Other people’s work: Things

Seven or eight years ago, while I was obviously not paying enough attention, the job I was doing went through the shredder of an interdepartmental reorganisation, as low-end admin jobs often do. At the end of the process, what remained was a seat in an open-plan office with the cheery ambience of a tomb, six hours a day of desk-bound data entry, and new colleagues crying in the toilets on what seemed to be a rota basis.

It was kind of grim, and obviously time to find something else if I could, but there was one good thing about the whole sorry mess: no one cared if I listened to music while I worked. So for three or four months I would plug in the headphones, fire up Spotify and wander my way through playlists and recommends until it was time to go home.

I found whole swathes of new music like that; Spoon and the National and Low; grunge, alt-country and lo-fi; the Magnetic Fields , John Grant and Jesca Hoop. Somewhere among all this cropped up the Winter of Mixed Drinks, an album that Frightened Rabbit had released two or three years before. By the third track, I was grinning in the office, which was very much a first.

I’ve a soft spot for Scottish indie bands in general, for things this lot had in abundance: strong melodic lines (I suspect playing in a cèilidh band, somewhere along the line); wry, clever lyrics; decent singing with recognisable human voices; creative swearing, in the way that the Celtic nations do so well.

For as long as it took me to scramble into another, less dismal job I had their back catalogue pretty much on repeat, and when Pedestrian Verse came out, switched to playing it in my workroom while I painted. Nice and loud. FR tacks and collaborations crop up in pretty much every playlist I’ve made since, and I’m not tired of them yet.

Scott Hutchison, the founder and singer of the band, died in May 2018, making the most upbeat of their songs poignant in hindsight, and the sad and painful ones more so. There will be no more new songs.

A month in the country

The sun is shining. The news is disease and death, imminent starvation and economic ruin. Farmers are warning that a massive shortfall of seasonal workers will leave food rotting in the fields while supermarkets stand empty. Hundreds of thousands of students have suddenly been told that the countless hours of study and stress they have put in so far to try and scrape themselves a place in this world are not, overnight, as vital as they had been led to believe.

If young people are really less likely to get seriously sick (which so far the data supports); if there is a way to ensure as far as possible that they are safe from everything but their own bad choices, wouldn’t it be good if they could be out picking fruit in the sun, instead of staring out of windows wondering what happened to the world they thought they knew?

Ideally, with some effort and thought, the vibe could be slightly more festival than internment camp: workdays but with barbecues and bands in the evening; not 15-hour shifts, pervy managers and sleeping eight to a caravan on mattresses that reek of other people’s piss. If the farmers can’t house them, there are plenty of vacant holiday spots; if cash to pay them properly can’t be found, chunks of student debt could be forgiven in return for their work. As long as they weren’t there against their will, parents might have to stifle some envy but could be proud of their help (and on the receiving end of the odd box of strawberries.) Given the summer they are likely to have otherwise, isn’t it worth a try?

Other people’s work: version control

The book of the film, the film of the book; most often, at least one version sucks. It is especially difficult when the book comes first, and is one you loved as a child. When I first saw Hayao Miyazaki’s animated version of Howl’s Moving Castle, I was bristling with suspicion, prepared to be disappointed – but I loved it in its own right.

There’s no hope of me remembering which of Diana Wynne Jones’ books I read first. It was so long ago, and I’ve read and re-read so many of them that the chronology is hopelessly tangled. There’s a shelf of them in the corner, mostly scavenged from charity shops and car boots, hoarded to read with the kids, or when I’m sick, tired or nostalgic. If I tried, I couldn’t pick a favourite, but Howl’s… and the two books that come after it (Castle in the Air, The House of Many Ways) are great examples of her work at its best.

The stories are engaging and skillfully plotted; her spare, elegant prose style leaves plenty of room to use your imagination, to add colour and detail. Her characters have flaws and responsibilities and obstacles to overcome, and never inhabit a world where adults have all the answers.

These days CGI means that no fantasy is thought unfilmable. Battalions of artists and animators mere digital and live action every day, and the impossible is a given for any movie or TV show. I’m a bit of a Luddite about it, though, and I can’t imagine any film version of Howl’s that I would love as much as Miyazaki’s gorgeous hand-painted animation. It’s not a faithful adaptation of the book, but a great story in its own right, and that’s the best outcome. Wynne Jones herself was quoted as saying ‘… it’s very likely to be different, but that’s as it should be’, and how could anyone disagree?

Home invasion

Until a few months ago, I didn’t have the kind of job where working from home was an option. When it was, I decided that I’d rather carry on going going into the office. It’s not far away; without a commute to complicate things it seemed logical to keep work there and have home free for the rest of life.

This week, just as for millions of other people, that’s gone out of the window. Currently there are three of us working from home – from tomorrow, four. In some ways this is great: I have onsite IT support four feet away from me, in exchange for occasional cups of tea. Dress code doesn’t have to aim higher than ‘suitable for fleeing a burning building’. The cats are enjoying making us open doors for them every half an hour.

In others, not so much. It’s not a very big house, for a start, and when we are all milling around getting in each others’ way cabin fever will set in fast. No one knows how long it might be for. So far we are all well and fed and the lights are on, but it’s easy to see that just now we don’t have much power to keep things that way. We depend on luck, and each other.

Other people’s work – a novel

If you can’t say something nice, say nothing, as children are often told, and as I can’t find anything nice to say about my own work just now, I’ll talk about someone else’s.

Daniel Keyes wrote the short story version of Flowers for Algernon in 1956, and the full-length novel version was published in 1966, before the genre of Speculative Fiction existed. At the time it was published, it was considered to be Science Fiction ( and as such won both the Hugo and Nebula awards). When I first read it as a teenager, it was as the short-story version in a Sci Fi anthology, and when I saw it in a bookstore a couple of weeks ago, it was still shelved with the Sci Fi titles. As far as I can tell, it has been in print (in several languages) since it was published. Despite this, I have never met anyone else who remembers reading it.

People have often objected that it’s not Science Fiction at all, because it contains none of the world-building tropes that typify the genre. The central premise is an experimental scientific ‘procedure’ and its effects on the protagonist, Charlie; but it is alluded to in the vaguest terms , and none of the details or technical descriptions you might expect are given.

None of this really matters. What Flowers is in essence is a variation of one of humanity’s oldest story arcs, the hopeful outsider who makes a daring gamble in pursuit of acceptance. Told in the first person, through diary entries, the voice of Charlie changes hugely across the story, but not exactly because as a narrator, he’s unreliable; more because the world around him is, and his changing perception of reality is as much part of his character arc as the effects of the ‘science experiment’.

If you haven’t read it, do, if you get a chance. It might make you cry, but it might also help you to some insights.

One last thing: although I have tied myself in knots to avoid spoilers, this one might be useful. Algernon is a mouse.