Fen Drayton Lakes

At the weekend I was out in Fen Drayton in Cambridgeshire making use of some good weather to take some photos of the landscape and big skies. The area is easily reachable by taking the Guided Busway from Cambridge in the direction of St Ives. Only a handful of buses run along the route, but it also has a nice cycleway, used for commuting into Cambridge, taking social rides, and for general fitness (there are a lot of joggers on it too).

Looking North Along the Great River Ouse near Fen Drayton

Looking Over Fen Drayton Lakes

Before the Sun Sets

NB. I do consider issues surrounding flying a drone near a nature reserve – avoiding mating times, and for the most part staying very high to minimise my impact. (Indeed this site is close to an airfield that probably has considerably more impact on the wildlife). I also flew from public areas rather than the reserve itself. On the day I flew, I suspect that whoever was very nearby with their shotgun was the bigger issue.

Tube Strike Day

An all-out London tube strike seems to be quite a rare thing these days. While individual lines can be affected, or a percentage of services disrupted, the full network doesn’t go down all that often.

But today is one of those days when nearly the entire network has stopped working.

For many it’s a question of whether or not they actually need to be in the office. “WFH” or Working From Home is much more common these days, with many able to work one or more days away from their workplace on a regular basis. A laptop, mobile and internet connection, and you’re all set.

It certainly felt that many must be doing this when I started my commute on a Great Northern train. Aware that people who might otherwise use a tube may travel over to use the national rail service, I was prepared for crowds. But in fact the carriage felt slightly emptier than usual.

The train did fill up though, and by the time we reached Finsbury Park – where hundreds usually disembark – we were instead joined by locals who were looking for a train onwards to King’s Cross. Ordinarily my trains would head underground from here, by way of Drayton Park, and into Moorgate. But those are all shared Underground stations, and therefore they were shut. So trains were all redirected to King’s Cross.

This had the knock-on effect of our train becoming a bit like planes circling Heathrow in a landing pattern at a busy time, patiently awaiting a slot. There are 12 platforms at King’s Cross (Platforms 1-11 and, of course, Platform 0), and they’re ordinarily pretty full. Adding dozens of local commuter services into the mix isn’t easy to manage.

From King’s Cross it was more chaotic. I calmly unfolded my Brompton and then had to navigate hundreds of nomadic commuters, looking lost in an unfamiliar place, and with their noses buried into Google Maps on their smartphones as they worked out their onwards routes.

If you’re a black cab, mini-cab or Uber driver, you’re on duty today, and the roads outside King’s Cross were jammed up with cabs. A long queue of people snaked back at the taxi rank, but it was the weight of traffic rather than lack of cabs that kept the line stationary.

Crossing the Euston Road from King’s Cross without using the underpass is pretty fraught at the best of times. But with the tube station shut it appeared that the underpass was closed as well. Crossing the road means navigating as many as four sets of traffic lights – all separately. Cars have the priority here, not people. My fellow cyclists and I had to use the combined might of all our bells to stop people walking into the road when the lights turned red for pedestrians and ours green.

Many may have hoped to use hire bikes. TFL have upped the number of docks around King’s Cross of late, but they were all empty when I passed, all the spares kept in a nearby warehouse having been hired out. There were still a few bikes temptingly sat in their docks, but as you got nearer, a tell-tale red light showed that they were damaged in some way and not working.

The back streets of Bloomsbury are well suited to cycling, but wayward pedestrians meant there was a constant requirement to “keep your wits about you” as then Mayor Boris Johnson once said untruly of Elephant and Castle.

Walking whilst simultaneously reading your phone is a bad mix at the best of times.

Cars and other motor traffic were less of a problem, for the most part because they were all stationary. I would imagine that for the most part walking rather than taking a bus or car would have been the better bet today.

Some people still took a few too many risks – either because they didn’t usually cycle, or were impatient and late for work. That doesn’t really excuse playing chicken with a car when you’re on a bike. There’s only ever one winner in that game. And nipping behind a reversing lorry, as I saw several do, isn’t too smart either.

If you had managed to pick up a hire bike, you had one further issue – full docks in central London.

Broadly speaking, bike hire commuters come in from a ring around outer London, and dock their bikes near their workplaces in the middle of town. The reverse then happens in the evening. TFL try to manage this by shifting bikes around and freeing up spaces as necessary, but there’s a natural equilibrium usually reached – just enough central docks to manage the commuters. On a day like today, everything is disrupted. I was seeing people looking lost and confused at full docks, vainly attempting to find somewhere with space. A colleague had to travel to Regent’s Park, a good half an hour away, to find somewhere to dock his bike.

At work, talk was about how people “beat” the strike. Walking, for the most part. Someone mentioned their partner paying 4.8x “Surge pricing” on Uber. I bet most of that trip was spent stationary too.

BBC London posted a video that perhaps showed why driving around London doesn’t work:

The population of London increases by 10,000 every single month.

(It’s at 8.7m up 469,000 in four years.)

That explains why we need increased and greater diversity in our transport. Roads get clogged instantly with motor traffic, so that doesn’t work. Cycle lanes do work, and there’s scope for a massive increase in the number of cyclists on the roads. But we could also do with more secure parking facilities.

That’s also why Crossrail is essential, and we need to get a move on with Crossrail 2.

It also means that petty squabbles over who runs London’s transport are ridiculous. One organisation – TFL – needs to be in charge of as much of it as possible, whatever our cyclist-hitting Transport Secretary thinks.

Days like today remind Londoners how much transport is on something of a knife edge in keeping the city working.

Instax Share SP-1

In the back of my fridge is a packet of Polaroid 600 film. Polaroid stopped making it back in 2009 and it’s well past its sell-by date. At some point I’ll find a good reason to shoot this last packet. At the point that Polaroid fell by the wayside, it felt as though that was an end to instant film. Certainly there was the Impossible Project, a group who tried to remake Polaroid films, and have indeed managed and continue to sell it. But it’s very expensive, and seemingly a bit more temperamental than the tried and tested original.

But in fact, Fujifilm has been making their own Instax cameras and accompanying film for quite some time now. There are two formats the Wide and the much more common Mini. And they continue to make cameras that can shoot these formats. Despite the growth of digital, and the reduction in the overall range of film that Fujifilm continues to sell, the instant range seems to remain quite vibrant in the market, with regular new camera releases.

For a while now, I’ve been tempted into buying one of these cameras. But do I really need another camera?

I’ll get to the answer of that shortly.

Earlier last year, Lomography ran their latest Kickstarter for the Lomo’Instant Automat. I’m never quite clear why a company the size of Lomography needs to use Kickstarter to get what to me look like “sure things” off the ground – but that’s their regular business model, so I’ll leave them to it.

I didn’t put up any money because for a while I’ve owned an Instax Share SP-1. It’s simply a printer for your phone rather than a camera itself. So instead of going out and buy a new social camera (because let’s face it, these Instax cameras are aimed at social occasions rather than, say, landscape photography), why not employ your current camera and utilise that? More than likely, that’s the camera in your phone.

Furthermore, because you’ve already taken the photo and decided that it’s fit for printing, you don’t have the wastage that you might normally get. It’s true that part of the fun of instant photography was never knowing what you’d get exactly. But with the SP-1, you’re getting something new and different.

There are other advantages too. You can use the full range of image editing software that your phone has at its disposal. So if you like to you use Snapseed, Flickr, Photoshop, VSCO, Pixlr or whatever, you can make the amends before committing your picture to print. And you can make copies! Gone are the days when only one person got a copy of a Polaroid. You can either print multiple copies of a picture, or the device actually has a button on it that will print a duplicate of whatever it last printed.

Instax Mini paper is fairly widely available, at around £15 or so for two packs of ten pictures online. That means about 75p a picture. Certainly not cheap, but not beyond the realms of what’s reasonable.

You use the instax SHARE app on your phone to do the printing – Android and iOS versions are available. The app has various editing functionality itself, as well as the ability to overprint other information and use various templates. I didn’t bother with either, just using the app to print. It actually connects with the printer via WiFi rather than Bluetooth, and in my experience it connected flawlessly, with my phone happily switching between my home network and the printer as required.

The photos get sent through pretty fast, and the printer takes just a handful of seconds to spit out a print. A set of lights on the top of the printer shows how many images are left inside.

The pictures themselves take a Polaroid-like few minutes to properly develop. Indeed, the full richness of the photos doesn’t come through for quite a few minutes after printing. My suggestion is to put your pictures aside and return to them a bit later.

And whatever you do, don’t “shake it like a Polaroid picture,” as Outkast famously sang. When someone did that with one of these pictures with me, I found that the colours were a lot more faded than they should have been, and because of the nature of the photos, the “enclosure” slipped a little meaning there was a black bar down one side of the resulting picture.

Be patient and put them down somewhere.

The printer runs on a couple of CR2 lithium batteries which are rated for about 100 prints. I’m in two minds over this, since on the one hand it means that when you pick up the printer after a while it will probably be charged, on the other hand, disposable batteries wouldn’t appear to be the way forward. Overall, I’ll take the convenience of knowing that the printer is charged over the need to charge it in advance.

(Incidentally, I have previously used the Polaroid Pogo printer, which used Zink technology. I bought mine very cheaply when Polaroid discontinued them, although the principle of that printer is very similar, and the prints became very cheap with online suppliers practically giving them away. However holding a charge from repeated Bluetooth connectivity became a real issue, and the need to charge the printer before use on any occasion removed a lot of the spontaneity of using a device like this. So maybe the certainty that the printer holds charge whenever you decide to grab it is a big plus.)

So is it worth getting? Well, I think it’s your best bet for an instant camera right now, with all the benefits of your phone’s camera (assuming that’s any good) with the fun of instant photography. And let’s face it, far too few of your digital photos ever get printed.

A purist may complain that it’s not really proper analogue photography the same way it would be if it was a proper camera. But I was more than happy with it.

Whether all of that is worth £140 to you is a question that only you can answer, but I really like mine!

[Note: I originally wrote this review some time ago. I’ve revised it a little, but the SP-1 has now been superseded by the SP-2. The key differences seem to be a lack of direct WiFi camera to printer connection (I never used this, always going via my phone), and the inclusion of a rechargeable battery which is a good thing.]

GIFs

I really don’t like GIFs.

Nobody even seems to know how to pronounce the word.

Or rather, I don’t like the way they’re used most of the time. They’re incredibly lazy, and just seem to take out of context “hilarious” emotions or actions.

I think my real problem is they scream “look at me!” When I read an email that has a GIF in it (and Gmail will play GIFs), then the gurning face in the GIF detracts from the words around it. I find myself scrolling to get rid of the animations.

In that regard, they’re like auto-playing videos. And nobody likes them apart from advertisers – even though everyone who sees an auto-playing advert instantly curses it.

I realise that I’m probably on my own a bit with this. But I’d just ask that the makers of Gmail, Tweetdeck and so-on include switches to turn the animations off.

A Tale of Two Ferries

I thought I’d document a few of my more interesting rides from last year. So here’s one I made over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

The ride is a circular route starting and finishing at Colchester railway station. You quickly leave Colchester and head north into Dedham Vale where there are both a few hills and some stunning scenery. Climbing out of Higham, and leaving Thoringdon Street and Raydon behind, you then head towards Ipswich.

The route through Ipswich is fine, and there are the usual city-centre cycle routes to follow which aren’t terrible, but aren’t too great either. On balance the signposting is slightly better than normal. There is a section of busy road leaving Ipswich that isn’t easily avoidable, and then you cross over the A12 (never a fun road), to head towards Woodbridge.

You’re not far here from Sutton Hoo, which is well worth a visit. But this time around, I cycled on along a fairly flat road in the direction of Butley. Here I encountered plenty of other cyclists, and this part of the Suffolk coastline is well catered for cyclists. I also really began to feel a headwind, which had become a bit of a nemesis since I’d turned east in Dedham Vale.

Eventually the road drops down to Orford itself, a small village nestling above a key. I’ve visited Orford a few times before, and if you’ve never been, a trip across the water to Orford Ness is a must. As well as being a nature reserve, there’s also all the remains of the military presence, especially from WWII, when lots of monitoring took place here. A fantastic and unique place.

I stopped for some food in the village, buying snacks from the busy village store. Then I retraced my route a few miles before heading south towards Butley and Felixstowe Ferry. This was the first of my ferry crossings, where a small ferry runs across the estuary of the River Deben. They happily take bikes and there were small queues on both sides of the river to make the three minute crossing.

The area is full of yachts, and there are plenty of places to stop for a bite to eat, but I back on land, I was heading a few miles south and into Felixstowe.

I’d never visited Felixstowe before, and that was largely because I thought of the place as a major port and not as a tourist destination. Yet clearly that’s not the case. The coast here is geared up entirely to holidaymakers and daytrippers with all the amenities and attractions that you’d expect in any seaside town.

It’s true that at one end, tall cranes tower over the town, but even the sight of a container ship heading into the North Sea doesn’t dampen the place’s spirit.

I was heading to the southern end of the thin peninsula, with tourist attractions eventually giving way to industrial units and security fences. Even though I’d checked in advance, there were no signs advertising a ferry service, and the best I could see were signs for Landguard Point and Customs House. The road ended with a car-park, and a fort which housed a museum. There’s also a very smart café with views across the estuary. Discovering that I had just missed the hourly ferry, I settled into the café for some very reasonably priced drinks.

The Harwich Harbour Ferry runs between Harwich, Felixstowe and Shotley, crisscrossing the area around the docks where the Stour and the Orwell meet. This is where the container ships come ashore, with the vast cranes to unload them. The small ferry easily accommodated my bike and those of two other cyclists who were returning to Harwich having spent a few hours in Felixstowe. The landing in Felixstowe is a little more precarious than at either of the other two stops, with the need to board direct from the stoney beach rather than pull alongside a harbour. Nonetheless it was handled easily and we were soon crossing the harbour, passing yachts and heading towards Harwich where my I got off.

I was now in the home stretch. And the headwind I’d suffered earlier was now magically a tailwind. The A120 is the direct route from Harwich to Colchester, but that was a major road, with I suspect, a lot of heavy goods vehicles running along it. Fortunately National Cycle Route 51 runs a little south of the A120 and takes you through pleasant Essex villages on a parallel but much quieter track.

Only right at the end did I depart the cycle route, and wended my way through Colchester in search of the train station.

This is a nice solid day ride, with lots of opportunities to stop and do interesting things, for the most part on pretty quiet roads.

My Strava measurement below, unfortunately shows a straight line along the coast where I must have accidentally turned off my Garmin. But the route above shows the way I went.

The trip could be made a little shorter by starting and finishing at Manningtree, but you wouldn’t then head through Dedham Vale which would be a shame.

Finally a word on taking your bike on the train on Abellio Greater Anglia. While the operator (owned by Dutch railways) is said to be a good citizen in supporting bikes on trains, I found the information online to be somewhat obtuse.

At time of writing, there’s a page on taking your bikes on trains on their network. It details two types of trains:

– Intercity London to Ipswich and Norwich services
– Local services in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire

Colchester is served by both local services from London and intercity services. Reserving tickets isn’t possible less than 24 hours in advance seemingly, and since I delayed settling on my route until the weather was a bit clearer, I’d seemingly missed the chance to book a bike on a service. In any case, the return time would be uncertain because I wasn’t sure how fast I’d complete the ride.

Not that it’s clear from Abellio’s page, but there are also “local” services from London. These don’t require booking on the basis that there’s not really a specific place for cycles on these trains. I used a disabled area on the train out. But this was at 7:02 on a Saturday morning so the train was basically empty.

But if you read their page, it wouldn’t make any of this clear.

On the return, I was planning to get another “local” train back, but the first train to arrive was an intercity. I didn’t have a reservation, but I stood in the right place (at the back of the train), and the guard let me put my bike on anyway. I saved the better part of an hour getting back since this train was non-stop to London.

Whether other guards would want to check, I’m not sure, but the guard’s van on these trains is still sizeable, and there was only one other bike on the train. (Curiously, nobody collected the bike at Liverpool St, until just as I reached the ticket barriers, another passenger heard my wheels, looked around, said “Oh sh…” and ran off down the platform to collect the bike he’d completely forgotten he’d brought!)

Farewell to the Arqiva Awards; the Continued Fragmentation of the UK Radio Industry

Towards the end of last year we learned that after 21 years, the Arqiva Radio Awards (previously the CRCA Awards) have now come to an end. The awards, which were contested by commercial radio alone, have been a mainstay of the calendar for many years now. Many might recall that in years gone by when the awards were held during the late afternoon and early evening, following a members’ conference, and they’d often then be followed by the notorious Xtracts party – a bus being laid on to transport party goers from one event to the next.

But this isn’t just sadness for bygone years of drunken revelry amongst industry peers; it’s one fewer opportunity for staff at commercial radio stations to receive plaudits from their colleagues. Awards aren’t just there to proudly display in receptions and boardrooms; they’re there to make staff at stations feel special – important in an industry that nobody really enters to get rich.

RadioCentre will continue to support the newly launched Arias, and it looks like the Radio Academy will be consulting to make changes next year, so that the BBC won’t necessarily be quite as dominant. I wish these new awards well.

However it’s curious to read from James Cridland that Arqiva itself was happy to carry on sponsoring the awards. Sadly, that suggests that there continue to be significant differences of opinion in how these awards should be run within the radio industry itself. Recall that Wireless Group and UKRD already declined to enter the awards.

Earlier last year, I noted – only slightly facetiously – that Sound Women appeared to be the only UK radio organisation supported by the wider UK radio industry.

With Sound Women winding down operations, I’m not sure that there’s a single organisation or body that covers the entire UK radio spectrum. RAJAR is perhaps the closest, although many smaller stations either can’t afford RAJAR, or don’t find that it offers them value for money.

And it’s not as though usurpers to radio’s crown are going anywhere: Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Google are all continuing to invest millions into audio, and we are unquestionably seeing behavioural changes at the younger end of the market.

I’m not suggesting that the presence or absence of an awards ceremony will make much difference in stopping that growth. But it’s indicative of an industry that’s not prepared to unite when it’s useful. Awards do reward excellence in radio and audio; and excellent audio is surely critical to the future of the medium.

Grand Tour

We’re several weeks into Amazon’s megabudget Top Gear remake, “Grand Tour,” and you can’t fail to have noticed it has arrived. There have been ads everywhere from the sides of buses to TV, and of course, all over the front page of the Amazon website. Even Amazon’s packaging covers their grinning faces right now.

We’ve even managed to have a “presenter says something stupid” story, with mild-mannered Richard Hammond somehow implying that eating ice cream as an adult is “gay.”

Cost estimates for the new series vary wildly, but what’s clear is that a lot of money has been spent on this series.

And yet, I confess I’ve been utterly underwhelmed by Grand Tour so far.

They’ve got a lot more money, but I’m not sure they’re spending it wisely.

They’ve been hopping around the world for, well, basically no reason at all. After a few long-haul outings in the US and South Africa, they’ve stayed in Europe. But apart from a seeming product placement deal with DHL (does that PP logo need to appear in the UK streaming world?), there seems little to no point. In South Africa they managed a single short feature in which James May watched a bunch of locals do donuts, while he didn’t do any himself.

And, er, that’s about the extent of it.

Look, I realise that the bulk of the show is made months in advance, and these are just the last bits, providing an over-arching narrative to otherwise unrelated features. But really, what’s the point?

Is it really only that they have to use a tent, and can’t broadcast from a single location because that infringes the BBC’s intellectual property?

The car features are basically the same as Top Gear’s.

They’ve got a UK track to test cars and time them – the same as Top Gear.

There’s a new racing driving who does now speak but is basically a new Stig – the same as Top Gear.

We don’t have “The Producers,” instead “Mr Wilman” sends texts. That’d be Andy Wilman, the show’s producer, reinventor of Top Gear with Clarkson, with whom he went to school.

The only thing they don’t seem to have is the star interview. Instead they have a “joke” sequence that has already got very boring very quickly (along with a “drone crash” at the start of each episode).

Then there are the awful attempts at comedy. The worst of these must have been a singularly unfunny section segment the RAF with the USAF.

There are other gags, and they’re totally laboured. It feels like nobody has the ability to reign in the stars and say, “Look, this isn’t funny. We’re dropping it or editing it out.”

And I’m really disappointed that they’ve not tried to do a few more different things. If you’re going to dart around the world, do it for a reason. Do some new features that make use of your locales.

Yes, we want the presenters’ chemistry, but what we’ve got is a version Top Gear that’s as close as possible to the original without infringing the aforementioned IP, but with much more money thrown at it. And not for the better.

I’ll be honest and say that I never watched Top Gear for reviews of supercars. They were easily the dullest.

I wanted silly challenges, races, and journeys. The presenters were never that funny, but I kind of thought they knew that. Yet now we seem to be getting more of their “comic” turns.

It feels as though they’ve been given a massive amount of cash and allowed to do what they like with no Amazon interference. Indeed I suspect that’s exactly what has happened.

Sometimes a network keeping you on track is actually useful.

Their two-parter in the Namib desert was better, although a seasoned watched understands that they’re never in the peril they claim to be.

But overall I don’t think they’ve stretched themselves creatively, and indeed I think they’re just coasting doing more of their usual act. It’s not that this is a terrible series – it’s still well made and looks great.

But given the freedom and budget they have, I expected better.

In the meantime, James May’s The Reassembler on BBC Four is probably a better watch.

Editorial Note

Looking at my WordPress dashboard, I see that I have over 100 posts in draft form – saved, but unpublished.

This is clearly ridiculous.

Now it’s true that many of them are only very slightly sketched out, but others are full pieces that I, for whatever reason, never quite got around to publishing. So I’m going to have a bit of a clear out. That may well mean that I higher than usual volume of stuff is going to appear here over the coming days and weeks.

Either that, or I will lose interest in the task at hand altogether…

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD

The comic, 2000AD, was launched in 1977 when I was 7 years old. While I read a fair few comics when I was young, I can’t say that I was reading 2000AD from the very start. It was more about The Beano at that time, which I’d begin to buy with my pocket money on a semi-regular basis. I remember that the 1978 Beano Book was the first of their annuals that I owned. It would become very well thumbed, as would be the Summer Specials. Otherwise it might occasionally be the Dandy, or perhaps Whizzer & Chips.

As I got a little older, I progressed to Warlord. Quite why a comic full of Second World War stories was relatively popular in the late seventies isn’t entirely obvious to me now. But as kids we’d eat up Bank Holiday screenings of films like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape. At primary school we’d re-enact scenes from these films, throwing dirt around to create dust cloud “explosions.”

(Warlord, Wikipedia tells me, lasted all the way through until 1986. But perhaps more staggering is the ongoing publication of its DC Thomson stablemate Commando. These comics, in compact form, continue tell tales of derring-do from the second war, each book having a self-contained story.

While I understand that there’s a certain kitsch appeal, which was probably why some compilation books were published a few years ago, and could be seen in Waterstones up and down the country, I can only think that it’s readership now is fairly elderly. It reminds me that Bauer Media had to close down a magazine called Der Landser while it was completing the purchase of Absolute Radio in 2013. That magazine seemed to be aimed at an elderly audience who were proud of their military heritage, but were not – the publisher argued – Nazi sympathisers.

As of 2013, Commando was still selling nearly 10,000 copies a month.

And today DC Thomson is still publishing 4 issues a fortnight, and you can get digital downloads too!)

But back to 2000AD. I’d probably read a few copies of it here and there. My brother had started reading the relaunched Eagle. But sometime around 1984 I started to get into a bit more purposefully. I know it was around this time because the second part of a fantastic story – The Ballad of Halo Jones – was just starting to be published.

I’d missed part one, so I started to hunt it out. I made my first visits to Forbidden Planet, which was then hidden away off Denmark Street.

I started to catch up on Judge Dredd too. Because some of the older Dredd stories were being republished in US editions, I was picking up some of those and reading up on key stories like The Cursed Earth, the Judge Child, and The Apocalypse War. I queued to get a copy of the first compilation of Halo Jones stories signed by writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson, and I had a Halo Jones T-shirt.

By now I was buying plastic bags to put my comics in, because I knew that was the way that you needed to keep your comics pristine.

In the wider realm, I was playing role playing games with my friends, and I bought a copy of the Judge Dredd roleplaying game. You could buy metal figures (I note from my nephew’s models, that today it’s more likely that you’ll be painting plastic). I fashioned polystyrene boxes, found around the back of the local Currys and Laskys, into a section of Mega-City One. I bought the ZX Spectrum Judge Dredd game – although I don’t remember it as being any good.

2000AD got me into comics.

I was more of a British comic reader than anything. But I was aware that changes were afoot. I started to pick up copies of Swamp Thing because I knew Alan Moore was writing it. Then came things like The Dark Knight Returns, Hellblazer and Watchmen. I started to learn who Neil Gaiman was, and would look for Vertigo titles. It was a good time for comics. Forbidden Planet had moved to larger premises and I was visiting it and other comic shops in London more frequently.

My comic habit only really slowed down when I reached university. With less access to comics, and plenty of other things to do, it took a back seat. From then on I became an occasional comic reader – always wanting to know what was happening and who were the big names. But the choice was vast.

And that about sums up my comic reading today. I’ll pick up a graphic novel now and again, or a short run series. I still enjoy a wander around Forbidden Planet (still in roughly the same part of London, but in much bigger premises at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue). And I’m pleased to see that 2000AD still survives even though I’ve not read a copy for quite a while.

This is all a very long introduction to the fact that I’ve recently watched Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD. I’d known that this was coming since over the past 18 months or more, I’ve had a steady stream of emails alerting me to the various interviews that the producers had been carrying out. They really had trawled wide and deep for this definitive history of the comic.

I knew a little of the fact that Action comic had preceded it, and had ended up being shut down after it had created a scandal, but beyond that my knowledge came from years of reading the comic on and off. The documentary details how the comic was created and the lack of support they had from the publishers almost from the start, since this was doing things that other comics weren’t.

In many respects it changed the mold of British comics. Aside from the smart way it could talk to both a younger audience by giving them action and explosions, it also held an older audience with wry takes on the politics of the day. The documentary pretty accurately reflects that.

Some of the stories in the documentary, I vaguely knew. It was certainly unusual that 2000AD credited its writers and artists. But as the film shows, this did mean that the top talent could be poached relatively easily – especially when DC Comics came calling, literally setting up shop in a hotel suite and inviting everyone to come along to them. Of course those same people then led the US comic invasion that completely shook up US comics at the time.

Then there was the fact that lack of intellectual property began to become a much bigger issue. The single most painful part of the film for me was when Neil Gaiman related how Alan Moore had explained to him where future Halo Jones would take the series. The character’s entire life. But he didn’t own the rights – he’d signed these over to IPC (at the time) and if anyone profited from the characters it was the publishers. Moore, of course, had lots of run-ins with comic publishers, notably including DC Comics from whom he refuses to even cash cheques for films like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, when they got made into films. Interestingly, it’s not totally clear that even today, if you create a new story for 2000AD, that they don’t own the rights. More than one contributor said that they hold back their best stuff for a publisher like Image who will let them keep more ownership.

Alan Moore, incidentally, is probably the main person missing from the film which is a shame as he’s such an entertaining character. But this is a film about Pat Mills really – he holds the entire structure of the piece together having been there at the very start, and still contributing to this day.

If there’s one part of the story which is covered – although glossed over quite quickly – it was the late nineties. I’d certainly lost track of the comic at that time, but there seemed to have been an attempt to replicate “lads mags” in comic form. The film is fairly honest about this period, including significant contributions from then editor Dave Bishop, who was not universally liked.

In 2000, the title was sold by its then owners Fleetway, to Rebellion. Primarily a video games developer, they are portrayed – probably quite fairly – as the first owner of the title who really understood what it stood for. It certainly seems to have prospered in that time, and current editor Matt Smith has been editing the title since 2002 – a remarkable period of stability.

The documentary shows how the title continues to develop new writers. Indeed it makes the very valid point that aside from 2000AD, every other comic on UK bookshelves today are franchises meaning that there’s no room left for original characters.

Perhaps the one part of story that seems to be missing from the documentary is the effect it had on the wider comic scene in the UK. There was a period where other titles like Deadline (home of Tank Girl), Crisis and Revolver were being published. While none of these lasted that long, many of the same writers could found working for these titles too. It was an exciting period for British comics.

Overall the documentary really is very good and very even handed. It’s not all wonderful, and it leaves you thinking that perhaps some of the participants aren’t so enamoured of some of the other ones. But the film makes a strong case for 2000AD having strongly influenced vast swathes of what’s come since, up to and including the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And I came away thinking, I really do need to pick up a few recent copies of 2000AD as the comic reaches its 40th anniversary in 2017.

And if you’ve never read it, then I do recommend picking up a copy of The Ballad of Halo Jones, either in print or digitally. If you’ve ever been intrigued by the favicon I use for this site, it’ll at least explain my “inspiration.”