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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Copy That Quizmas #3: Jon

This Christmas, I am asking Santa for...

The Mysterious Cities of Gold Season 2. The second season of this animated blend of children's adventure, sci-fi and historical fiction has arrived 30 YEARS after the first finished airing. 30. Years. Beat that, David Lynch.

Breakfast LP by Teleman. I heard 'Cristina' while bouldering in Bermondsey, then found 'Skeleton Dance' on YouTube and that sealed it.

Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward for the 3DS. I'm less keen on Nintendo since discovering how little they've done to invest in conflict-free minerals (bottom of the list, in fact) but this two-year-old visual novel with locked-room puzzles has me intrigued.

A profound absence of books this year, but then I'm very behind on my reading, especially since I started buying texts in languages I don't understand.

My favourite new word this year was...

'Opuscule'. A minor work; a miniature opus.

My top three books of the year were...

The True Account of Captain Love and the Five Joaquins by John Clegg, a guilt-and-whiskey-soaked tale of comeuppance and pickled heads. This year, however, I've largely been catching up on unread books from times past, so for my other two I'm picking Omon Ra, a black comedy about the Soviet space programme by Victor Pelevin, and the sixth volume of Empowered, an erotically-charged, character-driven pastiche of the superhero genre, written and drawn by Adam Warren.

My tip for surviving Christmas is...

Don't. Perish, loiter in the netherspace between worlds, then be born anew.

If I were a Christmas animal, I would be...

A goat. The Yule goat is a symbol of Christmas in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, likely dating from Pagan times. In recent years, it's also become a sort of mascot for Oxfam Unwrapped - just look at how many goats there are on the main page of their website.

I'm also a Capricorn, and I've done a lot of clambering up rocks this year, so a goat I'll be.

If I could destroy any Christmas tradition, it would be...

The John Lewis ad, and every other overblown seasonal commercial that does its level best to make your telly or computer monitor bleed syrup.

I would like Krampus to carry off in his sack...

The various ringleaders and mountebank-preachers of Gamergate. The article I penned on this ridiculous and morally bankrupt cyber-crusade was probably read more widely than anything I've published this year, except, that is, for the follow-up piece the Guardian asked me to write, which has been shared over 1,800 times.

My proudest achievement this year was...

I hope this isn't a cop-out: it's reaching a point where I'm hugely optimistic about the year to come. My life throughout 2014 has been somewhat tumultuous. I've lived in, and operated out of, six different places - Whitechapel, East Dulwich, Wan Chi and Sheung Wan in Hong Kong, Blackheath and Walthamstow. There have been so many commitments and ambitions to balance that I could very easily have ended the year with my figurative china smithereened across the tiles. That hasn't happened, thankfully.

Other highlights included:

  • winning the Poetry London Competition;
  • exploring ghost towns, munitions tunnels and decaying military installations, and running a macaque gauntlet while working in Hong Kong;
  • reading poetry live at the Royal Festival Hall and on Radio 3;
  • winning the Saboteur Best Collaboration Award for Riotous, along with Kirsty and Cliff Hammett.

Next year, I am looking forward to stretching my vocabulary with...

A Hawthornden Fellowship (writing in a Scottish castle for a month), various exciting creative collaborations, and further development of Copy That and Sidekick Books.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Copy That Quizmas #2: Seb

This Christmas, I am asking Santa for...

Walerian Borowczyk Short Films and Animation, Arrow's recently released Blu-ray of shorts by the Polish master animator and art/erotic filmmaker. The only Borowczyk short film I've seen, Dom (not included in this collection), I watched at an animation festival in Norwich many years ago, and like most of Borowczyk's full-length films, it's a trip that's hard to forget. I'm told several of the other shorts are equally good; I'm looking forward to seeing Angel Games (below) in particular.

My favourite new word this year was...

Susurration (noun), meaning "whispering, murmuring or rustling"

(With thanks to Will Self, who wrote the foreword to a book I worked on earlier in the year, Subterranean London, compiled by Bradley L. Garrett.)

My top three books of the year were...

I'm very much enjoying William Rothman's Must We Kill the Thing We Love? Emersonian Perfectionism and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, possibly one of the great Hitchcock studies (I'll have to finish to know for sure), I got a lot from T. J. Clark's elegantly written and insightful Picasso and Truth, and I loved David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire by Martha P. Nochimson. As always, Nochimson's writing opens up so many new ways to think about and experience Lynch that it's hard to take everything in at once. I can't wait to read the book again.

My tip for surviving Christmas is...

Lean into it.

If I were a Christmas animal, I would be...

I might be a donkey. I don't know if donkeys ever get jealous of reindeer, the flashier Christmas herd animal, but I wouldn't, because donkeys are cool.

I would like Krampus to carry off in his sack...

Krampus is a figure of pure terror whose presence in this realm I don't much like to contemplate. But those auto-play promotion videos, maybe.

My proudest achievement this year was...

I'm proud of making this six-second conceptual remake of The Shining with Rebecca Wigmore, for a Vine competition. It was hard work, and we ran up against more fake-blood-related logistical problems than probably either of us was prepared for, but I think it came out pretty well.

Other highlights included:

  • Starting to plan and write a new film-studies-type book
  • Hearing the news about Twin Peaks, series 3 
  • Watching Transparent

Next year, I am looking forward to stretching my vocabulary with...

Sundry editors, artists, translators, academics, writers, artists, poets and general good types that I'm lucky to know and to work with. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Copy That Quizmas #1: Kirsten

In the run-up to the festive season, we're feeling somewhat self-reflexive. Over on Sidekick Books, the press run by myself and Jon Stone, this has taken the form of a daily advent calendar, jingling with poetic delights. 

Here on the Copy That blog, we're taking more of a quizzical approach, with each CT crow giving their tuppence on the year. I'll kick off, shall I?

This Christmas, I am asking Santa for...

The splendidly gloomy Perpetual Disappointments Diary from Asbury & Asbury.
The antidote to the inevitable motivational-poster-fest that New Year will bring. Share your champagne with Chamfort.

Samurai Ghost and Monster Wars by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
This one is research for a novel, but Utagawa's artwork is stunning full stop. Edo-era woodcuts and vibrant colours bring these diverse and bizarre Japanese monsters to life.

Transvestism and the Onnagata traditions by Minoru Fujita
More research but generally fascinating study of female impersonators in the theatre, from kabuki to Elizabethan England.

My favourite new word this year was...

Callypgian (adj), meaning "Having shapely buttocks" 

(Thanks to Free Word Centre for that gem.)

My top three books of the year were...

Things To Make and Break by May-Lan Tan (CB Editions)
Brutal, tender short stories that swoop from intense sexual exploration to family alienation. Touches of Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill, but distinct and different from both. Compelling.

Aquarium by Michael Conley (Flarestack)
Incredible poetry.  Dark, detailed, downright weird. Don't be fooled by the simple title. This book will take you inside the penguin enclosure, lose you in its machinations then throw you out without your coat.

Tree Language by Marion McCready (Eyewear)
Winner of the Melita Hume and Edwin Morgan prizes, Marion McCready paints in bold, dark red strokes. Motifs of blood, children and uncertainty run through Tree Language. It's often uncomfortable, but always gorgeously written and dizzyingly potent.

My tip for surviving Christmas is...

Cheap Irish cream. In hot chocolate, over ice, as a poultice for your aching head...

If I were a Christmas animal, I would be...

Zero, Jack Skellington's dog in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You get to hang out with the Pumpkin King and fly. Two dreams, one ghostly form.

If I could destroy any Christmas tradition, it would be...
Christmas music playing non-stop in shops. So suffocating it actually makes me turn on my heel and leave. As a teenage retail worker, I would dread this time of year, and nowadays, I seek out and embrace shops playing non-seasonal tunes between November and year's end. Ahhh...

I would like Krampus to carry off in his sack...
Self-proclaimed 'pick-up artist', and noted sex pest, Julien Blanc. Not least for the irony of him being picked up and carted away by a demon with an overlong tongue. 

You can see mine and Harry Man's poetic collaboration on the subject of Blanc here.

My proudest achievement this year was...
Becoming a guardian, along with fellow crows Rebecca and Seb, to Mitchell Wigmanirv, the resident Copy Cat. He's a Battersea boy and apparently part-meerkat.

Other highlights included:
  • beginning to write my first solo poetry show;
  • continuing to write my novel;
  • collaborating with the excellent Harry Man on several weird and wonderful poems;
  • winning (along with Jon Stone and illustrator Cliff Hammett) a Saboteur Best Collaboration Award for Riotous, a hand-sewn collection of tropical animal sonnets.

Next year, I am looking forward to stretching my vocabulary with...

26 (and their incredible annual bash Wordstock), all of our lovely clients and my fellow CT crows Jon, Seb and Rebecca, to whom I will now hand over!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

'Can love be transferred? YES' How to avoid sounding like an evil corporation from a sci-fi dystopia

For a short time, some friends and I bounced around the Twitter hashtag #endofcivilisation. The game was to find subtle indicators of mankind's imminent doom, the most visible of which was marketing copy hinting at the commodification of every facet of lived experience. 'Time Together' being sold in Boots for £99, National Rail offering '1/3 off hugs with Auntie', the title of this piece, discovered on a Western Union billboard, or this text message I received:

“Hi from Orange. We've updated our terms to reflect we're now part of Everything Everywhere.”

It's understandable that brands want to lay claim to invoking or enabling positive experiences, or to being an essential feature of daily life. Without such claims, they're just noise – or worse, annoyances. But Western civilisation has a long and healthy tradition of skepticism toward the corporate pipedream of selling happiness. This is manifested most clearly in the sci-fi dystopia genre, where greasy executives frequently preside over the enslavement of the populace through mass hallucination. Echoes of this genre chime whenever a slogan loudly announces its ownership of some intangible quality of life, and there's an art to avoiding such association.

Consider McDonald's decade-old slogan I'm lovin' it. It unambiguously evokes the idea of customers falling head over heels for the product, but does so without saying anything overt about the nature of that affection, who controls or dispenses it, and falls short of absolute conviction. Suppose that instead Heye & Partner, the agency in question, had opted for You will love it! or We all love McDonald's. Immediately, premonitions of men in logo-encrusted uniforms operating elaborate mind control devices suggest themselves.

Or take EA Sports' motto It's in the game. This alludes to both a mysterious essence and a secret ingredient. It's also understood to mean that each material element of the real life sport is replicated in the video game version. Suppose that the motto were instead We put everything in our games. Not only do the pleasing allusions disappear; it begins to conjure some Tron-like nightmare of insatiable digitisation.

The lesson is simple: confidence works best through evocation, with a measure of allusive subtlety. Blunt and straightforward assertions, mixed with an eagerness to impress, makes us think of Weyland-Yutani.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Man Words: Round 1

Editors and writers who have to make choices about the use of sexist or gender-biased language (and I'd guess that's pretty much all of us) might be interested to read the Twitter replies I got to a question about the acceptability of 'mankind' and 'man hours', collected below (via Storify). I predicted a landslide win for the 'Change both' contingent, and I was broadly right, although one editor did vote for leaving both in most cases, and another said she'd be happy to leave 'mankind'. 'Mankind', of course, can be replaced by 'humankind' and 'man hours' can become 'person hours'; both are straightforward changes, if you choose to make them. But not all 'man' words are so easily transformed, and I would expect more support for keeping terms such as 'craftsmanship' and 'workmanship' – the two words that I'll be looking at in my next post. Tune in to see what Twitter thinks, or, better yet, join the ranks of those kind enough to answer incredibly specific calls for opinions and tweet your own response.

Interested readers can find out more about 'masculine generics' such as 'mankind', and the main arguments for abolishing them, in an excellent paper by the psychology and philosophy researcher Brian D. Earp called "The Extinction of Masculine Generics", available here.

(If you can't see anything below, you can also find the Storify here.)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Madness in Copywriting, Part One: The Redundancy of Offence

Every so often, you'll see a story like this pop up in the paper: 

And reliably, as soon as the weary sub-editor hits Publish and the story goes live, the tired protests over oversensitivity, political correctness and freedom of speech are wheeled out for some air: We can't do anything in case it offends a minority, it's just a joke, there are bigger problems in the world than a card, don't you miss the good old days when we could say anything and we didn't have to say 'sanity-challenged', etc.

As someone who does live with mental health problems, I'm not offended by this card. I'm deeply saddened and I'm concerned that it's been so casually tossed out there to make money from laughing at people with bipolar. But I'm not offended. Why not?

1. Offence is a very insular concept. To say one is offended is to say "this insults my worldview". Removing the problem from a social context allows a company to reduce the complaint to a few isolated voices. It also attributes a personal stake for the complainant in the situation changing, and while this may be true, it's not a strong position to argue from. Better to frame the debate in terms of the real risk to a broader group.

2. What does 'offence' even mean? It conjures images of sour-faced individuals posing for the local newspaper with their arms folded, in front of a graffiti penis. Since most companies produce their content to emotionally appeal to consumers, is it not better to point out how hurtful and triggering the sight of such a card might be, and indeed how potentially damaging to an already vulnerable group of people?

3. To express that something causes you offence allows the offending entity to pigeonhole you, and reduce your complaint down to a symptom of an agenda. Mocking bipolar only hurts bipolar people, after all! In the car crash of Twitter replies that issued forth from the Joy account regarding the lithium cards, we encountered such gems as:

If thine right eye offend thee, and all that.

4. It is remarkably easy to ignore or write off 'offence' as a concept, and therefore ignore the very real misery brought about by a thoughtless or cruel action. Think of the passive-aggressive grievance buffer of "I'm sorry you feel that way." See this (presumably non-bipolar) tweeter's chipper defence of a vulnerable corporate entity against the tyranny of Twitter.

The Fry quote is interesting, if problematic (like the man himself), and I can't help feeling it's unfinished. To express being offended is not "a whine". It's simply an ineffective, official-sounding way of saying "That did not feel right to me, and I desperately want it to stop." We need to stop using "I am offended" as a way of avoiding pinpointing exactly what it is that is causing the pain. Once we have the root cause, shucked of its rhetorical casing, we can begin to reword in a more socially aware way.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Nietzsche's Metaphors

And so, apropos of almost nothing, here are my five favourite Friedrich Nietzsche metaphors:

1. When virtue has slept, she will get up more refreshed.
2. It is not when truth is dirty, but when it is shallow, that the lover of knowledge is reluctant to step into its waters.
3. One virtue is more of a virtue than two, because it is more of a knot for one’s destiny to cling to.
4. Does wisdom perhaps appear on the earth as a raven which is inspired by the smell of carrion?
5. Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, and simpler. [1]

Nietzsche is making some serious points here of course, but for Nietzsche – and this is why he remains relevant not just to philosophers but to all writers, including copywriters – the substantive content and claims of a piece of writing were only ever one part of the story. What drove him as a philosopher was the idea that philosophy can change people’s attitudes, and what gives philosophy this power, he thought, are all the stylistic devices philosophers have at their disposal when they sit down to write. So when we read Nietzsche we get passages full of aphorisms, jokes, personal reflections – and vivid, intelligible metaphors nevertheless marked by that sort-of lateral quality which lets us understand something in a more immediate way [2]. As a copy-editor and writer, I deal with metaphors probably on a daily basis, and I still look to Nietzsche’s for inspiration. To me, they’re one of philosophy’s minor marvels.

[1] 1. is from Human All Too Human (1878), 2. and 3. are from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885), 4. is from Twilight of the Idols (1888), and 5. is from The Gay Science (1882).
[2] A good overview of Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s style is Brian Leiter’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of German Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century (there is an “essentially final” version of the chapter available on Leiter’s Nietzsche blog); for some interesting reflections on metaphors (set to animation), see Jane Hirschfield’s talk ‘The Art of the Metaphor’.