Cheeseburger Gothic

Joined up writing

Posted June 17, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

When was the last time you picked up a pen or pencil and scratched out a line or two of handwriting? Not printing. Not blocky capital letters listing a handful of items you might need from the corner store. But long looping swirls and scratches and spikes and curlicues of flowing ink? Cursive writing. Joined up writing. Like grown-ups use.
Maybe it was only a few minutes ago. Maybe it was weeks. I'm ashamed to say that I can go weeks without putting pen to paper. But then I might go for weeks using my notebook – my actual Moleskin Notebook – every day.

Daybook and notebook.

There's a debate on at the moment – not a particularly fiery or engaging one, I'll concede – between the true believers in cursive, the running writing you learned about half way through primary school, and the unbelievers who think it's all just bullshit and people don't need it because... SCIENTZ! And, er, TECHNOLOLOGY!

Nobody's saying an adult doesn't need to know how to make their mark on a piece of paper, but some academics and keyboard jihadists and dictation fanatics don't think there is any point in preferencing handwriting.

Mashable has a nice round up of the argument over here.

Although I don't use it every day, I would be lost without the ability to write in longhand. Granted, nowadays when I take notes on the fly I mostly do so on my iPhone using either the keyboard or, if I'm in the car in particular, dictation. (There's a whole 'nother entry to be written about the limitations of Apple's dictation software, licensed from Nuance who provide the engine for the desktop system I use at home. But we won't get into that). Bottom line, you can use neither your thumbs nor a pencil when you're driving the car, but if you are willing to speak in a staccato Captain Kirk voice you-can-dictate-with-a-reasonable-degree-of-accuracy. Except that the iPhone would probably miss the translation of the words 'reasonable' and maybe 'accuracy'.

So why do I still write longhand? Because it's a great way of unblocking a stream of thought which has become hopelessly damned. It's also a really good way of laying out your thoughts when you haven't really... well... thought them through. When you are just playing with the ideas. Dictation is hopeless for this. Dictation software is now advanced enough that it much prefers a conversational flow of sound. If you have a whole paragraph formed in your head and can just let it all out without a break, the transcription is likely to be much more accurate than a bunch of phrases and half formed thoughts stuttered and stammered into the microphone.

There is nothing contemplative about dictation software. The need to dictate formatting and to wake up or pause the program interrupts any 'flow state'. Dictation, and to a lesser extent, typing, are less well suited to wool gathering than paper.

For a few years, until recently, I was on the lookout for a proper desk journal. Something with a surface area of an old desktop blotter. A3 page size at least. I eventually found one Berkelouw's secondhand bookstore Eumundi. (Dragon Dictatte's first pass at Eumunid was 'your Monday'). I think they may have ordered too many. I managed to pick up this massive tome – a Moleskin no less – for about the same price as I paid for the small moleskin notebook I keep in the back of my jeans pocket. It's now my "daybook".

At the start of each day I jot down a few notes about the tasks I have set myself to accomplish by the time the sun goes down. It's normally a short simple list. A blog, half a book chapter, maybe some admin. As I work through the tasks I tick 'em off. There's no reason for using a massive journal to record this sort of minutiae when a scrap of paper blue tacked to the screen of my iMac would do just as well. But into the daybook also goes chapter plans, book structures, character notes, the drawings of certain scenes such as the floor plan of the cell in which Prince Harry and Otto Skorzeny have their fight to the death. The datebook in its current incarnation contains 'zoological' notes about the various monsters in A Protocol for Monsters. There's a complete chapter breakdown for Stalin's Hammer: Cairo and a couple of thousand words worth of notes written down longhand in the old-fashioned way while I was reading extracts from a couple of Wilfrid Burchett books.

I haven't used the daybook in this way, but at some point if I ever write myself into a corner, I will inevitably turn a new page, pick up a pen, and ask myself the question "What the fuck am I trying to say here?" Without thinking through the answer, I then lay pen to paper and start writing as fast as possible. Doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense. It sure as hell won't be in anything approaching polished prose. But after I fill up half a page or so with closely spaced handwriting, whatever had caused me to stop typing or dictating will no longer be an issue. I will know what I'm trying to say and how to say it.

This doesn't mean some nine-year-old kid needs to maintain an author's daybook. But I can't help thinking that different areas of the brain are involved in forming and structuring and expressing our thoughts when we write them then when we type or dictate them. The latter I am qualified to comment on because as we've canvassed here previously, there is a real cognitive difference between dictating a story and writing it. It's a difference I've managed, I hope, to resolve over the years, but it's still there. I can feel it every time I sit down, or stand up to put my dictation headset on. It requires an act of will, of conscious effort, to set aside the very particular way of thinking that lies behind expressing yourself through spoken language as opposed to writing. And there are still certain forms of writing, usually the denser more intellectual or polished forms, for which I don't even bother turning on Dragon Dictate. I know it's better to type out the words or even to write them with pen and paper before transferring them to the screen later.

Is there a difference between typing and writing? They're both creating a neural link between the language centers of the brain and those parts involved in the control of fine motor skills. I would say that after twenty-five years of writing there isn't a difference. But I'd be lying or mistaken. Because if that was the case there would be no need for me to maintain the daybook sitting on the desk a few feet away from me now. And I would never have to pick up a pen and turn to a blank piece of paper to start writing out my thoughts longhand on those occasions where I suddenly found the thoughts resisting all efforts to put them on screen.

But anyway, I was really more interested in what other non-writerly people have to say about this. Do you still use the cursive script you learned in grade three or four at school, and would you be willing for your children or some theoretical future generation to do without it?

88 Responses to ‘Joined up writing’

NBlob has opinions thus...

Posted June 17, 2013

@ work I need to take long hand comprehensive contemporaeneous notes. Sometimes 10's of pages. Usually just the spittle flecked ranting & hooting of a enraged moron, but in the interests of fairness, transperancy, accountability & stuff'nthat I need to record it. I have learnt from bitter experience that Digital Voice Recorders, tape recorders, triple deck recorders even video cameras ALWAYS fail at the worse possible moment. Thus while it causes many hand cramps and is frequently as legible as the scratchings of an epileptic apopleptic chicken, it is still admissable, aducable *rse covering.

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Peter Bradley swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 17, 2013

Firstly in my bid for pedantic bastard of the day award...Moleskine not moleskin.

As far as notebooks go I have two. The one I take to all outside the office meetings. I write all meeting notes, pre and post meeting musings and asorted other things to prompt action or record events.

In the office I have the larger A4 notebook for more detailed musings. Could I do it on screen? Maybe but there is something about the process of putting it down on paper and considering what you have written that adds...not sure what or how but it just adds.

NBlob would have you know...

Posted June 17, 2013

Your pedantry needs work

"Dragon Dictatte's first pass at Eumunid was 'your Monday')" Immediately after spelling Eumundi properly.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted June 17, 2013

'asorted'?

'Dictatte'?

Hang your heads in shame and hand in your Pedant Badge, both of you.

NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted June 17, 2013

Hey, my pedantry is purely recreational. And frequently undermined by m'y imprecice apostrophe use and grade 10 spellings..

Jigoku would have you know...

Posted June 17, 2013

Might as well join in with the other SAGNs ...

"...expressing our thoughts when we write them then[sic] when we type or dictate them."

damian mutters...

Posted June 18, 2013

Hey it's called recursive pedantry fail. It's the new meme.

John, you forgot to include a deliberate mitsake in your comment...

DNABeast would have you know...

Posted June 19, 2013
Sounds like every is disappearing rectilinearly.

DNABeast reckons...

Posted June 19, 2013
*sigh* It's always when you're mocking others' mistakes that you'll make a doozy of your own.

ShaneAlpha would have you know...

Posted June 19, 2013

Pedants only count in the event of a tie.

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Lulu mumbles...

Posted June 17, 2013

My handwriting is some kind of unholy (& untidy) union between cursive and print, leaning more towards cursive. I write faster than I type, so if I'm working through ideas & trying to get them down quickly, it's always done by hand. And I make fewer mistakes.

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Blarkon is gonna tell you...

Posted June 17, 2013

The thing about a great notebook - like those Duomos - is that it's such a beautiful notebook that I feel bad actually writing in it with my shitty handwriting.

Neal Stephenson writes the first draft of all his books longhand (there's even Neal Stephenson Fountain Pen geekery).

The handwriting recognition on MS tablets (which goes back to XP so it's been around a while) is very good at converting longhand - even my extremely shitty longhand. It's certainly faster than using an on-screen keyboard.

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted June 17, 2013

Really? I'd have to see that to believe it.

Blarkon mutters...

Posted June 17, 2013

Here you go - I youtubed it

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxrMHybZhV4

robW mumbles...

Posted June 18, 2013

I'm finishing up a software project that uses the Surface Pro (next get of this stuff) and the only reason I'm writing code for this expensive tablet/pc is because it does handwriting so well. Service people in the field (working in street construction) can use the pen to jot down the info needed to lock in the Geo coordinates with a description. Just say'n. . . .it does seem to work surprisingly well.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat has opinions thus...

Posted June 24, 2013
I can verify that...Better Half's handwriting has been described as ' minuscule spider dipped in ink thrashing across the page' and Surface Pro handled it no sweat. I was seriously impressed.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat mumbles...

Posted June 24, 2013
Oops. The word 'epileptic' should be inserted before 'spider'.

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insomniac mumbles...

Posted June 17, 2013

If i wrote in cursive it would look exactly like it did just prior to me stopping doing so at about age 11 or so: diabolical and childlike. I tend to print with letters that run together more so than joined up. I don't often write long pieces on paper unless I really want a personal touch such as when I wrote to my children after their grandfather died and they couldn't attend because they are scattered to the wind across the country. If I do write longer pieces I try and write more clearly than when I'm noting things down for myself, which is more like a scribble.

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Dino not to be confused with asserts...

Posted June 17, 2013

JB,

Handwriting has more nuance than Typewriting.

I lost a diary in 1997 with 'lots' of stuff in it.

Trying to remember it all is near on impossible.

It's only a small fraction of my lifetime.

Or is that an infraction?

Anyhoo it's not in my possession and the years go rolling on.

If I had put it in electronica or da interweb it wouldn't be private anymore.

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WarDog reckons...

Posted June 17, 2013

Writing/typing - no difference sans muscle memory. If you need to speed up or slow down you can do it in either. I use both but nowadays treat any written material as immediately binnable because

  1. It's already out of date
  2. It can't be easily revised
  3. It's living in a non-backed up, short duration medium
  4. It's light cone (unless subsequently scanned) is limited to the speed of mechanical transport.

The pros for the written form are that it uses a low tech solution for times when a high tech one is not available. It can use some tools that are more portable, though this is starting to become less of a distinction (I use my Nexus7 and Swype to capture most notes now about as fast as I can type, notes which are then persisted in the cloud and available on all my other devices).

As to cursive, it'll always be there when you want it http://www.fontspace.com/category/cursive

Murphy mumbles...

Posted June 17, 2013

Printed form is not vulnerable to power failures, corrupted drives, and obsolete code. If you don't believe me, try to extract something off of your 3.5 floppy.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

Darth Greybeard mumbles...

Posted June 17, 2013

I have a USB 3.5" floppy drive for that purpose. Somewhere there's a 5.25" but most MoBos don't have the right connection for that any more. Still, out in the shed there just might be one still working. Also have a working VCR for those daggy old weddding videos people decide to convert - about 10 years after they've turned to static.

Dick reckons...

Posted June 17, 2013

Hey Greybeard, where's your 8" drive?

Dino not to be confused with asserts...

Posted June 17, 2013

Dick,

It's floppy.

My 3 and a half inch is solid though!

Solid state mate!

WarDog asserts...

Posted June 18, 2013

Murph/Greybeard - cloud. Anything local is only a local cache running on impermanent hardware. Anything of value on my old 5.25" floppies, yes Murph I remember those times before the 3.5" (I still have some 3.5" and 5.25" as art deco pieces), has long been migrated into more permanent stores.

And Murph power too cached be cached. Some of us have been using batteries for about 2 millenia.

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Timmo ducks in to say...

Posted June 17, 2013

I tend to write in scruffy printing (with the occasional curlicue on g, y and f) that runs together somewhat.

I'm still in the old school at uni, writing notes in books rather than on laptops. It would be an interesting thing to see how many postgrad students use laptops compared to undergrads. From the back of the class it would be interesting to see how many are websurfing or using facebook instead (I've seen it on several occasions even in postgrad classes).

Laptops or typed text would make it easier when it comes timing to pulling it together for study etc, but I haven't yet got to listening and typing as easily as writing. I do occasionally use voice recording on the phone to track ideas, but not to dictation software.

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w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted June 17, 2013

Minor point: If you never learnt to write, it would be hard to have a signature.

It is still used in instruction, particularly in languages e,g. french, mathematics, chemistry, computer languages. Someone asked a question, seems natural to go to a whiteboard and quickly write some examples.

Still used in meetings when you are workshopping something. What are the things we need to be thinking about with this project? People start writing stuff on the board. It is how a group thinks out loud.

A good field scientist will always have paper and pencils, as backup. They are the relatively failsafe field recording system.

And most importantly, how else would we know the blackboard specials at the cafe or the pub?

WarDog is gonna tell you...

Posted June 17, 2013

"Minor point: If you never learnt to write, it would be hard to have a signature."

Digital. 256 bit

"seems natural to go to a whiteboard"

"People start writing stuff on the board. It is how a group thinks out loud."

Digital. Last 3 meetings I have had more than one of the participants was remote. We all communcated via the one Google doc real time. Could modify and annotate independently with tracking, commenting, archived side discussions with resolutions. It also makes it easier to embed links to back up claims and suggestions.

"how else would we know the blackboard specials"

Smart phone notification as you enter the joint. Something that remembers your preferences and highlights/sorts/filters the offerings for you.

w from brisbane reckons...

Posted June 17, 2013

All good points Wardog. Yes, there are electronic options.

Re: your Google doc.
But, if you were all in the same room, you might also use the whiteboard. And the thinky would be different, I reckon.

Blackboard specials & smart phone notification. It is nice to look at a blackboard, your group gathered round. There could be computer screens now, however, the blackboard remains popular. Why? The tech must be good. And no need for wifi.

And what about graffiti? I don't want to be printing everything.

WarDog puts forth...

Posted June 18, 2013

Yes the thinky is slightly different. Better IMHO, multi-threaded as more than one person can be working on parts of a document at the same time whereas using a physical whiteboard has physical space constraints.

Re cafe speacials. My local now uses flat screens to display the specials. It';s pretty low tech all things considered and let's them stream other content such as the news and origin games, blackboards tend to struggle with that.

Grafitti? Printing? Sorry you lost me. You want to produce or consume grafitti? And then you want to print it? I have a digital collection of entertaining physical grafitti I have encountered. There are programs that allow you to digital grafit in their digital spaces, often mapped to the real world. You cna cloud print. Sorry just throwing things out there 'cause I'm not sure what you are after.

w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted June 18, 2013

Re: the thinky would be different. With a whiteboard, people pause, they lean back, the fingers are laced behind the head, only one person has the whiteboard marker. Sometimes a period of slow thinking, like slow cooking, can produce a richer result.

Grafitti, that was a little joke. Me, with my big nikko pen, wanting options as a time-pressured graffitist.

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yankeedog would have you know...

Posted June 17, 2013

Actually, once in a while I use the ol' longhand cursive, but more often than not I print, and it goes back to when I started drafting. See, kids, way back then people actually lettered the drawings, and all this was done by hand. Got so used to printing on drawings every day that it became second nature to print pretty much everything.

An analogy for my trade would be (despite having 3D CAD modeling software) sketching out things on a sheet of paper. There are times I do that before modeling up a part, which is kind of bass-ackwards-but it seems to work for me.

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Murphy mumbles...

Posted June 17, 2013

Sadly or not, I lost what little ability I had to write in script years ago. On the other hand, I have retained the ability to write in print form (block letters, non cursive, whatever you want to call it). I can read it easily enough and more to the point, I can write at sufficient speed to get a fair bit of work down.

How much work?

Both of my professional level published stories, Tearing Down Tuesday and The Limb Knitter, were originally written in longhand form while I was working at my security guard job. Rewrites were conducted in the same fashion, though generally more targeted in nature.

In my other job at Birmo's military consultant, I use longhand to block out combat scenes in need of revision, scribble out those bits of local color that folks really like and fiddle with descriptive elements.

In terms of churning out sheer word count, an old school style clickety keyboard works best in creating quantity, but if I want quality, I use longhand.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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pitpat mutters...

Posted June 17, 2013

My cursive is crap but is still faster than my typing. I tend to end up with a crazy mix of print and cursive which can be a bit of a bitch for third parties to decipher when doing the data entry. I've had jobs in some mines which date back to the late 19th century ( Mt Lyell in particular) and reading the old field logs of the time was an absolute pleasure. The penmanship and the quirky detail is not seen today.

As W notes in the field a good notebook ( Chartwell survey books -currently uisng the 2647 with graph paper on one side and double spaced lines on the other) and a couple of good pencils are still the way to go. I've tried a couple of different tablet configurations but they seem time consuming, a bit limiting and a pain for sunlight readability.

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Andrew Dugdell ducks in to say...

Posted June 17, 2013

I tried to go all digital, but it nearly broke my soul and my wallet; I tried all the gizmos and gadgets. These days I file everything digital, but I take fsckloads of handwritten notes on mostly legal/junior legal notepads - there is just something that a scribble or a doodle on paper that at some level can't be captured with digital. But once I've finished I tear the pages out scan them with my nifty little scanner and bin them. ...sometimes I even make little explosion sounds as I hurl them across the room into the bin.

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted June 17, 2013

I keep meaning to scan my notebooks but, you know...

Dino not to be confused with puts forth...

Posted June 17, 2013

Gotta get me one of doz nifty pens!

Ders books dat can raed too!

Blarkon swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 17, 2013

Use the camera on your iPad to pull the pictures into Evernote. If you've got an Evernote subscription, it'll often do a servisable OCR on the text if the photograph is reasonable enough. That way your notes are also indexed.

she_jedi ducks in to say...

Posted June 19, 2013

Moleskine have produced a collection of Evernote notebooks; they're designed to scan the pages into Evernote properly. According to the product description..."Evernote Smart Notebook features unique "Evernote ruled" and "Evernote squared" page styles with dotted lines designed to ensure a clean image when digitally capturing your notebook. Moleskine Smart Stickers introduce Smart Tagging into your workflow. When you capture a page with Evernote, the Smart Sticker icons become searchable, digital tags that make it easy to keep your ideas organized and to keep your digital and analog workspaces synced."

URL here: http://www.moleskine.com/au/collections/model/product/evernote-ruled-smart-notebook-large

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Surtac puts forth...

Posted June 17, 2013

Fascinating topic. As well as being a long time reader and book collector I’ve always been a bit of a stationery fetishist – an interesting pen and a well turned notebook will always get my attention.

I don’t do as much handwriting these days as I used to, but it’s still indispensable in my work situation. Most of my work output is expected to be in various document types (or artefacts as we call them in the enterprise architecture trade) – Word documents, Visio diagrams, pretty pictures etc. all designed to show relationships and inter-reactions between architectural elements and layers. There’s not that much narrative or creative text generation – it’s all descriptions of current state, desired future states, industry trends, transition roadmaps and such-like. This whole environment is too reactive for anything like even your daily planner, John. It’s all about lurching from ‘crisis’ to ‘crisis’ here.

But for documenting meetings or simply taking personal aide-memoire notes, I’ll do it by hand in a bound A4 notebook, detailing meeting time, subject, attendees, agreed actions and so on, along with anything else I feel like documenting. And it means I can doodle or start doing my own thing in my head if the meeting can’t hold my attention.

I can always write longhand much faster than I can type – the result is often unreadable, but it helps me get ideas out of my head faster as they compete to get out or run into one another. The simple act of writing things down forces me to do a better job of remembering stuff in the first place.

On the personal side, I maintain two or more notebooks. One is for lists of stuff I want to remember – wines I want to try again; music albums or dvd movies to look for on that next trip to JB HiFi; things I write down to remember now, before I forget to. That one generally lives in a shirt pocket. It’s the Cahier version of your small Moleskine and I actually have several of them, seeded around in various bags/organisers so I’m always likely to have one to hand with a spare pen and pencil when I need to record something.

The other is the next larger version of your small Moleskine set up to use as an Ideas Marathon, ie. To try to document thoughts and ideas as they occur daily. I’ve not been so successful with that one as it lives in my work backpack and is a bit too big for a pocket carry - I might have to physically downsize it to another Cahier or a smaller Moleskine.

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tqft has opinions thus...

Posted June 17, 2013

All you people writing on paper are obviously jihadi cyber terrorists intent on keeping the government out of your evil evil thoughts.

My hand writing is crap. Like really bad. I could probably write something cursive if I had to. What's the non-joined up type of hand writing called? legibile but barely and used sparingly mostly for notes on printed working documents or on a whiteboard.

My signature is sort of legible for my name. But good luck anyone copying it.

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Jigoku reckons...

Posted June 17, 2013

Purely assumptively, I would suggest that the fine motor skills involved in typing would differ greatly to those used when writing and so use different neural pathways to achieve the same end, expressing thoughts in words.

Perhaps also the ability to change the structure of our current thought when typing prevents the further flow of it. I know I spend so much time getting each sentence "right" when typing that I lose my train of thought. When writing I would take more of a "I'll come back and reword it later" approach, where required.

As to whether I still use cursive, rarely. I personally don't have a need for it. I've even noticed that when I need to sign for a delivery or on a receipt it is very jittery and I have to think about how the letters are formed. Other times I'll start scrawling something, notice it is near illegible and either print it or open up Notepad++.

It probably still needs to be taught for a generation or two though, so kids can read their letters from Grandma, assuming she isn't already on Facebook ...

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w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted June 17, 2013

A facility with cursive script is essential if you want your little darlings to achieve the job of their dreams.

i.e. becoming a tattooist.

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Brother PorkChop asserts...

Posted June 17, 2013

I am embarassed by my handwriting - a sad mix of cursive and something else. My 8 year od boy has nicer handwriting than me, and I certainly insist on the kids having proper handwriting. I am OK on a whiteboard, with diagrams, arrows and single words but pen and paper sentences are awesomely embarassing. Forget writing greeting cards!!

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Ministry of the Interior mutters...

Posted June 17, 2013
I live in fear that my handwriting will end up being analysed by a forensic handwriting expert. Best for me to stick to a computer.

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MarkM asserts...

Posted June 17, 2013

I can touch type at about 80 words per minute. I know I can't write that fast. Nothing beats sitting in front of the keyboard, pounding away my thoughts as quick as I can think them. This said, I like to write poetry long hand - there is something about having the pen poised while mulling over the right word.

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she_jedi reckons...

Posted June 17, 2013

My mum is a registered nurse and she's maintained for years that I should have been a doctor with my handwriting; the medical profession apparently being the only one where an illegible scrawl is a requirement.

Sadly I squandered the opportunity to have the mutant hybrid of printing and cursive that spews from the end of my pen professionally sanctioned and became a business analyst instead. For that sin I've had to learn to write legibly on a whiteboard, which, when your natural state is hieroglyphical chicken scratch, is HARD. My natural writing is so bad that sometimes ?I can't read it.

The whiteboard is invaluable though; every time I'm in a meeting or workshop where the vaguest hint of requirements gathering is needed I find myself bounding to the whiteboard to start scribbling as legibly as possible and start the thinky. I have colleagues who take bets on how long it'll take for me to hit the whiteboard. Every business analyst I know has a pathological need to whiteboard stuff, it's a professional hazard.

I find I type much faster than I write, and because I do so much writing for work and for study outside of work, I very rarely find myself needing to scribble long hand in order to get the creative juices flowing. Although when I'm writing a requirements document I find I get inspiration/motivation from any notes I've scribbled down, or the stuff I've done on the whiteboard with the group.

Next time I get stuck with an essay for uni I'll try the scribbling in long hand trick and see if that helps; I think my biggest problem in that respect is that my urge to procrastinate dampens my creativity. Suddenly things like housework become vitally important when an assignment is due, even though prior to the deadline I would be content living like a 20 year old male uni student, and happy to procrastinate on cleaning. Go figure.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat would have you know...

Posted June 24, 2013
Heh heh Jedi, the most exquisite penmanship I have seen from a living person was from my neurology registrar when i was an intern...close to copperplate. The other medical registrar i worked with also had neat but incredibly tiny writing, and we used to joke that if he ever got Parkinson's we would know because the micrographia would make his writing into just a straight line!

I confess to also being a doctor who, on the basis if handwriting, shoulda been a nurse.

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Barnesm mutters...

Posted June 17, 2013

"When was the last time you picked up a pen or pencil and scratched out a line or two of handwriting?

as part of investigations I use a field notebook to jot down 'contemporaneous notes' which are a lot more believeable when you are on the stand in a court than a beautifully formated typed affidiavit.

Personally I think these are mearly different tools, the actual body of words you write are just another way of creating the story in anohters head, if that is the intent of your writing. Your writing it long hand 'uses different parts of the brain' is no doubt true, but the same principle would apply if you wrote it using a harp to pray notes that correspond to letters, the points is you use whatever too you grew up with.

Could Shakespear have written as well if he was given dragon dictation, probably not but by the same token the next great writer growing up today will probably look at you funny when 50 years from now you suggest using the new I-brainwave to write instead of his computer.

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Dino not to be confused with asserts...

Posted June 17, 2013

Anyhoo I asked The Ejamucation Minister a question between 4 and 5 pm today.

No Response.

We'll keep 'really quiet 'bout dem rabbits'.

Some of da kids are calling him Daffy Duck!

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damian would have you know...

Posted June 17, 2013

Cursive? I imagine people who try to read my handwriting might be a bit cursive. Somewhere between the South Australia, Queensland and Victorian primary school systems I learned, relearned a different way, then had to start again, all of which has left a shorthandish printing style with the occasional gothic touch. Oddly if I try to do running writing it ends up a lot neater, a function of going back to grade 5 I suppose which is probably the last time I used it.

But that doesn't stop me from buying nice notebooks and filling them with my hideous scratchings. The little moleskine things that you will confuse with your passport, carry one of those everywhere, lasts about a month. Usually just random notes, but the ambition is that a longer effort might start there one day.

Mind you I get a bit retro with marks on paper. I quite like the idea of bashing out a few hundred pages on the wonderful little Imperial manual typewriter (late 40s I think) that I picked up for practically nothing at the Rocklea flea markets a few years back.

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RobertL has opinions thus...

Posted June 17, 2013
I can't even write in cursive any more. Years of taking notes at uni and at work have caused my writing to devolve to messy block printing. Usually done on the reverse of old printed documents. It's a sad and sorry tale of woe.

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Durand mutters...

Posted June 17, 2013

JB, what you need is a Livescribe Smartpen. Inside the pen is a tiny camera that can see what you're writing. You use special paper with printed micro-dots, so small that only the camera can read what they say. And by using both, the pen is able to render the page as a PDF, that can be saved to Evernote, and is thus available on all your devices.

Better yet, there is an onboard microphone that records what is being said at the time you're writing. You play back the recording by touching the pen to the paper, and it starts playing back what was being said while your pen was writing that note.

http://www.livescribe.com/en-us/

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted June 17, 2013

Ah, cheers. I was trying to think of this today.

damian reckons...

Posted June 18, 2013

Been curious about those things since seeing one on display in Orificeworks. They seem a touch expensive for what they are, and in particular given that you need to keep buying special paper for it to make it work.

The handwriting recognition on Android seems fast and I would think no less accurate. I think we're not far from the fondleslabs all doing this trick pretty nicely.

Blarkon ducks in to say...

Posted June 18, 2013

They already do - see my above posted youtube showing handwriting recognition of my really shit handwriting on the Surface. The way that MS managed to get this technology to work pretty well involved them about a decade ago buying up some massive collections of different handwriting styles and using those as the basis of building recognition. I've found Steve Jobs aversion to the stylus to be interesting as it precludes that sort of recognition being *directly* supported on Apple devices.

Moleskine has a special "Evernote Edition" - the special paper is already there and evernote has routines to automatically scan and OCR it. http://evernote.com/moleskine/

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Aeryn mumbles...

Posted June 17, 2013

I still write in longhand. It comes in handy at TAFE for making notes during class, and I don't always carry my laptop or iPad when I'm out and about - if I get a snippet of an idea for my novel in my head while I'm away from home, I can just jot it down in the notebook I always have with me. My handwriting is a cross between print and cursive, though at this point it's predominantly cursive - it works for me, and other people can read it, so I see no reason to change it.

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Carrick lad ducks in to say...

Posted June 17, 2013

Thanks JB. This bit of thinky from the excellent Gillian Tett in the FT got me thinking about this earlier this year - http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/e27e8b6e-5abb-11e2-bc93-00144feab49a.html#axzz2WTEkuPpX.

As a transactional lawyer, most of my heavy duty drafing is done straight into a document on a screen in MSWord - only efficient way to do it. Some colleagues still mark up a document by hand and give it to a WP operator but I don't see the point - my near illegible scrawl doesn't help.

On dictation, we outsource this to our centre in Manila - given my thick Irish accent, I've never tried it although I'm morbidly curious to see what would come back. Digital dictation software hasn't been brought in yet as (certainly for transactional lawyers) it's a marginal form of work output. Most correspondence nowadays is on e-mail and this is very much DIY.

However, if I want to think and something out, blank bit of paper and a pen is where I start - haven't found a technology solution as effective (yet). Digital post-its rock though.

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted June 17, 2013

Yeah, my wife is a lawer, and she does a heap of screentime every day but her fingers are still ink stained.

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CathieT puts forth...

Posted June 17, 2013

Cursive? Only when I'm taking meeting minutes - makes it easier to write faster! I'd be the only one who could read it though, and at times even I have trouble.

My printing is very, very neat when it has to be - a year of handwriting accounts for a doctor's surgery saw to that.

Son and heir's school has decreed that all the Year 8s work from iPads this year, with only their music manuscript and Japanese workbooks being pen to paper. He was struggling with some stuff the other night until I showed him how much sense it made to scrawl it out on ye olde scrap paper!!

Oh and in a strange twist, I have two fonts on my computer that are my handwriting - print and cursive!!

w from brisbane has opinions thus...

Posted June 17, 2013

Re: music manuscripts

On the separate topic of sheet music.
I heard, with the band for the musical King Kong, the musicians all have the sheet music on Ipads and the conductor turns the everyone's page with a wifi foot pedal.
I think they said it was a world first.

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April K has opinions thus...

Posted June 17, 2013

I'm currently in the thankless and often lack-luster process of writing my PhD and if it wasn't for a notebook and pen, I doubt it would ever have even started! When I'm in the zone and have direction and know my argument, I can smash out 120words an hour on my funky bew Mac Air but if I didn't have the opportunity to scribble through and that blank open page to deal with my mismatched arguments and differing opinions, I'd be nowhere!

That said, I also use longhand to take notes if I'm at a conference as I find it helps me concentrate on the speaker (even if I'm bored). I watch uni undergrads on their laptops and wonder how much they are getting out of classes when they are chatting to the person across the room on Facebook.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 17, 2013

Answer: they're not getting much

Murphy asserts...

Posted June 18, 2013

The students who are using tech gear are usually doing everything but paying attention to the material. And they almost always fail the course.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

Timmo mumbles...

Posted June 19, 2013

My thoughts exactly, April. I work on a PC all day, but still find I can't concentrate as well typing as I can just listening. Perhaps if I learnt to touch type and not have to alternate between looking at keyboard and screen I could do it, but not right now.

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AliCrampHand ducks in to say...

Posted June 17, 2013
I got hand cramp in my accounting exam today!
Accounting exam! [Gets shouty] Who gets cramps in a numbers based test? I should just hand in my pens now & submit to keyboard auto correct nonsense. Sigh. [Hangs head in shame]

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robW asserts...

Posted June 18, 2013

As a young teen way back in 1965 I read "The Fury Out of Time" by Lloyd Biggle. I remember in his novel he posited that in the way-way-forward-future our descendants lose the ability to 'read' and "write" per se, but maintain the ability to manipulate images and iconography on screens with hand motions (he preceeds Apple's patents on multitouch by 30 years).

Maybe in the future we will all write like the Italians of today communicate: we will shout at hidden microphones while waving our hands around and making eye-contact with some attractive person in the room totally removed from the conversation.

Cursive will require a rosetta stone of some sort or another.

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Ginger Megs ducks in to say...

Posted June 18, 2013

I'm a mature-age post-grad student, and I cannot produce any work of any worth unless I first play with the words on paper. This means I have notebooks and notepads chokka-blok full of ideas and partial sentences. I need to hand write everything, and the stuff I produce this way is generally not bad. What I find frustrating is the push from my supervisors to ditch the pen and type my thoughts directly into the computer. I think this is because my way is slower than they would like, but my thoughts and ideas cannot take their proper form unless they move from my fingers to paper and are shaped by me physically moving a pen. It doesn't need to be a 'proper' pen - an el cheapo plastic gel pen is best as it flows easily. There is a little romance in filling a page with my words. I see my much younger post-grad peers constantly pecking at their laptops and notebooks and tablets, and wonder if they find the joy and satisfaction in the plastic keys that I find with my plastic pen and newsagent school exercise books.

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted June 19, 2013

Fuck those supervising idiots.

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Dino not to be confused with would have you know...

Posted June 18, 2013

JB

As an aside-

You is getting some amazing traffic today!

Do da hokey pokey!

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Will has opinions thus...

Posted June 18, 2013

When my kids were taught to write joined-up at primary school, I became so ashamed of my post-college handwriting that I took classes and practised caligraphy for 10 years. The result is that now, decades later, I still love to pick up a pen, any pen, at the least excuse. Most of the above comments totally ignore the pleasure of forming or reading beautiful letters. The world is the poorer for it.

she_jedi is gonna tell you...

Posted June 18, 2013

My grandfather had the most beautiful copperplate handwriting. I despair whenever I think of the way he would write vs the horrific mutant chicken scratch I come up with. I think calligraphy classes would be awesome, I might look into those as the next project after I finish my ancient history degree. It would be lovely to learn to not only handwrite properly but beautifully.

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Vanessa would have you know...

Posted June 18, 2013

I wish I could print... then maybe other people could read my writing!

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nikx ducks in to say...

Posted June 18, 2013

my son has hi-functioning autism and one obstacle he meets in (mainstream) primary school is to focus on the technique of handwriting, spelling and at the same time producing content. he has excellent spelling, and lots to say, but all together will not come out easily. the teachers and special needs staff have been using ipad and typing, saying "he won't need handwriting much in the future, who does really?". I have now explicitly asked to use typing only occasionally. I want him to train the automatism of writing more (i am also doing some at home). it's essential excercise for the brain. it doesn't matter if 'we don't need it anymore' (really?). he is getting there, slowly, he can type anyway already better than his peers. I believe it's like learning a foreign language in school. the point isn't really if or when you will use it. it's the learning progress that is formative for your brain.
in my son's case, it's harder, but i think it would be a mistake to just give up, because : computers..

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Jane would have you know...

Posted June 18, 2013

There something deeply satisfying about filling a page with script, of using a pen until the ink runs out. Of writing so fast (but not too fast) that an idea emerges and at other times writing slowly and savouring the form of every letter. I dunno. Maybe I've been scarred by watching The Pillowbook and inspired by reading Shadow of the Wind, but I love script. Not type.

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Steve enters the fray puts forth...

Posted June 18, 2013

Oddly enough in days long gone, when I was first an IT man (you know, before it was cool to be nerdy) working on Mainframes I did all my doc in long hand, and a bunch of typists typed it up for me. When I got my first PC with good old MS Word, I was stumped. Sure I could write COBOL and SQL straight from a (hand written) design, but words and actual human communication? No way!! So I did the doc long hand and typped it in. How times have changed. I have trouble putting a sentence together with a pencil in my hand these days, but thoughts flow through a keyboard no problem. I love that I can learn things.

Anthony would have you know...

Posted June 18, 2013

Ah, the joys of filling in the little boxes on the forms and sending them away to be punched into cards by teams of nubile young women. And getting them back, waiting for the cards to go through the compiler and the compile failing because the writing was misread by said nubile young women.

My cursive is awful but I can still print pretty well.

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YB would have you know...

Posted June 19, 2013

Pure blazing speed of creation: Type straight into MS Notepad, no editing

Make raw text into a formated, correctly spelled and formated document: MS Word or gmail inbuilt editor.

A personal note to someone important: Cursive

A note where the information is critical, or forms: Printing (Block)

To make something beautiful: I do calligraphy (1460's Germanic mainly)

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Trashman reckons...

Posted June 19, 2013

Any thoughts on doing a Blunty on the ADF Cheif's speech about the cutbacks?

A serving General willing to put his head above the parapet is a rarity!

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melbo puts forth...

Posted June 19, 2013

I still use longhand and still write every day in some form. It doesn't bear much resemblance to the elaborate cursive we learned at primary school though. I found my own style in high school and have stuck with that since.

It is true that the process of handwriting engages a different part of the brain. Children need to learn this as part of their development. It is a fine motor skill and I'm afraid jabbing at something with your pointy finger doesn't quite cut it.

I can't imagine a time when I won't write by hand. I have had a few people say to me that they no longer can keep up handwriting for any length of time due to lack of use. Shame. I love seeing the handwriting of others. I love receiving something that has been handwritten. It is really a dying art.


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Jane has opinions thus...

Posted June 19, 2013

You're right about the cognitive difference.

My children have dysgraphia - a form of dyslexia where they cannot write. They can't get the ideas out of their heads onto the paper. This has caused enormous pain for them at school (we won't go there) but I have negotiated with both schools for them to be able to type major pieces- which they can do with no trouble at all. That, plus Dragon dictation, and the occasional scribe for essays (me) means they get marks reflective of their knowledge, not their ability to handwrite.

My daughter was diagnosed at age 7, at which point the specialist recommended we abandon handwriting in favour of typing. Fine by me - she can write enough to fill in and sign a form, which is all that will be required of her in future. Handwriting is an industrial era skill and has had its day, IMO.

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted June 19, 2013

Wow, I'd never heard of that, jane. They're the only kids I know of using Dragon too.

Jane swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 20, 2013

Geeky household ;) Thank God for technology. And flexible teachers.

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Matthew K mumbles...

Posted June 20, 2013

I use a moleskine daybook and a Black n' Red notebook, but I don't use them enough.

It's all about getting those ideas down, as they occur to me as I drive or whenever.

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Katie G mutters...

Posted June 20, 2013

Perhaps my 'hundreds' of notebooks are more like 60 or 70. They are filled with phrases and beautifully constructed sentences lifted from books I've loved, lists of books I want to read next, 'pieces' I've written, cartoons, ideas and conversations I've overheard and found amusing or interesting.

The interest in calligraphy has made me really conscious of how letters and words appear when handwritten - my script always starts out properly arty and ends up slanting to the right with looped upper extenders. My 't's are weird and often get mistaken for an L.

I have a thing for a properly good notebook, I wish I could afford more of the good moleskines (unlined, a5) and I'm disappointed that a tradition has been over-commercialised to the extent that Moleskine are making 'Lego' notebooks now. I don't get it. Years ago I stumbled across these lovely red notebooks - a soft vinyl or leatherette cover with cream pages - but I can't find them any more.

I learnt foundation hand first at school followed by cursive which I still use when writing letters to friends in faraway places. The ones close by get emails or texts. :-)

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Peter Strempel reckons...

Posted June 20, 2013

Strictly speaking I'm not the non-writerly type you're looking for, but I enjoyed your comment anyway. I haven't used Dragon Dictate since 2000; has it come along? How many hours of pre-use training these days?

Back on point, I could not do without my longhand journals, or my beloeved fountain pens. It is, as you say, quite often an exercise in straightening out the thinking behind an idea that stays stubbornly visceral until its aspirations are sratched into paper. There's something about the act of writing with a pen that workls almost like a Socratic dialogue.

Something you might not see if you don't frequent online discussions forums like Google Plus, Quora, or the occasional Disqus thread is the tendency for people directly manhnadling keyborards to be careless with their thinking and grammar. A brain fart becomes concrete gibberish so easily.

Taking time to slow thoughts to the speed of wrist movements, and to see the difference between gibberish on a page before committing to it seems to work differently to the same thing on a screen.

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted June 20, 2013

That 3rd par, so true.

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Blake would have you know...

Posted June 23, 2013

http://xkcd.com/1227/

It seemed relevant.

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Respond to 'Joined up writing'

On The Road. For 50 Years

Posted June 10, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

There were hardly enough Beats to make up a decent drum solo, let alone a generation, and yet, two or three generations on they remain, a footloose, finger snappin’ irredeemably naïve and optimistic ghost in the machine of western mass culture.

And whose fault is that? Why it’s Jack’s of course.

Jack Kerouac, writer, traveller and original Dharma bum, author of the first great Beat novel, the first great road novel and first great jazz novel, or at least the first great fusion of all three into something new and weird and unexpectedly powerful – especially given that its founding fathers were a bunch of dissolute, hard drinking poets, dope fiends and losers, with a smattering of ingenuous college students thrown in to provide the starry-eyed hero worship and casual sex.

It’s fifty years since Kerouac penned On The Road*, but over sixty since he coined the phrase ‘beat generation’ as a catch-all tag to describe a mostly New York based circle of friends and co-conspirators which self identified as a wilfully eccentric, anti-authoritarian crew with its very own manifesto. (Live free. In a black turtleneck).

Kerouac narrated the book’s epic series of road trips in character as Sal Paradise, and the dozens of cameos and major starring roles for other hepcat grandaddies of post war American counter culture make it as important an historical artefact as a merely literary one. Describing the connection of ‘Carlo Marx’ – the poet Ginsberg – with the novel’s antihero superstar Dean Moriarty, the lesser known but, within-the-beats at least, equally important Neal Cassady, Sal says, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn burn burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.

Within that one passage of internal dialogue you have everything you need to know about Kerouac’s adventure, his novel and the fate of the Beat Generation. Emerging in a post-war world where grim militarism and conformity where the dominant paradigm, at least as far as drunken drug addled poets could see, the Beats celebrated life, spontaneity and a free form visceral engagement with ‘the moment’. That engagement could find expression in the famous three week, amphetamine fuelled writing blitz that produced On the Road, or more simply, in Sal’s decision to hit the road with fifty bucks in his pocket, angels at his heel and nothin’ but good times, sweet girls, mad tunes and the aching beauty of America before him. As a life plan it sounds fantastically attractive. But in the end, you burn, burn burn.

Like most of Kerouac’s readers, then and now, I came to him at that vulnerable age when you’re most susceptible to being sold a line about living free and stickin’ it to the Man. I was about nineteen years old, sweltering in Brisbane, straining at the imagined shackles of life under the Bjelke-Petersen dictatorship, and not enjoying nearly enough sex, drug or kicking tunes as I was sure I’d been promised by somebody, somewhere. I picked up a second hand copy of On the Road, on the recommendation of an infinitely cooler friend and remember it going off in my head like a word bomb. Only two other books would ever have that effect. Doug Coupland’s Generation X and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In each case the simple act of running my eyes over the text seemed to insert a sort of virus into my personal coding, resetting the way my mind worked, rewiring the very paths along which all my previous thinking had run. It was as though I could feel something changing inside as I read.

I wasn’t alone in this.

Kerouac’s first book became something of a bible for any pampered middle class white kid who felt they were missing out. As such it had something to say to millions of potential readers and helped rewire an entire culture. Kerouac didn’t do this alone of course. He was part of a movement that included the likes of Ginsberg and William Burroughs, both of whom forever changed our intellectual geography by demolishing the boundaries of what could be published. Ginsberg’s Howl, and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, were each labeled ‘obscene’ and the authors prosecuted. They won, and American letters were instantly liberalized. After that point anything with even a skerrick of literary value was safe from obscenity statutes.

The book, the movement, indeed the whole post war counter culture became embodiments of a different type of freedom. Not the hard won, blood soaked, bitter freedoms so recently defended against the Nazis and fascists, and still imperiled by the Soviet gulag, but the wilder, headier, dizzy freedoms to abandon all sense of duty and self restraint. As Ginsberg himself would write, the Beats made possible the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. They destroyed censorship, demystified drugs, popularized black musicians, created an ecological consciousness and denied the claims of the military-industrial state on the unquestioning loyalty of its subjects. To a greater or lesser degree On the Road journeys through most of those concerns.

If Kerouac had answers, however, they weren’t necessarily the ones his legions of fans read into the work. The book is remembered as a great road novel, a celebration of freedom. The mythology of its creation only adds to that; the famous writing binge on the long roll of teletype, so that Kerouac would not be interrupted by the mundane task of changing sheets of paper. It is only mythology, however. The book was actually composed over many years and then revised a number of times before publication.

Before being reminded of this year’s anniversary I hadn’t picked it up since first devouring it half a life time ago, and my recollection was probably the same as most others’. If asked to recall On the Road I’d have reached for a conventional summary, something like, “This dude see, he’s over the system, man, and he and his buddies, they hit the road, because, like when you’re moving on the road, nothing is holding you down.”

Before rereading On the Road I vaguely recalled powerful slashes of free wheeling prose, long, slightly annoying passages of stream of consciousness, descriptions of great natural beauties, a line up of freak show characters, jazz, drugs and a lot of implied sex, often with dangerously young Mexican girls. I also remembered Hunter Thompson writing about the Beats in San Francisco, deploying a strange elegiac tone, half loving and half contemptuous, for a movement that was dying away by the time he came roaring down the paths Kerouac had already cut for him.

But what I didn’t remember, and what almost nobody seems to remember, is that Sal and Dean’s heroic travels end in desolation and failure. The longer Sal/Jack remain in motion, untied and rootless, the greater the sense of disappointment that pervades the novel. Dean Moriarty, who first appears as a shining savant, is by the end of the book just a ‘rat’ a conman who cannot be relied on for even the most basic certainties of friendship. He abandons a sick and hopeless Sal in Mexico City, running away to “get on with his wives and woes”. Moriarty had accumulated plenty of both by that time.

In the end sadness and loss become the defining elements of On the Road, not the dizzy headlong rush of existential flight. If anything it makes Kerouac’s work all the more prescient and worthy because, possibly without even knowing it, he predicted the end point of the new definition of freedom he and the Beats had crafted. From Howl and Naked Lunch, it was just a few short steps to Hostel 4.

It’s probably why Kerouac drew away from his former friends as they became more involved in the upheavals of the 1960s. The antiwar movement and all of its associated permanent protest machinery he thought of as nothing more than spiteful, and an assault on the very country he had only wanted to celebrate in his great road novel.

*Fifity-six years, actually. But I have no idea who I wrote this for, or when. Or even if it was ever published. Remind me if you recall seeing it somewhere. I'll send an invoice.

Found it when I was noodling around in Google Drive the other day.

17 Responses to ‘On The Road. For 50 Years’

w from brisbane asserts...

Posted June 10, 2013

BTW, very good piece. I had exactly the same experience with 'The Dharma Bums'. A heady, conscienceness-changing, intoxicating read in my teens. And the re-read 20 years later and being surprised to meet some pretty unattractive characters.

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Murphy reckons...

Posted June 10, 2013

Hmm . . . Jack has never spoken to me.

Different strokes.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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Matthew F. mutters...

Posted June 10, 2013

+++,,,and denied the claims of the military-industrial state on the unquestioning loyalty of its subjects.+++

And up on cue in my Twitter feed comes that quote about how civil disobedience is not our problem, civil obedience is.

My first thought when I read your line, though, was "well, that pendulum's certainly swung right back"

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Karsoe reckons...

Posted June 10, 2013

I've tried to read On The Road four times, and for some reason I just can't get into it. I've read a lot of Kerouac's other stuff and have had little to no problem with those books, but I keep getting distracted from his most famous one. My most recent attempt was a month ago, but I started on Dispatches by Michael Herr, which has taken over.

On The Road, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is a great unofficial trilogy chronicling the birth, life and death of the 60s counterculture movement. I'm determined to get through the Kerouac one.

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted June 10, 2013

Maybe try an audio book version, if one is available?

And Despatches is an awesome book.

Darren ducks in to say...

Posted June 10, 2013

The audio book read by Matt Dillon (and unabridged) is not too bad.

I'd hate myself, however, if I recommended that as the first entry point to OTR.

IMO, Karsoe, the key to OTR is in "getting" the rhythm of the language.

When I first read it, I liked it well enough to be interested in learning more about Kerouac and the Beats, but not enough to consider it a great work. I found some old readings Kerouac himself did on The Steve Allan show (now easy to find on YouTube): you see (or hear) the French Canadian lilt in his voice (English was his second language) and Jazz inflected tones...

Get that rhythm and metre in your head if you can and THEN read it again.

My SECOND reading of OTR blew my mind. :-)

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RobinPrice mumbles...

Posted June 10, 2013

"The mythology of its creation only adds to that; the famous writing binge on the long roll of teletype, so that Kerouac would not be interrupted by the mundane task of changing sheets of paper. It is only mythology, however. The book was actually composed over many years and then revised a number of times before publication."

Saw the roll at the British library late last year. Now feeling decidedly gyped. Did the bastard spend hours typing it out on the roll with narry a paragraph as a marketing ploy?

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BigWillieStyle ducks in to say...

Posted June 10, 2013

Bought On The Road about 20 years ago (aged @ 21-22), and just couldn't get into it - I thought it was a self-indulgent wank masquerading as a triumph of the human spirit. The Grapes of Wrath is the ultimate road novel.

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Rhino would have you know...

Posted June 10, 2013

I fell in love with it as well. Around the same time I found HST and all the rest as well. That led to my devouring everything about eastern philosophy that I could get my yound hands on. It still impacts my thinking today. That is how powerful it is.

When I turned 30 I left a very, very promising career, loaded up my truck and hit the road for several months. My family thought I was insane and/or on several drugs. It just wasn't done. One doesn't leave a career and go walkabout with no safety net. It is one of the best memories of my life.

I shared this book with my wife while we were doing the long distance thing before we got married. I used to spend hours on the phone with her introducing her to the beats. Now she is mad for them too.

Thanks for that tribute, John.

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Ippy Percival reckons...

Posted June 10, 2013

Loved On the Road when I was a teenager, 25 to 30 years ago. Read all of Burroughs and Ginsberg (not to mention HST, but that's another subject) around the same time. Maybe I'm a bad person, but in the end I see the Beat stuff as a bit self-indulgent. I appreciate some of it's about getting over the war and finding something new, and I guess that's the bit with resilient poignancy. Or some shit, whatever.

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Ali mutters...

Posted June 10, 2013

Read it.

Pretended to like it, because: 21yrs, and, cool man.

Give me HST or Tom Wolf any day.

Thanks for the piece JB. Perhaps I'll have another go, and see what 42 says

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TeamAmerica is gonna tell you...

Posted June 11, 2013

As I recall, I first heard of it when reading Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's book, 'Soul on Ice,' which I found very impressive when I was 19. I own OTR but I can't recall if I've ever read it through. JK was at least an excellent writer; sadly, I recall he died early due to alcoholism.

@JB- Did you ever read 'Soul on Ice,' and if so, do you think it was over-rated?

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Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted June 11, 2013

"Howl and Naked Lunch, it was just a few short steps to Hostel 4" I agree my literatry chops are great but this series of links is difficult for me to follow, and probably the sort of thing entire mAster thesis are made.

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Peter Bradley reckons...

Posted June 11, 2013

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight."
--Robertson Davies,
Canadian writer, journalist and professor

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted June 11, 2013

Nice one, Pete.

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Rhino mutters...

Posted June 11, 2013

Here is the impact that this book had on my life ... when I turned 30 I left an extremely lucrative and promising career, packed my stuff in my truck and drove around the country. Understand, this was the pre-interwebz, get a good job and stay for the gold watch, there should never be a gap in your C.V. era.

My parents thought that, at the very least, I was on drugs and, at the worst, that I was suffering some psychotic break. In order to ease their fears I advised them that it was a bit of both and that I would be sending post cards from my journey.

I look back at that year as one of the highlights of my life. I also recall fondly, the discussion with that corporate hiring manager when I answered his question, "So, there is no experience on your resume for the last year, what have you been doing?"

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Iain Banks. 1954-2013

Posted June 10, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

The bad news came quicker than many of us expected. The cancer took him overnight. A great loss.

12 Responses to ‘Iain Banks. 1954-2013’

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat would have you know...

Posted June 10, 2013
Oh no! Sad, sad news.


With the type of cancer he had, though, I am not surprised how quickly his passing came. Good to hear from his family that his passing was peaceful: http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22835047.


His choice of topic in his final novel, 'The Quarry' could be seen as somewhat eerie, but it takes me back to my days working in palliative care. Such 'coincidences' were almost commonplace and I think speak to the parts of our mind which we poorly understand.


Vale, and condolences to his family and friends and readers.

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Murphy is gonna tell you...

Posted June 10, 2013

Should have bottled some of Dad's piss and vinegar and sent it way. Unfortunately, he was already in the ground by time I found out.

Rest easy, sir. Rest easy.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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MickH puts forth...

Posted June 10, 2013

I have only just found my way to his books.

Another great loss to the literary world, seems there's been a few recently.

Condolances to his family and friens

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Legless mutters...

Posted June 10, 2013

A giant has fallen.

Rest in peace Iain. We will remember you.

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Ippy Percival is gonna tell you...

Posted June 10, 2013

Ah bugger. Would have hoped he'd have a good year or so to take it easy and make his peace. Very sad indeed and a great loss.

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drej mutters...

Posted June 10, 2013

Vale Iain Banks.

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Barnesm mumbles...

Posted June 10, 2013

Cancer of the gall bladder is a very aggressive and the prognosis is poor. Its one of the nastier ones to be diagnosed.

I like the think in his creation The Culture there is no cancer.

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Jacques Stahl puts forth...

Posted June 10, 2013

A sad day for Iain and for the world. How wonderful that he has left The Quarry for us to consider on his departure.

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AuntyLou mutters...

Posted June 10, 2013

Cancer is shit. Why can't it pick arseholes a bit more often & leave fabulous minds with so much to offer the hell alone. I have an Iain M Banks on my bedside table...I stopped reading it when I heard he was ill...it may take me a little while to start again. Never met the guy, don't know too much about him except he seems to have been highly thought of by others, oh & I liked his stuff - but this is upsetting. I raise my glass (one of many) to his memory.

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tcforest ducks in to say...

Posted June 11, 2013

"Sorrow be damned & all your plans. Fuck the faithful, fuck the committed, the dedicated, the true believers; fuck all the sure & certain people prepared to maim & kill whoever got in their way; fuck every cause that ended in murder & a child crying"
From 'Against a Dark Background'

Vale Iain M. Banks

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Ippy Percival ducks in to say...

Posted June 11, 2013

I just finished re-reading Surface Detail a couple of days ago, actually. And I can't help but think of this bit:

"You afraid to die, Lededje Y'breq?"

"I've already died," she told him.

He spread his hands, looked genuinely interested. "And?"

"It's shit."

"Fair enough," he said, turning back properly in the shuttle command seat. "Let's put that one down as a mistake and try to stop it turning into a habit."

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Neuronhead mutters...

Posted June 11, 2013

Picked up The Wasp Factory to re-read, though it's been so long since I read it it seems like the first time.

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Heere be Monsters

Posted June 7, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

I'm having a deadlining and invoicing day. So to tide us all over, I thought I'd republish the little class project we did a few years ago, this charming zombie, time travel, alternative history cross over.

I wont leave this up forever. It will probably go into a collection at some point.

If you dig on it, give it a little twitter or FB lovin' down the end.

(Extracted from the address of Lieutenant-General Sir Watkin Tench to members of the Royal Society, in London, on 25 January, 1808 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the discovery of the Scourge).

You will forgive me, gentlemen, if I do not dwell on the preliminaries of the matter which has these recent years inflamed the fearful wondering of every soul extant upon God’s earth, be they monarch, basest commoner, republican or Bantu savage. My colleagues Surgeon White and Admiral Hunter have both enjoyed considerable success with their journals of the voyage from the Mother Bank to the forbidden seas. The publication of our late Governor’s notes as an addendum to their work provides an immoderate weight of material preceding the events at Port Jackson for those inclined to so immerse themselves.

If I might begin with the ordinary, as a solid footing for the extraordinary which quickly follows it, we had famously anchored for a number of days at Botany Bay and found it unacceptable as home for the new colony. The waters were very open and greatly exposed to the fury of the south-east winds, which when they blew, caused a heavy and dangerous swell. At a distance of a league from the mouth of the bay was a bar, on which at low water not more than fifteen feet were to be found. Within this bar, and proceeding for many miles along the southwest arm of the bay, was a haven in which any number of ships of the line might permanently shelter, were it not for lack of fresh water, a thirst unrelieved by any source within the bay as we first found it.

I emphasize that point. As we first found it.

The governor, having despatched a small party north to examine the inlet noted by Mr Cook, and having had reports of a commodious and well-watered anchorage, resolved to remove the camp from its original situation to one more calculated to inspire confidence in our survival. A grim irony, that, you’ll warrant now.

Our passage took up a mere few hours, but in that time we not did simply move from the rather exposed and unsuitable anchorage at Botany Bay into the deeper harbour of Port Jackson. We rather travelled from a position of pleasant anticipation and general relief at the termination of our long voyage, into a hell of unimaginable contour and unfathomable depth.

As best all who lived can tell, it was the white squall which marked the crossing of the line from an ordered world, where God’s design is apparent to all who look, into the darker Inexplicable where we now dwell. The Fleet was proceeding in fair order, as we had done for nigh on two hundred and fifty days. HMS Supply had the vanguard, and in her sailed Governor Phillip. The fastest of the convict transports, Scarborough, Friendship and Alexander were not embarrassed in their efforts to keep station, a claim my own tub, the Charlotte, could not dare make without gross outrage to truth and modesty. We wallowed some distance behind the leaders, penned in on all sides by the remaining hulks and store ships, shepherded on our way by brave little Sirius.

There was no warning of the tempest. You will have heard seafarers make claim of wild storms blown up without caution, when what they truly mean is that whatever warnings they did enjoy were rather short and the transition from tranquillity to the devil’s own maelstrom was effected without delay, a matter of some minutes, perhaps.

As an officer of his Majesty’s royal marines, I too have had my fill of storms at sea and would not confute any mariner a small measure of exaggeration in such things. They have earned the right. In doing so, however, such tales rob my own of the immediacy and hazard I must now impress upon you.

At one heartbeat I stood on deck, adjacent to the barricado, our final defence against any uprising from below. The waters were gentle, and slipped by our flanks with a slight hiss and the occasional plop of wavelet against wood. The moon’s reflection was a silver sword upon the deep and I was chatting pleasantly with my friend Surgeon White, enjoying the hard brilliance of the increasingly familiar southern stars in the night sky, as we recalled our damnable luck in the affairs and intrigues of l’amour with the ladies of St Sebastian. We had both arrived in that port aflame with the reports of Dr Solander, who had written of Portuguese beauties throwing nosegays at strangers for the purpose of bringing on an assignation. White and myself, not an entirely unhandsome pair I’m sure you’ll agree, were so deplorably unfortunate as to walk every evening before their windows and balconies without once being honoured by a single bouquet, even though nymphs and flowers were in equal and great abundance.

These memories did we rake over like spent coals, enjoying the warm, still night, when at the next heart beat we were all about beset by a storm of such insensate violence I would not be aghast to discover it had blown straight from the mouth of hell. It is possible the good surgeon cried out. I am certain I did, but so enormous was the shrieking of wind and hammering of rain, that I could hear nothing beyond their savage caterwauling din. Smashed to the deck as if by a great invisible fist I was attempting in extreme distress to settle accounts with my maker, for annihilation must surely be the only outcome of such a development.

And then another heartbeat, gentlemen, just like the thudding within your own breast pockets at this precise moment, and we were clear of it, or rather it of us, for of the storm there was no sign, beyond a strange contrary fog which had settled like a cloak upon the fleet. Besides the mist there was not a puff of breeze, nor drop of rain beyond that remnant moisture which now dripped from our sails and rigging. The silence was enormous in its own way. As deafening as the roar that had proceeded it.

I heard the raw curses of the Charlotte’s crew, and the beginnings of a panic below decks amongst our human freight, when there came a great crash and the awful splintering of timber which bespoke a collision between two ships. It was impossible to tell, what with darkness and fog – and one must admit of it, fear and confusion – but a naval lieutenant soon hurried past with news of a mishap involving the Borrowdale and Golden Grove.

I am sure you will agree that it is to the credit of the British race, and our maritime tradition that no lives or ships were lost in the next hours (although, perhaps for some it were best t’was otherwise). Great cliffs stood to our portside and we had been driven a good way towards them, but the masters of the Fleet and their fine men quickly shook off all consideration but that of returning order and a settled command to our affairs. When Governor Phillip was satisfied that no great damage had been done to his host, that Borrowdale and the Grove were still seaworthy, and that we might proceed, he signalled from Supply to hove to, and as innocent and unknowing as babes, we did just that.

Would that our intelligence of the great changes afoot was not smothered by the fog that had remained after that unholy tempest? Might we have stood off and sent much smaller armed parties to investigate? Might we have withdrawn and quarantined the Scourge for all time? I see some of you nodding vigorously, but of course, to have done so would have betrayed the nature of dauntless inquiry and adventure by which Empires such as ours are built. And without the Scourge, of course, there could be no knowledge of the wonders which attended it. We might be gathered here by candlelight, rather than electronical glass. These notes before me would consist of stained scrawls, inked by quill, rather than neatly composed by mechanical typewriter. And the cornucopia of marvels recovered from that benighted place would have been prey to Spanish brigand or French privateer, rather than devoted to the betterment of man’s finer instincts and designs, as manifest in the achievements of the British Empire.

Could the American colonies have been won back without the repeating gun? Could all those children now alive and growing to strengthen the sinews of the Empire have done so without the miracle patents and potions and pure knowledge of the Hippocratic arts we snatched from the jaws of hell and brought safe home? Would the blockade of the forbidden seas by the Royal Navy have any real chance of sustained accomplishment without the steam engine, ironcladding and the radiola? As much as horror has come into the world, so has a countervailing magic with which to combat it. I hope you will indulge me these digressions, for as I age, they are much upon my conscience.

At that point however, some twenty years ago tonight, my deliberations were centred squarely on immediate concerns. I had greater than one hundred convicts in my charge, twenty of them women, and forty-one marines with which to guard them – although I must confess some of my men took to their husbandry duties with questionable vigour, and I cannot today recall a single female transportee who had not found herself a connection amongst the men of the regiment by the time we reached Port Jackson. I have at times pondered the virtue of such vice, asking myself if we might not have survived in the numbers we did aboard the Charlotte were it not for the bonds of family which had been struck below decks on the voyage out.

I had ordered the chains struck off my prisoners almost as soon as we had departed home waters, an indulgence which I am proud and happy to relate was not abused by the wretches, or not so much as greatly matters. Disinclined to return them to their fetters I was nonetheless concerned lest riot should ensue upon our making landfall. It had been much discussed amongst the officers, and Chaplain Johnson, always greatly exercised by questions of morality, had predicted a bacchanalian outbreak of sin as soon as the prisoners were free to have at each other. I must admit I was more concerned for the safety of our precious stores than for the ethical temper of my pick-pockets and whores.

Lest high spirits should lead to a general debauch, in which months of provisions might be utterly destroyed, I loudly ordered all of my men to stand to with muskets, sabre, bayonet, spare ball and powder. I am convinced I stand here before you today in possession of my life and immortal soul because of that precaution. I might add that thirty seamen sailed on the Charlotte, and although the majority of them were given to the busy task of navigating an uncharted, fog-bound harbour at ebb tide, their master Mr. Gilbert, ensured that his men too were alive to the possibility of mayhem.

We proceeded up the passage, the cries of the pilots and fathom sounders flat and alien, smothered by the mist no doubt. Of the shores there was little to be seen at this juncture. It was still dark and the fog shrouded all. Those few times we strayed close enough to make out anything, the slopes seemed steep, and luxuriantly wooded. Points of light burned here and there, a sight we had grown used to as we hauled up the coast. Natives, we presumed, gathered around their campfires, some of them considerable infernos as best we could judge.

The first intimation of disaster was not long in coming. Positioned as we were towards the rear of the Fleet we discerned the cries and alarums from ahead, without understanding what encouraged them. As I was later to discover, the Supply had struck a buoy.

A floating buoy in a harbour never transited by civilised man.

In short order, more shouts and sirens reached us in the rearguard as those in the van encountered evidence of the cursed miracle into which we had blundered, or been cast. As the sun rose and quickly burned away the fog we found ourselves, not resident of some empty cove at world’s end, but inexplicably surrounded by a city, not of the new world, but of another world entirely. A sharply strengthening breeze from the south cleared out the remaining fog within minutes, presenting to us the spectacle of a metropolis to call London dwarf, of blues and whites and light, bathed in sun to blind the eyes. I stood there a pilgrim to this New Jerusalem. It was only as we drew closer I found no hammering of industry, no cacophony of voices, or the clip clop of horse traffic. There was a low, constant and most unsettling moan which drifted over us, but I ascribed this to the passage of the sirocco through our rigging.

Many, if not all of you will have seen the photographic imagery of the dead city, known as Sydney. A city of monoliths, of magnificent colour and textures and angles and omnipotent scale as to overwhelm the senses. I need not recall to you the familiar sights of metal and glass towers, some of them awash in flames and spewing clouds of roiling black smoke into the sky. As dawn brightened the harbour itself was revealed as an inky pool choked with debris and dominated by the broken hull of a gargantuan iron vessel, unlike any ship of His Majesty’s Navy, at least in those days. I could see now a veritable flotilla of smaller craft, their lines sleek and almost painful to the eye. Abandoned all of them, or so we thought.

As the temperature rose the southerly wind carried over us the first of many terrible revelations. The foul, cloying air emerging from the broken teeth of those soaring towers was as rank as a charnel house on a summer’s day. The miasma of putrescence and burning flesh threatened to overwhelm me, and I, you will recall, had ample experience of life below decks and not far removed from the bilge water of the good ship Charlotte.

Surgeon White appeared at my side, a looking glass in hand.

“It is an impossible vision,” he croaked. “A thing that might be dreamed of by a Wren in the grip of opium.”

My uncomprehending eyes followed his shaking hand and I perceived it too, a vast claw, raking the sky. It seemed the cunning work of giants, fled from the lands of men and returned here at the ends of the earth. It was terror and it was madness and it was glory, and it made one feel like an ant beneath the boots of God himself.

“What holds it up?” I whispered.

“The Will of God, sir,” said Surgeon White. “It can be nothing else.”

Behind the impossible erection, which we know these days to be a haunted opera house, a massive stone and metal arch spanned the waters of the inlet. It glittered in the morning sun. A dream of iron and wire and stone, its arch almost a mile in length and suspended at over 5 chains above the harbour. On both banks I presently espied great stately homes. Some of them afire. But of people we saw little. A shambling figure here and there. One or two others darting hither and yon across rooftops in the distance. Some waving, possibly crying out to us. Of their fate I know nothing, but suspect the worst.

We advanced towards the magnificent bridge, a creeping sense of wickedness and malignity growing stronger as we delved. I have seen much battle at the closest of quarters in service to His Majesty, but I lie not now when I tell you that never has fear threatened to unman me as completely as it did on that bright morn’. Surgeon White must have perceived my unease, for he gripped me on the arm and pressed a tot of rum upon me.

“Some medicinal advice, if you will have it, Captain Tench?” he muttered.

“Yes,” I choked back in reply.

“One tot immediately for every fighting man, and any man who will fight to save himself and his fellows.”

“Why…” I began, meaning to inquire further, but the gentlemen’s grip only tightened. “Do you not feel it, Watkin? Inside of you? We are in the presence of evil and I fear it means to strike. The men will look to you for strong leadership. You must provide it, or we will die here. I feel it in my meat.”

The gooseflesh crawling up my arms and the ice water in my bowels knew the truth of it. I took the rum in a swallow and ordered Mr Baker, my Sergeant at arms to break out two days grog ration and distribute it with all haste amongst the private soldiers. Then to see to a further distribution amongst Master Gilbert’s men, and every convict who was willing to bear arms.

Yes, I see some of you shake your heads at that. I understand your perplexity, that we had gone in such a brief interval from guarding these miserable vagabonds at bayonet point, to placing in their gnarled hands the very weapons with which they might undo us. You must take it as testimony to the malevolent nature of our surroundings that such a drastic course seemed entirely appropriate. Sergeant Baker, a thirty-year man, did not so much as bat an eyelid. With sallow face and haunted eyes he merely nodded and hurried off to do my bidding, his fingers stroking the ammunition pouch at his waist as he went.

We all felt it, the oppressive presence of evil and grave madness.

It was at that moment that I perceived a vision so reassuring in its familiarity that it seemed placed within this fantastic tableau as a mockery to the rational mind, a jape to reinforce the loss of balance we all felt when reeling back from the apparition of the damned city. It was a stone fortress, a Martello Tower as they called of late, which would not have caused surprise had it been spied in any port where the King’s law is writ. A mere glimpse, I had, before the Borrowdale and Sirius passed in front of her, but in that interlude, I knew I had seen men at the ramparts. Armed men. It was a revelation to add to a book of revelations, but before I could order my thoughts around this new development it ceded precedence to another.

The first appearance of the Scourge.

Satan’s handiwork did not present as such of course. T’was Surgeon White, with benefit of a long looking glass to his eye, who saw them on the promenade of the opera house. A woman and boy came first, running as though the hounds of hell snapped at their heels. They emerged from the far side of that soaring bleached structure of giant seashells, and behind them came a shambling mob of hundreds. The low moaning of the wind, I belatedly recognised as issuing from human throats. Hundreds of them.

“Look,” he said, a redundant instruction, as I had been alerted to the excitement on shore by the sudden tacking of Supply towards water’s edge. Our sister ships manoeuvred about in the semi circular quay, with Sirius pulling up next to the stonework fort, where a furious communication ensued between the occupants and the commander of the Marine detachment aboard. Too distant to hear any of it, I noted the precautions of the Sirius, the guns trained upon the stronghold and could not help but admire the courage of the master and crew. In any duel of cannon the wooden ship must surely have fallen to a redoubt of solid rock. Would that we had known what armaments lay within of course! Captain Hunter might not have been so quick to follow Nelson’s dictum that no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.

The greater drama, to my eye, lay on shore, where the mob had surrounded woman and child in a tightening half circle. She, a red-headed lady, was most remarkable for being dressed in her underthings, a rather thin blouse of some kind and what appeared to be unconscionably brief white pantaloons. She looked frantic for escape, but saw as I did, that there was nowhere to go but into the deep. Her son, who seemed to be about seven or eight years of age, dressed in mud coloured shorts and a blue sleeveless jerkin was pulling at her hand, obviously urging her in the direction of the water.

“Sergeant Baker!” I yelled. “Your best marksmen into the rigging now! Covering fire for the woman and child on my order.”

“Yes sir,” he replied and set to snarling and snapping in his reassuring way, sending half a dozen musket men aloft with loaders and a spare gun each. He knew his work, did Baker. Master Gilbert too needed no telling his duty, and we began to move towards the scene as he brought the helm about.

I had the looking glass from Surgeon White and, training it upon the fugitives, both leapt into view with faces strained by a mortal terror such as I had never seen etched upon human features, no matter the extremity of peril. The boy at that point stared at me, I am certain of it. He yanked at his mother's arm again and pointed in our direction. She turned from the closing mob, and saw the reassuring bulk of the Charlotte and Supply closing in. The brave woman wasted no time, but grabbed the lad by his right hand and dragged him into the water.

“Ready the gig!” roared Captain Gilbert from just behind my ear, causing me to leap near out of breeches and boots. “A fighting party, if you please, Mr. Hood. That boy and his mother will drown otherwise…"

But for a wonder, both could swim! And they struck out directly for us. At this very moment the loudest voice I have ever heard bellowed forth from the ramparts of Fort Denison. Had it issued from the same proximity as Gilbert’s roar, behind my ear, I am certain it would have blown out my brains, such as they are, from their resting place within my skull.

All turned as one, by which I mean no exaggeration. Every single soul upon the deck and in the rigging of the Fleet’s vessels twisted towards to the source of that shout.

“Get out of the ­­________ way! Move aside and give us a clear field of fire,” boomed the voice. I saw a man with a red trumpet to his mouth and assumed the amplified roar could only have issued from that instrument, although it still seemed too very loud to me.

At any rate, whatever intercourse had been pursued between Hunter and the defenders of the fort, the Sirius promptly made way and then came the specific instant that I, as a military man, knew the world had forever changed. Three score men and women did I spy mount the ramparts of Fort Denison, all of them armed with miniature muskets. They took aim and opened fire.

The immediate concatenation was deafening in a fashion that anyone of us might recognise, but there came no respite for reloading. No second or third line stepped up to provide volley fire. The same thirty or more shootists simply squeezed their triggers again and again and again, until the uproar of gunfire was so constant and so huge that it overwhelmed all else and pained the ear as greatly as any long naval engagement with artillery.

Beside me Surgeon White swore, as small geysers erupted in the water around the woman and child, and for all the world I would have wagered that these savages had demanded we move aside so they be allowed to shoot down their own kind. The command to return fire was in my throat but Supply ran up signal flags ordering us to stand fast. I could scarcely credit it, and my head swirled with the outrage of the thing, but presently I saw the reason of it.

The fugitives were being pursued in the water by fiends which appeared to rise from the harbour floor, and their comrades were providing covering fire of an accuracy I would not credit had I not witnessed the affair myself. Examining the scene anew, I discerned a division of responsibility among the firing party, with a portion given to protecting their mates, while others engaged the mob.

White muttered curses and shook his head as he passed the glass back to me.

“What make ye of yon slaughter,” he asked.

The vast mob had piled up at a stone barrier, waist high, which impeded all forward motion. Not a one of them attempted to mount it, as modest an obstruction as it was. Instead they stood rocking back and forth in a rhythmic motion, moaning as one while they were methodically felled by scarifying gunfire. The thing of it was this. Every single shot seemed aimed at their faces. Only once or twice did I witness a round strike home below the neckline, and then with the most salutary effect – which is to say none at all. From a short observation it became apparent that these monsters were immune to all but the most serious of wounds, a lead ball sent directly into their brains.

And monsters they were. Less than one hundred yards now separated us from the nearest of them and such propinquity allowed of an uncomfortably intimate inspection.

“They should be dead,” avowed the good surgeon White. “Look at them, Tench. Just look at them.”

He did not need to reiterate the suggestion. I could not look away. I stood transfixed by that phantasmagorical sight. The recently imbibed grog lay unsteady in my vitals, threatening to rise as the stench of them assaulted us. One does not like to speak ill of the dead, Gentlemen, but here I must. No member of that horrific rabble was whole of body. Their exposed flesh was a rich palate of advanced decay and gangrenous mortification, shining in sickly hues of mottled greens and grays. All manner of atrocity and flagellation had been visited upon their flesh. I witnessed those with limbs hanging by the merest thread of skin, with guts opened and viscera spilling, throats torn and faces flapping, jaw and skull bones shining whitely in the dawning morn.

And the stench! The smell of the Scourge, the high, putrid, stomach-churning reek that accompanies them, is not easily conceived unless experienced by prior ill fortune. The lowest bilge or the ripest midden is as nothing to the miasma that emanated from that dreadful horde. There is something about the infection that seems to magnify the natural aromas of decay and effluvium the human body produces post mortem, such that even from our removed vantage, I was struck quite physically by the rankness that reached out to us. I heard several of the crew retching beside me, and felt my own gorge rise, yet with an effort I regained control and turned back to Surgeon White.

“What hell is this, sir?” I asked in shaking timbre. “Some malady of the soul and the flesh? A disorder of the mind? Some voodoo curse? I have seen Zombees of the Carib, Doctor, but naught of them do I see here. Here I see but monsters.”

“Aye,” said White, his voice a whisper, a drift of ash. “Monsters. Captain Tench,” he continued, reaching a moment of decision. His speech accelerated like a fast steam ship with boilers roaring. “I cannot vouch for my speculations but on the evidence I must avow to a suspicion that some malady is at work here. Some sort of rabid infection, perhaps transferred in the saliva, or in the blood itself. I must advise you sir, to order your men, that under no circumstances are they to come to grips with these fiends, even if it means surrendering honour to expedience and retreating in the face of them. Destroy the head, sir. They must destroy the head by whatever means available, but not by hand to hand combat. A club, a sword, a bayonet thrust directly into the brain pan. Anything to stay beyond arm’s length. Ball and powder, of course, would be best.”

He grew wistful at that, squinting at the distant rifle company of Fort Denison. I knew that he, just like I, was wishing to Our Lord for weapons such as those as yet unknown allies did enjoy.

I called up Sergeant Baker and bade him in the strongest terms to pass on the physician’s warning. The first of the convicts appeared from below, blinking in the light, and dealing with a thousand confusions, not the least of which were occasioned by the armaments pressed on them. Baker and his men pushed them forward to the gunwale, with furious and lurid imprecations to do their duty as Christians and Englishmen, no matter how poorly they had once measured up as citizens.

Now musket shot began to pour upon the mob from the decks of our own vessels, our meagre volleys adding drips and drops to the flood of fire still raging from the fort. Only a broadside from the Sirius, unexpected and terrifying, drowned out the staccato uproar, and then but briefly. The withering cannonade of grapeshot from half of one dozen six pounders and three of her eighteen pound pieces swept over the foul assemblage onshore like an evil wind, disarticulating rotten arms and legs, bifurcating trunks like hollow tree stumps, turning whole bodies to a rancid mist and yet… and yet… still some lived! If living it could be called. With a hand now preternaturally steady I raised glass to eye again and surveyed the carnage only to reel inwardly at the vision of some demonic wretches, inadequately fragmented by the broadside, dragging what remained of their leavings, back towards the water’s edge. An intact cranium attached to a half or more of torso appeared to be vessel enough to contain whatever motive force drove them on. Only a discrete blow to the brain itself provided an assured coup de grace.

As orders to this effect rang out across the fleet, including from myself to all the fighting men aboard good Charlotte, I watched as her gig, almost forgotten in the wider horror, reached the woman and child. Both flung themselves into the reaching arms and hands of our gallant tars as though attempting to jump from a boiling pot. One of the poor, brave men, however, not swift enough to escape a reaching, rotted claw, suddenly screamed and toppled over into the water, which began to boil around his thrashing form. The foam turned red and he soon disappeared below. No order to heave to was needed. The small boat crew leaned into their oars with vigour inflamed by mortal terror as they raced back towards their mother ship.

As escapees and rescuers scrambled up the nets of the Charlotte, dripping nightmares followed them and I was thankfully spared leisured contemplation of the morning’s wickedness by the demands of our defence. The nets I had cut away with all despatch, and those few devils who made it to the top before the severance were held off with gaffing hooks while a single shot to the head was organised and administered by Sergeant Baker.

The poor woman was delirious with fear and her boy shaking as though possessed by a fit of St. Vitus. “Sweet mother of Christ,” White called out over his shoulder as he hurried to their aid. “Look upon fresh hell, Captain Tench.”

I followed where he pointed and felt my gorge rise as I too comprehended the new and awful exigencies of this battle. Four of our transports packed with convicts, stores and livestock had withdrawn to a safe distance from the fray, or so it had seemed. But these most exemplary precautions had taken them beneath the span of that great steel bridge and whilst all had been distracted by the terrible spectre of the walking dead to our port, on starboard an horrendous mise-en-scene unfolded. Hundreds of ghouls dropped through the air like fat, blackened fruits. Descent and the prospect of destruction upon impact seemed not bother them at all and quickly I was given to comprehend the reason of it.

Even as their bodies struck spars and mast, parting in an obscene spray of chunk and offal, the ruined vestiges smashed into wooden decks and presuming no damage to the cranium ensued, they recommenced their assault. Many simply speared into the deep, and many were indeed destroyed by the crushing or severing of skulls. But enough made it down there, gentlemen. Enough.

I shudder now to think of it, even though my own sight of the holocaust was oft impeded by distance and the intervening bulk of our other ships. Through the glass I saw all that I needed. A score or more of the plague carriers made the Borrowdale while I looked on, all but helpless. Some of the fiends survived by mere dint of crashing down atop some unfortunate crewman or marine and, horror upon horror, commenced without delay to feast upon them. The screams which reached across the water and over the uproar of gunfire will follow me to the very gates of heaven, where I can only hope I might finally receive blessed surcease. Just one incident of this satanic cannibalism did I allow myself to witness, and that because I could not avert my eyes in time. I confess myself paralysed by the horror. Half a devil fell upon one of the few free woman travelling with the Fleet, the wife of a comrade indeed, and well known to me from the advantage of fond memories. I recognised her at a distance from her gay bonnet and parasol, which I well remember from pleasant walks with that poor family about the common of their village back in Dorset.

The thing which struck her –for although science tells me it had once been a man or woman, I could not now privilege it with any appellation beyond that of a foul and soulless object – the thing, trailing gizzards and great ropey lengths of corruption, crashed into her shoulder and drove her to the deck. Would that the force of the blow had killed poor _____. Alas she was but momentarily stunned, and quickly revived by the painful stimulus of first one, then two, then three of these creatures making a meal of her. Brave woman that she was she cried out her defiance and had at them with the only weapon to hand, her broken parasol. I saw it rise and fall repeatedly, but to no effect, and the resistance soon ended as all life ran from her wounds. As horrific as this was, worse followed as my colleague’s only love soon rose from the heap of her tormentors and now suffering the most appalling disfigurements, joined in the assault on her former friends and shipmates. I saw her bite the neck of a corporal of marines whose only fault was to attempt to spirit her to safety and as he fell with great jets of his lifeblood painting the ambulatory corpse of _____, I turned away.

As any professional military man will attest, however, there is much succour to be had in attachment to duty and necessity. Of that I had an elegant sufficiency, as we now found ourselves ordered by the Flagship to sail into the diseased heart of that horrendous encounter beneath the bridge, there to take on any survivors who might yet escape.

Pride is a deadly sin, gentlemen, but I am proud that not a man amongst us on that day resiled from certain death, and what was more, from equally certain damnation. Even the prisoners, now armed with the means to revolt if they so wished, proved themselves not entirely beyond redemption as each gripped whatever weapon they now held and, spitting either prayers or curses at their fate, made ready at the end to die as free men. For none of us saw any way in which we might possibly achieve the stated aim of our orders. We were surely headed to our doom.

Our passage there was not without incident, as you might imagine. We were increasingly

besieged by those water-logged corpses drawn to us by the flight of the woman and child. A veritable raft of them did form o’er the next minutes, a floating carpet of moaning reaching phantoms that surrounded every ship on all sides, necessitating much cooperation between the firing parties of each vessel, and our new chums in the Fort.

My own make-shift force however, I ordered to hold fire, knowing that we would presently require every advantage accruing to us through the possession of a well stocked armoury. Master Gilbert brought the helm around for a rendezvous with the Lady Penhryn, the nearest vessel, upon which a furious but sadly hopeless struggle was enjoined. It was vexing. Of all of the ships of the Fleet, the Lady with the majority of women transportees had but two Lieutenants and three Privates of His Majesty’s Marine Forces. A small, valiant party still held out on the quarterdeck, where these three marines and the same number of tars blocked all attempts by the shambling hordes to have at a dozen or more screaming women and children clustered at the stern.

Below them lay many corpses of the dead, in pieces. They stabbed, slashed and hacked at a solid writhing mass of reanimated flesh as it all but poured up the steps towards them. The deadly winnowing education of combat had taught these few defenders the efficacy of striking only at the heads of their attackers, among whom I am sorry to say, were numbered many former comrades and shipmates, including the afore mentioned regimental officers, both friends of mine while the light of God had flickered within their breasts.

Sergeant Baker had a firing line of our marines drawn up in short order and I instructed them with all despatch.

“Aim for their heads, lads,” I called out. “The heads and … fire!”

Ten flints struck as one, followed by a single roar. The gun smoke lifted to reveal a small clearing, felled in the midst of that evil mass.

The second line stood forward and unleashed their volley in the same fashion to even greater effect and the rousing cheers of the Charlotte’s complement. Sadly I saw one of Lady’s marines slip and slide into the flailing mob, screaming proud defiance to the end. His partner smashing his skull as he fell, before returning to the dreadful repetitive work of cracking monster heads with a pair of iron bars.

I saw a dozen chains away, a similar battle raging on the decks of the Sirius which had drawn up beside the Golden Grove and I could but wish them Godspeed.

Our own trial began at this point as we had drifted within the shadow of the giant bridge and exposed ourselves to invasion from above.

“Look to the skies,” I called out as Sergeant Baker began to roar at his reserve of armed prisoners, goading them from their fearful reverie as the very first crash of a demon slamming into the boards of our own deck resounded. A terrible, dull, crunching thud it was, an impact which speared the beast headfirst into solid oak, thus ending the immediate threat, but only for a moment.

They soon came upon us as a biblical rain of toads. Dark, heavy and pounding down like the fists of Satan himself. What a job of work it was, maintaining an orderly supporting fire upon the vile horde of inhumanity that had infested the for’ard decks of the Lady Penrhyn, whilst all the time being mindful that something worse than death was probably plummeting towards one from the heavens.

But Baker, a soldier’s soldier had done my job for me, as the very best of non-commissioned men will always do. A corporal and five privates all armed with Ferguson pistols and axes were duly detailed to the single task of spotting imminent and unwanted arrivals on board the Charlotte and warning any who stood in danger of being thus felled to move themselves with extreme haste. Such of those vile creatures which did make it down relatively intact and hungry for fresh meat, were consigned to oblivion by this party, all save for one.

A scrape and the metallic clink of chains upon the deck sounded behind me. I turned and was confronted by a woman. One of ours gone over to the darkness Her white, dead eyes and a slack jaw identified her as being contaminated. Shocked, I saw the child at her breast still suckling but it too had been cursed. She looked at me and uttered one, guttural word … ‘B r a i n s’ … as she reached out to me with a clawed hand. I had become immotile, this woman had given life to her child on our perilous and I had promised to bear witness to her wedding with William Bryant and now …

A sick-making crunch cut off her rasping call for my grey matter and she toppled like a rotten tree given out at the roots. An iron axe head protruded from her cleaved open skull and behind her stood the near naked woman we had rescued from the fore court of of the Opera House.

“I am most grateful, madam…” I began, but lost my words she stepped forward and despatched the zombee child with a shot from what I took to be a pistol, although its design was in kin with the sharp angles and prepossessing bulk of so much machinery in this benighted hellhole.

“Sweet as,” she said tightly and somewhat incongruously before striding to the gunwale, taking a spot in the firing line as though a woman might do such a thing without a second thought, and unloading a second helping of death, this time permanent, upon the hellish multitude there swarming. Like her fellows on the stone fort, she handled a firearm with preternatural ability, placing her ball seemingly wherever she chose.

Good Charlotte crunched into the flanks of her dying sister ship, and lines to the embattled party were made fast as every muzzle available to us was trained upon the remaining ghouls. Now sitting directly under the bridge we were spared the airborne hazard for the moment and could concentrate our best efforts upon effecting the escape of our comrades.

Many, if not all of you will have read Surgeon White’s account of the rescue, which I must tell you fails miserably in one respect, by neglecting to credit the surgeon with his own most fearless role. A wide plank did he have laid between our vessels and with two pistols in hand he proceeded over, heedless of the fatal seas alive with the undead just beneath his feet. One unfortunate pitch or toss and he would have joined them down there.

More tars and marines followed him, setting up an impenetrable barrier past which none without a soul might pass. In this way, with safety lines secured to the few surviving passengers of the Lady Penrhyn did we evacuate that poor accursed wrack.

Others, I am afraid, were not as fortunate. Whether by ill luck or lack of fair preparation, the Sirius did not return from her mission. She was overrun, and with her the other store ships and transports. Our commanders signalled us to withdraw from any further contretemps beneath the bridge, and barring a short interlude where once again we received the enemy from above, we repaired from the battle without much further incident.

I deduce by the strained faces before me tonight that I have done enough to present to you some intimation of our vile circumstances, but gentlemen, believe me when I say that whatever repulsion you may feel, was felt one thousand fold in our gullets on that day. Indeed, it would not be much of an exaggeration to admit to you that a shadow of repugnance has followed me through my days ever since.

And yet, I stand here, before my friends and colleagues, ready to bear witness and to avow my preparedness to do whatever necessary to preserve this realm from the terror of the Scourge, which every day threatens to spread beyond the Forbidden Seas to infect virgin lands and souls.

It cannot pass, gentlemen. And it shall not. Not while the British Empire stands vigilant and immeasurably strengthened by the scientific wonders salvaged from that dead city inexplicably cast down amongst us from the god-forsaken wastes of the twenty-second century.

27 Responses to ‘Heere be Monsters’

NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted June 7, 2013

Huzzah!

There goes the next 40 minutes of productivity.

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John Birmingham mutters...

Posted June 7, 2013

Seriously thinking about turning into something longer. An ebook maybe. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed writing in the Tench's voice.

Dino not to be confused with swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 7, 2013

Yeah you should JB.

I loved it.

"Propinquity"

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Rhino would have you know...

Posted June 7, 2013

That was a blast participating in (a small way) the birth of that. Thanks for sharing that as I haven't reread it in a lonnnng time.

I still think I have the file of drivel that I sent to you as part of the group's participation. It is difficult to describe the sheer rush when I finally got my hands on the anthology and could see a tiny piece of what I had contributed had been retained.

Thanks for that opportunity Birmo.

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted June 7, 2013

I might yet revist this world, Rhino.

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andyf mutters...

Posted June 7, 2013

that was, as they sday 'FKN AWSUM'

'look upon fresh Hell'....

nice

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Theaaronbennett ducks in to say...

Posted June 7, 2013

That was bloody amazing... I would love to hear more about the "salvage of technological marvels" and how this happened... Please please PLEASE revisit this, JB...

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mutters...

Posted June 7, 2013

Please do revisit this world, mate. Please do. Such wonderful possibilities. Very, very cool.

It was an especially fun read for me because the story is set in the one part of Sydney I know best.

Therbs asserts...

Posted June 7, 2013

That'd be the brainy part Paul. 'Cos I'm like heaps intelligent..

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Therbs swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 7, 2013

Takes me back to the JSpace days.

e-Book of this universe ftw. Getting and maintaining the 18th Century voice would be Probably precludes Commander Harrison Biscuit showing up but he would be gnarly.

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Sparty swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 7, 2013

Yeah now that takes me back - fun times and what Rhino said too!

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NBlob has opinions thus...

Posted June 7, 2013
What was the date on the original exercise?
It predates my discovering the gothic.
If I recall correctly, JB had the summer off Blunty and in his last entry posted a link to Journalspace Gothic.

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ShaneAlpha swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 7, 2013

I was just thinking this week that you should write a Oz-centric zombie apocalypse.

And here it is.

Please sir, can I 'av some more?

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted June 7, 2013

Gimme some FB or twitter luv I can pimp out and I'll think about it.

ShaneAlpha mutters...

Posted June 8, 2013

And there's where it falls into a zombie shredded heap.

I don't use either of those. Frankly, if they want to spy on me they have to do it the old fashioned way, you know, the pizza van parked outside, black bag ops and a femme fatale, not have me tell everything on facebook.

Besides, don't you need those things to use facebook. ? You know.. , what's that word again?? Ah, yes, friends......

I'll start you off though, have the Scourge start when some cave divers go into a limestone sinkhole on the Nullarbor.

Now, I'm off to practice my zombie killing skills for the rest of the weekend. If you want something to do JB you can pop down to watch things go BANG!

http://www.historyalive.com.au/

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan has opinions thus...

Posted June 7, 2013

I just realized the post Scourge world would very likely be a steampunk universe: high tech results achieved with low tech material science.

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sibeen mutters...

Posted June 8, 2013

I really enjoyed that, and can vaguely remember it happening and being gestated.

I only wish you'd chopped the bit that The Rhino had contributed. Let's all face facts, that bit was on the fucking nose.

Rhino would have you know...

Posted June 9, 2013

heh heh heh ...

I'm watching you.

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Rhino mumbles...

Posted June 9, 2013

Another note ... in order to get into the voice of the assignment I went and found Tench's Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and read it. Found out that there was a marine officer on the boat by the name of Ross. He featured prominently in the one scene I attempted to write.

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she_jedi puts forth...

Posted June 9, 2013

OMG that was outstanding. I ended up being late to meeting my parents for Driving Miss Daisy because I was so engrossed I didn't realise how my morning had disappeared. Thank God they're pathologically punctual and we were still half an hour early for the show.

The idea of the First Fleet taking a wrong turn through a wormhole and ending up in the Walking Dead is astounding, I loved loved loved it. Thanks for sharing this JB. Please sir, I want some more :)

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted June 9, 2013

Then go and give it some luvin of teh social mediaz

she_jedi is gonna tell you...

Posted June 9, 2013

ppfftt, think me such a fleeting fan? I gave it an epic write up on the Stalkerbook for you. To quote "This was outstanding; the First Fleet takes a wrong turn through time and ends up in the Walking Dead. An amazing short story by John Birmingham. Enjoy."

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted June 9, 2013

You're my new favourite

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PaulC would have you know...

Posted June 10, 2013

Very cool. But is it allegorical of the impending election of a Coalition government (they being the Scourge)?

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted June 10, 2013

Nah, it's too old for that.

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FormerlyKnownAsSimon swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 11, 2013

I thought this was great too, having once lived in sydney it is satisfying thinking of it in a burning zombified heap : ) (maybe with a core group of Monty Python Crimson Permanent Assurance types holding down fort denison)

But whilst chopping wood for the fire on the weekend it wormed into my brain. I'm new to the blog (for some insane reason) so can only assume everything was argued about way back when. But I never got the whole 'brains' thing with zombies. Wouldn't eating the brain be a limiting factor on the scourge spreading? Seeing that a shot to the head takes a zombie out of action it assumes the brain is the functioning part. But if it has already been eaten? Or would it only be a certain section that gets devoured? Or is it that the person turned into the zombie has a remnant of its old self and is actually passing on information on how to put it out of it's misery? (my brain goes in strange places sometimes - i haven't chopped my leg off with inattention yet)

This has probably been debated at length on here and the wider web - i'm not a diehard fan of all things zombie but have had a passing casual relationship over the past 25 years.

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted June 11, 2013

Nah, not debated. The 'braaains' line was really just silly shout out to the old zombie trope. If I was doing this for real as a novel or even novella I'd remove that.

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Respond to 'Heere be Monsters'

Jack Vance. 28 August 1916 - 26 May 2013

Posted June 6, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

I didn't realise Jack Vance had passed on until I saw James Bradley link to this sad, lovely obit for the old bastard.

A giant of the spec fic genre and a dude who deserved more reading than he got.

8 Responses to ‘Jack Vance. 28 August 1916 - 26 May 2013’

Barnesm mutters...

Posted June 6, 2013

Didn't even know he was in jail.

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Lobes would have you know...

Posted June 7, 2013

Tom Sharpe just died as well. RIP

Lulu ducks in to say...

Posted June 7, 2013

Oh crap, I hadn't heard that.

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan has opinions thus...

Posted June 7, 2013

A reread a small handfull of his novellas every year. Each time I reread the Dragon Masters I wonder why it hasn't been made into a film. Vance was a truly fine writer.

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Barnesm mumbles...

Posted June 7, 2013

I have an irrational dislike forJack Vance, not for anything he did directly but because he was indirectly responsible for me having to put up the most ridiculous magic system ever employed in a role playing game. In the original D&D it involved memorising a spell, which could take hours and then when you use it, it 'evapourates' from the mind. Seriously WTF? How is that not alarming, for a profession that is meant to rely on the superiority of the intellect the primary tool destroys your mind.

i realise this is not strictly Mr Vances fault, but I hate easy.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan asserts...

Posted June 7, 2013

I've read but never returned to any of his fantasy stuff. Read the Dragon Masters. Read Blue World. Read the Languages of Pao. Read the Last Castle. Really fun, interesting science fiction told in a unique voice.

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Blake has opinions thus...

Posted June 8, 2013

Someone gave me a copy of Araminta Station years ago, it was a bit of an unwieldy larger format paperback thing - but i eventually read it and it blew my mind, it must of been one for the first non star wars / start trek (yay youth taste) sci-fi / fantasy books i read and it was a good part dark murder thriller with a healthy dash of political intrigue.

It must of been a 'right time, right place' book for me because i've failed to sell it to anyone subsequently.

The worst part was getting to the end and discovering those hated words "to be continued". Tracking down the subsequent books took me years and i must have foolishly traded them at some point because i'm back looking for them again.

(was musing about it the other day and happened to find one of them in a pokey second hand book store at the carrarra markets).

I'm yet to find anyone whose done space mystery as well since, or figure out if i'd like any of his other series. (Suggestions welcomed - i may have gotten overly stuck into chasm city and finished it yesterday)

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Anthony swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 14, 2013

This just ruined my day. Another one of my favourites. The Dying Earth novels and stories and the Demon Princes series were brilliant. Coincidentally I jusr finished a reread of the Planet of Asventure novels...

And I never knew we shared a birthday.

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Respond to 'Jack Vance. 28 August 1916 - 26 May 2013'

Killing your favorite characters

Posted June 5, 2013 into Writing by John Birmingham

Norman Mailer was the bastard who stole my innocence as a reader. The Naked and the Dead was the book in which he did it. I read it as a young teenager, a long while ago now. There was a character Mailer established as a conventional hero, a good soldier, a good man, the sort of character who wins through in the end. And then about three quarters of the way through the book, you turn the page and he gets a bullet right through the heart. Blows his fucking shredded pump out through the shoulder blades, sprays the meat scraps all over the scenery. It's not a flesh wound, he's not coming back.

I remember being stunned when I read the line. I just hadn't seen it coming. This guy had been set up as the sort of character you follow through a grand adventure. Sure he was going to suffer, he was going to hurt, he was probably going to be nearly killed half a dozen times. But he would be there with you at the end. That's how stories worked.

But no. He was dead for no reason at all. All of the storylines Mailer had carefully tended and built-up towards some imagined payoff at the end of the book, they were all irrelevant now, as dead as the character whose heart he had just hosed all over the page. I was very young, but the lesson stayed with me nonetheless. Killing your characters can have a profound effect on the reader.

Or the viewer, if you're talking Game of Thrones and the millions of poor old nuff nuffs who've been upset this week by the unpleasantness at the Twins. You'd think they'd have learned when Ned Stark lost his head at the end of the first series. If ever there was a character who reminded me of Norman Mailer's poor dead bastard it was honest Ned Stark. The sort of conventional hero everyone identifies with. The sort of character who survives – otherwise what is the point of putting your characters in peril? If they don't win through why do we read these bloody stories?

But then, if they don't die why put them in peril in the first place?

Another storytime memory. We were never allowed to watch Starsky and Hutch as kids. It wasn't on the ABC. (And now you know why I have an unhealthy appetite for trashy mass culture). My cousins were allowed to watch it, however. Every other kid at school seem to be watching it. And at the time it was first broadcast – on Channel 9 I think, long before 9 became a network – it dominated mass culture the way that Thrones does now. I remember being as thrilled, as anxious, as fearful as all of those kids who actually did get to watch the show when posters went up around town featuring Starsky and Hutch with the ominous promise that "one of these men will die this week".

Oh my fucking God! Noooo! If there had been an Internet in those faraway days it would have lost its shit just as comprehensively as it did this week over the Red Wedding. Or at least it would have lost its shit until the moment the episode was broadcast and it turned out we'd all been played for chumps. Yeah, one of them died, I can't even recall which one now, but he was brought back to life by CPR or something a couple of seconds later. Big fucking deal.

I didn't even watch the show. I wasn't allowed to watch the show. And yet the very strong sense of having been ripped off by the producers remains with me until this day. As angry as many TV Thrones fans might feel today, I don't think they're going to be looking back on this series 20 or thirty years from now and feeling ripped off. I don't think they going to stop watching, no matter how much they threaten to. I think the number of viewers is only going to grow.

Because what happened at the Red Wedding was great storytelling in a way you very rarely find in either books or on television or in the movies. It made people care about the characters and made them feel something about what happened to them. That's really fucking hard to do. Think about the stories that have really stayed with you over the years. Think about characters in them and how many died. Think about how much you cared, even if you kind of hated the story teller at that point.

It's so hard to do.

And of course if you had read the books before watching the bloody TV show you have known what was coming anyway.

62 Responses to ‘Killing your favorite characters’

Steve is gonna tell you...

Posted June 5, 2013

And those of us who've read the books know that it's going to get even better.

Kat mumbles...

Posted June 5, 2013

Although sadly that probably won't happen until middle of next season..

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John would have you know...

Posted June 5, 2013

When I was a kid I was an avid reader of "Action", a comic book aimed at boys such as I. One of the strips was "Hook Jaw", about a man-eating shark. When Hook Jaw chomped up Rick Mason (the hero), I was shocked in the same way you describe that GoT viewers have been. It just Wasn't Supposed To Happen. But it left an impact on me as a kid, so much that I can still remember vividly the panel where it happens.

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Peter Bradley reckons...

Posted June 5, 2013

JB, you are not adverse to knocking off a favourite character or two yourself! Another show that does this well (or heartlessly -you choose) are Spooks - who can forget Adam becoming spattered over the landscape

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Sian mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

Oh yes - speaking of Spooks, when they killed off one of the main characters early on in the deep fat fryer - that was pretty good too!

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Lobes would have you know...

Posted June 5, 2013

Yeah reminds me when you killed off Commander Dan Black in the 2nd Axis of Time book, off-page too you bastard.

As for GoT well I detested Cat and Robb was a bit of a dick so no great loss really. He really screwed himself over when he married that wench then lost the karstarks. I really hope that Cat doesnt come back as Lady Stoneheart and instead the producers incorporate aspects of that plotline with Danys character so as to get her to Westeros quicker.

I havnt read the books but I do go on the ASOIAF wiki page quite regularly so I know everything thats coming up with characters and plotlines. All my friends who have invested time and effort to read the books fucking hate me for it. Its awesome :)

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 5, 2013

ROFLing at Lobes hatin' friends. On the story arc, I dont know how GRRM can possibly finish the last book, or even the next one, before the series catches up with him.

Kat mumbles...

Posted June 5, 2013

I, also, was extremely pissed off at you for that particular death! the book may have learnt to fly that day...

Murphy would have you know...

Posted June 5, 2013

Lobes got to CDR Black before I did.

Ah well.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

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BigWillieStyle mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

I remember reading Kane and Abel when I was about 15 or 16, and being terribly upset when William Kane died, after he'd made peace with himself, his daughter and his sworn enemy, and just before he had the chance to meet his own grandson. I can imagine Jeffrey Archer cackling with glee as he did it, too.

And Stuart Cleary being gored to death by the feral pig in The Thorn Birds. Probably the most gut-wrenchingly fucking awful passage I've ever read in a novel.

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beeso would have you know...

Posted June 5, 2013

For pulpy goodness you can't go past Samuel L in the mutated shark movie, only real star, third the way through and chomp.

BigWillieStyle ducks in to say...

Posted June 5, 2013

"Pulpy goodness"

Robert Shaw getting eaten, slowly and by degrees, by the shark in Jaws out-pulps SLJ's hilarious demise by a factor to large to calculate.

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Big Luke reckons...

Posted June 5, 2013

I watched on Monday and had absolutely no idea of what was going to unfold... It was brilliant. Don't think a tv show has had that effect on me since I balled my eyes out following the last episode of MASH. As an 8 year old it just didn't seem fair that Hawkeye, Klinger and the gang couldn't continue to hang out together.

But anyway, I know Robb Stark made a lot of tactical errors, but did they have to whack his bloody dog? Just let the bloody thing loose out in the woods!

Lobes mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

The dog had to die so they could sew its head onto Robbs body and make Robbwind.

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Radar reckons...

Posted June 5, 2013

When Llewelyn Moss was killed in No Country For Old Men (admittedly the movie version), that left a lot of people baffled. It was so off-handed, and he too seemed like the character that was going to be there at the end and battle the bad guy. You never saw him die, he was just "dead", and lying on the floor of that grimy motel room.

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted June 5, 2013

Yes! And the ex Special Forces guy, who was like a Hollywood cliche he was so obviously supposed to be able to handle Chigur. I kept waiting for him to get all ninja on the guy. But no. Just sat there and took his shotgun pill like a good boy.

Murphy would have you know...

Posted June 5, 2013

Good movie and a good novel, No Country was.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

BigWillieStyle mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

Yes, Moss' death surprised me too, it almost looked like an afterthought from the Coens. Anton Chigur was one of the great movie villains, glad they didn't decide to off him.

As a sidebar - I've read three of Cormac McCarthy's novels, and besides Steinbeck, there's no novelist that's left me feeling as thoroughly depressed as him. Finish one of his books and you can't help but feel that the world really is an utter tnuc of a place

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NBlob has opinions thus...

Posted June 5, 2013
It will be a long time before I forgive you for whacking Pete. Fucked by the fickle finger of fate indeed. That burning feeling between your shoulder-blades, me. That creepy sensation that someone is watching you, me from several hundred miles away. When you wake with a gasp @ O'fck15 in the dark of night, me. Rattling the chains of the lost.
Pete ticked more boxes for me than anyone in that whole series. Shure, the Rhino has appeal & Milosc had some snappy lines, but Pete was The Man.
Still Very Pissed about that.

Rhino mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

Has appeal?

Has APPEAL?!?!

I'll have you know that I was supposed to DIE on that bloddy boat. But I didn't. And you know why? Tyrannosaurus level charisma and sex appeal. (It is a tall and lonely mountain that Havock and I stand upon).

I can't begin to imagine the losses that Birmo's publishers, not to mention OFA, would have suffered from people returning tear stained books had he gone through with his original intent.

Murphy mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

There was some talk of a scene with The Rhino charging at The Banana with a lit stick of dynamite in each fist while running down a semi-tractor trailer flatbed, or a train, or something. He was gonna leap up in the air, cigar chomped between his John Goodman teeth and growl, "You don't get this petting kitty kats."

In the end, I think Birmo might have lost his nerve. Possibly because the real Rhino might come for him in the middle of the night and get all ninja and shit.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

JG has opinions thus...

Posted June 5, 2013

Would have loved to see you reading the Rhino explosion scene, Rhino. Haha. I'm dead! WTF, JB?! No, he spared you, lucky for us. I can hear you bellowing from Australia, Rhino. Love that character. If you kill him, I'll have to kill you, JB. Joke, Johnnycake.

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Wolfcat mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

But JB subtle difference is you pick a name from a hat containing all the characters and that is the character that dies, GRRM picks a name from the hat and that is the character that kills everyone else.

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Therbs has opinions thus...

Posted June 5, 2013

Mrs Daryl Kerrigan in A Country Practice? Didn't see it myself but apparently a lot of people cried into their rice-a-riso fondues that night.

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Blarkon ducks in to say...

Posted June 5, 2013

It depends on the writer. I've read a few books where the writer has killed off the interesting characters and left the readers with the duds. Maybe if the books had ended with the killing off of the interesting characters it would have worked, but as written, once the interesting characters are gone the books become like After M*A*S*H, the later series of the X-Files, or the 5th season of Babylon 5.

It's been interesting watching the commentary on this - some fans who've read the whole thing suggest that "yeah that was great, but he had trouble keeping the narrative on track after that". Sometimes stories simply fall apart without certain characters. They magician's trick is to figure out which ones you can kill to move the story forward without plunging it over a cliff.

beeso swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 5, 2013

Killing that character was good for the books I reckon. Don't see he was worth much more.

Blarkon would have you know...

Posted June 5, 2013

It's a bit like Jenga. You can remove some blocks and the tower remains standing. But remove the wrong block and the tower falls over.

Until Martin finishes the series - and getting the ending right on any long series of popular books is insanely difficult - we won't know whether the regular killing off of characters was inspired brilliance or ended up being one of those things that looked smart at the time but ended up undermining the structure of the narrative.

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NicF reckons...

Posted June 5, 2013

Gotta say, the way Martin kills characters makes me less unhappy than the way, say, a certain hyperkinetic Sydney author.

I have no issue with killing characters off to drive plots, and I applaud Martin for subverting the "Son avenges the father" trope so magnificently.

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Marian Dalton asserts...

Posted June 5, 2013

The example of killing off a beloved character that sticks with me is in Mira Grant's Feed. She sets the reader up perfectly to believe that this character will survive - be put through the wringer, lose what they love most, maybe even come close to death, but ultimately, make it through.

And then bam! - bullet to the back of the head. One fantastic moment of 'goddamn you, Grant, how could you do that?', and you just have to turn the page to see how the hell this book is going to continue. Just brilliant.

Which is why, despite Martin killing off some of my favourite characters, I keep turning the page. You just never know who's going to get a sword in the guts or an arakh across the throat next.

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Sturt is gonna tell you...

Posted June 5, 2013

"The Requirements of Power Must Be Obeyed".

This guy has a perfect take on what the red wedding's resonances are for contemporary politics. It's pitched at an audience that's neither read the books nor watched the show but it illustrates the cleavage between ordinary narrative and true drama that JB's getting at (and which Martin exemplifies in the Red Wedding scene:) http://www.redstate.com/2013/06/03/you-win-or-you-die/

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Rhino reckons...

Posted June 5, 2013

Yeah, the Red Wedding was interesting and all but what about the Khaleesi's boobs? Are they dirty again? Do they need tender, soapy ministration and manipulation? By the freely serving former slave girl(s)?

How about a couple of hours on that HBO?

Sturt would have you know...

Posted June 5, 2013

By the way, there's an exceptionally poignant interior monologue of Caitlin Monroe bleeding out alone in some decrepit pile of blasted concrete that is yet to be written.

Murphy reckons...

Posted June 5, 2013

Kill Duffy before you kill Caitlin.

And remember how Fifi bit it? I liked her.

Never liked Duffy.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted June 5, 2013

@ Sturt, I'd like to read that.

PS, nice Desert Pea.

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Crushed Ants ducks in to say...

Posted June 5, 2013

As Neil Gaiman says, "..the real problem with stories - if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death".

And wasn't there a book where some f*cker died holding a falafel? That story wouldn't be half as good if the damn hippy had thought, "f the falafel- I'm off to bed, lads"

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Gavin mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

Maybe JB will whack Prince Harry

Peter Bradley mutters...

Posted June 5, 2013

Really? I think not because we know that Prince Harry is JB!

Bunyip ducks in to say...

Posted June 5, 2013

Have we ever seen Prince Harry and JB in the same place together? NO we have not. I think you may be onto something there.

JG has opinions thus...

Posted June 5, 2013

Harry's a larrikin, like JB, but is John a redhead? I think not.

JG puts forth...

Posted June 5, 2013

Harry's a larrikin, like JB, but is John a redhead? I think not.

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Gavin asserts...

Posted June 5, 2013

If we have to have a monarchy in Australia, I want Harry to be our King. Sir Les Patterson can be GG.

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JG is gonna tell you...

Posted June 5, 2013

I was shocked when I thought you'd killed off Rhino in WW, John. I think my heart froze for a few moments. Glad you didn't 'splodey him. Sorry to see Fifi killed, loopy as she was. I liked her.

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she_jedi has opinions thus...

Posted June 5, 2013

Barbara Hambly did this to me in the Darwath trilogy; not only killed off one of my faves off page, but had him killed by the smarmy politician/ambassador he was escorting, who then faux sadly broke the news to all his waiting friends. The way the scene was set up the reader found out at the same time as the rest of the characters so it was like you there standing there with them hearing the news and feeling that punch to the gut. That was halfway through the second book. She didn't bring him back until halfway through the third, and then oh the rejoicing! Turns out barbarians are harder to kill than smarmy ambassadors think they are. The only thing better than not anticipating a character's death is totally not anticipating their entirely plausible resurrection a book later. Good times.

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Bangar asserts...

Posted June 5, 2013

Anyone else thinking that the bride wasn't a daughter (of grand or great grand variety), that she was there as another knife twist?

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 5, 2013

No, she was a daughter.

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bstar has opinions thus...

Posted June 5, 2013

The Richard Herman Jr USAF Series of books (at least 10) kill of a big charactor in every book...

And, although it was the last episode, I'm still stunned that, to this day, they killed off the heroes of Blake's 7 (Or most of them...)

I was ready for the Red Wedding episode, but it was still shocking!

Peter Bradley puts forth...

Posted June 5, 2013

So with you re Blake's 7. Avon taking them all on was kinda cool finish though.

Another death that caught me by complete surprise was Wash in Serenity. There he was floating like a leaf on the wind and then WHAM, big spike right through him!

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat would have you know...

Posted June 7, 2013

Yeah, Wash totally kills me. He is so like my better half I have to skip that part of the movie...too close to home.

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Glen puts forth...

Posted June 5, 2013

I gave up Game of Thrones half way through the second book. Just got tired of Martin building up hopes and then dashing them. I see he's still in good form then.

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Therbs asserts...

Posted June 5, 2013

Characters are always getting killed off in soap opera dramas. Why should GoT be any different?

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LenniMack puts forth...

Posted June 5, 2013
I got to Golding before Mailer. Piggy, Lord of the Flies, did it to me...

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w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted June 5, 2013

JB,
Seeing the world thru others eyes, walking in their footsteps, having empathy for someone different to yourself; isn't that what fiction is partly about.
As a reader, I get emotionally invested in some characters. I care about them. I want things to go well for them. So when things go badly, I can get upset.
If that makes me an uncool, unsophisticated, nuff nuff; politely I say, well go fk yourself.

I accept the right of authors to do what they like with their characters.
I also read 'Naked and the Dead' as a teenager. Great book.

Starsky and Hutch was quite an amazing show. Two brave, noble, but vulnerable action men. In times of the fallout of high drama, there would be scenes on one cuddling and caressing the other. Love and physically open tenderness between 2 very hetero males. I haven't seen scenes like it in popular entertainment before or since.

w from brisbane swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 5, 2013

OK, I have re-read your piece and don't necessrily think you were saying that you are superiorly amused when readers still get upset when favourite characters die. In my defence, I have spent the day house painting at a mate's place.

You have said before that killing favorite characters is a sign of storytelling chops. I guess.
Romeo and Juliet, Madam Bovary, most of the works of Tolstoy etc. etc.
I guess, genre fiction, to me, is where that stuff doesn't happen so much. Which is kind of its point.

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Vovchara ducks in to say...

Posted June 6, 2013

killing a main or popular character is always a bold move :). When you create a a narative, where the reader can see where it come from, even if it's only in retrospect. Killing a main character out of the blue, with nothing indicating what such thing may happen or nothing leading to it, well this is just lazy writing :p.

In case of Martin's work it was more then justified. Game of thrones, you win or you die. For me it does sound like an ultimative gambling. The only goal is an iron throne, there is no middle ground, no live and let live, so all beds and kids gloves are off, and you are either willing to play the game it supposed to be played, or you die.

Robb wasn't willing to do it, neither his mother. Nor Ned Stark for that matter. So they died. And only one of them died unexpectedly. Both others, well they both have had it coming.

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Jayanthi's Atomic Cat ducks in to say...

Posted June 7, 2013

Stephen King got me twice in The Stand, about ten years apart, when Nick is killed. Obviously I was so traumatized by it the first time I completely wiped it from my memory. Bam! Right between the eyes again, ten years later! Damn you, Stephen King!

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w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted June 7, 2013

Even on the remote atolls of Fiji, the professional surfer tour, currently lunatically riding overhead bucking barrels across live fire coral in one foot of water. Even there...

From www.coastalwatch.com

Dusty came in with a look of perplexed horror on his face. It’s a look we’ve seen frequently on both Namotu and Tavarua over the past week. A pirate copy of the latest Game of Thrones episode has been passed amongst the surfers, the one with the “red wedding” scene (skip to the next paragraph now if you don't want Mr. Doherty to ruin Game of Thrones for you like he did the poor Coastalwatch editor) . The scene where central characters, kings, queens, pets, pregnant women and unborn children – are all put to the knife in the middle of a wedding. Surfers have been emerging from the medieval dark of their burés into the touristy tropical light with looks of pure grey ashen horror on their faces.

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w from brisbane mumbles...

Posted June 8, 2013

And, being reminded by the rerun on TV, let's not forget the death of Dumbledore.
An absolute shock. People didn't believe it, he's magic, he's not really dead.
Actually, he was really dead. J.K.Rowling killed him.
I only read books 1 and 6. They were good. I saw all the movies with my daughter. She was the right age. I just wandered along with it as a dad. But, when you observe the coherence, invention and richness of the story arc over the whole Harry Potter sage, it is fairly awesome.
There is a bit of lazy, jealous, dismissal of Rowling. They are very wrong.

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted June 8, 2013

Ha. Just saw that on Nine too. And yeah, JKR is a bit of a genius.

Jayanthi's Atomic Cat reckons...

Posted June 8, 2013

Yep, just finished watching HP and The Half-Blood Prince a half hour ago, and our thoughts/words were just about verbatim re Dumbledore, w from brisbane!

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan reckons...

Posted June 11, 2013

Am I the only one here who is glad Rob and his abysmally stupid mother are finally dead? I haven't read any of the books, but I saw this coming and hoped it would be sooner rather than later. The Starks are an incredibly dumb bunch of people. Sansa is clearly retarded. Ned was so naive as to be effectively retarded. Robb violated a military and political alliance and then placed himself, his wife, his mother and the leaders of his army at the mercy of the person he betrayed, and Bran turned Winterfell over to a bunch of pirates because said pirates promised to be nice – sure signs that Robb and Bran, too, were/are retarded - especially in that awful, brutal realpolitik world they live in. The only intelligent one seems to be John Snow, and he is only half Stark, which may, genetically speaking, be his only saving grace.

Yep, glad they’re dead. And I hope they stay dead.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mutters...

Posted June 16, 2013

Damn it! I just found out they all don't stay dead.

Fuck.

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