Sunday, 1 June 2014

Bulldog Returns

Thirty years ago, when I was a teenager, I created a comic character. I could tell even back then I was on to something. The strip first appeared in 'Amalgam' fanzine but eventually, after some changes and me handing the art duties over to the awesome James Croasdale, Captain Winston Bulldog debuted in his own comic. Self-published, photocopied, A4, it was typical of small press at the time, and actually, even if I do say so myself, a cut above the rest. Fast forward many years and printing is more accessible and higher quality, more brilliant creators are empowered to create their own comics and smaller niche publishers flourish. The notion of amateur small press is almost gone, colliding with print on demand, artisan publishers and mainstream publishers who operate on a relatively small scale but can penetrate the market successfully. There were some forays into attempting to land a publisher for Captain Winston Bulldog, but all unsuccessful apart from the epic 'Bulldog Empire' appearing in 'The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga' volume 1 with Winston's colleague Samurai Commander Keiko Panda on the cover. That was our zenith, and artist Neill Cameron went on to bigger and better things, most notably at The DFC and The Phoenix children's weeklies. Such an array of artists have illustrated my scripts over the years, from 2000AD stalwart PJ Holden to underappreciated geniuses such as Paul Harrison Davies, Mitzi and Kieran Macdonald.
Bulldog by PJ Holden - pinup from Paragon 16

After 'Bulldog: Empire', I wound up the main anthology BAM! (Bulldog Adventure Magazine) with artist Stephen Prestwood briefly taking over the magazine after drawing many of the latter stories. He's great. Where Neill was Bulldog's Alan Davis, he was Bulldog's Ian Gibson. Such a great talent. Apart from the Best Of collections and the one-off short strip collection 'Bulldog Clips' (which are all still available in print from Lulu and as free e-books from Lulu), the character has been in hiatus... until now. Stephen kindly agreed to illustrate a new series for Davey Candlish's 'Paragon', and anthology very much in the BAM! mould. Bulldog is only part of a line-up that includes time-travelling demon hunter Jikan and undead Mexican bandit El Bigote. It's eclectic, it's fun, it's what a British anthology comic should be.
art by Stephen Prestwood from Paragon 16
You can go to Lulu and download the free e-book version or get it in print with its beautiful glossy colour covers. Either way, do head on over to Davey's site to find out more! I was really pleased when he agreed to publish Bulldog. Winston could have been a contender at bigger publishers, but none of the attempts ever worked out. It's a pity - he's iconic and could hold his own beside Judge Dredd or Hellboy on the comic racks. I think the character will always be with me and crop up now and again though, standing as he does for fairness, an unashamedly socialist comic hero working for the military with all the moral conflicts that contains. But, above that, it's FUN. Join Bulldog in his ongoing war against dimension-hopping totalitarians, human-hating vegetable races and... oh, but that would be giving away the villains in 'Paragon'. Buy and find out where it's going.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Reading Role Models and the new English GCSEs

We'll leave talking about the way the new GCSE English Language looks for another day. The topic of the moment is GCSE English Literature, separate and distinct qualifications, lest we not forget. Any good school curriculum will have them being taught together - we learn language through literature. Being a good reader helps you be a good writer. It really is that simple. I don't know of a single writer who doesn't read extensively, and who isn't a fan of particular other writers. On the other hand, over the years I've known a fair few teachers of English who don't read. They are marked out by those who do. The latter are able to give a wider context and deeper experience to any study of literature with the pupils in their charge. If you're an English teacher, you need to have half an eye on the Whitbreads, the Bookers and so on each year, and always have a book on the go. If teachers don't model reading, how can any of them expect pupils to read beyond what we give them in the classroom?

 

It's what we give them in the classroom that's been the big issue of discussion on Twitter and the world of educational bloggers all week. Last time, I blogged about Gove 'banning' US books from the new GCSE specifications, which had the odd distinction of being both a storm in a teacup and a dark portent of stormy waters ahead. Nothing's been 'banned', but certain books - or types of books - are no longer specified. In such a high stakes system, schools are going to teach to the minimum that they are expected to do. This always happens. Why take risks when pupils' performance at GCSE affects the status of the school and individual career prospects? For example, in the current GCSE English Literature coursework unit, pupils have to study a Shakespeare play (of the teacher's choosing) and compare it to something from the 'English Literary Heritage', which could be another Shakespeare play (could even be Marlowe), a novel, or a selection of poems. What too many teachers have done is compare the play to one or two poems and make glancing references to some others. That means, for many schools, pupils get through GCSE and don't read any prose other than Of Mice and Men (the other prose that could be chosen is in a section where the play - as brilliant as it is - An Inspector Calls is a choice, so most go for that). Expediency aside, this has always bothered me. On the other hand, I've seen some brilliant teaching comparing Macbeth to Great Expectations, and myself I have compared Hamlet and Henry V, and Henry V and Jekyll & Hyde. I've even used Jane Eyre. It is possible but not every teacher has the confidence to put a good cultural education and exposure to literature above expediency.

I once introduced a wider reading list for pupils, which a colleague refused to give them, saying "It might work in a private school but not here". 'Here' was a middle class comprehensive in a semi-rural middle class area. I wonder how she responds now, knowing that, in order to teach the new GCSE English Literature course well, pupils are going to have to read more widely than ever before. The school at which I currently work is one where we are reinventing our English curriculum through from Year (age 11) up to and including GCSE. Experience has taught me that the key to improving pupils' facility with reading and writing is to: read whole texts with them; concentrate on developing as many opportunities as possible for extended writing; show them how enriching, exciting and excellent books can be. That's it. It's not rocket science. That's for the science department to deal with.

So, teachers need to be Reading Role Models. I don't hold myself up as a paragon, but at the moment I'm reading: 'Pigeon English' by Stephen Kelman (it was on the shelf - I hadn't gotten around to it yet but it's now on the new GCSE spec so I have to do my research); 'More Than This' by Patrick Ness (a present from my wife - she knows me well); 'The Sunset Limited' by Cormac McCarthy and 'Supergods' by Grant Morrison (both from the library). I dip in and out but will probably finish one before the end of the weekend. With my primary school age daughter, I'm reading 'To The River Sea' by Eva Ibbotson that we got from the library, and it's enthralling. I talk to kids about my favourite books; when we study 'Of Mice and Men' I talk to them about similar or contrasting scenes and characters in 'The Red Pony', 'Grapes of Wrath' and so on. Sometimes they stare at me wide-eyed as if the notion of reading a book voluntarily for enjoyment is something that no one has introduced them to before. Sometimes they nod sagely. Sometimes they bury their heads in 'The Hunger Games' and ignore me. Me being a published writer is of mild interest only, which is as it should be.



So that brings, then, to the new GCSE specifications. We're probably going to go with AQA for lots of reasons, not least being that it's the most logically laid out and I can see a clear route for choosing good set texts and for developing wider reading. GCSE is usually taught in Years 10 and 11, but along with many schools, we will be starting the new course for our pupils in Year 9. They still can't sit any exams until the end of Year 11 at age 16, but we will start them on developing the skills and studying in the right way to prepare for that as early as possible. We're starting again with Years 7 and 8 as well to make sure there's proper range and progression. Every incoming Year 6/7 gets a free book from us to kick off our wider reading plan, including a fairly diverse group of authors, taking in Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, Charlie Higson, Neil Gaiman, David Walliams and Dave Shelton, to name just a few. Each half term pupils will study a whole text. Year 9 will have 'Of Mice and Men' and a Shakespeare. We're about to look at whether we're starting the GCSE set texts in Year 9 so that pupils can read more than one from each section of the specification or whether we will use our imagination and bring in something of our own choice but of equal merit. One thing is for sure, as there is a requirement to compare texts and to respond to 'unseen' extracts, the most widely-read pupils will be the best prepared.

As for the set texts, across the three years we may well plump for Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet for our Shakespeares (they need to do one in Year 9 anyway). An Inspector Calls is a no-brainer, but it's in the same section as the aforesaid Pigeon English, Animal Farm, A Taste of Honey, Never Let Me Go and others - all great books. So the dilemma is whether to make a different choice or study more of these anyway. Most schools will take the view that there's no point as they'll only do an exam question on one of them. With three years to work with, I think we can do at least two and then narrow down closer to the exams. We no longer have course work to punctuate our time, so I think there is time. There's a lot of poetry too, as there currently is - and that's fine. It's impossible to judge the range of poems yet as we don't know what they are, but we will get there.

We also need to choose one from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, A Christmas Carol (nice but short and many schools do it lower down the school), Great Expectations, Jane Eyre (too long - great first ten or so chapters, boring middle, great ending), Pride and Prejudice, The Sign of Four (not quiiiiiiite enough to it although I love a bit of Holmes) - and Frankenstein (usually an 'A' level text - actually quite complicated but I know it inside out as I've - ahem - adapted it before). There's a big discussion to be had here. We need to cover male and female writers, male and female protagonists, whether it's any good or not. We'll get there.

We will get there. We just have to do some reading.




Monday, 26 May 2014

Calm Down. The Gove Bashing is Slightly Premature: Of Mice, Crucibles and Mockingbirds.

Before we get into this, let's establish some facts.
The Sunday Times have published this:

 

OCR have been slightly disingenuous here, as it's AQA, their competitor exam board, who have had Of Mice And Men, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Crucible as set texts at GCSE English Literature. I don't think OCR has them all as set texts currently. 90% of kids have studied Of Mice And Men maybe because the majority do AQA?

Before we get to my thoughts on this, below is the summary of the DFE (i.e. Gove) requirements that all exam boards are expected to follow in their new specifications (what we now call syllabuses):

GCSE English Language
  • The new English Language GCSE will encourage students to read a greater range of high quality, challenging literature and non-fiction text from a range of genres and types (from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries).
  • Reading and writing will be equally weighted in the new English Language GCSE.
  • The new English Language GCSE will have a greater focus on making sure that students are able to write clearly and accurately, in good Standard English. There will be an increased emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar including the use of vocabulary.
  • Tiers will be removed from GCSE English Language. This means that specifications and question papers will have to cover the full range of abilities.
  • Speaking and Listening will be assessed through endorsement (this change is being introduced to exams from summer 2014).  There will be a bigger emphasis on teaching students to become more confident in formal speaking.
GCSE English Literature
  • The new English Literature GCSE will encourage students to read a wide range of classic literature fluently with the assessment of:
    • A 19th century novel
    • A Shakespeare play
    • A selection of poetry since 1789 including representative Romantic poems
    • British fiction or drama from 1914 onwards.
  • Tiers will be removed from GCSE English Literature.  This means that specifications and question papers will have to cover the full range of abilities.
  • There will be increased assessment of unseen texts.
  • The quality of writing in the response to texts will be assessed.
Changes to both new English GCSEs
  • The study of literature will remain a compulsory part of the Key Stage 4 curriculum.
  • There will be new requirements to use more diverse and challenging writing skills, such as narrating and arguing.
  • All English GCSEs will have terminal assessment with no controlled assessment.    
  • a new grading system will be introduced. Students will be awarded a grade from 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest. Students will get a U where performance is below the minimum required to pass the GCSE
The above is all public and was published a few months ago. Teachers are currently waiting (and have been for over a year, after delays and delays and delays) for exam boards to publish their new specifications for GCSE, which will comply with the above rules.

Note that, yes, Gove has announced that he doesn't like 'Of Mice and Men' blah blah blah. I'm not going to bash Gove endlessly here. You can guess what my feelings are about what he does and how he says it. This post is Rumour Control. As ever, whenever any of the media report on education, they are spectacularly poorly informed (especially the BBC) and put the wrong twist on it.

The real 'scandal' is not that 'Of Mice and Men', 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and 'the Crucible' will no longer be set texts, but that Gove wants GCSE students to have a literary diet skewed far too much in the direction of the 18th and 19th century. We now live in the 21st. There's a 100 years of excellent literature that may be overlooked here, but the proof of the pudding will be when the specifications are actually published later this week.

Like a rock band's set list, sometimes you have to rest a classic. Two generations of people have studied and enjoyed 'Of Mice and Men' at school and they will continue to do so. But - and I say this from experience without judgement - a generation of English teachers have come up who have a fairly narrow experience of what has been and can be taught.

Romantic poetry? Great - bring it on. Blake is mental. Coleridge rocks. 19th century novels? Yes! There's a loophole in the current AQA English Literature spec where this can be avoided, so bring it on. Jane Eyre - gothic horror! Frankenstein, Dracula ditto! Dickens - a master of characterisation. Great Expectations - can't go wrong. I'll draw the line at Silas Marner or The Mill On The Floss but I'll give it a go. A good English teacher can make anything accessible and interesting. My Year 10 students loved comparing Hamlet and Henry V for their Eng Lit coursework. It's all in how you do it.

A completely unnecessary plug for mine and Staz Johnson's graphic novel adaptation of Dracula. You can get it from Amazon or direct from www.classicalcomics.com or, y'know, all good bookshops.


There's nothing yet that suggests there won't be non-British authors in the specifications, despite what the Sunday Times have scaremongered. What if we get Animal Farm? Great - as powerful an allegory for government suppression as any. Lord of the Flies? That's already there and may well stay, we don't know yet. What about more recent British classics? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time? Already on some syllabuses. All is not lost, folks.

What we've actually lost is that 'The Crucible' is great for engaging bright girls, and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' has one of the best realised female narrators in literature. I'm more worried that we're going to lose strong narratives for females (not that girls don't like Lord of the Flies but hopefully you see what I mean).

Atticus Finch (the great Gregory Peck) and Scout, the narrator of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' - not only a moving treatise on bigotry but a powerful portrait of parenting and growing up without a mother.

Besides, kids are at school a long time. GCSE courses start in Year 10. Why not teach 'Of Mice and Men' and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' in Year 9?

After all, they haven't been banned.

Thanks, Mike.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Sunday Short Story: Bits And Bobs

No Sunday Short Story this week but here are two I made earlier: 'Bits' and 'Money'...

Also: http://www.theproglog.blogspot.co.uk/


A Roman coin. Well, a 'Bit' of 'Money'... photo (c) J Cobley 2014

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Sunday Story: The Roar Of The Lights

Here's this week's 500-word Sunday story, inspired by seeing Magnum onstage on Friday night...

The Roar Of The Lights
by Jason Cobley

comp image from fotolia.com

The roar of the lights and the cascade of sound fill what’s left of my senses. I close my eyes briefly and remember being at Wembley or the NEC. I’m the sole focus of thousands of people, an arena crowd hanging on my voice, my gestures, my songs. They jump and leap, girls on boyfriends’ shoulders, banners proclaiming my name or that of the band.

I open my eyes, and there it is. I’m onstage, but not thirty years ago at a stadium in the breezy open air, but a club that holds five hundred at best, shoulder to shoulder, plastic pints in hand, nodding to our riffs rather than throwing full heads of hair and climbing speaker stacks.

It’s hot. I’m sweating. I do that much more these days. That’s why I have a fan and a bottle of water at my feet, front of stage. The lights, such as they are, are harsh and unforgiving. My hair, now white, is still long and bedraggled. The lines on my face trace every line I ever took, but also every line I ever sang, every compliment from a grateful fan.

My voice thins and disappears into the crowd when I strain for the high notes, but it doesn’t matter. The crowd carry it for me. They know the old numbers, our enduring classics, those old top forty singles that no radio station plays any more. They know them better than me by now.

Sometimes I think I could die here, right now, collapse on stage, exhausted and played out. We don’t fill stadiums anymore but we make our living trading on past glories and servicing our followers’ desperate nostalgia. Some might put it like that. Others would say we’re just playing what people still want to hear, even if the fairweather fans have moved on. The fans with thinning hair and thickening waists will always come to her us chug and riff, churning out our songs.

If I died here, right now, on a Friday night in  hot, stuffy venue an hour before it converts into a nightclub for a bass-heavy DJ, I reckon the fans would finish the last chorus for me before any of them think to call an ambulance. After all, the show must go on. They may well think it’s part of the act. Part of me wants to try it out, to see what would happen. The show would go on.

And what a show it’s been. We had a first decade of sleeping on floors, bundling into a rusty van, being bottled out of pubs. Then a second decade of hits, fame but finally bankruptcy as we ended up owing the record company more than we earned for all those promotion costs. Since then, we put albums out ourselves, all the money comes to us, and the fans keep coming. Each audience grows smaller by the year, but they’re with us on the journey.


I roar into the lights and the crowd carries me.


***


(c) Jason Cobley 2014

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Sunday Story: The Girl On The Train

So I've set myself a challenge: one 500 word short story posted by Sunday each week. Starting now, posted early. Like an artist posting sketches, this is to keep my hand in - in the most embarrassingly public way possible! Comments welcome.

The Girl On The Train
by Jason Cobley


The girl on the train is vaguely Arabic, the brim of a grey hat a shadow in her eyes. Her eyebrows are thick but plucked, shaped clean. Her eyes, heavy lidded, a line of blue underneath her lower lashes, seem open, dark and deep. Sitting comfortable and warm in her turtle neck shirt and denim jacket, she clutches her blue shiny faux leather bag across her lap. She steals glances at a girl sitting diagonally opposite.

The Arabic girl smiles to herself, as if they are sharing something, or she is reminded of something that amuses her. The other girl is Chinese, maybe half so, pink ear buds playing music from her pink iPod Nano that she holds in the opening of her canvas handbag. She clicks, her thumb moves in a circle, as she selects the next track to listen to. Her black hair falls about the shoulders of her jacket. Her knees, heels and ankles are together, prim and precise. The other girl is now texting on her iPhone, her fingers smearing the screen. She swipes her nose with her forefinger, taps away.

The old man next to the Chinese girl bows his head, eyes closed, looks up every now and again as if surprised by a noise. The gentle chug and soft chatter of the train track is all. He snores lightly, the girl smiles again. Her eyes smile strongest as her eyes catch the old man’s daughter in the seat opposite. Blonde, dark-rooted straw of hair, white canvas jacket, tan skirt flaying beneath the cheap brown leather bag she bought in a market in Tunisia, on holiday on her own. Her amusement is absent. She gazes out now at the darkness through the train window, seeing only her own reflection and that of the other passengers. She stares blankly at herself.

The couple on the other side of the carriage, newly retired, share space but not company. He dozes, his trousers riding up to show his six year old Christmas socks. His wife, all floral skirt and severe haircut, flicks briskly through a novel she bought at a church table-top sale. The white back cover, splashed with a photo of a rose above the blurb, speaks of something lost in the pages that she searches for vainly. Behind them, a middle-aged couple sit, arms folded, silent, sour. They have nothing left to say to each other anyway.

Further down the carriage, strangers sit alone but together, friends chat and the unimaginative sit. Just sit. Others ruminate. So many lives, alongside and parallel, they are travelling forward but in different directions. One man writes in a notebook.

The middle aged woman gets up abruptly, makes off down the carriage. Not to the toilet. That was in the opposite direction. Her husband lifts a Sainsbury’s bag off the floor, places it where she was sitting. Maybe they weren’t married after all.

The gentle chug and soft chatter of the train track, blank stares, familiar strangers, chug and chatter.
*** 
(c) Jason Cobley 2014

Of Letting Go and Moving On: The Venice Project and the DVD Dilemma

We recently moved house. After a few months of great uncertainty, we finally had something firm to which we could anchor our floating futures. Moving from the bleak beauty of flat Fenland to the middle of middle England had its ups and downs. Our estate agent was golden, the removal men patient and helpful, even if they did manage to break a couple of things but not a big deal considering how much stuff we had. Stuff turned out to be the only real problem. We were doing what is usually called ‘downsizing’.  In effect, that meant downsizing everything I had accumulated in over twenty years of reading, listening, watching and dreaming. Fifty per cent of our books had to go. You’re welcome, British Heart Foundation. Mrs Cobblers wanted the DVDs to go. This was never going to happen. A few went. I was never going to watch ‘Heroes’ season 1 again, and ‘American Beauty’ just irritates me now, so some were easy. Conversely, despite them actually being terrible pieces of cinema, I couldn’t bear to part with the Green Lantern movie or Stallone’s Judge Dredd. Comic book movies. Have to have. But what to do with the DVD collection? Two deep and two wide, stacked in the living room, they still approached five feet in height. The X Files and Doctor Who box sets had to stay as they were, but for the rest, space was at a premium. Enter a little company called Arrowfile: big, thick photo album type folders that each hold 160 DVDs. Two of them duly filled. Blu rays? Still in their cases, in the one cupboard that holds them. I ought to get my head round this Ultraviolet thing at some point. CDs I’ve managed to hold on to – they’re on a handsome wooden rack in the snug. That’s already been trimmed anyway – I only have about 700 now. Another thing that had to go was audio equipment. I used to have a separates system to be proud of, which, as formats waned, trimmed down nicely in recent years to a good CD player, amp and floorstanding speakers. My Rotel amp had been with me for nearly twenty years and did good service until one sad day when it died, not long after followed by the CD player. So, on moving, we invested in a Roberts CD player / ipod dock / DAB radio and now we have the ideal setup. It’s small but perfectly formed, with the ipad connecting by Bluetooth and the laptop streaming Spotify straight into it. We have officially joined the twenty-first century. Finally.

Psychologically, I anticipated it being very painful to get rid of so many books and setups that I’d found comfortable over the years, but not so. Many age-friendly comics and graphic novels went to my nephew, who’s a bit of a Marvel fan. Try as I might, I haven’t been able to interest my daughter in comics, but she’s a voracious reader of everything else she can lay her hands on, so who am I to complain? So, we’re down to two (admittedly quite big) bookcases jam-packed with the books that are left. Standing in front of the British Heart Foundation book chute at the tip, wondering whether to get rid of Howard Jackson’s ‘Analysing English Grammar’ from university was worth it. It went, as did so many other books we hadn’t looked at since university, or hadn’t read, or had read but would never read again. My unread Ernest Hemingway collection survived though. I will read them. Honest. Sorting through like this unearthed some gems that went straight to the top of the re-read pile, hence me revisiting Darryl Cunningham’s ‘Psychiatric Tales’ and ‘Science Tales’, and Tom Gauld’s ‘Goliath’ last week. Next up is reminding myself of the joys of Magnus Mills’ oeuvre.

Then there’s the Kindle. That’s where most new fiction and non-fiction is going, as much as I love the solidity of a real hardback (that said, yesterday I bought Sting’s ‘Broken Music’ at a second hand bookshop – once read, it either stays or something else goes: one in, one out), so it was that I came to download a book that came as a real surprise.

‘The Venice Project’ by Philip Gwynne Jones (available for Kindle and in paperback) is extraordinarily well written, Phil’s voice echoing through every line. I know this because (vested interest ahead) Phil’s a friend from many years back. I was in the sixth form; Phil was a couple of years older at university. We were both part of a group of friends that – ahem – played role playing games such as Call of Cthulhu and Runequest (not Dungeon and Dragons, we were above that – serious players, and damn, we wrote good stuff). It coincided with that time in life when drinking and girls become important as well so, living in a small Welsh seaside town, it all came together nicely. Our holidays driving around Scotland and Wales and sleeping in cars and tents are fond memories, bridging that gap into adulthood. Phil played guitar at my wedding as I attempted to sing ‘Sultans of Swing’ (long story), and the last time I saw him was at his wedding at a castle just outside Edinburgh. ‘The Venice Project’ picks up where looming redundancy sends Phil and his wife Caroline to Venice to live, having retrained as English teachers and taking a massive leap. We seem to have faced similar book dilemmas. I recommend this book not because Phil’s a friend but because it’s so well-written and so different from the other let’s-live-in-another-country-for-a-year-and-aren't foreigners-funny memoirs. It isn't like that at all. There are good reasons why Phil and Caroline chose Venice. Check out the sample on Amazon.

And so that brings us to writing. ‘Amnesia Agents’ crawls along. I’ll be posting up some other short fiction soon. In the meantime, forget you saw me.