Dear Iain M Banks, Please Copyleft “The Culture”
I’m not the first person to think “If only The Culture were actually real, maybe they could have prevented this with some nanites and such.” And then secondly to think “fuck you, cancer”.
I’m talking about your heartbreaking news regarding contracting terminal cancer. I, and many friends and fans around the world, am devastated by the news. Like many others, I find the universe of The Culture special. I had hoped to be reading new novels set in it until I grew old, and it breaks my heart that that’s no longer possible.
But your situation also gives me an idea.
One of the great things about HP Lovecraft is how his Cthulhu Mythos survived him. It did so largely by becoming an open mythos for which anyone could write, and many others did after he passed. In the modern media landscape created worlds tend to stay with their author and publisher in copyright, but that also mean those worlds die with their authors.
I’m no lawyer. I have no earthly idea what’s involved to make this kind of thing happen. Yet there must be some way to open-source or copyleft The Culture so that it can become a commons that anyone could use. It feels like it should become such.
The universe of The Culture is about a life beyond material constraints and copyrights and money, and so it occurs to me that the greatest way for that ideal to endure beyond any of us is for the intellectual property itself to move beyond such restraints. It would survive if others were able to write in it beyond the level of fan fiction. To publish within it. To be a part of it.
So I’m asking you (or your publishers, or whomever’s in charge) to grant a license that allows it. Let other writers to take up the mantle and write about vast gaseous life forms, Special Circumstances, GSVs with amusing names, civilisations living in impossible circumstances and all the rest of it. Let The Culture live on.
And fuck you, cancer.
pseudoLondon Strikes Back (Olympics Closing Ceremony Thoughts)
For a few people, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for London 2012 consisted of an uncomfortable attack of pinko leftism, but for the vast majority of us it was a revelation. Boyle managed to do something that few of us dared to dream: To create an opening ceremony which told the story of Britain that captured both head and heart, industry and artistry, Shakespeare, Brunel and Berners-Lee and literally forged all of it into five glittering rings which shone in the night.
Graceful, charming, well paced, extravagant and yet humble, it was the opening that we all needed to cast our hard heads aside and enter the weeks of the 30th Olympiad in the spirit in which they were intended. Even Twitter, bastion of wags and put-downs writ large, agreed that it had been a marvel.
Not so much for the closing ceremony though. Here we were, two weeks and 29 golds in and dreading what Stuart Heritage called “the Mondayest Monday in the history of fucking Mondays” that the end of the games would bring. We were fuzzy, warm, all joined together in a silly-free August of world records and beautiful stories, and really we just wanted to feel that Boyle-esque magic one last time. What we got instead was pure pseudoLondon.
It’s impossible to objectively reduce a city as complex as London into a two-sides argument, but I’m going to try anyway. In the ten-or-so years that I’ve lived in and around London and worked on the edges of its media industry, it has always had two characters.
There is honest London, which gripes more often than it needs to but has its feet firmly on the ground. This London can be found everywhere from taxicabs to Charlie Brooker, and its often dead on the money about what’s right or wrong. Honest London has little truck with the pompous or the flaky, for the mealy mouthed or the disingenuous, but it has a heart of gold nonetheless. It lives in writers, musicians, in the celebration of history and the appreciation of the real.
Then there is pseudoLondon, the London of advertising executives, celebrities, concocted meaning and ego. In pseudoLondon they join words together and capitalise the one in the middle as an ironic statement. In pseudoLondon everyone dresses in vintage and talks about their last or next trip to TED. In pseudoLondon nobody breathes normal oxygen any more, preferring nitrox. In pseudoLondon, Nathan Barley is not funny.
Most damningly, in pseudoLondon they don’t listen. pseudoLondon knows what meaning is, what you should find significant and then broadcasts it at you repeatedly until you submit. pseudoLondon thinks that if you see its work often enough then you will eventually be drubbed into submission, and in pseudoLondon, pseudo-attention and real attention are the same thing.
pseudoLondon was responsible for the London 2012 logo, the one that invited derision all around the world. And, when the online world advocated crowdsourcing the design instead, pseudoLondon told us that we just didn’t get it. But we would. (Yet we never did).
Highly self-regarding while at the same time unaware of self, the pseudoLondoner is like your friend who drags her kids out to play violin at a new years’ party and - when they screech out a bit of Elgar - claps effusively and loudly insists that they play more. Out of politeness, you applaud, yet you try not to be too encouraging or else this will happen at every other party until the end of your days.
Of course, there is also a pseudoNewYork, pseudoParis and pseudoBerlin. Wherever creative people gather to do their thing, the pseudos are in attendance, trying to be relevant and - when that doesn’t work out - getting involved in the power games. So the pseudos are often end up with creative control and produce works which are more about them and their supposed skills than the audience. From pretentious Oscar-fodder to dull action movies, artless albums and tiresome video games, the braying touch of the pseudo is unmistakeable.
And that’s what the Olympic closing ceremony seemed to be. For while the opening ceremony was constructed with a knowing artfulness that twinned Queen and Bond, put a bursting-with-pride Beckham on a speedboat and had Mr Bean take the sting out of Chariots of Fire, the closing ceremony was very flat. It was more like variety, with scene after scene of unconnected and haphazardly arranged “entertainment”.
First there was Timothy Spall trying his very best to recapture the gravitas of Kenneth Branagh while stuck atop Big Ben like Santa squeezing down a chimney after too many mince pies. Then there was miles of traffic covered in newspaper reflecting - so the BBC told us - the fact that London was a very busy place. There was Stomp doing what Stomp does, and doing it passably well, but then there was Madness on the back of a truck sounding every bit as tired as London is tired of them.
There was music by Blur and the Pet Shop Boys (the latter to a visual theme described alternately as “Pet Shop Boys appropriately closing Olympics XXX whilst dressed as sex toys.” by Brooke Magnati, or some crossover of the Olympics with Pyramid head from the Silent Hill video games), but the only theme that developed was one of frustration.
In one soulful moment of the night, Elbow played “One Day Like This” to a chanting crowd. However this was constantly and loudly interrupted by Hazel Irvine talking about anything and everything that came into her head. Fat Boy Slim turned up with the most excellent giant octopus, but only got to play half of one track and a bit of another. Meanwhile George Michael overstayed his welcome (as Grace Dent yelled to Twitter: “NO NEW SONGS GEORGE. Someone get the fucking cattle prod”) and then found himself silenced.
The other theme was one of notable absences. The Queen was not there, for example, and although the music of Kate Bush and David Bowie rang around the arena, it seems the budget didn’t stretch far enough to get them there in person. Admittedly it would have taken rather more effort to get John Lennon or Freddie Mercury, but couldn’t Blur have managed to put in an appearance? Seemingly not.
So dancers made do by building a pyramid instead of Kate Bush, which was then not used for the marathon medals. Teasing us with images of Bowie which seemed to suggest he was about to appear (and hopefully sing Heroes live) turned out to be nothing more than a series of lorries ferrying supermodels, presented as though the crowd were about to chant “Kong! Kong! Kong!” and have them carted off for sacrifice.
There was more: The opening bars of Bohemian Rhapsody with no follow-through. The Kaiser Chiefs singing “Pinball Wizard”. The creepy face of John Lennon built in a sort of reverse of the life-losing sequence from the children’s TV show Knightmare. It was all, at best, confused. According to some tweeters it was rubbish, longwinded, structureless and stilted. Worst of all, many people seemed to think the whole thing simply boring, and were inclined to turn over to watch Rory McIlroy destroy the world of golf.
Perhaps Naomi Alderman said it best when she tweeted “The trouble with this is that there’s no storytelling”.
However just as it seemed that pseudoLondon would be all we got, glimmers of hope appeared. There was Annie Lennox on a skeletal longboat. Ed Sheeran and friends gave a touching rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” (although it was undone slightly by the sight of some guy on a tightrope) and Russell Brand sang the best Beatles performance of the games. Then Jessie J, in a full-body vajazzle, sang both her own material, and then duetted with Tinie Tempah and Taio Cruz.
All three brought a much-needed infusion of energy to a show that had been too high concept for its own good. Sure, there was still Liam Gallagher and Beady Eye, whose expression said that he’s sick of the singing the same old dirges over and over. There were also the Spice Girls, who dropped by (and almost dropped off the cabs atop they were riding) to put in a few good mimes and look every inch the former band whose members no longer really know (and in some cases despise) each other.
Perhaps the sweetest shots of the show were the athletes themselves. Having been introduced into the arena and then kettled for safe keeping (perhaps in case Kong proved hungrier than usual), these titans of human achievement finally let their hair down. The Irish team lay on the ground, while many of the others waved and smiled and boogied at the biggest office party in the world. One even sweetly showed a scrolling message of thanks on her phone for all the world to see. And there was smiling Mo Farrah.
Yet it fell to Eric Idle to really save the day. The Monty Python alumnus performed the most heartwarming rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” that any of us have seen in some time. And, for bonus points, he had the stones to sing “Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it.” in the Olympics. Finally, a moment of honest-London reality, real humour and warmth. Arise, sir Eric.
Things continued to improve. Brian May, owning his grey hair at last, brought many memories of Freddie Mercury to the stadium. Jessie J came back for more and (with Queen) gave us the “We WIll Rock You” we all deserved. After that the tone went sober for the Greek and Olympic anthems, and then transitioned into a charming routine from Rio 2016, full of Latin style and Seu George. Then the speeches played out according to the same script that ends every Olympics and then the passing of the flags. Boris Johnson had closed his jacket and brushed his hair for once in his life.
For the final act there were still traces of pseudo to be found, but by then it didn’t matter. Darcey Bussell flew in on wings of fire and - with the rest of the Royal Ballet - showed the assembled crowd what dancing really was. Theme and the context matched up at last, as they were all dressed in fire, leading up to the extinguishing of the Olympic flame itself. It was, of course, beautiful.
And then The Who. Not the Kaiser Chiefs singing one of the Who’s songs, the actual Who. Though stiff with age, these creaky legends proved they could still bring what a hundred One Dimensions never will, that even with all the pseudoLondonism that had come before, truth will out. In the end, with fireworks and sounds and fury, the games closed as they should have, that first ignominious hour rightly forgotten.
Perhaps today is indeed the Mondayest Monday of all. It’s hard to go back to the regular world with its day to day of bills, jobs, traffic jams and sorry stories of murder, financial doom and football. It’s not a time when we need meaning made for us by the dull-eared who think they know what we want and push it down on us. In reality where most of us live, on Twitter, in the world, in the cubicle, the cab, the classroom and the shop counter, pseudo messages give way to a simpler story: The Games were great, but have departed. The golds were won, the records broken and now the flame has gone out.
And honestly, we’ll just miss them.