms and Fantasy Era

Monster Fighters

Ninjago, Chima and Pirates of the Caribbean

Pharoah’s Quest

And lastly, proving that themes may come and go, but my love of insane spaceships will never die, Space Police III
RIP BOB HOSKINS
Sad news the other day, with the passing of the immensely talented Bob Hoskins, at the age of 71 after a short bout of pneumonia. Hoskins had retired from acting in 2012 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, but he was one of the most talented, varied actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, and the film landscape is immeasurably poorer for his passing. A short, tubby, genial-looking bloke, his capacity to play anything from doltish mook (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) to vicious killer (The Long Good Friday) to sweet romantic lead (Mermaids) and all points in between (The Dunera Boys, Mona Lisa, hell, close your eyes and throw a dart at IMDB and you’ll find a brilliant performance in something) placed him at the very top rank of actors, in my opinion.
See ya, Eddie.


EVEN HARD MEN FALL

Sad news overnight with the passing of Lewis Collins from cancer at the age of 67.

I’ve always been a fan of Collins, from first seeing him, like many, on The Professionals, to later work on movies like Who Dares Wins and his wonderful turn as George Godley in 1988’s Jack The Ripper, which Luscious and I watched again only a couple of weeks ago as our unofficial marking of the 125th anniversary of the Ripper. It was his best performance, and encapsulated just how much warmth he was capable of bringing to what were, essentially hard-man roles, and just how clever he was at creating character with his face: Godley is a man of raised eyebrows, twitches of the lips, and shrugs, and Collins imbues him with depth that, it is easy to see, is not in the script. It’s a facet he brought to all his roles, and one which made him, for me at least, immediately likeable, no matter how much of a bastard he played. Damned if I can remember who played The Comedian in the execrable Watchmen movie, but they missed a trick by not casting Collins. He’d been playing the role his entire career. He was made for it.

There was never as much of his work as there should have been– it’s well documented that he unsuccessfully tried out for the James Bond role in the 80s, and he would have brought a Daniel Craig sense of danger to the role thirty years before Craig arrived– but what roles there are form some of my favourite TV and film memories of my 1970s and 1980s, and he is an important member of my karass: My first ever trip to the theatre was to see him in Deathtrap when it toured Perth in my teens. I’ve been a theatre lover, and a firm fan of the play, ever since, and again, it was Collins’ combination of personable warmth and simmering danger that made the experience so magnetic.

Another piece of my past is chipped away, and I’m sad to see him go.

RIP Lewis Collins aged 67
Charm and danger: magnetic qualities. 

RIP FRED POHL

Saddened yesterday to hear of the passing of Fred Pohl, one of the true greats of the science fiction genre, and one of the most easily readable authors I’ve ever encountered.

Like almost everyone else, I have a Pohl anecdote: one that, to me, highlights the grace of the man. I met him in 2002 at the Writers of the Future workshops then being held in Los Angeles. As part of the awards ceremony, the winners had dinner with some of the judges, and my table was picked to host Mr Pohl and his wife Elizabeth. Even then, in his eighties, he was frail and very hard of hearing, but in a week where I was surrounded by authors– both established and aspiring– making as much noise as possible in order to prove themselves larger than life (a behaviour in which I was an active participant), what struck me most about him was his calm and sense of quiet. Part of that was undoubtedly down to his hearing, but it also struck me that here was a man who didn’t need to make noise to attract admiration. This was Fred Pohl. If you didn’t know who he was and what he’d done, it was you who had the lack.

Sometime during the dinner, Pohl was ‘taken on’ by one of my fellow winners, over a subject I don’t remember. As my colleague pontificated with many a pointed finger and wave of his fork I watched Pohl: he sat calmly, listening intently, as my colleague outlined all the ways Pohl was wrong in the way he approached his writing. At the end, he nodded, and thanked my colleague– some 50-plus years younger and about a million achievements to the shy– and said he appreciated the outlook of someone at the heart of the new way of doing things. he could have crushed his young protagonist. He knew it. I knew it. I’m pretty sure everyone at the table apart from my colleague knew it. This was a guy who’d published his first work in the 30s; had done everything, knew everyone, won it all and was still going, still working at the highest level possible. There was no ‘wrong’ in the way this man worked. He could have squashed my colleague like a bug, in about three words flat. Instead, he’d shown humility, companionship, and respect towards an equal.

The conversation moved on, both participants turned to contribute in other threads, and I was left more impressed by that one response than by anything else I experienced on the night.

Class, dignity, and assurance. I’ve rarely reached that height of behaviour myself, but I damn well know I’ve seen it.

There was only one Fred Pohl. We have lost a giant.

R.I.P. MEL SMITH

Sad news today, with the passing of Mel Smith, founding member of Not the Nine O’Clock News and co-star of Alas, Smith and Jones, two of the most consistently brilliant comedy programs of the late 70s and 1980s. Never exactly a slave to fitness or health, by all accounts, 60 years of age is still too early to see a performer of such superb timing and comic precision depart.

Not the Nine O’Clock News and, especially Alas, Smith and Jones played a huge part in my own comedic and writing education. They’re incredible examples of writing, especially in regards to wordplay and dialogue. They were literate, articulate, and scurrilous, and I adored them.

By way of memorial, here’s one of my favourite Smith & Jones sketches, a gleeful decimation of the Shakespearean turn of phrase:

And here’s another, illuminating one of the lessons I’ve learned most deeply: that you can strip away everything else, and still be captivating, funny, and honest, as long as you have strength in your dialogue. No matter what else the show was filled with, these ‘conversation’ pieces were always the highlight, and this one is just about their best:

It’s always a sad day when genius leaves us, not least because it means the opportunity for fresh work is denied us. And this passing leaves me sad indeed.

VALE RAY

It’s 1984. I’m 13 years old, pushing 14. My father has left us, and as a way of adjusting to our new life, my mother has scraped together some of our remaining money and managed to buy our first VCR. We join the only video library in town.

From now until I leave home, aged 22, this and the late night Friday Creature Feature are going to be very warm security blankets around my burgeoning imagination. I will discover Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Dracula, the Reptile, the Swarm, 1950s black and white SF movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them!….. I am going to discover my world.

Soon, real soon, after we watch our first video (and for those who must know everything, it was Fire and Ice), we find Jason and the Argonauts. Valley of the Gwangi follows. Sinbad. Clash of the Titans.

But it’s Jason and the Argonauts that sinks deepest.

The skeleton fight. It all comes back to the skeleton fight.

Jason and his crew race across open ground, fleece in hands. The pursuing forces stop. Their leader raises his hand, filled with teeth from the wyvern Jason has only moments ago killed. He dashes them to the ground. Where they land, skeletons rise, fully armed– I don’t question how they have swords and shields. 30 years later, watching it with my kids, I still don’t question. They close in open our heroes. A final, desperate battle is joined…

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more exciting in a film, ever. That moment, when the skeletons form up with a thump of feet, when they bend forward and step inexorably forward, blew my teenage head the fuck away! All the computer imaging in the world has never felt as real as that moment, when something 3D, impossible and undeniably real took place on the screen in front of me, and changed the way I thought about storytelling forever. You can see it in my school work, in the stories I began to tell in English assignments. I became, not just a storyteller, but a storymaker.

Ray Harryhausen died overnight. He’s been the inspiration for an entire generation of filmmakers, special effects creators, animators, and authors. I’m one of them.

Thank you, and goodbye.
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