I hear the sirens calling
As the rain is gently falling

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Twenty Thirteen style

georgeorwell2013

georgeorwell1949

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the Art Of Penguin Science Fiction website and posted some of my favourite Penguin sci-fi book covers, including the 1962 edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (see here). I’ve always been a fan of the traditional Penguin three-stripes design, so I love the look of the spanking new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, for which graphics guru David Pearson has taken the original 1949 cover of the book, embossed the title and Orwell’s name, and then censored them with black blocks of ink. It’s very, well, Orwellian. It’s very striking too.

This latest edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four is part of Penguin’s “Great Orwell” series. You can read more about David Pearson’s designs for this and the other books in the series – Animal Farm, Homage To Catalonia, Down And Out In Paris And London, and Politics And The English Language – at the Creative Review blog.

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The Victorian Gentlemen’s Guide To Group Sex

Pussy – For Cats That Should Know Better

Bitch – It's Bollocks And It's The Dog'sThe Victorian Gentleman's Guide To Group SexI’m working on a Special Secret Project with Mark Wernham. I’d love to tell you all about it, but I can’t. It’s a secret, innit. For the initial stages, we’ve been helped by Steve Appleton and Paul Thompson, for which we’re extremely grateful. Paul’s name isn’t a link because he doesn’t have a website because he thinks he lives in 1942 because he’s round the fucking twist.

I’ve worked with Mark, Steve and Paul many times in the past. Our first Special Secret Project was a book called Pussy – For Cats That Should Know Better, which was a spoof of lad’s magazines like Loaded and Nuts. It was published by Bantam Press in 2004 and it sold quite well, at one point managing to scrape into the Amazon Top 100. Our next Special Secret Project was Bitch – It’s Bollocks And It’s The Dog’s, a follow-up to Pussy, which sold pretty well too. Another of our Special Secret Projects was an utterly genius idea for a book called The Victorian Gentleman’s Guide To Group Sex. That was roundly rejected by every publisher in the known universe.

Our latest Special Secret Project is not a book, as it goes, but I’m obviously hoping it ends up doing a Pussy rather than a Victorian Gentleman’s Guide To Group Sex, if you get my driftI am also hoping that, having tagged this post with the words “Pussy” and “Group Sex”, I get a big uplift in the number of visitors to my blog.


Back to the future

Doomed World by RL FanthorpeA 1000 Years On by John E MullerThe Mind Makers by John E MullerThe Microscopic Ones by Leo BrettMarch Of The Robots by Leo Brett

I’m a big fan of retro-futurism – something I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about as we tumble further and further into the 21st century – and a big fan of Badger Books, a pulp fiction imprint set up in 1960 by the London-based pulp magazine publishers John Spencer & Co. Badger put out all different kinds of books, but they were best known for their science fiction and supernatural tales. Actually, when I say I’m a fan of Badger Books, I’m not talking about the stories. Like most pulp fiction, they were absolutely bloody dreadful. What I really mean is I’m a fan of their cover artwork, despite them being accused of pinching some of their ideas from the covers of previously published books.

A vast number of the Badger sci-fi books, including all five of the titles above, were written under a variety of pseudonyms by Lionel Fanthorpe, who some of you may remember as the host of the “Fortean TV” series during the late 1990s. Fanthorpe is also a fully ordained Anglican minister, the president of the British UFO Research Association, and a qualified weight-lifting instructor – not that I should imagine he goes in for much weight-lifting now he’s not far short of 80 years old. He wrote a staggering 180 books for Badger between 1960 and 1967, which is something like two new titles every month, an achievement all the more astonishing since he had a full-time job as a teacher throughout this period. However iffy Lionel Fanthorpe’s writing might have been, that’s got to be some sort of record.

Grail hunting at Christmas

Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail, Christmas 2001 (front)Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail, Christmas 2011 (inside)Did I mention I’d written a book called Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail? I believe I did. It’s very good, you know. It’s about what the title says it’s about – punk rock legend Rat Scabies and me on a mind-bending (and probably soul-bending) hunt to find ye olde mystic and elusive Holy Grail – and you can read a couple of extracts here. Go on. You know you want to.

Several of the episodes described in Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail have been turned into cartoons by our arty friend Stu Warwick, some of which Stu has published as limited edition prints and auctioned off for charity (lovely bloke that he is). Each year since the book came out, Stu has also produced a small run of Christmas cards for Rat and me – and his 2011 card is my favourite to date. The front shows Rat and me with photographer Richard Bellia, who occasionally joined us on our questing (that’s a technical term us grail hunters use), and the inside has a secret message hidden in Stu’s specially adapted version of one of the coded parchments from Rennes-le-Chateau in France, a place which features heavily in the book. Click the images to see them nice and big and readable.

On this seasonal note, that’s about it from me for a couple of weeks. Have a great Christmas. I’ll start posting again when I’m able to extricate myself from the armchair.


Witchy doings

I have read a lot about the history of witchcraft in Europe – a pet subject of mine since I saw Vincent Price in the lead role of the 1960s hammy horror movie “Witchfinder General” when I was a kid – and I’m excited to learn that Cornell University Library in New York has put part of its esteemed and extensive Witchcraft Collection online. The collection features more than 3,000 rare books and manuscripts documenting the cruel persecution of the unfortunate women (and some men) accused of being witches over the centuries, and around 100 of these can now be viewed, free of charge, on your very own computer screen. Among the digitised items is a book written in 1691 by Richard Baxter, which includes a mighty strange case from the village of Beckington in Somerset. That’s where I live, that is.

Richard Baxter’s book has the snappy title, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, Fully evinced by the unquestionable Histories of Apparitions and Witchcrafts, Operations, Voices, &c, Proving the Immortality of Souls, the Malice and Miseries of the Devils and the Damned, and the Blessedness of the Justified. Phew. Click on the image to view the front page in its full 17th century, slightly odd English, Bible-quoting glory. The Beckington case centred on an 18-year-old serving girl named Mary Hill who, “having lived very much in the Neglect of her Duty to God”, was “seized by violent Fits [and] began to Vomit up about two hundred crooked Pins”. During the course of the next few months, Mary also threw up “nails, pieces of nails, pieces of brass, handles of spoons [and] pieces of glass”. Richard Baxter describes the nails as being “three or four inches long” and the pieces of brass as “an inch broad and two or three inches long, with crooked edges”. On several occasions, Mary’s bizarre fits were witnessed by the church minister of Beckington, who told Baxter that “to prevent the supposition of a cheat, I caused her to be brought to a window, and having lookt in her mouth, I searched it with my finger”, but he found nothing to suggest this was a trick.

As word spread and more and more people came to Beckington to see the Amazing Metal Vomiting Serving Girl (they didn’t actually call her that, you understand, that’s just something I’ve made up), Mary Hill claimed that every time she had one of these episodes “she saw against the wall of the room wherein she lay, an old woman named Elizabeth Carrier”. Elizabeth was duly accused of witchcraft and dragged off to the county prison. When this didn’t stop her fits, Mary named two other women, Margery Coombs and Ann More, who were also arrested. Poor Margery died in prison soon after, but Elizabeth and Ann were sent for trial by jury at Taunton Assizes. Luckily for them, despite hearing sworn oaths from several witnesses and being shown many of the metal objects produced during Mary’s convulsions, the jury decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict Elizabeth and Ann of witchcraft, and they were acquitted.

Mary Hill’s vomiting fits continued after Elizabeth and Ann’s acquittal. But then one day, the village minister says “she swelled to an extraordinary bigness” and threw up “several pieces of bread and butter, besmeared with a poysonous matter”, which the minister judged to be “white mercury”, and her mysterious convulsions stopped a short time later. More than 300 years on, it’s difficult to know what on earth was going on with Mary Hill, the 17th century metal guru, but one thing is for sure. If she’d been around today, she’d have got herself on “Britain’s Got Talent” pretty damn sharpish. Piers Morgan would have loved her.

Waddling birds and little green men

I’ve been spending way too many hours at The Art of Penguin Science Fiction website, which charts the history and cover art of science fiction paperbacks published by Penguin Books from 1935 to the present day. All of the early Penguin covers featured three horizontal bands, with the book title and the author’s name in black type across the middle band, but the designs became more individual from the late 1950s onwards. I remember taking a battered, sellotaped-together copy of this 1962 edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four out of my school library. The other covers shown above are the 1974 edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Day It Rained Forever, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1985), John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids (1999) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (2007).


I’m a negative creep

It’s 20 years since the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind”. But you will probably know that already because there have been several “Nevermind at 20” commemorative articles in the press over the past few days. There’ll no doubt be more to come.

To coincide with the anniversary, Rock’s Back Pages have put out an E-book called The Nirvana Electric Omnibus, which is a compendium of Nirvana interviews, reviews and reports published between 1989 and 1994. So these are what-happened-at-the-time accounts from Nirvana’s active years, not looking-back-long-after-the-event overviews. I’ve got two pieces in there – a review of “Bleach” and an interview with the band from late 1990, both originally written for Melody Maker – and the other contributors include Everett True, Keith Cameron, John Robb, Simon Reynolds and David Stubbs. You can download the book by following these links to Amazon UK or Amazon US. That’s assuming you’ve some money left after ordering your 2011 Super Deluxe Edition of “Nevermind”, a five-disc box-set released next week and a snip at £75/$110 or thereabouts.

Yesterday, with the spirit of “Nevermind At 20” upon me, I felt the need to get fully Nirvana-ed up and played the band’s three studio albums in succession. First “Bleach”, then “Nevermind”, then “In Utero”. It took some doing – I had to have a daytime telly break between each one – but the exercise confirmed what I think I’ve always thought. For all the fuss about it, “Nevermind” ain’t that great. Apart from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” and a couple of others, it’s an over-burdened beast, lead-footed and sometimes desperate for breath, like an old packhorse struggling through mud. It lacks the raw exhileration of “Bleach” and the absorbing contortions of “In Utero”. It’s nowhere near as good as either of those albums and it’s also nowhere near as good as Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger”, which came out a week or two after “Nevermind”. I played “Badmotorfinger” yesterday too. That’s still a scorcher, a real high-noon-in-the-desert record.

Many of the “Nevermind” anniversary articles talk about how the album changed popular culture for a generation/the whole wide world and everything in it/the known and unknown universe. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Pffffft. Of course it’s true that Nirvana had a huge impact on the mainstream rock scene – which is actually only a small part of the cosmos – but this was first and foremost because of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its memorable video. The success of the parent album, a record not universally applauded by the critics at the time of its release, naturally followed on from there. But I guess it’s inevitable the focus falls on “Nevermind”. Rock music is traditionally about albums, not singles or videos. Singles are for pop kids, not serious rockers. Plus it suits the record industry. You can’t make much of a box-set out of a single.

Incidentally, if you are thinking of getting the Super Deluxe Edition of “Nevermind”, please do so via these links – Amazon UKAmazon USAmazon Canada – because then I’ll earn a few quid commission. You really would have to be round the fucking twist, though.