Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Obligatory 2014 Retrospective

In the two years I’ve been writing this blog, I have made a tiny habit of doing a little retrospective post about the year that has just been. Reading through some of my old posts searching for some inspiration on the subject, I apparently succumb to my obligation to retrospection after New Year’s Eve. However, since I already cheated and didn’t write a blog post last week (my logic for this being it was Christmas Eve, surely that’s worthy of a break and that there wasn’t anything I could think to write about), I didn’t feel I could really wait until next week to talk about 2014. Especially as by the time this is posted, there’s barely anything left of 2014 for anything of significant note to happen.

So, on with the blabbering.

It occurs to me that a retrospective on 2014 is more than likely to be a summation of everything you dear readers have already read about. Of course, there has been a significant chunk of time not rambled about, that period of silence between May and October, itself preceded by a lengthy silence going back to January. Regardless, I’m going to soldier on. If I can even remember half of the stuff that happened this year...

The first part of the year was spent recuperating from an unprecedented surge in writing. Upon the completion of the first draft of my novel, I decided to kick back and leave it in the hands of my proofreaders. I did just that. It’s probably about here that my addiction to XCOM: Enemy Within came around. And watching all of the TV shows I had neglected in the latter quarter of 2013 in order to finish the novel.

One thing I neglected to mention in any of my blog posts was one of the highlights of my year – 8th April 2014. On that day, I saw my favourite band, Halestorm, performing live in Bristol. It was only the second time I had been to a live gig – the first time being 20th October 2013 in Cardiff. An Alter Bridge gig, with Shinedown and Halestorm supporting. However, because of the need to eat first (I was rather hungry), accidentally missed Halestorm. But did later see Lzzy Hale on stage. Which kind of made my night. But then April. When I got to see them in their full glory in Bristol. It was awesome. And I obtained my very first band t-shirt. Currently the only band t-shirt I have. But it’s Halestorm, it’s my favourite, so right now I don’t feel like I need any others...yet...

The rest of the year is pretty much a matter of me ambling through from one point to another. Well, I say that. There were some highlights in-between, chance meetings with people who just came in for a coffee and ended up writing their number on my arm (I say meetings with people, this last bit only happened once) and let’s not forget some pretty cool movies. The immense highlights of these being Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And in the latter half of 2014, we were given the first trailers for Avengers Assemble: Age of Ultron.

Perhaps the biggest, most momentous highlight of 2014 came in November. 25th November 2014 to be precise. I’ve talked about it once already, so I won’t go into massive details, but yes, it was the day I met one of my literary heroes, William Gibson.

Now from skimming my previous retrospectives, there appears to be a tradition of looking ahead at the year to come. Probably something to do with that old Roman curmudgeon, Janus. You know, two-faced fella (literally, had a whole other face on the back of his head), god of beginnings and transitions, no equivalent in Greek mythology? Well, thanks to him this pivotal point of years, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, is not only a time of getting wasted and partying hard, but also a time of reflection on time past and aspirations towards time to come. In my own form of “tradition”, I tend towards looking ahead at all the awesome movies that will be coming out.

2015 is shaping up to be a good movie year. Avengers Assemble: Age of Ultron. Minions. A new Neill Blomkamp movie, CHAPPIE. They all look awesome. This is just to name but a few.

I’m sure I should be saying more on this subject, more about things I hope for in 2015, but, about we just let things unfold. Gives me more to talk about as I attempt to continue my trend of writing a blog post once a week. But if you really want some teasers...I hope to see the Heroes of Canton more and learn more about tea. Maybe there’ll be an opportunity to meet my other literary hero, China Miéville. More than anything though, here’s hoping it will be a year of productive writing. Some good news with my novel maybe, or perhaps just that I will also be regularly contributing to Boston Tea Party’s emerging blog.

Whatever happens, here’s hoping for a great 2015. After all, 2014’s been pretty good to me thus far. I’ve had some pretty damn good times with old friends, made some pretty damn cool new ones and generally, it’s been a year of continued growth and development into more of a well-rounded, if slightly dysfunctional in an amusing fashion, human being. Cheers, 2014. It’s been nice knowing you.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Ranting About EU VAT

I’m not a comic book artist. I don’t own a micro-business, I’m not a sole trader. But I have a friend who is a comic book artist. She is a sole trader. And on New Year’s Day 2015, she could be looking at the end of any kind of dream of making a living from her artwork. Which is amazing. I have a framed piece of it on my desk. I’ve had her work displayed in our café twice. I’m thinking maybe a third time is order because I like her work so much.

My friend is Jennie Gyllblad. Click the name to learn more about her work. Click this link to read what the independent artists have to say about a new circle of hell of bureaucracy and red-tape being looped around their livelihoods. Then read what one of the EU’s top dogs has to say about the whole thing. Doesn’t read like a pile of patronising wank from a government official. Not at all.

I’m prepared to admit that I probably don’t understand this stuff half as well as I should. I’m not providing any kind of digital services that would require me to register for VAT in other EU countries. But I am a creative person was aspirations of making a living out of my work. Sure, I intend to go down the standard commercial route. Get myself an agent, let them do the legwork with publishing houses, take their piece of the pie and leave me with the crusts to live off. But what if that doesn’t fly? What if I decide that I just want to get my work out there any way I can and go in for the ever-growing market of ebooks. Oh yeah, that’s right. The European Union is going to make they get their cut. All in the name of “fairness”. Making sure big businesses don’t utilise one country’s relaxed tax laws to benefit their coffers. Yes, ladies and germs, the small business people, the sole traders, are getting dicked over so nameless corporate fat cats have to get a smaller bonus and go for last year’s Ferrari instead of this year’s flashy new model

Gross over simplifications, I’m sure. I’m straying into the dangerous arena of political discourse and I might as well by painting a big target on my chest and jumping up and down shouting “Hey you there with the excessively large rifle! Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” But this whole thing has led me to thinking about subject which has been cropping up a lot in my head lately.

We’re about to make an abrupt topic change. Seatbelts on, kids. I’m about to talk about one-world government.

My favourite videogame is Deus Ex. Towards the end of the game’s first act if you will, one of the main characters has a little throwaway line of dialogue – “The wealthy has always been the ones to profit from one-world government.” I have no idea why they do. I have no idea if a single, unified human government wouldn’t just end up screwing everyone over, but I feel rather convinced in my heart that if we don’t all come together and cooperate, there isn’t any hope for humanity.

The Republicans swept both chambers of Congress in the mid-term elections. There’s the terrifying possibility that if they can muster a charismatic enough candidate in 2016, they’ll snatch the White House. It’s a thought that makes me shudder. But then I look back home and I shudder even more. The rise of the UK Independence Party. An unholy band of fascist gasbags who would take the UK out of the European Union and probably attempt to re-establish the British Empire while they’re at it. I wouldn’t put it past them to settle the old score with France by flattening the country with nuclear weapons. And maybe just throwing a few pot-shots at the rest of the EU. And these aren’t the only two examples. In the recent European Parliament elections, many right-wing ultra-nationalist parties made gains. It’s a disquieting trend. It could be considered quite the naive worldview, but I studied history for a good long while and there’s a very important thing I learned about nationalist parties – they are BAD NEWS.

Let’s examine some extreme examples. Benito Mussolini. Turned Italy into a fascist dictatorship and led them into World War II side-by-side with Nazi Germany, the most dangerous nationalist, fascist regime in history. Millions dead in heavy fighting, millions more murdered for the simple fact of their ethnic heritage. Why? All in the name of the nation’s spirit and purity. Are you sure you don’t want to shudder at the idea of UKIP and parties of their ilk taking power in other nations?

But how does this relate to one-world government? Simple. We need to shed our insistence on being identified by nationality, on this idea that our sovereign identity is more important than our shared humanity. I grew up in Wales. I’m Welsh. But I live in England. So I’m British. Because of this dichotomy of national identities, I find I care very little for my national heritage. I don’t give a frak. I don’t wave the British flag, I don’t sing the national anthem because I don’t know or care to learn the words and I sure as frak don’t want this country separated from the rest of Europe or the world for that matter. It’s more important that I’m human. That humanity comes together and embraces that fact that our future is decided together. When the world comes to an abrupt end, we’re all gone. No little country is going to be spared to take all the glory for themselves.

Perhaps it’s my lot as a science-fiction writer to dream of a brighter, more utopian future. Let’s talk about that. I say utopian. One-world government will not be a utopian dream of cooperation. It will not be the United Federation of Planets living in peace and harmony with all peoples. But I think it will be better. With the combined resources of all nations, laws established from one source applied to the whole need for individual VAT regulations for countries. One tax law to govern the whole planet. It’s instances like this that I think the United States has a pretty good model. You’ve got federal laws and state laws. Apply that model to the world and I think you’ve got a nice stop-gap solution, a good first step. Because a lot of countries won’t want to give up their individual laws. So treat them like state laws. Except in incidents of human rights for example, where it’s a global law matter.

More than anything – and this is where I get incredibly flighty and my sci-fi roots really take hold – there is no way, in our current state of squabbling nations, that humanity has any hope of getting off this planet. That, for me, is a big deal. Because this planet is beyond frakked and doomed. Generations down the line, this place is in incredible danger of being rendered completely uninhabitable. And it won’t be the sole strength of China or the United States that will save us. No. It will require cooperation on an unprecedented global scale to save the future of humanity.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky said it best: “Earth is the cradle of humanity. But one cannot remain in the cradle forever.” I believe that the future of humanity lies out in the stars. Extra-solar colonisation is the way to go. But we can’t do it alone. We’re going to have to do it together. The sooner we realise that our fate as a species is irrevocably tied together and the Universe doesn’t give two shits if we’re British, American, Chinese, French, German, Egyptian, Sudanese, Iranian or Indian (it’s going to try and kill us all anyway with massive solar flares, asteroids and all sorts of other junk), the sooner we can get on with the business of realising our species’ full potential. The sooner we can step out into those stars and forge a brighter, more incredible future for humankind.

Started out ranting about prohibitive bureaucracy and unnecessary financial red-tape. Ended up philosophising about the future of humanity. All in a day’s work for my incredibly sporadic mind. Still frakked off (on behalf of dear friends) about this EU VAT regulation thing. Sign this petition please. Stop them from bankrupting my friends and fellow creatives. This world would be an even more dull and depressing place without our minds in it.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Hanging Out in the DC Universe

A few Moons ago, I talked about Gotham, one of the latest offerings from the DC Universe’s wealth of source material. I spoke of not being overly invested in the DC Universe, having been seduced by the Marvel Cinematic Universe long, long ago. But today I have to admit that the DC Universe is slowly growing on me. Not its big screen adventures – while Nolan’s Batman films are very good (if a tad too long sometimes) and Man of Steel was entertaining, they don’t hold a candle to Marvel. In my humble opinion. Oh, that’s a nice looking mushroom cloud of DC nerd rage in the distance...and here come the ravenous hordes...

So that might be an exaggeration. I hardly think my opinion would actually set off that much of an outrage. But I did say DC is growing on me. In its smaller screen forms – Arrow and The Flash being the outstanding picks, with Gotham bringing up the rear. To deal with Gotham first, it is improving greatly from the shaky start. The story is fleshing out nicely, the characters has stopped coming thick and fast, but there’s still much room for improvement. The last episode saw the introduction of Harvey Dent, played by Nicolas D’Agosto. Who I last saw in Heroes, playing West Rosen, a flying kid who briefly dates Hayden Panettiere’s Claire. It was a promising start, but as an SFX review of the episode noted, for something titled “Harvey Dent”, it was sadly Harvey-light. Still got a ways to go yet, Gotham.

More recently I have been introduced to The Flash. My housemate has become quite enamoured with the series and...well, I kept wandering into the living room while it was on and sitting down. Watching it. Enjoying it. We can safely say I am quite fond of The Flash. It has a good heart, pretty good effects, pretty well cast and compared to its distant, distant cousin Gotham, it doesn’t rush the story. Ironic, considering this is about a superhero with super-speed. The writers have seeded a neat little mystery into the storyline and it’s ticking along nicely. Also it has crossovers with Arrow. And Felicity Smoak. Emily Bett Rickards. She is awesome. And I won’t lie, the main reason behind wanting to watch Arrow.

It was the season three episode entitled “The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak” that clinched it. I’d caught scattered bits of Arrow’s second series and enjoyed what I saw. But it was after becoming enamoured with Felicity in The Flash that I was compelled to take a shoot at Arrow (please, hold the laughter and applause, the tumbleweed is shy about rolling through with such rapturous adoration). It paid off and I’m now quite hooked on that too.

I feel like I’m phoning this in a bit, but there it is. A nice, short, little ditty about how lately I’ve just been casually chilling with the DC Universe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe still holds my heart, but I’m exploring some friendship options outside of that circle. Arrow and The Flash are highly recommended. Gotham still needs to step up and knock one out of the park.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Heroes of Canton

Over the years I’ve been writing (or failing to regularly update in the case of this past year) this blog, I have mentioned on more than one occasion that I work for a company called Boston Tea Party, a small, independent chain of coffee shops in the south-west (and slightly in the Midlands now too). I have taken the time to explain in one whole blog post my journey into the world of tea. But I’ve never taken the time to talk about where Boston Tea Party gets all of its wonderful teas. Until now.

The range of nineteen loose leaf teas are supplied by Canton Tea Company, based in Long Ashton outside Bristol. When Boston changed tea suppliers in 2012 to Canton...I was giddy with all kinds of joy and excitement. First off, the geeky part of my brain was happy because they’re called Canton and it always makes me think of Firefly and the episode “Jaynestown” (leading often to renditions of the song, “The Hero of Canton”). Secondly, because they are amazing. Admittedly, I didn’t know precisely how when I first heard we were switching to Canton, but the little booklet that my head barista showed me gave me hope. A tea supplier serious about providing great quality, proper loose leaf tea that they can actually tell you about. Where it came from, how best to brew it, how it was made...all the things we missed with our previous tea supplier. Who shall remain nameless.

But the brilliance of Canton Tea doesn’t stop there. Oh no. They hold a very special place in my heart now. Not just because they have provided me with such good tea, but because they are all such lovely, lovely people.

Up until last week (exactly one week ago today in fact) I had only met Edgar and (if my memory serves me correctly and I hope it does because they’ll be reading this I really, really hope) Shelley. It was a training day for all of Boston Tea Party’s head baristas. My head barista dragged me along...well, I say dragged. I pretty much begged to be taken because there was going to be some serious tea stuff at this training day, being held at Extract Coffee Roasters, our wonderful Bristol-based coffee suppliers. At this day we were introduced to Canton’s Chocolate Blend. Yes, dear readers, a tea blended with chocolate. It is AWESOME. Oh and we serve it in all Boston Tea Party stores now. Check out this link for the locations.

Then last week happened. It was Canton’s second internal tea training day. The illustrious Head of Drinks for Boston Tea Party, Simon, asked if I would be interested in going along to learn more about Assam. Now Assam is a tricky one for me. I’ve never liked it. But I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to gain tea knowledge and see if I was being unnecessarily judgemental about it. I very quickly said yes. I am very, very glad I said yes.

So I walk to Long Ashton (yes, walk. I don’t drive and didn’t trust the busses as much as my own legs, plus it was a pretty pleasant walk) and find this cosy little building in the Long Ashton Business Park that serves as Canton’s headquarters. For some reason (probably thanks to my visit to Extract those many Moons ago) I expected something bigger, warehouse-sized. Like a Warehouse 13 for tea. I was pleasantly surprised by the surrounds, but that is not to imply disappointment. When surrounded by people who love tea and can give me more knowledge of tea, one can hardly be disappointed. And since I’ve been babbling about these people, let’s do a little run-down.

First off, I’ll start with Phil. Dubbed their “rare tea hunter”, a title I gather bestowed for his many years in the tea industry and his extensive travels to source the tea Canton sell, not only to trade clients like Boston Tea Party, but also to the general populace through their website. See that link? Click it. Go on. So I can talk about Phil. Click it...

Digression aside, Phil was the lovely chap leading the tea training session. Thanks to his wisdom and knowledge of teas, I have discovered that actually, there are varieties of Assam that I could kick back and enjoy. I was simultaneously astounded and vindicated in my belief that in the right context, I would like Assam. He also brought along some Chai he’d brewed up himself and gave me a cup to try. Served the traditional way, with milk. Again, an eye-opening, potentially converting experience. Traditionally, I do not drink tea with milk. But this one might just change all that. All thanks to Phil.

Next up is Ali. She is the brilliant mind behind the Chocolate Blend. For this I have dubbed her “a legend”. Yes, I may have tipped over the point from mid-twenties into late twenties, but those early twenty-isms aren’t going anywhere yet. Why? Because this delightful lady blended an amazing tea. Seriously. Black tea, diced vanilla pod and cocoa nibs. A beautiful, beautiful tea. I can still recall Edgar telling us about its development at the Extract session, how they were sceptical about adding chocolate to tea. The legendary Ali made this happen in an incredibly beautiful way. Did I mention she’s a legend? Good. Just checking.

What would be the quickest way to my heart? Delicious confectionary? A shared affinity for brewed leaf? Writing? Quite possibly all three are contending factors, so put them into one person and you get the lovely Louise. For Canton’s tea training day was also their Cake Day. It was a pleasant surprise to discover, especially when Louise produced a box of Rice Krispie Squares. As I had observed to a friend two days before, I observed again: “It is dangerous to put snackables in front of a D&D player. They don’t tend to survive long”. I restrained myself, but at the same time indulged. This was the first big tick in the “Louise is Awesome” Column (right next to the awesomeness columns for everyone else, all receiving big ticks). The second (or possibly zeroth, because it would have to come before the first as a given) factor is the obvious appreciation of tea. Then writing. Well, when someone turns to a currently unpublished writer who decided when he was fifteen that it was what he wanted to do in life and asks if he wants to guest write the blog’s kind of an unfair of advantage, but...she gave me a writing opportunity. She kind of might have to be my favourite...

Oh yes and I totally did guest write the blog entry and you can read it here.

There is a neat twist, at least I’ll call it a twist, next up. Sophie, who was my point of contact for directions to Long Ashton and the precise temporal mechanics of the day, is one of ours. Or at least, was one of ours. By ours I mean Boston Tea Party. I can dimly recall crossing paths with her in 2011, when I first did a shift at Boston’s headquarters in Park Street. She was pretty cool then and no less cool when she opened the door to Canton Tea and beckoned me in last week.

I met another lovely lady that day by the name of Kate. Alas (and I do feel ashamed of this), I did not learn much of her awesomeness on the fateful Assam Training Day. With any good fortune (and providing they actually like what I’m saying right now) I will be invited to go back to Canton to gain more tea knowledge and get to know these lovely people even better. What I can say now is that she works for Canton, which is instant awesomeness. And that I sense much awesomeness potential.

Finally, I round off my unending ability to ramble with the brains behind the entire operation – Jennifer and Edgar. The latter I have met a couple of times before and I did manage to mildly impress him at the Extract session by knowing that all tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant and anything that doesn’t come from that plant is an infusion, not a tea. Yeah. I know stuff. Anyway, Edgar has proved his awesomeness before and as the first person I knew was associated with Canton, he became the immediate standard of awesome to judge all Canton awesomeness in future. But Edgar isn’t the only brain behind Canton. Reading the About Us section of their website, it tells the reader that Jennifer is true mastermind behind the company. She was quite surprised when I told her that I had walked to Long Ashton from Bristol Temple Meads and insisted I take another Rice Krispie Square before I left Canton for the walk back to Bristol.

Phew. So there we are. Hopefully they approve of the ramblings I have made about them. These wonderful, delightful people of supreme tea wisdom. The Heroes of Canton, the people they call Edgar, Jennifer, Phil, Ali, Louise, Kate and Sophie (plus others I haven’t met yet or spent any extended time chatting to).