All posts filed under “Life

Ice

I buy bags of ice – not being sufficiently well-off to afford a contraption that makes it, but being sufficiently fond of taking my whisky on the rocks that I can’t keep up by making it in trays – and a thought often tickles me when I reach into one.

Sometimes, you see, I drop a chunk of ice on the floor, and at that point, of course, it’s useless. I don’t want to pick it up and drop it in my glass, and it will melt into a puddle of water when I chuck it in the fridge. And the thought is: what I bought was a transient state of matter. Most times at the supermarket, you buy stuff – even if what you’re really buying is some chemical energy that you’ll process once you eat it rather than some immutable gobs of matter. But with ice, you specifically buy the state the matter is in.

This thought can appear to be lousy with resonances and heady with import when you are topping up your ice for a second glass of whisky, which coincidentally is when you’re most likely to drop some ice cubes on the floor.

5 musicals you should watch (especially if you think you hate musicals)

It’s amazing how many people claim to love music but say they hate musicals. You probably hate musicals. I have no data to back that up, but I’m about to write over a thousand words on that basis, so we’re both just going to have to accept it.

So, you! The reasons you don’t like musicals, I bet, is because you think they’re frothy, camp and trivial, because they make you cringe, and because you just can’t get over that moment when the strings swell and you know with a dread certainty that a character is about to burst into song. And I get that. Even though I can enjoy those sentimental, highly-mannered musicals, I get that they can be hard to love – or at least, hard to admit to loving.

Not all musicals are like that, though, and if you dismiss all musicals as frivolous confections lacking in substance or merit, you’re going to miss some truly wonderful, valuable and rewarding films and theatre. So to ensure you don’t miss them, let me recommend to you five musicals that even people who don’t like musicals should watch.

Cabaret

I could just recommend this and be done. For one thing, you can marvel at its technical brilliance, at how the songs act as signposts, either pre-figuring or underlining major plot markers. And what signposts. Smart, moving, funny – and often utterly, utterly vicious. In the same way as the ugly spectre of Nazism pervades what could be a bland boy-meets-girl story, so too are even the silliest, most ludicrous musical numbers shot through with twist-the-knife despair and vileness. That very contrast – how an apparently whimsical number called If You Could See Her Through My Eyes about a man dating a gorilla turns on the very last line into an excoriating commentary on anti-semitism – is why it has such power. Sometimes the contrast is less stark, and that can be wonderful too. Witness how, with apparently nothing really changing, the pure, clear, optimistic pean to youthful promise Tomorrow Belongs to Me morphs into a chilling march, prophesying the apparently inevitable rise of the Third Reich.

And besides, despite unmistakably being a musical, its characters don’t, as a rule, do that breaking into song thing, and that’s thanks to the clever use of the Kit Kat club – the cabaret of the title – as a useful dramatic construct. The whole thing is actually supremely and terrifically meta; the closing song, Cabaret, is meta meta, and that’s delightful.

You might think you know some of the songs from Cabaret, but stripped of their context, you probably only know their superficial meaning; in context, they can become almost unbearably poignant, powerful and heavy with pathos.

It’s worth seeing in the theatre – a regional rep can do it justice as well as a West End company can – but the 1972 Bob Fosse film is nevertheless glorious. Yes, Sally Bowles should be English, and no, she shouldn’t really be able to sing, but Liza Minnelli gets the fragile femme fatale, ingénue thing so right, Michael York is just wonderful, and Joel Grey is canonical.

(Oh, and it’s anything but a bland boy-meets-girl story.)

Buy on Amazon

Flight of the Conchords

In three paragraphs’ time I’m going to recommend you watch an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, so I thought I’d better bank some street-cred by first recommending you watch something that’s about as far away from Phantom of the Opera as you can imagine.

If you’ve never seen it (or technically, even if you have), Flight of the Conchords is a comedy TV series set in New York – but it’s very definitely a musical too. Despite being a comedy and despite it being a TV series, it’s actually probably more classically a musical than Cabaret; the songs, as well as moving the plot on, are sung by the primary characters, and they do, I’m afraid, do that bursting into song thing.

The songs, though, are fab; witty, superbly produced and with properly world-class melodies and hooks. It’s no wonder one of the show’s creators, Bret McKenzie, was asked to do the music for The Muppets movie – which is another belter of a musical, incidentally.

Buy on Amazon

Jesus Christ Superstar (specifically the Norman Jewison version)

It’s possible you hate Jesus Christ Superstar, thanks perhaps to its big closing number, to ham-fisted amateur productions or to unbearably camp, leadenly re-contexed productions such as 2012’s O2 stadium performance. And again, I get this.

This 1973 film, though, should change your mind. Its success comes from three factors: the staging, the actors, and the fact that it’s so fucking seventies. I love the spare, almost Brechtian staging – the cast and crew rock up in the middle of the Iranian desert in a van, and film in the ruins of Avdat. It’s beautiful, but because you’re not distracted by how well or otherwise the sets have been built and dressed, it focusses you on the story too.

Even better, the cast is giving it their all. And not in a RADA, X Factor, clenched-fists-and-eyes kinda way. You know how legend has it Carrie Fisher was so off her tits on drugs during filming of Star Wars that she really thought she was in space? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn something similar of the cast here. They are wildly talented, yes, but there’s also a rawness and immediacy to their performances that I don’t think you can fail to respond to.

Then there’s the seventiness. Squealing guitars, the slightly Instagram-ey colour grading on the film, Pan’s People-style dance numbers and awesome hair. It’s awesome – but it also has huge power and potency.

Buy on Amazon

Fiddler on the Roof

Now I’ve convinced you to watch something by Andrew Lloyd Webber, anything else should be easy. So here’s Fiddler, an absolutely classic musical, and of course I’m going to recommend the 1971 film version, also by Norman Jewison – though mostly because I’ve never seen it staged.

As you probably know, it tells the story of a community of Jews and Christians in Russia, and through the marriages made by the daughters of Tevye, the main character, we see a traditional way of life challenged, challenged and challenged again, and we see how Tevye, as a proxy for an entire people, struggles to adapt.

There are some wonderful tunes, some genuine laughs and of course some toweringly nuanced and poignant performances.

This one, I admit, might be a tough sell if you’re a musicals naysayer, just because it’s so classically musically, so don’t make it your first.

Buy on Amazon

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton’s Christmas classic is warm, sweet and clever, and a big part of its appeal are the songs – not just the well-known This Is Halloween but also What’s This? and the terrifically well mimicked Oogie Boogie’s Song. I’ve written this at exactly the wrong time to recommend you watch it – optimally, you should watch it on the day you put the Christmas decorations up – but it’s a lovely film to watch at any time of year, and whenever you do, you might catch yourself realising that what you’re watching, indeed, what you’re enjoying, is a musical.

Buy on Amazon

If by the time you’ve watched all five you have either reluctantly accepted that musicals are not entirely lame or have wholeheartedly embraced the form, the good news is that there are many more waiting to be enjoyed – and sometimes, they are films or theatre pieces that you might already know, but have never before thought to enjoy as musicals. The Jungle Book (indeed any Disney cartoon), Chicago with Queen Latifah, Bugsy Malone, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory – especially the wonderful production at the Theatre Royal – that musical episode of Buffy, Labyrinth, the surprisingly touching story of Cole Porter’s life, De-Lovely, and a hundred others can be beautiful, funny, affecting, and filled with pathos, and can tell stories in ways that straight drama just can’t.

As for me, the next I’m going to see is Into the Woods, a 1986 Stephen Sondheim musical which a new film adaptation of has just been released. It’s supposed to be wicked-smart, look stunning and have great tunes — what’s not to love?

Apple eMate in a café

On finding and protecting the things you like to do (and what to do next)

I’m having a terrific time writing and doing photography for my Think Retro column at Macworld. My latest is on how computers, austere and anodyne today, used to be much chirpier – literally.

The thing I always forget I love till I pick up my eMate again is the noises it makes. As you use the stylus to select things on the screen, little confirmatory noises sound, and the joyous thing is that they’re not the same sound. The effect, as you tap about the screen to format a document and send it by fax, say, is that you get a cheery burble of “beek,” “bik,” “bok” rather than the same “click,” “click,” “click” as you’d expect on other systems. It’s emblematic of a much more human, much friendlier approach to operating systems than any other I can think of.

You can read the whole thing at http://www.macworld.com/article/2856351.

It’s a funny thing; life seems inevitably and inexorably to lead to the present when you look back at it, but you had no idea where it was heading at the time. I just used to like old Apple stuff, and so bought it if it was cheap and I wanted it – with the result that now even I’m surprised by how much stuff I have from which I can draw for Think Retro.

Today, then, I have a regular writing gig sharing an enthusiasm with others who seem to be enjoying it. I’ve always struggled to know what I want to do with my career, and you often hear the advice that you should identify the things you enjoy doing, then work out how you can turn them into a job. I suspect I rejected that at some subconscious level for two reasons. First, it seemed too easy; surely a job was a necessary evil to be endured? It should be arduous; it’s called ‘work’. Worse, I had come to dislike the Confucian quote ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life’ because experience suggested to me there was no surer way to leech the delight out of a hobby than to bury it under a thick layer of work apparatus and office life.

I think I probably got it wrong – thrice. I was slow to recognise the things I actually enjoyed doing, had a deep-seated and unhealthy attitude to work, and needed to get much, much better at translating my curiosity and aptitude for a broad range of subjects into money. Let’s see if I can get better at learning from my mistakes in 2015.

Handy cards to (never ever, because you’re British) give out to people who are using leaf blowers

I had a little rant on Twitter this morning, which is the accepted use of Twitter.

Happily, all my terribly astute followers agreed with me, which lead to the below – as salutary a lesson as you could wish for on the dangers of surrounding yourself with yes-men.

Clearly, I’m never actually going to print these out and give them to people – I’m British; I cope with frustrations by making ostensibly witty comments and by writing passive-agressive blog posts – but should you wish to, here’s a handy PDF:

Download Leaf Blower cards

 

➚ Let’s see if the comments vindicate this column’s topic…

My TechRadar column this week is on the inherent uselessness of a public-voted star ratings.

The fault isn’t really with the system, though, but with people. How else can you explain the 4.9/5 rating the first picture the Philae lander sent back from the surface of comet 67P currently has? What kind of towering arsehole looks at that picture – a picture taken 316 million miles away by a probe we launched 10 years ago and which landed on an object travelling at more than 30,000mph – and rates it anything other than five stars?

http://www.techradar.com/1273133

➚ How to do the jobs you hate and feel good about it

My wife and I have formulated a little life hack over the past five years or so that helps us get shit done, makes our home and work environments more pleasant, and makes us feel good, so of course I offered to write it up for Lifehacker UK:

Most importantly, though, is the fourth benefit this approach brings: it makes you feel good about yourself. If, every day, you do one thing that needs doing but that you don’t want to do, no matter how major or minor, the sense of achievement and empowerment you get is huge. It really does have a dramatic effect on your self-esteem, never mind on your home, your job, or the rest of your life.

http://www.lifehacker.co.uk/2014/11/08/commit-commitment-jobs-hate-feel-good

Why I love the new John Lewis ad (apart from the obvious reason that it’s bloody adorable)

It has become de rigueur among my peers to sneer at the manipulative, saccharine and by now frankly quite formulaic ads John Lewis airs for Christmas. And if one doesn’t object to those aspects of the ads, one must at least object to how much people talk about how good they are.

There’s a quite distasteful undercurrent of snobbishness in this, as if something that is sweet and fun and maybe makes you feel a bit warm and teary is somehow terribly unbecoming, or underserving of any approbation; in the context of the old divide between high and low art, this is subterranean, and my dear, it’s an advert! How can it possibly have any soul? It’s there to sell you things; wake up, sheeple!

Fuck all that. Seriously; fuck all that. This year’s is lovely, and I think you’ll be a better, more open and loving person if you don’t join in with the fashionable wave of negativity and dismissal.

While I was rewatching it (yes, guys; rewatching it) it struck me that part of the reason it’s so strong – and why I at least bought so completely into it that the reveal at the end hit me unexpectedly hard – is that the penguin is so penguiney. It’s barely anthropomorphised at all – it’s up to us to infer its emotions and its story rather than it being heavily implied. Sure, there are hints, but the makers realised that part of the reason we love penguins so much is because of their distinctive little mannerisms and quirks; these are penguins, not men in penguin costumes.

Thank you

Today is my last day at work. Having gone straight from school to university to work, I don’t remember a time when I haven’t woken up every day and travelled to an institution where someone else had dibs on my time. It’s likely, once I have stepped back, gained some perspective and regained some drive and creativity, that I will want to go back into full-time employment, but today at least feels like I’m closing Vol. I of my life – and so I’d like to say thanks to some of those people who mattered to me in it.

Thank you to my wife for being endlessly inspiring and for always being in my corner.

Thank you to my teams for helping me make good stuff, and especially to those colleagues who’ve become friends, for making the bad days tolerable and the good days glorious.

Thank you to everyone who took a punt on me – and to anyone who does in the future!

Thank you to my parents for instilling in me some good values, and to them and my wider family for support, encouragement and love.

Thank you to the community in technology and publishing who have proven time and again to be some of the best, smartest and most exhilarating people you could hope to meet.

Thank you to those who’ve read my words, bought my magazines or otherwise engaged with my professional output – and not just because you indirectly helped pay my wages.

Thank you to anyone who challenged me to think more, to prejudge less, to be kinder, to empathise, to care. And to up my game, explicitly or without you realising it.

And thank you for reading this. ☺️

My last day is Hallowe’en, but never fear; I’m still around to write frightfully good copy to scary deadlines. If you need a terrifyingly experienced writer who understands better than most what a nightmare freelancers can be, just yell!

Biscuits, Big Shots and bad puns: a Phin guide to self-promotion

Because I’ve worked as a journalist for over 12 years, I can tell you first-hand that nothing gets a journalist’s attention quite like free chocolate biscuits, so when I wanted to come up with a way of reminding commissioning editors at the company I still currently work for that I’d be leaving and available for freelance writing at the end of the month, giving them chocolate biscuits as I told them seemed like an obvious choice. Today I’ll be handing out the above little packages, and I thought I’d talk a little about how I put them together.

Taking my leaving date of Hallowe’en as the starting point, I did the design itself in InDesign (shamelessly stealing Matt Gemmell’s idea), and printed them, just as dark grey rectangles with the reversed-out white lettering, onto sheets of magnetic-backed glossy inkjet paper. I then picked a suitably gothic Sizzix die-cut and ran the roughly cut-out rectangles through a Big Shot (a deeply satisfying experience; I can’t recommend it enough) to punch them to the final shape. Then it was a simple case of punching the magnets and the bags of chocolate biscuits and threading through some gauzy ribbon and cutting the ends into inverted points.

The fact that I printed onto magnetic paper means that if I’m very lucky the relevant commissioning editors might just stick the little summary of my details to a filing cabinet or something, keeping me in their eyeline.

Or, you know, they may forget I ever existed as soon as the last crumb is swallowed, but at least I gave myself a chance!

My setup

What’s next?

“What are you going to do next?” is something I’ve been asked often by friends and colleagues since it was announced a few weeks ago I’m leaving Future at the end of October. It’s a fair question, not least because it’s one I’ve been asking myself a lot, and the answer is simple: I don’t know.

Make no mistake about it: this is terrifying. At some point I’m hoping it will start to be exciting at least as well, but right now it’s mostly deeply disconcerting; I am constitutionally not well suited to not having money arrive regularly in my account on the 28th of every month.

Still, it feels like the right thing to do; there are two reasons I’ve decided to leave now despite having no other job to go to. The first is to do with me; since I started 12 years ago I’ve been steadily (if not always deliberately) climbing the ranks in magazines to my current position of editor-in-chief, and the more senior I’ve gotten, the more I end up merely administering rather than creating stuff. And I miss that. I miss writing, I miss researching, I miss communicating with an audience. I’m excited about being excited again, and stepping off the monthly grind of a regular magazine will be a balm. Some of that, to be sure, is to do with how I feel about a situation rather than the situation itself – which brings me on to the second reason.

The job in the current climate has frankly become too challenging for me. I’ve faced – and not shied away from – a few significant challenges in my career, but had I stayed I would have faced some especially tough ones. They don’t sound to me like the fun, get-your-teeth-into-them, let’s-all-make-something-amazing kind of challenges, so – and I am a little ashamed of this – I’m not prepared to take them on. If you’ve read Jason Snell’s announcement or Serenity Caldwell’s similar note you might get an inkling of the context; certainly, since I read them between handing in my notice and it being announced, I read them both with a mixture of amazement and weariness at how familiar the stories were. I’ll leave behind some wonderful brands and some astonishing people, and I wish them nothing but the very best in meeting the challenges the next six, 12 and 18 months will bring. Nothing about my decision saddens me more than knowing I won’t be working in the same room as some truly inspiring colleagues and friends.

So, what am I going to do next? In the short term, I’m going to get back to writing, speaking and consulting, and while I’ll be pitching ideas to technology and lifestyle brands in the coming weeks, I would, of course, love to hear from you if my expertise sounds useful to you.

Longer-term, I frankly don’t know. I have a nebulous aspiration that once I disentangle myself and my brain from the overhead of my current job, I’ll get some clarity on what I do want to do next, and it might be something completely unrelated. I’m very lucky that my wife supports – indeed, is delighted by – my decision, so while we have a rocky few months ahead, financially, I fervently hope that we’re building towards a happier 2015.

If we’ve worked well together in the past, I’d be most grateful if you would let me know if you hear of any opportunities you think I would a good fit for.

I don’t know what the next chapter will be. Let’s turn the page and find out.