Tove Jansson – the Truth about the Moomins


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Tove_Jansson_in_1967A while back I wrote a post about Tove Jansson’s last Moomin book, Moominvalley in November (1971), pointing out that behind the innocent guise of a charming children’s tale lurked a masterpiece of Nordic existentialism. I had no idea. I’ve just finished Boel Westin’s biography of the author Tove Jansson: Life, Art and Words, translated into English for the first time this year, and now all my Moomin books are under a bucket at the bottom of the garden with several large bricks on top.

If Westin’s book is anything to go by (and it’s hard to fault any of her meticulously researched arguments) the entire chronicle of those fluffy-tailed, big-nosed cuddly toys is a masterpiece study of the relationship between the artist, family, existence, the universe and consciousness to rival anything by Sartre, Kafka or Camus.

In many ways Tove Jansson’s life is a text-book essay in How to Be a Bohemian Artist. Her father was a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer, and they come across as wackily creative and avant-garde as you would expect, along with their immediate circle of relatives and friends. Tellingly holidays often consisted of sitting in tents on islands in the middle of thunderstorms, an image of the eccentric family simultaneously defying and flourishing from disasters and tempests which she would return to time and again in her books. She took Art at several colleges. By her own admission her studies followed the all-too familiar pattern of Dull Classes – Rebellion against Traditional Teachers – Creating a Bohemian Colony of Free Art with Fellow Students – Rinse and Repeat. For most of her career in her own mind she was always, first and foremost, a painter, not a writer of children’s fairy stories. What is interesting is that instead of hating the Moomins for the colossal distraction they became (at one point she was receiving hundreds of fan letters a day, and replying to most if not all), she used them to work through her own psychological responses to the world around her, which is why the series of books (and comic strips) grow so decidedly odd as the saga progresses.

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934. One of the first appearances of a Moomin, painted in Nazi Germany.

It’s very tempting to assume that the Moomin family is just a fantasy version of her own family and friends. Moomintroll himself first appeared alongside her signature in the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, for which she drew many cartoons (including a controversial cover showing the European powers trying to appease a cry-baby Hitler). Yet with a couple of exceptions there isn’t really a one-to-one correspondence between the inhabitants of Moominvalley and the people who influenced her. Her first partner the larger-than-life leftwing intellectual Artos Wirtanen, who she almost married, appears as both Snufkin and the doleful philosopher Muskrat in Finn Family Moomintroll. Having eventually acknowledged and embraced her lesbianism, Jansson introduced the real love of her life, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä as Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter. Jansson claimed that Moominmamma was her own mother, Ham, but in fact, as with all the other creatures in the tales, she becomes another aspect of her creator’s psyche as it wrestled with the artists relationship with art and existence. In fact the Moominvalley bestiary reads as though someone had emptied Tove Jansson’s unconscious mind out onto the table and then used the contents to make a series of fluffy toys.

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc...

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc…

The Moomin books fall into three distinct groups. Comet in Moominland (1946), Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) and The Exploits of Moominpappa (1950) are tales of a Bohemian commune facing challenges and threats from outside, returning each time to the safety of Moominvalley and the tower-house of the Moomins. Architecture played a huge role in Jansson’s life. She fought tooth and nail to acquire a number of wonderfully unusual studios, all characterised by vertical spaces in which she would build ‘nests’ to live. Outdoing just about every other free-thinking creative she ended up building her own house out of stones with her bare hands on an island in the middle of nowhere, desperately searching for the solitude she revelled in, and felt was a profound catalyst for her art. Inevitably the famous Moomin author in her house on an island was a magnet to thousands of fans who would cheerfully row out for a look and even a chat. She accepted most with good grace, though apparently hurled rocks at some on the occasional bad day.

Tove Jansson the Artist

Tove Jansson the Artist

In the second group of books, Moominsummer Madness (1954),  Moominland Midwinter (1957) and, to a lesser extent, Tales from Moominvalley (1964) the family is uprooted from the familiar landscape of home, either because they wake up in the wrong season to find everything changed, or a great big flood whirls them away. Westin argues that this is partly Jansson’s moving apart from the family that had defined her, and her own uneasy relationship with her father who, traumatised by the wars and political upheavals of the early part of the century, had embraced an ugly nationalism that Jansson hated.

And then it gets really weird. In the last two books – Moominpappa at Sea (1965), and Moominvalley in November it’s not just the family that starts to disappear, but the whole notion of the artistic consciousness built into the stories fragments. Moominpappa has a mid-life crisis and turns into an obsessive, dragging the whole family to a lighthouse while the nihilistic Groke hovers in the background. Moominmamma, always the secure lynch-pin of the group, goes all quiet and pointless, paints a big fresco and promptly disappears into it. She watches the others get on with their lives in the real world with a kind of melancholy satisfaction. For Jansson she was a painter first and foremost, and life became a search for the silence and solitude that would allow her to get on with her art. Disappearing into a painting on an island in the middle of nowhere probably had huge appeal. Being one of the most famous authors of children’s books in the entire world made this a wee bit tricky.

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa's mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

I won’t go over Moominvalley in November, you can read my thoughts on the last book here. Suffice to say the Moomintrolls are not even in the story, they’re away on their island pondering on the nature of existence and losing themselves in paintings. Eventually Jansson turned from painting to writing, producing a series of adult books that tackled the same themes of identity, art and the uneasy relationship between consciousness, creation and, in this case, words. Her books have a beautiful economy of style, but no Moomins, and despite the praise and awards heaped on them they never gained the immense traction of her supposed tales for kids. Yet Tove Jansson was never a victim of her success, the author or painter desperate to create Great Art but tragically tied to her one commercial triumph. Her Moomin tales, cartoons, operas and songs represent a constant internal dialogue in which she tried to understand and work through her relationship with her own artistic identity.


Westin’s biography is a fascinating read. It suffers occasionally from hagiography in its praise of its subject and her work, though it’s entirely understandable given that Tove Jansson was such a remarkable woman. The portrait created is so compelling it makes you wish she’d been a friend you could have spent fascinating days with. The passages in which Westin (Professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm) slips into academic mode are less interesting. Given that the Moomin books are a rigorous essay in self-analysis, layering more on top seems over egging the pudding a bit. Appeals to Freud come across as a bit obvious – Moominpappa and his Great Big Lighthouse, nudge nudge etc. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone interested in the Moomins, Existentialism, the Artist and Art or Jansson herself should read this.

Europa Report (2013)


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EuropaReportPosterSpoiler Alert

News from Space last week confirmed the existence of an ocean underneath the icy surface of Enceladus. Furthermore it seems that this immense body of water is in contact with the moon’s rocky core, allowing minerals to leach into the sea. Chemicals, water and tidal heating caused by Saturn’s gravity point to the tantalising possibility of life. The only way to find out, of course, is to drill through the ice and have a look, a plan that’s been on the cards for Jupiter’s moon Europa for many years, and which forms the background to the found-footage SF movie Europa Report.

For a while it seemed that the completely ridiculous Apollo 18, with its moon rock spiders, had pretty well put the nail in the coffin of the found-footage SF genre and the horror versions were tying themselves in increasing knots. I know modern dads sometimes hide behind the video camera to avoid engaging with their families but if I’m rescuing my daughter from a coven of witches I want one hand to hold the kid, and one hand to hold the tyre iron, not a bloody handy cam, but hey ho. Anyway just when we all thought grainy video footage had had its day as a plot device, Europa Report breathes fresh life into the conceit, combining hard realism with a pretty engaging story.

The Mission Crew - slightly more competent than the BBC's band of muppets.

The Mission Crew – slightly more competent than the BBC’s band of muppets.

The release schedule of Europa Report was frustratingly odd. It came out on the US iTunes in 2013 as a download but wasn’t available here until this Spring, probably to coincide with the release of Gravity on DVD so it could ride on the coattails of that movie. Apart from obvious similarities to 2001, Sunshine and Gravity in its hard science approach to near-space exploration the closest ancestor is the BBC TV series Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets, produced by the BBC in 2004 as a quasi-documentary tour of the universe taking in Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, a fictional comet and Pluto. It was an oddly unsatisfying two-part series that didn’t really work as science or drama, and underscored a lot of the problems facing film makers trying to create realistic space journeys that have enough drama and interest to sustain a couple of hours.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The basic problem is that in between taking off and landing space flight is deadly dull and the writers are left with very little to work on. The choices are

a) Things Go Wrong – which can be pretty exciting and spectacular in the case of Gravity or Apollo 13 where things go really wrong. For the BBC documentary and Europa Report things can’t go too wrong, because then you’ve lost the mission. So things go a bit wrong and people gather anxiously around readouts muttering things like ‘I’m seeing a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’, which means bugger-all to anyone. The only alternative to this is Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up

b) Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up – and boy did they cock up in the BBC documentary. Whoever put this lot in charge of a multi-trillion dollar spaceship needs a quiet talking to. Nearly everything went wrong and a lot of it was down to human error – i.e. dithering around in lethal radiation zones, getting too close to the asteroid so the ship nearly got atomised, staying too long on Venus/Mars/the Comet etc etc. Inevitably this triggers the Crewman Dies scenario, followed by the Guilty Crewman Mopes Around. This can trigger Crewman Goes Barmy but then you are into the realm of Apollo 18 as real astronauts just sit on bunks and sulk instead of chasing the others round the ship with a hammer or a knife and fork like Big Jim in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

Landing on Europa

Landing on Europa

So in Europa Report we get Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up when Sharlto Copley gets Hydrazine all over his suit while performing a routine EVA and so has to be left to die in space, followed by Guilty Crewman Mopes Around when Michael Nyqvist’s character goes all Scandinavian and broody because he thinks it was his fault. We almost get Crewman Goes Barmy because he sees things moving around outside when they land on Europa and everyone else exchanges glances and twiddles their fingers next to their temples. Of course anyone with a fraction of a brain would be going ‘Bloody hell, where?’ but this is Seriously Real Space Stuff so instead they gather round readouts going ‘Maybe it’s a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’. From then on the film is just one string of disasters after another, people falling through the ice, engines going wrong, the ship falling back onto the ice, everyone else falling through the ice again until we get the final OMG scene at the very end, which to be honest was expected all along but is still impressive despite that.

Stepping onto the surface.

Stepping onto the surface.

To be fair, although the film, like every Lovecraft story ever written, rides well-worn tracks to the final reveal it is still an impressive and eminently watchable movie, and before Gravity came along a delightfully refreshing break from overblown action SF spectaculars like Oblivion and Pacific Rim. The cast, on the whole, act well even if their roles are a bit obvious. Sharlto Copley reprises his goofily enthusiastic Wikus from District 9, Michael Nyqvist does Gloomy Swede and Christian Camargo looks and sounds like Mr Spock as the science officer. The real star of the show is, for me, Anamaria Marinca as the pilot Rosa. The way she switches between I’m Going To Die terror and sheer, wondrous curiosity in the final few moments is very moving, flattened somewhat by Embeth Daviditz’s wholly unecessary ‘Well that really shook up our understanding of the universe, didn’t it?’ speech in which she seems to be trying to channel Margaret Thatcher’s accent.

In terms of cinematography and pacing, the film is spot on. Although ultra realistic space flight tends to consist of scrapyard vessels motionless against a black background, the special effects and imagery work beautifully to give a real sense of a journey travelling far beyond the limits of what’s decent. While the film might now be completely overshadowed by Gravity, it’s an unfair comparison as it has its own intelligent and considered pace that rewards careful watching.

Kate Bush


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Tickets for Kate Bush’s first live concert in 35 years went on sale this morning and within fifteen minutes all 80,000 had gone. The fact she hasn’t toured for so long (and this isn’t really a tour as it’s just one London venue) only partly explains the frenzy. For some reason she has created a hugely loyal fan base over the years which is far out of sync with her fairly modest output (10 studio albums and one tour), including a whopping great 12-year gap in the middle.

When she first turned up on Top of the Pops in 1978 the reasons for a lot of her appeal were immediately obvious – stunning doe-eyed, big-eared teenager in a leotard gyrating in peculiar Lyndsey Kemp inspired dance routines. She had a voice that could shatter glass (Johnny Rotten’s mum called it ‘a bag of cats’) and she sang about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, that classic tale of tempestuous passion gone wrong. Gered Mankowitz’s photo of her in a skimpy top and no bra on a cold day ended up plastered on the back of London buses and added to the notion it was all about sex – fuelling the rumour that she’d posed nude for Penthouse when that magazine did a photo shoot of someone called ‘Kate’ who looked remarkably similar (the model Kate Simmons).


In the age of Lady Gaga (and before her, Madonna), Kate Bush seems less remarkable now but at the time she was part of a ground-breaking emergence of women artists taking centre stage in the rock world. Before Punk in the mid 1970s female singers in the UK tended to be winsome folk guitarists and/or Eurovision fodder like Marianne Faithful or The Nolans. Apart from Suzy Quatro, who dressed, acted and sang like a Rocker bloke, women in bands stood at the back, rattled tambourines à la Linda McCartney and looked cute. Punk changed that. On the back of the indie-based shake up of the UK record industry a group of female artists appeared in an explosion of demented music, all going for the same mad stare, letter-box mouth, Miss Haversham couture and weird jerky arm-waving dance routines – Lene Lovich, Hazel O’Connor, Nina Hagen and Kate Bush. Instead of crooning about flowers, puppets on strings and falling autumn leaves they sang about sex and death, and what a bunch of arseholes most blokes were.

Kate Bush was different from the rest. Although she appeared on the back of punk she, by rights, shouldn’t have been as successful as she was. Anything that smacked of pretentious progressive rock or hippy music was roundly sneered at, yet here she was a woman from a resolutely bohemian artist family singing songs about Gurdjieff, Peter Pan and ‘England My Lionheart’. Johnny Rotten, one of the most articulate of the punk musicians, loved her stuff, and not just because at the time her voice was a falsetto wail that took some getting used to.

So why is Kate Bush so popular? I can only articulate my own reasons for being completely in love with her but I think there are a number of things that have led to her accruing a following whose interest and loyalty continually baffles her.

1. She does her own stuff when she feels like it, full stop. Apart from the second album Lionheart which she was pressurised into bringing out on the back of her initial success, and is filled with the songs she didn’t think good enough to put on the debut LP The Kick Inside, she cheerfully follows her own interests and instincts without paying the slightest interest to any other trends. In this she’s a lot like David Bowie, who is a clear influence on her own music. For this reason she’s a role model for anyone who wants to do their own thing artistically and turn left, regardless of whether critics, listeners and the world in general think she ought to go right.

Channelling Eisenstein

Channelling Eisenstein

2. She’s bonkers – often producing stuff that is utterly insane, and yet she rarely misses a step. She has a magpie mind that picks out ideas and images and then bangs them together in weird and wonderful combinations. She’ll sing about sex with snowmen, failed bank robberies in the strangest faux cockney accent, incorporate Bulgarian folk wailing in a song about fireworks and write an ode to the Easy-Care cycle on a washing machine as a metaphor for something or other. She wanted to put Molly Bloom’s monologue to music but the estate of James Joyce said no, so she wrote her own version The Sensual World. They relented in 2011 and let her use the original on her album Director’s Cut, but I honestly prefer her lyrics.

3. She’s surprisingly down to earth. Like Enya her resolute refusal to engage in any self-promotion, and her 12 year disappearing act to look after her son, has led to speculation that she is a weird recluse, somewhere between Miss Haversham and Miss Whiplash as one biographer put it. Either that or she really had gone bonkers and lurked in her mansion terrified of emerging and ballooning on Snickers. In reality she comes across as totally straightforward in the rare interviews she grants (as does Enya) and talks about her own music in a completely unpretentious manner that sometimes borders on the dismissive – famously calling her film based around the album The Red Shoes ‘a load of bollocks’.

4. She simply has no comprehension of the effect she has on other people, often to an absurd degree. Perhaps it’s a symptom of distancing yourself from the music world between albums, but she comes across as genuinely shocked by the response she gets whenever she sticks her head above the parapet. She releases a song in a manner that suggests ‘here you go, let me know if you think it’s crap or not’ and then is baffled when the world goes into meltdown. “It’s all very flattering, but have you all gone completely mad?” she asked, somewhat ingenuously, in one radio interview when Director’s Cut appeared to the inevitable response. Apparently her reaction when hearing of the frenzy around the announcement of her upcoming concerts was a similar WTF?

katebushlion5. She’s very English in her content and treatment – which is why she’s never really taken off in the US. Listening to her music over the ten albums is like dragging a garden rake through an old second hand bookshop with a particularly large children’s section, tucked away in some sleepy market town. One of her biggest influences is Monty Python – which explains the constant strain of comedy surrealism in her songs.

I saw Kate Bush live in 1979 at the Manchester Apollo. She spent two hours singing and dancing her way through what was then her entire catalogue, changing costume for nearly every song. It was incredible and the audience sat open-mouthed in stunned silence till the end, when they went completely berserk. She didn’t tour again, though she put in a few one-off appearances at various shows. She’s performing live again at the end of the year – by some colossal fluke I managed to get a couple of tickets so it’ll be interesting to compare the two. These days her songs run between 7 and 12 minutes and are perhaps even more deranged than before. My mind is boggling already.


Ragged Claws out now!


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Goodreads Book Giveaway

Ragged Claws by John Guy Collick

Ragged Claws

by John Guy Collick

Giveaway ends March 31, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Ragged Claws, second volume in The Book of the Colossus, is available on Amazon as an eBook and a paperback, and on Smashwords. Apple, Kobo and Barnes and Noble will follow shortly.

To order from click here.

To order from click here.

To order from Smashwords click here.

To order from Createspace click here.

Ragged Claws, like its predecessor Thumb, is set at the very end of the universe, when all the stars and planets have dissolved into quantum ash. The last remnants of humanity live on an immense, flat singularity created for them by the alien race known as the Black Roses. Covered in the remnants of ground-up worlds this wilderness has become a workbench on which mankind is building a god. The titan, half a million-miles long from head to toe, will come to life and carry humanity to a new universe. Because there is nothing left at the end of time the materials to build the colossus are plundered from the past via wormholes punched through the singularity. These swiftly-fading portals also provide the last people with the clothes, food and artifacts they need to survive and so the realms of Ragged Claws are a patchwork of tatterdemalion kingdoms in which diesel-powered flyers fight battles inside the caverns of God’s body with guns and missiles, and men and machines are fused together into monstrous hybrids using science so rarefied it has become arcane magic.

The Great Task has taken a million years and is reaching completion, but over the long aeons most people have forgotten its purpose and turned on each other, building empires and kingdoms that plot, go to war, conquer, rise and fall. Max Ocel and Abby Fabrice are making their way through the shadowed interstices of the titan’s body in search of the Machine Men. Max carries him with a terrible secret that will condemn all of mankind to destruction and he finds himself in a race against time, pursued by enemies human and inhuman, and betrayed by those closest to him.

If you want to find out more about the universe of The Book of the Colossus, and the first book in the series, Thumb, check out this interview on Underground Book Reviews.

For those of you who have not read Thumb, the eBook version is now available at the discounted price of 77p/$1.28.


Ragged Claws available on March 16th!


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Release flyer


Max and Abby are trapped in the city of Interosseous where the inhabitants navigate through the treacherous streets using the giant faces in the sky.

If humanity is to survive Max must contact the Machine Men who live in the Heart and Mind of the Colossus. But the way onward is a deadly maze peopled with lost creatures transformed by the darkness at the end of time.

As Max tries to trace a safe path through the Body of God he stumbles across a pair of fugitives, and finds himself caught in a web of betrayal and conspiracy that ultimately threatens to destroy the last remnants of mankind.

Ragged Claws is the astonishing sequel to Thumb and the second volume of The Book of the Colossus, a gripping fast-paced science fantasy series.

Ragged Claws Cover Art


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The great news is that the manuscript for Ragged Claws is back from my editor, John Jarrold, and ready for the final knocking into shape before release. The book is 99% finished, with just a few minor adjustments and tightening of knots before it gets pushed out to the world. I will announce the release date shortly.

Anyway, to celebrate I thought I’d do two things. First of all I’m knocking the price of the e-book version of Thumb down to around 99 cents/75 pence. This is because Ragged Claws is the sequel (and part two of a four-book series), and people really need to read Thumb first to understand the beginning of the story of Max and Abby and the surreal universe they inhabit. You can buy a copy by clicking on the links in the sidebar.

Secondly I thought I’d reveal the beta version of the cover. Apart from a few minor adjustments this is what it will look like.


As with Thumb, I wanted a cover that referred to to an episode or characters in the book. I also wanted to change the colour scheme, so that the pallet for each volume in the series is different – Red for Thumb, Blue for Ragged Claws etc. I won’t spoil the story or give too much away by explaining who the white figure is, or what she’s doing with those glowing lines. I was still aiming for an overall German Expressionist aesthetic – big bold shapes and a sense of sinister mystery.

This image will be the wrap around for the paperback:


Classrooms of the Future


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A young Spock at school on Vulcan. Education as mechanistic data stuffing.

A young Spock at school on Vulcan. Education as mechanistic data stuffing.

I work in education, advising ministries throughout the world on how to best use technology in the classroom. For most the process is one of constant catch up. Technology changes on a monthly basis, while education systems tend to work on yearly budget cycles. Furthermore if you tinker with something you usually don’t see the effects for years, until the poor little buggers in the classroom who experienced the change work their way through the school system and pop out into society. On the whole I try and point out that education goals should dictate how technology is used, not the other way round, but often grand gesture politics takes over and every pupil is given an iPad (or even worse, forced to buy one) because THAT IS THE FUTURE OF LEARNING, and looks good in the press.

The future of the classroom has been exercising the imagination of writers, artists and film directors since the end of the 19th century. Because most of them don’t really understand that education is primarily to do with human beings telling each other stuff and working out how to solve problems, they focus on the machines. In the World of Tomorrow education will be more efficient because either machines will do it, or machines will help us do it. Here’s a little wander through some of the various visions these largely misguided prophets have put together.


Ok, this isn’t that bad. This drawing from Albert Robida’s 1890 novel La Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique, which purported to show life in Paris in 1955. A young woman uses the téléphonoscope to study maths. It’s essentially online learning. The two striking things to note are a) it’s a woman learning maths – in Robida’s future women are equal, if not generally better at stuff, than the men and b) the method of delivery is totally old fashioned. A guy who looks like an eighteenth century vicar pontificates in front of a blackboard. For those of you who remember late night, flickering, black and white images of sideburns, Grateful Dead beards and kipper ties it’s the Open University all over again.


Our current model of education is based on the industrial approach, geared towards producing an army of literate and numerate workers to go and work in factories, so it’s all about stuffing heads with essential knowledge and basic skills, even though the world has moved on and this kind of learning is no longer fit for purpose. This jokey cartoon from France in the 1900s shows the ideal learning machine of the future. All you do is wire the kids up and pipe information into their brains.

The cyberpunk dream of quick-fix education by jacking into the net.

The cyberpunk dream of quick-fix education by jacking into the net.

It’s the same paradigm as in The Matrix (and the whole bogus ‘learn while you are asleep by listening to a tape recorder’ industry of the ’60s and ’70s), where all you have to do is jack yourself into a computer, twitch around for ten minutes and bingo, you know Kung Fu, and Japanese, with 19th century Russian literature thrown in for LOLs.


As a slight digression, this wonderful invention of Hugo Gernsback is called The Isolator and is designed to allow the studious worker to concentrate without distractions from colleagues. Putting aside the fact that it would give any Health and Safety officer the screaming hab-dabs (let’s swap the oxygen cylinder for helium), or that you could make good money renting this out in certain clubs, it has perfect application in the modern classroom. I showed this for a laugh to an audience of education officials and teachers in a certain country and their eyes lit up, which was worrying. I’ve no idea what the thing sticking out the front is, perhaps it’s to accommodate the author’s pipe.


So visions of future classrooms essentially ramp up traditionally dull ways of teaching using computers and robots. Forget the fact that the chalk and talk approach is incredibly inefficient for learning, all we need to do is to swap out the teacher for a screen or an android. This cartoon from a Japanese magazine in the 1960s shows how ‘computers’ will teach in the class, complete with little robot helpers who belt the kids over the head with red bludgeons if they get their sums wrong.

Let's see how quickly we can induce Terminator-style mayhem.

Let’s see how quickly we can induce Terminator-style mayhem.

It’s not surprising that Japan and South Korea, with their love of robots, now seem to be locked into an arms race to see which country can produce the most terrifying robot teacher. The Japanese have gone for the human looking one, though she is about as far down in Uncanny Valley as it’s possible to get, and has the disadvantage of being immobile, which is probably just as well as this monstrous creation looks permanently on the verge of running amok.


The South Korean English Language Robot clearly aims for the cute R2D2/automatic vacuum cleaner approach though that video face reminds me of the mad Cain robot in Robocop 2 just before it went off on one. For me this image sums up everything wrong with technology in the classroom, and what happens when the perceived coolness of the machinery completely overrides the education side of things. Teaching languages is about communication, right? It’s about people talking to people. Racial stereotypes aside (English is spoken by pretty, blue eyed, white, American blondes) how can anyone think that this abomination is a good idea? Those extended wing things worry me too, I think they have missiles in them.


Finally, on a more civilised note, it’s back to Things to Come to offer a paradigm of future education which is not completely tech obsessed or utterly deranged. In a charming scene towards the end of the film a grandfather explains history to his granddaughter with the aid of a giant Interactive Whiteboard (ok, a screen telly). Putting aside the hideously grating voice of the infant, the education paradigm it’s offering is that of Rousseau’s 1762 classic, Emile. In his treatise/novel Rousseau suggested learning was best done by the child exploring the world, and asking intelligent questions of a patient mentor. As the old ways of learning breakdown we may well find ourselves moving back towards this approach which, thankfully, relies on human interaction and not machines.


You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack – Tom Gauld


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A while back I posted one of Tom Gauld’s cartoons on this blog and wrote a brief piece for my newsletter. His work is so clever, and pushes so many of the right buttons for an Eng-Lit professor turned science fiction writer that I couldn’t help but share some more of his work, taken from his book You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013). Normally I hesitate before buying a book of cartoons, after going through them once there’s rarely enough to pull me back, but Gauld’s collection is a happy exception.


Analysing jokes inevitably kills them dead, and besides these cartoons often poke fun at overwrought intellectual interpretations. Talking too much about Gauld’s work risks putting legs on a snake (as Kurosawa once described the process of looking for hidden meanings in his own movies). His ideas are reminiscent of Edward Gorey and the lesser known B. Kliban, both US illustrators known for their surreal humour and, in Gorey’s case, gently nostalgic nods at Victorian and Edwardian narratives transformed into total absurdity. Gauld’s ideas, like those of the Monty Python team and the stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, are filled with the same bizarre non-sequiturs.


Sadly, this one isn’t in the collection.


One recurring theme is pushing together the (supposed) high-brow and popular culture, as in Samuel Beckett’s Adventures of TinTin, or Dickens’ Great Expectations re-imagined as an old Spectrum-style computer game. Science Fiction plays a big part in Gauld’s world, as do the trials of trying to be a novelist.


As a Science Fiction fan navigating his way through the often unbelievably pretentious world of Literary Academia (especially in the early ’80s) I feel like having half a dozen of these tattooed to my chest in reverse so I can laugh at them in the bathroom mirror when I get up. I vividly remember one ultra-cool Guardian reading professor who sneered relentlessly at SF ‘discovering’ Joanna Russ when the Women’s Press published The Female Man, (of course he still refused to accept it was SF at all). I can really, really relate to You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. A must for any writer/critic/SF fan.


Tom Gauld’s book is available on here, and here.

Tom’s own website is here, and his Flickr stream is here.


Schalcken the Painter (1979)


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Schalcken_the_Painter_coverThe history of British TV is littered with brilliant one-off series and TV programmes that appeared once or twice and then vanished, seemingly forever. John Hurt as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1979), Nigel Kneale’s horror series Beasts (1976) and the Bavarian film of Carmina Burana that appeared on screens over here in 1975 are three examples. Luckily the ones that weren’t erased to make way for Match of the Day or It’s a Knockout, (a fate that befell the BBC tapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing) are now re-appearing on DVD, including Leslie Megahey’s brilliant film of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter, released in November last year.

Periodically, and usually at Christmas, the BBC would have a crack at one or two ghost stories, often taken from classic writers like M. R. James, Dickens or Saki. In those days TV dramas were happy to go for the slow burn, coming up with many very creepy and effective tales. Unfortunately most were let down by the anti-climactic eek scene at the end. Writers like James and others, with their hinted-at terrors were hard to render visually and what was toe-curlingly horrible on paper ended up looking a bit feeble on screen. Jonathan Miller’s otherwise brilliant adaptation of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad (1968) is a case in point. It’s creepy, sinister and atmospheric right up to the point when the ghost appears and the monstrous half animal half humanoid creature running across the sands in the original turns into a chamois leather on a stick. Even though Schalcken the Painter suffers from this to a slight extent, the rest of the movie is incredibly sinister and stunningly beautiful to look at. It haunted me for years after I first watched it in 1979 and so I was delighted to see it re-released by the BFI.

One of the movie's many tributes to the paintings of Vermeer.

One of the movie’s many tributes to the paintings of Vermeer.

The story is based on a painting by the real life Schalcken, a late 17th century Flemish painter. It shows a woman in a nightdress holding a candle while behind her a man makes to draw a sword against a shadowy assailant. Le Fanu’s story tells of the young painter’s apprenticeship under Gerard Dou, his unrequited love for the man’s niece, and the mysterious stranger who persuades the old man to let him marry the girl in exchange for an unheard of sum of gold, with fairly predictable results for anyone well-read in the genre.

The film is wonderfully atmospheric, not least because it is one long homage to the paintings of the era. Almost every shot evokes an image from the work of Vermeer, Rembrandt and, of course, both Dou and Schalcken themselves. The interior of Dou’s house is taken straight from such masterpieces as Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and The Art of Painting. The largely static camera work focusses on doorways set in walls at right angles to the lens so that you alternately see figures framed against panelling or at the end of corridors opening on chequer-floored rooms, with people (usually women) standing in the light falling from diamond paned and stained glass windows. Alternately the night scenes, lit by one or more candles, are essays in chiaroscuro. In one brilliant shot, a second long if that, a visitor looks back as he steps into the night and you realise it’s Rembrandt himself from his 1661 self-portrait, complete with white hat.

Schalcken, Gerard Dou and his niece Rose await their guest.

Schalcken, Gerard Dou and his niece Rose await their guest.

The tale is also rendered more effective by virtue of being almost entirely silent, with very little dialogue apart from the key scenes where Dou, his pupil and niece meet the stranger, and later when the niece briefly returns from her marriage. The rest of the time very little is said, which both adds to the evocation of a series of paintings, and the slow build up of tension. Charles Gray supplies the voice of the narrator, and an interesting commentary on the artist’s masterpieces. I particularly enjoyed Dou’s lessons to his pupils – “The Temptation of St Anthony, St Anthony, Temptation, Devils. You will imagine the devils. Begin,” is his advice after yanking a couple of models around a bit. Incidental music is kept to a minimum, so the sound effects themselves add to the brooding sense of impending horror. A single creak of a floorboard announces the arrival of the visitor, the sinister Vanderhausen.

He might be a bit green, smelly and never blink but check out the gilders.

He might be a bit green, smelly and never blink but check out the gilders.

The film is as much about greed and the treatment of women as disposal possessions as it is about the supernatural. The horror of the tale is equally derived from the casual way in which Dou disposes of his beautiful niece, sending her off to marry a man who is, to say the least, a bit unprepossessing. It’s clear from the scene where he joins the others for dinner that all is not well, not only does Vanderhausen not eat anything, he’s also a decidedly peculiar colour and stares at the niece through the entire repast. Like Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black, you would have thought that Dou and Schalcken would be familiar enough with ghost stories to realise something was amiss, but Dou still cheerfully dispatches the wretched girl in exchange for a manky old chest full of gilders. Schalcken is a waste of space, doing nothing to prevent the marriage, throwing himself into his painting and eventually groping the servant girls or visiting the brothels of Rotterdam for a bit of consolation.

Almost every shot evokes the Flemish school, in this case a memento mori still life.

Almost every shot evokes the Flemish school, in this case a memento mori still life.

I won’t spoil it by describing the inevitable denouement. As I said before, these classic tales always ended up a bit wanting in the end, as clumsy special effects or trite endings undercut the build up of atmosphere. Schalcken the Painter manages to carry it off better than most and of all the classic ghost stories I’ve seen over the years this one has perhaps the strongest resonance. It’s perhaps not as laden with symbolism as the accompanying essay by Ben Hervey tries to make out, but it’s as unnerving to watch now as it was in 1979. As a classic ghost story, a tribute to later Flemish painting and a detailed evocation of how these old master’s worked it’s well worth a watch.

The DVD comes in standard and Blu-Ray format and can be bought from here.

Olivetti Lettera 32


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Olivetti Lettera 32, designed by Marcello Nizzoli in 1963

Olivetti Lettera 32, designed by Marcello Nizzoli in 1963

A Happy New Year to everyone! This is my one hundredth post and I thought I’d follow tradition by talking about what Santa brought me for Christmas.

When I was eight years old, and a precocious little sod,  I filled a couple of reporter’s notebooks from W. H. Smiths with a ‘novel’. My dad was impressed enough to buy me my first typewriter. He later regretted this because it meant that the noise of the office now followed him home as I banged out an endless litany of juvenilia – three novels rejected by Puffin (bastards), a short story read out on Radio Leeds and finally, seven issues of various SF fanzines – ending with 101 Ballooning Adventures That Thrilled the World (don’t ask). What I didn’t realise at the time was that the typewriter was an Olivetti Lettera 32, an Italian thing of beauty designed by Marcello Nizzoli that was later to become a style icon and emblematic of a new generation of roving gonzo journalists and counter-culture writers. It was the kind of machine Michael Herr would balance on his knee when sending reports from Khe Sanh. Leonard Cohen used the earlier version to write ‘Suzanne’ and other light-hearted masterpieces. Cormac McArthy’s Olivetti sold for $254,500 in 2009, and he treated himself to a replacement for $20.

My fingers started getting tired by the end, hence the increased error rate.

My fingers started getting tired by the end, hence the increased error rate.

My Olivetti eventually gave up the ghost before I went to University. I replaced it with an Olympia (if I remember, Olivetti’s were no longer available in North Yorkshire) before graduating onto an electric typewriter that had a kick like a mule and one of those strange death star rotating balls instead of type bars. In 1984 I bought a BBC Micro 32 and discovered word processing, so my typing days were over.

I was delighted, therefore, to get a genuine Olivetti Lettera 32 for Christmas from my kids, in full working order with a spare ribbon. It came completely out of the blue, I wasn’t expecting it at all. Opening the box resulted in a feeling of instant familiarity, combined with the bizarre sense of stepping back forty years in time to an era when every single manuscript document on the planet was thrashed out on a mechanical typewriter. I’ve been playing around with it over the last couple of weeks and it’s fascinating to drop back into the mind-set of writing with a portable, while getting to grips with having all the advantages of a word processor whipped away. Here’s some of the conclusions I’ve come to:

Original US advert

Original US advert

1. The Olivetti Lettera 32 was a piece of compact engineering genius. As you’d expect with Italian design it combines attention to detail with a really cool vibe. There are loads of little levers and widgets to adjust tab stops, page ends, margins, lock the carriage etc. Bits of the insides look as delicate as a clock. It’s also very light, though the turquoise body is aluminium and feels pretty tough. It would probably stop a couple of stray bullets through the window of the Saigon embassy.

2. We’re spoilt in the range of letters and typographical tricks word processors give us. There’s no number 1 for a start, you had to use the letter ‘l’ instead. You would also need to add accents with a biro afterwards (bearing in mind this is an Italian typewriter), and yet it has a bunch of fraction keys. You’re stuck with Courier, and you can underline for emphasis – and that’s it. It means you are closer to the words themselves, undistracted by any visuals, which is why editors and publishers prefer manuscripts to look like they’ve been bashed out on one of these machines.

3. Typing is physically hard work. You have to belt the keys all the way down to get an impression. By the end of the first paragraph my fingers started to hurt and the mistakes increased. How people learned to touch type on these machines I don’t know, they must have had digits like Arnie’s thighs after a few months. After typing for ten minutes I went back to my Mac keyboard and nearly broke the thing, I was belting it so hard.

4. Writing is like carving on marble, or doing a tattoo – there’s no room for error, no cut and paste or spell checking. It feels like you are following a one-way street with no room for manoeuvre. Of course if you did bodge things up you could put a line through it, or overtype (or get out the Tippex), but the whole process forced you to think more carefully about the words you committed to paper. If I remember, the rule of thumb was no more than two mistakes per page, so if you got to the bottom of your A4 sheet and made your third because your fingers ached you had to start all over again. A complete page of error-free typescript from an Olivetti Lettera 32 represents a real piece of hard work and craftsmanship.


My kids inform me that mechanical typewriters, and especially Olivetti Letteras, are style icons with hipsters who sit in parks with them on their knees and no doubt type out homages to The Smiths, or lyrics for their own band Chlorine Shadows Fall Across My Soul’s Daisies. I couldn’t in all honesty return to composing on a typewriter, it’s too constraining and my workflow has changed from the ‘make it up as I go along’ process of that eight-year old me. But it’s a fascinating piece of history to have in the house, and a few minutes belting the keys takes me right back to the feeling of living in the late 60s and early 70s, especially if I put Tubular Bells on the Stereo Record Player.

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