Jul 23 2009


“I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either… See you at the Oscars.”

I rather envy those people who have been able to reinvent themselves from the name up. Charles Bronson, born Michael Gordon Peterson, is a brutal, British example of the self-mythologising creature. A haywire prototype that exists outside the normal channels, and a brilliant example of what an errant personality can achieve, even under heavy constraint.

Whilst most tall-story personalities are at least given the kind of life we all share as a stage, Charles Bronson has had solitary confinement, and the rooftops of British prisons. He’s managed to become a tea-drinking muscle-monster of British legend (2,500 press-ups a day), while barely spending any time outside the walls of our gaols.

He has also never killed anyone.

That fact appears in the very middle of the recent film, Bronson, for a fleeting moment. I felt as if it wasn’t stressed enough: for all the craziness, the hostage-taking, the riots and fisticuffs, Bronson has never taken a life, which seems to set his myth apart from the other nightmarish denizens of our deepest pits. It’s a vital aspect of the context of Bronson’s thirty-four years of incarceration: that he is violent within self-set boundaries. The working-class gentleman lunatic, with his moustaches, his gladiatorial strength, and his principles.

The film has a special kind of cinematic ugliness to it, and the lead actor, Tom Hardy, does well to fill out the eccentric profile of the man. He juggles both the grinning lunacy, the glee of violence, and the bruising of punishment with extreme care. Hardy, as Bronson, also narrates, via a series of fantasy-stage-set performances, which set the tone of the film as firmly within Bronson’s own bizarre worldview: celebrity-meets-thuggery-as-performance-art. The clown and the circus strongman warped by the invisible force-fields of fame.

The film captures some of the bizarre cruelty of Bronson’s life, his own unpredictability, and the difficulties of the system charged with containing him. Yet it does not seem to express what matters about the actual story of Bronson’s existence, which I would argue is far more interesting than the stylised prison theatre we get to see on screen.

I was waiting for something of Broadmoor and the rooftop protests from Bronson’s perspective, and treated to little more than a slideshow. (I suspect Bronson’s chimney toppling antics were the first time child-me had been notified of the existence of prisons, or of their inhabitants, and so I was awaiting some kind of extra loop of connection with those images.)

Some of Bronson’s more outlandish moments were neglected by this script, and his early life as a circus strongman and bare-knuckle boxer was remixed into a fictional reworking of the few weeks he did spend out of prison in the 1980s and early ’90s. It’s as if the film was mostly interested in its own caricature of Britain’s most violent prisoner – complete with scintillating soundtrack – and that the production had failed to realise what strange, bloody gold awaited them under the skin of the real man and his world.

There was no need for flights of cinematic fancy when the reality is so colourful and disturbing. The movie seems to avoid some of Bronson’s finest lines – such as his absurd demands in hostage situations – and to avoid any real insight into why he performed some of those bizarre acts of violence. Inevitable, I suppose, given that Bronson is the (unreliable?) narrator of its proceedings. This is the film of the “fighting name”, rather than the prisoner.

I’m sure Bronson really is proud of the film, because it is a broad extension to his personal reinvention. To be genuinely faithful to the man, rather than the alter-ego, would have meant creating a film that reflected the decades of solitude, and the astonishing loneliness that so many years must have wrought. Unimaginable boredom and silence punctuated by moments of incredible, outlandish violence. The first part of that, at least, is something film doesn’t articulate all that well: deliberately so in this case. And Bronson, the movie, is all the worse for it.

Jul 10 2009

Words For Print Vs Words For Web

Since working on a print magazine (PC Gamer) for a couple of weeks last month, I’ve been meaning to write something about the difference between writing for print and writing for the web. It’s a notion that’s been gnawing at me at least since I wrote the book, which I found infuriating because I’d become so familiar – even before I was blogging full time – with the scaffolding possibilities of electronic text.

As I wrote 80,000 words of text, I found myself polishing up my writing to explain precisely what I was talking about, where on the web I would have tied it up with a hyperlink*. Rather than writing for the specific audience I knew was going to sit at the other end of a blog, I was hoping anyone could pick up the book. Which rather seems the wrong way to go about things: surely the website is more democratic? But no, quite the opposite is true of how I’ve ended up using the two media. Writing on my own blog, I don’t give a damn who is reading, and writing on for Rock, Paper, Shotgun I have to assume it’s a certain calibre of gamer to have even found the place. As for a book, well, I wanted my mum to be able to get through that without a decade in online gaming.

But there was a more profound structural difference to the page: I couldn’t add links anywhere. I’ve always hated the distracting fussiness of footnotes, and my editor didn’t much like the either: clean text, and nothing else. So there was no way around having to encapsulate everything in the body text.

Towards the end of this process, having read the manuscript several times through, as well as knowing it via all the little revisions we’d done as the process went on, I began to see where all the imaginary hyperlinks went. I could go back into that document, I knew, and cross reference things with links online: explanatory Wikipedia links, comedy YouTube references, and even direct portals to the games I was talking about. Perhaps, when we finally get the Creative Commons version of the book online (which is actually only some paperwork away, come to think of it), we’ll find a way, and a time, for me to include all those links, and to create a version of the book that fixes and positions itself in the web by reaching out in a thousand directions, with a thousand links.

Anyway, time on the magazine and find myself thinking the same thoughts: the inflexibility of the page! No CTRL-F to find that exact phrase in an instant, no click to punch through the page and into an entirely different magazine/website/game/video that we referenced.

But then there was the other side of the woodspace publishing process: the designers. Working on feature stuff – rather than the static grids of regular content – you suddenly find yourself in the best part of magazine design. Suddenly writing has an element of visual directing to it, creating themes for how to illustrate the stuff that can’t be explained with the screenshot and a splash of concept art: independent gaming, wi-fi, co-op, the future.

I remember wanting to do a series of articles where we attempt to tell a story through entire full-page spread images. I think we did it once with Planetside. First spread was the dropship, second spread was the drop, third spread was sniping at the base from the hill, the fourth spread was inside the base itself. Each page was part of the long zoom, the linear thread was the text, and each boxout a small zoom focus within the larger page: this element of the battlefield, that element of the interface. It ludicrously fine work by the designer, Mark Wynne. And it used the material at hand: an area paper with a fold.

This isn’t all that print does, because it can also juxtapose image and text much more concretely: the art of the captions, the boxout. These can be tricks and jokes in their own right. The latest PC Gamer redesign added in more variable graphics to its original mix: infographics, including web diagrams of the relationships between characters in Starcraft fiction, graphs showing the relative speed of the web now and then. The traditional picture-plus-text, but with more, which is something that magazines like Wired have been doing for a long time.

This month’s Wired UK does it too with an incredible illustrated explanation of the mechanics of the Somali piracy phenomenon. It managed to use the page to create a splendid fresh logic, one that used the page to convey packets of information in a flow-chart whole. Maps, equations, charts. Sure, it’s just a “boxout” sequence that you might be familiar with from any magazine over the years, but the delivery was an exquisite flow of discrete meetings of illustration, text, and numerical data.

There’s several pages of that (above), it’s totally awesome.

This can be done on the web, but it’s harder, and it can be expensive. Obviously what’s best about the web from the point of view publishers is that it’s super-cheap. You create a grid and drop images and words in, day after day, just as you do in the standing copy areas of the magazines. But there’s no paper.

It seems that even the publishers that did try to bridge that gap and try and designed magazine format on the web – I’m thinking early jpeg’d online mags or the first year or so of The Escapist – ended up binning the idea and heading back to the bloggy format columns of text, presumably for the sake of money, but perhaps also because the web browser demanded it.

It’s interesting to hear the different sides of the argument chime in on this: lots of magazine folks argue up the material nature of their product, the things you can do with a page, the tactile response of paper. Meanwhile a number of professional bloggers I know are veterans of the magazine industry and they see magazines as a dead man walking. It’s inflexible, expensive, and even wasteful, they say. There’s no way it can hope to hold up, and maybe they’re right. But if magazines die then perhaps the art won’t have to: maybe we can find a way for the same kind of melding of wordy editorial and page design to continue.

Could we end up with WYSIWYG editors so flexible and fast that we’ll be able to lay out vertical column magazines in an instant, merging infographics, text and images into the flowing whole that they’re able to become in print magazines? Will we see web designers becoming less technical and more like the page-designing guys that made my Korea feature so beautiful, or Kieron’s Zangband article so digestible? Isn’t the real issue the crudeness of web browsers and the horrible constraints of HTML as it currently exists?

Am I going to be able to print out a future blog of mine via an on-demand newspaper service and distributed it as a beautiful print object at future games conventions? Is this – columns of text, pop-up thumbnails and embedded video – really it for the visual logic of the web?

*The worst thing commercial blogs do is use self-referential links to game names, or subjects, when their tag or whatever does not explain the topic. Instead, take me to the official site, or the Wiki page! Useless basts.

Oh, also, I wrote a rollicking feature on the future of games for next month’s PC Gamer UK with contributions from Charles Stross and Eskil Steenberg. I’ll hype it again soon, but it’s worth picking up.

Jul 10 2009

Book Review: Dirt

William Bryant Logan seems like a name that should be on the cover of a book. It’s a good, earthy name. It’s the name of an author who is a gardener, a scholar, a journalist, a Christian, an ex-oil rigger, and a mountain climber. All these aspects of his life are expressed in the busy pages of Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin Of The Earth. (First published as a paperback in 2007.)

Judging a book by its cover, in part, I bought Dirt on the basis of the fantastic title, and on the report that it contained this fact: “an acre of soil produces one horsepower every day”. The fact came first, via Twitter. Where did the fact come from? Via William Bryant Logan’s Dirt. That was a sale, right there.

A book about dirt. Soil, mud. And one with intriguing facts.

The book is a collection of essays that tie into the many aspects of what is – I now realise – a relatively mysterious medium. Dirt, dust, soil, earth, clay: a set of living systems that ties in any number of processes and materials across the planet. Logan’s writings detail a number of them, rooting around in matters of composting, soil evolution, dung beetles (including a species that hangs at the arse of a monkey, ready to base jump from a tree with its chosen stool), earthquakes, ground water, the theories of clay, molds, the wind, and the relationship between early agrarian presidents of the United States, Jefferson and Adams.

Logan’s book is piecemeal, rather than any kind of systematic natural history or survey. Nevertheless it’s the diversity of thoughts and descriptions that make this book fascinating to a dirt layman such as myself. It also seems to contain a broad thesis about how soil is akin to life, and how it is the foundation of life. The section on the weird nature of clay, and its relationship to the early stages of life, even the sheer complexity of this apparently simply substance, is extraordinary.

“The clay code… is more complex that either genetic code or human language. Only now are we beginning to catch glimpses of its order, and one cannot help thinking that pursuing it will be as fruitful and endless as the cabbalists’ search for that perfect of the Hebrew aleph, by which God created the universe.”

Logan’s writing is elegiac: he seems genuinely sad for eroded and contaminated soils, and laments the waste of bad composting. He offers poetic renditions of lessons in geology, and begins to suggest that soil is interrelated with what it means to be human. Indeed, the book explains, soil itself is a kind of living, self-healing entity, which we can and must understand our relationship with. There’s something beautiful about this that is made all the more intense by our increased understanding of the properties of this substance. Logan exults soil scientist Hans Jenny as one of the greatest minds of the past century, for his contribution to this body of knowledge.

Of course I agree with the ideas about the life of soil, and our need to better understand how we use, make and exhaust it. It’s a characteristic that’s true of much of the natural world, and it only needs stating in this case because soil is so ignored, and abused. It is not, thanks to this book, underwhelming. Logan does a fantastic job of providing the tools necessary for furthering even the slightest interesting in the materials beneath the gardener’s feet.

However, Logan’s Christianity does frame much of how he discusses his topic, and not always beneficially to the neutral reader. For the most part the Bible references are well-judged: splendid allegory. By the last third of the book, however, the pastoralist sermonising tendencies – via Biblical example – had begun to grate, and I almost put the book down.

This is a writer who is, apparently, keenly interested in the wonder that science can evoke from our expanded understanding of the natural world. The book is filled with references to soil science, geology, and even cosmology. And yet it is an uncomfortable position: Logan seems to still be irked by the arrogance of science – a common feeling among believers – which is something I would have sympathy for if it were not for his generalisations against science, and his eccentric defence of the profoundly dubious practice of dowsing for water.

“Science tells us that we are lords of Creation and that we know everything, but it would seem that our mental world is often more impoverished than an ant or a weed.”

Even when reports like this one discuss magnetic sense in animals, the fact remains that dowsing has been repeatedly debunked. There is no case for it. Logan’s belief in this strange behaviour set seems more about his hope and faith in ancient belief, than about any kind of useful understanding of the natural world. Science, far from telling us we are lords of creation, tells us that the world is more complex, and far stranger, than our ancient forebears could have anticipated.

These irrational blips make for uneven reading for even an occasionally magical empiricist like me, and it made me grumble. I was ultimately able to ignore it, and put aside the religious undertones as something like poetic license, but the sense of internal tension remained.

Like a whole bunch of my peers I’ve become increasingly interested in these kinds of topics, with gardening and growth, and with their relationship to how we progress, and it’s hard to find articulate writing on the topic that doesn’t slump into tedium. In part, Dirt serves to colour our knowledge and fuel our excitement and wonder, and I want to recommend it for that reason alone.