Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An ass's game for asses

A grown man, and millionaire, not getting his way.
One of the things six years of living in the UK has given me is the full-bellied confidence to admit that I don't like soccer. I've mentioned this before, and as I said then "Watching professional soccer in Europe is just 90 minutes of guys struggling to compensate for their male insecurities by chasing a ball, getting angry at nothing, and faking injury."

So, really, it is not that I necessarily dislike the game of soccer (though, I do find it a little boring) but those who play it on a professional level. And specifically I do not like the players of the Premier League. Indeed, I feel "do not like" isn't a strong enough phrase. Detest. Abhor. Feel enraged by. Want to see injured and forced into real jobs.

When I first moved to Her Majesty's United Kingdom, I never would have admitted such a thing, of course. I professed an interest in the game because I wanted to fit in as a true Briton, and had led myself to believe that love of "football" was a nonelective part of the process. I learned players' names; I forced myself to not be annoyed by the tedious adirectional track meets that are scoreless games; I pretended I cared about Cristiano Ronaldo and whoever the hell else -- I have since blanked most of the names from my memory.

But Britain is a dynamic place and there is room for those who don't give a damn about the delicacy of some bloke's ankle, nor why his ability to run fast and kick a ball gives him carte blanche to be an insufferable drinkbox. As a matter of fact, it appears the room for such detractors of the beautiful game is increasing these days.

This week, both the Guardian and the Independent have had stories noting a certain backlash against Premier League players in light of the goodwill and general sportsmanship displayed during the recent Olympic Games. This fills me with glee. 

Obviously, I should be mature and just not care either way -- much as is my attitude toward cricket. I have no idea whether its players are assholes, because I pay absolutely no attention to it. And, for the most part, I am that way toward soccer. But I think what annoys me is that there still exists this sense that I should care, that it is really important that I swear my undying allegiance to a shirt. Because, essentially, that's all it is: your shirt against my shirt. 

The people wearing the shirts don't actually give a damn, and will happily put on another shirt for the right price. The people who own the shirts also don't give a damn, and will happily change the shirts' colours to suit their mood. Professional soccer is like the worst-imaginable housing bubble: a ridiculous thing floating on a huge, great nothingness that, despite its total lack of foundation, is important to people's lives. 

I feel deeply sad for the soccer fans who continue to shell out their money -- like faithful dogs -- for an entity that doesn't care about them at all, an entity that in certain ways mistreats them. And I feel deeply angry toward those entities for abusing their supporters, and the municipalities in which those supporters live.

Monday, August 13, 2012

eBookish

You might have spotted a story last week in the Guardian reporting that Kindle books are now outselling printed books on Amazon.co.uk. The same thing had already happened in the United States a few years ago, a fact I have noted in several Welsh-language articles, urging Welsh-language publishers to stop killing their own language through languor.

The gist of these articles is that ebooks are not the future but the present, and the fact that only one (a) Welsh-language publisher has (unsatisfactorily) adapted to the present is embarrassing, distressing and appalling. Welsh speakers should be enraged at the fact that publishers which receive grants (more than half a million pounds a year for the top Welsh-language presses, according to the figures used in this rather dodgy story) from the public purse are so belligerently failing to uphold their responsibilities to the language.

But that stuff exists already in Taliesin and Barn. What I was thinking about as a result of the Guardian article was my reasons for liking ebooks, especially as a writer.

One thing that consistently annoys me about myself is that I tend to be very slow to adopt useful technology into my daily life. In high school, I decried the use of computers and held ridiculously to the idea of writing everything by hand into my early 20s. I didn't get my first mobile phone until 2007, insisting always that they were unnecessary. And when my mother said way back in 2006 that she was considering buying an e-reader I talked her out of it, insisting that such a thing was a terribly stupid idea and would never catch on. A visionary I am not (b).

I tend to hold to things on an odd emotional level. So, in refusing so long to use a computer, for example, I romanticised the physical action of my hand producing words -- as if the action, the flow of ink onto paper, somehow had an effect on the meaning, use, and value of the words. But, really, it doesn't. Not on anything but a one-to-one level. Perhaps, if I write a love letter to Jenn, she will see a kind of value in my having taken the time to do so by hand. But if I were to write a book the same way, all the words would be transposed into type. The three-line look of my letter E, or the dramatic way I swoop the letters B, D, G, K, M, Q, and R would be completely unknown to the reader. What he or she gets is the story I wrote, not the look of how I wrote it. My handwriting contributes nothing to the end experience.

Following the same line of thinking, it seems to me that if the look of the words are not all that relevant (c), neither is the material upon which the words are "printed." Beyond the simple issue of whether the reading experience is pleasurable to the eye, the exact medium of the words isn't a concern to me as a writer. What I'm giving you, what I'm asking you to pay for in some cases, is the story. Whether that story is conveyed on paper, or Kindle screen, or on the side of a building -- whatever works for you, whatever allows you to best grasp in your mind the images I have in my mind -- I don't think it really matters.

That having been said, as a reader, I find myself preferring the Kindle (d) experience for a handful of reasons. First, is the utterly unique and weird fact that I don't really like the feel of books. I don't like the cramp I get in my palm from attempting to hold a book open with one hand whilst eating or sipping tea. I don't like that it is hard to turn the page with one hand whilst eating or sipping tea. And I don't really like the feel of paper on my fingertips. When I mention this dislike of the printed book's tactile experience, most avid readers look at me as if I have confessed a love of punching babies.

But even they can agree that a book's pages can age. A book can look and feel "old" in not only the texture of its paper but the design of its cover. And in some cases I think that physical experience can affect the story, it can make the story itself feel old or dated. The book's unimportant external feel can somehow affect how one views the story within. I realised this when I read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi and Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America in succession. One book takes place in the 1870s, the other in the 1830s; one book was written in the 1870s, the other in the 2000s. But when reading them on Kindle both felt equally as fresh. Obviously, this is partial testament to the skills of both Twain and Carey as writers. But it occurred to me that because I was not sitting there with an "old" book in hand, I was taking in Twain's story in an unfiltered way; I was just getting his words and not a physical experience.

I realised this again when I read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. That book was published just five years after Pigs in Heaven, which I had read in paperback. The latter had felt dated, rooted in the late 80s/early 90s. The former, read on Kindle, certainly has more depth but I think the thing that made it feel so fresh was the fact that I wasn't distracted by the physical nature of a book. I got the story and not something extraneous.

As a writer, this is the experience I want for the reader. I want my story to have its best chance of succeeding with the reader, and would hate to think that he or she would subconsciously decide they hated my words because the book they read them in smelled funny, or had bad cover art. An ebook, I feel, is most likely to convey just my story, without added input.

Also, as a writer who would like to earn money, I like the fact that ebooks don't go out of print. My Kindle book, The Way Forward, is still selling a copy every now and then. Whereas you'd be hard-pressed to get your hands on a copy of my printed-by-a-proper-publishing-house book, Cwrw Am Ddim. As I get close to finishing my third book, and begin daydreaming of its being published, I hope it will be available in both formats, so the reader can make the decision for him- or herself. But if someone were to ask me, I'd probably suggest getting the ebook.

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(a) I don't know whether I can take credit but I am happy to point out that Lolfa, the one Welsh-language publisher with books available on Kindle, was approaching the thing in a very half-assed until after I had written a column criticising Welsh-language publishers for their failures.

(b) Though, it's OK to be a hater because everything is bad.

(c) I realise good arguments can be made for putting thought into which font is used, so, look may have some importance.

(d) I'm saying "Kindle" here because that's what I have. But I would suspect that the experience is more or less the same regardless of the reader you choose.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Londres

I'm moving to London.

This is what I tell myself each time I visit, at least. London really is the best city on the planet. This is not an arguable point. It may not be the best for you -- it's entirely fair to question whether the UK's capital would be the right fit for an individual. But in all the ways one can objectively measure a city, London is the best. And every time I'm there I get this worried feeling in my gut, thinking: "Isn't this where I should be? Am I hurting myself -- creatively, career-wise -- by failing to move here?"

It is false to claim that Wales has not one single writer of note, but certainly it's true that London has more. Not just numerically but per capita -- it's not simply a matter of more people producing more stuff. Creatively, London produces a hell of a lot more, and of considerably better quality. That's not surprising. Ideas beget ideas; that's long been a happy side-effect of major metropolitan areas. And since I dream (perhaps naively) of being a great writer (whatever the hell that means), I often worry that I am damaging myself by not throwing myself into that great, swirling city.

I suspect I would last two years -- maybe three -- before London started to burn me up. Cities' energy come from their inhabitants, even those who have little energy to give. Cities take and take and take. They are great nuclear furnaces fuelled by people's ambitions/hopes/capabilities/etc. Some people thrive and can live their whole lives in such a place. Indeed, some people could live no other way. I think it is realistic to assume I would suffer a mental breakdown if I stayed too long. But I would like to have that short time before it all got too much. I feel like being there would somehow propel me to that greatness of which I am always dreaming.

But one does not simply walk into Mordor London. It costs money to live in the Big Smoke. I estimate my annual income would need to increase roughly 500 percent for me to even have a chance of surviving those hypothetical two years. So, for the timebeing I'll have to stick with visiting whenever I can.

Jenn and I went to London over the weekend, hoping to get a sense of the Olympic atmosphere. We were not disappointed. In every Tube train at least one of the volunteers could be spotted on his or her way to or from a shift at the various Olympics venues around town. Televisions in every pub were airing the BBC's ass-kicking coverage (I feel sorry for those of you back home, stuck watching NBC's substandard coverage). Union Jacks were fluttering everywhere. Team GB paraphernalia was surprisingly commonplace. And to everyone's absolute amazement, the transportation network was coping just fine. Indeed, I can remember no point in my life when London's Underground has run more efficiently. In your face, Mitt Romney.

We got into the city a little after 8, with me still buzzing over the fact we had watched some of Rebecca Adlington's bronze-medal swim on Jenn's phone. Watching the Olympics on a phone! Yes, I knew you could watch video on a phone -- waiting an exhaustingly long time for it to buffer so that whatever relevant point you were trying to make in turning to YouTube has long since slipped into the ether. And yes, I know that Joe Dunthorne tweeted about watching Wimbeldon on his phone. But since I am saddled with an insufferably shit HTC Desire (a) and live in the coverage hinterland that is Wales, I had never even thought to attempt livestreaming something on it. But there Jenn and I were, watching live swimming on her iPhone. The future is now!

We stayed with our friends, Dave and Jen (henceforth to be known as American Jen, to avoid confusion with my fiancee, Devonshire Jenn), in north London. There was tacos and talking and booze and Olympics and we didn't get to bed until 2 in the morning. This is the way with trips to London. Conversations carry on into the night, and ambitious plans for early-morning activities get dropped.

We got up around 11, made a big breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, and set out for Hyde Park to take part in the fun of BT London Live. My understanding of the (sometimes) free event was that it had gigantic TV screens upon which one could watch the Olympics, and stages and food, similar to what was set up in Hyde Park when Jenn and I went to see the royal wedding. And it was like that. Sort of. But, unfortunately, it had a big fence around it, which resulted in people having to stand in queues for at least half an hour. And we weren't allowed to bring any food or drink into the fenced-off area.

Due to the fact we had come equipped for a picnic and were therefore unwilling to dump all our food and water for the sake of then paying for it again on the other side of some hoarding, we decided to skip the event and instead find a nearby pub with televisions. We watched cycling with a load of Dutch fans until we got hungry, then wandered over to Regents Park for a late lunch/early dinner picnic. Sandwiches, all kinds of cous-cousy things I won't eat, crisps, fruit, pie and booze were spread out on a blanket. The sun shone in our faces, the sky stretched wide and pale blue in that amazing way it does on a nice day in London, and we sat chatting and laughing until about half an hour before Jessica Ennis was set to run the 800.

Time to find another pub with a TV. But the booze had affected our sense of direction slightly, which is to say that it affected everyone's ability to listen to me when I suggested we were charging off the wrong way. Eventually we made it out of the park and into Camden. The first pub was too busy. The next pub was too busy. Panic was starting to set in and American Jen declared we should all take a taxi back to the flat and watch it there.

There were six of us now, too many for a single taxi.
We'll go in two taxis, announced American Jen.
No one wanted to pay for two taxis. Far better to spend that money on beer. Besides, the race was on in 12 minutes. There wouldn't be enough time to get home.

But off American Jen went, speedwalking down the street in pursuit of I don't know what, with Devonshire Jenn hot on her heels, shouting "Wooo!" and waving a Union Jack.

"Go, babe!" I shouted at Devonshire Jenn, and the rest of us quietly decided to derail the go-home plan by walking slow.

We landed in a pub called the Spread Eagle, a nice enough place but for the fact that its women's toilets were reportedly atrocious. Jessica Ennis won gold and the pub seemed to come alive. When Mo Farah won gold in the 10,000m the whole pub was filled up with the sound of shouting. You could imagine the jubilation as a solid thing, testing the strength of the pub walls and threatening to smash the windows and spill out into the street. Devonshire Jenn attempted to lead the pub in a sing-along of Spandau Ballet's "Gold." No one took up the song with her.

"Come on!" she shouted, nudging me.
"I have never heard that song in my life," I said. "I don't think anyone knows it."

She looked at me as if I had claimed to not know the lyrics of "Happy Birthday." We stayed on at the pub a while longer. Team GB lost in football and only a handful of people in the pub even pretended to care. Soccer is old and busted, yo. Then we fell out into the Camden night.

Restaurants were still buzzing with diners. This was not the Hogarthian terror one would expect from Cardiff on a Saturday night. There was revelry, certainly, but not the feeling of menace that pervades Wales' capital. You can walk down the street and feel reasonably safe; you can imagine sitting at a restaurant with someone and being able to have a conversation. What is it about the 150 miles between Cardiff and London that so vastly affects people's abilities to behave themselves? London can be a rough place, I know. People get mugged and beaten and stabbed and, sometimes, shot. But when you compare the high-traffic areas of both places, London wins every time. It is so superior as to feel unfair.

Once home we were quick to bed, the day's booze and sunshine and walking and excitement having taken its toll. When Devonshire Jenn has had an interesting day she talks in her sleep. She curled up next to me and talked all through the night.

In the morning it was more pancakes, eggs, Mexican beans, salsa, fruit. More conversation and idly watching the women's marathon before heading to catch our train. Enough time to get cans of gin and tonic, and rum and cola from the M&S at Paddington Station, then we were on the 14:37 to Cardiff Central and slipping quickly from the city.
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(a) Never ever ever buy an HTC phone, bitches. I was a damned fool to leave the Apple Cult and plan to return as soon as the new iPhone is released in September (rumoured).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Eight things I loved about July

~ 8 ~ Setting a date: July 20, 2013. That's the wedding date for Jenn and I (or is it "Jenn and me"?) Obviously we had a rough idea of dates when looking for venues in June, but didn't really nail things down until a month later. It is a weird thing to try to plan something so far in advance; it doesn't quite feel real. The tremendous amount of time between now and then lulls us (or, at least, me) into a weird almost belief that, somehow, it will all come together with little to no effort on our part, and we'll have no trouble paying for it. In certain ways, the wedding feels like when Jenn and I sit around and daydream about what we'd do/where we'd go if we won the lottery. But I am sure it will start to feel a little more real in August, after we sit down with organisers and caterers and so on -- the thought of which I find mildly terrifying.
Next week we'll get an actual sense of how much things will cost and I anticipate this knowledge will inspire little fits of depression and a panicked desire to make sudden, drastic changes ("OK, new plan! Everyone brings their own lunch!").

~ 8 ~ Summer weather: I understand that rain is an inherent part of life in Britain. I get that. But there has been far, far too much of it this summer. Through May, June, and most of July, there was little to do but sit inside, staring at grey, soaked streets, eating cupcakes and slowly putting on weight. Or, at least, that's what I did. The early months of summer were wholly miserable and had the effect of ratcheting my homesickness -- like arthritis in that it is inflamed by unpleasant weather -- to intolerable levels. Thankfully, summery weather final arrived in the last week or so of July. It got hot enough that Jenn and I slept without a duvet; I was able to sit outside in a T-shirt; coming home from work one day, I was actually compelled to take off my coat and tie.
People here responded, of course, with a kind of madness. A frantic competition began amongst many Britons to see who could get skin cancer first. People flooded beer gardens and drank through to the next morning. And far too many men who had no business doing so took their shirts off. People on this tiny island lose all sense of decorum when the sun shines. That is probably because warm weather is so rare one never gets a chance to get used to it. There is no opportunity to establish a kind of normalcy.
Already the good weather has faded. As I write this, cars splash through puddles outside, and I am back to wearing at least two layers of clothing.

~ 8 ~ Hiking in the Brecon Beacons: I kept my shirt on (for the most part) during the warm weather, but was still keen to make the most of it. On July's penultimate weekend, Jenn and I took the train up to Merthyr Tydfil, and walked from there into Brecon Beacons National Park. Merthyr's proximity to such natural beauty underlines what a miserable failure of a town it is; the opportunity to benefit from tourism is right fucking there and yet they do absolutely nothing but lament an industrial past that ceased before most of the town's parents were born.
Our stated goal -- stated mostly because we are horrible at judging distances -- was to walk all the way to the top of Pen y Fan, the highest peak in southern Britain, and back, in an afternoon. We got nowhere close. I think such an epic trek (about 20 miles, roundtrip) might be possible were we to wake up particularly early and actually manage to stay on the right path, but we did neither of these things -- cheerfully wandering about a mile or two off track, into the middle of hillocky nowhere, before realising our mistake.
But I was quite happy that we did. We ate our simple lunch, cheese sandwiches and crisps, in a meadow where the only thing we could hear was the sound of wind pushing through nearby trees -- no cars, no aeroplanes, no other people making noise. Those of you playing along at home have no idea how hard it is to find such a thing on this tiny, crowded island. There are people everywhere. Usually that doesn't bother me so much, I am more a city person by nature, but occasionally the constant lack of silence wears on me.
Britain has its breathing spaces, but I find them frustratingly difficult to access without car or great deals of money. I suppose, though, the same is true anywhere; part of the reason a place doesn't have people is that it is not easy to get to.

~ 8 ~ Swimming in the sea: The sunny weather persisted into the final weekend of July, when Jenn and I went to the Gower for a day with her brother, his fiancée, and her son. The Gower, for those of you playing along outside Wales, is a peninsula just to the west of Swansea, designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, which means that it is a part of Britain where people are desperate to establish caravan parks. It is also an area beautiful enough that Jenn's grandparents have made an annual visit for the past two decades -- participating in that very strange kind of British camping where people crowd together on an open field, no more than six feet from each other, for a week or more at a time.
On a late Sunday morning, we packed five people into a two-door Mini and trundled off to meet Jenn's grandparents at a pub on the Gower. Afterward, we went to the campsite where they were staying and wandered down to one of the sandy beaches that are one of the main reasons so many hundreds of thousands of people visit each year. The sun was out, but the warm weather of days previous had ebbed slightly and the wind was pushing along at approximately 8,000 mph. Jenn didn't care; she wanted to swim in the sea. 
And, deep down in my cynical soul, there was a kid part of me that wanted to swim, too. So, we put on our suits (a somewhat traumatic experience for me because my formerly loose-fitting suit was now snug) and ran full speed into the Ungodly Cold North Atlantic. Sit in a tub full of ice cubes and you will start to get a sense of how cold the water was. I spent the first several minutes involuntarily shouting, "Hunh! Hunh!" as my body kept trying to develop the ability to levitate above the surface.
Eventually, though, I lost all feeling in my extremities and it was lovely. The sun shone down on us and Jenn laughed and splashed around and I thought: "Well, if I can't go to Minnesota this summer, at least I have this."

~ 8 ~ Shakespeare: For no apparent reason other than to prove they can, the BBC in July decided to air four new productions of Shakespeare plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. The plays all fit together, of course, and the BBC produced them under the banner of The Hollow Crown. Money spent on bringing in top-level actors resulted in a lack of budget for convincing crowd scenes (the Battle of Agincourt, for example, apparently having been fought between only about 30 men), but the productions were still incredibly good. This is one of those Why Britain is Better things: it has a broadcasting body the produces new versions of classic literature. When was the last time an American broadcaster did such a thing?
The whole thing reminded me of my persistent wish to see a production at the Globe.

~ 8 ~ The Opening Ceremony: There was the Queen jumping out of a helicopter, a Mary Poppins army, British industrialists doing the macarena, and sequences with people in wires were kept to a tolerable minimum. I am inclined to say the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games were the best I've seen in a long time. It showed sides of Britain that are sometimes left out of outsiders' understanding of the place -- pride in the NHS, for example. The British are a frustratingly self-effacing people, but this was a vision of the country with which many Britons were comfortable. I know that because my British fiancée and I had a few friends around to watch the ceremony and we were all cheering. A friend of mine who has been sceptical of the Olympics apparently changed his mind upon watching the opening ceremony.
Sticking with my long-standing tradition of having cheesily themed opening ceremony dinners based on the host location, we made fish and chips and mushy peas, then washed it down with Pimms and various British ales. For dessert, our friend, Laura, brought a kind of deconstructed apple crumble in the form of homemade ice cream.
I had so much fun. It reminded me a little of going over to friends' houses in the United States to watch football. Everyone was commenting and making jokes, and just having a good time; the thing on TV becomes almost secondary to the fun had watching it.
"They should do this sort of thing more often," Mrs. Phin said. "Maybe it would cost too much to do all the time, but perhaps once a year -- for Christmas."

~ 8 ~ The Olympic Games: Dude, I love me some 'lympics. I'll never fully understand why; I just do. I think I admire most the athletes of obscure sports because, having learned Welsh to a high level, I can somewhat relate to that sense of sinking endless hours of effort into things that others don't really give a damn about. By that analogy, I think I can also relate to the people who try so hard and come in fifth.
At the moment, though, I am really into watching the physical sports, like judo and boxing. I am fascinated by judo, especially, because it looks like the sort of thing that would never be fun. Not ever. With most things, you can see how a person might have gotten into that activity. For example, you can imagine a swimmer's career beginning with a love of splashing in the pool, or a cyclist starting out as little kid who loves to go fast. But judo, at what point does a person think: "You know what would be fun? Mashing my fingers and getting thrown around by my shirt. Wheee!"
I'm impressed by the fact that judo competitors have taken this wholly un-fun thing and become really good at it.
I think my only complaint about the Olympic Games is the endless parade of blokes who look better than I do. Yes, I realise the reason they have such perfect bodies is that they do little else but train, but I don't care. It's hard on my ego. I'm looking forward to watching things like shot put to make myself feel better.

~ 8 ~ Writing: At the moment, I have a little more than one chapter to write before I can claim to have finished a rough draft of my book. I think I am still on track to meet my self-imposed deadline of the second weekend of August. Unfortunately, I will be nowhere near done at that point. As part of the editing process, I'm planning to eliminate an entire chapter. It is exhausting, but I love that I am doing this. Hopefully it will pay off.