31 March 2011

Me, Ian Sample and not quite everyone I know (aka Twitter)

Let's be clear. I don't always ask people I've never met to insult me.

But you see, there's a hero out there. He's an ordinary guy, he doesn't take himself too seriously. But he's got a great idea. I'm considering stealing it. Excuse me, I'm considering... flattering him by imitating it. His name is Bill Ryan.

He goes to book signings, and rather than just letting the authors write "Dear Bill, Enjoy," he asks them to insult him. And because people who have written books are, without fail, writers, some of them insult him quite wonderfully. Amy Sedaris, of course, manages a brief, punchy, tarty insult that makes you feel a little bit like vomiting.

Once he has his insult in hard copy, he writes a blog post about the author, the book, the signing event, the insult. It's a brilliant idea, isn't it?

But if an author refuses to insult him, he takes them to task on his blog. He doesn't appreciate people taking themselves too seriously, when they've reached a success at writing that he wants and probably won't get... keep that in mind. The taking of self seriously is not something that this guy is into. And the older I get, the more I reckon it's not something I'm into either. Definitely a hero.

I learned about this guy because of Twitter. Yes. It's a Twitter post. But, you see, you have to finish reading it, because I pulled you in with that intriguing first line. Go ahead, you can go back, read it again, remind yourself why you're going to finish this.

Back? Great.

I follow Ian Sample on Twitter. He's a science writer for the Guardian, and he's on the Guardian's Science Weekly podcast. He makes fun of Alok Jha and puts in good stories. He seems like a nice person. I wouldn't ordinarily expect someone like him to insult me.

But, last week, he sent out this post:

I read the link, learned about Bill Ryan, and didn't really give it a thought.

This was not going so well.

As you can see, I am only completing a contractual obligation at this point.

I was starting to worry that I would have to write a harsh post about Ian Sample, a writer and radio person I like so much. He wasn't going to insult me. I wasn't sure what I'd gotten myself into here. Hadn't he asked for more of people asking writers to insult them?? Isn't he a writer? Get ready for a big Nija cop-out.

But what is this? Could it be?

My excitement is, I think, only slightly out of proportion.

Though, I was a little disappointed that it was neither science-based, nor about my weight or intelligence. I mean, this guy CANNOT take direction, am I right?

He's probably just got that 21st-century memory we've all got. So much information we can't remember a ridiculous tweet we received 20 minutes ago.

Sadly, I really felt like I'd had a victory. My life feels sad when I see through it like this...

The next day was Friday, and on Twitter, it is a convention to tell your followers who you think is cool to follow. It's called FollowFriday. There's also ScienceSunday, which was more recently started.

I thought it was only right:

(It was 5:30am, and I had to get on a bus at 7am for a fieldtrip to Orfordness with my Documentary and Sensory Media course. That is for another post, another week.)

I'm already addicted to Twitter. Now I'm already itching for another Twitter insult. People I follow: get excited. get ready. 

If Bill Ryan ever sees this: I love your insult books, I think it's a great idea, and I just really like it. I wasn't thinking when I started copying it, but if I get insulted any more this way, it'll all be down to you. Jerk.

This is all getting a bit meta for me. I'm out of here--

28 March 2011

And I tell you what.

When I left Sydney in June last year, I remember feeling like I was only just getting started. I was Senior Producer on a great radio show, I'd just interviewed John Pilger. I was getting stories published, like actually in print, and getting paid for it. I knew the staff at my favourite bar, and I liked them and I think they liked me.

I was finally getting somewhere, after two years of turning the engine over and thrashing myself against that tough city. And then I just I left, just when I finally started inching along the main road. Because, in some way, I was tired. I got exhausted just as I got started.

I've only been in Manchester for 7 months, and here, things are completely different. Maybe it's because this time, I have practice at being new to a town, maybe it's because I've had to find the city by myself, maybe it's because I'm on facebook and twitter this time, or maybe it's just because Manchester is flipping awesome.

But here's the thing: I've only been here 7 months. And I'm already getting somewhere, somewhere I want to be. I'm not even near tired of this place; it's just not as harsh a town as Sydney was. Because for all its beauty and secrets, Sydney, for me, was (is)  impossible.

I've already had two visitors. There was Emily (whom I wrote a post about here).

And then there was my dear friend (formerly my graphic design teacher) gregg. He usually spells his name all-lowercase, so I have continued that convention, out of respect for everyone's right to define their own identity regardless of society's "language rules." Also because I do that, too.

Here's the thing about gregg. You've maybe never heard of him. But you've definitely absolutely seen his amazing work, on the cover of some band you love. He's been featured in hot hot design magazines, and he's just finished his MFA in graphic design, arguing that online contracts (i.e. you must agree to our 1,000 pages of terms and conditions before you can see this one photo your mate sent you) are just a touch too complicated for the average interwebs user, who usually just hits the "for fuck's sake, I agree, goddammit, I don't even know what you want from me, but you can have it, just let me see the stupid picture of my mate with underpants on his head already" button.

Yeah, that's the technical explanation of his thesis. Anyway, he went to Birmingham to present it, and dropped by Manchester 1) because his flights worked out better that way and 2) to see me! (in that order).

I took him to dinner at Cedar Tree, a Lebanese restaurant in the NQ, which I will never visit again, not because the food wasn't good, but because it took a really really long time, and I'm not sure I can ever plan to get to a restaurant that long before I get hungry. Then we went for drinks at The Castle, which (if you go by how often I'm there) is definitely my favourite pub. It was a really fun night, lovely to see a familiar face again. We told stories about our parents and about school and work, and generally had an awesome time. He's a good egg, and I'm proud to know him.

Everyone, please think your strongest thoughts for gregg and his lovely family. He and his wife both have full-time jobs and  a toddler and an infant, and you know that ain't easy.

Also at the Castle, I went to another Open-Mic reading night, called Bad Language. I couldn't find any friends to go along with me, but I really wanted to hear some of these storytellers, so I decided to go alone. I ended up getting put on the list read, because there had been a cancellation! Some people I really admire told me they liked my stories, which was really overwhelming and wonderful. And I met a heap of cool writerly-sorts, exactly the sorts I like to know. Another indication that going to events by myself works for me. Really works.

I couldn't record it, as I'd loaned my recorder to a friend, but my new friend Guy was taking some photos.

There's something magical about the Castle Hotel. The back room looks beautiful, perfect for listening to stories and having a drink. I took some colour photographs, and I love how the chandelier's lamps flared in my camera, so it looks like there are sparkles floating down the room, about to gently illuminate the reader.

As soon as I was done reading, though, I had to leave the Castle because there was a Flashmob fundraiser for Japan happening at Piccadilly Train Station! We were all to bring something to tie 'round our heads, and follow the sensai's Karate Kid moves at 9pm. This is how I looked like:

 So. Well, it wasn't quite as awesome as it sounds. I've seen some videos of Flashmobs that seem like the huge crowd of people must have practiced for ages together to get so synchronised. But this one... not so much. The "sensai" brought an amp and played Kung Fu Fighting and just sort of danced. But, once we all realised we couldn't quite follow his moves and just started to do some random kicking/punching dance moves, too, it was a fun time. I know it's annoying that it was for Japan, and it was supposed to be Karate Kid, and they played Kung Fu fighting, even though Kung Fu is from an ENTIRELY different country. I know.


I thought it was fun dancing in a train station with a bunch of strangers. I would do it again. And that's good enough, right?

The next night, there was a charity festival organised over Twitter (called, nauseatingly, Twestival – sounds like it's almost dirty, doesn't it, like it's too close to Twesticle?). It was at NoHo, which might end up being my new favourite place to be-- already we've booked it for the next New Student Writing Society Open Mic night!!

Anyway, I didn't know anyone else who wanted to go, but that's never going to stop me again. I rocked up alone, chatted with someone I'd met the night before (see her excellent work at http://wordsandfixtures.blogspot.com/), and ended up meeting some more fascinating, kind, brilliant people. An after-dinner onion bhajia at a fast food takeaway on Oldham St. A new friendship forged.

As I walked home that night, I just couldn't stop thinking about how I am lucky to be here, right now, in this amazing town. I'm still falling in love with Manchester.

And I tell you what. I am just getting started. I'm on the freeway, and I'm not even looking at the exit ramps.

19 March 2011

Stretching the Legs of Democracy

Seems like everyone's at the polls these days: Egyptians tomorrow, Australians next week. If you're an American, though, or a Briton, or someone equally unfortunate, you might be depressed that election season is far off and are walking around voting on things of no consequence just to fill the gaping lever-pulling or card-punching chasm in your life.

Well never fear, you strange person you, we'll scratch that itch. Here at Two Extra Armies Each Turn, we have realised that our name is getting stale (no offense, Stefan) and, frankly, a little irrelevant. One of us no longer lives in the nation that inspired the name (see RISK if you're perplexed) and, sadly, the other one probably won't for much longer either.

So we've initiated a new naming contest, just like we did in the early days of the blog.

Suggestions have been sent in from all over the planet, spurred by the announcement of a Great Grand Prize involving something to the effect of lodging and snacks in your choice of either a state (SYD) or cultural (MCR) capital. 'Ooh-la-la', did I hear you say? Darn right, Frenchie. We even appealed to our friendly local (Aus/NZ) cricket tragics for an Ashes-inspired name, but it just turned into a wanton England-bashing session.

Please see the poll on the side of the page and vote vote vote! Here's the fine print:
We've done the dictatorial dirty work and liquidated the opposition to our three favourites. You will be garroted for wondering about their fate, as they threatened the stability of our blog. One candidate is clearly endorsed by the current government. The poll is open until 1 April 2011 at some strange time early in the morning. Vote early, vote often. Dictators reserve the right to do whatever they please. End communication.

From Nija:
Bad Pennies (with the subtitle 'They'll come back as soon as they're ready'.)

From Jeremy:
Our Empire Now

and, because it's just so confounding and bizarre,

From Stefan:
Wilhelmina the Conqueror

16 March 2011

Cary Elwes, Midget Toe

I love thinking about what Google searches this blog title might end up in.

I got to sleep late last night, because I was at a social with the New Student Writing Society. Worse, I had to be awake at 7am to get to school in time for a project meeting. Naturally, I woke from a dream in the middle of the night, sweating, freaking out. What was my nightmare filled with, you ask? Well, last night was far from the standard fare. No, nothing so simple as that. Last night, I dreamt that Jeremy and Katie were talking to me in tweets. Like "Hey @nijabird, where are we hashtag GoingForDinner tonight?" I'm officially a Twitter Tragic, and I like to think I say somewhat interesting things. But I might be a touch addicted. Don't even care, I love it so much.

Anyway, I've been hanging out with the Writing Society folks for a while, and I very much enjoy their company. Last week, they put on an Open Mic Night. so I thought I'd go along and read some of my old work.

I haven't written anything new in some time, mostly because I'm busy. Mark, I don't want to hear it. Already feeling guilty, just thinking about you. But since no one here's heard any of my old stuff anyway, it still worked. I had a really great night, and I was happy to see some good MCR mates come out. However, some Manchester friends couldn't make it (dweebs), and none of my international friends bothered flying over to see my brilliant performance (wankers), so I had Kim record my reading, just in case you're still interested in hearing how it went!

The whole thing is about 7 minutes long, and apologies for any sound quality problems. It's two stories: The Midget Toe and then I am Poor and Insignificant; Please Don't Sue Me: An Open Letter to Cary Elwes.

Good news: I have since learned that both of these stories were accepted into The Mancunion's Writing Section! The Mancunion is UoM's student newspaper! zang! Will put links up when they're up. As you do.

For your consideration.

Back to today: I had a lovely lunch with a gentleman who does some really excellent radio over here on the BBC. Listen to this, to hear some of his work.
Also today: I found a new cupcake shop in Manchester tonight! Hey Little Cupcake is flipping awesome. I'd heard about a promotion they were doing (free cupcakes and wine!) so I wandered down, thinking even a stale free cupcake is still pretty nice. But these cupcakes were fresh, lovely, and perfect. Delicious and bright and sweet and adorable. I have reason to believe their cupcakes are nut-free (though made in a kitchen that does have nuts), which means I can buy some for the chickens (e.g. my niece and nephew), when they come to visit! Cannot wait. Manchester folks, seriously, get there. NOW. Little Quay St. You have zero excuses.

And today, I was surprised to find, was also new haircut day! I love the new look, all asymmetrical and short. Cheers to Claire at Peter Marcus for giving me the haircut I said I wanted, despite clearly thinking that I was totally insane. She definitely did not agree with my vision, but she did what I asked for, and I love it. I'll be going there again.

 I know, reader, what you're thinking: "My goodness, Nija, you busy busy girl! Awake at 7am, lunch, a new haircut and cupcakes all in one day? However do you manage to do all that and be so... what is the word... awake at this ungodly hour of 11pm?"

I will be honest with you.

I am only barely awake. I might fall asleep mid-post.

13 March 2011

I met a lovely person.

It's been ages since I've posted here. I know.

And yet, you haven't felt the lack of me, have you, dear reader? Because now we are all fluttering flies mired in the spider's web of Facebook, and every time I tremor, you can feel it, and you know where it's coming from. Problem: so does the spider, and it's probably coming to pierce our fleshes, liquify our innards and our souls, and suck them out, leaving only our cold exoskeletons and keratinous wings to wear away slowly, under the onslaught of entropy, fluttering and tremoring now not from our own energy, but merely whipped about by the uncaring wind.

Oh, dear, I need to get back to writing proper stories, so you won't be assaulted with crap like that again.

I have been up to many exciting things. However, if I tried to tell you about all of them, I would never catch up.

More importantly, I met a lovely person last night.

 His name's Billy Bragg. I kind of love the seriously junky quality of this picture.

I'd been planning to attend this Hope Not Hate show for weeks. I convinced my friends John and Jordan, from my MA, to come out. Jordan was even going to bring his lovely girlfriend, Claudia.

But at the last minute, everyone backed out, and I decided to go alone. Because I have to see Billy Bragg. He's one of my favourite musicians. For those of you who have never heard of him, go here. Or here. His music means probably a little too much to me (and to Craig, and to us). Though I've been a fan for 14 years, I had never seen him live. The last time he played in Atlanta, I didn't hear about it until too late. When Craig went to SXSW and saw Billy play, I was supposed to go, but schoolwork came up (I know! Work's for suckers!). When we moved to Australia, Billy played Big Day Out in Sydney two days before we landed there. I've been following him, from country to country, for too long.

I got to the show a bit early (because I'm me), and found a very good spot to stand. Not quite leaning on the stage, but still damn close. Since the Manchester Academy is part of the UoM student union, I logged onto the WiFi and started tweeting about the show, because I am an official Twitter Tragic (#TT).

The sound guys were playing English Rose by The Jam–awesome! The roadies came out to set up for the supporting act, and I noticed that one of the roadies looked just like Billy Bragg, but younger, like 16. I send out a tweet saying so, and someone else at the show tweeted back, saying they thought so, too! #TT. We found out later that there was a very good reason for the physical resemblance. Jack, the roadie, is Billy's kid. Should have guessed.

The show was amazing. Billy's voice is such a comfort during these aching times. He played The World Turned Upside Down, Qualifications, Half-English, Greetings to the New Brunette, A Lover Sings, A New England, Between the Wars, Tank Park Salute, NPWA, The Saturday Boy, The Milkman of Human Kindness, Everywhere, Sexuality, Levi Stubb's Tears and The Warmest Room, amongst others. He made fun of Tories and the SWP. He was lovely. He made jokes about Morrissey, always a good move in Manchester.

"This tea is a special brew, it's called 'Froat Coat,' spelled f-r-o-a-t. Thing is, it makes you fink you can sing in tune. Morissey taught me that."

I laughed, and some people standing next to me laughed, too, and we had a moment of that live-music community that is always so enjoyable. We all like this music, and we're all happy to be here, and we can smile at each other and enjoy these moments of humour, together, as humans. I took a funny-looking photo of Billy.

I showed it to the woman standing next to me, and she laughed with me.

It was a great concert, in support of Hope Not Hate, a group that works against hate groups in the UK. He talked about the fight against the BNP in Barking and Dagenham, and how that fight kicked the BNP out. About how important it is for every generation to recommit to the fight against racism and fascism. He made all of us, every person in the audience, feel like we were not alone. And he put the responsibility on us to go out and make sure the BNP couldn't get a foothold in Manchester. He told us to keep the faith, to keep fighting.

During the show, he told a story about having to tell Jack to quit playing his guitar; it was bothering Juliet. At first, Billy didn't recognise the song, because Jack apparently turns everything into the Ramones. But when he realised what Jack was playing, he knew he couldn't tell Jack to stop. Because Jack was playing The Milkman of Human Kindness.

Jack shook his head as Billy started singing. "If you're lonely, I will call... If you're poorly, I will send poetry."

The show was beautiful. More than anything, I was overwhelmed and thrilled to have seen him sing live, a 14-year goal finally met, brilliantly met. After he finished his encore, ending the show with A New England, everyone sort of milled about for a little while, mulling over the beauty of the night. The pop mixed with politics. The soothe of a voice we know so well.

Then, the woman next to me (Mandy) asked if I was alone, and if I wanted to grab a quick drink with her and her friends. "Sure," I said, happy to make some new Billy-Bragg-fan friends. And as the group of us were walking out, a blonde woman came from backstage and hugged Mandy's friend, Beryl. I soon learned the blonde woman is Juliet, Billy's wife. And she invited the whole group up.

To meet Billy Bragg.

! ! !

He was super-nice, as you'd expect. I showed him the goofy picture, and he didn't seem to mind. Because, you see, he's a lovely person.

He signed a photo for me, and took a photograph with me. I asked if he had any shows coming up in America, because I said it's aching. They need him there, I said.

"I know they do," he answered. And he's trying to get there later. "But they have my songs, and they're playing them. I've seen it on YouTube" He said Tom Morello had gone to Wisconsin and told Billy it was so cold, he couldn't play the guitar. Frozen hands.

I said "You have to love those Wisconsin musicians, though, because they get on with it anyway." And he agreed, saying he liked Wisconsin, because he loves cheese.

Then he asked me why America doesn't produce any world-class cheese.
They do, I told him, you just have to go to the small dairies.

He was not impressed. That's not enough for Billy Bragg, folks. He wants several varieties of cheese, especially the English crumbly kinds, in every supermarket and every corner shop in America.

So, um... dairy farmers and cheesemakers of America: Get on it.

I can't believe Billy Bragg argued with me about the state of American cheese.

He said whenever a quasi-Republican wants to talk to him about shooting a deer or stabbing a dolphin to death, he distracts them with questions about cheese. He said Americans always want to talk about killing things. "Not all of us," I said. "You're right," he agreed, "I'm generalising." Then he told me to get a beer.

What a lovely person.  That's right. I drank a Billy Bragg's Dressing Room Corona. With Lime. You're jealous. You know it.

Though now I wonder if maybe he thought I was a quasi-Republican? Hopefully not. I had told him that his music influenced me in a good way. Probably just came up because of Wisconsin. That's what I'm going to hope for, anyway.

And his kid Jack is a sharp one, too. Billy tried to get him to admit that he had, in fact, once been caught playing one of Billy's songs. "I admit, it wasn't Milkman, it was A New England. But it's a better intro for Milkman, so I changed it."

Billy: Isn't it true that you were once playing A New England?
Jack: No.
Billy: Yes, you were. You couldn't get the chord right at the end, and you tried [he air-guitars] jhunh, jhunh, jhunh, and then you stamped and went "F-ck, f-ck, f-ck!"
Jack: No. Wasn't one of your songs.
Billy (to Juliet): Isn't it true that he was once playing one of my songs?
Juliet: I remember the "F-ck, f-ck, f-ck!" because he couldn't play the chords.
Billy (to Jack): You were trying to play it, and you couldn't. Isn't that right? You can't play A New England, can you?

Jack: I don't know. I haven't tried.


I chatted with Mandy and her friends about the Jam and why I was in Manchester at all. It felt great to be around other Billy Bragg fans, honestly, and just know that they knew why I was there. They knew the words, too. All of them.

Honestly, I still cannot believe my luck. Who knew coming to a Billy Bragg show alone could be such a surprising and magical experience? I have to thank Mandy and Beryl, who invited me to come along with them. And I guess, in a way, I have to thank coincidence, for having me go to a show alone, for having me stand next to some kind people, and for having everything happen the way it did

He even took the time for a better picture, because he's just such a lovely person.