Spectator | Who I Am by Charlotte Rampling

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This slight book comes with heavy baggage. In 2009, Rampling handed back a hefty advance for her contribution to a conventional authorised biography, and then used the Human Rights Act to prevent Barbara Victor from publishing anything based on their collaboration, on the grounds that it would violate her right to privacy. The Mail typically demanded to know ‘what can possibly remain untold in her audaciously open life’. What it meant was that, having been so extensively naked on-screen,
Rampling had no business pulling down the shutters on her private life.

Read the full review at the Spectator

Eurogamer | I hate freedom – Sarah Ditum would ramen have fun

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I am not a real gamer. I’m just putting that out there now, in the spirit of Fat Amy, to spare anyone the trouble of investigating whether I am in fact a real gamer. I’m not. Not that I imagine those investigations would be especially time-consuming: as I understand it, the conjunction of controller and vagina is usually considered sufficient to make the diagnosis, leading to no end of false positives in the detection of not-real gamers. But in this case, it’s true. I’m as not-real as they come.

Crafting is boring. Sandboxes are tediously over-large. Put me in a FPS and I’m more likely to bumble into a corner aiming at my own feet than I am to score a headshot. Or an anything shot. The idea of these things – yes, I love the idea of these things. I think about the infinite, unscrolling worlds of No Man’s Sky and a part of my heart leaps as if I was a real explorer paused on the cusp of the unknown. I imagine delving far into a BioWare game and becoming one of those people who speaks with true affection about the alien lover whose breasts I glimpsed and heart I shattered in the deepest outposts of the galaxy.

Read the full column at Eurogamer

New Statesman | Prevenge: in a world of male violence, seeing monstrous women is a thrill

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The best thing you’ll see in the cinema this year is a big man called DJ Dan looking down in horror as he realises that the thing slithering down his leg and onto his living room floor is his testicle, unleashed from its ballsack by the knife held by heavily pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe). Or, if the death-by-castration of DJ Dan – an entirely appropriate response to his pick-up patter about the easiness of “fat birds” – doesn’t grab you, maybe one of the other grisly highlights of Lowe’s maternity-slasher movie Prevenge will.

You could choose Ruth sitting astride a man and ramming a gilt statue through his eye-socket; or Ruth butchering a chilly businesswoman who smirkingly explains at the end of a job interview that it just wouldn’t make sense to hire a woman who’s about to have a baby. And all of it is accompanied by the insinuating whisper of Ruth’s foetus, who seems to be talking to her from the womb, urging “mummy” to greater acts of violence. As Ruth’s gratingly sincere midwife tells her: “Baby knows what to do.”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

How to keep a reading journal

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In August 2014, my husband gave me a black Moleskine that launched a continuous habit of notebook-keeping. It started as a general mix of ideas, observations, to-do lists and quote-copying; by the end of the first volume (and yes I do feel absurdly lofty talking about “volumes” of my notebooks), it had turned into something that you might more strictly call a reading journal or a commonplace book (if you were Victorian-minded), and if you’re a reader, I strongly recommend you keep one too.

Here’s why: I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

First, you need a sturdy, portable notebook – because your notebook is going to be with you everywhere you might be reading, and you don’t want it to fall apart. That means your ideal notebook should be:

  • Hardback
  • Lined
  • Stitched, not glued, and able to open flat
  • Small enough to carry easily but big enough to write in easily (A5 is perfect)
  • Have an elastic strap to stop it flapping open and getting damaged in your bag (you could just use an elastic band, but you’d probably lose it, or remember the elastic band and forget your pen)
  • Have a ribbon sewn into the binding to mark your page

The best notebook in the world is the Leuchtturm 1917 medium, which has numbered pages, a table of contents, perforated back pages in case you need to rip a sheet out for some reason (you vandal), two (two!) bookmarks in contrasting colours (one for the page I’m currently writing on, one for the section I’m referring to for work), archiving labels, and a pocket at the back for receipts and things. But you can fill in your own page numbers and make your own table of contents in any notebook, and if you do, it will look something like this:

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When you’re numbering the pages, you can get away with just doing the odd numbers (see below), and obviously you don’t have to do the whole notebook at once: putting them in as you go works fine.

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You can see above that I used to date individual entries, but that isn’t very practical – a day’s reading might only turn up one line worth transcribing. Now I just date the top of the pages when I start them, as below (this is a section on The Bell Jar, which turns out to have an awful lot of lines worth transcribing):

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When I make a note, I always:

  • Start with the page number
  • Place direct quotes within double quote marks (some people like single quote marks but they are perverts)
  • Introduce my own thoughts or observations with a dash
  • Put my own clarifications or suspension marks for omissions within square brackets (if the quote itself uses square brackets, though, be careful to mark which were in the original and which you added yourself)
  • Write in black uni-ball rollerball medium because I am very relaxed and fun about this

You don’t have to make notes on everything (though it’s nice to at least have the title and a few observations recorded); you won’t find something worth noting every time you read. But I’ve learned that it’s good to scratch down anything that catches your eye, rather than spend ages trawling back through later on when you realise that the intriguing detail you almost copied out was actually the foundation of a critical pattern of imagery, or the seed of the author fatally undermining their own argument, or something.

Reading is always active, never passive. Words don’t simply float through your eyes and take up residence in your head: you make meaning from them, fit them into the world of everything else you know, find resonances that maybe even the author could not have realised were there. Yes, keeping a notebook is more faff than just reading; but it doesn’t take a huge amount of time, and the satisfaction of seeing your notebooks fill up is more an incentive to read than an obstruction.

When you go back later and revisit your notes on a particular book, you’ll find that you’ve made your own version of the text, partial and overlaid with your own thoughts and ideas. I keep other journals (the to-do lists, ideas and observations now go into a bullet journal), but the reading notebooks are the ones that really matter. Try one.

Short story | The Boy Who Cried Fire

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In 2013, I took part in Den of Eek – Den of Geek’s annual horror storytelling night in support of cancer charities. The theme was urban legends, and my contribution was heavily inspired by just having moved house (the creepy teddies are still in my real-life basement now).

I moved house a few months ago. Of course, it was exhausting – they say it’s more stressful than losing your job or being bereaved, and it’s even worse if the idiots you buy the house off decide to leave you with all their crap to sort through. There were skiploads of it. I don’t think the cellar had been touched in decades. There were all sorts of things down there: mouldy chintz curtains, chests of drawers with broken legs, and these creepy looking teddy bears tumbled in the dirt, like someone had been playing with them. They were so horrible, I couldn’t even touch them. I think they’re still there.

Download The Boy Who Cried Fire as a PDF or purchase the full collection of stories as an ebook (proceeds go to support cancer charities)

Eurogamer | Even with the Marketing and Malpractice DLC, Big Pharma just isn’t evil enough

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Medicine is broken. “Drugs are tested by people who manufacture them, in poorly designed studies, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer,” says Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Pharma. He also says quite a bit more beside, because medicine really is very broken. This is 1) terrible, because all of us rely on medicine at one time or another and have a basic faith in the white-coated ministers who provide it, and 2) a marvellous opportunity to make an extremely evil strategy game.

Read the full post at Eurogamer

Eurogamer | Serf and turf: A week in Stardew Valley

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It’s like having one last short to get your head straight before you leave the bar, or necking an espresso to bring you down as you head up for bed. It makes no sense, and it makes you feel horrible. Stardew Valley is a PC game that repeatedly needles you about how detached you are from the natural world and how soul-voiding it is to live your life through a screen. “There will come a time when you feel crushed by modern life and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness,” says your bed-ridden grandad, stretching his hand towards you with a serious-looking envelope. Cut to: your character, skivvying miserably at a computer for the oppressively cheerful Joja corporation. Cut to: my heart withering in ashy despair as I realise I too am hunched over a screen.

But the answer to your wage-slave woes are right there in that letter from gramps. In it, your grandfather gives you his old farm in Stardew Valley. Of course, it needs a bit of work. Actually, it needs a lot of work. You are deposited in an overgrown shrubbery littered with rocks and bits of wood, and given a handful of tools to get started with. Chop down trees, break rocks, till soil, repeat. The cheery 8-bit look with searingly bright colours cannot hide the fact that you’ve been dropped into a world of chores. Chop, break, till. Forage as you go, selling your finds for in-game cash. Buy seeds. Chop, break, till. Plant your seeds and water them. Chop, break, till, water.

Read the full post at Eurogamer